Middle aged Courtly Love
Sushmita Bose / 8 August 2014
The only striking thing about Danielle Steel’s First Sight is the (age-wise) opening up of the romantic playing field. Other than that, the book chronicles the fall and fall of Ms Steel
There used to be a time — during my misspent school-days — when I was hooked on to Mills & Boon romances. These much-in-demand-among-classmates novellas shaped my first instincts of age-ism.
M&B heroines were petite and virtuous. Always. And invariably very young. Many of them would be between 16 and 18; 20 was the median age. The few who were 23/24 had already peaked and appeared to be hurtling downhill. Most specifically, I remember a book called Tabitha in Moonlight, in which the 27-year-old ‘leading lady’ Tabitha, a nurse, behaved as though she was about to submit herself into the portals of an old- age home (she kept rebuffing the hero’s advances because she felt she was way past it, before she finally falls headlong into passion).
The men in M&Bs, on the other hand, were well into their 30s, with a distinguished smattering of grey in their other- wise thick hair; and despite faint laughter lines around their mouths (a mystery really, given that most of them were so arrogantly sullen and rarely smiled), their bodies would be whipcord lean.
So my earliest impressions about a man:woman pairing in a romantic novel were shaped by the M&B stable. Most important lesson learnt: men could be ‘middle-aged’ in order to be desirable, but women had to be bashfully young for courtship purposes.
These one-time gleanings came rushing back to me when I was reading Danielle Steel’s First Sight. Came rushing back because Ms Steel has written a dreadful book — surpassing all her recent outpourings of tripe in formulaic format — but I still read First Sight from cover to cover because of its age-ism. Rather, the lack of it.
Timmie O’Neill is pushing 50, but she’s gorgeous, rich, talented, charitable and all of that (“Timmie was trustworthy, incredibly hard-working to the point of being driven, brilliant, creative, funny, compassionate… a perfectionist in all things, and above all, kind. The standard she set for competence, efficiency, creativity and integrity was high” — I kid you not!). Jean-Charles is pushing 60, very French and a doctor. Love suffuses the haute Parisian air when Timmie, leading fashion designer with a penchant for social work involving orphans, meets Jean-Charles, medical man par excellence trapped in a bad marriage.
Love blooms, even though Timmie — like Tabitha in my throwback M&B — had long assumed it’s too late in the day for her. Nothing much happens other than shuttlings between Los Angeles and Paris, and the love growing… “… their passion overwhelmed them, irresistible, beyond measure or reason, a tidal wave of desire that swept them both away with such overwhelming force that neither of them could have stopped it, nor wanted to.”
Accompanied by reams and reams of Steel’s trademark ramblings that will either make you want to scream or just giggle at the sheer monstrosity of the language structure. Sample: “She rarely thought about her looks. She was beautiful but not vain. She was far more interested in the looks she designed for others. Her lack of narcissism about her own appearance was endearing and refreshing. When she was working and busy, she looked like a long, leggy child who had wandered onto the scene and was pretending to be a grown-up. Her style was comman-ding, and her talent was obvious [sic], but at the same time there was a kind of innocence about her, a lack of awareness about who she was and the power she wielded.”
But hey, I was in the flow — for the age-defying populist romance, so I soldiered on.
As morning follows night, Timmie gets pregnant; on cue, the Frenchman’s wife gets cancer, making it impossible for him to end his bad marriage (of course he doesn’t know that the love of his life, on the other side of the Atlantic, is with child… his child). Quite the denouement, you’d argue.
There’s more. Timmie and Jean-Charles decide to re-enact the ending of An Affair to Remember (she couriers him the DVD to Paris, and he duly tells her even his cancer-stricken wife enjoyed it). They plan to meet at the Eiffel Tower in four months’ time, hoping, by then, the ‘wife problem’ would go away.
As it turns out, a few days before the “date”, as Timmie is nervously clutching her slightly protruding tummy, Jean-Charles calls her to announce that his daughter has had an accident, and he needs to be there for her now. A devastated Timmie decides her French lover is looking for an excuse to end their affair, calls it off and plunges into mind-numbing work — which takes her back to Paris. And. There. She. Meets. Him. Again. This time, he sees her pregnant self, and the two of them cry together at the overstated miracle. But he does tell her he wants to marry her for her, not the baby.
I’m guessing they live happily ever after. Tabitha would have approved — after her initial reluctance to look at truth squarely in the face.