For many of my generation, a lifelong career of reading romance novels began with an introduction to the romances penned by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. But then came Kathleen.
Kathleen Woodiwiss was a revelation. She wrote stormy romances with the relentlessly macho hero and his too-helpless but generally spunky heroine. She and her world-changing sister novelists did away with Victorian and Puritanical presentation, did away with Austen's biting social commentary and instead wove sexual attraction into her stories—nothing subtle about it—back when no one else even whispered what went on behind closed doors. And readers ate it up. The heroines of those earlier romances were waiting to be rescued, but they were presented to a generation of Cinderella-dreaming women who had been raised in two family households with strong father figures. They had the lowest possible career ceiling, and what they dreamed of, mostly, was the man who would take them away from all this. Bodice ripper novels were stories of foreplay, where the heroine inevitably made one (if not more) escape by virtue of knowing where to put her knee. Very clearly where the hero was concerned, "No! No! No!" did mean "Yes! Yes! Yes!" (Pity the poor men of this generation. No wonder they were confused.) There was nothing anywhere around that resembled anything close to subtlety.
I bring this ancient history up because The Bastard by Brenda Novak is something of a throwback. It has a number of the elements of the standard issue bodice rippers: young heroine forced by circumstance into marrying wealthy old coot. The heroine is way too young; and the antagonist is way too old. She's all goodness, beauty and virtue; he's fat and old and gouty. She's a poor but noble refugee; he's old (really decrepit and homely) British money and he may be noble in name but not in deed. The hero is by contrast, perfect. In contrast to the husband, he's got honor. He's so honorable that bad guys who walk through his sweat can practically be transformed by his goodness. He's got virtue by the shipload. He's got a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He's got sex appeal in spades. He wears a uniform. He's noble, and by the time we hit the end of the book we're about to find a noble pedigree too. In the case of The Bastard, the hero actually is a bastard son. But that is no deterrent.
Our introduction to the story begins with meeting Jeannette Boucher, whose family of French refugees depends on her marriage to an ugly mean-minded penguin of a Baron. She runs away from the Baron on her wedding night, and ends up in a rough tavern where she has her first altercation with Lieutenant Crawford Treynor of the Royal Navy, after which she disguises herself. Jeanette signs on to Treynor's crew as thirteen year old cabin "boy" Jean Vicard, ensuring the reader of the usual confrontations and close calls, and assorted other hazards aboard ship. (Ships are always a genre favorite because of the close quarters.) Once Treynor figures out her gender, he gets to do heroic things, like take a flogging for her and lust after her, while she runs away from him, is predictably headstrong, and get herself into scrape after scrape, more trouble than necessary. There are some sensual scenes, not as explicit as most.
There are plenty of sweet romances I've really liked. Maybe I'd have scored this book higher a few years ago. Now I expect more complexity in my characters, especially historical characters. The plot just felt haphazard. There were more "events" than there was story or pacing, and most of the problems the heroine gets into are problems she makes herself. (I myself have written characters very like her, and I am so over the heroine whose random hard-headedness cause her worst problems. Nowadays if you have a heroine who makes stupid choices, she's literally boxed in and has no other choice. Grueling and believable for the reader.) Yes, I know some of the best fiction has characters who do exactly the same thing, and they do so with more complex, more convincing justification.
In the past, I have read some of Ms. Novak's work that I would rate more highly than this book. I've been trying to think why I felt The Bastard falls short. It's not the lower level of sexual tension between the characters. It may be that they are just so black and white--so stereotypical; or maybe it is something else entirely--Ms Novak has written so many books. Was it written too fast, or without layers? A reviewer should know exactly why, and I don't know. This one just lacks that urgent sense of discovery, that feeling of riding the moment into something new, which is embedded so well in some of Novak's other works. Maybe she knew too soon what would happen, or while she was writing, maybe this book failed to take on a life of its own. I would still conjecture that there are younger readers with different expectations who would like this book more than I do.