Don’t forget, just a few more days to enter to win an ebook copy of Hard Knocks by Ruby Lang. Check out my review for more details on this steaming contemporary about a neurosurgeon and a hockey player.
It’s January, which means that the TBR Challenge theme is shorts: novellas, short stories, category romances, etc. What that means for me is reading one of the many vintage Harlequins I have hanging out on my TBR shelf. I chose Darling Infidel by Violet Winspear, a Harlequin Presents from 1976. And this is a hell of a vintage Presents. We’ve got it all: an overbearing alphahole of a hero, a motherless virgin heroine who brings all the boys to the yard and a crazypants evil other woman. The heroine stabs the hero with a pen in the first few pages. The virgin is attacked in the forest by a neighbor who won’t take no for an answer. The evil other woman pushes the heroine down a well. But that’s Winspear.
Writing about Violet Winspear books always stymies me. On the one hand, her romantic arcs work for me. The amount of sexual tension she manages to shoehorn into books with no sex is seriously impressive. Her heroes are over-the-top, but even without the male POV, we understand throughout each book that they growl because they love. That’s not the problem. The problem for me is the persistent racism displayed in her books. I mean, this one is called Darling Infidel and the hero is a half-Jewish Austrian. The heroine jokingly and lovingly refers to him as “infidel”, and generally when he’s gotten under her skin somehow, but that’s just not something we call people any more even in jest. There’s also a “gipsy” character in the story who fulfills all the awful Romany stereotypes. That said, he also saves the heroine, shoots a jerk and gets away without punishment so it’s not all bad. I just always have to warn people when approaching Winspear that they’re likely to get some outdated and offensive language at best.
The thing is, the sheer amount of WTFery in Darling Infidel left me with an affection for it. Heroine Cathy is essentially her doctor father’s housekeeper following the death of her mother. Hero Woolf has come from Austria under mysterious circumstances to work as a doctor in her father’s practice. They have taken an instant dislike to each other, or so Cathy thinks, until Woolf kisses her following the aforementioned stabbing incident. Then we find out that while Cathy may not like Woolf much, her best friend Tiphaine De’Ath (a name with Dickensian subtlety) has a ginormous crush on him. When Cathy is nearly raped in the woods, Woolf doctors the neighbor and then sends him away, convincing Cathy that they should not inform the police because of what it might to to her reputation. Then the blackmail starts. Woolf insists on a fake engagement as a condition for keeping her secret in order to protect himself from the rapacious Tiphaine. Of course, Tiphaine finds out and turns murderous.
Truly, I think you’d have to be in the right mood for this book. I clearly was and so I enjoyed it immensely. Cathy is protected from being intolerably perfect by the stabbing early in the book. Woolf is protected from complete jerkery by the kiss soon after. He may be heavy-handed and manipulative, but he’s so clearly head over heels for her from his first appearance that he remains sympathetic. There is also a fair bit more normal interaction between the hero and heroine than I often see in vintage Harlequins. They stroll along the beach eating ice cream and talking. They go shopping and to lunch. It’s not completely out of the blue when they find at the end that they rather like each other the way it sometimes is. And virginal Cathy the doctor’s daughter may not be experienced, but nor are the flutterings in her tummy a complete mystery to her.
It may just be the amount of context I have now after reading so many of these 1970s Harlequins, but I thought Darling Infidel was eminently readable. Despite Winspear’s short-comings and the over-wrought plot, the romantic core of the story is sound. It’s too bad Winspear isn’t available in digital because if I could cheaply and easily acquire her entire oeuvre, I would gladly do it.