A Review/Rant: Smoke In the Wind by Robyn Donald

Last year, thanks to Jane, I discovered the fabulous ladies at the Amazon Romance discussion boards. They are an amazing treasure trove of knowledge about all things Harlequin, especially Old Skool Harlequin Presents books. I wrote this review because I had to get my feelings down on paper. Since then I’ve read a lot more old and new HPs. But this experience was still pretty singular. Since I sent the review to Jane for her amusement, I put it in Dear Author format. Reading over my review makes me want to go back and reread the book. But there are so many other worthy competitors in the queue, and I’m nowhere near finished with Charlotte Lamb.

Caution: This is a really long-ass post.

Dear Ms. Donald,

Recently Jane sent me a link to an Amazon reviewer Boogenhagen’s list of her 10 Most Hated Harlequin Presents novels. Jane knows that I avoid almost all HPs, with the exception of old Mary Burchells and contemporary HP Extras from the M&B Modern Heat line. But I was curious to see what qualified as worthy of such a list from a regular HP reader, and I was surprised to see your book at #2. I know your books are quite popular, and your New Zealand settings are praised.

I was able to obtain a copy of Smoke in the Wind and with only Boogenhagen’s one-paragraph summary as background, I dove in. While I can see why Boogenhagen and other commenters on the book’s Amazon page were irate, I have to say that I don’t entirely share their perspective. To the contrary, I’m glad I read it, and there are aspects of the book that I liked very much. This came as a surprise to me, because it has many of the tropes that make me avoid HP like the plague. But it also takes some equally annoying stereotypes and subverts them, which I really enjoyed.

It’s a bit difficult to summarize the plot because it is, well, complicated. For readers who want to approach the book the way I did, please stop reading now, because I cannot do justice to it without giving away major spoilers. You have been warned.

Venetia Gamble is a star television reporter in Auckland, NZ (I think this is equivalent to being the tallest building in Topeka, Kansas, but whatever). She is small, blonde, and adorable. I admire your restraint in not describing her as a pocket Venus, but I could have used fewer references to her tiny, tiny, doll-like self. Luckily, she is also intelligent, ambitious, and strong-minded. Ryan Fraine, our hero, is a perfect HP specimen in terms of looks:

As well as being tall and elegantly lean, he was superlatively attractive, his angular face hinting at a kind of moody recklessness.

He is not a Billionaire, but then this is the ‘80s, when being gorgeous, masculine, talented and merely rich sufficed. Ryan is a renowned documentary filmmaker from Britain who is coming out to NZ to set up its first private TV station. This career segue threw me a bit, given that none of the doc filmmakers I’ve known have had either the interest or the abilities to be the next Ted Turner, but on the HP scale of disbelief suspension, this is fairly minor.

Ryan and Venetia are instantly attracted to each other. Venetia knows that he is emotionally dangerous, but she is irresistibly drawn to him:

She had felt desire before, but she had never known this fury of passion which overrode all of the tenets of safe, civilized behavior … It was frightening, and thrilling, and her response was every bit as blatant as his desire.

Venetia falls in love with him, but she is pretty sure that he only wants sex, and they carry on a satisfying sex-without-professions-of-love affair until he meets her even lovelier (and 4” taller!), elegant, virginal cousin, Elizabeth.

I really liked that you allowed Venetia to be a sensual woman who loved the sex even when she felt that Ryan didn’t love her back, and that she didn’t transmute her passion for Ryan into a desire to marry him. This last point is important because before she met him Venetia had sworn off marrying again after a brief marriage at 18, and I would have been really annoyed if she had suddenly abandoned five years’ worth of personality development because she was in lust-love.

The relationship, such as it is, falls apart when Ryan meets Cousin Elizabeth. He sees her as wife material because she has some of the attributes he is attracted to in Venetia, but she is not ambitious and wants a traditional wifely role. So while Venetia is off doing her reporter thing and contracting typhoid in the process, he dates Elizabeth. When Venetia finally gets back to Auckland, Ryan tells Venetia they’re over and Venetia discovers that she’s been replaced by her own cousin. And just in case that isn’t bad enough, Ryan has hot-but-not-loving sex with Venetia one last time.

This is a good time to point out that the Amazon commenters are so very right:  Ryan is a terrible hero, even for an ’80s HP.  No, strike that: he’s not a hero at all.  He’s an immature, self-indulgent, egocentric man who blames his mother for his inability to form lasting romantic relationships (she had the nerve to pursue a career she loved rather than make little Ryan her only reason to live). He thinks he’s damaged, I think he’s a douchebag. His douchebagginess (douchebaggery?) does serve an important function in the story, but for readers who read for the hero, this is NOT the book for you. Save your money and your wall.

