I have fallen severely off the TBR wagon over the last few months, but it’s time to get over my guilt and shame and climb back on. This month’s topic is “fairy tales,” and since I didn’t have one in my TBR, I stretched the category and decided to read Hot Blood for the Challenge. This 1996 book by Charlotte Lamb has just been released as part of the HarlequinTreasury series, which Jane discussed in a recent post. I’m a huge Charlotte Lamb fangirl, and when Jane said on Twitter that Hot Blood featured a 52-year-old heroine pursued by not one but two younger men, I was immediately interested. And it seemed to me that this premise could be said to meet the fairy-tale requirement, given usual genre norms.
Katherine “Kit” Randall is a divorcee with a grown son who lives in the English village she was born and grew up in. When the book opens she has just finished watching a screening of Camille, starring Greta Garbo. Moved to tears by the film, she finds herself in a conversation with Joe Ingram, an award-winning photojournalist who has recently moved to town. Joe is gorgeous, a decade younger than Kit, and very interested in her. Kit reluctantly accepts his offer to have coffee but resists his considerable charms because she is in an ambiguous relationship with Liam, her widowed business partner. After more than a year of a sexually fulfilling but uncommitted relationship, Liam has refused Kit’s request that they take the next step and make a commitment, preferably in a church with their children, grandchildren, and the rest of the village as witnesses.
There are so many things to like about this book. Kit is an attractive, sexy woman, and both Liam and Joe are intelligent, accomplished, handsome heroes. Rather than being devastated by her divorce, Kit understands why her husband left their mutually unsatisfactory marriage when he fell in love with a younger woman, and she maintains a good relationship with him and his young family. Kit’s son Paul married young out of a pscyhological need to establish a new family of his own, but he chose well and Kit has a good relationship with her daughter-in-law, Claire. She even gets along well with Liam’s son and daughter.
But there are also some strange and annoying aspects to the story. First, the way Lamb depicts the relationship between Kit and Liam made it difficult for me to believe they had enjoyed their year together. For the majority of the book, Liam is angry and possessive toward Kit. Even though he refuses to marry her, he is jealous and territorial once Joe appears on the scene. He basically stalks Kit when she goes out with Joe, even though he himself is wining and dining Cary, a young and attractive newcomer to the village. Liam goes on a weeklong business trip with Cary and then comes back and berates Kit for spending time with Joe. He keeps telling Kit what to do, and although she protests, she basically lets him. Kit and Liam argue and snap at each other endlessly, making their coworkers uncomfortable and the village curious. As someone in the same age category, I would have expected them to behave a bit more like adults.
Second, given that Kit is a woman with the demonstrable ability to attract not one but two eligible men, her continual insecurity about her attractiveness started to grate. Some level of uncertainty is understandable and even appealing. But for a woman of fifty-two to obsess about her aches and pains (rheumatism as a sign of middle age? really?) went beyond normal for me. Take this passage:
Kit looked up at the blue sky with pleasure. The older she got, the more she welcomed spring and the harder winters became for her. She was conscious of an ache in her back from sitting on a hard plastic chair for too long.
She’s middle aged, as even she acknowledges, not ancient. It must be the rheumatism.
But the biggest problem is the romance itself. Joe is a very winning potential hero, but any hope the reader entertains that Kit will choose him is soon quashed. Instead, we get Kit and Liam’s rancorous arguments. When the Big Secret that underlies Liam’s unwillingness to marry again is revealed, I double-checked the publication date because the way Liam blamed himself for the difficulties in his marriage sounded like something someone in of the middle of the 20th century would say, not a hero at the end of it. A plot twist throws Kit and Liam together on a road trip, and poor Joe gets shoved off the page while Liam seduces Kit, spills his Big Secret and reconciles with her. In the end, Liam admits how much he loves Kit and decides he really does want to marry her.
I have found some of Charlotte Lamb’s books fascinating for the ways they push the boundaries of the category format, and some of Lamb’s skills as a master of the form are apparent here. But Hot Blood is deeply conservative, despite its unusual premise. When the reader closes the book, Kit and Liam are about to settle down to the comfortable life of grandparents and business partners. Kit will wind up with a second marriage she finds much more sexually fulfilling and a husband she feels passionate about, but her place in village society and her role as family matriarch will remain much the same. I was disappointed. Grade: C-