Truly, Maddeningly, Awful.

Usually I enjoy Rachel Gibson books, even the ones where the hero is kind of a jerk (See: Any Man of Mine). I think of her as a poor woman’s Susan Elizabeth Phillips: less humor, more stereotyping, still satisfying. But I just read Truly Madly Yours, a 1999 novel re-released for Kindle, which was truly, maddeningly, awful.

I was leery from the start, when I realized the hero and heroine are step-siblings. Nick was produced when the rich patriarch of the small Idaho town had questionably consensual sex with a local Basque-American widow, and promptly denied the ensuing child’s existence. The patriarch later married heroine Delaney’s blonde beautiful mom.  No, they never lived together, but his whole life, Nick had watched Delaney from a distance, jealous of what she had and he didn’t. Nick, who is several years older than Delaney, later tells her that all the dirty looks, taunting and snowballs to the eye sockets were cover for lust:  “I’ve thought about you naked and willing since you were about thirteen or fourteen.” Ewwwwww.

Generally, I don’t like the “we’ve lusted for each other since we were kids and now I’m back in town with double DDs” trope, or the “we had one very hot but embarrassing and unwise sexual encounter 10+ years ago which I should totally be over but which for some reason has had a disproportionately large effect on my life ever since” trope, and this book combines them.  I also don’t like cultural stereotypes as a shorthand to character, but there are many mentions of “Basque (and occasionally Irish and Italian) blood” running through someone’s veins as an explanation for their feelings or actions. Yet, I persevered.

The plot involves the recently-deceased patriarch’s will, which requires Delaney to stay in town for one year, and to not have a sexual relationship with Nick. Delaney hates having to stay in tiny Truly, but looks forward to the thee million she’ll inherit if she does. She has dreams of opening a fancy hair salon in the city. Nick is a rich developer who stands to inherit some prime land if he can keep his Basque paws off Delaney.

Nick’s first few appearances in the book are so over the top alpha I laughed out loud. First, his arrival at the patriarch’s funeral:

Straddling gleaming black lacquer and shimmering chrome, windblown hair tousled about broad shoulders, a lone biker bore down on the crowd gathered to bid their farewells. The monster engine vibrated the ground and shook the air, the act of committal suffocated by a set of bad-dog pipes. Dressed in faded jeans and a soft white T-shirt, the biker slowed and brought the Harley to a rumbling stop in front of the gray hearse. The engine died, and his boot heel scraped the asphalt as he laid the bike on its kickstand. Then in one smooth motion, he rose. Several days’ growth of beard darkened a strong jaw and cheeks, drawing attention to a firm mouth. A small gold hoop pierced his earlobe while a pair of platinum Oakley’s concealed his eyes.

On his way out, just in case we were unsure of his sexuality, Nick manages to pick up a woman who zooms off with him for a little nookie.

Next, we see him at work, not, as would be more fitting a multimillionaire developer, on the phone in his office, but rather on the construction site:

A bulldozer and a front-end loader sat idle next to a huge dump truck. Neon orange paint marked the ground in several spots beside big sewer trenches, and Nick Allegrezza stood in the midst of the chaos next to a black Jeep Wrangler…

Surrounded by a bulldozer, a dump truck and a Jeep? Methinks someone is overcompensating.

The third appearance has him striding into a bar with ” massive machismo” (yes) and flying shirt tails. You get the feeling this guy would spontaneously combust if he had to, say, pick up some Cheerios and Cling wrap at the local Shop and Save. Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing to his character besides his good looks and lust for Delaney. Although Nick’s “charm” is often mentioned, it was nowhere in evidence in this book. Here’s a typical conversation Nick has with a member of the opposite sex:

“What do you think?” Gail moved behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. The thin material of her dress was the only thing separating her bare breasts from his back.

“About what?”

“About the new and improved me.”

He turned then and looked at her. She was bathed in darkness and he couldn’t see her very well.

“You look fine,” he answered.

