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REVIEW: Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh by Kate Hardy

Dear Ms. Hardy,

I have a complicated relationship to Harlequin Presents books. On the one hand I find the melodrama seemingly intrinsic to the line viscerally appealing, but on the other hand there has to be enough authenticity in the characters and the story to make me suspend my disbelief enough to let the melodrama work its magic.   Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh seems to aim for authenticity above melodrama, and ironically, it did not work for me on either count, despite the fact that I found the characters to be perfectly likable and their happy ending clearly deserved.

After being badly burned by her now ex-husband, Elizabeth "Lily" Finch vows to be all about business, and as a result, her catering company, Amazing Tastes, is doing very well.   No-nonsense Lily seems to be satisfied and focused enough until she catches a glimpse of a tall, dark, and handsome man at one of her client’s parties, a man who seems similarly, inexplicably drawn to her.

Karim al-Hassan knows that social networking is part of his job as heir to the throne of Harrat Salma, but he finds it rather tiring.   A vulcanologist by training, Karim has managed to cultivate a reputation as somewhat of a playboy, even though he would rather be studying his beloved volcanoes than making small talk at a seemingly endless procession of parties.   However, since the tragic death of his older brother, Karim knows he cannot let his family down, and so he is as surprised as Lily by the strength of his immediate attraction to her.   After all, she’s not Arab, she’s not Muslim, she’s a divorcee, and she’s one of those "beautiful in her simplicity" women (i.e. a little on the plain side but sexually irresistible to the sinfully handsome hero).

Regardless of the inappropriateness of the mutual attraction, within a few moments of laying eyes of each other they’re laying much more than that on each other while tucked away on a half-private balcony. And a little while later, when Karim hurriedly presses his phone number into Lily’s hand, neither of them has any real expectations. So when Karim shows up a couple of days later at Lily’s house, of all places, determined to hire the great Elizabeth Finch to cater a series of business meetings he has planned, they are both surprised anew.   So what if Lily insists that she doesn’t mix business and pleasure; Karim is even more determined now that he is going to have a taste of Lily, and not just of her food.   And Lily can’t seem to shake Karim, who has decided to serve as apprentice under the rising star chef/caterer until she gives in to at least one of his desires.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I always expect a bit of adjustment in the world of Harlequin Presents, and when the hero is a sheik, I anticipate at the very least a significant culture clash between his world and the heroine’s.   But in Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh, Karim seems almost more socially progressive than Lily.   He is English educated, London housed, and decidedly Western in his views of women.   He respects Lily for her ambition, embraces her career choices, and has no issue with her non-virgin, previously married status.   The only moment when I registered the sheikh/maiden dynamic so familiar to this line is when Karim’s "olive" skin is contrasted with Lily’s "white" flesh.   But that was about as "exotic" as it got.

For which I should be grateful, I know.   And I am.   Really.   But because of Karim’s incredibly Westernized world view, the majority of the conflict between he and Lily, the only danger to their relationship, comes from what Karim expects his parents and country will think – that they will not accept Lily as an appropriate wife (and that she would have to give up her career on the off chance that they did).   And indeed, Karim’s parents seem to be in a perpetual state of wife hunting for their princely son.   Which establishes the possibility of some wonderful conflict worthy of any fairy tale: Karim fighting for the woman he never expected to love but who brightens his life against a well-intentioned but misguided traditionalism in his country (the timeless battle of duty v. love).   And since Karim studies volcanoes, I can only assume that the fictional country of Harrat Salma is somewhere in the vicinity of Saudi Arabia, which apparently has the kind of volcanoes Karim talks of wistfully as part of his homeland.   And there are plenty of interesting cultural oppositions between the non-Muslim English and the Muslim Saudis to write a compelling and believable romantic melodrama.

Unfortunately, for me Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh is not that book.   Instead, the conflict is artificial and illusory and the resolution decidedly undramatic.   Further, both Karim and Lily are so busy being upstanding people, that there is virtually no room for all that wonderful pride and stubbornness and misunderstanding that usually plagues people in Harlequin-induced love.   Karim, for example, is the most considerate lover, ensuring he has a condom on every time; he even cooks for Lily and dutifully contemplates a way to balance his entrepreneurial spirit with his future as Harrat Salma’s ruler.   And Lily may fantasize about what Karim would be like as a husband and father, but she has no intention of giving up everything for which she has worked so hard for a man who cannot promise her anything permanent.   Two mature people having a Romance– it should be so refreshing.

But it’s not. And one reason is the manufactured conflict. But another is the fact that despite all this progressivism, there are still the trappings of the traditional Romance formula.   For example, their sex isn’t just sex, it’s something else entirely:

Lily had had sex before. Made love before. But nothing had prepared her for this. This strange feeling of . . . completion. That after a long, long journey, she’d finally come home. . . .

"This feels like paradise," Karim said softly.

