The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley

This book, unexpectedly, inspired quite a lot of feminist rage in me. So this post is going to be me getting ranty-pants more than it’s actually a book review.

Nicola, the ‘protagonist’ (or, at least, the point of view character) for the modern half of the book, is a bundle of neuroses. Rob, the romantic interest, is practically perfect in every way. His job is perfect, his volunteer work is perfect, his family is perfect, his psychic abilities are perfect, his every reaction to every situation is perfect. Also, he’s gorgeous, of course. And his clothes are perfect. And his body is perfect.

Nicola does not do a single thing for herself for the first 400 pages of the book. She doesn’t drive the plot. She barely makes a choice. She’s too overwhelmed. All the time. By everything she’s encountering. She doesn’t drive herself anywhere, doesn’t open a door, doesn’t pay for a meal, doesn’t carry a bag. Ever. She doesn’t even have to think, really, because Perfect Rob is there to lead her around by the hand for the whole damn book.

It’s telling that, in one of the reviews on Goodreads, despite the fact that the book is narrated by Nicola in the first person, when the reviewer mentions the “hero” of the book, they mean Rob.

Why? Why do women – because this book is written by a woman – perpetuate the fiction that chivalry is romantic? What is romantic about being treated like a child who can’t take care of herself? Once in a while, as a game on a special occasion or something, fine, yes, I get it. But every day? Being infantilized every day? This book doesn’t even trust Nicola to walk along a coastal path by herself. Rob is right there to put himself in the way of danger, hovering in case she should fall. Like she’s two years old. There’s never any suggestion that Rob might fall. He couldn’t possibly. He’s perfect.

And what happens when someone treats you that way – and I know this from personal experience – is that you start to doubt yourself. If a person you respect, a person who cares about you, doesn’t believe you can take care of yourself, you stop believing it yourself. You become dependent. This is plainly apparent with Nicola, who started as a capable professional woman, but 200 pages in doesn’t believe she can do anything by herself anymore. Rob always has to be there to hold her hand. Literally! Like it’s her first day of school. And yet the book isn’t commenting on this, it’s saying, ‘Look how wonderful Rob is! Wouldn’t you love to have a Rob of your very own?’

In fact, no. I kind of wanted to punch Rob in the nose. Because I live in the 21st century, and I’m an intelligent adult who is capable of taking care of herself in most everyday situations. I’m also capable of knowing when I need help and asking for it. I would much rather have someone who trusts me, who treats me like a grown-up, who will share burdens with me, so we can take care of each other. If we’re walking down a coastal path, for example, let’s hold hands together so we can both be safe.

You know, like equals.

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