REVIEW: Mistress for a Weekend by Susan Napier
Dear Ms. Napier:
As far as I know, this was the first Harlequin Presents I read, and honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I had an image of a big, blustery alpha male with a winsome, young heroine, a combination both central to and ubiquitous in both category and single title Romance. Fortunately, Mistress for a Weekend was not the love story of Goldilocks and the Big Bad Wolf I expected, but unfortunately, it did not really transcend its character types, either.
Eleanor “Nora” Lang is as uncomfortable in her long black evening gown as she is alone at the swanky birthday party of an old roommate. Having just that afternoon discovered her current roommate and her boyfriend of five years together in her apartment bathtub, Nora is distracted and furious, just reckless enough to approach the wealthy and “dangerous” Blake MacLeod. Typically bored, Blake has been watching the awkward and uncomfortable “sparrow,” reminding himself of how not his type she is but seemingly helpless against the interest her unpolished appearance engenders. So when Nora accidentally spills the diverse contents of her gargantuan purse at his feet, Blake gallantly helps her recover her belongings – everything from a screwdriver to an extra pair of shoes to a single condom. Intrigued by her freckles, her pert shyness, and the sheer expanse of her purse space, Blake invites the nervous Nora to dinner. But through a serendipitous combination of Nora’s awkwardness, a spilled glass of wine, and Blake’s negotiating skills, Nora ends up in Blake’s hotel suite and completely out of her depth. Suddenly those taunts her newly ex-boyfriend made about her tepid sexual appeal seem less frightening than Blake’s intense and aggressive sexuality.
A frenzied but unfinished encounter, followed by a quick and unannounced escape, lead Nora to believe that she’s free of Blake MacLeod. But because Blake believes that Nora has stolen a disk with confidential information related to an upcoming corporate takeover, he tracks her down, stealthily ensuring that she cannot leak any sensitive data until the next week’s merger. And thus, Nora moves into place to become the entitled “mistress for a weekend.”
Nora is “entitled” at two levels, that of the relationship and the actual title of the novel. But here, those levels really merge, because so much of the novel’s structural development is geared toward moving Blake and Nora into the position that the book’s title describes. First Blake is suspicious of Nora, believing her to have duped him with fake innocence into bringing her to his suite and letting his guard down long enough for her to steal the disk. After all, she works for a rival company and has an incredible knowledge of technology. Nora is completely discombobulated, from her boyfriend’s betrayal, by a night spent with a bottle of vodka in a cheap motel room, and then by Blake’s angry accusations. And just as Blake’s suspicions begin to ease, Nora’s distrust of his motives grows, setting up the perfect context for the kind of up close and personal emotional conflict that ultimately gives way to mutual revelations and the development of a different kind of emotional bond.
To a great degree, that deeper bond is forged because Nora and Blake find each other so much more than expected. Nora may be awkward, but she’s intelligent and talented, in the process of designing a special software program to assist the marine salvage work her beloved brother does. Blake may be dark and dangerous, but he’s also a competent cook and enjoys strong family ties. At the level of the story, the variety of revelations Blake and Nora share creates a strong and almost immediate intimacy between them. But as a reader, I could never share that sense of intimacy, because even those deeper character levels felt typed to me. Blake sees Nora’s courage and vulnerability as she explains how she became so terrified of heights, while Nora becomes softened to Blake when he talks about his myriad sisters and nieces. What made Blake and Nora special to each other was not enough for me to see their relationship transcend the more expansive stereotype of dark alpha hero and sassily feminine heroine. Nora is still the woman whose “vulnerable mouth quiver[s]” with anticipation and eagerness, and who “wrinkl[es] her dainty nose” at a whisky-stained skirt. Blake still needs to “curb his savage frustration” when he “ruthlessly worked the most important deal of his life.” And ultimately, their relationship reads to me as primarily the coincidence of characteristics rather than the meshing of authentic characters.
I found nothing in either Blake or Nora to dislike; they were both comprehensible and clearly drawn. I found nothing in Mistress for a Weekend to actively dislike, either. But for me, not disliking characters does not translate into liking or loving a book. What is it, exactly, that made a relatively innocent woman like Nora so endlessly fascinating to a complicated magnate like Blake? How can a week and a half convince Nora that Blake is the love of her life, especially when she spends so much time feeling overwhelmed by him, emotionally and physically? Innocence and experience may live happily ever after in the poetry of William Blake, but only because of the many layers his artistic vision reveals. Those layers were missing in my reading of Mistress for a Weekend, despite the good-natured storytelling. The writing was pleasant enough for me to try another one of your books, however, and now that I’ve had a tentative introduction to the Harlequin Presents line, I am not hesitant about picking up another Presents book. However, for this novel, I cannot give the book anything higher than a very average C.