Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Mistress by any other name...

would not be half so interesting...

I have to admit, I am always drawn to books with the word "mistress" in the title. And there's no dearth of them over at Harlequin. I think it's right up there with "baby", "bachelor", "tycoon", "millionaire" and "virgin" for words used most often in a title. [I'm just geek enough to love it if someone would do a statistical breakdown of Harlequin titles.] I am not certain what is so compelling about the idea of a mistress. My understanding of "Mistress" is that it is a woman with whom a married man is having an affair, or in the more historical sense, a woman who is set up in a house with accounts and such, in exchange for which she provides her "protector" with sexual favors. So what's the appeal? Infidelity isn't often an interesting subject for romance, and the idea of a "kept woman" in this day and age seems unreal. I'm sure it happens, but really, get a life! Get a job. Unless the guy provides a 401K and dental. And certainly, it seems as though some of these books aren't too clear on what it means to be a mistress.

For example, I recently read Mistress on Trial by Kate Hardy. I have no idea how the mistress thing comes into play, other than the fact that the hero and heroine are sleeping with each other. I bought this on the basis of the excerpt and because it's and "opposites attract" premise, with a stuffy lawyer and artsy chick. But it was quite a pleasant surprise, and lived up to the excerpt. Leo Ballantyne starts out as a typical Presents hero, glowering and making nasty assumptions about the heroine based on half-assed info. Rose Carter, a vintage clothing dealer, makes quite a few assumptions herself. But in the second chapter, he calls to apologize! The two realize they maybe have got it wrong. As they find they have more in common as they think, they both fight their attraction to each other, thinking that the differences are too big to overcome. There are no big misunderstandings, no contrivances, just two confused people head over heels. I particularly liked Leo, who went after Rose with the same drive that made him so successful. He even says "I love you" first. It almost seemed to real, lacking that entertaining but ridiculous element of unreality that many HPs have. I'm giving it a B, and I'd recommend it to those who are leery of HP. I'd definitely read her again. Note: It is veddy British, and some of the language and legal stuff is different from the US.

On the other hand, much is made of the heroine's "mistress" status in Katherine Garbera's Six Month Mistress. [Look at this cover. The guy is supposed to be suave, sexy businessman. But to me, it looks like the former fat girl with her best buddy (and co-president of the drama club and art society) at the prom. He's grabbing her chin like, "No, no, no, sweetheart. If you eat one more cocktail frank, you're going to bust out of that fabulous dress. Then you'll never get that adorable jock." I love teen movies.] In exchange for billionaire Jeremy Harper's help, the struggling Bella McNamara agrees to be his mistress for six months. There's a legal contract and everything. It ain't no thang for Bella, who has been into Jeremy forever. Jeremy has wanted Bella for years as well. So why doesn't he just ask her out? Well because his dad was happier with his mistresses than with his wife, so Jeremy figures that's the way to go. Whatever. Being mindful of her feelings, Jeremy lets everyone assume they are girlfriend/boyfriend, keeping the true nature of the arrangement secret. Again, why not just make her your girlfriend? Jeremy's kind of a bonehead. I loved the bit where Bella hesitates opening one of his gifts in front of her assistant, because the gift one gives a mistress is probably different from one you give a girlfriend. The possibilities abound--is it trashy lingerie? A feather boa? Birth Control? Silly contrivances aside, this was a fast read which would probably appeal to people who like these kind of books. Bella was quite a good heroine. Too bad Jeremy seemed monumentally clueless at times. A C+. Eh, real or fake mistresses, I'm sure I'll keep reading 'em. I guess "Fuckbuddy on Trial" or "Six Month Girlfriend" just resonates differently.


Joanna Chambers said...

You've been reading my mail, Devon! I was just thinking about this.

Use of the word mistress makes total sense in historical books or to describe contemporary extra-marital affairs. It is not, however, used in contemporary society to describe a 'kept woman'- which is how Harlequin use it all the time. These days most people would simply think of such a woman as the man's girlfriend.

So why is it used all the time?

It is essentially a perjorative term, implying a degree of disapproval which is why I think it is attractive to readers despite it being effectively meaningless in modern terms. We immediately know that the hero probably isn't giving the heroine the respect she deserves (since he probably believes he is paying for her 'services') and he is going to have to learn his lesson.

Devon said...

Right on, Tumperkin! Very true. I think it also implies a certain naughtiness that is titillating to readers.

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