Dueling Review

Dueling Review: Beauty and the Blacksmith by Tessa Dare (2013)

This month, our theme week—inspired by SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge—was the Blue Collar archetype. What could be better than a cross-class blacksmith romance?

Spindle Cove, #3.5

Holly’s Take

Heat Factor: He gets her all dirty

Character Chemistry: They’ve been pining from afar for a while and are finally ready to admit their feelings

Plot: Let’s try this courtship thang!

Overall: There are a couple of really standout scenes

Ingrid’s Take

Heat Factor: I mean, it opens with her admiring the size of his………………wrists. And it ends with zero doubt some dirty stuff went down. 

Character Chemistry: There’s heavy longing suggested, but things get cooking right away, which is nice for us.

Plot: They want each other, but can they HAVE each other?

Overall: It’s really cute and I can tell this is one that will stick in my memory if not just because there are some very memorable (and unique!) moments.

Erin’s Take

Heat Factor: It’s a novella, so there’s a lot of desiring from afar but only the one fateful night 

Character Chemistry: There are some undercurrents between Diana and Aaron earlier in the series, so this book involves a good deal of pining followed by taking action

Plot: Diana and Aaron finally decide to stop dancing around each other and see if their feelings can overcome their class divide

Overall: I enjoyed it more the first time I read it years ago, but it’s still well-constructed and charming if you don’t mind some dated ideas

What’s one key piece of information you think a reader should know before getting Beauty and the Blacksmith?

Erin: Diana is fascinated by how thick and muscled and sweaty and manly Aaron is. I think this might be a little bit of size kink. Everything in the story either contributes to keeping them apart or pushing them together—there are no superfluous scenes.

Holly: If you’ve read other Tessa Dare, you probably expect hijinks and lots of humor. With the compressed length and a full relationship to get into, there’s a lot less humor than I expected. The opening scene is A+ though. Full stars to the forearms plus the sweet-talking his projects.

Ingrid: It does seem pretty straightforward—no fluff, and no extras. It’s short and sweet.

Class differences are the number one reason Diana and Aaron can’t be together. How did the story handle that component of the conflict?

H: Well, the story hinted toward the class conflict by including that scene where Diana attempts to make Aaron lunch and fails utterly. But Diana also really romanticizes living in Aaron’s cute little cottage with him, and I wonder if she’ll still like it once they have five kids who all sleep in their one and only bed (as a young lady who is wealthy enough to not even share a bedroom with her sister). And they handwave her cooking failures away at the end because Aaron hires a cook (who will likely also clean, I don’t know). I guess as a blacksmith he can actually afford it, which begs the question of why he didn’t just hire one five years ago.

E: Diana is a gentlewoman and Aaron is a blacksmith, but she’s not a particularly high born gentlewoman and the blacksmith is one of the most important laborers in a village, so while their social stations are different, it’s not like we’re talking about a wealthy duke’s daughter trying to marry the gardener, right? Diana’s also been living in Spindle Cove for years and has little expectation of not living there in the future, so they don’t have to overcome much more than the expectations of the village and, more to the point, Diana’s mother. So while there is some external social expectation included, the real conflict was presented primarily in terms of Diana’s actual ability to inhabit the role of a working man’s wife, which was a real challenge for her. It’s also often—though not always—brushed over in cross-class marriages in historical romance (typically because the gentlewoman marrying down is marrying a businessman who already has a housekeeper and not a laborer), so I appreciated that the question of “Yeah, we might be in love, but is this really going to work long term?” became the central problem for them to overcome.

I: I mean, the potential hardships are really glossed over–he’s selling jewelry in wealthier towns, so it’s suggested that her life may not end up being as toilsome as it could be. I kind of picked up on the fact that he’s also a pretty highly respected man in town–so since Diana’s sister has already married well, it means her marriage might not be totally shocking? But yeah, the cooking scene felt like it was an effort to show that she cared more about her potential future with Aaron more than the luxuries of her life, but I also felt like it made her look really…silly.

Is there a way to read Diana’s fascination with Aaron’s person as other than gender essentialism?

H: I mean, we could read it as size kink? She likes that Aaron is so huge—his wrists are bigger than her ankles! (Unless she has really fat ankles, that doesn’t seem like that big a deal? My husband is not a big guy and I’m pretty sure his wrists are about the same size as my ankles. I haven’t done a close comparison though.)

I think we could also read it at competence porn. She likes that Aaron makes things. He makes useful things and he also makes beautiful things. It kind of goes beyond competence porn here: as the blacksmith, he is the central glue in the community, who takes care of people when they need their tools repaired or their bones set. 

So while she does get all hot and bothered about how manly he is (I guess in comparison to all those foppish lords?), I think the attraction is just as much about his social position.

E: This is one that might be a great example of the blue collar hero epitomizing “manly man” that we discussed yesterday. Do I sympathize with Diana drooling over forearms and muscles and competence? Absolutely. Was I slightly uncomfortable with how much her attraction was written as her being horny over how incredibly masculine he was? Also yes. But I don’t love it when the vast majority of sexual attraction is rooted in appearance/physicality in general, so maybe this is a me problem.