“Fine? I spent thousands on a boob job, and that’s the best you can do? ‘You look fine’?”

“What do you want me to say, that you would have been smarter to invest your money in real estate rather than saltwater?”

The narrative is asking us to be critical of this woman. Delaney describes her as “the blond pressed against his back like a human suction cup.” Nick thinks, “Gail was too worried about how she looked.” But, let’s recall: he’s just had sex with her. On purpose. And compare this bit:

If it weren’t for Henry’s will, he would have had sex with [Delaney] already, and he would have forgotten about her by now. She really wasn’t the kind of female he liked to spend time with anyway. Her clothes were weird, and she had a mean mouth on her. She wasn’t the most beautiful female he’d known. In fact, she looked horrible in the morning. He’d seen his share of women who weren’t looking their best when they first rolled out of the sack, but damn, she’d looked downright scary.

Um, why do women care about their looks again? ‘Cuz it’s fun? I think Nick needs to Google “Double bind.”

Here’s another example of Nick’s vaunted “charm”:

“Hey, wild thing, where you headed dressed like a hooker?”

And nothing says “charm” like rape threats!

“You better not be around here on June fourth, otherwise I’m going take what you’ve owed me for ten years.”

Pretty sure this guy could uphold rape culture with just one of his machismo filled arms.

Oh, and that teenage sexual encounter? When Delaney was eighteen? They get caught by her step-dad (his bio-dad), and instead of defending her (they haven’t even had sex)…

Nick folded his arms over his chest and rested his weight on one foot. “Maybe I screwed her because she makes me hard.”

Nick finally ravishes Delaney in the coat closet at a wedding. When she tries to say something afterwards, this is his response:

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women who like to talk afterward?”

His parting comment?

“The damage is done,” he said as he retrieved his jacket from the floor. “Tell me you’re taking some form of birth control.”

Now, of course she isn’t (this is perfect Delaney remember? Of the Rush Limbaugh school of feminine sexuality.). But if she were? What do you suppose Nick’s reaction would have been? The four letter word I’m thinking of begins with “sl” and ends with “ut.” Also, Nick needs to Google “double bind” again because I’m pretty sure he would have been too thick to get it the first time.

I wish I could say the years had matured Nick, but after he and Delaney have sex a second time in the present day, he runs off. In the ten minutes it takes Delaney to chase him home,

She stood on his porch, a foil red present in her hands and a smile on her lips. Her smile died when [another woman]  walked up behind him and hung her wrist over his shoulder. He could have removed it. He didn’t.

“Come on in,” he said. “Gail and I were just about to jump in the hot tub.”

“I—” Her stunned gaze moved between them. “I didn’t bring my swimsuit.”

“Neither did Gail.” He knew what she thought and he let her think it. “You won’t need one, either.”

I think even if I were a romance reader who enjoyes this type of asshole hero, I would be unsatisfied with this book. Their whole relationship is based on a fantasy. As Nick says,

You were the princess of Truly, and I was the mayor’s illegitimate son. I wasn’t good enough to kiss your feet, but that didn’t stop me from wanting you so much my guts ached.

Since there was no relationship development within the 375 or so pages of the book (just a lot of angry talk and kissing), as a reader, I have to wonder what their “love” will be based on now that the old dynamic no longer applies.

Or doesn’t it? The narrative spends a lot of time insisting that Nick is still a bad boy (see the funeral arrival above) and Delaney a good girl. She says things like:

“indiscriminate sex is still disgusting.”

…which sums up her judgmental approach to sex and reminds me of Kant’s claim that women can’t really make moral judgments, but merely have aesthetic reactions to morality.

Nick even buys Delaney a tiara to make up for her loss of homecoming queen to her rival. Instead of taking that as an insult to her maturity, she thinks it is…

absolutely the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling as she pulled the crown from its bed of tissue and shoved the box at Nick.

“I love it.”

