by Rosemary Rogers, historical (2001, 1974 reissue)
MIRA, $6.99, ISBN 1-55166-831-9
Reviewed by Mr Giggles
My wife tells me that the last time she stuck her knife into a "classic" romance, she got flamed so much that she couldn't sit down for days. Sweet Savage Love, I'm told, is the mother of all classics. I'm asking for trouble, she warns me.
She hates this book with a passion. Why on earth she would keep this book instead of selling it or exchanging it with her friends if she hates it so much? She's probably one of those readers who don't feel credible or secure if her collection doesn't have "serious" classics, I think. (Mrs G: Guess who's watching Manhunt with me?)
My curiosity about this book started when I read several authors defending rape fantasies in early incarnations of the romance novel in some collection of romance essays (Mrs G: Dangerous Men And Adventurous Women) as a form of escapism. I have read some rape fantasies in sexual psychology books, and I thought they were pretty... nice. A whole book of them? Nicer.
SSL, however, is very badly written if you ask me. There is no character development, and the plot is all about the heroine getting into trouble. In fact, come to think of it, everyone in this story is a moron.
Do I need to give the synopsis of the story? It's a classic, so everyone knows it, right? Okay, basically it's about this young lady, Virginia "Ginny" Brandon getting forcefully seduced and even raped and rescued from trouble non-stop by this half-breed hero Steve Morgan. There are many adventures in here, mostly tedious dime-novel scenes interspersed with sex.
Steve Morgan first comes into the Brandons' lives when he was a 23-year old Union army captain. He finds Ginny's stepmother in some hut and when the woman goes all hysterical over thunder, he rapes her. Of course, she then succumbs and it's a "forced sex" situation the next few times. Nonetheless, this is the start of a pattern exhibited by Steve Morgan, the king of date rapes.
While he is cuckolding Mister Brandon, he is also sleeping with some exotic mistress. He kills someone over a fight for this mistress, and he is incarcerated as a result. What follows is that he is released on the condition that he takes up a mission to play an outlaw. But that is before he mistakes Ginny as a whore, almost rapes her (this behavior is excused by a laugh - "Men, they are so impatient!" a whore says). But that is before he kidnaps her, forcefully sleeps with her. And that is before a long, tortuous rigmarole of rape/sex/screams/fights and Ginny becoming the poster girl for Stockholm syndrome. She falls for him the moment he takes her virginity, and it's downhill ever since.
I am amused by the way the author tries to make a superhero out of the Steve. She has Steve Morgan playing every conceivable caricature of romance heroes: Union soldier, outlaw, and even defender of the downtrodden Latino minorities and Native Americans. I keep expecting him to wear a mask and emerge as a rapist Zorro. It's too bad that the author left out "mature adult" and "intelligent" in Steve's impressive catalogue of personalities. He is oversexed, brutal, and he makes date rape an art form. As far as rape fantasies go, SSL is a monotonous affair, a non-stop cycle of rape and hysterical heroine begging for more. There is no credible psyche into a Stockholm syndrome-stricken rape victim's mind or anything of that sort. This is just an ineptly written series of rape and campy cowboy adventures passed off as romance.
I think the author knows what she is doing with Steve Morgan, however. She refers to him as a selfish, sexually immature man many times throughout the story. What I don't get it is why she let the man remain an overheated erection towards the end of the story. It isn't just the constant bodice-ripping and coercive sex, it's also the way he easily jumps into the worst conclusion about Ginny even towards late in the story. I have a great laugh though when he expresses just how much he hates Ginny whom he sees emerging from some nasty guy's wagon in a state of dishabille. He is the last man who has the right to judge another person's sex life!
Ah, Ginny. Of course she remains faithful to Steve even as he seems to sleep or have slept with every woman in this story. I have never read about a woman like her. She has the brainpower of a gerbil. This is a woman who travels all across the wild west while not noticing one single aspect of her surroundings, breaks down at the slightest hint of adversity, and goes hysterical for the tiniest of reasons. I'll probably get into trouble for saying this, but look, if she's as pretty and dumb as she behaves, I can see why opportunist men like Steve want to have a go at her. Unfortunately, in the long run she will probably drive all but the most insane and stupid men nuts with her constant haplessness.
Of course, pair a commitment-phobic rapist with a co-dependent gerbil-brained woman and the relationship is a spectacular catalogue of dysfunction. I have to hand it to Ms Rogers, she can write a really dysfunctional romance in a way that disturbs me as much as it amuses me at the same time. While my wife couldn't stand a reread of what she calls "the most braindead romance novel of the century, even more braindead than Jane Eyre's romance with a lying bigamist scum named Mr Cockroachester!", I wonder if this author isn't just having a laugh at everybody's expense.
Compared to some of the more contemporary romance novels I've read, SSL doesn't come close. The characters are one-dimensional (men are arrogant and brutal, women are hysterical and helpless), the plot is cartoony and tortuous, and there is nothing resembling any kind of romance I know. At least, not the kind of romance that will not end up in a tragedy. Steve Morgan is the kind of man I will be relieved to see behind bars, and alas, I suspect Ginny will be the woman who will visit him every day, weep as she listens dutifully to Steve's ranting and blaming her for his incarceration, and petition for a clemency from whoever's in charge. If Steve Morgan is abusive, Ginny encourages him. It's a time bomb waiting to happen.
My wife told me that there are three more books in the series. I haven't read them, but I'll take her word for it when she says that these two characters remain intellectually and emotionally stunted, bickering and parting and committing adultery (he) and pining (she) non-stop. If she's right, I'm not surprised. SSL is so lurid and bad that I may be tempted to keep reading the next few books, just to see how more ridiculous Steve and Ginny be. It's just too bad that the thought of revisiting those two characters make me feel quite ill inside.
Maybe some classics just cannot stand the test of time.
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