For a PG-rated romance novel, I enjoyed the sweet h/h interaction in Lynn Kurland's THIS IS ALL I ASK but found the rest mostly monotonous, and the message a bit extreme to say the least. Much better than Carroll's PG-rated THE NIGHT DRIFTER, but still not as sweet Julie Garwood's sweet, yet passionate romances. I didn't like the essential premise of this novel. Basically the take-home message of the novel rests on making the hero blind as punishment for choosing outward beauty in his first wife. A bit drastic, don't you think? Even at the end, our wise witch Berengaria harangues, "The loss of your sight forced you to see with the eyes of your soul," as if blindness was the only way he could perceive true inner beauty. Making him blind also seemed to help him deduce the villain's secret plot towards the end before it comes to fruition. Maybe we should just make the entire male population blind. That will teach them from trusting in outward beauty while inducing a bit of cleverness in the process!
Along with belaboring our heroine's less-than-average to average looks, THIS IS ALL I ASK suggests that Christopher would fail to recognize Gillian's true beauty without his blindness. Essentially, the book impresses upon us blindness a suitable penalty for handsome heroes trusting in beautiful women. That's right, Christopher falling in love with his homely heroine depended on stripping Christopher of his eyesight. Christopher's blindness wasn't only extreme, but it was unnecessary. Christopher's honor and his promise to Gillian's brother William already compelled him to marry Gillian. After marrying her, they would inevitably spend time together (as they did regardless), and he would perceive Gillian's inner beauty over time (as he did) despite her less-than-desirable looks. He doesn't have to be blind for it!
Kind of sad actually, he will never truly see his heroine, he will never see his children or watch them grow up...
Simplistically, the book implies that beautiful women are treacherous while handsome men are wholesome. All well and good from a female's point-of-view. Stereotypically (for romance), the hero falls for the heroine's inside beauty (because she lacks it on the outside) while the heroine is free to love the hero's chiseled handsomeness. When Gillian chances on Christopher's near-naked frame wrestling with his squire in the courtyard, Gillian gasps with admiration of Christopher's muscled appearance. Gillian blushes and admires Christopher's handsomeness and powerful frame. Meanwhile, Christopher admires Gillian's innocent charm and tender compassion. Admiring her looks over time isn't an option obviously.
If you're going to make the woman undesirable yet beautiful on the inside, at least let's see some equality here and make the hero physically unattractive but with a compassionate heart! Alas, this is romance after all so we have the kind, handsome hero but the imperfect virgin heroine...
Worse, Christopher moons over Gillian relatively early despite not having seen her nor talked to her in person all that much. When Gillian runs away after Christopher threatens to cast her off (scenarios inspired by jumping to the wrong conclusions from hearsay and rumors), Christopher adamantly searches for two days without rest like a man stricken with love (even in his thoughts). But he can't see her, he barely touches her, and he hasn't spoken to her all that much during her stay so far. So where's all this affection coming from, other than the author's obvious desire to force a handsome knight see the inner beauty in homely women. The witch Berengaria says, "Your knight is learning to see things his eyes never could, girl." Answer: blind him so he has no choice?
The whole book seemed cheap, insinuating that for a handsome guy to fall in love with a sweet yet ugly girl, that guy must lack eyesight. Yet, the handsome knight was already compelled to marry her and consequently spend time with her, a situation that could result in love without the blindness!
The first half of THIS IS ALL I ASK comprises mostly of jumping to the wrong conclusions and misconceptions. Such as when the heroine Gillian overhears rumors of Christopher of Blackmour's demonic ministrations and takes them to heart. Like when Christopher learns of Gillian's attempt to speak to a midwife and drawing all the wrong conclusions as a result. Misconceptions of Gillian believing Christopher will want her if she can make herself pretty (lord knows how a blind man can see beauty), and of Christopher's misconception that Gillian won't want him because he's blind and thus less than a man.
And it wouldn't be a romance novel if it didn't deal with the insecurities of the heroine's appearance. THIS IS ALL I ASK isn't nearly as bad in this department as VANQUISHED (**) or a couple of Medeiros novels I've read, all of which mercilessly drum out insecurities over a heroine's bland looks, but there's many traces of these insecurities in this novel nonetheless. Even after 325 pages, Gillian is thankful that her lord Christopher is blind because otherwise, he wouldn't wed one so ugly such as she. Even though Christopher already loves her beyond petty appearances by this point.
So what did I like about THIS IS ALL I ASK? After the misconceptions were out of the way, I did enjoy the H/H interaction and they really seemed to want to give to each other. Gillian goes out of her way to please Christopher and Christopher genuinely cherishes her, giving all he is to her privately in spite of his gruff public demeanor. Christopher soothes her with loving words, massages her, aids her with her clothes and bath, feeds her. He affectionately cares for her while Gillian reciprocates in every way.
The Story, possible SPOILERS.
Bernard of Warewick beats and maltreats his sweet, skinny and plain daughter Gillian. Before Gillian's loving brother dies, he makes his friend, the handsome Christopher of Blackmour, promise to provide his sister Gillian succor from their father Bernard. Despite misgivings of his own from his first marriage, the honorable Christopher obliges and marries Gillian, providing Gillian with his name and protection. Except for her sweetness and virginity, Gillian offers only her paltry dowry and skinny, plain looks. The looks don't mean much to Christopher. Christopher feels he's the one with nothing to offer Gillian as he considers himself less than man without his eyesight.
The first half of the story rings with misconceptions while the second half of the novel portrays the mutual affection Christopher and Gillian bear for each other. As you can tell, there's parts in the second half I really enjoyed, I really liked the tender moments of affection each bestow upon the other. It is also during this time Gillian and Christopher vocalize their I-Love-You's (Gillian is first).
The finale sheds light on a sinister conspiracy Gillian's father Warewick hatches, and again we have this notion of Christopher somehow needing his blindness to recognize Gillian's inner beauty. If we weren't reminded of this dumb notion, I would have enjoyed the novel more. I didn't mind Christopher staying blind, I didn't mind his public humiliation in a duel against Warewick (that was fitting actually), but I do mind the persistent reminders that recognizing inner beauty in a skinny, plain girl depends on a handsome knight's loss of eyesight. That he wouldn't fall in love with her if he wasn't blind. That being blind helped Christopher decipher Warewick's plot to subdue Blackmour (made him clever).
Again, it's sweet, and enjoyable in some parts for the H/H mutual affection, but cheap in the end also. A cheapness asserted by taking away a handsome hero's eyesight to make him perceive of a virgin's inner beauty, a beauty she lacks on the outside. Why a seeing Christopher couldn't love Gillian after his disastrous first marriage and after the time he spends with Gillian, I'll never know.