by Nora Roberts
I expected Tribute to be a hot romance. Nora Roberts expected it to be a mystery novel. Neither of us got lucky this time around, but it looks as though I’ll have the chance to roll again and spend another $26.95 for one of the three new hardcovers she’s publishing this year, and with whatever’s left in my pockets I’ll spring for her 2008 paperback originals (a series of seven, the “Sign of Seven” septology). And there’s always the hundred-strong backlist to graze upon.
If not Mystery or Romance, what is Tribute? Romance Fiction (and its big-city daughter, Chick Lit) have been exploring the semi-genre of “House Porn” lately, in which an old house, preferably one full of memories and secrets, is renovated or revivified by a tough, beautiful woman who loosens up and, ideally, renews her spirit along the way (see Danielle Steel’s 2007 The House, or Jane Green’s 2008 The Beach House). Cilla McGowan, who “sparkles like sunlight” after a trip to Home Depot, is made-to-order for the genre. And Nora Roberts has installed her in a broken house, the aggressively lush grounds of which feature:
Weeds, literal blankets of vines, overgrown shrubs with branches poking through the blankets like brown bones, marred what had once been simply stupendous. Another metaphor, she supposed, for the bright and beautiful choked off and buried in the grasping.
Early in Tribute, Cilla, a young, beautiful ex-movie star, ex-recording star, granddaughter of the Marilyn Monroe-like Janet Hardy, moves into her grandmother’s rundown Shenandoah mansion to gut, grout, coat and haute the place. In her effort to convert the dilapidation into a “classy oasis, and yes, maybe a personal salute to old Hollywood,” she stumbles into a stack of letters bound in red ribbon and concealed in a hollowed-out book.They’re love letters to her grandmother, beginning fifty years ago and cutting off shortly before the pill-addled starlet committed suicide … or was it suicide after all? (NB: The book in which Cilla finds the letters is The Great Gatsby. Were they postcards?)
So that’s the mystery. It’s only glancingly addressed over the course of the book and hastily tied up in the last few pages. Obviously, it’s only there to provide cover copy for the real story–one of steamy romance, or so I was naive enough to expect. The rhythm of Tribute lies elsewhere, and can be glimpsed as Cilla gazes into the garden of her new abode:
Roses and lilies stunned the air with perfume that had the bees buzzing drunkenly and a hummingbird, bold as an emerald, darting for nectar. The sun poured strong and bright out of cloudless skies to wash everything in the golden light of fairy tales.
And then … then he arrives:
He stood in the open doorway, with sunlight haloing his silvered blond hair. His smile deepened the creases in his face, still so handsome, and warmed those quiet hazel eyes.
Her heart took a bound from surprise to pleasure, and another into embarrassment.
|Well, she likes her dad, but this kind of description is characteristic of the enterprise. Everything, everything is sensualized. The characters and landscape are evoked with neither the precision of realism or the subjective haze of impressionism. Rather, they are over-described, as in a time-lapse hallucination. Not only do they sacrifice both clarity and sympathy and strain credulity, they defeat their own aim. How can a rose be a rose when it “riots” and “stuns”? One character might kiss another “hard enough to vibrate his teeth,” for example. The daffodils by the door don’t grow, exactly, but have abruptly “shoved up through the thorny armor of climbing roses.” Strange to me that the characters evince no fear of this terrifyingly resistant foliage; confronted by rioting roses, they don’t so much as flinch.|
Far from trusting her readers, Roberts actively condescends. Every twenty or so pages, she finds it necessary to re-describe the same characters we see on every page in just as much comprehensive detail as she did originally. In one passage, Ford Sawyer, Cilla’s love interest, is introduced:
faded, frayed-at-the-hem jeans and baggy gray sweatshirt covered what she judged to be about six feet, four inches of lanky, long-legged male. He wore wire-framed sunglasses, and the jeans had a horizontal tear in one knee. A day or two’s worth of stubble prickled over his cheeks and jaw in a look she’d always found too studied to be hip.
A handful of chapters later, we’re once again reminded he’s hunky with “a touch of nerd,” and later still–because we may have forgotten–”long and lean … with just that hint of gawky. Messy brown hair with sun-kissed tips.” Then again, and again, he’s “long, lean, edging-toward-gawky” with “that sun-streaked brown hair rumpled and messy.”
And in case we haven’t made the connection quite yet: “He’s Dad. He’s Dad with a layer of nerd.”
For the first two-hundred-odd pages, there is nary even a sex scene to sharpen the mood. Every couple has their kink, and for Cilla and Ford it’s abstinence. They practically fetishize the stuff. If they were particularly religious or STD-cautious, it would make sense, but these aren’t real people anyway (or interesting linguistic constructs, or symbols of anything) so Nora Roberts feels no need to provide them with something as fruitless as motive. They’re attracted to one other and they steal the odd kiss, and they talk about having sex all the time, but …
She had the house to rehab, her contractor’s license to study for, a business to establish. And a family mystery to unravel. Scheduling in sex with her hot neighbor wouldn’t be the smartest move.
Days later, Cilla sort of kind of wants to cap a frustrating day with some sex. This time, though, it’s Ford who turns her down. “I want you to talk me into bed now,” she begs. But he’d prefer to go for ice cream, so they do that instead. Maybe a week later (he’s sleeping on the floor by now) she confesses that she really wants to sleep with him, but hesitates for superstitious reasons (something about a friend in the hospital not getting well). “He kept his gaze on hers, and smiled. Slowly. ‘I’ve got time. For later.’”
More days later and they still haven’t done it yet. Her mind is too stuck on the sick friend to really let herself go. She suggests they eat pizza and not have sex. “Almost my favorite thing to do with a beautiful woman,” he answers, happy as a clam.
Deep into Chapter 15, nearly halfway into the book, Cilla gazes at Ford and thinks, “if I wasn’t so tired, I’d walk right over there and jump your bones.” But, alas, she’s had a long day. Ford turns his back as she changes for bed and he too is “too damn tired to start up anything.” And so to bed.
Somehow, sex does end up happening. Cilla “gripped the tangled sheets” as Ford “found warmth and silk and secrets while her heart beat strong against his lips.” Thud. Smack. Did anyone doubt it would be “the best sex of her life”? Does anyone doubt she’ll be turning it down again within a chapter and a half? Even with hallucinogenic kisses like:
The punch of this one … It was raw, and it was randy, and it plowed straight through her to leave her muscles quivering and nether ends quaking. She wanted, for one mad moment, to be gulped down in one greedy swallow, wanted him to throw her over his shoulder and drag her off to some dark cave.
When he jerked her away again, her head actually spun.
“Fastidious, my ass.” [Tip, girls: you’ll always want to have a zinger ready. And try not to sleep with your caveman for another 200 pages at least ... you wouldn't want your readers to start thinking you were immoral or something.]
The sensuality in this prose is too lush to bother with sex. The dialogue and dream sequences are there strictly to establish plot points. And the plot, the plot is there to … to what? To remind readers of their desire for fame and beauty (and a rehabbed house), comfort them about their sexual anxiety (best to skip it, eh?), their sense that our own real non-hallucinogenically intense world is too complex to be interesting. Cilla longs only for the normalcy her readers already possess (a wealthy and well-appointed version, of course, because who wants to read about poor people?). And her readers, presumably, long only for the next Nora Roberts novel.
No one gets lucky. Especially not me!
John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His first novel Under the Small Lights will be published by Miami University Press in 2010.