To say my hopes were high for this book might not be totally accurate, but I went into this book with a certain expectation for quality writing and storytelling. I’d read three books so far by Ruth Wind/Barbara Samuel/Barbara O’Neal (pick a name, woman!), all of them telling a multicultural story of some sort, and they had all been solid, entertaining stories with relatable protagonists and fleshed out villains. Meant to be Married didn’t have me drooling with anticipation or anything, as the blurb advertises a plot that’s a Harlequin staple, but I did expect a comfort read. What I got was far less satisfying.
The book starts off well enough. Sarah Greenwood is a world-famous fashion photographer who has a terrible bout of homesickness while celebrating her 30th birthday in London and decides to head home to New Mexico. (Shhhhh. Don’t think too hard about making it to the top of fashion photography by 30. #romancelogic) She hasn’t been home for more than a quick overnight visit since she graduated high school 12 years ago, but her father is sick and she feels she should be a good daughter and go home for a while. So she’s packed up some of her stuff and moved into a furnished rental, planning to stay for a month or so. Immediately after settling in she runs into her old boyfriend, Elias Santiago, whose hateful glare from a truck window makes her legs wobbly. Right after that her drugged up father apologizes about “the baby,” a topic she then declares to be off-limits.
So you get the idea pretty quickly that this book’s going to be a total angst-fest. We see that the lovestruck boyfriend who got arrested when they were teenagers in the prologue now hates the heroine and her father. The father muttering apologies about a baby hints not so subtly at a coerced abortion or adoption in the past. Additionally, Sarah muses about a 150 year old feud between the Santiagos and the Greenwoods, dating back to the time a young Santiago was hanged for raping a Greenwood. Now that Sarah’s back in town and her father is ill, all the skeletons fall out of their respective closets and demand attention. Drama galore.
I’m a big fan of angsty Harlequins, so this sort of secret-filled, second chance romance should have been right up my alley. As I was reading, however, I was growing more and more frustrated with the book. The more secrets that came out, the more the book became obsessed with the F-word: Forgiveness. I have some problems with how romance deals with victims forgiving the person who wronged them, and this book ticked off most of them.
To lay it out, spoilers and all, Sarah and Elias were a couple when they were teenagers and tried to run away to get married when Sarah got pregnant. Sarah’s father, the local police chief, caught them on their way back home and arrested Elias. He then called in favors to keep Elias in jail on bogus charges for a couple months while he arranged for Sarah to go 300 miles away and have her baby while isolated from friends and family then pressure her to give the child up for adoption. Her mother didn’t intervene.
This is a pretty serious wrong if you ask me. Doing the math out, it sounds like they were 18, maybe 17, when this happened. That’s sociopath-level manipulation and abuse of power. So I have a real problem with the book tying the heroine’s happiness and character growth to her ability to reconcile with her father and forgive his actions. The way her father keeps framing his actions as “I was doing what I believed was best for you” makes it clear that he’s not really sorry about what he did. He remains hateful towards Elias through the end of the book, telling him he wanted to put a bullet in his head for becoming a successful businessman. If he’s sorry at all, it’s for making his daughter mad and losing the control he had over her. That’s it.
I see this too often in romance. It’s okay to cut toxic people out of our lives. Heroines shouldn’t have to empathize with the people who hurt them and discard their anger to remain sympathetic. When Sarah starts to agree with her father’s reasoning that she wouldn’t have traveled the world and become successful had she been a married teenage mother, I wanted to cry. Then there’s this exchange with Elias’ grandmother.
“I put a charm on him, but he has self-control, our Elias. He chose to go another way—and because he did not become violent, as all his people and your people did before him, the three of you have a chance to end it now.”
Frustration welled in Sarah’s throat. “I’ve tried!” she burst out. “Don’t you think I tried? They always put me in the middle. They’re still doing it.”
“The middle is a good place to see both sides, eh?”
Ignoring the magical Mexican healer grandma business, what’s going on here is Elias’ grandmother pressuring Sarah to make Elias and her father reconcile. So she has to not only forgive him herself, she has to make others do it too, or she’s a failure. That’s just fucking unfair. That she ends up doing it, and with a god damned art show FFS, just made me groan. God forbid a woman be angry. Perish the thought.
Final Assessment: Wind’s a good writer, so if you have a different philosophy on forgiveness you might enjoy this just fine. I wanted to tell the heroine that’s it’s okay to walk away from people who hurt you. (Also? The book refers repeatedly to the hero’s niece’s “ethnic look.” /wince) D