It’s summer, and even the most literary of us are sighing at the thought of lugging The Goldfinch to the beach, Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding. When the temperature rises and the brain starts to melt, we want a small, simple paperback that provides adequate shade when placed over our eyes while lying on a lounge chair—what I call airport books but are actually referred to as genre literature: romances, spy thrillers, mysteries, Westerns and the new super-popular supernatural scene. I particularly love romances, ever since reading Harlequin bodice-rippers right alongside Wuthering Heights as a tween.
San Antonio author Karen Ranney is well known for her Scottish historical romances (25 to date) and her latest, The Virgin of Clan Sinclair, ends a trilogy of “Clan Sinclair” stories all set in Scotland in the 1870s. Although a standard romance novel in many ways, I found the protagonist refreshing and unique.
Let’s dispense with the obvious first. Our heroine is a shy but headstrong virgin (it’s right there in the title) with an overbearing mother worried about her unmarried state. She thinks she is incredibly plain but is actually beautiful. A hasty marriage with a dashing stranger is arranged based on a flimsy excuse.
The hero is a strong, silent type with a dark secret that renders him unable to be truly vulnerable and admit his love for his new wife. Ultimately, he is redeemed by her goodness and innocence. She is fulfilled by a happy marriage and pregnancy.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that—those are the standard romance novel tropes for a good reason. But where The Virgin of Clan Sinclair distinguishes itself is in its deviation from the norm. Ellice Traylor, the heroine, while the titular virgin, is also an amateur eroticist. Influenced by the scandalous novels of the time, Tom Jones and Fanny Hill, Ellice pours all of her sexual frustrations into a wanton novel centered around Lady Pamela, her bold, adventurous, licentious foil (and possibly a knowing nod to the real-life steamy, forward-thinking 1740 novel Pamela). Her dream is to have the novel published so she will be financially independent. Instead, she has to sacrifice the novel and marry to avoid a political scandal. When she encounters problems in her marriage, she works them out in writing, through Pamela. However, it is only when she claims Lady Pamela’s spirit and experiences as her own that she finds real agency. She makes true choices about the marriage, her book and even her virginity.
The idea of a woman using her creativity to explore her sexual awakening, and to be in control of it from the outset, is an exciting advance in historical romances. It was an enjoyable read, perfect for the lounge chair.
P.S. Also a welcome improvement over past romances: Ranney’s straightforward use of “cock.” I remember when “member” was all the rage.
The Virgin of Clan Sinclair
by Karen Ranney | Avon Books | 2014 | 338 pp