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What Janine is Reading September 2011: The conceiving an heir trope

For the past few weeks I have been reading three historical romances focused at least in part around conceiving an heir. This was coincidental, as I had not really thought about the first book in those terms until I’d read the second, and then the third arrived at the library where I had put a hold on it. Still, reading three books that had to do with this trope was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories.

I first encountered this trope in Alyx (1977) by Lolah Burford, and perhaps the less said about that book the better. I was fifteen or so when I read it and it both horrified and fascinated me because the hero and heroine were white slaves forced to conceive an heir for the owner of a Caribbean plantation. They did not know each other at all and boom: forced to have sex. And that was only the beginning of the hero and heroine’s trials and tribulations. Reading the book was a little like rubbernecking at a car accident.

I read other books that made use of this trope in the years that followed, but few were as memorable as LaVyrle Spencer’s debut, a historical romance titled The Fulfillment (1979). Although Spencer is a very good writer and I have enjoyed many of her books, The Fulfillment was not among my favorites of her books. Set on a Midwestern farm, The Fulfillment featured a heroine whose husband, unable to sire an heir to whom to leave the farm, asked her to sleep with his brother. Yes, the hero was heroine’s brother-in-law. Hero and heroine were both sympathetic characters, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the squick factor.

Another book in which the heroine’s husband asked the heroine to conceive an heir with the hero was Patricia Ryan’s medieval romance Wild Wind (1998). This one was more to my liking and I especially appreciated that not only the hero and heroine, but even the heroine’s husband were sympathetic.

I don’t remember too many books that have riffed on this trope in recent years, although one of my critique partners, Sherry Thomas, had one in 2008. Private Arrangements dealt with an estranged couple. The heroine wanted a divorce and the hero insisted that he would grant her one if she first provided him with an heir. It is possible I am biased, but I loved this book.

The thing I find most interesting about this trope is that it typically brings together a couple who are either on the outs or not yet in love, and requires them to have sex. As a result, the sex scenes aren’t the standard insert tab A in slot B affairs. They are almost always charged (with purpose and with conflict), and that is one of the marks of a good sex scene.

Here then are some of my thoughts on the books I have been reading this month:

Thief of Dreams by Mary Balogh

Thief of Dreams opens with its heroine, Cassandra, about to celebrate her 21st birthday. Cassandra has one of those rare titles that can pass down to a female, and she is an only child. Her father died a year earlier and she became a countess in her own right, and not through marriage.

Nigel is a viscount who appears at Cassandra’s estate and tells her that he was a close friend to her father. After a whirlwind courtship, Nigel asks Cassandra to marry him and although smitten, she asks for a week to think it over. Cassandra’s family members warn her that she knows next to nothing about him, and up until the moment he returns, Cassandra plans to turn him away. But when it comes to actually doing so, she realizes she cannot.

The first sex scene in Thief of Dreams takes place shortly after Nigel returns. Cassandra goes to Nigel to drown out her misgivings with lovemaking, and Nigel, aware of her reasons, both takes advantage of her state of mind yet does so slowly enough that she will not be able to tell herself later that he did so. There is something almost chilling about Nigel’s deliberation at times, and yet it is clear that at other times, he thinks he is doing Cassandra a kindness.

It’s not until the honeymoon period that Cassandra learns that Nigel was no friend to her father. The lead up to this moment feels slow and even frustrating at times, but once Cassandra gets a clue, her disillusionment makes the novel riveting. Disillusionment is a favorite theme of Balogh’s; another is that surface appearances aren’t what they seem. Both are in play here. Even as Cassandra struggles to decide how far she can trust Nigel, Nigel’s admiration of her grows into love, snaring him in a trap of his own making.

Throughout the book, Nigel thinks about how if he can get Cassandra pregnant, her bearing of his child will be the fulfillment of his dream. Of course, Cassandra is a countess in her own right and her firstborn will hold the title, but Nigel is a viscount himself so for the longest time it’s not completely clear why this is so important to him.

At least, not until the resolution of the novel when the answers are fully revealed. Thief of Dreams has been an influence on my own novel WIP, so this is another instance where I may be biased, but I hadn’t read it in a decade and I was impressed at how well it held up for me. B+/A-.

