Reckless Love
by Elizabeth Lowell
(Ann Maxwell)

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Harlequin: Toronto, 1990
Mira: Toronto, 2000

378 pages

May 2002

Popular fiction

Ann Maxwell has a fine essay on popular fiction where she pulls the readers' and writers' viewpoints together, discusses briefly what's wrong with much of modern fiction:

I have heard mystery authors complain that they don't get any respect from critics. As a mystery author, I agree. I have heard science fiction authors complain that they don't get any respect. As a science fiction author, I agree. But as a romance author, I have experienced amazing intellectual bigotry.

Ann Maxwell
"Popular Fiction: Why We Read It, Why We Write It"

She might have added Westerns, another popular genre that rarely gets much critical respect except for some modern angst-ridden pseudo-Westerns. And while Ann Maxwell is unsurpassed as a romance writer, she writes rather good Westerns too, both in current and historical settings. Reckless Love, published under her pen-name of Elizabeth Lowell, is a passionate romance and a powerful Western adventure as well.

Popular optimism versus official angst

So what is the difference, what is different and right in popular fiction when done well, that too often is missing in officially-certified fiction?

... the underlying philosophy in much literary fiction is pessimistic: Marx, Freud, and Sartre are the Muses of modernism. Life is seen as fundamentally absurd. No matter how an individual strives, nothing significant will change. Or, in more accessible language, you can't win for losing.

The underlying philosophy of much popular fiction is more optimistic: the human condition might indeed be deplorable, but individuals can make a positive difference in their own and others' lives. The Muses of popular fiction are Zoroaster and Jung, the philosophy more classical than modern. Popular fiction is a continuation of and an embroidery upon ancient myths and archetypes; popular fiction is good against evil, Prometheus against the uncaring gods, Persephone emerging from hell with the seeds of spring in her hands, Adam discovering Eve.

In a word, popular fiction is heroic and transcendent at a time when heroism and transcendence are out of intellectual favor.

Ann Maxwell
"Popular Fiction: Why We Read It, Why We Write It"

But fortunately not entirely out of popular favor. It's often hard to find what's good when official arbiters of taste are promoting what's bad, and not only in romance fiction. In various speeches and essays Robert A. Heinlein asserts similar values concerning science fiction, and disdains similar critics. This is not a new problem, although it may be worsening. At least romance and adventure have a long history of successfully appealing to popular taste.

In the realm of the Muses

Let's step back briefly to that realm of the Muses, on the ground in front of the walls of Troy. Paris, the abductor of Helen, challenges Menelaus, Helen's husband, to single combat. The armies watch, many hoping that this combat of champions will end the long-fought Trojan War. Menelaus lunges to grab hold of Paris' helmet, but

... Aphrodite, Zeus's daughter quick to the mark,
snapped the rawhide strap, cut from a bludgeoned ox,
and the helmet came off empty in Menelaus' fist.
Whirling it round the fighter sent it flying
into his Argives scrambling fast to retrieve it —
back at his man he sprang, enraged with brazen spear,
mad for the kill but Aphrodite snatched Paris away,
easy work for a god, wrapped him in swirls of mist
and set him down in his bedroom filled with scent.
Then off she went to summon Helen ...

The Iliad, 3.433-442
translated by Robert Fagles

Quite an abrupt transition for Paris! But he's glad to have escaped. Helen receives both coaxing and threats from Aphrodite — not our usual impression of Helen, but Homer's Helen is more complex and interesting than the fascinating but simple lust-beacon of legend. And so we have unpredictable romance intertwined with violent adventure, beginning a great tradition that reflects so much of life as we live and perceive it.

Some transitions in Reckless Love are almost as abrupt, but they flow naturally from the intertwined situations, without requiring intervention by a goddess. Romance: a man and woman are getting to know each other, with many missteps and misunderstandings. Adventure: the setting where they are thrown together is wilderness, beyond civilization's frontier, where the surprises may be deadly. Just as Maxwell is clear and tantalizing about the twists and pitfalls on the path of love, she is clear and unsparing about the risks of the environment in which potential lovers must coexist, an environment that here includes harsh landscape and weather, wild horses, and bad men who do not number angst among their failings.

Louis L'Amour, plus —

Years ago Ann Maxwell and I were talking about Louis L'Amour, the great writer of Westerns. It developed that she and I both had a particular affection for L'Amour's novel Flint (1960), which among other virtues, features a canyon-cut plateau of ancient lava beds in New Mexico, or Arizona Territory as it then was. This plateau becomes a kind of hidden castle and secret garden for L'Amour's hero and heroine. Such a geologic formation provides the sweet life-giving functions of an oasis in the desert, plus a hideaway, even a fort: a fine nexus for adventure, romance, and the appreciation of landscape.

