Why, I was asking myself as I read this book, would someone write a romance novel with no romance in it?
Don’t misunderstand me - this isn’t a detail-rich historical saga in which the relationship sometimes takes a back seat to the pageantry and politics of the era. The history here is pure wallpaper (not something I usually object to, by the way). There is a passing reference to Henry II and the characters mix their “mayhaps” with modern concepts like “allergic reaction” (in 1173?) and language like “stunt” and “play nice” and “get naked.”
Not that there’s a lot of getting naked - at least, not in the way you might hope. For about two thirds of the book, nudity is mostly associated with foul odors and a bad rash. Romantic? Not exactly.
Lord Hethe Holden and Lady Helen Tierney are neighbors. Or they would be if Hethe were home more. Instead, he’s off fighting King Henry’s battles for him and has left his estate in the hands of his “second.” Lady Helen has serious objections to the running of the estate and the abuse of the tenants and servants. She writes frequently to Hethe to point out the problems and, when that bears no fruit, sends her complaints to Henry. Henry also receives letters from Hethe, griping about this interfering busybody.
Tired of being in the middle of their squabble, King Henry decides that Hethe, a widower, and Helen, a single woman of twenty, should take their problems in-house, as it were. He commands them to marry.
Both are appalled by this decree but Helen decides that, while she is in no position to defy her sovereign, Hethe might have better luck. To give him even more incentive, she decides to make both her housekeeping and her person as unappealing as possible. When Hethe arrives to claim his reluctant bride he is greeted by a woman whose breath reeks of the raw garlic she eats constantly, is consistently provided with food and drink that are either stale or rancid, and offered a bed that is jumping with fleas.
When Hethe sees through this strategy and the marriage takes place, Helen avoids the consummation by rubbing herself with stinkweed. The odor is so disgusting that no one can be in the same room with her without retching.
All this would be fine, I guess, except that it just goes on and on and on. They don’t talk about anything except how revolting she smells. They don’t spend time together because she’s too rank to be near. Hethe tries to get close. The smell drives him off. Rinse and repeat. It was mildly amusing in the beginning, but there’s only one joke and by page 220 I really wished they’d just move on. It reached the zenith of eye-rolling territory when Helen finally decided to give in to the inevitable and then was mystified and hurt when Hethe couldn’t perform. (Um, it’s the smell, stupid.)
Meanwhile, Henry’s representative is lurking in the background to ensure that the marriage is validated. When they finally manage to get rid of the stench and do the deed, there’s literally a guy standing outside the bedroom door tapping his toe and asking “Did you have sex? Is it over? Can I go now?” Romantic? Not hardly.
At this late date, the story, such as it is, actually begins. Apparently somebody’s trying to get rid of Hethe to cover up all the atrocities that were committed in his name while he was gone. In a strange role reversal, Hethe keeps insisting he can “take care of himself” - even after the third time he’s seriously injured in an attempt on his life proves him wrong. Neither of these characters distinguishes themselves with brains and, frankly, I’m so annoyed I can hardly fight my way through to the end. Sure, they fall in love eventually. Whatever. Go away.
I have no idea why this book was called “Bliss”. “Torment” was closer to the truth.