For the longest time, I thought my unromantic airport reunions meant there was something wrong with me, or with my relationship. If I loved my guy, why didn't the mere sight of his familiar face emerging from the crush of a crowd of strangers send me into a cloud of delirious joy? It took me a good while to realize that part of me wanted to push him away when he returned from a trip not because I didn't care for him, but because I cared too much. How dare he have commitments more important than me. How dare he care about something else besides me. How dare he abandon me! My conscious brain knew, of course, that such a response was irrational, ridiculous, but even so, a small corner of my unconscious was angry, and wanted to punish him for enjoying, for needing, something else besides me.
Case in point is a book that I started off loving: newcomer Kate Cross's steampunk fantasy Heart of Brass (2012). As the book's blurb asserts, Cross's heroine, Arden Grey, "enjoys a life most women in 1898 Victorian London can't even dream of": social status, wealth, and independence. She's an inventor, creating not only devices to help "hysterical" women relieve their tensions (what we would call vibrators and the like ;-) ) but also special glasses that allow her to see the final moments of a murder victim's life. Such inventions allow her both to help the police and to work as an agent for the Wardens of the Realm, protecting the nation against unclear but obviously dangerous menaces.
Best of all for romance junkies, Arden's beloved husband, Lucas, who has been missing for seven years, makes a sudden reappearance at the start of the novel (ironically for one who hates real-life airport reunions, lovers separated then reunited is a favorite romance trope of mine). Lucas, having had his memory altered by the mysterious "Company," has no recollection of Arden and instead has been programmed to assassinate her.
Yet their present relationship is haunted by the ghosts of Arden's past fears, fears that Luke cared more for his work than for her. Before Luke's disappearance, their marriage was plagued by tension, tension stemming from Arden's frustrations at Luke's constant abandonment of her whenever the thrills (or "duties," as Luke justified them) of his spying work called.
Rather than showing Arden maturing, growing out of such fears as she comes to recognize the value of her own work and skills, the novel instead concludes by simply appeasing them. After Arden is almost killed when the murderers they've been pursuing are revealed and captured, Luke highhandedly submits not only his own resignation to the Wardens, but also hers. The narrative positions his decision as a positive one, a rejection of an agency that is only using him, and is negatively impacting his relationship with his wife: "He was done with being a spy, with putting his life in jeopardy for a country and an agency that would just turn around and demand that he do it again. He refused to be separated from her again. Refused to keep secrets from her, or endanger her because of his actions." But as becomes clear in the book's denouement, Luke's decision resonates because of what it tells Arden about his feelings for her.
Arden agrees to Luke's highhanded decision to resign on behalf of them both with surprisingly little protest. Readers can understand why when they see her old fears returning: "She didn't know how long it would last—how much time would pass before Luke began to crave excitement and chafe at the bonds of matrimony. It frightened her thinking he might leave her again." Only after weeks pass, and Arden brings herself to question Luke about his decision, is she finally assured by his declaration: "Arden, you are my life. I don't want anything else."
* Male singers or groups who have recorded a song titled "You're All That I Need" range from Michael Bolton to Marvin Gaye, Radiohead to Twisted Sister, Method Man to White Lion. No matter her musical taste, a woman can find a man ready to tell her he needs nothing but her.
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The Wonky Feminism of Ruthie Knox