Now, if I were to wish for a novel that was about twice as long as Flint so there's more room for development — written by someone who also knows and loves the deserts of the American West — and written by someone who also can write first-rate Western adventure set in the years after the Civil War — and written by someone who on top of all that can write heart-in-the-mouth suspenseful romance, thoroughly sexy and sensuous as could not be done in the classic Westerns — then I'd wish for Reckless Love.

Intelligence, strength, determination

Right at the opening of Reckless Love, Ty MacKenzie barely escapes with his life from a band of renegade Ute Indians. Janna Wayland, a young woman who has led a secluded and half-wild existence on a rocky, virtually inaccessible plateau in Utah Territory, watches from hiding as MacKenzie runs a gauntlet of Indian warriors, then breaks free, at least briefly.

Just before Janna reached another dry wash, she saw the stranger's trail. She veered left, following him, wondering which hiding place the man had chosen of all those offered by the tiny finger canyons and rugged rock formations that riddled the base of the plateau. Not that hiding would do him much good. He tried to conceal his trail but he was bleeding so much that every few feet bright crimson drops proclaimed his passage.

Janna slowed and began rubbing out the telltale drops, using sand or dirt or brush, whatever was near at hand. When his blood trail began to climb up the slope, she noted with approval that the man had passed up obvious hiding places where the renegades would be sure to look. ... the stranger relied on intelligence as well as raw strength for his survival.

Yet it was the man's determination that impressed Janna while she followed his twisting trail up the steep, rocky flank of the plateau.

Intelligence, strength, determination. These qualities are vivid in any Maxwell heroine as well as in the hero. They are self-reliant, optimistic despite misfortune, capable of love and deserving no less. Ann Maxwell heroines shine. And the careful switching of viewpoints between hero and heroine make her romances enjoyable to masculine as well as feminine sensibilities.

Maxwell writes very sensuously, and the descriptions of the desert plateau are enchanting. This sensuousness is pervasive. She has the gift of writing extremely sexy scenes without using any of the "seven words you can't say on the radio", as explicit as may be while remaining virtuously implicit. Quite a trick, and patently difficult for many people in real conversation as well as for writers in novels. She rightly finds no obscenity in love or sex — although there's likely to be plenty in her villains' minds.

Looking beyond this story, Ty MacKenzie has some tough, smart, and intriguing brothers. I regret that we do not yet have the brothers' sequels to Reckless Love.

Ann Maxwell David Franson interviews Ann Maxwell at home, 1991 (small)

Ann Maxwell (or Elizabeth Lowell) writes romance novels as to the manner born. In a Pantheon of writers, there must be a wing illumined by the Muses for those who describe romance with the joy and respect it deserves. Like the paired Greek and Latin names of those enshrined in the Pantheon, our author is honored under two names, Ann Maxwell and Elizabeth Lowell. She started her career, though, with science fiction under her real name, Ann Maxwell: Change and the Singers series and the surreal tour-de-force, Name of a Shadow.

She and her husband Evan Maxwell write separately and together under a polymorphous profusion of bylines, including A. E. Maxwell; and in at least one case, one of their books was reprinted in Britain as by a different author than its American publication. (Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore pair up in science fiction as a similar joyous bane of fans and bibliographers.)

Romance fiction done very right

If you're a romance-fiction fan and haven't read Elizabeth Lowell, you should do so. If you've read some of her other romances, don't miss this one. If you've read Ann Maxwell's science fiction and are curious to see how she handles another genre, give Reckless Love a try. Or if you're under the impression that romance as a genre can't be well done, or isn't worth reading even if it were — there's the critics' intellectual bigotry she's talking about — it may be worth experimenting, yourself, to see if that's true.

Back to Reckless Love, we'll let the novel speak for itself again:

When Janna could do no more for the stranger, she pulled the blanket over him, sat next to him and watched the sky catch fire from the dying sun. She loved the silent blaze of beauty, the incandescence and the transformation of the sky. It made her believe that anything was possible — anything — even her fierce, silent hope of someday having a home where she could sleep without always waking alone.

Only when it was full dark and the last star had glittered into life did Janna put her arms around her knees, lower her forehead to them and sleep, waking every few minutes to listen to the small sounds of the living night and the breathing of the man who trusted her enough to sleep naked and weaponless at her feet.


  © 2002 Robert Wilfred Franson

Photo: David Franson interviews Ann Maxwell at home, 1991

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