If This Is Love, I Hate It: The Windflower, an Epic of Wonk

One of the most beloved historical romances of all time begins with the line, “Merry Patricia Wilding was sitting on a cobblestone wall, sketching three rutabagas and daydreaming about the unicorn.”

Rutabagas and unicorns. In the first sentence. Does it get any better than that?

It does.

The year is 1814, and it’s a beautiful, hot morning in the newly hatched United States. Merry is a lovely girl who has no idea she’s lovely (no one wanted to tell her — it would only go to her head). She’s the sort of girl who can sketch the world’s most phallic vegetable and not realize it:

The rutabagas weren’t coming out right. The front one had a hairy, trailing root that jutted upward at an awkwardly foreshortened angle. Though she had corrected the drawing several times, the result remained an unhappy one.

She’s also the sort of girl who can have suggestive unicorn dreams and not understand their significance. The unicorn was the imaginary playmate of her childhood years. Of late he’s become rather more . . . aggressive.

It left her dreams and hadn’t returned for years — until last night. It had burst through the window in a frightening rush of energy, glass flying everywhere, and it had reared in the corner of the room, pawing and snorting, looking bigger than it had been before, its muscles white and glistening beneath its creamy hide, its chest broad and heaving, its horn poised and thick. . . . He wants me to ride him, she had thought in her dream. Am I too afraid?

In short, Merry is exactly the sort of girl one wants to see kidnapped by pirates. Which is precisely what happens, thank goodness.

The novel is The Windflower, by Tom and Sharon Curtis, who published it in 1984 under the pen name Laura London. It’s an epic romance that puts innocent young Merry through the wringer. One night, she goes with her older brother to a seedy tavern, where she’ll have a look at a British operative so she can later wield her nimble pencil on behalf of the spy-busting purposes of the American side in the War of 1812. Next thing she knows, she’s been tied up, stuffed in an apple barrel, and carted off by two lowlifes who discuss whether they have time to stop and rape her on the way to their destination. (Lucky for Mary, they’re on the clock.)

After that, it’s pretty much all piracy, rape threats, sexual awakening, discovery of backbone, and tongue-in-cheek sexual imagery, for five hundred pages.

It’s a hell of a lot of fun.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Sharon and Tom Curtis. The first was Lightning That Lingers, a contemporary that features baby owls and a patrician stripper hero. Reading that book taught me to expect Curtis books to be offbeat, intelligent, and full of wry humor. The Windflower is all that and more. It’s a solid historical, full of fascinating detail, intentionally hilarious imagery, clever figurative language (the Curtises are masters of metaphor), and a brilliant supportive cast. It made me laugh out loud repeatedly. Take, for example, this scene, where Merry is discussing her utter ignorance of sex with a maiden aunt who, it transpires, has no better idea of what it’s all about than Merry does:

She looked everywhere in the room but at her aunt. “What do pirates do to women?”

As it happened, Aunt April was as embarrassed as Merry. She went to peer miserably out the window, as if she was afraid someone was hiding outside listening, and swallowed with difficulty, as though she had an infected throat. “One would suppose — that is –” Another swallow. “One imagines that the pirates had their way with them.”

Before she lost her nerve, Merry asked, “Which way is that?”

“A perfectly normal question for a young lady at your stage in life,” said Aunt April with the nervous certainty of one trying to remain calm in the face of all hell breaking loose. She made a great play of arranging the new window curtains, the color running high over her cheekbones.

A wayward and rather poignant thought occurred to Merry. “Don’t you know either?”

The upshot? “It seems that a man — climbs on top of a woman.” Oh, dear.

The Windflower was received with acclaim in 1984, and in 1994 it won an RWA award for Best Classic Historical Romance. It regularly appears on lists of the top 100 romance novels of all time, and when I set out to buy a copy for myself (it’s out of print, but used copies aren’t hard to find), several of my Twitter friends told me it was their favorite historical romance, subject to regular re-readings.

I can see why. But at the same time, I can’t — which makes this a difficult novel for me to gather up my thoughts about. In a way, I feel like I lack the background for it. I didn’t grow up reading the romances of the 1980s and 1990s, now so famous for their alphahole heroes and “forced seductions,” which means I don’t have any context to read this novel in but the context of present-day historical romance — and even that I only began reading this year.

