Laura Kinsale never disappoints me. In For My Lady’s Heart, she has written a masterpiece, not just of romance, but of universal literary merit. It’s one of the most subversive works of literature I’ve read. Well, listened to actually. My husband and I got the audio book and played it in the car on road trips for about six months. And since I’m going to spend the rest of this review talking about myths and cake, let me just say that Nicholas Boulton’s narration of this book is outstanding. Well worth acquiring, even if you’ve already read it. What Kinsale subverts in this book though isn’t just narrative structure or genre conventions. No, she’s got a much bigger target: the archetypal heroic story arc that underpins much of humanity’s storytelling.
For My Lady’s Heart’s romantic arc begins with the hero and heroine’s meet-cute across a crowded room full of priests and petitioners. The hero is instantly attracted to the beautiful, sophisticated heroine, who promptly laughs at him, then saves his ass when he gets in over his head. He pledges his life and sword to her and they go their separate ways, she with her court, he to earn his name and seek his fortune. We rejoin the couple years later when Melanthe is now the widow of a powerful Italian noble, has promised to wed yet another Italian noble, and is journeying home to England to solidify her claim to some land that her soon-to-be-betrothed wants to get his dastardly hands on. Another chance meeting brings Ruck back into her life, this time for good, and he serves as her bodyguard on the trip back north. Nothing goes as planned of course, their pasts catch up with both of them and they have to learn to either stay apart forever or work together.
For My Lady’s Heart is anything but straightforward, however. Right away, both my husband and I keyed in on the fact that Ruck calls himself “The Green Knight” in lieu of a name for much of the story. Even before Kinsale hopped into a conversation I was having with Lisa Hendrix on Twitter to say that she’d been inspired by Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the parallels were obvious. If you’re not familiar though, basically, we’re talking King Arthur here, which clued us into the idea that the book would follow Ruck, his mysterious identity and daring exploits. There’s a whole tradition of this kind of literary behavior going back to the beginning of written story-telling. It’s the “hero’s journey” Joseph Campbell talks about in The Hero With A Thousand Faces: the man leaves home to seek adventure, experiences trials, hits rock bottom, transforms, rights his wrongs, reconciles with his father and emerges triumphant, returning home a hero. That’s Ruck’s story completely. It’s also Luke Skywalker’s. And Thor’s in the Marvel movie. If you ever studied The Odyssey or Gilgamesh in school, you probably learned about this concept. There’s a reason it’s considered archetypal.
What’s fascinating to me about veering off from something like the hero’s journey in a romance novel though, a genre written primarily for, by, and about women, is that those stories are all about the dudes. They’re the heroes. The protectors. Large and in charge, even when being buffeted by life. The women are mainly witches, connivers and adulteresses; goddesses and temptresses; Madonnas and whores. They’re dramatic foils; obstacles that get in the way of the heroes’ honorable impulses.
But what about the “heroine’s journey”; a woman’s archetypal/literary/epic/mythological path? I’m not sure there is one, at least not one that doesn’t focus exclusively on fertility. It’s not like most Medieval men ran off and became knights. Or that Grecian peasants were out sailing the Mediterranean for a decade or two. For high school literature students, Elizabeth Bennett might have been the first female main character encountered who was written by a woman. Before that it’s all Penelope, Hester Prynne and Lady Macbeth. At least, it was at my school. And while I will never say anything negative about Austen because of course I adore her books, her world was small. The heroes in epics and myths, their worlds are not small. Melanthe’s world is not small. Melanthe plays on the highest levels of the Medieval international political stage. She’s skilled at diplomacy and deception, but limited in power by her gender and hampered rather than helped by her beauty, which would be the more typical role of feminine beauty in an historical romance. And most people in the story believe that she is a witch who took lovers and murdered her husband.
Outside of the maiden, the mother or the crone, there’s no script for Melanthe to follow. Even though she does rather torture Ruck in his celibacy, she for sure doesn’t follow the archetypal path of mythological women. She’s not a goddess or a witch or a whore or a virtuous woman who stays home and waits for her husband to return triumphant. And, well, maybe that’s the point. Despite what everyone would want to believe of Melanthe, how they perceive her, how they would use her or how they would change her (Ruck included), she resists. She remains her own paranoid, difficult, irascible self, refusing all aid and comfort, solving her own problems and shaping her world to suit herself. She proves not to be a witch on their trip through the marsh, not a whore in her sexual inexperience, not a mother or wife when they marry and arrive at Wolfscar, Ruck’s castle, midway through the book.