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A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

This novel won’t be released until late December, but Jane has been touting it for months, so when I got the ARC I immediately started reading it. Martha Russell, recently widowed from a man she did not love, learns that her brother-in-law, who stands to inherit her late husband’s estate, raped and impregnated two maids when he lived there as a young man.

Martha’s sense of responsibility is her most paramount characteristic, and she realizes she must stop her brother-in-law from inheriting. If only she had given her late husband an heir, or if she were pregnant… But though she is not, Martha has a brainstorm and realizes that it may be possible to remedy that. She hires Theo Mirkwood, the son of a baronet who owns the neighboring estate, to do the deed.

At first glance Theo seems as feckless and irresponsible as Martha is determined to do right by her servants. He sleeps in church, has been exiled to Sussex as a punishment for reckless spending by his father, and to his own mind, his one accomplishment is his ability to satisfy women. It therefore comes as a shock to Theo that Martha doesn’t wish to be satisfied and is only interested in him for his seed.

To say much more would be to spoil a whole host of surprises, but I will say that like Jane, I loved this novel. The first third was my favorite part, but the latter two thirds were also immensely satisfying. From the characters to the language to the love scenes to the plot, so much came together unexpectedly and beautifully. Historical romance needs more authors of this caliber, and as I said on Twitter, I hope Ms. Grant has a long career in the genre. A.

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Waking Up with the Duke by Lorraine Heath

Waking Up with the Duke arrived at the library almost as soon as I had finished reading A Lady Awakened. Perhaps it was a mistake to read the former immediately after the latter, since it suffered by comparison. Waking Up with the Duke is a conceiving an heir story in the tradition of Spencer’s The Fulfillment. Here too it is the heroine’s husband who asks the hero (in this case, his cousin) to give his wife the one thing he cannot: a child.

The interesting twist in this book is that the heroine’s husband was paralyzed from the waist down in a carriage accident that took place when the hero was drunk and holding the reins. The hero therefore feels responsible for his cousin’s condition. I thought this setup had a lot of potential but for me that potential was not fulfilled, and I gave up on the book sixty pages short of the ending. Review to come.

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What about you? What have you been reading lately? And what are your thoughts on the conceiving an heir trope? Do you usually like or dislike it? And what are your favorite and/or least favorite examples of this trope?

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

30 Comments

  1. DS
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 14:56:01

    There’s a medieval historical romance Crystal Heart by Katherine Deauxville (Maggie Davis) where the female main character has to conceive a child for her elderly guildmaster husband, so she sends her retainers out to find a likely sperm donor. Fast forward 10 years and guess who shows up as the new lord of the manor.

    This may sound dismissive but I liked a couple of her Medievals, including this one. I find gritty appealing sometimes.

    I don’t think Davis under her Deauxville pseudonym ever found her audience because she (at least in a couple of the books) took a shot at some medieval realism which from comments I heard put off a lot of romance readers. She dusted the pseudonym off about ten years later though and tried it on a screwball comedy romances I thought they were relentlessly bad by the way, especially the sf one.

  2. Heather
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 15:15:25

    The first two sound interesting, but I tried the third and couldn’t get much past the first couple chapters. I’d ordered it as an autobuy, as I like Lorraine Heath’s books and had enjoyed the previous two in the series. I hadn’t read the description at all so when it arrived, I thought, “huh?”

    I started it and thought, “wait, husband is alive and asking this?” I spent more time than I should have verifying that.

    I was surprised at how horrified I was at the idea, especially since it was the hero and heroine we’re talking about. I flipped to the end to see what happened and DNF’d it.

    I think I can get behind a marriage for an heir, but not saying “hey, baby, sleep with him so I can have a baby.” blech

  3. Sunita
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 15:30:39

    Great post, Janine! What an interesting take on these books. I can read a lot of different tropes, but the Heath one sounds like too much even for me.

  4. Janine
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 15:40:58

    @DS: Thanks for the Deauxville rec. I’m pretty sure I have heard good things about her medievals from other sources but haven’t read them myself. I’m curious what you mean by “medieval realism”? There are so many ways for a book to be gritty. Was the grit violence, was it a medieval mindset on the part of the characters, or was it something else?

