So when I picked up a copy the first installment of Lori Austin's "Once Upon a Time in the West" series, Beauty and the Bounty Hunter, I was primed for disappointment. But I don't think it was only low expectations that led me to be so charmed by this tale of a ruthless bounty hunter and a beautiful con artist on the lam in the post-Civil War west. Is it because Austin invites readers in on the deceptions, rather than trying to pull the wool over our eyes?
Austin's novel is far more interested in the degree to which stories—the stories we tell each other, and especially the stories we tell ourselves—can not only shape identity, but can help mitigate the pain of trauma. Both Cat and Alexi have prior histories, both with others and with each other, when the action of the novel begins. Cathleen Chase was once a southern belle, a newly married woman who moved west to start a new life with her beloved husband after the ravages of the Civil War. But after that husband chose to die himself rather than allow his wife to be murdered, Cathleen reinvents herself as Cat O'Banyon, determined to wreak vengeance on the man who not only killed her lover, but made a mockery of his very sacrifice by raping her.
What conman Alexi asks for in return for his lessons—that Cat pay not with the coin she doesn't have, but with her body—is something most readers would find difficult to countenance if this were the the first glimpse they were given of Alexi as a character. But we're introduced to Cat and Alexi long after that first meeting, after Cat has left the confidence man far behind to pursue her quest for vengeance. Readers find out about the beginnings of their relationship only after they've been told other stories, stories that give proof both to Cat's myriad strengths and to Alexi's strong feelings for her (the story is told in alternating viewpoints). A story's power to persuade lies not just in its details, but in the order in which those details are revealed.
Or which details are withheld, up until the very last moment. We do not find out until very late in the novel what Alexi's own real story is, how trauma has shaped not only Cathleen but also a young immigrant once known as Fedya. And it is only at the book's very end that Alexi's real motive for that seemingly heartless bargain with Cat is revealed—an arrogant, touching, yet ultimately false belief in the message of the original fairy tale after which this book is named. Beauty, even when Beauty is a trickster, does not have the power to transform, to redeem, a Beast. "I thought I could fix you," Alexi tells Cat at novel's climax, an ironic statement given his own inability to move beyond the traumas of his own past (296). Alexi's make-believes, and his inviting of a "ruined" woman to his bed, may have helped Cat to survive, but ultimately it is only Cat who can "fix" Cat. By choosing to affirm life rather than simply deal death, Cat comes to the shocking realization that there might be life beyond revenge, and that she might just have more than one life story to tell.
Of course, this is just my interpretation. One reviewer on Goodreads suggested Austin's book embodies "rape culture," an interpretation with which I disagree, even though I can see how one might make a case for it. I'm curious to see if there are any other readers out there who, like me, view Austin's romance as invested in feminism and equality between the sexes, rather than in rape culture?
Walter Crane, illustration from Beauty and the Beast: Wikipedia
Snake Oil Salesman: The Banning Museum
Vase or Two Faces: Optical Illusion Collection
Next time on RNFF:
What's new about "New Adult"?