Spoiler: They Make Babies

Love is Not the Brightest Crayon in the Box

Posted in Romance Review by spoilerbaby on March 5, 2010

A short summary of Lynsay Sand’s Love Is  Blind goes a little something like this: blind girl finds scarred love, triumphs over evil and shoddy reputation.  What this leaves out, though, is that the heroine is about as smart as a bag of drunk weasels.

Lady Clarissa Crambray is a relatively pretty young woman with an unfortunate reputation.  Clarissa’s stepmother holds a deep-seated animosity toward her, for reasons that are initially unclear.  The stepmother breaks Clarissa’s spectacles, claiming that they make her ugly.  This renders Clarissa close to blind for her society debut (she is very nearsighted).  Clarissa is clumsy, understandably, which makes her less viable on the marriage market.

This mishap only adds insult to injury, since when Clarissa was merely a child, a roguish gentleman kidnapped her and married her in an effort to gain her dowry.  Clarissa was rescued before the marriage was consummated.  When her father took her into the country to escape the scandal, however, everyone assumed that it had been consummated, and she has a child living out in the country.

Sidebar: On the Blind Girl and Her Winsome Ways.

The “sad-but-plucky blind girl” book is a sub-genre within romance fiction.  (Regular romance readers know that there is a sub-genre for everything.  Romance had Rule 34 in the bag before Rule 34 was cool.)  The “blind girl” sub-genre offers the same happy-go-lucky Offensive Representation Pitfalls as any other sub-genre of romance.  Romances often rely on stereotypes in order to produce a more predictable and intense emotional response, so this is to be expected, I guess.  The major problem I have with this genre in particular is that it strikes at a slightly wobbly point in my bloated, world-destroying ego: I really like disability-themed romances.

To clarify (because god forbid I ever “leave it at that”): I find difference to be no obstacle in attractiveness.  Sometimes I even find it a source of attraction.  I like characters who are odd, and like them even more when their bodies are atypical.  I suppose one reason why I find difference attractive is that it implies that the person has had to take a critical position with relation to the strictures of society that would deny them personhood.  (This is probably the pseudo-logical reason behind my attraction to butch women and femme men, as well.)  This would be why I often like to pick up disability romance.  Generally, I categorize a romance as “disability romance” when one of the characters is different in body, and disabled by the surrounding society. Whereas I’m irritated by representations of racial difference (the brooding Gypsy with exotic ways and esoteric knowledge comes to mind), I often will give a disability romance a second chance.

My question is whether it’s even possible to write disability in a cliche-dependent genre without being offensive.  Am I giving a chance to books that are never going to live up to my hopes?

There are two obvious roadblocks to an empowering “blind girl” romance.  The first is that blindness is usually used as a means of creating vulnerability and loneliness in the heroine.  Because she’s blind, the story goes, the heroine needs the hero.  The hero is the only one who sees (WHOA IT’S A METAPHOR) past her blindness to her True Beauty (translation: vagina).  If the heroine were not a victim to her lack of sight, she would not take the feminine role in the romance.  If a book is a historical romance, too, there’s the delicate balance of historical accuracy versus the desire for a strong heroine.  Can there be a generic (in the sense of genre) purpose for a blind heroine when she is not a “victim” of her difference?

The second obvious roadblock to an ethical deployment of this trope is that the heroine is usually unblinded by the end of the book.  There is — I am not lying to you — a trope where the heroine falls down the stairs and is blinded, and at the end of the book she falls down MORE STAIRS and is unblinded.  This is a common cop-out in romance — where the heroine’s non-hero husband winds up dead, for example — but it’s even more fascinating here.  The hero proves his love by loving her through this blindness, and he’s rewarded, apparently, by the return of her sight.

I think it’s possible to write a blind romance heroine without falling into these traps (especially the “unblinding” one, because Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, it’s possible to be blind and happy), but it’s the sort of thing that points out the dependence of romantic tropes on the vulnerabilities of the heroine.  Why even mention her blindness if it isn’t going to be part of what makes her susceptible to the romance narrative?

There are a couple of things that I actually like about Clarissa’s blindness in Love is Blind. 1) Clarissa has never seen particularly well, so it’s not some tragic accident which the reader is expected to weep over.  2) When she’s unblinded, it’s because she wises up and gets another pair of spectacles.

There remain some ugly parts of the blind trope in this depiction, however.  1) Clarissa’s blindness is played for laughs.  Her clumsiness, caused by her blindness, is not only the source of comment, it’s the source of jokes. 2) Clarissa and Adrian marry, and he doesn’t immediately help her to buy spectacles.  He explicitly relies on her blindness to continue their relationship, due to his own insecurities.  It’s presented sympathetically in the novel, but it’s a form of abuse, plain and simple.   3) Clarissa seems inert to her fate.  She doesn’t endeavor to figure out her surroundings, set up a reliable means of getting around, or devise a scheme for getting new spectacles.  This isn’t just the world around her conspiring to keep her in constraint, nor is her apathy ever explained.  I could understand why she resisted the amelioration of her situation if it were explained with any kind of psychological depth, but it isn’t.  Leaving it that way makes it seem like Clarissa should be, or is expected to be, dependent on those who see.  It’s relying on the old “blind = vulnerable” equation; even worse, Clarissa is complicit in her vulnerability.

