Phantom Waltz by Catherine Anderson

September 18, 2013 Contemporary, Reviews 24

Book cover for Phantom Waltz By Catherine Anderson. Two purple flowers on a purple background.If you know me at all, your heart just skipped a beat when you saw the title for this review. For years I have told anyone who would listen, and a few who wouldn’t, that this was the worst portrayal of disability I have ever read. Of the dozens of romances I have read featuring disabled main characters, I’ve run across many more misses than hits. Only this book, though, has made me too angry to review it.

Over three years of trying to read this book to give it the sound thrashing it deserves, I’ve never been able to sit down and read straight through. Every time I’ve tried, I’d want to Tweet something off every page I read. The patronizing fuckery is thick on the ground in this book, and all that Tweeting and blockquote collecting makes for a slow read. As a result, I’ve read this book the way children of the 80s and 90s watched movies on TV – in little chunks here and there over a long stretch of time.

Because I didn’t read this book in the conventional way, I’m not going to review it conventionally. Instead I offer you:

Eight Easy Steps For Writing An Offensive Portrayal of Disability

Step 1: Immediately frame the disabled character’s life in terms of what it lacks compared to a non-disabled experience.

Anderson wastes no time framing this story from an ableist perspective. About five pages in, our hero – millionaire cattle rancher Ryan Kendrick – asks Bethany Coulter out on a date.

“How about dinner and dancing? We’ll go out, have a fine meal, get to know each other a little better. Then we’ll cut a rug. I’m hell on wheels at country western, and I know of a great band.”

Her mouth curved in a wistful smile. “You like to dance, do you?”

“I love to dance. How about you?”

She averted her gaze. Ryan wanted to kick himself for coming on too fast. So much for that legendary charm his brother teased him about. Well, it was too late now. All he could do was go for it and hope for the best.

“I used to enjoy dancing very much.” She tapped a pen on the work surface beside her computer, her small hand clenched so tightly over its length that her dainty knuckles went white.

This is ten years post-injury, but that’s almost beside the point. The important thing here is to quickly establish that Bethany is a victim. Dancing isn’t a fond memory for her, it’s a present injustice. Disability causes her suffering, though she endures it with Christ-like stoicism, because she’s a good girl. Only harlots speak up.

Step 2: Write rejection into the disabled character’s past, and tie it to her injury.

“Yes. Paul.” The name stuck at the back of her throat and became a huge, dry lump she couldn’t swallow. “And he wasn’t really rotten, just a nice young man who wanted to have a normal life, and there were no guarantees he could ever have one with me.”

“So the nice young man walked out on you.”

This is a key element of any romance with a disabled protagonist. You must have a past relationship that ended as a direct result of the injury that disabled them. Not only does it reinforce that character’s silently-suffering victimhood, it creates an opportunity for the non-disabled character. If the conventional wisdom is that disabled people are damaged goods and often discarded, then what a champion this non-disabled character is! Sure he could go to the pet store to get a nice looking dog, but he’ll do the right thing and adopt from the shelter, because that’s the kinda guy he is.

“Going by things she said, I got the feeling that most men run the other direction when they realize she’s in a wheelchair.” He shrugged. “Hell, to be honest, when I first realized she was a paraplegic, I wanted to run myself, only I’d already asked her out, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. If I’d started crawfishing, it would have been obvious why.” He swallowed and closed his eyes for a moment. “So I took her on a date, thinking it’d only be for an evening, and that afterward I could do a graceful fade-out.”

See? What a gem!

Step 3: Have the hero discuss his attraction to the local paraplegic girl with his mother, getting into intimate detail about sexual function and other medical issues.

This clever step kills two birds with one stone. For one, it strips the disabled character of her dignity and humanity, which would only get in your way. Preserving her privacy and giving her agency just complicates things. Ryan’s doing her a favor here. It’s not like she’s going to turn him down or something. God, like anyone else would want her, right?

Most importantly, though, it lets you show off all your research in a big info dump. You had fascinating conversations with nurses and doctors, so show off what you learned!

Ann laughed and leaned sideways, bumping him with her shoulder again. “Where did you get the idea paraplegics can’t have sex?”

“That’s obvious, isn’t it? She’s paralyzed, Mom. No sensation from the waist down. Maybe some men wouldn’t care, but I like partners who enjoy that particular activity as much as I do.”

“You’re making an idiotic assumption. A common one, but it’s dead wrong. I know about these things.

Whether or not she has feeling in certain places depends on the location and severity of her injury. Some paraplegics, especially women, enjoy normal intimate relationships.”

Thanks mom!

Step 4: Tell the reader that the heroine pees normally.

