Last week, the posse of reviewers at SBTB and I took a long, long look at an older Silhouette cover because there were a number of hilarious and odd things about it. Shirtless man with odd shoulder? Check. Cover copy overflowing with intentional and unintentional (we hope) innuendo? Oh, check. Typo on the cover that made the whole thing extra-hilarious? Check check and check!
One thing I learned early when talking about romances online—and books in general—is that while the author has some input into the cover art of her book, and that amount varies by publisher, most of the time, the cover art is far outside the author's control. And, more importantly, the cover art often—very, very often—doesn't match the book inside.
Such is the case with Keeper by Patricia Gardner Evans.
Mr. Odd-Shoulder With a Typo, whose name is Cleese (though if I read it too quickly when my eyes are tired I do see it as "Cheese"), is a fascinating hero. He's the CEO (of course) of a large company in Texas (of course) and he's smart, powerful and resourceful (of course). Cleese also REALLY likes fishing. When he first sees the heroine, she's poaching on his land. When he watches her fish for bass and watches her enjoy more success than he usually has in the same spots, he becomes intrigued. They meet, he drives her to her car in a rainstorm, and he tries to figure out how they might meet again, and then again.
There are two things about this book that are fascinating. First, the heroine, Laurel, is a widow, and her late husband was abusive, physically and emotionally. She works as an illustrator, but she volunteers frequently at an organization that counsels abused spouses, giving them support and techniques to stop their abusers or leave the relationship altogether. Most of the scenes when she's not with Cleese feature her volunteering, practicing dialogue with other women and strategizing how to help them undo the damage to their confidence and their self worth.
Meanwhile, Cleese is sort of obsessed with Laurel, and the way in which is interest is developed is somewhat unsettling. There's a scene early in the book where he orders a background check on her, and within a few hours an entire file about her life is on his desk. Noooo, that's not creepy at all.
Plus, Laurel is receiving crank phone calls from an anonymous man who is harassing her, and every time she gets a new phone number, within a day the caller finds her again. Her car is tampered with, too. She's being stalked, but she's confident it isn't Cleese. And as the reader, I'm confident it isn't him either because he's the hero.
But the story deliberately puts him adjacent to Laurel during, just before, or right after the harassment. Laurel may question his role, and then dismiss her suspicions because of a few different reasons, but what I find most interesting is the contrast between his behavior while being the "good guy" or the hero, and the behavior of the stalker. Cleese has someone do research on her. He wanders around her house while waiting for her, and looks in her collection of drawings and works in progress. He's nosy—with, one presumes, good intentions—and it highlights how much leeway the hero is given just for being the hero. If this wasn't a romance, and I didn't know from the fishing-metaphor-infused back cover copy that he was the hero, I'd be very suspicious of Cheese. I mean, Cleese.
The other thing that's very interesting about this book is the degree to which Laurel's work counseling abused spouses is featured. There are scenes where she's in group therapy, assisting a social worker with role playing and discussion. There are scenes where her abuse history is examined (briefly) alongside another woman's experience. The book is as much about romance between two very different people as it is about examining the way in which people who care about one another treat each other, and which ways are kind or unkind, encouraged or unacceptable.
The line that Cleese is walking early in the book is whether his methods are overbearing and inappropriate, or totally ok because he's the hero, that's why. Cleese knows more about her past than she knows about his, and he doesn't let on how much he knows. That imbalance of power and knowledge makes me uncomfortable—and that's kind of the point, I think.
The downside to reading a Silhouette from 1994?
LOOK AT THE TYPE IT IS SO SMALL MY EYES ARE KILLING ME.
One of the things that Harlequin has done over the past few years is digitize so many of their older books. This one, alas, isn't available digitally except in non-kosher formats. So I'm reading the paper copy that I ordered so I could scan the cover.
It's painful. The typeface is so small, and the lines so close together, that after about a chapter and a half I have a headache from trying to focus. Apparently my eyeballs are very spoiled by digital reading and the ability to enlarge the text to "comfortable reading" (or what I call Great Grandma Size).
Aside from the pain of small text (ow), the commenters who said this book was good are totally right. It is good. It's also an older style of Silhouette, I think—a much larger word count, a much deeper and deliberately intense exploration of the backstory of both characters (more so for Laurel because we read with Cleese his dossier on her life). There's a lot of emotion packed into this story.
I'm kind of amazed the teeny tiny letters can hold it all.
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She loves talking with romance readers, and hopes you'll share your new favorite romance reading recommendations. You can find her on Twitter or on her couch, most likely with her eyeglasses turned toward a book.