This is less of a romance, more of a soap opera. It’s like an episode of Emmerdale Farm penned by the writers of The Bold and the Beautiful.
Sophie, 17, has just finished school and the world is basically her oyster. She’s done so well that she can apparently go to Oxford. However, her only desire is to get married to her stepbrother Robert, 29, whom she has hero worshipped since she was a small child. Robert ends up kissing her “in an urgent adult way that had sent the blood running through her veins” etc etc when she was 15, and then he basically avoids her for the next two years.
And WTF is this?
It’s nearly as bizarre as Engelbert Humperdinck’s cameo in To Catch a Unicorn. What guidelines were these cover artists given?! “The blond one in Starsky & Hutch. Do him forty-ish, with shades.”
This is a very different treatment of the “stepbrother” theme than Mather’s similar-sounding novel, Melting Fire. In Melting Fire there’s a lot more heat, and the hero is in more of a guardianship role, with no bothersome parents around.
Whereas here, there’s an entire family of people chattering and interfering and conspiring. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, and it demystifies the romance. Robert has confessed to his parents that he kissed Sophie at 15, and then confesses again after he picks her up at the station two years later, and once again “his mouth moved on hers, parting her lips, seeking to penetrate the moist sweetness within” etc etc.
The Other Woman here is a clinger called Emma, who later on fakes a pregnancy, even though she has never slept with Robert. Even as late as 1976, when this was written, if a woman slept with her boyfriend, she was his “mistress” and this was supposedly a thing of great shame.
The problem with this novel is that Sophie’s obsession is not really healthy. The younger brother, Simon, is also in love with her, but he sounds far more reasonable, recognising she is young and being prepared to wait until she has finished university.
But Sophie seems completely averse to going to university, all she wants to do is get married. She gets an absolutely awesome job in Greece – the kind of thing that any normal person would kill to get in their gap year – but gives it up after two weeks. At the end, when Robert makes the eminently sensible suggestion:
“Or should I allow you to go to university like your father hoped you would, and have plastic surgery in your absence?”
Sophie flung herself upon him. “You—you wouldn’t force that upon me, would you?”
Because going to one of the world’s top universities is clearly some dire punishment. So instead, Robert starts talking about them having babies. It’s one thing for some less educated, finishing school girl to go straight into matrimony and a domestic life of cooking and child-rearing, but a 17-year-old who’s so bright she’s tipped for Oxford?
Ultimately, it’s hard to get on board with this relationship as being a good thing. Particularly when Robert is the kind of man who tried to kill himself in a fit of temper when his ex-fiancée lied about being pregnant. It just doesn’t really spell hearts and flowers, does it?