This essay was written in 2012 for Heroes and Heartbreakers; it is no longer available there, as the site is defunct. I’m posting the essay again because Sharon Curtis passed away on September 4, 2022.
Every lady of breeding knows. No one has a good time on a pirate ship. No one, that is, but the pirates. Yet there she was, Merry Wilding—kidnapped in error, taken from a ship bound from New York to England, spirited away in a barrel and swept aboard the infamous Black Joke….There she was, trembling with pleasure in the arms of her achingly handsome, sensationally sensual, golden-haired captor—Devon. From the storm-tossed Atlantic to the languid waters of the Gulf Stream, from a smuggler’s den to a gilded mansion, Merry struggled to escape…to escape the prison of her own reckless passions, the bondage of sweet, bold desire…
The Windflower by Laura London (aka Tom and Sharon Curtis) is one of those classics of the Romance genre perennially referenced as one of the best romance novels ever written. It’s unfortunately out of print, but used copies can be acquired. Originally published in June 1984, it was reissued in 1995.
The story is an epic of the sort that’s rarely published these days: It’s longer than most modern romances, told from an omniscient point of view, and the language is more elaborate, the sort of prose often parodied as purple. Occasionally, I did find the language so overblown it became confusing, but for the most part, the style really suited the epic sweep of the story. The language was a major high point for me, because it surprised me. How? Because The Windflower is actually really, really funny.
I don’t mean “funny” in a mocking sense. I mean that the novel is funny. Note that the pirate ship is named Black Joke. Even aside from the ongoing clever banter of the hero and heroine, there are multiple funny characters who say funny things.
This morning, when she had chanced to make a remark praising the sparkling seascape, Cook had said prosaically, “I can’t see what you find to admire in the ocean. Jeez, what is it besides diluted fish piss? When you think of all those fish in all those centuries …” And then encountering severely critical looks from Cat and Raven, he had added, “Oh. Sorry, Merry. Fish urine.”
Even funnier, to me, is the voice of the omniscient narrator. The narrator is very much in on the joke that this is a romance novel, and that the seemingly feckless heroine, Merry, is going to end up with Devon, the dazzling older man who seems completely out of her reach. It’s pretty clear to me that this joking is deliberate, almost a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” antidote to Merry’s dramatic adolescent emotional storms. This novel is all about the sexual tension, and the language used emphasizes that throughout.
There are repeated metaphoric references to sexual awakening, beginning from the very first page, that are in sharp contrast to the actual sex scenes in the last quarter of the book.
Merry Patricia Wilding was sitting on a cobblestone wall, sketching three rutabagas and daydreaming about the unicorn.
…The rutabagas weren’t coming out right. The front one had a hairy, trailing root that jutted upward at an awkwardly foreshortened angle. Though she had corrected the drawing several times, the result remained an unhappy one.
If there is a funnier vegetable than a rutabaga, please tell me what it is. A phallic rutabaga! I was immediately eager to read the rest of the novel and see where this narrator would take me. And the unicorn, you ask? We’re told that Merry has long dreamed of a unicorn. It appears again in her dreams like a portent, just before the story begins.
…until last night. It had burst through the window in a frightening rush of energy, glass flying everywhere, and it had reared in the corner of the room, pawing and snorting, looking bigger than it had been before, its muscles white and glistening beneath its creamy hide, its chest broad and heaving, its horn poised and thick.
Its horn is thick. I just thought I would repeat that, in case you missed it. Ahem.
He wants me to ride him, she had thought…
Oh, yes, honey. He does want you to ride him. The connection is made more explicit (heh) when Merry first sees Devon.
…this man was beautiful, in a way uniquely masculine, as arrogant and tender as a Renaissance archangel sitting in liquid, unattainable splendor…as she stared at him Merry felt the hot embers of that same confusing blend of yearning and fear that had brushed into her soul when she had dreamed of the unicorn.
At numerous places within the novel, nature also conspires to inform us, metaphorically, exactly what is ahead for Merry if she continues in her relationship with Devon.
The pool was fed by a warm underground spring…she leaned back luxuriantly into his arms as the warm, relaxing fluid lapped about her thighs. A mound of swollen scarlet flowers dripped from the limestone outcropping overlooking the pool, and the musky scent tickled at her nostrils…The sunlight…probed at her, awakening her…losing herself in the sudden penetrating sensation of hot, hard stone beneath her thighs…melted from the fabric [of her gown] and explored the inside of her thighs in an oddly dulcet manner.
There is a lot more going on in The Windflower than humorous sexual titillation, of course; there’s adventure, an intriguing relationship between hero and heroine, appealing secondary characters, and suspense. But for me, the rutabaga and the unicorn were the hooks that dragged me into the story and kept me there.
By the way, Merry ate the rutabaga.