When I settle in to read a romance I always hope for two things: 1) that I’ll enjoy the story and 2) that the author will rip my guts out. I love emotional angst. I love moments of delicious despair where the characters are figuratively bleeding on the page. Moments where it seems like all hope is lost, that there is no way to break free. Those are the moments that feed my insatiable appetite for the genre, and it’s such a moment that makes My Fair Concubine by Jeannie Lin so emotionally satisfying.
Chang Fei Long is a man who is trying to clean up a mess his now deceased father has left behind. In order to do that, he needs to keep the financial turmoil of his house under wraps and secure an alliance with a neighboring kingdom by marrying off his younger sister. The rub is that sister has no desire to enter into this arranged marriage and takes off to be with her true love. Fei Long needs this marriage to happen and since the man arranging it has never met his sister? Why not replace her with a lowly tea house girl? It’s win-win. His family escapes ruin, and Yan Ling, a girl with no future or prospects, gets to live the life of a princess.
What follows is a story set to the Pygmalion theme—a My Fair Lady that takes place in Tang dynasty China. Naturally, as tends to happen with stories of this nature, teacher and pupil end up being attracted to each other, and falling in love. It’s especially poignant here because Fei Long literally has his back up against a wall. This marriage has to take place. If it doesn’t? He’s doomed. His household is doomed. His name, his family’s name, will mean less than dirt. So he feels he must deny his feelings for Yan Ling.
“I think of you, Yan Ling, more than I should.” A wave of longing struck him. “When I see your face at night, I don’t see the tea girl or the elegant lady. I only see you.”
He could see her now, even though he couldn’t face her.
“I think of you, too.”
Her soft confession nearly unraveled him. He had to get this out and be done with it.
“If I acted on these feelings, if I…if I took what I wanted, it would be an abuse of authority. You’re under my care. That was what I meant when I spoke of our positions. I won’t treat you like that.” His mouth twisted. “As if you’re here for my pleasure.”
The whisper of silk told him Yan Ling had risen. She approached him while he counted each step with the thundering beat of his heart.
“You told me I wasn’t your servant,” she said.
“You aren’t, but that doesn’t change who I am.”
He turned before she could reach him and took a step away. They had to keep their distance. Yan Ling came closer anyway.
“The only hours of the day when I’m truly awake…” her lower lip trembled “….are when I’m with you.”
Not only is it poignant and emotionally draining, it seems so final. How the couple is able to find their way through this moment, a moment that seems to brook no argument, is what makes the happy ending that much sweeter. That, ladies and gentlemen, is romance.
Wendy the Super Librarian also blogs at WendyTheSuperLibrarian.blogspot.com. So dig that library card out of your pocket and head for the stacks.