Oh crap. It's arrived.
Warning: There are a ton a spoilers, cussing and general and specific rage all over this review. If you don't like that sort of thing, you should move it along. I'm not going to hit the spoiler box because I'm evil.
I'm going to try very hard not to have this review devolve into a bunch of semi-coherent screaming and cussing, but it's going to be hard, and I may have to fortify myself with serious drinking and and Tai Chi or something, and those two things really don't mix well. About halfway through my read, I had a conversation with my husband about the movie “Cutthroat Island”, which I love. It's not a good movie by any stretch, but it's unreality has several things going for it. While it's totally hiztorical, yo, everything built in the 1600s, or whenever it's supposed to be taking place, has been soaked in kerosene, so that when you have a cart-chase, and the cart flips at the end, it immediately bursts into flame, like a car rolling down a hill in a 70s movie. A bar brawl ends in towering explosions. Fire GOOD. Geena Davis makes a good piratess, because she's tall, and really looks like she could take a guy down. Plus she's got dimples. Frank Langella, who is one of my favoritist character actors, is one of the baddies, and he's got this great spray-tan and is clearly having the time of his life growling and being eeeeeevvvilll. Matthew Modine, who is supposedly the love interest is almost perversely unsexy though, and looks as though Geena Davis could snap him like a twig and then floss with him. On the face of it, Skye O'Malley
is like a chick-lit “Cutthroat Island”, I say to Richard. There's amnesia, and pirates, and sailing all over creation. Oh, he says, so what you're saying is that this is “Cutthroat Island” with rape scenes?
Ha ha! I said, and stupidly read on. Now that I've finished reading this book, I can state emphatically that no, it's not “Cutthroat Island” with rape scenes. Rape would have been an addition to Cutthroat, here it entirely fuels the plot, entirely, not in a Ya-Ya Sisterhood kind of way, where some long-ago rape is seen as a bs reason for the disconnect between mother and daughter or whatever – I've never read Ya-Ya, so I'm going on hearsay right now – spoilers, maybe, I could be wrong – rape is the motivation & action of the entire book. There's not one instance in SO'M where Skye isn't under duress in some way or another, what changes is only whether Skye minds or not, or if the person being raped is Skye or not.
I will give this to the author of Skye O'Malley: she doesn't skimp. I get the impression that a lot of romance novels are written really quickly, with a word count in mind, with a single romantic couple and their [b:Pride and Prejudice|1885|Pride and Prejudice|Jane Austen|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320399351s/1885.jpg|3060926]-like problems working out. Meet cute, attraction, complicating action, followed by resolution. This could easily be three books: Skye in Ireland, then Skye in Algiers, then Skye in England. The first two stories follow the above trajectory, but the last does not, sort of, but I'll try to get back to that later. The first section was probably the most interesting to me because it – probably unwittingly – shows how strongly the romance novel is related to the Romantic Gothic novel - the Gothic about the menace of the domestic – occurring in remote locales, with few options for escape, and a creeping dread embodied in the very walls.
If one wanted to get all feminist criticism on this stuff, one could note that there's a coded subversiveness in these fictions. Catherine & Heathcliff's hatecast in [b:Wuthering Heights|6185|Wuthering Heights|Emily Brontë|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348940572s/6185.jpg|1565818] can be read as a rage against enforced domesticity, about how the social expectations of femininity straight-jacket the crap out of both men and women. There's some of that here, if you read against the grain. Skye is married off to a jackhole who rapes her copiously, and she is enraged by how she is treated as chattel, and even uses the word a couple of times. And then, this is the really great part, she has a truelove in the form of Niall Burke, who invokes droit de seigneur
– which is not a real legal idea now or ever, as I'm informed by the Lords of Wiki, so that he can rape have sex with her on her wedding night. It's not rape, of course, even though he's using some legal bullshit that renders her cattle/chattel, because she lurrvvves him.
This gets better. So she marries what's-his-flip, and gets raped graphically, repeatedly and finally - grossly, incestuously - when her husband ties her up and his sister & he go at her – ugh, freaking ugh - and meanwhile Niall has been married off to the younger sister of the women he was betrothed to but died, because, well, the dowry has been paid, and who gives a shit if she's about to become a nun? Chattel is chattel. Women are chattel. He's understanding of his young bride's reticence to give up the goods, until he isn't, and then he rapes her a bunch, until he decides it's too much like raping a nun. Which it is. There's something subversive as hell in these plotlines – if you're reading them upside down and drunk, which I am – because even a man worthy of love is a raping maniac. It's not that love is transformative, is that love is a self-defense mechanism. Women may be chattel, but men are disgusting animals.
