By Doreen Owens Malek, 1994, Historical Romance
Leisure, $4.99, ISBN #0-8439-3569-3
Check out the cheesy cover and read the overblown back-cover blurb. I know what you're thinking. "Oh no, not another buxom blonde sold to a panting pasha story!" Well not exactly. This book is more like Katherine Hepburn meets Spencer Tracy in a harem. If you like books where there is a clash between intellectual equals, I strongly recommend this one.
Sara Wolcott is a Boston school teacher visiting her cousin James in Constantinople during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Sara is curious about life in the royal palace, and despite her cousin's misgivings, she becomes a temporary tutor for one of the royal princesses. Sarah quickly develops a strong friendship with the princess Roxelana and accompanies her to a state dinner in honor of a local pasha, Kalid Shah. Kalid, upon seeing Sarah, is smitten and makes the corrupt Sultan an offer he can't refuse. Despite her American citizenship, Sarah is sold into Kalid's harem. She is plunged into the lavish opulence of a strange world, but Sarah is determined to resist its luxury and the charms of the man who claims to own her.
Kalid Shah is the product of a Western mother and an Ottoman father. He has a British public school and University education, and could be best be described as an enlightened despot. Khalid is used to getting what he wants, so when he sees Sarah, he desires her and summarily buys her. But, feeling corrupted by British civilized behavior, he is determined to woo Sarah into accepting her new position as the ikbal, the favorite. Despite his best efforts and to the astonishment of Kalid and the palace staff, who are not used to hearing the word "no," Sarah refuses to be won over by his charm, her envied position as the favorite, or the fabulous riches at her disposal. She feels Kalid views her only as a pretty possession instead of as an independent woman who deserves the right to determine her own life.
"No matter what you do, or claim you will do, you can't force me into the mold of the compliant little sex toy you so obviously want."
"That's not what I want."
"No, Sarah. No man in his right mind would get involved with you just for sex; you are far too much trouble..."
Fiesty but never tstl, Sarah is forced to rely on inner strength, intelligence and an occasional right hook to hold her own in a situation unlike any she's ever known and where theoretically she has no power. Her humor, guts and grit win her the admiration and respect of those in the palace as she thwarts Kalid at every turn, even while she falls in love with him.
Handsome, witty and charming, Kalid has never had to work to get any woman he wants. Until this one. She is an enigma to him, a woman who demands equality. Initially attracted to her beauty, he finds himself fascinated with her mind and relishing their battle of wills even as she drives him toward the cliffs of insanity.
But it is the climactic confrontation and how the author handles it that makes this book a keeper for me. As their long awaited marriage ceremony takes place, information that Kalid tried to suppress to keep Sarah with him is revealed and Sarah learns that maybe Kalid hasn't changed his views on women. Does Sarah have the strength to hold fast to her ideals even if they may cost her the love of her life? Does Kalid have the courage to admit to the changes she has made in his heart and life then act on them to win her back? Does the author opt not to take the two page - "Gee I'm sorry honey."/"That's alright, dear" - easy way out of the conflict? Did I devour this almost 400 page book in one sitting to find out? The answers are yes, yes, yes and definitely yes.
The secondary characters are just as wonderful as the two leads. There is Kosem, Kalid's 82 year old grandmother who complains every day that she's going to die soon, Memtaz, Sarah's servant, who isn't happy unless Sarah is wearing enough finery to cover the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, Achmed, the kislar who is as baffled as his master about how to manage a Western woman, and a cast of thousands in the Topkapi and Orchid Palaces who have never seen any woman quite like Sarah.
In the best Hollywood style, wry one-liners fly as two determined wills spark against each other. The period detail is convincing without being distracting and the action goes straight to the wire before Kalid and Sarah can make admissions and compromises to achieve the "And they lived happily ever after" ending they deserve. The Panther and the Pearl is out of print but if you're looking for a good lighthearted romp, I urge you to find a used copy, grab some popcorn and Milk Duds and settle in for a wonderful time.
-- Patricia S.
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