The Marriage War v. Hot Surrender by Charlotte Lamb, Heroines in Contrast
I’ve always been fascinated by Charlotte Lamb. She wrote over 160 novels beginning in 1973 and published over 12 a year during the late 1970s. Her last published work was released sometime in the late 2000s. When the mainstream news talks about romance, they equate every book with a Harlequin book and probably a Charlotte Lamb novel. With over 200 million books sold, it’s probable that a majority of adults over, say 30, have come in contact with at least one Charlotte Lamb book.
Her books and indeed the Harlequin Romance/Harlequin Presents novels are often used to point to the romance genre’s ridiculousness and the over the top heroes with their savage kisses but Lamb’s books were often more about the agency of a woman in different circumstances.
There are any number of books you could examine in her bibliography but two that stick out in my mind are The Marriage War and Hot Surrender. The books are connected because the female protagonists in each book are sisters–very different ones.
In The Marriage War, Sancha is a stay at home mother whose household duties of caring for their children has overtaken her once passionate romance. Her husband, Mark, strays and Sancha is forced with the decision whether to fight for her marriage and her man or leave him.
Her sister Zoe in Hot Surrender is the total opposite. She’s a career woman with a reputation for flirting with men, allowing them to fall in love with her and then discarding them. (This is what the hero says). She has no desire in family or children and scoffs at what she perceives as her sister’s milquetoast response to her husband’s cheating.
There could not be two more diametrically opposed heroines.
Zoe is the maneater.
“He told her a second later, his voice accusing her, judging her, finding her guilty all at once. ‘I know all about the manipulative, heartless games you play with men, flirting with them, letting them fall in love, and then dumping them ruthlessly once you’re tired of them. I took his stories with a pinch of salt at the time. I’d seen his photos of you and I couldn’t believe any woman who looked the way you do could be such a bitch, but now I’ve met you, it’s obvious Hal didn’t exaggerate an inch.”
Sancha is the frumpy housewife:
She felt a sting of hurt over that look—had that been distaste in his
eyes? Of course, at this hour, in her shabby old dressing-gown and no make-up, she wasn’t exactly glamorous, but there was no time to do much about how she looked until he and the boys had left. She really must make more effort, though— it made her unhappy to have Mark look at her like that,-as if he didn’t love her any more. Her love for him was just as strong; she needed him.
How they react to Mark’s supposed infidelity is different:
Sancha pulled herself together after a minute, rubbed a hand across
her wet eyes. Zoe gave her a handkerchief. She wiped her eyes with it
and then blew her nose.
‘Don’t apologise, for heaven’s sake!’ Zoe exploded. ‘In your place I’d be screaming the place down and breaking things, including Mark’s neck! If you’ve been too tired to make love it’s because of his children, after all! It takes two. They’re as much his problem as yours. You’ll have to tell him, Sancha, show him the letter—if it is a lie you’ll know when you see his face, and if it’s true he won’t be able to hide that, either.’
Sancha is so devoted to her children.
“You just don’t remember, and she isn’t really naughty, Mark. Just high-spirited.’ Sancha wiped Flora’s sticky face, kissing her on her snub nose. ‘You’re no trouble, are you, sweetheart?’
Excerpt From: Charlotte Lamb. “The Marriage War.” iBooks.
Whereas Zoe views them as tiny, irritating creatures:
“Sing quietly, darling,’ Sancha said in the indulgent tone she always used to the little monster she called Flora. Was that ghastly racket meant to be singing?”
Excerpt From: Charlotte Lamb. “Hot Surrender.” iBooks.
What’s ironic in some ways is that Sancha is more proactive. In The Marriage War, she gets a new haircut, new clothes. She confronts both Mark and the secretary that he’s having at least an emotional affair with. She fights for her family. Zoe, for all her spit and vigor, is often being taken care of by Connel, the male protagonist in Hot Surrender. She injures herself and he cooks for her and himself. When she is attacked by a spurned lover, Connel ultimately saves her.
Sancha gives off the impression that she wants to be taken care of when in truth she is the one that manages the household, corrals the three children, and ensures her husband lives an easy life while also attending to his needs at home. Zoe chafes at a man’s bonds. She tells Sancha that she doesn’t want Connel to have “authority” over her. But then there’s this scene:
“So what?’ demanded Zoe, bristling. ‘What’s wrong with this dress?’
‘Not a thing,’ Mark said, grinning wickedly, looking her up and down, from her wild red hair to her creamy, naked shoulders and the smoothness of her half-covered breasts, down over the tight black dress to her long, sleek legs and small feet in expensive Italian black leather high heels. It’s scrumptious, positively delicious. You’ll be fighting men off all evening.’
‘Would you like me to get one just like it?’ Sancha asked in a chilly voice.”
“You? Certainly not,’ he said, frowning. ‘You’re my wife, a respectable married woman—I don’t want other men eying you in public, and if you wore that dress they would.’
Sancha looked at Zoe. ‘Now do you see what I mean?’
‘I see your husband has two standards—one for you and one for other women. And if I were you I wouldn’t be pleased about that! Unless you have the harem mentality,’ Zoe tartly said. ‘Look, are we going to this party or not?”
Connel liked the dress. (What follows is a no means yes sex scene). And Zoe points out to Connel that Mark is “old-fashioned.” Hot Surrender ends abruptly but there’s no mention of children or a change in Zoe’s career to accommodate Connel. If anything there’s the implication that he’s going to delegate more to be with Zoe where as Mark and Sancha have the more conventional hetero relationship.
Reading The Marriage Surrender it might be easy to presume one thing about Lamb’s writing and romance books and that is the marriage, family unity, and pleasing your husband is the primary goal of a woman but read in conjunction with Hot Surrender Sancha transforms from passive housewife to a woman who not only knows what she wants but pursues it avidly. The two books present a true feminist picture and that is the one of choice. Sancha wants the children, the noisy household, and to have a rich and satisfying sex life with her husband. Zoe wants a career, doesn’t want kids, and needs someone who is constantly challenging her (which is what I got from the no means yes love scenes in Hot Surrender). She’s not going to be at home with a hot meal for Connel. I don’t recall her cooking even once for him even though he prepares her meals and cleans her home at one point.
I prefer Hot Surrender because the storyline appeals to me more. I identify more with Zoe than Sancha but together (and published only two years apart) the books alternatively elevate the choices Sancha and Zoe make and neither one is demonized.