And the consummate career woman starts fantasizing about what she never thought she wanted and doesn’t think she can have:

"So what do you see yourself doing in five years’ time?" Karim asked one night, when they were curled up in her bed.

Picking our child up from school, was her first thought. . . . now that the idea was in her head, she could imagine her belly swelling with Karim’s child. She could imagine his hands cradling her abdomen and feeling their baby kick. See the love and pride on his face as he held their newborn baby. . .

There are several issues here. First there is the reality that no matter what the protagonists think or believe, we know they will end up together. So obstacles have to be realistic enough to make us believe, just for a moment, that it might not happen, even though we know the happy ending is nigh.   In Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh, the obstacles were swept away so easily that they might never have existed.   Second there is the issue of form and formula.   All genre is a form, and in Harlequin we expect a certain formula, as well, which in HP novels tends toward the melodramatic and the extremely traditional.   In Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh, there are vestiges of that traditional formula in the quotes I presented above, for example, but because the characters are so very progressive, the match feels forced and unconvincing.   And finally there is the balance of drama and realism, which, admittedly, is always a bit off in these HP novels, because so much of the appeal lies in the over the top quality of the hero.   However, in Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh, I felt that so much effort was going into protecting the characters and showing them in their best light that the tension between the melodrama and the authenticity was problematic.   For example:

They weren’t alone on the balcony anymore.   And she’d been so lost in the way he was kissing her. . . No doubt she looked as disheveled as he did, with mussed hair and a mouth that was slightly reddened and swollen with kisses, making it obvious what they’d just been doing.

This was a disaster.

But hopefully it was fixable.

Usually people conceptualize disasters as those things that can’t be readily fixed, which is why they’re disasters.   So there is an incongruity here that elicited an inappropriate wince from me, inappropriate because I was wincing at the contradiction, not the embarrassing situation, per se.

If it sounds like I am dogging on the writing in Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh, I’m not.   In fact, I found the writing fully competent.   It’s just that I did not find it fresh or interesting.   And combined with the uncomfortable fit of progressive characters with a narrowly traditional formula, along with the lack of sustained, imperiling conflict, I was ultimately unengaged through most of my reading of the book.   It’s not that I didn’t like Karim and Lily; I just did not find their story compelling. C-

~ Janet

This book can be purchased at Amazon or in ebook format from Sony or other etailers.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

9 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 14:54:39

    Fascinating! Now over at The Good, The Bad and The Unread, I gave this one an A because I enjoyed it so much and I found it so refreshing to have a heroine with a successful business who actually behaved like a woman with a successful business!
    And the sheikh was wonderful. Many sheikhs and Middle East billionaires in real life actually go to Eton and the like, so their English and their attitudes are sometimes a bit of a mix, so I was fine with that.
    I would just love to sit down and talk this one over with you. No Big Misunderstandings, no stupid artificial problems, and I believed the problem and the dilemma that Lily went through.
    Have you read Trish Wylie, another HMB author who plays with the tropes rather than giving in to them completely?

  2. Laura Vivanco
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 03:35:11

    All genre is a form, and in Harlequin we expect a certain formula, as well, which in HP novels tends toward the melodramatic and the extremely traditional. In Surrender to the Playboy Sheikh, there are vestiges of that traditional formula in the quotes I presented above, for example, but because the characters are so very progressive, the match feels forced and unconvincing.

    This isn’t exactly a HP novel, though. It was written for the Modern Heat line (as you can see from the UK cover), which is sold with the Moderns/HPs but actually has rather different editorial guidelines. I’m not sure why Harlequin thinks it’s a good idea to sell the two together without distinguishing between them, whereas the M&B books do have that difference marked on the cover.

    Trish Wylie, whom Lynne has mentioned, also writes Modern Heats and she explains a bit more about how this line came into existence:

    Modern Heat is a brand new line launched by Mills & Boon in the UK in 2006. Originally taking the guise of NuTemptation then Mills & Boon Sensual Romance – it was eventually named Mills & Boon Modern Extra and was designed to replace the gap left in the market by the much loved Harlequin Temptation line which closed in 2005.

  3. Sunita
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 11:16:23

    Laura has explained the difference succinctly; Kate Hardy writes for the Modern Heat and Medical lines. She’s not an original HP author. I *don’t* generally like the melodrama aspects of HP, but I like a lot of the Modern Heats that get repackaged as HP “extras” in the US.

    I understand why you were expecting something different, Janet, but if you think of Hardy as writing a different kind of book, the aspects that you found disappointing make more sense. I would never read a standard HP sheikh book, but Hardy and Liz Fielding write them in a way that keeps them from being over the top. The quotes you have in your review, and the way you describe the characters, make me want to read this.

    Hardy also has a medical trilogy featuring an aristocratic family that works against the standard Harlequin stereotypes. The 1st and 2nd are now available in ebook form through Harlequin US, and I hope they release the third.