Oh Right, the Novel I Was Reviewing!

If you’re wondering why I kept reading, wonder no more: this is a double-disability novel.  SHIT JUST GOT REAL, SON.

The hero, Lord Adrian Montfort, Earl of Mowbray, is introduced in the second chapter, during what I call the Pre-Spectacle Era of Clarissa’s season.  Mowbray is at a ball where the near-blind Clarissa is relegated to a corner with her stepmother.  He hears the warnings about Clarissa being utterly clumsy, but believes that there’s more to the story.  When he comes closer, he is able to tell through observation that Clarissa is unable to see particularly well.  This suits  him just fine, since — GET READY — he has a big scar on his face.

His scar is from the war, because that’s how dudes get scars.  (Unless said dude is a bad guy, in which case he got it because a maid he tried to rape threw acid in his face.  Did I mention romances are cliche-driven?)  When he first got it, he went into society.  The still-raw wound was horrifying enough to make ladies faint from supposed horror.  Now it is only a scar, but Adrian is still self-conscious about it, and is pleased that the lady can’t see him.  They fall in love with near-trainwreck speed, for once finding themselves comfortable with their difference.  The interdependency of their differences is kind of interesting; I think Sands was trying to re-write this sub-genre a little.  With that being said, though, it still horrified me when Adrian didn’t want to buy his new wife a pair of replacement spectacles.

But of course Clarissa forgives him!  Not just because she’s a typical romance heroine, and that’s how they roll.  No, Clarissa is bizarrely magnanimous, to the point of witlessness.  For example, Clarissa’s stepmother Lydia reveals late in the game that she hates Clarissa because Clarissa’s father loved Clarissa’s mother more than he loves Lydia.  Clarissa immediately forgives Lydia for breaking her spectacles and treating her like shit for the entire book.  Then, when it’s revealed that Clarissa’s maid Joan is the sister of the man who attempted to marry Clarissa, and that Joan has been trying to kill Clarissa, CLARISSA FORGIVES HER.

WHAT.

WHAT.

COME THE FUCK ON.

WHAT.

After forgiving an attempted murderer, at any rate, it’s really no big deal that Clarissa’s husband didn’t want her to have glasses. Problems solved!  Commence baby-making!

Clarissa bought a pair of replacement spectacles after her marriage, actually.  She hid them from Adrian, however, because she didn’t want to look “ugly” in front of her husband.  This hiding of the spectacles is apparently equivalent to his denying her spectacles; he fears her seeing his scar, she fears him seeing her with spectacles.  (Never mind that Clarissa thought she looked ugly in spectacles because of her stepmother.  THESE ARE NOT THE DRUNK WEASELS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR.)  When he gives her spectacles, she reveals that she saw his face the first time they met, when he leaned close enough to talk to her.  Adrian, by turn, reveals that she looks adorable in her spectacles.

It all works, really.  The reason why it works, though, is that Clarissa’s got the brainpower of a reality TV star, and the forgiveness power of a saint.  It ends up being more far-fetched than the whole “I got unblinded by falling down the stairs” gambit, which is saying quite a lot.

Overall grade: WHAT.

— First Mate Jess

EDIT: A short takedown of blindness as portrayed in literature.  I meant to link this somewhere in the body of the review, but forgot.

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2 Responses

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  1. ASG said, on March 30, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Behind, as always, on my RSS reading, so this comment is late:

    The hero proves his love by loving her through this blindness, and he’s rewarded, apparently, by the return of her sight.

    This reminds me a little of the Snopes takedown of a glurgy story in which a man is invited to meet a correspondent with whom he’s been flirting in letters. She tells him that when she arrives at Grand Central Station she’ll be wearing a red carnation, but OMG when he gets there THE WOMAN WEARING THE CARNATION IS OLD AND UGLY! Except because he is such a moral young man, he is nice to her anyway! Except it is revealed that the ACTUAL date is ACTUALLY PRETTY and told an ugly woman to wear the carnation to “test” the man to see how open-minded he was! When she established to her own satisfaction that he’s nice to old and ugly women, then she decided he was good enough for young-and-pretty her. As Snopes explains, this theme is as old as Chaucer.

    It’s a special kind of talking out of both sides of the mouth, here — the men in these stories have to spend JUST enough time with the “faulty” woman to prove that he can see beyond her “faults,” but no longer. Once he’s passed the test (and the Snopes story explicitly calls it a test; the romance you’re reviewing, perhaps less so) then he gets the pretty woman he wanted all along. It’s pitched as a happy ending, but the underlying message is pretty gross.

    • spoilerbaby said, on April 5, 2010 at 4:31 pm

      That is totally the sentiment behind it, exactly. If he does his time with the blind girl, she will be transformed into a “real” girl in the end. (See also: Disney princesses.)

      Also: “The true nature of a heart is seen in its response to the unattractive.” OH MY ACTUAL JESUS ROOSEVELT CHRIST.


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