I had been waiting so impatiently for Hello Stranger to come, mostly because the heroine is inspired by the first female British physician, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. And I was so mad that it let me down. Why did it let me down? Because of a brief section I am calling: “The Bullshit” (we’ll get to what that is in a minute). Had it not been for The Bullshit, I would have enjoyed this book immensely, which makes me even more bitter about it.
Dr. Garrett Gibson is the only female physician in England. From her earlier interactions with him in a previous novel, she’s sometimes watched over by Ethan Ransom, a former Scotland Yard Detective turned spy, who pines for Garrett from a distance and wants to protect her. Ethan has a dangerous job, so he doesn’t want to involve Garrett in his life, but he’s also kind of in love with her, so instead he just follows her around like a making sure no one hurts her (even though she’s pretty capable of defending herself). This is Romance Hero Logic at its finest.
When the book opens, Garrett is attacked by a group of men intending to rape her, and Ethan jumps in to help her beat the stuffing out of them. Then he offers to teach her self defense more styled to street fighting versus the formal style of instruction she’s received in the past. She agrees and when they’re sparring he gets a boner and Garrett realizes she wants to have an affair with him.
Garrett can’t conceive of a world where she can have a husband and still be allowed to keep her practice but she also wants to experience sex and romance. So she suggests to Ethan that they engage in an affair and he’s all like “No, my life is way to dangerous to involve you in,” and then They Bone Anyway and Feels are Had.
Add to that a big conspiracy Ethan is struggling to unravel which makes for a good suspense subplot, and Garrett being the only person who can save his life
and that all sounds good right?
It is good. It’s a sexy romance between two working class people (not in a ballroom), with a cool, proficient, badass heroine and a great suspense plotline.
It’s got great writing. Take for example this sentence, describing how Ethan feels about Garrett: “The mere thought of her left him like a stray coal on the hearth.”
So this book should have made me really happy, but instead it pissed me off because of The Bullshit.
The Bullshit, you see, is a brief section wherein Ethan explains that he learned all about smexing from an unnamed woman of color while in India as part of his spy training.
Gently he murmured in the hollow space just behind her earlobe, guessing at what would excite or intrigue her. “In India, before a man marries, he’s taught how to please his wife according to ancient texts on the erotic arts. He learns about embraces, kisses, strokes, and bites that bring fulfillment.”
“Bites?” she asked dazedly.
“Love bites, darlin’. Nothing that would hurt you.” To demonstrate, he bent to her neck and nibbled softly. She made an agitated sound and arched toward him. “Tis said the joining of two who are well-matched is a high union,” he whispered. “And if they come so intoxicated by love as to leave faint marks on the skin, their passion for each other will not be lessened even in one hundred years.”
Garrett’s voice was wobbly. “Did you learn any of those erotic arts?”
His lips curved against her skin. “Aye, but I’m still a novice. I only know one hundred and twenty positions.”
“A hundred and…” She broke off as he let two fingers slide gently between the soft lips of her sex, teasing back and forth. After a convulsive swallow, she managed to say, ” I doubt that’s anatomically possible.”
His lips grazed the edge of her jaw. “You’re the medical expert,” he mocked gently. “Who am I to argue?”
She squirmed as one of his fingertips wiggled through soft curls and came to rest on an acutely sensitive place. “Who taught you?” she managed to ask.
“A woman in Calcutta. I’d never met her before. For the first two nights, there was no physical contact at all. We sat on bamboo mats on the floor and talked.”
“About what?” She stared at him with dilated eyes, her flush deepening as he continued to fondle the silky, intricate shape of her.
“The first night she explained about Kama…a word for desire and longing. But it also refers to the well-being of the soul and senses…the appreciation of beauty, art, nature. The second night we talked about pleasures of the body. She said if a man was a true male, he would use the rule of his will to cherish the woman, and fulfill her so thoroughly she would have no desire left for another.”
On the third night, she had undressed him and pulled his hand to her body, whispering, “Women, being of a tender nature, want tender beginnings.”
So let’s talk about how damaging this passage is.
- It’s basically the definition of Orientalism.
- The woman who Ethan describes has no name. She has one speaking line that exists in his memory. She is not a character, nor a person. She’s a prop. She is intended purely as a tool for his learning the sexytimes. It’s prime Bullshit: dehumanizing and racist.
- The fetishizing of people of color as inherently more sexual than White people is a big fucking problem. It contributes to the rape culture we live in RIGHT NOW in which women of color are even less likely to report or see justice for sexual assault than White women are.
I mean, let’s think about the anonymous woman above. She’s got no name as previously mentioned. She doesn’t really speak. She’s a nameless Indian woman who is full of sexual knowledge who is there to teach sex to the hero. She’s living in a country COLONIZED BY WHITE MEN. She’s not a person. She’s a thing he gets to fuck. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
And while all racism is Bullshit, this is especially Dangerous Bullshit because it perpetuates that idea that women of color are nameless, identity-less beings that White men get to have sex with because they’re just so sexual in nature. Ethan then takes his sexual knowledge from this woman of color and brings it to his White one-true-love. This woman’s culture and knowledge exist only in service to the White hero.
So why is this woman even there? For sex. She’s just there for sex, not as a person or a character. There’s no focus on her thoughts, her feelings, her voice, her body. That is rape culture targeted at women of color.
So yeah, I would have liked this book immensely, except for the giant turd in the middle of it that made me rage type a thousand words. I look to romance for depictions of women enjoying healthy, fulfilling relationships, not racist stereotyping.
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