Apparently this is one of the first modern romances, written in something like 1919, and it was considered quite scandalous at the time. And I can see why.
The story follows Diana Mayo, beautiful but haughty and frigid, immune to all romantic attention. She was raised by her much older brother who treated her like a boy, and she behaves like one… until she catches the eye of a traveling Sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan, who decides he wants her for his “plaything.” As she goes on an ill-advised trek through the desert, he kidnaps her and makes her essentially his sex slave (though it doesn’t go into a lot of detail on this.) He’s terribly handsome, but cruel to everyone and everything around him. Diana hates him and tries to escape, but when her escape attempts fail, she suddenly realizes she loves him after all. The rest of the story is her pining for him to love her back (and going on and on to herself about how desperately she loves him, despite her own admission that there is nothing lovable *about* him). When a rival Sheik kidnaps her, Ahmed realizes that he loves her too, and rides off to save her. And they live happily ever after.
The story is addictive at first, as the conflict between the two characters promises to be inevitable and explosive. But I grew restless as I read how the author attempts to resolve that conflict, because it seemed so unrealistic to me. She misuses the term “love”, in the case of both characters: Diana’s version seems more like Stockholm Syndrome. She thought she was invincible, but Ahmed overpowers her… and she relishes being conquered, in a twisted sort of way. But then she grows desperate to the point of being suicidal if she cannot win his love in return–as if her entire value as a person hinges on his opinion of her. Ahmed’s version, meanwhile, is more about wanting what he can’t have, and devaluing what he can. He’s intrigued by the fact that she’s spirited and fights against him, but he warns her at the beginning that as soon as she stops fighting, he’ll lose interest and send her away. He decides he finally wants her mostly because he just doesn’t want the other guy to have her. “And then magic occurs”… Hull needs to wrap up the story, so suddenly Ahmed transforms into a hero, ready to make Diana happy for all her days. Yeah, right: there’s absolutely no stimulus for that change. (Then again, the idea of love has been so misguided throughout the story that I don’t really think there was any possibility for a satisfying ending!)
My rating: ***