Seriously. This is critical information. No one wants a heroine who uses a catheter. That’s crazy talk.

Ryan circled that, wondering how “feeling here and there” could make her life easier. Paralyzed was paralyzed. Right?

Apparently noticing the bewildered look on his face, she grinned. “That’s a polite way of saying it. You’ll have to ferret out the rest by yourself.”

She was referring to continence, he realized, an ability many paraplegics didn’t have.

Step 5: Give the heroine an overprotective brother who feels entitled to control who sleeps with her.

The whole reason you’re writing a disabled heroine in the first place is to create a caretaker fantasy. Women are under incredible pressure in real life and the allure of a male figure who shields them from harm is incredibly potent. The disabled heroine is the exaggerated stand-in for the reader. She’s all their insecurities and vulnerabilities dialed up to 11. Naturally she needs a brother who’s prepared to put a fist into the face of any man who dares to make a move on his sister. Only the hero gets through when he proves himself worthy. If only we could have all had such a sibling. So many bad relationships could have been avoided!

“Don’t come sniffing around my sister,” Jake ground out. “If I can’t kick your ass, I’ve got four brothers who’ll be standing in line behind me. Nobody makes her cry and gets away with it.”

If you really want to go above and beyond, have the hero negotiate with the brother for the right to plow his sister, after expressly telling her that he wants to just be friends. It’s not like she has any wants of her own.

Step 6: Make a big deal out of the heroine’s sexual function, and tie the hero’s legitimacy as her mate to the ability to make her orgasm.

I don’t think there’s anyone in this book that doesn’t have at least one conversation about Bethany’s ability to have sex. Ryan’s mother, Bethany’s brother, a random bar fly, the elderly ranch foreman – everyone’s talking about whether or not sex with Bethany will be any good. And rightly so, as a woman’s value is, naturally, tied to her desirability as a sexual partner. Sure, this is all incredibly dehumanizing to appropriate disability as a metaphor for being unloved and undesirable, but it’s just fiction, amirite?

And you must make sure the heroine orgasms. I’m not sure why, really, but it’s one of romance’s laws. So make a huge plot point of it, even though many paraplegic women live full, sexual lives without vaginal sensation or orgasm. Rulez is rulez.

He’d felt the tension in her body afterward—the kind of tension that told a man he’d failed to bring a woman to completion. If I can’t feel anything, I think I’ll die. Oh, she’d tried to hide her disappointment, hugging him and burrowing her cheek against his shoulder, saying how lovely it had been. But he’d known, and he’d wanted to weep.

Step 7: Write an in-depth conversation between the hero and the heroine’s doctor about her ability to have children. Don’t include the heroine.

Of course she has to be fertile. You can use the specter of childlessness as a conflict driver, but you have to resolve it. The best way to do this is to have the hero talk with a doctor about her, without her knowledge, and reveal that she was misinformed about her body’s capabilities. Her body is just a medical curiosity, after all.

“You think she can have babies, don’t you?”

The doctor glanced toward the hallway. “I don’t advise you to tell her that, not until I’m sure. I wouldn’t want to give her false hope and then disappoint her. I’m certainly no spinal specialist.”

Step 8: Create an amazing black moment involving a picnic, a charging bear and a martyr.

This is just brilliant, really. Every disability themed romance has a black moment where the disabled character has something happen to them to make them extra vulnerable and it causes them to push the non-disabled character away so they won’t be a burden to them. It’s a crucial step to show how “independent” and “selfless” the disabled character is to not impose their awful life onto the superior life lived by an able-bodied person. The non-disabled character then looks like a saint for accepting the “broken” person anyway.

This book’s black moment is played by Yogi Bear’s evil twin.

“Mrrrhaw!”

The sound came from behind them. Only halfway to the horses, Ryan whirled to see what in the hell it was. When he saw the bear charging across the flat toward them, his heart stuttered to a stop and felt as if it just hung in his chest like a chunk of ice. The animal was huge, and it ran with incredible speed-—its fat and fur jolting with every impact of its paws on the earth.

“Mrrrhaw!”

“Oh, my God,” Bethany cried. “Oh, my Godl”

Ryan glanced frantically at the rifle leaning against the pine only a few feet away where he’d left it in order to carry Bethany. If he put her down, he might be able to reach the weapon before the bear caught him. Big problem. There was every chance the animal would stay on course, charging blindly. If so, it would be on Bethany before Ryan could get off a shot. There might also be lag time after he fired. Bears were notorious for taking lead and not going down immediately.

Bethany could be killed.

