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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

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Dearly Beloved by Mary Jo Putney

Dearly Beloved - Mary Jo Putney

Disclaimers: I have met the author at RWA conferences (hot fudge sundaes at McDonald's, anyone?) years and years ago but have never corresponded with her about this book or any other.

(This review may be written in installments. I'll let you know when it's . . . . finished.)

I originally read this book when it was first published in 1990 and very much enjoyed it. I read it again about 10 or 12 years later as a result of reading an online discussion about Dearly Beloved and Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold. I almost wasn't able to read the Gaffney book; it disturbed me to the point that I had to set it down frequently and regather my awareness that it was just fiction.

But my opinion of Dearly Beloved didn't change. I still liked the book, still felt it was well written.

Now, after the passage of another 10 years, I'm reading it again.

Between the first and second reading, I had published a number of books and then left writing almost entirely and also gone back to college to earn a degree in women's studies. As you can imagine, the subject of rape and abuse and violence against women was frequently discussed. I read a lot of non-fiction on the subject. I also worked as a research assistant on a project studying the life histories of incarcerated women; almost all of them had experienced some form of abuse prior to incarceration.

Also during that time, the environment around romance writing and romance novels had shifted. The old-fashioned "bodice ripper" had fallen somewhat out of favor, the alpha male wasn't the only type of hero. "Women's lib," which had been in its second wave infancy when Kathleen Woodiwiss published The Flame and the Flower in 1972, had had its impact on romance novels, too.

Between my second and third readings, I had become active in the romance writing and reading community again, at least online. Once again, the genre had changed, and the changes had been dramatic. The genre had expanded to include not only the traditional historical and contemporary romances, but also a wide variety of "paranormal" elements, everything from ghosts and angels to vampires and werewolves and fairies and beings from other planets/worlds/universes. The proliferation of digital publishing platforms had facilitated (if that's the right word) an explosion of LGBT romances, including BDSM themes. Alpha males were "in" again. Erotica flourished, and so did fan fiction.

From this new/altered/enhanced environment emerged two novels that sparked considerable discussion -- some of it very heated -- about the nature of abuse and the nature of love in the context of a romance novel. Reading and participating in some of these discussions, even though I hadn't read either of those two books (which shall remain nameless but you can probably guess what they are), I again thought about Dearly Beloved. I decided to read it a third time. I wanted to see how the themes held up, but more important I wanted to see how Putney's treatment of them held up after almost a quarter century.

Reading with an even more critical eye than when I read it the second time, I saw minor weaknesses in the writing and in the story that I had missed before. One, of course, is a major element of the plot. The Prologue covers Gervase Brandelin, Viscount St. Aubyn, being trapped into the Scottish marriage with the unwilling -- and probably unwitting -- Mary Hamilton, and his subsequent violent rape of her. As the story moves into its present time six or seven years later, the heroine is Diana Lindsay, who is only much much later revealed to be Mary Hamilton, St. Aubyn's legal, if abandoned, wife. . Once this great reveal is out of the way on a first reading, the device seems unnecessary on a second. There's really no reason to maintain this suspense, and in fact keeping it forces the character to behave in ways that weren't quite believably consistent with the overarching plot. By keeping the reader from knowing the truth, Putney also keeps the character from ever acknowledging the truth, even in her own thoughts, or ever contemplating the possible ramifications of her actions. Diana Lindsay is not a flighty, impulsive character. She would have thought about the issues and possibilities. Putney deprives her of that ability. Given the whole point of the story, this seems unnecessarily contrived. Most readers would have figured out that Diana was really Mary anyway.

Author Putney, in her essay "Welcome to the Dark Side" in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, explores the nature of the wounded or tormented hero and writes, "...[H]e is dangerous, for he is still powerful and in his agony he may lash out at those around him. Loving him makes the heroine vulnerable, yet only she, with her love, compassion, and female strength, can save him from his demons." She goes on to write, however, "In reality, savior complexes are dangerous because they encourage women to stay with abusive mates..."

But how Putney applies that in the story and character arcs of Dearly Beloved acknowledges all the wounds, all the pain, all the guilt and remorse. Through that acknowledgement, the character of Gervase changes and grows, finds his redemption, and is no longer the same person, capable of the same sins, as he was at the beginning.

And so she writes, in the novel, "The only power [Diana] wanted over him was the power to make him happy. . . . she wanted them to be equal in their loving, not master and slave."

The strength of the book, and the reason I moved it up from a solid 4-star when I listed it from my inventory onto Goodreads to a full 5-star with this review, lies in the message and how powerfully Putney presented it. Good people can do bad things, sometimes very bad things, but good people, people worthy of being loved -- and capable of giving love -- grow and change and learn. They don't necessarily become perfect, but they recognize their flaws.

Part of Gervase's redemption comes through his initial refusal to abandon Mary entirely. Though she will never assume her full role, he agrees to provide for her financially. In that sense, he takes responsibility for his actions, takes on his burden of guilt for what he had done. He acknowledges that he could have got out of the mess entirely, but he doesn't.

What Putney does, and I think this adds to the novel's overall strength and appeal, is have him confronted with the inadequacy of his compensation. The twists and ironies are masterful and, for me at least, make the Gervase's redemption ultimately much more satisfying and far more believable. At his core, he is a good person who knows he did a terrible thing.

I think there is an enormous difference between this kind of story that involves the issue of abuse and the other type of book that either glorifies abuse or dismisses it.