I: I mean, I think suggesting that this is a book structured solely on stereotyped gender norms isn’t entirely fair. I agree with Holly that he’s depicted a little more thoughtfully than that. And I do struggle with docking points for her liking traits that are often considered “masculine”. It’s not BAD for her to be attracted to him for those traits. It would be distasteful if she judged him for helping her clean up and cook dinner because those weren’t “manly” enough skills. My read of the situation was that she was attracted to him both for the physical attributes but also because of his skill and his gentleness, his capable nature, etc. I didn’t see any real evidence that she was basing his worth or attractiveness on how closely he adheres to traditionally masculine values. It just seemed like Diana liked him the way he is. 

H: YES. Everything that Ingrid said.

E: I went back and looked up how many times masculinity-type words were used, and it’s really not that much. The scenes where Diana is drooling over Aaron are clearly very memorable. And I agree that there are other aspects of Aaron’s personality that are attractive to Diana. I just tend to step back from storytelling that includes language (esp large quantities of it) tying a certain body type to a certain gender, so when this book went hard with “look at his giant manly forearms” right off the bat I was instantly like, “wait!”

H: Ha! Well, as a person who completely understands looking at someone’s body and being like, “wow, look at their giant, attractive *insert body part here*” I thought that opening scene was hilarious more than anything else.

Discuss Diana’s thought: “other days, freedom meant killing an eel.”

E: On the one hand, I was wrinkling my nose over all of the different descriptions of how manly Aaron is, while on the other hand I was appreciating how this story explored Diana taking control of her own life and standing up for herself. Holly mentioned the scene where Diana utterly fails to make Aaron lunch, and the interesting thing to me in that moment of the book was that Diana didn’t really want to make lunch. She found the eel and was completely disgusted. But she also took that moment to acknowledge to herself what future she really wanted and what it was worth for her to give up to get that future, so she went for it anyway. Her mother had constantly harped that freedom would come in the form of a wealthy husband, so their family could be free of financial worries, but by acknowledging to herself what she wanted and what she was willing to do to get it, Diana sets herself free from the expectations of others. 

I: So I was actually annoyed by this scene. I felt like it made Diana look kind of silly and useless? And in these “uptown girl” type books, I just tend to feel like what ends up happening is that the rich girl is made to look smaller so that the blue collar guy can look more high value, when really we should be seeing compatibility based on their individual strengths and backgrounds. I’m not saying it’s bad, it just annoys me that we’re still knocking women down a peg or two to prove points. And, to be fair—she is a crack shot and saves Aaron from the robbers, so she does get her time to shine…so this may be a me problem! 

E: Except in the robbers scene she says she was aiming for his body and missed! So she didn’t even really get that! Though I did like how that scene was written a little differently than the usual, “I told you to go, dammit!” “But I couldn’t leave you tho!” “Growl!” “Stubborn!” etc.

What you’re describing, though, is exactly what I was getting at—or one thing I was getting at—in my response to the problematic aspects of the archetype as it relates to glorifying the working man.

H: But back to the original question of killing the eel. Even if, like Ingrid, I didn’t like the scene, I did think the idea that “freedom means killing an eel” is an interesting way to explore the consequences of taking your life into your own hands. Frequently, in romance novels, the heroine will be like, “I’m gonna declare my freeeeeeeeeedooooooommmmmmmm” and that is that. But declaring that you’ve decided that you’re free from society’s strictures means that maybe you’re also free from society’s protections—and although you may escape doing some things you don’t like doing (say, participating in asinine theatricals), there are new burdens that you may have to take on.

So Diana’s mom…how did her reaction impact the way the end of the book worked for you?

E: Wait, okay, I read it the longest ago, so I might need a refresher. Her mom was like, “How very dare you try to importune my daughter!” and then Diana was like, “Hard nope, mom”…? Right? And then her mom was, like, mollified by Aaron’s status in Spindle Cove and by the fact that Diana’s little sister was still available? But this was after Diana’s mom explained that all she ever wanted for the girls was financial security because when their father died she was really scared?

I mean, I’ve read the third sister’s book, and the mom is exactly the same, so after rereading this I was mostly annoyed that she didn’t seem to learn anything from Diana’s experience. 

H: I don’t think it impacted me at all, to be honest. Romance moms gonna romance mom.

I: I felt like it was the only clumsy moment in the book—because the mom was kind of machinating and clueless but relatively harmless, then suddenly absolutely venomous and cruel, and then back to machinating and clueless again, but only at the very last moment. It just felt very jarring. Certainly didn’t stop me from enjoying the book though, and I do wonder if it would feel less so if I read the whole series.

Final Thoughts:

H: I agree with Erin’s initial assessment that this book didn’t age particularly well. We didn’t talk about it at all, but I do want to say that the bit with Miss Betram and Mr. Evermoore made me deeply uncomfortable. Though it’s meant to be funny, it felt very mean-spirited. (Frankly, it overpowered the rest of the book for me, but maybe that’s because I’m a humorless hag.) 

E: I found it interesting how much I disliked the emphasis on Aaron’s masculinity but on the other hand I liked how it explored certain feminist ideas.

I: I just did not go as deep as either of you. It was cute! I liked that it had some fresh and fun plot points and I didn’t have to get all stressed out because it was short and sexy and fun. However, the points you guys brought up were very interesting and I loved that we were able to have a meaty discussion about this relatively short and easy novella. Romance rocks.

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

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