I can easily imagine why The Windflower made a splash in 1984. I can even easily understand why readers love it today. But as much as I enjoyed it, I didn’t connect with it as a romance. I connected with it on every other possible level — the craft, the characters, the humor, the tone — but I cared only slightly for Merry and Devon as a romantic unit, and when they finally got together in the last 100 pages of the novel, I got bored.

Partly, this is a personal issue. I have trouble with any sort of plot that calls for the hero and heroine to be cruel to each other for hundreds of pages while simultaneously falling in love, and Devon is frequently cruel to Merry. He threatens to whip her. He threatens to rape her. He teases her and belittles her, and while they also spend a fair amount of time making out — and while he does not, in fact, ever rape her — I found it difficult to buy that this was a romance that went any deeper than lust.

Not that lust is a bad thing. I thoroughly enjoyed being a voyeur in Merry’s attraction to Devon. He is an obscenely beautiful man — so much so that none of the other pirates on the ship can understand why Merry doesn’t want to have sex with him. “Take him to bed, damn it,” her friend-slash-protector, Cat, tells her. When Merry replies, “Never. It disgusts every feeling!” Cat says, “Christsakes, are we talking about the same man? When Devon walks down the streets of Bristol, half the population has neck strain from staring at him. We’ve got practically to hire eunuchs with scimitars to get him the rest of a chaste night.”

And of course, Merry does want to have sex with him (to the extent that she even understands what sex is). He’s gorgeous, he’s sexually exciting, and he keeps kissing her. Devon is her unicorn, of course — beautiful, enticing, frightening. I get why she wants him. I just don’t get why she loves him.

Neither does she. After she spends one idyllic day with Devon, she tells Cat about it. “If this is the way love feels . . . Is it always this painful? How do people survive? You can’t imagine what it was like this afternoon — to have him hold me and whisper love words and kiss me — and then to pull away, laughing and shivering.” Cat replies, “Devon was shivering. How were you?” And Merry says, “I wanted to retch. After, he was so kind and charming — which only made it worse. If this is love, I hate it.”

It’s a beautifully done scene. All the turmoil in the middle part of the book is beautifully done. But when the turmoil ends and the romance proper begins, I just couldn’t believe in it.

I think one reason is that Devon is a bit of a cipher. The novel is written in third-person omniscient point of view, with such copious head-hopping and such similarity of mental processes between characters that I often lost track of whose brain I was supposed to be in. So we do get plenty of Devon’s point of view, but the plot requires the Curtises to withhold the details of Devon’s life — who he is, what makes him tick, what he wants — for so long that I never felt like I knew very much about him as a character. He’s gorgeous, powerful, connected to the British, and he wants Merry but doesn’t want to want her. For me, it just didn’t add up to a character I could care about.

What makes it worse is that Devon is the least interesting man on the Black Joke, the pirate ship where Merry is held captive. Several of the other pirates spend a great deal more on-page time with Merry. Pretty much all of them fall in love with her. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be funny or not, but she comes aboard the ship all aflutter with fear that the evil pirates will ravage her any moment — a fear that her captors reinforce and seem to share — but instead she wins every man on the ship over by being naive and charming, and the next thing you know she’s wearing pantaloons and climbing the rigging and swearing like a sailor. Which, okay. It’s fun, and it’s not as though I want things to be otherwise. But you end up with a book where everyone is nicer to the heroine than the hero.

Merry becomes particularly close friends with Cat, a soul-scarred, deeply guarded survivor who goes through a rather painful emotional rebirth in the process of falling in love with her. Cat takes care of her. He soothes her, he talks to her, he makes her laugh, he protects her as best he can from the captain’s machinations. I loved Cat. I wanted him to be the hero of the book. I don’t really understand why he didn’t get to be.

I think the other reason I didn’t buy the romance was that, while The Windflower in many ways winks at and transcends the genre conventions of 1980s historical romance, the one way in which it doesn’t is in its treatment of sex. The novel’s enjoyably purple prose becomes so very purple in sexual moments that I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to be laughing or lusting or some odd combination of both. Sometimes I couldn’t even figure out what was happening.

