Why? At first I thought it was because the authors each attempted to pull a bait and switch—to introduce asshatty behavior on a hero's part, only to distract the reader from said asshattery by introducing another person who behaves even more badly than does the hero. Giving the reader a different target for the anger that the hero's action originally evoked struck me as a disingenuous bit of bait and switch. But then I began to wonder—did the real reason why I wasn't cutting these heroes any slack have less to do with the author's sleight of hand, and more to do with issues of point of view?
Maybe if I tell you a bit more about the two books in question, you can help me figure this out. Both contain major spoilers, so stop here if you haven't yet but are still hoping to read Linnea Sinclair's Gabriel's Ghost (2006) or Emily Giffin's The One & Only (2014).
I've been trying to read more widely in science fiction romance, a subgenre in which Sinclair's name pops up as a recommended author on a regular basis. Her most recent books are part of an ongoing series, set in the Dock Five Universe, so I decided to start with the first in the series, Gabriel's Ghost, a RITA award winner. The story opens with Chasidah Bergren, a career military interstellar pilot unfairly framed and court martialed, being extracted from the prison-planet to which she has been sent by her nemesis, smuggler and rogue Gabriel "Sully" Sullivan. Sully convinced Chaz to work with him and his team to thwart a secret project to breed jukors, vicious killers who have long been outlawed by the Empire, but he has other, far more personal reasons for coming to Chaz's rescue.
"Stay out of my goddamned mind. I'd meant it. Stars forgive me, but I'd meant it. And he knew that. When he'd invaded my mind I'd been shocked. It was like everything I'd read; it was like rape. A forced intrusion on my self, my soul." (195). Although Sully promises he'd never hurt her, Chaz upbraids him for thinking he already knows what would and wouldn't hurt:
"Did you think at all, Gabriel Sullivan, before you ripped into my mind, just what my feelings might be? Did you stop to consider that?" I thrust my finger at him. "Or was your anger, your... I don't know, petulant jealousy, your ego's temper tantrum more important than anything else? .... How in hell would you know what hurts me? You never even bothered to ask." (198-99)
It takes Chaz some time to forgive Sully's rape-like mind invasion, but she does, eventually. She even gives her approval when he invades the minds of several others (the means justify the ends?). As Chaz explains to her ex when he finds himself on the receiving end of a Sully mind-probe, "We had to know," then thinks to herself "Another no-choice situation" (392).
Sinclair gives clear reasons for Sully's lack of forthrightness—his powers are so feared, and so despised, by almost all sentient races that he would be outcast if he told anyone, even the woman he loved, the truth of what he is. Chaz is not at all happy to discover that Sully has kept things from her yet again, omissions that took away her ability to choose for herself:
"I thought of all the half-truths, the almost-lies that Sully layered around himself as a protective wall. And I reclaimed his hand when he offered it because, if I expected him to be honest with me, then I had to be honest with him. For all that I loved him—and I did, beyond all measure, as he'd once told me—part of me was angry over his deceptions and his usurping of my choice when he'd made me ky'sara to him. I wouldn't have refused, but it would have been nice to have been asked. He needed to feel that, read that from me" (445).
Philip, Chaz's ex, believes that Sully will use and kill Chaz, and that she only wants to stay with Sully because he is manipulating her mind. Sully takes issue with Philip's beliefs, telling him that Chaz isn't his servant or slave, but "An equal link.... If she is ky'sara to me and I am ky'sal to her, it's a link forged of love, not command. And that zragkor you threaten her with would kill me" (414-15). Philip doesn't buy it, and demands that Chaz separate herself from Sully, to prove that he's not controlling her.
Philip thus gets to fill the role of über-patriarchal bad guy, urging the reader, and Chaz, to redirect our anger at Sully's equally patriarchal actions onto Philip instead. Chaz refuses to cave in to Philip's condescending demands, and flies off into the sunset with Sully at book's end.
