I always feel a slight disturbance in the fourth wall when I read a romance in which the heroine is a romance writer. That was very much the case with Kathleen Eagle's Carved in Stone, a story about two people who both work in worlds of fantasy: historical romance novelist Elaina Delacourte, and film actor Sky Hunter. When a carefree research trip for Elaina goes badly wrong, they're left in serious trouble with only each other to rely on, a situation which pares them down to essential reality.
The conflict between reality and fantasy is a constant theme throughout the story. At the start, Elaina and Sky are in different head spaces. Sky is sick of playing Indian stereotypes and is holding out for a role with substance. Elaina, who is fairly inexperienced with men—a much too early marriage was annulled after she miscarried—is enjoying seeing how similar romance is to what she's imagined:
“You've got nothing to worry about, Elaina,” Sky said near her ear. “I'm a pussycat.”
She lifted her head, frowning delicately. “I'm not worried.”
“Some women are at this point.”
“And just what is 'this point'?”
He smiled a slow, knowing smile. “The point where we test things out. We see how it feels to touch, using the socially approved method.” (They're dancing.)
She had to remind herself that she knew all that. She wrote these scenes, after all. And it worked, by God, like a charm. His legs brushed against hers just enough to send a shimmering current of warmth from the point of contact to her stomach. She wondered whether the satisfaction she was feeling was predominately intellectual or physical.
Her thoughts poke a bit of fun at romance stereotypes:
“—Your hair smells delicious.”
Of course it did, she thought, that was part of the scene. And also, she's just washed it with whipped coconut something. But that smell was supposed to be a part of her. She wasn't supposed to say, “I just washed it.”
Later, Elaina notes that Sky smells of leather and woodsmoke and is gratified to find they smell just as romantic as they should.
But more seriously, the book points out stereotypes specific to the Indian romance subgenre. Eagle's books don't shy away exposing racism, and though it's clear that Elaina isn't personally bigoted, she confuses cultures with people. She unthinkingly commits a lot of microaggressions, like being surprised that Sky likes fish when “The Sioux” don't. And it's clear that her book pisses Sky off:
“Most people would say I write characters, too, but I think of them as people. They have to be alive for me, but I don't think I have to become them the way you do. I just have to know them... intimately.”
“Intimately?” He turned a testing smile on her. “How many Indian men do you know... intimately?”
She swallowed, but stood her ground. “I know Swift Horse.”
“Swift Horse is all pulp and ink. He's only Indian because you say he is.”
Sky isn't usually this direct—he's more apt to tease Elaina by calling her character “Fast Horse” and mocking his nobility.
And Sky isn't all about reality either; he's playing a role in life as a tough, impervious man. When disaster strikes, they both learn new things about themselves and each other: Elaina is not just a hopeless romantic, but a competent person with a great deal of ingenuity, and Sky is courageous yet vulnerable. The internal conflicts between them turn out to be pretty easily disposed of.
“What do you dream, Elaina?” He said her name slowly, listening to the feminine sound of it. He liked to call her by name.
“Oh, I dream of being captured and rescued and cared for, and wanted, by a strong and gentle man.”
“And that's what Fast Horse is? A strong and gentle man?”
“Basically, yes. A woman's man, I guess.”
“He oughta be. A woman made him. Does he ever fall short of your expectations, maybe slip a little... make a mistake?”[...] “I'm a little concerned about how someone who's made of flesh and blood is supposed to live up to these stereotypes of yours. I'm having enough trouble with the celluloid kind.”
“You needn't worry,” she told him, laying her hand over his chest.
“Stereotypes don't live at all, except in people's minds. They don't breathe. No heart pumps ink.”
Eagle perhaps did her job too well here; despite many charmingly romantic and tensely suspenseful moments, it was such a meta read for me that I never felt truly swept away by the story. But I found it fascinating and still relevant, almost 30 years after it was originally published.
Learn more about or order a copy of Carved in Stone by Kathleen Eagle: