(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).
My perception of the central romance in The Windflower is very different this time around, mainly because my perception of Devon is far less favorable. It isn't only that he is more abusive than I remember. I suspect I originally measured him against the common romance heroes of the 1980s, many of whom were far more brutal. I found myself hoping that he would grovel sufficiently to make up for his bad behavior. Although he does, briefly, humble himself and express sincere regret for his past actions, he bullies Merry into marrying him on the same day, so it sort of undermines the new leaf he has supposedly turned over. Although Merry delivers a satisfying punch to his jaw, I kept wishing she would chain Devon up and whip him before she finally gave in and agreed to marry him (and I don't even care for BDSM; I just think he really had it coming to him).
I also noticed this time around that Devon is not portrayed as a believable person. He is a composite of at least three romance hero archetypes: the pirate, the duke and the spy. He is also described as a genius (although we never witness him having any brilliant ideas or using his supposedly-clever brain to figure out who Merry really is). His motivations are told to the reader rather than shown. That was a common approach in classic romance novels. However, The Windflower is full of brilliantly fleshed-out characters, which is what makes it odd that Devon is such an artificial construct.
He is a placeholder for the man of Merry's dreams. He is her unicorn, and also the MacGuffin that sets Merry's adventures in motion. Her trip to England was engineered by Devon's relatives, who viewed her as a potential bride for him. She was kidnapped off the ship by the inept burglars whom Devon hired to steal incriminating papers from his old enemy. Her disastrous escape attempts were motivated by her fear of both his hostility toward her and her growing attraction for him.
When their union is finally consummated, his passion is taken for granted, contrary to the available evidence. The sex is described in a style that was common to many classic romance novels. There are many flowery metaphors for the feelings the pair experience. Devon manages to touch Merry slowly and gently in all the right places, without producing any frightening grunts or messy bodily fluids. It's like a spa visit with a happy ending. He performed not like a human male but more like a sexbot from a regency-themed sci-fi brothel (imagine Austenland if it were written by Michael Crichton, author of Westworld).
Again, this was a common convention in classic romance novels. The hero exists in a constant state of desire for the heroine, so that he is always ready when she finally is, and somehow this all-consuming passion is expressed by catering only to her desires. When I was a young woman with limited sexual experience, I found that fantasy very appealing. Now that I am a mature woman of more experience, I find it rather quaint but not terribly satisfying.
However, The Windflower still works for me as women's fiction. It's really about Merry's journey from shy, lonely introvert to spy, pirate and duchess. I'm still hoping for sequels about Cat, Raven and Rand Morgan.