Something similar happened in Emily Giffin's latest, The One and Only. Thirty-three-year-old Shea Rigsby has long idolized her best friend's father, Clive Carr, the coach of the local university's beloved football team. Shea, a rabid football fan, is so devoted to the team that she's worked in the college's athletic department writing press releases rather than pursuing a more ambitious job as a sports reporter. At the start of the novel, Shea begins dating Ryan, an alum of Coach Carr's team, now a professional football player, a guy that everyone around Shea thinks she should be down on her knees with gratitude to for deigning to notice lowly old her. But Shea can't seem to summon nearly the same level of enthusiasm for Ryan as she does for her hometown team, or for its recently widowed coach.
"Then she said he forced her to have sex."
"He raped her?" I said, the word leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.
"Well, she didn't say that exactly. But yeah... That's what she alleged. That he had sex with her against her will. So yeah. That would be rape." (354)
Coach advised the girl, a former girlfriend of Ryan's, to report the assault to the police. But he didn't believe her accusation, nor did he report it to anyone else at the university. As he explains,
"You have to remember, Shea... There are rules now about this sort of thing. Rules that say coaches have to report all incidents to the university president or athletic director or police. Or all three. But back then... there was nothing in place. I had never dealt with anything like that before.
"Did you tell Connie?" I asked, unsure of why this mattered to me. [Connie is his now-dead wife]
Coach Carr claims now, though,
"If I could go back, I would change how I handled everything. I would have done more. I really thought I was doing the right thing, but now I can see that I let that girl down.... The other night, when I walked into your room and saw Ryan on top of you... It was almost as if I were standing up for both of you."
I nodded, as if I accepted this explanation, but couldn't help feeling that throwing a couple of punches in my living room couldn't fix the past, and I felt myself withdraw from him in a way that scared me.
Shea, who throughout the novel has been a conflict-avoider, a get-along-with-everyone, make-everyone-else-happy kind of girl, experiences an epiphany of sorts when she finally is able to say "I'm angry" after listening to Coach's story:
"Yes" I said, shocked by the emotion, the very notion that I could be angry at Coach. "You should have reported it. You should have at least helped her report it."
"Yes... I should have... I know that now... But, Shea... I honest to God didn't think he raped her. I still don't."
I looked at him, thinking this was the wrong response, feeling a fresh wave of indignation, this time on Tish's behalf. "That's not the point," I said. "That wasn't up to you to decide." (339)
Coach yanks Shea from the high ground, though, when he takes major exception to her fear that his reluctance to report Ryan's girlfriend's claim might have stemmed from an all-too-important desire to win. He protests it's not about winning, it's
"...about commitment to the people you love. Your wife. Your family. Your friends. Your team. It's about giving it your all and doing the very best you can with what you have, in every moment you're in. And that's what I did that night in my office. That's what I do on the football field. And that's what I'm doing right now as I defend myself to the woman I love" (362-63)
Bait and switch, yes? But as I re-read the passages I planned to quote for this post, I began to wonder if issues of point of view had as much to do with my "ick" responses as these bait and switch moves. Both of these texts are told in the first person, solely from the point of view of the heroine. Because I wasn't allowed into the heads of the male halves of these relationships, I wasn't sure I could trust their claims. Does Sully truly believe that he will never again use his powers to "rape" Chaz's mind again? Does he truly see her as an equal? Is Coach Carr being entirely honest with himself that the desire to win played absolutely no role in his decision not to report the accusations against one of his star players? In romances in which I'm allowed inside the heads of both the male and the female protagonists, am I willing to grant heroes who engage in blatantly sexist behavior but claim that they've reformed the benefit of the doubt, when I'm not willing to do the same in a woman-only pov story? Is this a sexist refusal to trust my heroines? Or a closer reflection of the caution we should all take in the real world, a world in which we can never truly get inside the head of another person?
Have you ever read a romance that engaged in a bait and switch like the ones described above? Do you find yourself more forgiving of bad behavior when you're allowed to see inside the head of the one who's behaving badly?