From Eloisa James's "READING ROMANCE" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
At cocktail parties I often find myself face-to-face with a man bent on proving that romances give women unrealistic expectations about the male sex. After reading one too many, he'll explain earnestly, she might dump a perfectly acceptable man simply because he can't talk about emotion as fluently as do romance heroes. His eyes shift uneasily as he makes his argument, well aware that he himself is no Prince Charming. Next time around, I have the perfect comeback: I've discovered some wonderful novels that depict the harshest challenge of all: falling in love with a man who, for one reason or another, is unable to understand emotion, let alone express it.
Christine Feehan's Water Bound probably depicts the most difficult of these relationships, because neither partner is comfortable with intimacy. Rikki Sitmore is a sea-urchin diver with the paranormal ability to make water obey her. What she doesn't have is the ability to read facial expressions; she's a high-functioning autistic. The man she saves from a rogue wave, Lev Prakenskii, is an assassin who is, he thinks, incapable of emotion. He suffers from an extreme form of PTSD that makes him a danger to Rikki: if startled, he instinctively attacks. Feehan deftly describes a kind of raw novelty in their every kiss: "He tasted passion. He tasted emotion. He tasted a world he'd never imagined, one he could never enter." Water Bound is a paranormal suspense, with a couple of baddies running around. But the heart of it is quiet and joyful, as two very lonely, very unusual people fall deeply in love.
Jack Wyndham, Earl of Gracechurch, is as damaged as Lev, though for different reasons. Eileen Dreyer's Barely a Lady spins a fascinating story about a marriage gone horribly wrong. Five years ago Jack divorced and ruined Olivia Grace, accusing her of adultery and leaving her penniless. She has every reason to wish him dead, and yet when she finds him on a battlefield, badly wounded and suffering from amnesia, she saves his life against all her better instincts. Like Feehan's romance, this novel is less about the machinations of evil men (though they exist), than about the slow blossoming of a very damaged man. The real problem standing between the pair is not Jack's fractured mind and body: it's that trust, as Jack finally realizes, involves faith. And until he keeps faith with Olivia, even in the face of the worst accusation of all, she won't have faith in him -- and he'll lose everything that might make his life worth living. Like Lev, Jack has to learn to accept the reality of his own violent past. But he, too, finds that love is a great healer. Barely a Lady is a deeply emotional, deeply moving novel that will make you believe in second chances.
Armand, Comte de Valère, in Shana Galen's The Making of a Gentleman, also shares a good deal with Feehan's hero. Lev is incapable of emotion because he was taken from his family as a young boy, and trained to be an assassin; Armand doesn't speak and can't bear to be touched, after having been kidnapped at age eleven and held in captivity for years. When his family hires a tutor in a desperate bid to push him toward civilized behavior, Felicity Bennett is horrified by her new charge: he howls rather than speaks; he wears no shoes or stockings; his mind is broken. The story of how Felicity woos Armand with music, teaching him to speak and follow "The Rules" is fascinating. You'll find yourself rooting for Armand, who knows immediately that he wants to marry Felicity, no matter her station in life. But she wants love, and he doesn't understand the emotion. The tale of how he learns that love is wanting to be with her in the morning and do anything for her smile…well, it will make you smile too.
Several of these novels look squarely at the side effects of being a soldier. Former Navy SEAL Sax Douchett, in JoAnn Ross's The Homecoming, finds himself dreaming of Afghanistan every night, unable to break free from his memories. Sax has come home to the small Oregon town where he grew up, bringing with him the wisecracking, sweet ghosts of three wartime buddies: Jake the Snake, Cowboy Montgomery, and Randy. After Sax's dog finds a human bone on the beach, Sax encounters the local sheriff, Kara Conway, a girl that he didn't have a prayer of winning back in the day. But now they've both changed. He's a bad boy turned American hero (with all the complications that implies), and she's the widow of a soldier, raising a small son named Trey. The Homecoming is a rueful, complicated tale about the power of love: not just the love between Kara and Sax, but the love between Sax, Jake, Cowboy, and Randy. When his teammates tell him they're finally free to move on -- "SEALS don't leave men behind," but Sax isn't stuck in the Kush anymore -- I dare you not to get a lump in your throat. At the end of this novel, Kara, Trey, and Sax have all learned to say goodbye to beloved, lost soldiers: the love that binds them will carry them into a new life together.
Barring that little ghost problem and some terrible dreams, Sax is essentially a wounded man who merely needs to heal. But like Feehan's Rikki, the hero of Kristan Higgins's All I Ever Wanted is a person who has to be loved for himself, as personalities aren't "curable." Higgins's novel offers an utterly charming and hysterically funny account of falling in love with a social misfit. Callie Grey is turning thirty, and getting desperate -- desperate enough to pack up her cheerful dog Bowie and haul him down to the new (single) vet with a pathetic excuse. Ian MacFarland has, in Callie's words, "just a splash of Asperger's," along with a strong antipathy to what he terms Callie's "emotional diarrhea." I laughed aloud over and over as Callie learns to spell out every emotion so Ian can understand it, and Ian learns that a messy, emotionally challenging life is not the end of the world. It's rather wonderful to watch him discover that the one thing he's always avoided -- an emotional, impulsive woman -- may, in fact, be all he ever wanted.
These romances tackle the most difficult men of all -- those who are unable to express emotion, whether because of physical and mental trauma, or a twist of personality. These aren't fantasies about easy love or the perfect man. They will strengthen your belief in the most wonderful aspect of the human spirit: the capacity to love deeply and truly, even when one's beloved is walking a different road than the rest of us.