    @Heather: There is definitely a squick factor when a husband wants his wife to conceive a child with someone else. I have not been able to enjoy most of the books that used that setup, but the Patricia Ryan was an exception, so I’m convinced that in the hands of the right author, any trope can be made to work.

    It just takes tremendous skill. In Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened the main characters do sleep together in order to conceive a child and in the beginning, for no other reason. But the heroine is widowed. I still wasn’t sure this book would work for me, but it worked in spades. This is a fabulous book.

    Re. the Lorraine Heath book. I had so many problems with it. I don’t want to detail them because I’ve got a review done that will post eventually, but I will say that I came very close to giving up in the first couple of chapters also, but ended up lasting until p.317. If it hadn’t come highly recommended by a friend, I doubt I’d have made it that far.

  5. Janine
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 15:44:50

    @Sunita: It was brave of Heath to take on this trope, and creative to tie the hero’s sense of guilt in the accident that rendered the heroine’s husband unable to sire a child to his response to the husband’s request. And based on Amazon reviews and a discussion at AAR, there seem to be a lot of readers who enjoyed the book. I wish I had been one of them, but it was a very problematic book for me.

  6. GrowlyCub
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 16:47:54

    The Grant didn’t work nearly as well for me as it did for you. Majorly disappointed as I really wanted an A read in the worst way. After the first third I was super excited, but the last 2/3rds lacked all emotional connection to the characters for me.

    I finished the Heath and I agree, it had tremendous potential but it wasn’t realized. I can’t quite put my finger on why. I look forward to your review which may very well let me know. :)

  7. Janine
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 17:03:52

    @GrowlyCub: I am sorry the Grant didn’t work as well for you. A reads are far few and in between so I know how disappointing it can be to feel you are reading one and then discover otherwise.

    The first third was my favorite part too because it was so unique and so different from what I expected. But I enjoyed the latter two thirds very much as well. It was wonderful to see the characters’ feelings blossom from what had started out as a business arrangement, and I loved their growth. I also adore Grant’s prose style.

    Re. the Heath, I put my fingers on some problems in the review, so let me know if it clarifies your feelings about the book. Maybe we can discuss it in more detail when the review posts.

    I’m curious if you have read the Balogh, and if so, what you thought of it.

  8. GrowlyCub
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 17:12:09

    @Janine: Haven’t read the Balogh; it’s in my TBR, but it’s one of those setups that I really don’t like, so I’m not that driven to pull it out. I’d usually say titles/covers don’t influence me that much (beyond eye-rolling), but in this case, Thief of Dreams, just sounded terribly depressing and the cover is positively I don’t know… lol My copy is pretty faded, though, so in the original it might have been striking.

    It’s interesting considering that pretty much every rom conflict is about betrayed trust and the recovery from that disappointment, so I can’t claim I don’t like to read that, but right now that so doesn’t work for me.

  9. Janine
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 17:19:06

    @GrowlyCub: Interesting. I think Thief of Dreams was the first or second Balogh I loved. Her books were an acquired taste for me, and it took me several tries to get into them. That may be one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. I didn’t find it depressing (especially compared to say A Precious Jewel or The Secret Pearl) but then my tastes in romance run toward angsty and dark.

  10. GrowlyCub
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 17:49:34

    I love angsty and dark as well and I love both APJ and TSP. :) They are among my favorite Baloghs. For all I know ToD would make my top 10 list of best romances ever, but somehow I just don’t feel like reading it. It’s right behind me on the headboard TBR mountain range (the ones that will bury me alive one of these days, grin); I even picked it up and re-read the blurb before I posted earlier… nothing. I’m just weird, obviously, he he.

  11. Janine
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 18:23:03

    @GrowlyCub: I understand completely. Sometimes books just don’t grab my attention for whatever reason. Anyhow, no pressure.

  12. willaful
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 18:28:58

    My favorite with this theme: Secrets of the Night by Jo Beverley. It squicked me out so much I gave up on it the first try, but then later tried it again and loved it.

  13. Janine
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 18:45:30

    @willaful: I haven’t read that one. Thanks for the rec. I had a similar response to a Johanna Lindsey book that used this trope, Prisoner of My Desire. Couldn’t stand it the first time, liked it much better the second time. These days I can’t read her books but it’s because of the anachronisms.

