💙 I read this for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2018 Reading Challenge, for the category of: Regency Romance. For more info on this challenge, click here. 💙
Ladies and gentleman, I present you with "You're not like other women": the novel edition.
Yes, THE BARGAIN is another "stealth read" that I didn't post any status updates for (even though at times, I desperately wanted to). My brother bought it for me for Christmas and it's been chilling in my purse for the last week or so, keeping me entertained on my lunch breaks and while on public transportation, albeit probably not in the way it was meant to "entertain," because I spent a pretty big portion of this book giggling or staring incredulously, because WTF.
There are two kinds of vintage romance novels, okay? There are the kinds that tell good stories and keep you engrossed, like the kinds written by V.C. Andrews or Rosemary Rogers, and then there are the kinds that are truly awful and don't hold up at all, and their only redeeming value is making fun of them, a la MST3K, like Georgina Gentry, Janelle Taylor, and, well, Veronica Sattler, apparently.
THE BARGAIN starts off promisingly, in the vein of unapologetic bodice-rippery. When Brett's father dies in a carriage accident with his step-mother, his grandfather, the Duke of Ravensford, takes this as an opportunity to proselytize on why Women Are the Root of All Evil. His goal is to make Brett even more attractive and successful, all the while imbuing him with a most rare and carefully cultivated vintage of misogyny that basically says that women are only good for begetting heirs. Brett takes his grandfather's lessons to heart, and becomes exactly the kind of warped, cold-hearted d-bag you'd expect, but when his grandfather sees him again as an adult, Brett's reluctance to "settle down" makes him fear that he was too successful and that Brett has remained a virgin all these years (little does he know that Brett is actually a user of women who sees marriage as the end to his fun). Thinking that Brett is a virgin, he engages the family lawyer to procure a "clean whore" for his son to teach him the rites of manhood in order to prepare him for the marriage bed.
Cut to the (virginal) heroine, Ashleigh, whose parents perished in a fire when she was young. (Spoiler: she's actually the daughter of a baron or something.) She's been living in a whorehouse as the servant, although the madam has been planning on selling her maidenhead to a top bidder. Fate intervenes in the form of the Whore With the Heart O' Gold stereotype, Megan, who threatens to leave if the madam goes on with her plan, so the madam relents and makes arrangements to send Ashleigh off as a governess to a doddering old dude with two young daughters. But Ashleigh has an enemy at the whorehouse, in a woman named Monica who sees Ashleigh's beauty as a threat to her wellbeing (because obviously). She comes across the letter for Ashleigh's governess job and also the Duke of Ravensford's lawyer's letter requesting a clean whore and gets an evil idea: what if she took the cushy governess job and Ashleigh got to be sent off as the whore? LOLZ!
So Ashleigh arrives at Ravensford Manor and immediately realizes there's been a terrible mistake when she finds her "charge" is actually a fully-grown man. She makes the obligatory protests. He ignores them all and rapes her, and yes, it is rape. Like, unambiguous rape. He realizes there's been a mistake when he finds out that she was a virgin this whole time, and ends up deciding to keep her on as his mistress while telling the rest of the world that she's his ward. As it turns out, Brett's biffle, Patrick, is actually Ashleigh's long-lost brother and when he finds out that the virgin his friend has been gloating about is actually his sister, it's bros before hos, family edition, and Patrick beats and browbeats Brett into marrying Ashleigh, much to the chagrin of Brett's would-be fiancee, Elizabeth, and evil aunt Margaret.
Here's where the story gets really extra annoying. Brett never really learns a lesson. His rape gets him the woman he wants, and every time she runs away he hurts and threatens her, ties her up and steals away her clothes, insults her, and treats her like garbage. Eventually, he softens towards Ashleigh and says that she's changed him (gag) but it's clear that this hasn't extended towards other women, based on what he says about Elizabeth and Margaret. Ashleigh has simply become the "exception" to the rule, and while he's put her on a pedestal for the moment, she could come crashing down at any time. It serves as an incredibly gross and disgusting allegory for "nice guys" who have very specific ideas as to what women should be like, and how quick they are to anger when women refuse to adhere to their idealized templates of femininity and womanhood. I certainly don't think it's a coincidence that the villanized Elizabeth is frigid, that the vast majority of his bed partners before Ashleigh were promiscuous, that his aunt is a spinster, and that he doesn't realize he's fallen in love with his wife until he realizes that she's pregnant and, yes, still gorgeous before and after the pregnancy.
And this book is truly gross when it comes to beauty standards. Oh, Brett tries to sell her the "I fell in love with your personality" line but it's clear that's not the case with lines like these:
"If a man has an exquisite gem, a sapphire, let us say -" he was looking directly into her blue, blue eyes as he spoke " - and he takes it to a goldsmith to have it mounted into a ring, perhaps, or worked into a pendant, is the value of the stone diminished or enhanced by the setting? The answer is no, for the stone will always be the stone it is, beautiful in its own right. The setting merely makes it possible for others to admire it, something which would not happen if it were locked away in a box or drawer somewhere, where it could not catch the light and dazzle the onlooker with its loveliness." His eyes flickered wonderingly over her upturned face. "No, Ashleigh, I was helping nothing along that day, but merely playing humble goldsmith to your beauty's jewels" (177).
Here was beauty from an inner light - the loveliness of child-just-become-woman, of the spring of life in its freshness and goodness and, yes, innocence, in the best sense of the term. Here was a female who, even in her waking hours lost none of the qualities he viewed now. Here was no trick of features temporarily released in slumber, only to revert to the artful poses of the real world when she awakened, as he'd had occasion to witness countless times in the women he'd bedded. Ashleigh Sinclair was totally different from all the other women he'd known (265).
Read: "She looks hot without makeup, unlike those other fakey fakers."