Okay, where were we? Fast forward six years. Venetia is now in Australia, and a year has elapsed the death of her beloved grandmother, with whom she sought refuge when she fled NZ. Elizabeth, who of course became Ryan’s wife, is also dead, from acute leukemia. And oh yeah, Venetia has a 5-year-old son, John, who is the product of that final fuck-‘em-and-forget-‘em encounter. This being a romance novel, young John is also the image of his father. In the intervening years, Venetia has abandoned TV stardom and become a successful writer of historical fiction (with romance elements! Thanks Ms. Donald!). She has occasional nightmares starring Ryan, but on balance, life is okay.

Re-enter Ryan. The pretext is that his new, feature-film production company has acquired the rights to a non-fiction biography of an ancestor that Venetia and her grandmother wrote (readers, please suspend disbelief again, because IRL doc filmmakers turned Ted Turner do not then turn into Steven Spielberg). But that is a mere multi-million-dollar ruse (remember, we’re talking feature films, here, even in NZ in the ‘80s), because the real reason he shows up is that he wants his son and he wants Venetia. He is disgusted by his inability to resist her, so he proposes nonstop sex to get her out of his system. And just in case that doesn’t work, he tells her that he plans to marry her. Hey, I told you he was a douchebag; none of this should come as a shock.

Venetia just wants him out of her life, but she still loves him. This clearly raises serious heroine-as-doormat problems, but I think it’s important to point out that she continues to write and make time for her career, she is a great mother to John, and she does not cave, in the standard HP way, to the Douchebag-I-Mean-Ryan’s demands. She does, however, have hot monkey sex with him. For readers who are used to today’s Tab A into Slot B explicitness in sex scenes, these scenes will be very tame. But to me they are effective at conveying the lust and passion the participants feel, and I think it’s instructive to remember that once upon a time, you could have erotic passages that didn’t need either surgical explicitness or purple prose to get the point across:

A dark flush crawled along his cheekbones.  He fixed her with a blind stare and opened his mouth on the shadowed nipple beneath the pale, thin fabric.  She gasped, transfixed by a pang of sensation so poignant that she was lost, her small body flowing like silk over his as his mouth worked on her flesh. Her fingers tore at the buttons of his shirt, slid over skin as hot as fire, spread with luxurious wanton delight over the unyielding wall of his chest.

Okay, I think unyielding chests would be seriously uncomfortable, and quit reminding me that she’s smaller than Kristen Chenoweth, but Ms. Donald, I really admire your ability to hit the HP marks while writing so well.

So eventually the semi-happy trio go back to NZ, in part because Aunt Janet, Elizabeth’s mother, is ill and in hospital. While there, Venetia decides she will give in and accept Ryan’s repeated offers/demands of marriage.  This is where the doormat possibility becomes really evident, and where a lot of readers would abandon Venetia. But I don’t. Not because I agree with what she’s doing, but because, Ms. Donald, you have led me to the point where I understand why she’s doing it.

Venetia really, seriously loves Ryan. It’s not a particularly healthy love, and you make that quite clear to us because she is constantly second-guessing her behavior. And she hasn’t lost her mind, because she continues to be a loving mother and a successful professional (a real one! Not a Personal Assistant who sleeps with her Billionaire Boss!). But Venetia loves Ryan and is unhappy without him, and given that he wants to be in his son’s life (and not in a creepy, Psych 101 displacement pathology way), marrying him kind of makes sense. And I really bought the “He’s The One” thing here. You even give us a credible alternative hero to make the point.

Venetia runs into Sean, her first husband, at a big event. In many books, Sean would be exactly what he was earlier in her life, which is the kid who got her pregnant and then was thrilled that they divorced. But in your depiction, Sean has grown up, learned the family business, and remained very attractive. Venetia should fall for him in his new fabulous grownup incarnation. But she can’t, because she has already done that with Ryan, however undeserving he may be. And what’s great about this choice is, that’s how real life works. You don’t necessarily fall for the person who is the best of all possible worlds. You fall for the person who makes the earth move for you. In the optimistic scenario, such a relationship can succeed in the long run, and you do a good job of selling that scenario even with a far from ideal hero.