  14. Sandra
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 19:35:34

    Set on a Midwestern farm, The Fulfillment featured a heroine whose husband, unable to sire an heir to whom to leave the farm, asked her to sleep with his brother.

    So, why didn’t he just leave the farm to his brother? If she had a girl, did hubby expect them to keep on trying?

  15. GrowlyCub
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 19:41:49

    @Sandra: It wasn’t about producing an heir but rather about giving the heroine the child she desperately wanted if I recall correctly. Not one of my faves of hers either.

  16. Jorrie Spencer
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 19:54:57

    Secrets of the Night was my first Jo Beverley (and my first Malloren :) and I quite enjoyed what she did with the set-up. I was also new to romance, so nothing felt tired about it! However, I think it would still hold up. I’ll be looking out for the Grant book.

  17. Rosie
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 20:42:52

    I loved A Lady Awakened as well. It was so fresh and different, and the passages from the hero’s POV were hilarious. Grant did a really good job of developing the characters, who initially grated on me, into ones I could identify with and like. I didn’t think I would enjoy this book from the blurb, so I was pleasantly surprised.

  18. Jane
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 21:20:28

    @Rosie I think this is a hard story to blurb because it’s success rests largely upon the deft writing of Grant. I’m not sure that can be encapsulated in a blurb. I mean, the story is about a woman who is trying to impregnate herself in a bid to keep her dead husband’s property. It does feature a truly feckless rake who will bed just about anyone. They do fall in love talking about land management. Heh. I remember telling Sarah Wendell that it’s hard to tell the blurb of the book because you don’t want to put anyone off.

  19. GrowlyCub
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 21:27:55

    @Jane: What did you think about the blurb for her next book? Grant posted it on twitter earlier and I went all O_0.

  20. Jane
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 22:38:40

    @GrowlyCub I saw your tweet. I don’t have the same reaction to you. I don’t even know that it is purple prose. I actually scrapped my article that I had planned for tomorrow and wrote a new one on gambling after reading the blurb.

  21. Janine
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 23:15:08

    @Sandra & @GrowlyCub: I had remembered The Fullfillment very differently from GrowlyCub but it’s been twenty years since I read it, so I just went to Amazon to see if there were any clues in the reviews there. I found this comment there:

    It certainly helped that the character of Jonathan was truly offensive – his interests were purely selfish – to produce a son at any cost, merely to maintain his farm.

    As for why he couldn’t leave the farm to his brother, I really don’t remember anymore.

    @Jorrie Spencer: I hope you enjoy the Grant.

    @Rosie: Yes, the humor in A Lady Awakened was wonderful! I kept bursting out laughing, especially early on. It was my favorite kind of humor, the kind that results very naturally from the characters’ personalities and their situations, and didn’t feel at all forced or artificial.

    @Jane: I agree. I had the same thought when I read the ALA blurb. It’s a hard book to summarize in a way that makes it sound appealing, but it was just terrific.

    @GrowlyCub: I just read the blurb for her second book, and while I’m not wild about “gambles on the sly” and “fleshy delights” I like the rest of it pretty well and overall it’s a blurb that would attract me.

  22. GrowlyCub
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 23:43:48

    @Janine: I re-read Fulfillment in the last year or so and I think the comment you quoted may be colored by the person’s dislike of the book, but my memory has certainly proved far from reliable. Didn’t mean to suggest Jonathan was Mr. Sensitive, he definitely wasn’t.

    ETA: I thought the Grant blurb was one buzz word after another (not a surprise considering that the marketing dept. wrote it). An exercise in what PR departments think will sell. I also didn’t think it terribly informative about the book, but I find this kind of language pretty off-putting so I may have overlooked the bits that actually described the book.

  23. meoskop
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 00:56:08

    I dislike this trope, but I really did like the way Heath handled it. Katy Madison’s latest release is also doing the whole Make Me An Heir thing, so it appears to be a mini trend. Her version might be more to your liking if the Heath book didn’t work, it’s a little more repulsed, a little more female empowerment. As to the Heath, it’s interesting. I think it worked because it was Heath and I like her style, because I definitely found myself forgiving certain plot points.