His hands moved with her trapped fists, pressing her backward into a crisply yielding mound of scarlet blossoms behind her on the limestone wall. Ruby flowers nodded against her cheeks and trembled among her curls, and the flood of scented blossoms fed over her arms. The grip of his hand faded on her wrist, and his candied touch spread slowly down her arm and became a feather stroke on her breast. The unhurried glide of his fingertips was a banquet to her senses, and yet the raking invasion of love fluids was excruciating to her delicate tissues, and there was pain in the erotic ache of her moan. His fingers abandoned her breast briefly and searched the flowers for her childish wrist, and after he had discovered her white hand, he carried it back to her breasts. Inserting his hand into the cup of her much smaller, squarer palm, he whispered, smiling, “Ah, love, you’re as dainty as a toy. Show me, Merry. Show me how you want me to touch your body.”

Could the same person who wrote about the rutabagas also have written that passage? It seems so impossible to me that I wonder if one Curtis wrote the sex parts and the other wrote the the funny bits. The novel is at times so earthy and practical, and at other times so over-the-top swoony about love, that I lost track of what I was supposed to be winking at and what I was supposed to be swept away by, and I guess the tidal wave of lust just passed right over me.

But you know what? That’s okay. While I wish I’d been able to love everything about this wonky, epic, wonderful book, it’s a good reminder to writer-me that novels don’t have to be perfect — or even anything close to perfect — in order for readers to love them.

For all its flaws, I won’t forget The Windflower, and I could never be sorry I’d read it.

Want to experience this epic of wonk for yourself? Leave a comment! I’ll mail my copy of The Windflower to one random commenter. — Updated to add, we have a winner! Ana, I’m going to shoot you an e-mail. This Windflower wonk is all yours!

About Ruthie Knox

Ruthie Knox writes witty, sexy romance novels for grownups. Read more >
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25 Responses to If This Is Love, I Hate It: The Windflower, an Epic of Wonk

  1. Oh dear, the “raking invasion of love fluids was excruciating to her delicate tissues” line is one of those that makes me think she’s picked up something nasty from one of those adoring sailors. I mean really. I’ve been as overcome by lust as the next girl in my day, but I’ve never felt that my love fluids were storming my girly castle. Besides, how can you be invaded by something your own body is excreting? Argh. Needz moar rutabagaz.

    I confess I’ve never read this one, though I know one ought to have, for research purposes and whatnot. I do love a good dubcon/alphahole piratical abduction tale, however, so maybe I’ll get around to it sooner rather than later. It seems like it’d be a fun poolside read, for vacation.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Yes. The sad thing is, “raking invasion” is a rather nice turn of phrase. It just becomes diseased and icky in that particular context.

      Definitely a grand poolside read. I read it on our camping trip, and my parents got heartily sick of my quoting all the best lines aloud. But I was clearly having more fun with my book than anyone else was.

  2. willaful says:

    “What makes it worse is that Devon is the least interesting man on the Black Joke, the pirate ship where Merry is held captive. ” Sigh, too true. What keeps it from being the perfect romance for me. She should have been with Cat or even Raven or the Captain. Still, love it. Don’t enter me, I already have two copies!

  3. Ani Gonzalez says:

    I loved this book! But not so much as an epic romance; more as a funny, entertaining read. I remember staying up all night to finish it (and I had final exam the next day).

  4. Serena Bell says:

    It’s really hard to follow Del in the comments, I’ve realized. Which argues for getting up earlier and getting in there sooner next time. Or I could just pretend I was about to refer to the book as a “dubcon/alphahole piratical abduction tale,” right before she slid in ahead of me.

    Also, in the spirit of honesty, I’m going to say that I don’t think I’m ever going to read this book. It’s not the dubcon or the alphahole or even the rutabaga. It’s the unicorn. Too pointy, and I’d spend the whole rest of my reading time picturing the hero with one of those pointy horns. If you know what I mean.

  5. I’ve unexpectedly scored a copy of To Have and to Hold already this week, so I’ll see if I can further my Acquiring Out-of-Print Classics luck.

    “Raking invasion of love fluids” is weird, but “you’re dainty as a toy” is the phrase that made me recoil. When the hero is all thrilled by the heroine’s tininess, it always has an unsavory whiff to me. Like, is he really wishing he were doing this stuff with a 12-year-old?