    Your review has put this book on my To Buy list, not because you’re a reverse barometer for me (:-)) but because the review is so clear and informative that I can easily note the differences in what we are looking for. I should say that I am a big Kate Hardy fan, so I’m predisposed anyway. But I was hesitant because of the Sheikh when I saw the ad for it; you’ve explained the character really well.

  4. Jill Sorenson
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 11:40:54

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a sheikh book. This one sounds good.

  5. Jilly Isenberry
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 12:59:27

    that there is virtually no room for all that wonderful pride and stubbornness and misunderstanding that usually plagues people in Harlequin-induced love.

    This actually sounds like something I would love. A Harlequin book with characters who don’t act like bratty teenagers?! No big misunderstandings?! That sounds like heaven to this tired, embittered romance reader.

  6. Robin
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 14:30:26

    Note for those of you who have comments go to the Spam filter periodically, I had to pull this one out of moderation myself. ;)

    @Lynne Connolly: I will definitely go and read your review, Lynne. I may not have been clear enough in my review, but it wasn’t the English education, per se. I have known quite a few Arab Muslim men (and women, duh) over the years who pursue graduate and professional degrees in the US. And certainly there’s a fair amount of Westernization that occurs, although my experience has been that those who do not plan to stay in the US are not 100% acculturated.

    And that is not a good or a bad thing; it’s just that there are cultural and religious differences that are both evident and relevant. In Hardy’s book, I kept wondering why Hardy chose someone who came from and would settle in a different culture if there weren’t really any of those cultural values displayed in his character. And by that I don’t mean simply, ‘why was he so progressive in his views about women,’ because I have enough experience with Islam to know that many Muslims believe that the Koran is actually more progressive than the Christian Bible. It was more that I felt Karim was written as a sheikh to inject a certain exoticism into his character without any of the inevitable differences that meet ANY couple from different cultural and religious backgrounds. It was as if Karim was sheikh in name only.

    @Laura Vivanco and @Sunita: Thank you for the clarification re. line designation in the UK and the USA.

    I’m still not sure how much of a difference it would have made for me, although perhaps a little bit. Most of the Temptations I have read are on the older side (one of my favorites is the very first, Spring Fancy by LaVyrle Spencer), but what struck me as problematic in Hardy’s book was the way you have these super progressive characters who are still, IMO, locked into somewhat traditional rhetoric, at some points in the book. And I think that would have been an issue for me regardless of the line.

    Also it wasn’t simply the expectation of the HP melodrama and the “exotic” alpha hero, although that’s something I did expect; it was really and truly the lack of what I felt was a compelling conflict.

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    The main conflict between them is the fact that Karim knows his parents are choosing a bride for him, one his parents and people will accept. So when he travels home in the second half of the book, following a sudden health crisis in his family, he talks to his mother about Lily, and within minutes she has indicated that he must go ahead and follow his heart, and they and the country will adjust. Then what follows is some IMO meager resistance from first Karim and then Lily to making the other sacrifice. Karim doesn’t want Lily to sacrifice her business and Lily doesn’t want Karim to sacrifice the good wishes of his parents and people. And whatever viability these conflicts had in the novel was squelched, IMO, by the way in which none was sustained long enough to feel like a real obstacle.

    Hopefully that makes more sense; I could not really spell out in detail the nature of my frustration with the book without revealing these spoilers, although perhaps I was not clear enough that I just felt disconnected from the struggles these two were supposed to be undergoing because the conflicts were not indulged enough for me to make them feel real.

  7. Robin
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 14:32:36

    @Jill Sorenson: This would be a very gentle introduction to the sheikh novels, yes. ;)

    @Jilly Isenberry: These two were definitely adult in every sense of the word. Karim’s character also lacked any offensive stereotypes, which is one of the things that kept this book from being a truly negative read for me.

  8. Lynne Connolly
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 15:27:07

    Great discussion. You see, that’s why I’d love to meet you at the bar and talk about this book over a few drinks. I talked to a couple of people about it this weekend at the RNA conference, and people’s views were very different. I loved it to bits, and I didn’t miss a strong external conflict because I saw the conflict as internal – changing their attitudes and expectations, coping with the shock of their strong feelings for each other. It kept me reading until the end.

  9. Robin
    Jul 17, 2009 @ 19:54:21

    @Lynne Connolly: I think this is probably one of those chemistry issues. For me, there just wasn’t enough chemistry between me and the book to excite me or make me feel connected to these characters and their story. I was a casually interested observer but felt like I was getting the shorthand version of their courtship. And so if felt somewhat automated, even though I see what you are saying and know, in general, what you are referring to. For you — and other readers — everything I thought was missing was there for you; you had great chemistry with the book and characters.

    But yeah, a few drinks and some good book conversation would be great. ;)

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