by Jade Lee, historical (2005)
Leisure, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5372-1
Jade Lee's White Tigress is like two different books of contrasting qualities spliced together. The first half of the book as well as the last few chapters belong to a story that tries a little too hard to be dark and erotic only to end up as a hilarious kind of trainwreck. The later portion of the book, barring the last few chapters, is a very good kind of read, especially for people, ahem, like me who would like to see more stories of a woman taking charge in the bedroom. But on the whole, an unconvincing love story, a heroine who for too long is just plain too stupid for anything, and a hero who rarely becomes anything more than a creepy sex guru with inadvertently hilarious mommy issues sink White Tigress.
Our young and innocent heroine Lydia Smith, who unfortunately has her innocence nicely intertwined with a healthy dose of brainlessness, thinks that there is nothing better to do than to travel all the way from England to Shanghai, China, without telling her fiancÚ Maxwell Slade that she's coming because Lydia wants to surprise her darling hubby-to-be. I'm sure you can imagine that there is no happy reunion written in the stars for Lydia and Max. Instead, she ends up being purchased for shag purposes by our hero Cheng Ru Shan. Why is our hero doing this? Fear not, people, that he's some disgusting white slave or anything, because Jade Lee wants everyone to know that she is not Chairman Mao's answer to Bertrice Small. So our darling Mr Cheng here doesn't want Lydia solely for the shagpile purpose - all he wants is to attain immortality, you see, through a combination of sex, iron will, and some unrecognizable version of Taoism.
After reading this book, I feel that my mother has deprived me from a healthy childhood because as a Chinese, I have never known that there is a Kama Sutra thingie in my culture. Even better, this Taoish Kama Sutra thingie can help me become a goddess if I have enough sex and all. Anyway, the reason that Mr Cheng isn't taking his rightful place in the Department of Obscene Sexual Acts - you know, the divine authority according to Taosim that ensures anyone who give in to deviant sexual acts that include "overpowering of women" and "visiting prostitutes" will be punished accordingly - is because no matter how many times he puts his fingers into all kind of orifices in the female body, he keeps thinking of how his mother died and dang, that kinda spoils the mood. And here I am thinking that he can't get promoted to divinity because Taoism is very strict about not giving in to frivolous sexual desires, hmmm.
Anyway, Mr Cheng's guru, Shi Po, tells Mr Cheng that he has too much fire in his being so he has to exorcise all that fire in Lydia, who has too much water in her being. For some reason, of all the women in China, none of them suit Mr Cheng's purposes. No, it must be the Englishwoman that will literally show Mr Cheng the gateway to heaven, hmmmph.
What follows is Mr Cheng ravishing Lydia in a cold and calculative manner - really, he's thinking of Mommy Dearest when he's bringing Lydia all kinds of ecstasy - because he doesn't want the jollies for himself, he just wants to see heaven and be reunited with his mother (or something). Lucky Lydia, all she has to do is to lay back and squeal. The scenes between these two can be very disturbing to some readers, I suspect, because while Lydia for the most part has no say or control over what Mr Cheng does to her. This isn't technically rape in the sense that there is no violence involved, but it is nonetheless a situation where a woman has no clue as to what he is doing to her and even if she enjoys what he does to her when she hits the home run, she often says no at first and because she is an innocent when it comes to sexual matters, she cannot and does not know how to fight him off. This is a very lopesided "relationship" - if I can use that word to describe the situation between the two of them - and I believe some readers will not be able to get into this fantasy.
But this is one valid sexual fantasy indeed and on my part, I actually have no problems with it. In fact, I actually find many moments in the sexual interactions between those two very erotic, although the prose is often too purple for my liking. In the second half of the book, Lydia rather unbelievably morphs into a woman who's determined to get her own way even if she has to use sex to achieve her goals. But really, I don't care about character continuity when I'm enjoying this new and improved Lydia who is so much more interesting than the ninny she was before. From that point, White Tigress becomes a much better erotic romance.
However, I find Ms Lee's attempt to make Mr Cheng more "likeable" unintentionally hilarious. Let me put this way: when it comes to erotic scenarios, I would prefer the mother of the hero to be at least three continents away from the action. Having the hero's mother - even if she's dead and exists only in the hero's mind - is not just cold water splashed onto any growing fire in the story, it's too much like a whacked Norman Bates scenario not to make me giggle at the whole situation. For our Mr Cheng, it's not just enough to ask him whether the earth moved for him too, we have to ask him to tell his mother that we said hello as well. If I'm Lydia, I'll be showering with the bathroom door firmly locked. What am I saying? If I'm Lydia, I'd have kicked this man out of the bed the moment I realize that his mother is also figuratively sharing our bed.
The later portions of the book when Ms Lee tries to turn Mr Cheng into a conventional hero and introduce some lame twists to give the couple a happy ending only weaken the book further. The happy resolution is too neat and the romantic aspects of the relationship between Lydia and Mr Cheng are introduced too late to be convincing. The happy ending therefore feels like a slapped-on contrivance to give this book a cosmetic romance novel feel.
That's ultimately my problem with White Tigress. This is a dark erotic fantasy that won't appease readers looking for a lighter and more playful kind of mischievous sexy romance, but Ms Lee tries to appeal to these readers nonetheless by introducing lame and unconvincing "tortured hero" psychobabblings as well as ridiculous psychoanalyzing and redemption angles that try to turn Mr Cheng into some Prince Charming at the expense of the very foundation of the story and the sexual fantasy. It's like forcing a squarish block of wood through a triangular opening. By trying to pretend that the story is something that it isn't, Ms Lee is cheapening the sexual fantasy that she is selling her readers and that action of her part compromises the character continuity in her story. And of course, Lydia is really too irritatingly stupid for words for too many times in this story, so that's another minus for this story.
There are some pretty good erotic scenes for readers who will enjoy reading about overpowerment and domination fantasies, but the package these scenes come in is a different story altogether. At the end of the day, I feel that this book misses more than it hits the spot, so I can't in good conscience give it a much higher rating. And even so, most of the rating for this book stems not just from the few moments of brilliance that Ms Lee displays but also from the laughs she gives me in this hilariously sexed-up version of Taoism that would have sent my Taoist sister-in-law into shock.
I think I'll lend this book to her at the earliest opportunity.
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