"You were - ARE - different from any woman I've ever known, Ashleigh" (426).
Read: "Dat ass." P.S. He refers to his rape of her as "the awkward circumstances, we are both acquainted with." WOW, UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE [BLEEPING] CENTURY, you prick!
How had it happened? How had he gone beyond seeing her as a potentially threatening female, to regarding her as a separate human being with a host of traits he'd come to admire and respect and cherish? (449)
Read: "Wow! You mean women are people, too? Thank you for acting as the vehicle on my journey as a cis-het white male to learn that I'm not the only one with special, special feelings!"
Also, he's immediately mean to her on the two or three occasions that she runs from him even though the first time was because he RAPED her, the second was because his ex-fiancee tells her that he's got side-women and isn't going to respect her once they're married (and towards the end of the book he gives Ashleigh this touching speech about how he would have cheated on that unhot, frigid b-witch Elizabeth, he would never cheat on her because she's smokin' and how honored she should be!), and the third time is because Margaret, the aunt, tells Ashleigh he plans to divorce her. Does he let her explain? No, instead we get lines like this: "Stay there, you bitch, for that's where you belong - on the floor with the other dogs!" (324). Where the floor is the setting to her beauty's jewels, I guess!
And I feel like Ashleigh knows on some level that Brett hasn't completely changed, because when they have sex post-pregnancy, her first thought is that she isn't attractive enough:
"Do...do I please you, Brett?" she whispered worriedly. She was aware, if only from alterations Madame Gautier had had to make in her measurements, that her figure had altered since childbirth, and she was suddenly afraid he would find her less attractive (474).
This a pregnancy that nearly killed her, BTW. And she had to give birth on a ship.
But no, her first concern is OH NOEZ MY ADOLESCENT HOT BOD!!!!
*empties out barf bucket, barfs again*
Oh, and the sex scenes are bad, too.
The throbbing vortex at her center drew Ashleigh spiraling upward until she felt herself teetering at the brink of something wonderful and unknown, and then she found it. Great, searing spasms of pleasure began to rock her very being, binding her mind and body in a cataclysm of sensation. Upward, far into the heavens she soared with it, giving herself to it completely, giving herself up to the man who took her there (290).
I think "soar" was a mandatory word in 1980s sex scenes.
His fingers went to the top of a silk stocking and he began to bare her leg, bending to plant feather-light kisses along the exposed flesh until the silk fell away and he was tasting the delicious curves of her toes, sucking on them, slipping between them with his tongue.
The sensation was unlike any she'd ever felt. Her body tingled in a thousand places, but all joined to drive a burning message to the core of her femininity where she felt moisture gathering, making her ready for him (485).
Read: Toe-sucking gives you vaginal Howlers.
Oh, and you know how "magical hoohahs" are totally a trope? Ashleigh literally has one:
He drew her nipple into his mouth, right through the damp material, while his hand found her woman's place and slowly, inexorably, made it magic (493).
SHE LITERALLY HAS A MAGIC VAGINA.
Just in case you had any doubts that Brett loves Ashleigh for her "personality":
She lay there with her magnificent ebony tresses charmingly touseled, her rosy lips barely parted with quiet breathing, her creamy skin lightly flushed, looking for all the world like an elfin princess sent to show mortals how short of beauty's mark they fell (515).
Read: "Yeah, babe, I totally love you for your hot, thrusting, rosy personalities. All two of them!"
Also, terrible Italian accents written out phonetically FTW:
"Signore Capetti says he's-a weesh to-a see la duchessa piccola and-a da bambini on-a da beeg-a sheep. He's-a say he's-a alraddy examine da bambini on-a dees sheep, and-a dey varry good" (426).
I'm really annoyed, because this book made it sound like I was going to get a hot story about a depraved and debauched duke who lives a life of darkness and slowly falls in love with the woman he captured, the one who made his collection of women complete, according to the back jacket of my edition. But no, instead I get the regency equivalent of a man-child struggling to rectify his mommy issues by treating women like garbage, who lives by his madonna/whore complex like it's his own personal bible (and indeed, he even refers to Ashleigh as the madonna at one point, making this extra squicky). The book wants to be dark, but it also wants to be romantic and funny, so while this psychodrama is playing out, we have the comic relief/ex-whore Megan and her romance with Patrick, and two animals: a dog named Finn, and a pet pig named Lady Dimples, who is trained as a thespian and at one point wears women's clothes (and if you think that this pig in drag isn't, at one point, mistaken for a human woman, pull up a seat because you must be new here). The uneven tone, spinelessness of the heroine, and incredibly disturbing romance make this an icky, gross book that left me feeling like I'd rolled in a pool of gelatinous ooze. I seriously wanted to shower afterwards.
You're probably asking why I kept reading. Well, here's the thing about bad books. It can be like Alice in Wonderland: you want to go down that rabbit hole, you want to see how far down it goes. And sometimes, by the time you decide you no longer want to be party to the insane events happening down below, you find yourself unable to leave. That's what happened here. By the time I realized that this was a book without any sort of redeeming characteristics, I was nearly finished with it, and I decided to see this sucker to the end. At the very least, I thought, I could write a funny review for the book that would make others laugh while also showing my frustration with the book's characters and tropes. And you know what? I actually had a good time doing that. The book was so bad it was almost funny, and showcased so many problematic tropes about men who consider themselves "nice" but are actually anything but that it almost felt like a very dark satire (and maybe it was? who knows what was going on in the mind of the author). We've all seen men like Brett, who think women are garbage in order to protect themselves, because they have so many issues with autonomous, independent women, that misogyny becomes a protective shield behind which they cower from emotional intimacy and a fear of being hurt. Brett is the Everydouche.
And I am the Everysucker for reading this.
1 out of 5 stars