The bear attacks Ryan, shatters his hip, and strands them in the wilderness. Bethany feels responsible, so she decides to leave him and move to Seattle. Because the selfless thing to do is abandon your husband while he’s sedated and recovering from surgery.

—-

And that’s where I’ll stop. I could pull quotes from this book all day, it’s so completely fucking ridiculous. That elderly ranch foreman I mentioned? Bethany not only discusses her sex life with him, he gets drunk and helps her practice faking orgasm. I am dead serious.

He had a bad feeling this might call for more showing than telling. He did most things better when he was stone-cold sober, but going on like a woman having an orgasm wasn’t going to be one of them. He hurried to the office, fetched his flask, and returned to the stall posthaste.

Additionally, the heroine’s injury is an incomplete L2, but she uses a powerchair. I’d chalk that up to ignorance, but Anderson put so much effort into stripping Bethany of agency, dignity and humanity that I wonder if it was a conscious decision to make her less able and more vulnerable. It’s a lot harder to make a pitiable creature out of someone driving a sedan rather than a ramp van and maneuvering easily in a lightweight, low-profile manual wheelchair. It’s like she’s meant to be able enough to pee normally and have vaginal orgasms but must be visibly crippled enough to make the Beauty and the Beast metaphor work. That’s just blatant appropriation, son.

Final Assessment: No one should ever read this book. Not even for research. F

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Ridley

An ice hockey fan from north of Boston and the genre's most beloved troll, Ridley enjoys reading contemporary and historical romance, as well as the odd erotica novel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, she takes a particular interest in disability themes.

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24 Responses to “Phantom Waltz by Catherine Anderson”

  1. Laura Vivanco

    No one should ever read this book. Not even for research.

    OK, but if I promise not to do any research on it, can I at least do some flippant analysis of what I know about it via your review?

    the Beauty and the Beast metaphor

    Something you wrote earlier made me think it must be a Sleeping Beauty story:

    Women are under incredible pressure in real life and the allure of a male figure who shields them from harm is incredibly potent. The disabled heroine is the exaggerated stand-in for the reader. She’s all their insecurities and vulnerabilities dialed up to 11. Naturally she needs a brother who’s prepared to put a fist into the face of any man who dares to make a move on his sister. Only the hero gets through when he proves himself worthy.

    Clearly the brother is the equivalent of a wall of spiky vegetation through which the hero has to hack his way before he can awaken the heroine. And, obviously, the heroine needs to be able to orgasm: that’s the updated version of coming awake in response to a fairytale kiss! And since she’s been asleep from the time of the accident to the present, of course “This is ten years post-injury, but that’s almost beside the point.”

    Her injury wasn’t caused by a machinery related to garment production, was it?

  2. Ridley

    @Laura Vivanco: Barrel racing’s basically the same thing as spinning wool.

    That’s an interesting take on it. What I know about fairy tales could fit a thimble (shameful, I know) so this sort of thing sails right over my head. Thanks for salvaging a bit of analysis from the bonfire. The book is still the worst, but it makes a little more sense as a play on Sleeping Beauty.

  3. Laura Vivanco

    @Ridley: I don’t know a lot about fairy tales either but I do know that they’re not exactly unproblematic themselves. For example,

    in Germany in the 1970s [...] ideological critics and left-wing pedagogues challenged sentimental views of the Grimms’ stories by historicizing the tales and criticizing them for their role in promulgating repressive nineteenth-century bourgeois values. (Haase 10)

    and

    Ruth B. Bottigheimer [...] demonstrated how the Grimms’ editorial interventions [...] weakened once-strong female characters, demonized female power, imposed a male perspective on stories voicing women’s discontents, and rendered heroines powerless by depriving them of speech. (Haase 11)

    I wouldn’t claim to know whether this particular author was consciously drawing on a fairy tale. Not having read the book, I don’t even know how much textual support there is for supposing it’s a sort of Sleeping Beauty story.

    That said, I suspect some fairy tales (probably filtered through the Grimms and Disney) are so deeply embedded in our culture that authors aren’t always aware when they’re drawing them. And if someone does draw on them without thinking about it a lot, that may well lead to them to reproduce elements which are problematic. Then again, the things that some people find problematic often seem to be things that other people find fun/romantic/aspirational and wouldn’t want to change, so their presence could be entirely intentional.
    —–
    Haase, Donald. “Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship.” Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches. Ed. Donald Haase. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004. 1-36.

  4. Roslyn Holcomb

    Have you read any books by Pepper Pace? She’s an indie author, who is quite good, but does suffer from lack of editing. Most of her leads have disabilities to one degree or another. She has a series called Wheels of Steel. The hero is a deejay who has CP and uses a wheelchair. The heroine is his assistant. I’d love to get your take on her, maybe not with this series, which is three books long, but she has shorter stories. I’m particularly fond of Beast.

