First: I’m Australian. More than that, I’m from Melbourne, and so to me “football” means the beautiful chaos of Australian Rules, all lithe limbs and tight shorts and barely-contained aggression. Elsewhere in the country—and, indeed, on the planet—assorted versions of Rugby are considered football, and there can be no denying that soccer is truly the World Game it declares itself to be, which leaves American Football—or Gridiron, as we tend to call it—the province mainly of its home continent, little played or even understood by outsiders. (Much like Aussie Rules.)
Where American Football wins out over all other codes, however, is in the stories to which it stands as a backdrop; intricacies of the game are known to those who have never held a pigskin or watched a real NFL match through movies like Brian’s Song and The Blind Side, TV shows like Friday Night Lights and USA’s last season sleeper Necessary Roughness…and books like Catherine Coulter’s The Aristocrat.
I have spoken previously in these pages of my love for category romances, and for Loveswept in particular, but if I were to have a second favorite category romance line, it would probably be the Silhouette Special Editions. Originally published in 1986 as #331, The Aristocrat was Coulter’s first attempt at contemporary romance, and while I had no idea at the time that this second-hand paperback was the work of a successful—indeed, New York Times-Bestselling—author of historical romance and romantic thrillers, I knew almost at once that I was going to dig this particular example of her work very much indeed.
Our story opens with the Big Game, lost to an unlucky kick from the opposing team, leaving New York Astros quarterback Brant Asher disconsolate and feeling every one of his thirty-one years. With the Astros now out of the playoffs, Asher contemplates retirement and a long, lonely winter… but then discovers that the death of his miserly and miserable great-uncle in England has made him suddenly a Viscount. Hounded by reporters, one of them heckles him:
“I can just hear them on the tube next season: ‘Now, folks, our star quarterback, my lord Asherwood!’”
Which is approximately when I realized this book was going to be right up my alley.
Already a massive Georgette Heyer fan, this sudden melding of Historical traditions with modern-day Americana was of indescribable appeal; it became even more so when the novel turned into a bona fide Forced to Marry tale (my very favorite of all romance tropes, though I can’t really articulate why; I’d hate for it to happen in real life) when the irascible old uncle’s will states that Brant must marry his many-times-removed cousin Daphne, or lose his inheritance, and leave her penniless.
Sheltered and innocent, Daphne was a bit of a frump at the beginning of all this, but under the expert guidance of her determined Aunt she undergoes such a She’s All That-style transformation (yes; she even gets contacts!) that she is mistaken for her beautiful and seductive cousin by the frankly admiring Brant upon her return from Europe—where all good makeovers are effected, don’t you know. Mistaken identities and harsh words and witty barbs are flung from one to the other, and over the course of a mere few days, Brant begins to realize that his uncle’s antediluvian will stipulation might not be the hardship it might have initially seemed.
They get married. Have a honeymoon. Have sex. Fly to America. Get married again. Have way more sex. And slowly Daphne develops poise, self-confidence and a love of American Football, charms Brant’s family, teammates and the press, and the two bicker, fight, have more sex and generally act like a real couple—albeit one that has, when all’s said, been Forced to Marry. (Why do I love that trope? Seriously? I just don’t get it.)
I must’ve read this book a dozen times in the months after I first discovered it. Lines like this have long stood out in my memory:
Conceited, arrogant beast! Jerk! Cad! Her mental list of insults came to a grinding halt. Ah ha, bastard!
As have the mental pictures Coulter conjures of a sports team that is more like a family, and which takes their new English import to their collective hearts. You know that passé expression, the warm fuzzies? I get that, just glancing at the cover of this well-loved novel. (The book saw rerelease in 1993, by the way, though with nary a mention of its Silhouette heritage on its redesigned cover—and it must have come as quite a shock to readers who came to it via Coulter’s FBI series and the like. Funny.)
I must admit that, reading The Aristocrat now, twenty-five years after its original publication and in the age of the global media blitz, does make much of it feel a bit questionable. Daphne’s incomprehension of the most basic of American idiom seems as suspect as Dr. Temperance Brennan’s (you know what? Most of the time I think Bones does know what that means), and I have to wonder at her not being familiar with Daffy Duck—but then, the ’80s were a simpler time, and perhaps it was then possible to be so immured with a crotchety and controlling relative that one never got to watch Bugs Bunny. Who knows? Also, Brant comes off as a bit more of a tool to my adult eyes than to my teenage ones; for example, his sister Lily is a woman of spirit and independence, so he believes she needs a “strong man” to “keep her in line.” (And yet he has the hide to call Daphne Victorian? Sheesh!)
In other oddness, Brant’s English lawyer, Harlow Hucksley, talks like a Bond Street Beau, all “dashed” this and “old boy” that, and there is a very real sense of noblesse oblige about the Surrey estates of Lord Asherwood that feels out of place in the modern age. In fact, much of what I initially loved about this book in the distant days of my youth—the way it was kind of a mashup of a Regency novel and a modern day sports movie (Hey! Pride and Prejudice and the Patriots!)—is mostly what I find a little bit off-putting about it now. What I will excuse in my historical Heroes I will not endure in their contemporary counterparts, especially not when it comes to outright cruelty and sexism—like how I try not to be outraged by the anti-Semitism in Shakespeare or the way Bertie Wooster is always dressing up in blackface and calling people negroes, because the times, they have a’changed, but anything set in the present-day that offered up similar ideas as perfectly normal and valid would offend the hell out of me. If you see what I mean.
Still, in the run up to the Superbowl—and yes, I still watch it, even if I am Australian and it’s not proper football—it was fun to revisit handsome Brant “The Dancer” Asher, blonde god of the grid and his beautiful English Rose bride (cast Tom Brady as Brant and Gemma Aterton as Daphne, and I think you’ve got it just about right), and I do think this book is worth a shot for anyone who likes a) Coulter, b) contemporary romance, c) sports of any kind and d) stories featuring kooky aunts and respectfully omniscient valets.
Oh, and Forced to Marry. You really have to like that as a concept. And if indeed you do, can you please explain to me why that might be? Because for the life of me, I still cannot figure it out.
Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.