Okay, so a while back, I posted about reading an article asking romance readers, “What was the book that got you into reading romance in the first place?” And of course, my answer to that was a big fat, “Uh…I can’t remember the title. Or the author. Or much of what happened in it.” Which is all super helpful information when you try to find a book, right? The universe smiled upon me, however; about two weeks or so after I read that article, I just so happened to find The Book, which turned out to be Flames of Glory by Patricia Matthews (Thomdike Press, 1982). I’m still not over the fact that I actually found that book- I didn’t even really look at it at the used book sale, just kind of shrugged after I thought it might be it (because I had to leave; other errands to run!), then stuffed it in my bag. And it was so, so it!
Despite the florid description on Goodreads (complete with OCR scan typo), the book’s style wasn’t actually as overwritten as I expected and turned out to be a mostly pleasant read, generally speaking. Let’s start by picking apart the back cover copy (I’ll tidy up that scan error):
SHE WAS TORN FROM THE ARMS OF LOVE AND IMPRISONED IN THE HOT EMBRACE OF PASSION…
Sultry Tampa, crossroad for gallant soldiers of the Spanish-American War, was the beloved home of young Jessica Manning. Her elegance and delicate beauty entranced the most valiant men, but fate gave her the most ruthless–hot-blooded Brill Kroger. Ignited by selfish passion, Brill abducted Jessica, then swept his anguished prize on a blazing seaward quest for Aztec gold. Through it all, Jessica clung to one aching wish–a return to her glowing moments of surrender in the strong arms of dashing Rough Rider Lieutenant Neil Dancer. Neil’s heart burned wildly for his lost Jessica, and his fury now drove him to pledge his very life to rekindle the flames of their glorious love.
EGADS. Is that not the fussiest back cover copy you’ve ever read? Were all 80’s romance novels described like this??? The actual writing of the book is nothing like this and reads pretty close to what I would expect out of any decently-written book on the shelf today, so I’m not sure what the goal was with that mess.
There’s a brief scene at the beginning when Jessica is just fourteen years old, out with her parents and in awe over the grand opening of the Tampa Bay Hotel. Flash forward another seven years, and Jessica, whose greatest and sole personality trait is being beautiful (unless having sunshiny blond hair is also a personality trait, then that too, I suppose), is so utterly bored with life (ONLY BORING PEOPLE ARE BORED, JESSICA) that she’s practically cheering the start of the Spanish-American war, because it means that Tampa is filling up with soldiers, particularly Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Despite a prickly start, she and Lieutenant Neil Dancer (who has lightning-quick outdoor sex with Jessica’s skeezy friend Dulcy that lasts all of a brief paragraph forty-four pages into the book) spend a maximum of four or five hours together before sailing off on a day trip, getting marooned on a deserted island, declaring instalove, and engaging in what I imagine as being gritty, uncomfortable, sand-filled beach sex.
But back up a little bit from that image. The new man in town is Brill Kroger, which is quite possibly the worst romance villain name I’ve ever heard (you can practically hear the mustache twirling, can’t you?). Ostensibly, he’s there to help plan a ball to raise money for the soldiers, but thanks to a multiple narrative that allows us into his head, we know he’s really a con man who’s planning to run off with the money, but not before using (and abusing, because this was published in the early 80’s) a few Tampa women. While he hooks up with Dulcy several times, his vicious sites are mostly set on Maria Mendes, a Cuban-American woman who works at the hotel (and whose POV we also get to enjoy), and then, after she scorns and embarrasses him, Jessica. He’s a creep of the highest order, and oddly enough, he’s probably the most well-developed character.
As soon as Neil leaves with the Rough Riders, a head injury sends Jessica into the throes of- you guessed it- AMNESIA (because of course! This book checks so many romance novel boxes), wiping all her memories of Neil: their instalove, the sex on the beach, their secret engagement. When she doesn’t show up to visit Neil on the docks (that good old military hurry-up-and-wait in action!), he gets alternately pissy and worried, while back at home, amnesiac Jessica begins to swoon over Ramon, Maria’s brother (a plot point that served mainly to help the time pass, as far as I could tell). Neil is injured not long after the actual fighting starts in Cuba, and despite his love and worry about Jessica, he still gets naked with Margarita, a woman from the rebel camp who tended to his wounds. Bet he’ll never tell Jessica about that!
Back home (and there’s a content warning here), in the land of the 1890’s written in the 1980’s, Brill rapes and murders Dulcy out of a combination of fury from rejection by Maria and annoyance at Dulcy as a person. Tampa is mostly yawning over the war and so Brill’s idea of a benefit ball won’t work, but being the skilled con man he is, he changes it to a ball benefiting the local victims of a fire (Jessica’s amnesia-inducing head injury came from helping out here with the Red Cross). On the night of the ball, things go south fast, and in order to escape with the money, Brill abducts Jessica, flees to Mexico with her, and then loses his mind and thinks she’s his beloved mother, a tactic that really only makes sense because it was the only way for Jessica to remain alive and solely touched by Neil’s still-in-use-during-this-break-and-somehow-magically-not-full-of-syphillis johnson.