  5. Beks

    This is like that episode of Saved By the Bell where Zack freaks the fuck out when he realizes the hot girl he likes is GASP!!!!! in wheel. Except this sounds one hundred times worse. You are a thug for making it to the end. Yikes.

  6. willaful

    I sheepishly admit I enjoyed this one, so I appreciate you finally forcing yourself to describe the ways in which it’s offensive.

  7. Ridley

    @Roslyn Holcomb: I have Wheels of Steel on a wishlist. I just need to remember to buy it.

    @willaful: When did you read it? I feel like if I read it back when it first came out I probably would’ve liked it. But I read it in 2010, after I’d read lots of disability-themed romances, so, you know, doomed to fail and all that.

  8. willaful

    2009, fairly early in my romance reading career. It was probably one of the first with a disabled character I’d read. But I don’t know if even now I would have recognized the issues you point out.

  9. Laura Vivanco

    @Meoskop:

    I believe Sleeping Beauty is initially awoken by the birth of her twins, who then crawl up her body to suckle. Because rape and eventual true love is an eternal fable.

    Thanks! I hadn’t come across that version. How lovely. But I can work with it: if the author had been using your version of the fairy tale it would explain why there’s “an in-depth conversation between the hero and the heroine’s doctor about her ability to have children” which doesn’t include the heroine: she’d be unconscious.

    On reflection, I wonder if one could also make a case for the influence of Rapunzel. I mean, we’ve got this:

    The bear attacks Ryan, shatters his hip, and strands them in the wilderness. Bethany feels responsible, so she decides to leave him and move to Seattle. Because the selfless thing to do is abandon your husband while he’s sedated and recovering from surgery.

    So, in both cases we have a story about a woman who has limited mobility and a man who’s injured while trying to save her. A wilderness is involved. The bear could be a stand-in for the wicked witch and our heroine must then abandon the disabled hero because there’s a separation in the fairy tale.

    In any case, I just had to mention it because Rapunzel’s all about curing disability though love, and I’m sure that must be another of Ridley’s favourite ways for protagonists with disabilities to get their HEAs. I think there are actually quite a few romances in which that happens.

  10. Liz Mc2

    Loving the fairytale analysis. In the unsanitized versions of Rapunzel, the witch/ogress realizes a man has gotten into the tower because Rapunzel is pregnant. When the witch throws him from the tower, he’s blinded by thorns and wanders for ages before Rapunzel saves him (I think her tears restore his sight).

    In some versions of Sleeping Beauty, the king’s mother (or even wife!) is an ogress and tries to eat the babies.

    I’m teaching fairytales in Children’s Lit right now. I love introducing students to some of the original versions. (Cinderella with an incestuous dad. . . .)

    Anyway, I’m glad you finally made yourself write this, Ridley, and I appreciate that you can see how the fantasy might work for some readers. I notice a lot of things I once wouldn’t have because of you, so thanks.

  11. Keishon

    Haven’t had the pleasure of reading this one. I’ve never cared for Catherine Anderson’s books. I read one book by her, Annie’s Song. I won’t comment on it further but it was enough for me to know that she wasn’t for me.

  12. Roslyn Holcomb

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around him discussing this woman’s sexual functioning with people other than her. That would be a major dealbreaker for me. I was pissed when my husband discussed my fertility issues with his mother. Some stuff is just PRIVATE!

    In Sharon Cullars’ latest, A Battle Raging, the hero was injured in Afghanistan and is paraplegic. But all discussion of sexual functioning is between the h/h. I really liked that book a lot. I think it’s a realistic portrayal of the psychological/physical damage from war without being “oh woe is me.” The hero is very matter of fact about his situation even as he deals with the aftermath.

  13. Ridley

    @Laura Vivanco:

    In any case, I just had to mention it because Rapunzel’s all about curing disability though love, and I’m sure that must be another of Ridley’s favourite ways for protagonists with disabilities to get their HEAs.

    Oh lord. Don’t get me started with those. I used up all the gasoline on this book.

    @Roslyn Holcomb:

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around him discussing this woman’s sexual functioning with people other than her.

    I know, right? It really speaks to how dehumanizing it can be to speak of people as patients afflicted by a malady. The medical model of disability is ableism in action.

    Additionally, the book’s focus on PIV penetrative sex being the one true way to be intimate takes a genre convention to its most absurd. She could orgasm from clitoral stimulation, but that wasn’t enough. True love demands vaginal orgasm from penetration. It’s all very Freudian.

