Jul 23 2008
Dear Ms. Medeiros:
Although I have Heather and Velvet sitting on a bookshelf in my house, I have not yet read it. In fact, Some Like It Wicked is my very first Teresa Medeiros book. That may have been a good thing, as I really had no expectations, but it also turned into a disappointment, because the book did not at all wow me.
When we first meet Catriona Kincaid, she is dropping in – literally – on her cousin’s clandestine seduction by dashing young Naval officer Simon Westcott. Catriona is a ragged 15 year old who must suffer the cruel bullying of her cousin Alice, but who will gladly endure all the pinches and insults in the world for another moment with Simon, for whom she spends the next five years secretly pining, all the while growing into a lush and plucky Scottish beauty. Having been sent to live with her uncle and aunt after her parents were killed in Scotland by the English, Catriona harbors two secret dreams: returning to the Highlands and assisting her older brother in reclaiming their family heritage and land, and marrying the beautifully wicked Simon Westcott. At twenty, she decides it is time to claim both.
Simon, however, is ensconced in surprising comfort within one of the lesser-known chambers of Newgate, a prisoner for massive debts and the unfortunate seduction of a magistrate’s daughter. He is still provided with the company of liquor and women, however, both of which he indulges in liberally. Hardly the heroic figure of Catriona’s dreams (as well as those of the Navy and the press, which have celebrated Westcott for saving his captain’s life), Simon is just desperate enough to agree to Catriona’s completely ridiculous plan to take off with her to the Highlands as an escort to her brother — and a Greta Green-sanctioned husband. In return for all this, Simon will receive half of Catriona’s very generous dowry, which her uncle has recently doubled, hoping to make his high-spirited niece attractively marriageable. Oh, and he bargains for a real wedding night, as well, unrepentant rake that he is. Knowing she has mere days until the somewhat creepy Marquess of Eddingham (who has just broken off his engagement to Alice) offers for her and her dowry, Catriona desperately masterminds her own ruin as an English lady in exchange for a chance at the kind of dreams that got her proud Highland parents killed.
What follows is both predictable and fantastical. Catriona and Simon stage a scene in Catriona’s bedroom that earns them a quick trip to Gretna; Simon plans numerous times to double cross Catriona; Catriona and Simon argue over pretty much everything, even as their emotional intimacy grows; sexual tension and frustration abound; expectations are thwarted left and right; sex finally happens; ecstasy happens; expectations are thwarted left and right; betrayal happens; everyone is unhappy, amends are made, incredible coincidences converge to forge a happy ending for everyone (well, except Alice, of course). And along the way Simon’s sad and sordid history comes to light (abandoned by his actress mother to a cold, unloving father), Catriona must come to terms with mistaken assumptions about Simon’s heroism, Catriona must come to terms with more mistaken assumptions and misplaced idealism when the Highland warriors she has returned to lead think she’s daft (and a woman!), and Simon must come to terms with the root of his own cynicism and self-destructive behavior. And, of course, the rough Highland warriors (minus Catriona’s brother, who has disappeared until the next book) must ultimately realize that Catriona is their once and only chieftan, even though she is a mere woman (and perhaps a bit daft).
As I pry my tongue out of my cheek, let me say that I am usually a sucker for Romance novels in which the heroine must be disillusioned in order to find herself (like Olympia in Laura Kinsale’s Seize the Fire), and in which the hero must struggle with the burden of nobility (Devon Crandall from The Windflower, for example). These are among my favorite character conflicts in the genre, because they present so much potential for emotional angst and authentic growth, and because I relish the satisfaction of an emotional union between a heroine who becomes clear eyed and affirmative and a hero who accepts his own worth and goodness. These types may have become cliché in the genre, but when they are executed with psychological and emotional authenticity, they get to me at some fundamental level.
