It’s official, ladies and gentlemen, romance novels are becoming the new “it” thing in pleasure reading (pun intended). My latest conquest was Gabriel’s Inferno by Sylvain Reynard. For the past few months, when I perused the tables at Barnes and Noble, I saw the cover of this book. Flames licking the edges of the cover with a sultry picture of man and woman embracing. Picking it up and reading the jacket describe the enigmatic Gabriel Emerson and his fiery affair with student Julianne Mitchell, I thought, “Here we go again, 50 Shades and counting…” Though I was not a big fan of the 50 Shades Trilogy, I must say I have been curious about why these types of novels are making the rounds. They are hyper-sexualized relationships, even more so than typical romance novels. In the name of research (among other things, like the need for cotton candy reading) I picked up the book and decided that it was the next book on my list. In the first few pages, I snorted derisively at the similarities between Gabriel’s Inferno and 50 Shades of Grey. Two men, both with biblical/angelic sounding names, influential and rich, complex and smoldering with good looks, and irrevocably broken. Two women, both young and virgins, both literary students, both wish for independence and both search for love, while becoming the healing balm for their broken men.
As I continued reading Gabriel and Julia’s story, I began to notice it diverge from the overtly sexual 50 Shades storyline. In fact, the virgin remains a virgin until the last twenty of so pages of an almost 500-page book. The focus is on love and it’s healing and transformative properties, more than sex as a healing component (as happens between Christian and Ana). It shocked me to pick up on religious themes, along with vast allusions to literary heroes and heroines. Understandably, the main connection was paralleling the story of Dante and Beatrice (you see, Dr. Gabriel O. Emerson is a Dante specialist) and our main characters. It surprised me at how deeply Reynard went into capitalizing on love as an emotion and not just the physical act. Don’t get me wrong, there are still long-winded paragraphs describing lover’s embracing and panting in heated excitement, and at one point even discussing a character aptly nicknamed Professor Pain. A romance novel would not be a romance novel without some light petting. Especially one that had flames on the cover (come on, people!).
We begin the book with Julianne Mitchell, an MA student at the University of Toronto. We are given hints that her past is not pristine, that something damaged this young woman, but that she has purity about her, something innate that is good and wholesome. We are also introduced to Gabriel, or Professor Emerson, and he is strict, demanding, dominant and assertive in his power. The two characters clash leaving Julia a frightened rabbit running from an angry wolf. As the story unfolds we find that Julia and Gabriel have met before, that they have a shared connection, along with a shared experience. This sets up the first confrontation in the plot. Julia remembers a younger Gabriel, and he does not remember her. A shared moment in an orchard the changed the young Julia’s life, and she is deeply wounded that her now professor does not remember.
When Gabriel finally comes to his senses and acknowledges the moments shared between the two lovers some six years earlier, he transforms from an angry “devil” into a loving and caring man who wants to “worship” Julia, body and soul. The idea of love as a transformative and healing power is a beautiful and poetic one, however, the book slowly spins into an overly verbal proclamation of the virtues of love everlasting. Both have their secrets, both have had negative experiences, including abusive relationships and drug abuse, but because of their love for one another Beatrice and Dante end up entwined in their own Paradise. That is surely the divine comedy of this novel (yes, pun intended, again). Because reality is, folks, that you can love someone with all your heart, but responsibility for the bad and the good within oneself is solely based on that person. Julia cannot be Gabriel’s baptismal water and Gabriel cannot be Julia’s. There is no Virgil (well, technically yes, in this book there is, but not in the same capacity) helping Dante climb through the circles of Hell ever-reaching for his beloved in Paradise. When it seems like all the secrets come out, there is shoddy patchwork to tamper down the edges of the relationship, making the fabric of their love last only a little while longer. Similar to 50 Shades, it seems a melding of bodies and mouth act as a cure for all the wrongs in need of mending. However, Reynard at least tries to explain their physical relationship in terms of giving concrete credence to the abstract idea of love. Not just lust (which, surprisingly, Reynard discusses in detail in the book).
My biggest fault with this story, however, is how much Reynard idolizes love and soul-mates. Love is something profound, and something cherished, don’t get me wrong, but the dialogue between the two protagonists borders on clichéd obsession. Too many “beloved’s” and “my Beatrice’s,” among other overly sappy language. Additionally, the moment Gabriel becomes Julia’s first is so over the top with description (not of the act, but the emotion) and lengthy exclamations of everlasting love that I felt the need to roll my eyes and hold off fake gagging for effect. Seriously, though, whose first time was in Italy, by candlelight, a mature man preparing everything unthought of including Advil and warm baths, cranberry juice and lubricant? Let alone wearing $100+ of lingerie. Ten bucks say most of your first times were far from the aforementioned. And if not, way to go girl or boy!
Though sometimes readers want to melt into a world where love conquers all, it is a slippery slope to believing that these fairy tale romances happen. Again, don’t get me wrong, romance has its own forms for different couples, and they understand love in their own language, thus making their individual fairy tales come true. What concerns me is the young girls reading these novels, believing that their first experience with love (in action, thought, or word) will be these monumental and prophetic moments, when in reality, first times disappoint most girls and most boys are just happy they got laid, and rarely does love have anything to do with the union. Our youth blinds us to the realities of love, to what it means when someone says they are “in love,” and the sacrifices we make on its altar. Because love is part compassion, part empathy, and a whole lot of understanding and forgiveness. The love between two people is baptismal water, cleansing us of our previous sin, but it is the love you give, not the love you receive that wipes you clean. Along with love of self. You should never look to someone else to fix you, it has to come from within. And I fear that the impression readers will be left with is that finding (the mostly unattainable idea of) a “soul-mate” will somehow fix all the cracks and flaws in their personality, which will wipe clean the slate and somehow give them re-birth, when in reality, the true transformative power of love comes from loving oneself.