The stereotype of high school girls is that they are competitive, vain, and catty, and Delaney is all of those things.  In fact, she is pretty much a terrible human being on a par with Nick. Here are a few gems:

her sense of humor wasn’t appreciated in redneck towns where men tended to use their shirt pockets for ashtrays.

(Reminder: she’s a college dropout hairdresser who, um, grew up in this town.)

Delaney sees every other woman in the novel as a potential rival. When she sees an old high school rival, this is what she thinks:

Delaney took silent pleasure in Helen’s split ends and overprocessed highlights.

When she sees Helen again in the market, she actually gets judgey about what’s in her cart!

Delaney’s gaze swept the contents of Helen’s cart. A bottle of Robitusson, tweezers, a jumbo pack of Stay-free, and a box of Correctol. Delaney smiled, feeling a slight advantage. Feminine hygiene and laxative.

She gets judgey about a customer at her hair salon:

Incredulous, Delaney stared at the woman who’d decked herself out in Eddie Bauer and REI. The woman looked to be in her early to mid-forties, and reminded Delaney of a magazine article she’d read in the dentist office questioning the wisdom of older women producing children from old eggs.

“Does Brandon want a good-boy fruit snack?”

“No!” screeched the product of her old egg.

I could go on and on and on. I could mention that at one point Delaney wishes she were a lesbian because her life would be so much easier. Or how she refers to some men as “nancy boys.”  Or how she “felt real pathetic, like an old spinster cat lady” because she is twenty-nine and single. Or how her dreams of owning an upscale salon in Phoenix vaporize in the heat of Nick’s “charm”.

Or how Delaney’s mother is is cool, blonde, and obsessed with looks and prestige, and Nick’s “Basque” mother is dark, prone to anger, and obsessed with protecting and feeding her boys. *sigh*

Hey the more I consider it, the more I think Gibson might have been doing something very envelope pushing. Give the romance reader two unlikeable, emotionally stunted jerks, proving that a person always end up with a partner at her same level of emotional development. In other words, these two really do deserve each other.

Brilliant!

13 responses

  1. Miss Bates read this ages and ages ago, mainly because she’s a keen hockey fan and enjoyed Gibson’s Chinooks books. She didn’t like it much either. Reading your review really articulated why she hadn’t. Thank you!

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    • I like the Chinooks books a lot. I think Gibson verges on many of these “issues” in her other books, but manages to stay more in the gray area than she did here.

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  2. Ah, so this was what inspired your tweets the other night! I read it many years ago and gave it a C, mainly because I liked that Delaney rebelled against her stepfather trying to manipulate her from beyond the grave and because she actually read like she was the age she was. I suspect the fact that this raised my grade to a C in spite of the rotten, horrid ‘hero’ is mostly about how many heroines at the time were doormats who behaved and thought a lot older than they were supposed to be. Over the years I’ve become a lot more sensitive about the sorts of things you mention in your review, so I don’t think she’d work nearly as well for me these days.

    As for using Nick’s Basqueness as a shorthand to justify assholic behaviour… that sort of thing is why I stay far, far away from Harlequin Presents with Latin or Southern European heroes. It’s offensive as hell, and I find it mind-boggling that the romance community mostly accepts it without question.

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    • That’s a good point about reading her age. I actually liked it that Delaney went to college and failed out, then kind of drifted into hair styling. It’s ok to have a heroine who is neither career driven nor marriage driven. But I did think she was a doormat in relation to Nick.

      And, yes, any time a romance exoticizes “the other” I get unhappy.

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  3. I read See Jane Score way back in the whens and decided Gibson wasn’t for me. She didn’t do a good job of showing what she was telling and I wanted to cross check everyone in the face. No bueno.

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  4. I’ve found that for every Gibson I enjoy (I liked See Jane Score lots, mainly because of Luc), there’s one I want to throw against the wall (Simply Irresistible). This one sounds like it’d definitely fit into the latter category. Thanks for saving me the time/money of reading it myself.

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