Warning: all the spoilers.
Welcome to the post that took me over a year to write! If you were wondering what took me so long, the answer is: I’m super lazy and my ability to procrastinate is close to a superpower, like I was bitten by a radioactive excuse or something. I was also a bit afraid to revisit a book that’s so close to my heart, a fear that, as you’re about to see, proved to be both right and unnecessary. But really, I was mostly being lazy.
The goal of this post (that may or may not become a feature, but I’m not making any promises) is to revisit beloved old favorites and see how they hold up to the reader I am today. This means that I’m interested in how my current context shapes the reading experience, and not in how the book’s past context shaped the way it was written.
The Velvet Promise was my very first Romance novel. I got it one summer way before I knew what a Romance novel was, and I was instantly hooked on its fairy tale quality, the love story, the hunky hero, and, most importantly, the sex. That’s right, the thing that turned me into a Romance reader was the point in the novel where I realized that, holy shit, she just touched his penis!
It took me half a day to finish the book, and when I was done, the first thing I thought was that I needed to find out if the hero’s brother had his own book (he did!). It’s funny to look back and see all that inexperience manifest itself in immeasurable possibilities. Nowadays, I can spot the sequel-bait just by reading the blurb, and although the possibilities remain immeasurable, they look a bit different and perhaps a tad more predictable. But that just comes to show you that genre reading is, in many ways, an acquired skill that changes, in ways that are neither good nor bad, the way we approach those particular stories.
But enough musings! Let’s talk about the book.
The Velvet Promise is a tragic cautionary tale about what happens to women who have sex and enjoy it. It has three prominent female characters: The Virgin, The Whore and The One with Terrible Luck. Actually, all three of them have terrible luck just by virtue of being a woman in this book, but I didn’t know what else to call the last one.
The Virgin is the heroine, Judith. I use the term “heroine” loosely, because while she’s the one who gets the dude, she isn’t quite the focus of the story. But she’s pure as snow, beautiful, sheltered, and she was trained to know practical things like writing and managing a household, instead of frivolous things like acting coy and embroidery. But those things won’t save her from: being raped on her wedding night; falling in love with a man who loves another woman; being reprimanded when she endangers her life to save her man in what’s probably the longest, most meandering part of the book; getting pregnant and having her man accuse her of sleeping with someone else, but also offering her patronizing forgiveness when he realizes that she probably slept with the other man out of fear; being tricked into thinking her now loving husband slept, again, with the former love of his life; falling down the stairs; miscarrying her baby; being kidnapped; and someone behaving her horse. Oh, wait! The horse thing is from another book. My bad! Everything else did happen, though.
Constance, The One with Terrible Luck, is a plot device. She gets beaten and raped as a way for us to know how evil a minor character is. She’s eventually rescued by a man who looks past her wounds and right into her violet eyes (this is how I knew she was good, by the way). They fall in love and have sex, but since the evil minor character has to die in order to advance the main plot, something bad happens to her so that her dreamy lover has excuse to kill said evil dude. What bad thing, you ask? Thinking her lover is dead, she kills herself so they can finally be together, but of course he’s alive, so in a tragic turn of events, she gets punished once more, this time in death.
And finally we have Alice, The Whore. She deceives us with her angelic looks, but we know she’s the villain because she’s had abortions and she values money over love. But by the end of the book I was convinced that she was the real protagonist: she had almost as much page time as Judith, and even when she wasn’t present, she was on everyone’s mind; she was the character that set the story in motion and facilitated everything that happened to the romantic couple; she fucked the hero, repeatedly; and she was the only one with a semblance of a character-arc, which concluded with what I think is the moral of the story. But Alice had the misfortune of being the Other Woman, and if there’s something that both past and present reading experiences have shown me, is that the genre is at its most unkind when it deals with the Other Woman.
We know that Gavin, the hero (again, I’m using the term loosely) is falling in love with the heroine because he finally sees Alice’s physical imperfections (her flat, skinny body). Her loss of sex appeal signals the man’s awakening to true love. And by the end of the book her punishment isn’t death but disfigurement so that “No longer will her beauty ensnare men”.
But the nostalgia glass did its job, because I couldn’t stop reading the book with a sort of detached, amused fondness. Even if it didn’t treat its women like shit, it’s so plot-heavy and lacking in character development, that there was no way for me to find something to like other than, well, all those things I loved the first time I read it. But in the midst of all that, there were a couple of tiny little details that made me feel like the genre was winking at me.
For example, at one point Gavin, who has “thick black hair curling along his neck”, is standing there saying nothing, but we know he is not amused because “The only part of him that moved was a muscle in his jaw, flexing and unflexing”. This book was published in 1981, but some things never change.
I can’t express how much this book means to me, and this re-read did nothing to threaten that love. But it did put things in perspective, plus it showed me a whole different side of it that I had somehow managed to miss. I have re-read it a couple of times, but never in the years since I’ve been a blogger, and my experience revisiting it now has shown me just how much reading a bit more critically has changed the way I approach and interact with books. Now more than ever, reading feels like a two-way street where the book has something to tell me, but where I also have something to tell about the book. Yet the thing that made this such a rich exercise is that now I have people who will listen to what I have to say and who maybe will have something to say to me.