Where do I even begin? I have been on a quest to find a romance novel that I could really get behind, but every time I try a title, I have usually been disappointed. This has not stopped me, however, so I continued trying.
I don’t know why I decided to purchase Indiscreet by Mary Balogh on Audible. I suppose I was getting bored by the extremely slow pace of Fellowship of the Ring, which I had been listening to, and wanted something light-hearted and frivolous. Indiscreet is also the first book of a series, The Horsemen trilogy, which is always a plus point to me.
Was Indiscreet disappointing? Yes and no. Yes, because it was pretty much submerged in every single trope and cliché of the genre. More alarmingly, it almost seemed anti-feminist in its way of handling certain issues like female consent. I have to admit I rolled my eyes tons along the way. But yet, it had to hold a certain kind of charm because I actually felt myself compelled to continue the story and to finish the book. Maybe I have a hardy stomach for some appalling anti-feminist ideas (“No” means “yes”). I can’t tell you why I managed to make my way through it, but if I find myself racing against myself to finish a book (mostly because I wanted to find out Catherine’s true background), I’ve got to give it some credit.
Needless to say, spoilers ahead.
Before I start on this huge area, I’m going to try to be fair to Mary Balogh and state that this book was published in 1997. This is nearly a decade ago, and this past decade has seen the Internet take a huge leap forward and greatly raise awareness about certain social issues around the world. So perhaps, perhaps, at the time of writing, certain mindsets which have since been attacked and weakened, had firmly been in place.
That being said, I’m going to go ahead and list down all the problematic points of this book.
Firstly, consent. When a woman says no, it means no. Whether she second-guesses herself or isn’t sure about her denial is irrelevant. Here, though, it apparently doesn’t seem to matter. Here, we are expected to give Rex, Viscount Rawleigh, credit for holding himself back from raping Catherine Winters, just because she’s oh so desirable and he’s oh so bored and needs some female company during his visit to Bodley. We are expected to find it manly and righteous that Rex takes responsibility for apparently ruining Catherine’s reputation in the village, because he had insisted on bringing her back to her house (for which he had ulterior motives though not acted upon), despite her saying no. Sure, he could’ve done much worse to Catherine, and others before him have, but that doesn’t make him a hero nor does it make him more attractive or admirable.
It was humiliating and uncomfortable to see the author take pleasure in really nailing down how helpless Catherine is when even her dog Toby, whom she had been raising and feeding since he was a puppy, is more willing to take orders from Rex than her. Also, I don’t think most dogs would behave that way. Catherine really had been “letting life happen to her”, which is fine and dandy if that’s the way she wanted it, but the few instances when she had expressed a preference of any sort, her consent or lack thereof usually gets steamrollered into oblivion by any and every male around her.
The female objectification and issue with gender roles could be disguised or explained by the Regency setting of the novel, so I could deal with that. But when it comes to consent – it’s just such a troubling issue up till today that I didn’t feel comfortable at all reading a book with a premise based on men taking a woman’s consent for granted.
Secondly, male and female promiscuity. We all know that this has always been a salient site of gender inequality throughout history. We all know that since time immemorial, it had always been more acceptable for men to sleep around, regardless of their marital status, but if a woman so much as has the tiniest blemish on her social reputation, she is as good as done with society. What I had issue with in this book, as well as countless many other romance novels, I’m sure, is that they still continue to make these “rakes” appear attractive because of their promiscuity. Every leading male character in every romance novel is either a “rake” or still somehow more sexually experienced than the female (also regardless of her virginity status). In this book, they do call attention to how unfair it is for men to get away scot-free with their philandering but women bear the brunt of the shame and consequences, but what is perplexing is that the entire premise of this book precisely does the same thing. Rex is never censured or judged for his promiscuity, and in fact still applauded and admired for it, whether by his peers or by the author, whereas Catherine is forever relegated to the side as a helpless, aimless female without the ability to have an opinion or make any kind of decision without a man’s help. There is in fact an entire passage in this book talking about how silly it was for rakes to still be so popular despite their potential for destruction and the unfairness of it all, and all I could think about during that passage was: ISN’T THAT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN TELLING US FOR THIS ENTIRE TIME?
