Sunday, August 17, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part IV: the Squid Jumps the Shark

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

The term "Jumping the Shark" has become shorthand for that moment when a television series, movie or book fundamentally changes in character and tone, altering the audience's expectations.

It is often a pejorative, meaning the show has become ridiculous and/or unwatchable, but that is not always the case.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer jumped several sharks over the course of its seven-year run (the sudden appearance of a previously-unseen younger sister; the musical episode; Buffy's affair with Spike; the sudden deaths of multiple beloved characters), and those changes kept the series fresh and exciting.

There is a distinct moment in The Windflower when everything changes, and it coincidentally involves a sea creature and a jump.  A squid leaps into a small fishing craft and is brought back to the Black Joke for the amusement of the captive Merry. She has become something of a mascot to the crew, rather like the ship's pet pig, Dennis.  Until now, however, we believe that the crew are really cutthroats who would not hesitate to slaughter Dennis if food supplies were low or brutalize Merry if circumstances were slightly different.

The squid sets in motion a chain of events that lead to Merry's escape from the Joke with a defecting crew member during a battle with a rival pirate ship. The defector tells Merry that the rival was known for his particular cruelty toward captive women. He also believes that the crew voted to attack the ship because they spotted a terrified woman with children on the deck of a schooner recently captured by the rival pirate.  So now we are lead to believe that the crew of the Joke are not completely without conscience. I am unsure whether we are meant to think that spending time with Merry has restored their humanity or if they merely put on a tougher façade to frighten their captive into cooperating.

In any case, Merry's relationships with the crew of the Joke are forever changed after her disastrous (and temporary) escape.  Most importantly, Devon (and the reader) begins to realize that he has genuine feelings for her.  He does not yet apologize for his past behavior or grovel in the traditional sense, but he volunteers himself as a human guinea pig for an untested and potentially dangerous malaria treatment that could save Merry's life.

While in a malarial fever, Merry has another double-entendre-filled unicorn dream, filled with metaphors that are so unsubtle that the dream almost hints at bestiality. Some of the imagery in the dream (particularly the shower of white petals) also reminded me of the Tom Cruise film Legend (which came out a year after The Windflower was first published).

In this section of the book, I was also reminded of a phenomenon in classic romance novels that I call "Calgon, Take Me Away!" (in honor of the 1970s TV ads for powdered Epsom salts that could magically create a bubble of quiet relaxation around a woman's bathtub, allowing her to tune out ringing phones and screaming children). The sex scenes in classic romance novels often transport the heroine to an altered state of consciousness, where she is seemingly unable to remember the reality around her while she experiences magical sensations that go beyond the neural impulses caused by the stimulation of erogenous zones.  The scenes advance the plot but exist slightly outside reality, rather like a song-and-dance number in a Bollywood film.

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