We have this highly technical term in romance: the Big Misunderstanding (or the Big Mis, if we’re feelin lazy). Back in the day this referred to, say, the heroine seeing the hero kiss another woman – disaster! – only to learn later on that it was some entirely innocent peck on the cheek, and the woman was his sister or cousin. Slightly more sophisticated is the case of mistaken identity.
Romance readers got pretty sick of the Big Mis being the only thing standing in the way of True Love. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to like and respect characters who are being passive aggressive and obnoxious with each other, and for another it’s annoying bordering on painful.
So romance readers came up with a new standard: If your characters could fix all their problems by having a conversation, then for god’s sake let them have a conversation and move on, and then give your book some actual conflict.
So far, so good. This results in books where the characters have to overcome themselves and circumstance – not something they saw and misunderstood. It means stories feel more like real life; reading them, I can think, “Yes, this is what true love takes for me as well”. It also means that you cheer every time a hero gives his heroine the benefit of the doubt, and honest conversations are a joy to read.
Courtney Milan turns the Big Mis completely around in Unveiled – and I’m not entirely convinced it works. There will be a couple of mild ***spoilers*** ahead.
A quick summary, so that my point makes sense: Ash Turner has just turned the Duke of Parford’s children into bastards, which means that he is in line to inherit. He has reasons for great revenge against Parford. Parford’s daughter is posing as her father’s nurse, so that she can spy on Ash for her brothers. Ash falls into insta-love with her, and woos her even though he thinks she’s a lowly nurse – not his enemy’s daughter who’s out to prove him unfit to be a duke.
This is fertile ground for that lesser-evil, the mistaken identity. If this book had been written even five years ago, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that the reveal of her true identity would have been the catalyst for everything falling apart – especially where it comes in Milan’s book, which gives it the greatest potential for drama. It would be the moment where Ash is wounded by her falsehood, and refuses to hear her explanation.
Instead, amazingly, Ash sees only that her brothers have done badly by her to leave her in this situation – and that he himself should perhaps have treated her better.
My initial reaction was overwhelming relief. It’s kind of hard to explain, but having a secret identity within a narrative and then the disastrous reveal of the true identity is like the simplest kind of equation. It is entirely expected – so much so that you almost feel you’ve read the scene before it happens. It becomes somehow boring, laboured, a necessary evil. So to have that completely inverted – to be of all things surprised in that moment – delighted me. His reaction is also deeply pro-female. It assumes valid motivations and actions on her part, even though they are not what he might have wished.
When I finished the book I felt a little underwhelmed – even though I’d enjoyed reading it. I couldn’t help but feel that as refreshing as it was to have a Big Understanding instead of the usual, some emotional angst was missing. That’s not even to say that I only like angsty romance novels – not at all. But before the happily ever after there must be some impossibility to be borne.
And actually I think the problem was this: Margaret’s real identity wasn’t the true source of conflict between them, because Ash never cared who she really was. But Milan wrote the book as though it was.
There were so many fantastic character conflicts that could have come to the fore. I loved Margaret’s internal struggle with her loyalty and her selfhood. I loved how Ash’s need for revenge battled his need for a future. To me it would have made more interesting conflict to have them know the identity of the other – and have to work out their significant differences face to face.
Instead, Margaret places the secret of her identity between she and Ash, even though there’s no pay-off from her doing so. This was a wonderful book – but in some ways I would have preferred the angst of the Big Misunderstanding, if there was going to be a mistaken identity at all.