Long story short, Jessica doesn’t develop much personality while in captivity. Upon his return to Tampa, Neil learns of Jessica’s abduction and teams up with Maria and her soon-to-be fiancé-then-husband Tom to travel to Mexico to bring Jessica back. Which they do, and of course Brill meets an untimely end, while Neil and Jessica and Maria and Tom live happily ever after, until, I assume, someone dies in childbirth and someone else dies due to lack of antibiotics, because this is the 1890’s and those things happen (this is where my brain goes when I read historical fiction).
This actually wasn’t terrible! Despite Neil and Jessica lacking in the personality department and Brill being a little overwritten, the setting- 1890’s Tampa at the start of the Spanish-American war- really made this novel come alive. I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else set during this time period, at least not in Tampa (which is probably why that stuck in my memory as one of the very few things I recalled about the book before finding it again), and I very much enjoyed reading all the historical facts and bits of trivia that Ms. Matthews wove into the story. I kept running back to Google while reading this, checking to see if certain bits were real, and from what I can tell, Flames of Glory is well-researched. In my opinion, it’s worth the read for the setting and period interest alone.
The characters…ehhhhhh. Jessica had about as much personality as a limp dishrag, and Neil wasn’t much better. There’s no description of what they love or even like about each other, most likely because neither of them actually have personalities or actual character traits, and they spend about ten seconds together with minimal conversation before getting down in the sand on that deserted island. Maybe that’s why Dulcy was so annoyed by Jessica and pissed off by Neil choosing her. Dulcy was every stereotype of the bad girl possible- she’s nasty and two-faced to Jessica, she sleeps around, she gets raped and murdered as punishment for her behavior- but at least she was interesting to read. Jessica, not so much. *yawn* Neil at least manages to come to the conclusion that maybe war isn’t all that great, after getting shot and watching his buddies get killed and maimed, so good for him on that, I guess (but facepalm for it taking his friends dying in front of his eyes for him to figure that out. Seriously, dude?). Dulcy doesn’t last long enough to grow as a character, Brill just gets worse in every way, and Jessica is as bland at the end as she is at the beginning…but Maria! Maria is strong and intelligent; she’s thoughtful and caring, cunning in all the right ways- a good thing, since it helps her evade Brill several times- and she goes from a young woman expecting to live a safe life in Tampa, to a grown woman who falls in love and is willing to put her life on the line to save a friend. She’s by far the most enjoyable character in the entire story.
Along with content warnings for a rape and murder scene, there’s one cringeworthy scene where Jessica is noticing the local Mayan people in Mexico; her descriptions of them are less than flattering and seemed unnecessary and unfair. The rest of the book seemed to me to be okay, but that one paragraph had my eyebrows way, way up there.
It’s funny; I first read this book when I was about twelve years old, but as I read it this time, I found myself remembering lines from upcoming paragraphs, and when I turned the page, sure enough, there would be the line I remembered. The human brain is a crazy thing. I can’t remember why I went into the kitchen half the time, but lines from a romance novel I read in 1992? WHY NOT!!!
One thing I didn’t remember about the book: when Brill drags Jessica to Mexico, he’s on the hunt for gold, and thanks to his interpreter, he learns that a great place to find gold is in a well in Chichen-Itza, used for sacrifices by the Aztecs to their rain god. The well is connected to a cenote, a deep, water-filled sinkhole connected to underground rivers. My husband and I honeymooned in Cancún and had the privilege of swimming in a few cenotes, and I’ve been fascinated with them ever since. I had a huge smile on my face when the word appeared in the book!
A few cenote pics:
Most likely not the same cenote in which Brill Kroger met his untimely (or, let’s face it, timely, because he was a serious creep) end- I’m assuming he was hunting in the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza because it fits the description in the book- but still pretty amazing. And yes, we both jumped from the ledge (at the top of those stairs) into the water, which was about a ten-foot drop, maybe more. I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I left without doing that, no matter how scary the first jump was! If you ever get a chance to swim in a cenote, DO IT. Seriously one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
All in all, while this wasn’t the greatest read of my life, I’m glad I got the chance to read it again, and that I was in the right place at the right time to find this book. I’m not sure what about it appealed to me as a kid, other than it was the first book I ever came across that included sex scenes- I mean, I was twelve, that may very well have been it! But because of this book, I’ve picked up plenty of other romances that I adored, so for that, I’ll always be grateful to Patricia Matthews and Flames of Glory.
Patricia Matthews passed away in 2006 at the age of 79. You can learn more about her at her Wikipedia page here.