    And, wow, you go camping with your PARENTS? That is so cool.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Yeah, I hate that whole childlike thing. He calls her “Merry, pet,” sometimes, too, which makes me cringe. But in the grand scheme of the book, it’s ignorable.

      And yes, I *do* go camping with my parents! And my husband’s mother, too. A Memorial Day weekend tradition we’ve invented. Big fun! Mostly we sit in chairs under the trees and read Kindles while not talking to each other. It’s heavenly.

  6. Edie Danford says:

    Loved reading this so much! Thanks, Ruthie. I do have a long, storied (heh) history with reading historical romance (I actually read Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss IN the 1970s–yep, I was three, lol) but I didn’t read The Windflower until a few years ago. For some reason it had slipped by me and I didn’t “discover” it until I was doing research on Sharon and Tom Curtis after re-reading Lightning that Lingers. I adored The Windflower for the writing and, yes, the wonkiness. Dennis the pig. Cat the cabin boy. The pirates. Merry’s innocent but interestingly complex reactions to both crazy stuff and very standard stuff. But, yeah, the romance wasn’t my favorite part even though I thought it was pretty well done–I admit I dig the purple prose (*turns purple with embarrassment*).

    I am very intrigued by your statement, “In a way, I lack the background for it.” Such an interesting thing to say (and you’ll have to pardon my geekified enthusiasm because I once wrote a research paper about the contexts of reading and thus have thought thoughts that are kinda weird and tangent-y about this topic). Do you think this is a phenomenon that’s genre-specific? Is there something about romance that makes this kind of context particularly important? (A personalized *feel the love* kind of thing much different than say, being forced to read Norton’s trads of english lit before taking a class on Henry James, for example :-))

    So I do have the context, but I still pick up a lot of those old-school books today and think, ugh, this is too silly for even a fun retro-read. I had this experience recently with a historical romance author who recently self-pubbed a bunch of books I absolutely adored in high school, but I winced through them as I tried to read them last week. The characters I once loved and thought larger than life were woefully 2-d. Is it because I grew up, or because the books didn’t stand the test of time?
    I do love the idea that there are some books that can be appreciated outside of their niche-y context over time, and that there are others that sink into a rut of passe oblivion. My hypothesis is (and perhaps I’m being swayed by the context of the subject matter of this blog :-)) is that it is wonkiness that keeps a book from falling into this kind of rut. It’s the wonkiness not the lightning that lingers, lol. Beautiful and/or riveting writing is important, for sure, but it’s the stuff that’s out of the ordinary groove of the genre that makes a book a long-lasting keeper over time. For me. If Windflower was just a book about a beautiful, angsty nobleman with identity issues who doesn’t want to be tied down by a beautiful, innocent chit, then it never would have made all those top 100 lists, etc. Okay, you’ve got me rambling again. Thanks for another thought-provoking post!!
    (I have a copy of the Windflower so I don’t need to be in the running, thanks!)

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      No worries, Edie, I love a little romance lit crit! All fiction is the product of its time, of course, but perhaps in romance these shifts are more obvious. Collectively, it seems, the content of romantic fantasies tends to shift as audiences change and/or age. I read a passing comment at SmartBitches the other day that suggested one reason 80s romances were so adversarial and rapey was the Second Wave feminist context — that these adversarial male/female relationships felt real to romance readers, and their resolutions were satisfying in a way that now often seems forced.

      That got me thinking, as I read The Windflower, that I didn’t really understand the context that the Curtises wrote it in. Romance creates so many constraints, as a genre, and as a writer, I’m well aware of them while writing it. One knows when one is writing with or against the grain. And it seems obvious to me that the Curtises knew when they were writing against the grain, too, and that readers appreciated the way that The Windflower participated in a conversation with the genre of historical romance at the time. But it’s a conversation I don’t know much of anything about, so I feel as though sometimes I’m missing the joke. And reading the text only in the modern context of contemporary romance, there are aspects of it that are enduringly wonderful, and others that feel dated to me, and I’m not sure quite what to make of them.