Contrasted with the set path Ruck is allowed to tread, one worn into the literary bedrock over the course of centuries, Melanthe’s is one of her own invention. She almost never does what either Ruck or the reader expect. Her values include her freedom, her life and perhaps the well-being of her beloved pet falcon. And whatever she has to be or do in order to preserve those things are what she does. She’s rather infinitely adaptable actually, not particularly constrained by social mores, the Church or an inconveniently well-born husband despite being hyper-aware of those restrictions. Ruck is far below her in social standing and can’t match her wits, except on rare occasions (and we do root for him when he stands up to her because he’s so utterly outmatched most of the time). She makes her own way right to the very end. And speaking of the end, it’s no one’s triumph. It’s an accident that delivers our heroine. Or an act of God.
For My Lady’s Heart contains all this and yet, it still functions as a road trip romance. As Melanthe and Ruck journey together, sometimes together, sometimes apart, sometimes in harmony and sometimes (okay, mostly) not, their attraction to one another becomes obvious to both of them. However, Melanthe for fear of her political enemies and Ruck out of fear for his immortal soul, must resist the temptation they represent to each other. All that thwarted desire is awfully hot. We also get Kinsale’s humor in hunting herons, slaying dragons, and jokes about sex and confession. The scene where Ruck and Melanthe consummate their unusual marriage and Ruck turns out to be rather a savant of sex as a result of his many, many forays into the confessional is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I went back and read the scene in the book to be sure that it wasn’t only Boulton’s impeccable comedic timing and it wasn’t. Still funny.
I grabbed a used copy of For My Lady’s Heart just so I could put it on my Very Favorite Book Ever shelf next to Flowers From the Storm and Prince of Midnight. It’s just…everything.
|C’est n’est pas Wolfscar.|
In my head, this post was going to utilize this pan. Perhaps with a great deal of green food coloring. And probably some Dungeons & Dragons miniatures. Why? Well, how often do you get to use a bundt pan in the shape of a castle? And there are, like, four castles in this book. I mean, really.
But then I realized that there actually is food in For My Lady’s Heart. In fact, there’s kind of a whole thing about oranges and almonds. Melanthe’s decision to share her treats with Ruck represents a shift for her in terms of both how she thinks of him and how she thinks of herself. For the first time, she’s laid bare. And he’s not sure what to make of that at all.
As for this cake, it’s a little bit fussy, but if you follow the instructions exactly, it should work out fine. The first time I tried making the original recipe for a friend who’s dairy free, I was too fast and loose with the process and it didn’t rise properly. I don’t specifically recall what I did, but I’m guessing I probably oiled the sides of the pan. Don’t do that. This is sort of a chiffon-type cake and it needs to be able to cling to the sides to rise.
So anyway, when I modified the recipe for this post, I was extra special careful and it turned out fine. I’d say…er…don’t fiddle with this one. If you don’t have the precise right ingredients (blood oranges are rapidly going out of season and dried orange peel may require a trip to a specialty spice shop) and tools (you’ll need a 9-inch spring form pan and parchment paper), make something else or go shopping first. Cool? Cool.
For more photos of this cake, visit Cooking Up Romance on Facebook. I often stash extra photos there so you can see what each step of the process is supposed to look like.
Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake
adapted from epicurious
Makes: 12 servings
Time: 2 1/2 hours (hands-on: 45 minutes)
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for pan
2 blood oranges, zested (1 1/2 tablespoons zest)
2 tablespoons blood orange juice
1 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon dried orange peel
5 egg yolks, 4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil the bottom of a 9-inch spring form pan. Place a piece of parchment in the bottom and close the pan. Oil the parchment only (not the sides).
2. In a food processor, pulse together the blood orange zest, cake flour and dried orange peel until combined.
3. In a large bowl, beat together egg yolks and 1/2 cup of sugar with an electric mixer on high speed until thick and pale (about 3 minutes). Add 3/4 cup of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of blood orange juice. Mix until combined. Stir in the flour mixture (by hand–do not use mixer).
4. Wash the electric mixer beaters thoroughly. In another large bowl, beat egg whites until foamy. Add 1/4 cup of sugar a little at a time until sugar is incorporated and egg whites form soft peaks.
5. Gently fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the egg yolk and flour mixture to lighten it, then fold in remaining egg whites carefully, but thoroughly.
6. Pour batter into prepared pan and gently tap to release air bubbles. Sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. Bake until puffed and golden, 35-45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
7. Cool the cake on a rack for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake and remove the side of pan. Cool cake to room temperature, about 1 1/4 hours. Remove the bottom of the pan, peel off parchment and serve.
Disclosure: Laura Kinsale and I follow each other on Twitter and engage in occasional conversation.