I was a voracious reader as a kid and started reading books for adults at an inappropriately young age. A Pirate’s Love by Johanna Lindsey came out before I was born, so I know I didn’t start reading it that early, but the copy that came into my hands was definitely not something I should’ve been reading.
Since it was the first romance novel I read and I still love the genre, it’s not surprising that I enjoyed my first taste. Tristan was the first alpha male asshole (or alpha-hole) that had me sighing in longing. My enduring fascination with pirates and the Caribbean was probably sparked in part by this book. Johanna Lindsey is a talented, prolific writer, so surely this was a great book, right?
Trying to remember how I viewed it at the time, I remember thinking that Tristan was an asshole and being horrified by some of the stuff he did, but I don’t remember it ruining my enjoyment of the book. I just wished he’d be nice to Bettina so they could live happily ever after. Ugh.
So in the interest of destroying my childhood memories, I’m rereading the book. Come, join in my disillusionment! First of all, the description used for the newest edition of the book doesn’t match the original back cover. Here’s what it says now:
Sailing westward toward the Caribbean sun, young Bettina Verlaine obediently sets out to fulfill the promise made by her father–but not by her heart–a prearranged marriage destined not to be…once the notorious Captain Tristan’s pirate ship appears on the horizon.
Abducted by the bold and handsome brigand, the pale-haired beauty surrenders her innocence in the warm caress of the tropical winds–detesting her virile captor for enslaving her. . .yet loving him for the passionate spell he casts over fragile, yearning heart.
And here’s what the original edition says:
With languid tropic breezes caressing her breathtakingly beautiful face, Bettina Verlaine stood before the mast, sailing westward to fulfil a promise her heart never made–marriage to a Count her eyes had never beheld.
Then in a moment of swashbuckling courage, the pirate Tristan swept her away and the spell of his passion was cast over her heart forever.
But many days–and fiery nights–must pass before their love could flower into that fragile blossom a woman gives to only one man.
Both descriptions make things sound sexy and seductive, though. How does it start?
The book opens with Bettina called to the drawing room of her father. She already knows that it’s going to be about her getting married, because she’s at the ripe old age of nineteen and most young women of her station are married off by fourteen or fifteen, but her father has been very strange in not getting her married sooner. Not true. Even among nobility, getting married in your early teens just wasn’t the norm. GOOD NEWS, HISTORICAL ROMANCE AUTHORS: You don’t have to tie yourself in knots to explain why you’re writing about an actual adult heroine.
The point of view in this first scene shifts between Bettina and her mother Jossel without warning, which few publishing houses would tolerate these days. Her mother is upset and doesn’t want Bettina sent away to get married, but Bettina is resigned. This is just how things are in 1667 and they’ll remain that way probably forever. (“Ho, ho,” I imagine the liberated women of ’78 chortling.) Here we get a bit of Bettina’s personality:
“Yes, Papa,” Bettina said quietly, amazed at her own self-control.
“You will leave in a month. This will not give you much time to make your trousseau, so I will hire dressmakers to help you. Comte de Lambert resides on Saint Martin, an island in the Caribbean, so you will travel by ship. Unfortunately, it will be a long and tedious voyage. Madeleine, your old nurse, will go with you as chaperone and companion.”
“Why must I go so far away?” Bettina exploded. “Surely there must be someone here in France I could marry.”
“By the Blessed Virgin!” Andre shouted, his otherwise milky complexion turning quite red. He stood up and glared at his wife. “I sent her to that convent to learn obedience! But all those years were wasted, I can see. She still questions my authority.”
“If you would only take her wishes into consideration, Andre. Is that too much to ask?” Jossel ventured.
“Her wishes are of no concern, madame,” said Andre. “And I will not stand for any more of your opposition. The betrothal has been arranged and cannot be undone. Bettina will marry Comte Pierre de Lambert. I pray God he can curb her defiance where I have failed!”
Bettina bristled. Did her father always have to talk as if she were not even present, as if she were of no consequence at all? She loved her father, but sometimes—in fact, most times—he made her so mad she could scream.
“May I be excused now, Papa?” she asked.
“Yes, yes,” he replied irritably. “You have been told all that you need to know.”
WHAT KIND OF ASSHOLE CALLS HIS WIFE “MADAME”???
Andre the Asshole, that’s who.
There’s a lot of exposition here (we know where she’s going, we know where she’s leaving, and we know who is going with her and what their relationship is), but it doesn’t feel very natural on first read. But then as the chapter goes on, it becomes clear that some of the unnaturalness has to be due to her father’s utter detachment:
But to counteract these feelings was a kind of joy—joy that she would not be completely alone on this journey. Madeleine would be with her, dear Maddy, whom she loved as much as she loved her mother.
This dude’s telling her who Madeleine is in part because he has no clue what really matters to his daughter. It’s nice and subtle and gets the point across. Until we get several paragraphs of telling instead of showing, which obliterates that subtlety:
Bettina had been a cheerful child until she began to wonder why her father didn’t love her. This weighed heavily on her young mind, and she tried desperately to gain her father’s love and approval. When she didn’t succeed and he still ignored her, she began to be troublesome, just to gain his attention. It wasn’t enough that she was showered with love by her mother and Madeleine. She had to have her father’s love, too. At her young age, she couldn’t understand why her father disliked her; she didn’t know that he had wanted a son. And a daughter was all he would ever have, for Jossel couldn’t have any more children.
So Bettina developed a temper. She began to throw tantrums, to be defiant and disrespectful. She hated her father when he sent her away to school, and continued with her troublesome ways at the convent. But after a few years she learned to accept her fate.
She realized that it was her own fault that she had been sent away. The sisters taught her to control her temper. They taught her obedience and patience. When she came home, she no longer resented her father.
Nothing had changed. Her father was still a stranger to her, but Bettina accepted this, too. She stopped feeling sorry for herself and gave up trying to win his approval. She had her mother’s love, and she had Maddy. She learned to be grateful for what she did have.
The urge to info-dump in the first chapter can be overpowering at times. I know most of my first drafts are guilty of this. This could’ve been so much stronger without these long passages where we’re told how Bettina feels instead of letting us see and feel it ourselves, though.
And that’s the end of the first chapter. Very little actually happens beyond two brief conversations and a whole lot of exposition. I’m drawn into the story, but not as well as I could be. Lindsey definitely grew a lot as a storyteller over the years. This was only her second novel published.
How could this have started better? Maybe if the story only began when Bettina is actually leaving. She could reflect on her unhappiness, perhaps argue with her father before accepting her fate. It would give a chance to illustrate their relationship and her father’s coldness, as he shows no concern over his only child sailing across the Atlantic. A lot of books being published today will have both main characters meeting in the first chapter, but I’m all right with a slightly slower start than that. The protagonists will fall in love and all, sure, but they’re both separate people and I don’t think it’s terrible to give them each a little time on their own.
So far, I can see why I enjoyed the book, especially as a kid. A beautiful young woman who feels unloved by a parent and abandoned is basically the Disney princess template. A bit chilling to consider: repressing her anger and learning to just helplessly accept whatever cruelty she receives from the men in her life sets her up as someone who’ll have a hard time escaping abuse. I’m genuinely enjoying the book, though, which is a pleasant surprise. I’d really worried I wouldn’t. Of course, I haven’t gotten to Tristan yet…
On Monday I’ll start chapter two.