      When it comes to reading, say, 19th-century literature, I’m much more comfortable with not having the context than I am when reading romance. So perhaps my feeling of lacking context was really about my noticing that I don’t, usually — that is, perhaps I’m noticing how deeply contextualized my reading of most romance is, most of the time.

      I do think you’re on to something in regard to the wonkiness making this book and others like it endure. What’s wonky about The Windflower would be just as wonky today as it was in 1984 — all those hilarious similes and metaphors, the unusual supporting cast, the pig — and it’s these aspects that make the novel worth reading today.

  7. L.G.C. Smith says:

    Fabulous review. I just pubbed the first of my backlist titles as an ebook, a big old western historical historical first published in 1990, and editing it was, well, interesting. Times have changed. For the most part, the story and the writing hold up well, but if I were writing that story now, the hero and heroine would have a lot more emotional depth. The heroine, especially, feels a little like a cipher to me, but I remember writing her that way on purpose. My research with readers (yes, I’m a geek, I really did research) indicated that a lot of them slotted themselves into the story in the role of the heroine. I wanted to leave room for that. I have no idea if my take was widespread or peculiar to the readers I talked to. I sure wouldn’t do it now. :)

    There was a scripted quality to sex scenes and the development of romances in many of the eighties books. I remember not taking it literally and laughing about it with my sisters, even though we loved it. LOVED it. It was silly. Fun. And still hot in a naughty, transgressive way that professional young women weren’t supposed to admit liking. A lot of the sex was really about dominance and submission play. Now that BDSM is so much more out there, it might not seem like it, but that was a huge part of the appeal of the sexuality portrayed in the big 80s romances. It was kind of a code. Readers got it. Critics didn’t. And thirty years on, it can be a little mystifying.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Fascinating! See, this is the conversation I was feeling left out of as I read the novel. I think if I’d read it in the context of five others from the era, I’d have a much better sense of how it read — and still reads — to those who put it on their “best-of” lists.

      And I see what you mean re: dominance and submission play. I felt like, in this particular novel, the hero got too “tamed” by the heroine. For three-quarters of the book, he tried to dominate her, and she resisted being dominated. Then he buckled, turned submissive, and got dull effusively loving in a way I found dull. :-)

    • willaful says:

      You know, I just read a Susan Napier from 2000, The Mistress Deception that seemed kind of in code to me… subtly fetishistic in a way I found utterly charming.

  8. Sarah Wynde says:

    I loved that book so much. It would have been my first pick as favorite romance for years. And then I re-read it after not for about ten years. And…ouch. It worked so beautifully back then but rereading it was so painful. Sometimes you can’t go back. I still have some of their regencies, though. There was one with a gypsy heroine that I just adored.

    Hmm, off to unpack some books and see if I still have any. Thanks so much for the review of this — it was a great reminder and I was also really glad to see someone else having mixed feelings about the book. SB had a comment thread in which its name came up a lot a few months ago and I couldn’t bring myself to post how much I’d disliked the main characters on re-reading.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Glad to have a partner in crime! I’ll read more of their books, I’m sure. I have one on my shelf already that involves a motorcycle-riding popular singer and a small-town girl.

      • Sarah Wynde says:

        Oh, if that was the one you were giving away, I would be desperately begging. I remember it well — and adored it! But I hate to think I might hate it now.

  9. Amber says:

    LOL, I think I enjoyed your breakdown of the opening more than if I had read it myself — so full of win. Have you read Woodiwiss yet – A Rose in Winter? Yeah, I didn’t read them as they came out either and it requires a certain headspace to appreciate the classics, but they are fun.

    As we’ve discussed before, it also opens up the possibilities, because sometimes we are less permissive now than we were before. This wonk has been done before!

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Haven’t read Woodiwiss yet, but I did buy my first Laura Kinsale the other day, so I’m getting there. And you’re right, I think it’s good for expanding my general sense of what’s permissible!

  10. I only skimmed this to avoid spoilers, because this is in my TBR pile based on the recommendation by the gals at SBTB, but glad to know it’s wonky! I did skim enough to see that it’s dodgy on the love scenes, so will go into it with that in mind…

  11. Betty Hamilton says:

    Wow!! That sounds like a delightful read! I would so LOVE to read it. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy.