I have to stop doing this to myself. I have got to stop picking up Mary Jo Putney books. When I first started reading romance openly, I loved Mary Jo Putney because her characters had conversations with each other and talked about mental health issues in historical romance. I have changed and grown in the last 20 – 25 years and Mary Jo Putney’s books have not. If you are looking for the comfort of a familiar Putney narrative – Once A Spy delivers. If you are looking for anything else, you should probably not read this. I received this as an arc from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
In this book, the titular spy is Simon Duval. During the Napolianic Wars, he was an officer in the British Army and often did reconnaissance work. He is half British and half French. His cousin by marriage, Suzanne, is a now impoverished Comtesse who in a previous book escaped from years of enslavement in a Turkish harem. Yeah, we’ll get into that in a bit. They meet and Simon immediately proposes marriage to save her from poverty and so they can provide each other with companionship. Suzanne was emotionally abused by her late husband and sexually abused while in the harem. She is uninterested in a sexual relationship and wary of putting herself in a man’s power again. It seems quite reasonable to me. Naturally they enter into a marriage of friendship and convenience.
I stand by my assertion in my review for Sometimes A Rogue that Putney doesn’t actually know what a rogue is. Like Sometimes A Rogue, I found this book boring. Putney’s characters, with the exception of a few designated antagonists and all good people who work things out through long, thoughtful conversations. My issue isn’t that long conversations between characters are boring, it’s that there is nothing challenging or interesting in these conversations. This is a book dedicated to upholding a polite, respectful patriarchy without understanding that patriarchy is fundamentally impolite and disrespectful. There is an actual #NotAllMen conversation early in the book.
In the previous book in the series, which I did not read, Suzanne and another character escape from a Turkish harem ruled by a cruel man. Suzanne talks occasionally about the abuse she suffered, and it’s one of the major struggles for her. I don’t feel qualified to talk about how one recovers from sexual assault, I can only say that Suzanne recovers in the most Mary Jo Putney way possible, with lots of conversation and the love of a good man. That’s fine. I find the whole idea of the Turkish harem problematic. It’s problematic in and of itself, but also in terms of the way Putney treats violence against women. Violence against women is a thing only committed by foreigners and monsters.
Putney has repeatedly had issues with dabbling on Orientalism and fetishizing ethnicity in her books. By placing Suzanne in a Turkish harem, Putney taps into the racist fantasies around the harem. It’s a place where women exist as sex objects, which is both titilating and repulsive to the Western reader. It’s an exotic sex that’s degrading to the dignity of women. Other characters assume that Suzanne’s time in a harem have given her fantastical sex skills that no European woman would have. We know that instead, the harem has given her an aversion to sex. It’s just layers of unexplored ick. I guess it could be worse. Putney engages in polite racism – trotting out stereotypes and having her characters agree in conversation that stereotypes are bad without actually looking beyond them. As in many of Putney’s books, her characters perform ethnicity and identity. We know that Simon is part French and Suzanne is French because they use French endearments repeatedly.
One of the reasons I stopped reading historical romances was the issue of class. In too many books, the lower classes are happy to serve so long as there is a “good master.” In Putney’s universe, all that is required is that you not be a dick. The people who work your land and keep your house will be happy to continue to do so as long as you aren’t rude and abusive.
I think one of the things that frustrates me is that Putney almost asks questions about how men and women interact in society. She almost questions the heteronormative patriarchy, but she doesn’t. She reinforces it and advocates that if we were all more polite to one another everything would be fine. There was an opportunity here to explore what a happily ever can look like without sex and children, but Putney needed to take the road most traveled. If that’s what you are looking for in a romance. This is the book for you.