The lovely and talented Ricki Wovsaniker and I were recently sharing our mutual admiration for Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love. Whitney was one of the first romance novels we’d ever read as teenagers and I think it’s fair to say that it was *the book* that started a life-long love of the genre for both of us.
In the course of the conversation, Ricki wondered aloud if we would still love it as much today – with years worth of different experiences and perspectives behind us – as we did then. Not to imply that we are old, ahem, but thinking back on certain aspects of the story, it was a valid concern. Could the book we loved so much stand the test of time?
We decided to dust it off for another re-read and find out. Here are the results:
So, how long since you last read Whitney, My Love?
Lynne: Oh, its been at least a good fifteen years, probably more. Well before marriage or children, for me.
Ricki: Holy moly. I might have been seventeen the last time I read this. But between the ages of fourteen and seventeen I re-read it constantly. It was indeed my first favorite romance novel.
I still have my copy (somewhere – I took it out to re-read it for this purpose and then misplaced it in my house, so then I picked up the new edition I had from the Land of Lost Books basket I got to take home after Spring Fling) and it is battered like crazy. (It’s got the pink-with-white-gardenia cover).
Lynne: Confession time. While Whitney was the first romance in which I really felt invested in the story, the very first romance novel I ever read was a good, old-fashioned bodice ripper of a story, featuring a wind-blown blond and a bronzed and fringed Native American. I found it in my grandmother’s closet and snuck it under the covers to read at night. The title and the author elude me, but I have no problem in recalling the details of a rather memorable scene in a teepee – and I was hooked from there on out. (-:
Ricki: I did not like my first at all. But the reason I was reading them in the first place was that a friend at sleepaway camp had started filling me in on the joys contained in romance, and so I knew there would be better out there.
Upon this latest re-read, did you still enjoy it?
Lynne: Yes. The writing is entertaining, the pace moves quickly, and there are bits of humor here and there that still hit the right mark for me. Although there were plenty of aspects of it that I didn’t enjoy as well.
Ricki: You know, there were so many different factors going on with this re-read. It’s very different reading something you know you’re going to analyze than reading something just for fun, and that’s a factor that’s exacerbated by my ambitions to write romance. Almost no romance I read is purely pleasurable anymore. And it’s hard to separate the pleasure of nostalgia – remembering how much I loved this book when I was a teenager – from the pleasure of reading it now. (And, conversely, the vague embarrassment I have about my fourteen-year-old self and the pleasure she took in this book). AND there’s the pleasure in the prose versus the lack of pleasure in the hero/the relationship. But I think the short answer is, yes. I still love Judith McNaught.
One of the interesting things to me in the re-read was that there were a lot of things that would now be considered no-nos in romance publishing – the hero and heroine don’t even meet until page 63, there’s a lot of head-hopping and little tidbits from secondary characters, there are elaborate descriptions of clothing – and I found that I didn’t mind them, or even that I miss them in romances written today. Especially the clothes. Whitney’s ropes of yellow diamonds that she wears in her mahogany hair have long haunted my fashionista imagination.
Lynne: Oh, Whitney’s beautiful mahogany hair. I so hoped my own fly away, unfashionable brown hair would someday transform the same way her’s did. Alas, I still await that day.
Ricki: And I wonder if the things that make this more Whitney’s story than Whitney-and-Clayton’s story were also what made this appealing to me as a teenager, because teenagers like to immerse themselves in one character’s head, right? And fully identify? Lynne, as a YA author, what do you think?
Lynne: Great point. And in the character of Whitney, our heroine is “YA” for much of the story, not just in age, but in thoughts/actions/reactions. Perhaps that is why I connected so significantly when I read this as a fourteen-year-old. Just as today’s YA teen readership tend to ‘read up’ and connect to characters a few years older, it was no different for me.
I’ll admit that I’ve read more contemporary romance over the past decade than historical, but it seems romance authors have veered away from writing such young heroines, even in the generally more accepted historical category. I wonder if teens today would feel the same connection we did if they picked up a current ‘adult’ romance – and I wonder if they would find themselves hung up on some of these more controversial aspects of Whitney, My Love, in a way I never was. Having daughters, I’d like to think they would. Or would at least question it.
Were there aspects of it that you didn’t love?
Lynne: Yes – although, I’d reread it so many times before, I knew more or less where I might have issue now. It’s all about power and control with the hero of this story, Clayton. You know, confidence and strength and knowing what you want and going for it – these are all wonderful, hot characteristics in a hero. But Clayton basically buys and pays for something he wants (Whitney) and damn the consequences to her. There are scenes of both physical (spanking, and for all intents and purposes, rape) and mental abuse that I quite honestly cannot believe I never once questioned as being… wrong.
Also, nitpicking a little: there are a couple of seriously heinous misunderstandings throughout this story that would have been easily solved with a simple conversation – things like that drive me absolutely batty now.
Ricki: Sure. Their relationship is, you know, kind of awful, and he’s really a pretty big asshole, something that I no longer enjoy in my romances.
The two scenes that stood out in my imagination as ones to which I would surely object on a re-read were the spanking scene and the she-wouldn’t-have-said-no-but-he-wasn’t-asking scene. The first interesting thing was, my newer, re-released version doesn’t have him actually spank her.
Lynne: Oh wow. Interesting!
Ricki: I was pretty sure I remembered actual spanking. I’m trying to find my retro copy so I can confirm this.
Lynne: Yes! I can confirm this!
Ricki: The second interesting thing to me was, well, I’m not saying that men you barely know should be allowed to spank you when you act in a dangerous, selfish, childish manner, but . . . Whitney definitely was acting in a dangerous, selfish, childish manner.
I do remember, as a teen, knowing that the spanking and the rape were wrong, but not really caring because OMG there is sex stuff in this book. I did see it as a fantasy and I recognized that his behavior would be TOTES INAPPROPS if a real person did it. So that’s good. I think.
So… does it still rank as one of your all time favorites?
Lynne: Yes, partly for the memories, I suppose, but partly because I still enjoy the storytelling. Just because I don’t like something a character does, or my idea of what a romantic hero should do or say has changed over time, doesn’t mean I can’t still appreciate a well written, interesting, emotional roller coaster of a story. Although I’m with Ricki in that I’m much more critical now, and did spot some head-hopping and other writing/plot quirks that I definitely wouldn’t have noticed even five years ago. Would I still recommend it? Yes, but with some caveats, most definitely.
Ricki: You know, for the nostalgia, yes. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to a non-romance reader. And I think, for my personal tastes now, Judith McNaught’s Almost Heaven or even Kingdom of Dreams (the medieval one that feature’s Clayton’s ancestors) would replace this one. But maybe I should re-read them and see if they hold up!
Lynne: I was just thinking that exact same thing. I imagine that some of the issues I have with Whitney might carry over into her other historicals – and in fact, probably into many historicals written before a certain time period. I’m not sure whether to be sad for this, or happy to know that I have evolved in terms of what I consider romantic.
Have you ever re-read a book you loved only to discover it didn’t quite live up to your expectations?