So I was poised to like this book much more than I did. What worked against that, though, was the “type-ness” of the characters. This is, in fact, what I think people are talking about when they refer to “Avonization” – that except for names and physical descriptions, characters and even plots could be swapped in and out of books without noticeable disruption. In this case, it was the plucky Scottish lass, who, at all of twenty, takes off on what should be an extremely perilous and difficult quest. That the text is not more attentive to this danger undermined the seriousness with which I could regard her — and the book as a whole. To have this young, idealistic, and naive woman (understandably so), become a paragon of courage, honor, bravery, and intelligence within the space of perhaps twenty pages — between the moment the Highland warriors first deride her and then ultimately accept her — strained credulity to the point where the book seemed as silly as her dreams of reading Scottish poetry with these young men who were struggling for their next meal as often as for their lives. Rather than making me admire Catriona, the contrived transformation she effects on Simon and on these supposedly cynical Highlanders defeated any seriousness with which I might take either the historical realities in play or the characters themselves.
As I was reading, for example, I felt I needed a checklist for Simon: handsome and rakish, check; rejected by his cold father, check; abandoned by his scandalous mother, check; sexually promiscuous and talented, check; feels unworthy of love, check. Same with Catriona: a great beauty who doesn’t recognize her own attractiveness, check; raised with relatives and always feels the outsider, check; mean cousin who acts the bully and the shrew, check; idealistic, independent, and feisty, check. These two felt more like they were performing broadly conceived roles than being developed as unique characters. I did not dislike them, but nothing in their experience or relationship moved me. I always felt distanced from the text, in part because I was always being reminded that I was reading a book:
“I’ve heard the Marquis de Sade is shopping for a new bride to keep him company in the lunatic asylum,” Simon whispered in Catriona’s ear, referring to the notorious author of Justine and Juliette.
“I thought he ate too much haggis,” one of the other men said, referring to the notorious Scots delicacy that was usually boiled and served in a sheep’s stomach.
And although competent, the writing felt pre-packaged, somehow, like Romance Ramen:
A stinging shame whipped through her heart. She was no different from any of the other women he’d seduced. She’d fallen beneath the spell of his artful touch and honeyed tongue just as they had, eagerly trading her innocence and her pride for a night of carnal pleasure in his arms. For one agonizing moment, she didn’t know who she hated more – him or herself.
Through the roaring in his ears Simon could hear the echo of Catriona’s voice: Is there anything worth fighting for in your eyes? Anything worth dying for? Anything noble enough or dear enough to justify risking your precious neck?
He’d been searching his entire life for that very thing, only to turn his back and walk away when he’d finally found it. He had been afraid to believe, never realizing that Catriona had enough courage and faith for the both of them, enough love in her beautiful heart for even a scoundrel like him.
Even the few good laughs I had read sort of like sitcom scenes:
He frowned down at the gilt lettering on the spine. “Pilgrim’s Progress? I was hoping for something more . . . stimulating.”
“Like The Randy Adventures of Naughty Nell, perhaps?”
“Oh, I’ve already read that one twice.” A wicked smile flirted with his lips. “Rumor has it that the author based the character of Nell’s most dashing and accomplished lover on me.”
Trying not to remember just how accomplished he had proved himself in her bed, she nodded toward the book. “There’s a character based on you in that book, as well. They call him Satan.”
Ultimately, what I disliked most about this book was my inability to truly love anything about it. Had the characters done at least one thing that surprised me, had the final scene preceding the saccharine Epilogue not tied up EVERY loose thread in the book in the tidiest (and in my opinion incredible) way, had Simon and Catriona broken free of their stereotypes and taken the rest of the book hostage, had the ridiculousness of Catriona’s Highland scheme not been so over the top, had any number of things been just a little bit different, or felt to me just a little more inspired, my response to Some Like It Wicked might have been totally different. Not that this is a poorly written novel; in fact, if I were grading it on whether I liked it alone, the grade would be much lower. But the writing is competent, and as much as I resented the clichés and the stereotypes the novel’s composition felt confident and steadily paced. For that reason – for its basic competence of composition – Some Like It Wicked earns a C from me. I only wish I had enjoyed (that is, been infused with joy in reading) it more.