Victoria Schulman was hugging his horse.
If that wasn't enough to piss a man off, Eli Turnbull didn't know what was. That she was doing it in one of those fussy satin shirts only made it worse.
The opening sentences of Can't Hurry Love, the second book in Molly O'Keefe's Crooked Creek Ranch contemporary romance series, set up its reader to expect a traditional battle of the sexes storyline. Country vs. city, touchy-feely vs. tough-as-nails, satin vs. denim, dainty ballet flats vs. crushing bootheels—the differences between New York socialite Victoria Schulman and Texas cowboy Eli in this opening scene, differences destined to set sparks a-flying as opposites inevitably attract, are differences grounded in traditional constructions of gender.
Yet O'Keefe is after something a little more subtle here than the usual "men are like this, women are like that, and it's their differences that make for compelling love stories" assumptions common to much traditional romance. It's even more complicated than the "he'll learn to be a bit more emotive, she'll learn to be a bit more assertive" character arcs to be found in more recent, more progressive romance novels. Instead, O'Keefe strives to show the true costs, to both men and to women, when the sexes are corralled inside the fences of overly rigid gender roles.
That is, until yet another man attempts to push her around. Eli Turnbull has worked on Victoria's father's ranch for all of his life, yearning one day to take back the land his ancestors were forced to sell to Victoria's. Though Eli feels "bad bullying a woman who clearly needed not only a good meal but someone to take care of her" (1), he doesn't let his feelings stop him from laconically insulting, belittling, and condescending to Victoria in an attempt to persuade her that she would be far better off selling the ranch to him than in making the patently ridiculous attempt to run it herself.
It was as if Victoria were totally invisible and after being invisible to every man in her entire life, she'd had enough.... After years of lying down, of capitulating, of surrendering before she even realized she had something she wanted to fight for, she was filled with an unholy hostility.... She was a woman who was just beginning to realize how scorned she truly was. (6)
Rather than taking the entire novel to learn the value of gumption, Victoria takes advantage of her fury forged in hell right from the book's opening scene. And not because she's a woman scorned, but because she's one who will no longer tolerate being belittled and ignored by the men around her. By the end of the first chapter, the feminine Victoria has become just as "pissed off" as the masculine Eli was in the book's opening scene. Can some lessons in the value of the touchy-feely for cowboy Eli be far behind?
Eli forces Victoria to muck out the barn; Victoria leaves potpourri and a "Home, Sweet Home" pillow in Eli's horse's stall. Eli sells off the herd; Victoria leases the land Eli longs to buy. The lines for a typical battle of the sexes clash seem clearly drawn.
Yet when Eli pulls Victoria's son into the game, Victoria calls the battle to a screeching halt. And when Eli, in a move that would have been rewarded in an Old Skool romance, tries to bully her into relenting by playing on her obvious physical attraction to him, she throws him off the ranch. For good. In the year 2012, the old "You want this... Don't fight me" line (words which Eli actually uses) just don't have the power to persuade, even the most delicately feminine of women.
Barely 60 pages into the novel, and O'Keefe has kicked the ladder of reader expectations out from under us. And she's done it while simultaneously pointing a finger at the misogyny underlying the traditional battle of the sexes romance plot. Where can this city girl/cowboy tale go from here?
Yet behind her newly empowered self-identity, Victoria's older self lurks. And ironically, it raises its debilitating head not due to fears of losing a man, but of gaining one, and sliding back into her weak, disempowered way of life. It threatens to take completely over out of guilt, when her former friend Renee, a victim of Joel's dirty business dealing, arrives at the ranch, determined to force Victoria to bear her pain like a good, self-sacrificing feminine wife should.
Seeing how the feminine Victoria comes to terms with the differing roles she tentatively inhabits (and though I've no room in this post to discuss them, the roles that the masculine Eli finds himself trying on for size, too) makes for a romance which, while celebrating the differences between male and female bodies, challenges the restricting of specific professional, intellectual, and emotional needs as the particular province to one gender rather than the other.
Chanel ballet flats: AKisforKate
Muddy Cowboy Boots: Cowboy Boots: A Gallery
Mud Bath: etsy
Next time on RNFF:
Feminism and BSDM?