A Mills & Boon book has confused me.
As anyone who has ever read one knows, M&B publish short, uncomplicated romance novels. There are various subgenres (see Doctors or Sheikhs), but most of these books stick to a reasonably basic pattern, with minor variations that have set in with time. Some that come to mind: sex/no sex, sexism/less sexism, virgins/unfulfilled divorcees or widows/women who have had previous happy relationships. The pattern is as follows: man and woman meet – man is masterful and probably richer – there is antagonism – feelings develop – there is a misunderstanding – it all ends happily.
A successful Mills & Boon novel sticks to this model. It may be written well or badly, but once the name (and long-stemmed rose logo) of the publisher are on the book, this is all you expect it to be doing. And expectations do inform how one reads a text, what one looks for, and how one judges it.
Which leads to a (to me, interesting) question. Consider a hypothetical situation in which a book contains all the plot elements I mention above, but aspires to do more than simply tell the story which the reader of this genre wants and expects to read. Imagine this book is published under the Mills & Boon brand, with the same sort of title, the same sort of cover as the rest of the company's output. How do you read and judge it?
It is unlikely that this situation would ever actually occur. M&B would not be the first publisher of choice for an author who sought to do something different, since the name would not attract the sorts of customers who might be interested. Plus it might alienate their existing buyers. As a romance reader I'm quite conservative myself, and can well imagine that a sizeable chunk of readers in the genre feel the same.
But reading Susan Stephens' The Italian Prince's Proposal I have to wonder if this is that book.
On the surface it contains all the conventions of the genre - the title follows the "the something someone's something" pattern of many recent titles. The plot involves a hot, arrogant prince who needs to marry quickly and chooses a pretty English girl who is desperate for the money. Love happens. They fight. She returns to England. They are reconciled. So far so familiar.
Except it isn't. Right from the start something feels off about this story, and then, around the 100th page, it all gets rather surreal. There is a sequence where both characters are half asleep and walking around the house, popping into each other's bedrooms to take a look. There is a dreamlike sequence involving grape-treading (apparently the quantities of grape juice everyone is breathing lead to headiness). In my head this is actually all very filmable and could be gorgeous, but it would not be a realist movie. In this book, it feels completely out of place.
Add to this the gardener, an endearing old man who gives the heroine wise advice (and turns out to be the king) . His inclusion gives the story some of the feel of a fable. And then there's the fact that the entire plot (what there is of it) revolves around the musician sister's need to own a famous violin. It's all very weird. With all this going on, the terrible plot seems like an afterthought.
At no point in the reading of this book did I find it particularly enjoyable. And I'm wondering now how much this had to do with the fact that it was sold to me (where "sold" involves stealing things from my mother's bathroom) as a Mills & Boon book. Would I have found some merit in it if it had a different sort of jacket? Or was it just fundamentally bad?