A novelette that contains some of the most fascinating themes I have ever read in a romance, let alone an erotic specfic, and leaves behind a strong and inspiring sentiment.
I am receptive to just about any story—it doesn’t matter what it’s about, or how morally ambiguous or taboo it is, it’s all in how it’s written and presented. The Watchmaker’s Lady certainly makes for unconventional reading, challenging the traditional notions of a romantic story, as it involves a deeply loving and sexual relationship between a man and a doll.
That’s right, a doll.
The exploration and exploitation of the fetish isn’t exactly new in fiction, but it’s arguably a daring premise in the romance genre. I’ve put it quite crudely just now, but don’t go pulling repulsed faces yet. The Watchmaker’s Lady does have a man and a female automaton having sex—lots and lots of sex—but this is no typical fetish story. Author Heather Massey assures us that ‘if you dig a little deeper beneath the kink you’ll discover a heart-warming romance between two soul mates’.
And so it is, but it does take some digging.
The year is 1840, the early days of the Victorian era. Our hero is Matthew Goddard, a quiet watchmaker and clock repairer in a small town of Massachusetts. One day, after dropping off some torn trousers at the general store for patching up, he discovers a bisque porcelain head in a wagon headed for the trash. It is an adult-sized woman’s head with smoky blue eyes and raven black hair, and Matthew is immediately smitten. When Matthew asks the head what her name is, he is amazed to find a woman’s voice whispering back ‘Isabel’.
Matthew eagerly takes Isabel into his home and hearth. Initially, I couldn’t get over the picture of ‘OMG HE’S GETTING HEAD FROM A HEAD LOLZ’ (my residual teenage immaturity talking there). Yeah, so it’s undeniably squicky at first, but as Matthew proved his complete and unequivocal belief in Isabel, I eventually did too. And more than that, I grew to hope that he and Isabel would stay together, despite the incredible odds against them.
The Watchmaker’s Lady can draw many comparisons to well-known literature—Pygmalion and My Fair Lady come to mind—but I saw a more common likeness in Lars and the Real Girl, as they are both stories about a reclusive man’s strange and forbidden love for a sex doll in a small community; but where Lars is, unbeknownst to him, being treated for his delusional disorder by a loving circle of friends and family, Matthew is a sad product of his time, forced to express his sexual desires in secret ways while maintaining the façade of strict social decorum.
The sex and language are as explicit as you’d expect, but the story never becomes sordid or perverted, since there is a genuine sense of emotional involvement. I did feel that the sex scenes, as hot as they are, obstructed the more interesting layers of the character development. I suppose I couldn’t quite shake off my incredulity at Matthew’s impressive stamina in the sack, on top of Isabel’s overwhelming eagerness to please.
‘Matthew! You’re excited again’, [Isabel] said, her voice sounding breathless with anticipation.
‘Yes,’ was all he could manage, his own voice rough with need.
Isabel: ‘If you don’t mind my saying, I think you look very handsome. I particularly like your chin. It’s so strong and determined-looking.’
(How could I not giggle a bit?)
We cannot forget this is all part of Matthew’s wild, indulgent fantasy. There is a certain robotic air about Isabel’s speech, which is probably appropriate, all things considered. But it does make for uncomfortable reading. Matthew is constantly flattered and valued by Isabel; her ‘frankness’ is ‘incredibly addictive’. While part of him does have that self-awareness, I like how my perception of the relationship was constantly tested.
For all the stunted dialogue, I was more invested in the story’s broader commentary on race, gender, sexuality and humanity. Massey explores what it means to be human and subverts the traditional values of a romantic and sexual relationship. I love how she describes Matthew and Isabel as ‘soul mates’, implying that their love transcends typical mortal norms to a higher order, a level of profound connection of spirit and affinity. Whether that soul mate is human or constructed is another question. Does it matter if your soul mate is not actually alive? Does it make the relationship any less real or worthy? What defines a real relationship? These are all relevant questions in a world where the barriers of reality and fantasy are collapsing and colliding.
Things get complicated when Isabel asks for a proper body, which puts Matthew in a quandary. It’s not easy for a lonely Victorian inventor to buy lady things without raising eyebrows, but Matthew will do anything for his love. He begins a sex toy business on the side to service his unfulfilled female customers. As payment they give him various items of women’s clothing and accessories. And so he is able to build the perfect body out of metal and brass, and fashion Isabel with a fully formed body.
Matthew’s best laid plans go awry when Isabel mysteriously discovers him ‘helping’ a female customer one day. Fearing Isabel’s anger and rejection more than anything, he tactlessly dismisses the customer sharpish out of his shop, only to soon have the whole town in a mob crying for Matthew’s blood (apparently he had an unhappy female customer). At that point things really do look perilous for Isabel and Matthew, but to elaborate on what happens next would just spoil the whole story. Suffice it to say, the ending reinforces the aforementioned themes, with some over-the-top drama but also a wistful hope.
The greatest story highlight for me is the quiet but growing empowerment of Isabel. I was disturbed by the image of Matthew being the only active ‘participant’ in the relationship, but Isabel evolves from being a mere object of lust for her creator to becoming his equal, even his saviour. We witness the literally transformative power of Matthew’s love for her—she’s no longer a mannequin’s head with a perfectly constructed figure but a living, moving being with thoughts, feelings and desires. This affirms the power of imagination and innovation, something so intertwined with speculative fiction’s zeitgeist. Whether that’s clockpunk, steampunk, bustlepunk or what-have-you-punk, their sentiments are very much in sync.
My problem with specfic novellas is that they often have intriguing premises but don’t quite manage the precarious balance between plot/character development and world-building. The Watchmaker’s Lady manages well in spite of the rigid word count. It contains some of the most fascinating themes I have ever read in a romance, let alone an erotic sci-fi/specfic romance. I just wish the character development was unravelled slower, and fleshed out more (pun not intended!). This could very well have become a full-fledged novel; the pacing is a bit rushed, and the writing reflects that with clipped sentences and exposition.
That said, this is such an important read, because for all its writing flaws, The Watchmaker’s Lady leaves behind a strong and inspiring sentiment.
Yay or nay?
Massey has created something wonderful out of an unusual premise, and I hope it’s just the beginning in a trail of similarly intelligent and provocative romances to come.
Who might enjoy it: Erotic romance readers looking to try something different, and genre jumpers (this book’s got nearly everything)
Who might not enjoy it: Squeamish, conservative readers who can’t reconcile with the picture of a heroine with only a porcelain head, and no physical body, for most of the story
A review copy of this book was generously provided by the author.