Oh, did I mention animals? I'm going to take another long, hard pull on my wine glass and talk about how fucking explicit – pun fucking intended – this men-are-animals thing is. I giggled and barfed a little into my mouth when Niall, the true love, you remember, from such earlier rapes as the nun rape, takes the virginity of an Italian girl. They're out in the fields, and horses are fucking, and this gets our lovers all hot. It's also the only place in the book where the word “penis” is used, and it's on the horse. Men have manroots. Anyway, I breathed a sigh of relief – I really thought that this was the end of the implied bestiality that friends who had also read this book had mentioned.
IT GETS SO MUCH WORSE. SO MUCH FUCKING WORSE. Here's where the screaming and cussing comes in, my friends, and I feel like I should apologize, but I'M NOT FUCKING GOING TO. (Mention the hanging preposition and you die. DIE.) In the last section of the book, the raping raper who is raping Skye regularly pops into her estate unannounced. Skye's off with some other guy, who also used a semi-legal contract to get her into bed under duress, but he's a big sweetie, so it's okay. Anyway, Lord Dudley, who is a a realz hiztorical figure, yo, whose heirs should sue for slander, collects up a bunch of children – the youngest is 12, it is noted – and rapes them in a big gang rape. Skye comes in when they are POSITIONING A DOG TO FUCK A CHILD ON THE TABLE. FOR THOSE WHO MISSED THE ALL-CAPS, THEY WERE GOING TO RAPE A CHILD WITH A DOG.
This is making me sick. I want to die. I don't understand why this is a romance classic. I don't get why people find this shit appealing at all. The norm is rape. I can get out a feminist figleaf and talk about how this is a subversive plot, in some ways, how one's true love and one's rapist are not different except that your truelove will probably not ass-rape you – the ass-raping scene I remember best refers to Skye anus as “a rose” - an image I will not be able to scrub out for a while. WHAT IS WITH ALL THE FUCKING EUPHEMISM? Anyway, seriously, when some 2nd wave feminists said things like “All sex is rape”, I guess I didn't understand that this was the bible truth that was being sold in women's fiction at the time. Maybe it's still being sold – I have no idea – but this is the thing that sicks me out: feminists who say all sex is rape are treated as nutcases; romance novelists who show this to be a fact sell one billion copies of their book for decades after it's written. The only difference in these statements is that for one, the rape is criminal, and for the other it's the romantic ideal.
Honestly, I didn't know how angry this all made me until I started writing. This is part of the reason I'm so angry: I love my husband. I love him seriously, deeply, truly. I have loved him for years and years and years, and I hope to grow wrinkly and old with him. I don't love him because he raped me; he has never raped me; I love him because he's funny and perfect and imperfect and himself; because he does things that make me freaking crazy, and because he does things that show me that he knows me at least as intimately as I know myself. Much of love is boring and prosaic: once, he slipped a love-letter in my purse, which I didn't find until I was standing at the ATM depositing checks, and I bawled my eyes out in front of the little camera eye of the machine. All sex is not rape. It's not. All love is not based on rape; I refuse to believe it, because I live something entirely different. I'm not breathtakingly beautiful; he's not the lord of all he surveys. Love is average and boring, and the idea that I could find satisfaction in a wish-fulfillment exercise that makes my protagonist-proxy beautiful and raped beyond the telling of it makes me sick with despair for the idea of love and the modern American marriage. The idea that this kind of romance novel is an escapism implies that modern marriage is worse than I ever imagined.
Okay, I'm back, and maybe now I can talk about the third act of Skye O'Malley
. She returns to England and gets into a grudge match with...drum roll...Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. I could probably bitch about how Bess is portrayed – I seriously did NOT need a scene that describes how Bess was almost raped and the state of her clitoris – another time where the medically accurate nomenclature is used, strangely, heretofore the clit had been referred to only euphemistically – but this is the interesting part: Skye takes Bess down because Bess arbitrates Skye's rape. The man isn't at fault – the Lord Dudley of earlier slander – he's just a stupid dog-raping ass-fucker. Bess is at fault for setting Skye to be raped by him. Fascinating. I don't know if there's anything to this, and I'm hard pressed to come up with a good feminist criticism, especially now, in my inebriated state. Maybe this: we hold our own gender to higher standards, even when we know they are are circumscribed by the same laws/social norms/expectations that we are.
As such, I feel deeply betrayed by Beatrice Small, who should fucking know better, who should set a better fucking standard for romantic love. Maybe I'm stupid for believing in romantic love, maybe I'm a sucker who doesn't know myself. I'm okay with that. But my concept and experience of romantic love doesn't involve dogs, horses, children, or a smugness toward my breeding potential – it's too late in the review to start bitching about how the ability to bear sons as the gold standard for femininity – grrrrrrrrr – but I hope to fuck that the next romance I read doesn't express these standards in such an unforgivable way. Grudge match, bitch, I hate you. I hate your book. I deny everything you say about women, about men, about children and dogs and horses. We are all better than this.
Addendum: I just read this aloud to my husband. His response: “So, this wasn't a good book then?” Man, I love him.