When it comes to Sheikhs in romance fiction I feel like that lone child at a birthday party, quietly whispering “I don’t like clowns” while all the other kids are keenly anticipating fun and laughter until that horror moment when the screen door slams open and a Margo Lanagan-esque Barry the Boisterous Bastard Clown blasts into the party thunderously shouting “Who’s ready to bust this partaaayyyy up” triggering tears from all the kids bar one jumping up and down shouting “More More More”.
[added after I received the first comment] Let me articulate that I am not scared of clowns. I want them to be funny. However, they are either failed slapstick AKA Fozzie Bear funny or downright creepy but rarely do they amuse me. The same goes with sheikhs. I want to like their stories. However, I want their culture to be a little bit more realistic and not whitewashed with western sensibilities. With alll due respect to authors who work hard researching their books, I have yet to find a Sheikh romance that culturally does not discomfort me through what is left unsaid. Lynne Graham has possibly achieved this with this book better than meagre few I have read for reasons outline below.
So it was with trepidation that I picked up this latest Lynne Graham novel. It had the makings of some of my favourite romance tropes:
Autobuy author – Lynne Graham tick
Billionaire – our hero tick
Secret marriage – tick
Secret babies (plural!) – tick tick!
But then there are a few not so favourite romance tropes:
Sheikhs – *sob*
Made up kingdom – *sob*
Man with a ponytail – *whimper*
All this from just the cover and blurb! However, Miss Bates reviewed this book over on her blog (which I have yet to read). The last time the two of us reviewed the same book we used the same quote. So, it is game on!
Twin royal heirs! Prince Jaul of Marwan’s royal duty is to marry a suitable bride. But first he must divorce the woman who betrayed him. Locating his estranged wife? Easy. The intense passion still burning between them? Manageable. Discovering he has two royal heirs? Impossible! Devastated when her handsome prince deserted her, Chrissie Whitaker’s beautiful twin babies were the only balm to her broken heart. Now Jaul will stop at nothing to claim his legitimate heirs, but can Chrissie forget their painful past and recognize him as her husband in every sense of the word?
Chrissie Whitaker is the younger sister of Lizzie who married billionaire Cesare. One small detail when I have to contend with a whole made up white-washed Middle Eastern kingdom called Marwani. *sigh* Why is it that the whole of Romancelandia can adore those Greek, Russian, Italian billonaires but you never hear of the Egyptian’s Secret Babies, or the Arabian’s Billionaire Bride? If we are going to be vague about borders why don’t we just say the European’s Hot Night with Consequences. The men from the middle East deserve established countries, dammit! *rant rant*
…but let me return to Chrissie.
We meet Jaul overlooking his kingdom, trying to decide who will be his prospective bride. His legion of carers clear their throat and mention to him that he must divorce his first wife. Jaul is surprised as he was under the impression that his quickie hide-away marriage while he was sowing his wild oats at university in the UK had been deemed illegal/invalid in his country. But nope – Jaul’s recently deceased daddy had just said that in a show of despotic control over his only son. Jaul wastes no time returning to the UK to demand a divorce from the woman he married two years earlier.
Chrissie Whitaker meanwhile hates Jaul. They met at university several years before the time of the novel. Here Jaul finds his first freedom from his father and his conservative country, he appears to Chrissie as a womaniser who has just wined and dined and slept with her consenting roommate on a one-night stand. Over several years while they are students they develop a friendship but ultimately they are obsessed with each other. They marry in his country’s embassy but Jaul wants to tell his father first and then send for Chrissie to join him. Unfortunately, while in his country, he falls victim to a bombing near the border and is in a coma for many months. During those months, Chrissie tries to desperately contact Jaul to let him know she was pregnant but instead is abused by his father and told that she was a silly Western fling.
Chrissie is a bit of a self-flagellator, as she does not reveal to any of her family that she had married, and indeed faces her father’s censure of her as a single mother. I love this exchange between her sister and brother-in-law:
Cesare stopped dead to skim her an incredulous glance. ‘You were married to the twins’ father?’
‘My goodness, I certainly didn’t see that coming! Married!’ Lizzie admitted in shock
So shock nowadays comes from having a child in wedlock. Though, later in the book Chrissie, distraught at Jaul’s father’s machinations in keeping the two of them apart points out “Now my family may not be from a culturally conservative place as sensitive as Marwan but my father didn’t speak to me for over six months once he realized that I was pregnant and unmarried because he was ashamed and embarrassed-‘”
Discussion of culture in this book is always in the background, and though it did jar me, it was not as bad as I expected.
At one point, Jaul’s bodyguards from his country are upset when they hear Chrissie shouting at their King and come to his protection, Jaul observing “his highly anxious protection squad had heard her shout when nobody shouted at him and had feared that some sort of a dangerous incident was developing. But they were nervous and on edge, having never been abroad before and London was a very scary place as far as they were concerned.” Let’s give a nod to Ms Graham’s acknowledgement that fear of other cultures goes both ways. Lynne Graham also has Jaul praying with an Imam before his (re)marriage to Chrissie in what, for me (and let’s not forget I don’t ready many sheikh novels) is a first. I also like that there is no false justification or rationalisation in Jaul’s focus on his son “his heir”, at no point trying to elevate equality to his daughter. Oh! And Ms Graham uses my most adored Arabic epithet habibti throughout her novel.
My conviction that Lynne Graham writes about families and place through the lens of romance is further cemented with this book. Chrissie was a victim of child abuse from her mother’s subsequent husbands. This was only lightly touched upon beyond through a revelation to an understanding Jaul. My feeling is that this theme will continue to emerge in the coming years through more of Ms Graham’s ouevre. To add to that, Chrissie learns that Jaul’s father was controlling with a terrible temper. At first, Chrissie remains angry at Jaul believing his father’s lies about her but then realises that “she needed to remember how newly married they had been and how vulnerable such ties could be in any untried relationship. Did she now punish him for his father’s sins? Did she hold him to blame for having wanted to love and trust his only surviving parent? Although both Chrissie’s parents had hurt her and held views contrary to her own, she still loved them. She, more than anyone, should understand how basic and strong ran the need to love and trust a parent, she reasoned painfully.”
Jaul and Chrissie find their affection back to each other through their sexual attraction to each other, Jaul observing “Where once it [the amazing sex] had been the icing on the cake, now it was the only glue likely to give them a future as a couple.” And truly, each sex scene acts to bring them closer to reconciliation, not as some powerful wang and magic hou-ha action, but in that it is during their post-coital discussions, some of them rather heated and angry, that they were most comfortable in revealing their vulnerabilities.
Jaul eventually realises that he was too manipulative. But when it comes to the time for his whole hearted apology, the romance reader receives a meta-wink from Lynne Graham:
‘I’m trying to say sorry, trying to grovel but you won’t let me,’ Jaul muttered unevenly, his eyes suspiciously bright.
‘I don’t want you grovelling. I don’t want your guilt-‘
Chrissie is a star. A heroine who doesn’t need her hero grovelling. She just needs him alongside her.
I’d like to say that I fell in love with this book but sadly, I did not. There are aspects of it that I really did enjoy but overall the book lacked the storytelling fluidity that Lynne Graham usually delivers so well. In particular, her protagonists’ head jumping seemed jolted and threw me out of the story at times though this did improve as the story moved on.
But, to quote Chrissie speaking to Jaul at the end of their story “Love makes people more forgiving and I love you an awful lot.”. Ahhh! Yes. A reader’s love, too, makes us more forgiving, and I do love Lynne Graham an awful lot.
I borrowed a copy of this book from a NSW public library.