  14. Katlin

    I was sorry to hear that the reviewer presumed to offer opinions on a book that she admits never having read all the way through, but rather simply sampling bits and pieces over a period of several years.

    I have read a number of books about characters with disabilities, and as a longtime professional caregiver I can tell you from a number of years of hands-on experience and training that the feelings, emotions, and concerns in the book are both right on target and totally valid. More than one of my patients has discussed those exact issues either with me or with medical personnel in my presence. It seems the reviewer believes the mechanics involved are far more important than the actual story, which is about a relationship building between two very different people.

    I enjoyed the book immensely and found the author to be a very gifted storyteller. Of course, I read it over a period of a few days, not a few years, and I was prepared to enjoy it, not take a sledgehammer to it. I have to wonder whether the reviewer is a frustrated author with a stack of rejected manuscripts in her closet.

    I should also add that from everything I’ve seen and researched, this “reviewer’s” opinion is definitely in a minority as this has been one of Ms. Anderson’s most enduringly popular and loved and requested books for many, many years.

  15. Scarlett Parrish

    I’ll get the popcorn if someone else wants to stock up on coke? (And I mean the drinky kind, not the devil’s dandruff.) :D

    I’m giving odds of ten-to-one on, friend of the author.

  16. Ridley

    How To Write An Ignorant Comment In Five Easy Steps:

    Step 1: Deny the reviewer’s humanity by refusing to use her name.

    I was sorry to hear that the reviewer

    It seems the reviewer

    I have to wonder whether the reviewer

    this “reviewer’s” opinion is definitely in a minority

    The name’s Ridley, by the way. I guess you missed it at the top, the bottom, and in the comments.

    Step 2: Ignore a reviewer’s lived experience and trumpet your own secondhand experience.

    I have read a number of books about characters with disabilities, and as a longtime professional caregiver I can tell you from a number of years of hands-on experience and training that the feelings, emotions, and concerns in the book are both right on target and totally valid.

    I guess it stands to reason that if you missed my name, you also missed the fact that I use a wheelchair. Not that it matters, really. I never argued that Bethany’s feelings were invalid or that she was bad at being disabled. I pointed out that her disability and the way people reacted to it in the story conforms to an ableist perspective. Disability is treated as a tragic aberration from the norm in this book from start to finish. That’s incredibly disempowering.

    Step 3: Build strawmen.

    Of course, I read it over a period of a few days, not a few years, and I was prepared to enjoy it, not take a sledgehammer to it.

    I’m not sure what a reviewer’s motivation to read a book has to do with anything, honestly. Does hate-reading a book mean that the reviewer’s observations don’t count? I explained my objections and offered both specific examples from the text and a guess at what the author was going for. Are you objecting to my conclusions because you don’t think they’re substantiated, or are you objecting because I wasn’t “nice?”

    Step 4: Make your criticism personal.

    I have to wonder whether the reviewer is a frustrated author with a stack of rejected manuscripts in her closet.

    Oh, do fuck off.

    Step 5: Hilariously miss the point.

    I should also add that from everything I’ve seen and researched, this “reviewer’s” opinion is definitely in a minority as this has been one of Ms. Anderson’s most enduringly popular and loved and requested books for many, many years.

    Of course my opinion is in the minority. My experience as a disabled woman is a minority experience. This book appeals to the non-disabled majority because of the elements I identify in this review. It reinforces able-bodied privilege. It’s a story about being loved despite one’s flaws, and I object to disability playing the role of flaw.

    Now shoo, before you hurt yourself.

  17. Francesca

    I admit I like this book. Though I come at this from a carer’s perspective. About a year ago my boyfriend had an accident. My response at the time was to run far away. I did indeed have a few friends who advised me to do the same. Many of the feelings expressed in this book reflected how I felt, over those first few months in particular. As selfish as this sounds I grieved for what I, a girlfriend, had lost in my partner. I also did crazy amounts of research about his condition and pushed him a lot to do things which I thought might help.

    I recognize now, that a lot of this was wrong. I should have stood back and let my boyfriend make decisions regarding his care. Indeed as time has passed, much of these feelings have subsided. However I am deeply grateful that I had people around me acknowledging that the situation was really shit. The friends who consented to have wine sleepovers while I just cried. It was like someone letting out little bits of steam here and there, so that I was never quite unable to cope.

    I don’t know, I am probably rambling, and with the examples you pulled I guess I agree with you. However just wanted to say that I liked the book.

  18. Meoskop

    It’s absolutely ok to like a problematic work. Recognizing where it goes wrong is important but doesn’t mean you have to repudiate it.