All through December I'm talking about some of the best books I've read this year, and today's offering is…
A Place of Storms by Sara Craven
For years Andrea had been used to getting her cousin Clare out of scrapes - but this one really took some beating! Clare, it appeared, had made a rash promise to marry a Frenchman whom she had never even met, and he was insisting on keeping her to the promise. So Andrea found herself agreeing to go to France in Clare's place, to sort the situation out.
She had certainly never foreseen what would ensue: that in a short time she would find herself married to the forbidding Blaise Levallier, and in the centre of a mystery from which there seemed to be no escape. She had not forseen, either, that she would fall in love with Blaise - a man about whom she still knew nothing...
What better way to kick my Daily December Reviews, than with a book by the illustrious Sara Craven?
I've always been a fan of Sara Craven's work, so much so that her book Wild Melody is one of my key texts for my PhD research, so when adding to my vintage Mills & Boon library this year, it made sense to pick up the book that was published straight after Wild Melody, A Place of Storms.
A Place of Storms has an old school trope I'm very fond of that isn't often used anymore, that of the poor relation who has to explain to her cousin's jilted lover exactly that. Of course, the jilted lover insists that either she stay and marry him or offers her employment as a way of freeing her from her familial obligations.
What I really like about Craven's use of this trope in A Place of Storms is that Andrea's cousin Clare isn't a nasty piece of work. Instead we find a woman who finds herself in a genuine predicament, and it is through affection for her and her family that Andrea agrees to help her out. I loved seeing this bond of friendship and pseudo-sisterhood at the beginning of the book, and it took me pleasantly by surprise.
As for Andrea, she is a strong woman with a career of her own and clear independence; and even though our brooding hero blackmails her into marrying him, I felt that she holds her own fairly well. She's not droopy or too swoony, even though she is strongly attracted to him.
Of course, having been written in 1977 before the category romance embraced the current approach of seeing the action from both the heroine and the hero's point of view, Blaise seems as remote to us as he does to Andrea. He's clearly a hero of the tortured and brooding ilk, but we slowly come to understand his inner conflict as the narrative continues.
I've been having a number of debates with some of my PhD supervisors about whether category romance is feminist (I'm vehemently in the 'yes' column) and this book, being an old school romance, does highlight some of their concerns. But what pervades this book is Andrea's strength and decision making. And when they finally make love, it is on her terms - not his. I really love what jay dixon has to say about the role of the female sphere within the Mills & Boon romance in The Romantic Fiction of Mills & Boon:
Even when it appears to be the hero who establishes or confirms the heoine's social identity by marrying her, it is in fact the heroine who is drawing the hero into the female world. (9)
The hero has to be socialized into the heroine's world - becoming more like her. The two spheres - the male public and the female private - have to be conflated in order to reaffirm the heroine's world - her values and expectations, her needs and way of life...the female sphere she represents is validated. (33-34)
It is these assertions that resonate with me; yes, Blaise is an alpha hero with power over Andrea, but it is he who changes through the narrative - not her. Her sense of self remain intact, and it is she who holds the power by the end of the novel. And what could be more feminist than that?
Sara Craven worked as journalist and as teacher before joining the Middlesbrough Writers' Group. She started to wrote romance, and had her first novel Garden of Dreams accepted by Mills & Boon in 1975. In 2010 she became chairman of the Southern Writers' Conference, and the next year was elected the twenty-six Chairman (2011–2013) of the Romantic Novelists' Association!
Sara passed away in 2017, and left behind her decades of romance novels, beloved by readers all over the world. Much of her back catalogue is now available in ebook form.