Heartbreaker: A TBR Challenge Review

As part of SuperWendy’s TBR Reading Challenge I picked up this Charlotte Lamb novel that has been waiting on my shelf for several months. I am totally obsessed with Ms Lamb and she has once again delivered a strikingly dark story. Here is my (rambly) review:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 11.18.44 pm Heartbreaker

by Charlotte Lamb

published by Mills & Boon, 1981.

The back story is that Caroline had escaped her cruel and violent husband Peter. He was an alcoholic that used to beat her up but Caroline and his mother, Helen who lived with them, would make excuses for his behaviour and would cover up Caroline’s injuries so to protect him. But when Peter started hitting their daughter, Caroline leaves Yorkshire for the anonymity of London. Three years later, Caroline finds out that Peter has died and her former mother-in-law wants to see her granddaughter again. Caroline and Helen have a deep love and respect for each other. It is Helen’s nephew (and the hero of this story), Nick that finds Caroline and coerces her to return to the Yorkshire village. Nick is a menacing and mean. For a hero, I found him too rough and a tad violent in his first scene with Caroline. Though he does not hurt her, he certainly does his best to intimidate Caroline. He is convinced that his cousin’s alcoholism and subsequent death was due to his wife having left him.

All human beings are a tangled web of contradictions and confusions

I love the ideas that Charlotte Lamb weaves through this story. She explores the relationships that people have when they are part of a violent relationship and choose to hide and protect the abuser while protecting themselves. Lamb shows the complex relationship between two women, one who sees the failings of her son but still needs to stand by him through to the end yet loves her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law who feels connected to the same woman who asks her to hide her son’s misdeeds. The doctor who treated Caroline for her beatings is a mirror to Nick. He is a much nicer match for Caroline and though she recognises this she also sees that life and love and attraction cannot always be planned as clearly as this (I personally think that the doctor/patient relationship here would have been too thorny to contemplate). The compassion and understanding Caroline shows to Nick who verbally is abusive, exasperated me as he spends the majority of the book being kept in the dark about his cousin’s violent behaviour so he believes he is right in avenging his cousin.

As the story progresses you find out that Nick and Caroline had a happy friendship in the past and it isn’t until well into the book that you find out that this had changed when Nick kissed Caroline before she had left his cousin. This brought a new complication into their story. Caroline, who refuses to be dominated by Nick, has a moment of realisation that Nick is angry more at himself for he feels guilt for their kiss so long ago and he feels that she too should be filled with guilt. Nick feels he betrayed his cousin but Caroline does not feel that she betrayed her husband by kissing Nick as she had already mentally left the relationship. Nick was on his own with his guilt. When Nick finally discovers that his cousin had been abusive to Caroline he is remorseful and begs for Caroline’s forgiveness. We finally get a slight glimpse of the happy man that Caroline had considered her friend many years earlier. I was particularly taken by Caroline’s unapologetic lack of guilt about a joyful kiss shared while she was still married and the complex ways that people can escape relationships.

Settings are always important in Charlotte Lamb novels with characters communing with the land whether they are in a city or countryside setting and this book is a fine example of her sense of place. The settings of both London, where Caroline had escaped to hide from her husband, and the small Yorkshire village of Skeldale in the moors set the mood and pace. The manor home setting is rather gothic and reminiscent of Wuthering Heights particularly the dark and near fateful walk (and ultimately the catalyst to Nick discovering the truth) that Caroline takes through the moors. Helen talks on and on about the coldness of London and how people don’t know each other there, but as a reader you are keenly aware that in London Caroline’s neighbours had looked out for her and her daughter. Her neighbours had heard noises and called Caroline to check on her when Nick first turned up all angry and menacing whereas no neighbour helped Caroline out when she was being beaten by her husband in her “safe” village, not even Helen who lived with the young couple stood up for Caroline, instead begging her to not bring shame on the family by letting anyone know. This insistence on keeping up appearances upset Caroline but she concedes to the needs of her ailing mother-in-law. Caroline also thinks back to her early marriage (she was 17 and Peter only a few years older) and questions whether this brought her husband Peter to his alcoholism (along with his father’s abuse) and ponders “They had been too young to know what they were doing….he hadn’t been old enough to face the responsibilities of marriage…the strain had cracked him apart”. Lamb’s own questioning of this societal questioning gleans through in many of her books. Further in the book Caroline despairs at constantly being brought down and just wants to escape “male violence”.

I feel as though my desciption of this book is a bit fractured. There were so many different elements I wanted to explore. Domestic violence is a topic that even now does not get addressed much in romance novels. I feel that Lamb only makes a surface exploration of this topic and I felt rather uncomfortable with the “hero” (I use quotation marks because he is not at all heroic) and wish that Caroline had found a nicer man for herself. But perhaps she saw still remembered the lovely Nick that she knew before their kiss and is able to tolerate him. Who knows.

I did feel that Caroline had agency from the beginning of this book, as a woman who walked out on her abusive husband. Though she concedes to Nick’s angry demands, she does so on her terms. At the end of the book, Nick asks Caroline to marry him twice. The first time she refuses him and the second time she deflects his question, she puts him off. As happy as she is to accept his love declaration (and to make her own) she does not commit herself to him. Caroline lives life on her terms.

I own this book. I bought it in a secondhand bookshop on the Isle of Wight.


6 thoughts on “Heartbreaker: A TBR Challenge Review

  1. So they aren’t engaged and/or married at the end of the book? Interesting….

    Actually this whole story sounds rather interesting. I think ultimately I would be so frustrated by the “hero,” that it wouldn’t work for me on a romance level – but the abusive first marriage, the heroine leaving her husband, the relationship with her mother-in-law – very intriguing wrapped up in the package of a category romance published in the early 1980s.

    That’s actually what I love most about reading old categories. That glimpse into a not-so-distant past and what women’s lives, hopes, dreams were. I remember the 80s, but I wasn’t an adult – so getting these tiny glimpses into “adult lives” from that era is fascinating for me.

    • I agree with you. Charlotte Lamb certainly used her romances to make social commentary. I also like the glimpse into fashion. The doctor friend in this book sports a flashy velvet dinner jacket.

  2. I’m with Wendy: I love reading old categories. (Though not terribly old, Early’s MR. FAMILY was one of my favourite romances last year.)

    I’m fascinated by this unusual ending. I’m glad it’s there: I tried to read a Charlotte Lamb this month, but had to DNF it. The hero was mercurially awful. He’d be wonderful in one scene and then he’d do something utterly unacceptable. I felt like I was on a reader roller-coaster. When he slapped the heroine and called her a “bitch,” I slapped that baby shut. No. Can. Do. Event though the writing was terrific.

    • I remember being at church (I was maybe 14) when a 16 year old friend was going on about her boyfriend that had slapped her. I was horrified but she seemed to feel it was her lot. I read those romances more in the vein of “A Cautionary tale”. Not a romance story I adore, but sadly a torrid, horrid romance story that has happened. HFN hopefully until they realise they don’t need to stick with the guy.

  3. I was 22 in 1981 so this is my world at the cusp of changes for women that we are still struggling through. Reading Charlotte Lamb cracks a window open to my past – literally just/figuratively as I remember my mother shutting windows so the neighbours wouldn’t hear my Dad going off.

    • After I wrote my review I went searching for an image and found a number of clueless reviews stating that “no-one would stay in a violent relationship”. I didn’t know whether to be pleased for their reality or upset that they had no idea about the shame and hiding that was/is typical for women. I had girlfriends who hid their dad’s abuse. Lots of walking into doors or car accidents seemed to happen 😦

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