Jul 14 2009
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-