Thursday, May 9, 2013

Tempestuous Eden, by Heather Graham - Retro Review

Title: Tempestuous Eden
Author: Heather Graham
Publisher:  Open Road Media
Reviewing: 2013 e-only re-issue; advance copy from NetGalley 
Why I read it: I have loved romance novels since 1979, so the Retro Reads program sounded like a lot of fun to me.

The Short Answer 
I thought this was a fun story, but probably not for everyone.  I had a little trouble losing myself in the story because I was so "on the alert" for elements of "then versus now"-- bit of a hazard for me when I know I am reading for the purpose of writing a review.  Qualifies as an "old-skool" romance on a number of measures, but doesn't step over that alpha-hole line of true cruelty or rape.

Then and Now
I think I really need to start with this bit before I can talk about the story and what's to like.

Step into the wayback machine with me, children.  1983 was the year: hair was big, eyeshadow was blue and sparkly, and your jeans were tight enough that you might use a pair of pliers to pull the zipper up.  St. Elsewhere's was a popular hospital show, and Hill Street Blues was killing it in the drama ratings. (We also wouldn't have said "killing it."  We might've said it was "bitchin'" or "rad.")

I mention these two shows, because in my opinion, they started to raise the bar for TV realism.  Cop shows got grittier and more graphic, and hospital shows started hiring medical consultants and making the hospital more than just a setting for the drama.  This progressed on into NYPD Blue, Law and Order, and the CSI franchise for cop shows, while the hospital genre got ER, Chicago Hope, and Gray's Anatomy.

Why do I bring this up?  I was watching an episode of All My Children in the mid-90s, and Doctor Jake Martin was flashing his shiny smile in the ER when a BIG TRAUMA CASE came in.  He leapt into action!  He took vitals!  He made with the stethoscope.  He barked with great authority: "Nurse! hand me that... uh... plastic thing! Stat!"  and I couldn't help it, I rolled on the floor.  It would've been FINE in 1978.  But not in 1994.

My point is, our exposure to more realism since 1983 has raised our expectations.  We have more instant access to accurate information about, well, EVERYTHING, than anyone in 1983 dreamed of.  So for these re-issued, non-updated books, you may need to set your expectations accordingly.

OK, On to the Actual Book
Blair is an American "princess," accustomed to moving in elite social circles, who has experienced a trauma and is serving with a humanitarian outreach organization similar to the Peace Corps, in a politically unstable region of South America.

Her father, highly placed in Washington DC, gets wind of a situation that could put Blair, specifically, in danger.  We don't find out many details of this situation until the end.  He pulls some strings to make sure Craig is assigned to get Blair out, as he is "the best."  However, he is not allowed to tell her anything,  including that he works for/with her father, as those details are all classified.

So we have the setup here for a classic Big Mis, but not the kind that can/should be resolved by one character simply pulling their head out.  The Big Mis is intentionally perpetrated, and Craig knows very well it's going to blow up in his face.  

Soft Focus
In so many ways, I noticed that this story is far less specific than a more modern book.  The plot, setting, travel-- all of the action scenes, and including the love scenes, were just much... fuzzier.   The love scenes don't talk about body parts, they talk about "her body," "her limbs," and "his heat." Everything is less graphic.  Pretty much everything takes a backseat to the emotional journeys, which are conveyed in quite a few scenes of introspective, internal narration.  I thought the pivotal moments when they, separately, realized they were in love with each other seemed a little fast, and that, more than any stylistic or contextual problems, knocks it down from All Time Great to Really Good, for me.

As a military special op romance, Eden is fairly tame.  There is no graphic violence (which I rather appreciate).  Great danger is implied, and narrowly escaped, but not depicted.  Superhuman antics by Our Hero turn out to be not really all that needed.

On the other hand, the action and situation was mild and generic enough that you won't be pulled out by any obvious errors. 

The one characterization that I had trouble with is the superior attitude that the hero takes.  In a few cases, he really is laughing at her, and not especially kindly.  The superiority thing is pretty common to romance of all eras, and usually isn't a deal-breaker for me, but those couple of scenes got under my skin a little, as I feel like humiliation is harder to come back from than perhaps any other kind of give-and-take.  There is a point where she - OK, I don't think this is too spoilery - basically steals his car, and he talks about how much razzing this cost him with the guys.  Maybe if I had gotten to see this, where he'd really been humbled by her, the other bit wouldn't have rankled quite so much.  

Blair needs to overcome her fear of commitment, after losing her first husband violently.  I think her conflict and her journey is depicted clearly and believably, if a little bit thinky.  Not uncommonly, Craig is not particularly conflicted once he falls in love.  He struggles with the circumstances of his mission and knows he's going to have some 'splaining to do, but I don't think he has the internal "work" to do that Blair does.  This is pretty typical of older romances, and serves to keep the heroine as the real focus of the story.  As Jenny Crusie says in her brilliant 1998 essay, they are
stories that promised that if a woman fought for what she believed in and searched for the truth, she could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born, transformed with that new sense of self that’s the prize at the end of any quest. And when the heroine emerges transformed from the romance story, so do I.
And Blair does emerge transformed.  Don't get me wrong, I love an angsty-hero focused romance as much as the next girl, and plenty of great romances are balanced between both, but the heroine-centered romances are the core of the genre, I believe.

Things I Noticed
One of the things that struck me was the word "terrorist."  It has really come to mean something fairly specific, in the US anyway, these days.  Based on my imperfect recollection of current events of the day, it would have been more common to hear the term guerrillas or insurgents.  In Tempestuous Eden, it's used pretty generically to mean "REALLY bad guys." Come to think of it, I'm not sure it really *IS* all that different today.  But it seemed a bit of a casual usage.

The most obvious anachronism to me is that the characters smoked cigarettes all the time!  That would so not fly in a modern contemp.  Smaller things: the hero is a Vietnam vet;  Walter Cronkite and Tom Selleck got a mention.  Also I smiled a little at the character names: Blair and Craig.  Remember Blair?

Bonus: What old-skool romance would be complete without heaving bosoms?
He wanted a life with his princess, the woman who stared at him now, outraged by his behavior.  She truly was a princess tonight, an American princess, breathtakingly regal in the empire velvet, her breasts heaving slightly, intoxicatingly, with her agitation.

Are Retro Reads for You?
The slogan for this imprint is "Passion may fade; great romance lasts forever."  So does that claim hold up?

I think: absolutely.  Tempestuous Eden has all the elements of a great romance: the hero is strong, loyal, protective, and has integrity; the heroine is principled, resourceful and an emotional match for him. The markers of the 80s made me smile more than anything, and I rather appreciate that it isn't trying to masquerade anything it isn't.  Readers who need more explicit action and less introspection may not like this particular title.

As I said above, I would call this specific title Timelessly Really Good more than Timelessly Great, due to my feeling that the chemistry was just not quite nailed.

Around the Blogosphere
From the TBR Pile
Waheedaharris (can't quite tell what the name of the blog is here, but a good article)

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