So they marry, and they continue to have hot monkey sex, but they grow apart. Finally, in the last scene, Ryan admits to Venetia that he always loved her to distraction but was afraid of the loss of control it engendered in him. Just for good measure, he tells her that while he was fond of Elizabeth, she never understood him (oh, child, please) and when he had sex with her he was thinking of Venetia (ewwwww). This is his douchebag way of showing that she is The One. Whatever.

But every time I want to staple Ryan’s manparts to a telephone pole, I remember that Venetia really loves him. So I can’t. And Ms. Donald, that is a testament to your ability to make me believe in Victoria’s commitment to him. Will they have an HEA? Well, maybe, because at least she is a grownup and he does love her to the extent he is capable. And he loves the kid. And she will get to keep writing historical novels/romances.

This book reminds me a little of Banish Misfortune, an older book by Anne Stuart that deserves much more attention. Smoke in the Wind is not as richly textured, but you were constrained by a lower wordcount. In both books, the heroine keeps the baby, doesn’t tell the father, and rebuilds her life. When the father comes back, they meet on entirely different terms.

So, just to remind our readers of the subversive parts: Venetia likes to have sex. Even if her Beloved Object doesn’t love her back, she’ll enjoy the sex. She is an ambitious professional who loves her job and retains that focus through the book even when her chosen profession changes. And Ryan? He’s a total douchebag, but at least he gets some of what he deserves:  He dumps the ambitious, apparently non-material woman he loves for his Ideal Wife and is horribly disappointed. Good! And yes, he gets Venetia in the end,  but because she wants him, not because he deserves her.

How do I grade this? I would definitely read it again. But it has a horrible, non-heroic hero. Netting the plus and minuses out, I give it a B-. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go read Banish Misfortune again.



8 thoughts on “A Review/Rant: Smoke In the Wind by Robyn Donald

  1. This was an excellent review. I’ll never read this book (I’m done with douchebag heroes), but I really enjoyed reading your review.

  2. I’m still laughing over the idea of a documentary film-maker goes on to set up a feature film production company. That’s like saying a vegan goes on to set up a chain of abattoirs. Extreme, but you know it’s true. :D

    For a new NZ company to produce a non-fiction biography of a seemingly unknown ancestor as a multi-million production is – for me – utterly implausible. Plausible if it were a TV biopic, but as a theatrical film with mid-range budget? Hahahaha! It reminds me so much Suzanne Brockmann’s Heart Throb (which had my eyebrows touching the skyline so often that I almost ended up looking like Jack Nicholson).

    Good review. I still won’t read this HP, but I enjoyed reading the review and that reminder about Stuart’s admittedly underrated Banish Misfortune. Thanks.

  3. Great review. It articulates something very well that I believe: that there are (rare) books in which it really doesn’t matter (to me) that one character is unlikable or the relationship is not that healthy – so long as I believe the characters have a genuine connection/love. Dark Dominion by Lamb is probably the most extreme version I can think of. It tells me a number of interesting things about myself as a reader, particularly that I don’t just read romance for the characters.

  4. @FiaQ: Great analogy! The doc filmmakers I’ve known would stab themselves with a fork before they’d switch to feature, even a worthy biopic type film. And multi-million in 1980s NZ? I’m thinking Thorn Birds or something …

    @Tumperkin: Yes! Sometimes it’s not about the characters at all. Janine and I were talking about healthy and unhealthy relationships, and I actually think the unhealthy ones can still be kind of romantic, in a perverse way. I think it’s because I read for the range of relationships authors portray. We can never really know what works in other people’s marriages/partnerships, but romance novels give us some fascinating insights. Who knows if they’re accurate, but with a good author I’m sold.

  5. Oh, I’ve read this one! Back when I glommed Robyn Donald’s backlist. I hated the hero. Hated HATED him. And felt ridiculous glee when his marriage was a failure. And wanted to smack some sense into the heroine, even as I appreciated that she was very clear-eyed about what she was getting into.

  6. @jmc: He is truly hateful. He’s not even an anti-hero, he’s just an un-hero. That last scene just about did me in. And yet, it is so well written and I really like the way the heroine is depicted.

  7. What a great review! I really enjoyed reading it, even though I think that if I read it, Ryan might drive me crazy.

    And what’s great about this choice is, that’s how real life works. You don’t necessarily fall for the person who is the best of all possible worlds. You fall for the person who makes the earth move for you.

    So true. I would even go further and say that everyone has flaws, and no matter who you fall in love with, things will not be perfect. Love is always a risk IMO and many of my favorite romances are the ones that convey that.

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