Thirdly, the issue of rape. Yes, this book should have a trigger warning. Catherine’s past involves her rape by another rake, Copley, during her debutant Season in London, during which she got pregnant and gave birth to a baby son who only lived for three hours. Despite all this, however, Catherine is at first confused about where the blame lies. She blamed herself because she had consented to get into the carriage alone with Copley, though she is subsequently persuaded otherwise by Rex (because she needs a man to remove that burden of guilt and self-blame for her). And then despite her rape, she doesn’t seem to have any fear or phobia of the sexual act subsequently. She goes straight into lusting after Rex from the first moment she sees him, and then muses about how she’s new to these overwhelming physical desires for men (or a man, i.e. Rex, because she can’t be seen as a whore, right?) because she is no longer the innocent that she was. During their wedding night (because of course, all sexual encounters must take place within the sanctity of marriage), Catherine is a “passive lover” but she is described as having had a wonderful time and that it was an amazing night for her. How…? You would expect someone whose virginity was taken by an incident of rape would have developed a lot more emotional and mental trauma than that. It felt like the issue of rape was taken and bandied about lightly, and like just another plot device to make Catherine un-virgin, but yet also delightfully inexperienced, again via circumstances that she could not help (the female helplessness is so pervasive). If Catherine had any scars, visible or otherwise, from the incident, it was not shown at all in the book. She went immediately straight to becoming as sexual a woman as Rex could ever desire.
Physicality and Insta-lust/love
Now, don’t tell me it’s not insta-love just because they apparently hated each other from early on in their acquaintance and had to grow into loving each other. From the first moment of their acquaintance, Rex and Catherine have been lusting for each other in a way that was almost embarrassing. Their emotions also go through this unexplainable rollercoaster. One moment, Rex cares enough for her to rush back to Bodley when he discovers he had accidentally ruined her reputation in the village. The next moment, he keeps declaring that he didn’t want to get married to her in the first place (even though he had already offered it a few nights before when he wanted to bed her) and was just doing the honourable thing to salvage her rep. One moment, Catherine does not want to marry Rex because she was apparently done with men and marriage. The next moment, she cries herself to sleep after their wedding night because she’s upset that he only wants her body. What on earth is going on here?! The emotions were all over the place and inconsistent from one moment to the next.
Perhaps I am expecting too much, but I disliked how so many pages and so much verbiage was poured into detailing every single groin-heating, heart-fluttering moment of their physical attraction towards each other from the start, but yet their journey from apparent hate to love was cut short into a few brief lines to summarize how well they could converse with each other on intellectual topics. At one point, Rex muses on how Catherine isn’t a woman to bed for one night, but a woman to accompany him for life, but I couldn’t understand how he came to that conclusion. All we could see her do was talk politely to the housekeeper and ask to be introduced to the female servants, a gesture that was apparently enough to win her the approval and admiration of the household staff. There is literally no intellectual conversation going on in this book that we can see. There is no visible build-up to Rex and Catherine’s affectionate relationship. From where I am as a reader, it just seems that marriage and sex were the only ingredients they needed to reverse their feelings for each other, which is so eye-rollingly incomprehensible to me.
Even more eye-rollingly incomprehensible was when Rex offered to marry Catherine after ruining her reputation in the village, and Catherine’s first response was “No, take me as your mistress, I don’t want to marry you”. What?! Why on earth would Catherine want to be his mistress? Was it supposed to show that she was at the end of her tether and didn’t know where else to go besides being his mistress? That she was desperate enough that she was willing to essentially sell her body for a roof over her head? And then Rex, who had already declared that he didn’t want to marry her at all, didn’t take her up on that offer and instead insisted that she marry him – even though before and after this whole exchange, he continued musing on how he hadn’t wanted to marry her at all, and he only did so because it was the right thing to do.
Honestly, I never found Rex admirable or swoon-worthy. I also found Catherine vapid and helpless as always. I found Mrs Adams’s viciousness lacking. I found Mr Adams almost entirely redundant throughout the story besides a few salient points here and there. Although I have to say, at least Mr and Mrs Adams had some form of character growth and development in the book. Rex remains Rex and Catherine remains Catherine throughout, annoyingly so. Almost all the characters were flat and lacked depth.
I guess my favourite character is Toby the dog.
There were a lot of stomach-turning and infuriating moments in this book, probably almost to put me off the romance genre but I will persevere. Perhaps I am being optimistic but one of the next titles on my list will be more recent titles by some renowned romance writers, written post-2010. I hope that there will be a better handling of the social issues as described above, and that it’ll make for a better read. Maybe.
Also, Mary Balogh’s romances are one of the easiest to get into primarily because her book covers tend not to be the sleazy types with a half-naked man and a scantily clad woman in varying states of undress on the cover, which can be very embarrassing to hold and read, whether it’s at home or outside in public.