    The rejection of the trope by @Heather would lead to an interesting discussion. Modern sperm donation / IVF , etc is pretty well accepted in our culture, but the idea of someone without access to that resorting to adultery repulses. For me, there’s not much difference. (Disclaimer, both ick me out)

  24. FD
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 01:20:41

    I read an excerpt of the Grant book via Rose Lerner’s blog, oooh, a year, 18 months ago maybe? Aaaaages, and have been waiting as patiently as possible for it ever since. It’s nice to see that at least a few people think it holds up to the promise of the excerpt – I liked the humour and the thread of underlying desperation in the two character’s polar opposite lives and motivations.

  25. AuntDi
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 04:46:32

    I just wanted to say that I too read Alyx as a teenager, “rubbernecking at a car accident” – exactly, yet after all these years I still remember. :)

  26. Kaetrin
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 05:02:51

    I’m another whose first Jo Beverley was Secrets of the Night. I then read Devilish and afterward, went back and started the Malloren series from book 1 and re-read books 4 and 5. Those two books are still my favourites of the series.

  27. Tina
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 10:04:40

    Count me in as one of those who loved Waking Up with the Duke. I enjoyed is mostly because I liked how the hero felt about the heroine outside of all the guilt/baby-making stuff. He was gone on her and I thought the author did a good job of showing that. I also enjoyed how the heroine’s feelings evolved over the course of he book. I didn’t particularly care for the plot points that circled around the husband and his motivations, but the hero/heroine connection sold the story for me.

    Also loved The Fulfillment but then a character falling in love with her bro-in-law doesn’t doesn’t touch my particular squick-o-meter.

  28. Cecilia Grant
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 12:57:06

    Thank you for the kind remarks about my book. I’m so glad it worked for you.

    I think I find this trope compelling (both to read and to write) for exactly the reasons you mentioned. It opens the door to sexual awkwardness, in some cases to shame (probably my single favorite emotion to write), and it disconnects the intimacy arc from the are-they-going-to-do-it arc. There’s a built-in structural tension, particularly in the sex scenes, that just really appeals to me.

    I’m going to have to read that Heath book. I actually find the husband-sets-his-wife-up-with-someone-else sub-trope off-putting (probably sounds ironic, I know), but that added dimension of the hero’s guilt for his brother’s condition makes me think it might be right up my angsty alley.

  29. Janine
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 22:31:53

    @GrowlyCub: I’ll take your word on The Fullfillment since it’s been ages since I’ve read it. Re. the Grant blurb, I love that the heroine is a kept woman and that she fleeces the hero. It sounds very intriguing to me.

    @meoskop: Sperm donation probably isn’t the right choice for every couple who is infertile due to the husband, but it doesn’t involve sex, so I can totally understand viewing it very differently.

    @FD: “Thread of desperation” is a good way to put it. It’s a big part of what I loved about the opening of A Lady Awakens as well.

    @AuntDi: Oh my, someone else who is familiar with Alyx! I’ve forgotten much of the book but certain scenes have remained vivid in my memory.

    @Kaetrin: I wonder if I should try the Beverley. It seems to be well-loved.

    @Tina: I’m glad you enjoyed Waking Up with the Duke. It’s tempting to explain my problems with the book now but I should probably wait until the review posts.

    Re. The Fullfillment, I should probably clarify that it’s not just the fact that the hero is the heroine’s brother-in-law that squicks me. It’s the complete setup where the husband is alive so it’s adultery, and that he asks his brother to sleep with his wife, plus as I recall they all lived together in that book.

    @Cecilia Grant: I’m so glad it worked for me too! And I want to add that I often love books where the emotional intimacy arc is decoupled from the will-they-or-won’t-they as well. I think it’s often interesting when the main characters put the cart before the horse, so to speak, and have to catch up emotionally with their physical intimacy. It’s one of the reasons why I adore marriage of convenience stories.

    I hope you enjoy the Heath book more than I did. And BTW, the husband is the hero’s cousin in that book, not his brother. Wow, it would have been angsty if it had been a brother.

  30. Amy
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 09:45:29

    A Lady Awakened sounds promising.

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