Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!

December 4 , 2004 - Issue #192

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Although I'd fallen in love with romance novels in 1993, it wasn't until 1994 that my love affair was cemented firmly in place, for that was the year I discovered Julie Garwood. Had her writing not fired my imagination so strongly it's quite possible "Laurie Likes Books" would not exist. So it seems fitting that with today's relaunch of AAR and our new look that this At the Back Fence take it back to my most favorite of romance authors, although it not my personal love affair with Garwood shared here but that instead of reader Cindy Smith. Which also seems fitting as AAR, since its inception, has been organic in nature, allowing things to bubble up from readers through us to other readers. Originally I'd planned to write a Garwood segment myself to complement Cindy's but her segment is so comprehensive and well done that to do so would be overkill. After all, seven of Garwood's historicals landed on my ballot for our recent Top 100 Romances poll - five made it into the top ten, and two of those ended up as my top two romances). Then too, it's embarrassing to gush in public. Cindy's segment is followed by Robin's "Business & Romance Redux," a follow-up to a piece she wrote for ATBF in early 2002.


Authors at Their Best: What's so Great About Julie Garwood (Cindy Smith)

To explain what is so great about Julie Garwood, I thought I would have to go back to the beginning. Back to 1989 when the romance section at the bookstore only took up 8 feet of bookshelves, 2 feet of which were held for Harlequin and Silhouette romances. Almost every cover was a clinch. After reading romance for about a year and I suspected that there were no books where people met, became friends, and then fell in love because nearly every book I picked up featured heroes and heroines ready to tear each other apart. I'm not sure why I persevered other than that I was waiting for something...more.

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One day while standing once again in front of the romance section looking at all these books that looked the same, I saw a cover that was completely different. It was the cover of The Bride by Julie Garwood. It was simply the back of a bride's wedding dress, peeking out from behind a gold curtain. The man on the cover was barely there except to note that he was gently cupping the woman's back while bending to kiss her on the nape of her neck. This was a wonderfully romantic cover that suggested kindness, at the very least and intrigued me about the characters. Not only was the cover striking in it's difference from all the clinch covers surrounding it but, the title suggested to me that the characters in the book would be married early on in the story. After reading so many stories where marriage was the HEA I was intrigued by a story that had the protagonists married early on. To say that I was delighted is an understatement and thus began my love affair with everything Garwood.

Once I began re-reading Garwood's historicals I realized that her work stands the test of time; her books from the 1980s and early 1990s read just as well today as they did back then. Admittedly, I am not an unbiased reader, having read each of her books at least three times and at the most - including Honor's Splendor, The Bride and The Secret - six times, give or take. I felt up to the task of describing exactly what makes these books so great.

Three days into it I was ready to bang my head on the desk. By page eighty of The Bride I had no less than twelve passages I wanted to discuss. I promptly put the book down and grabbed The Secret thinking that maybe I was overanalyzing things. No such luck - every book I picked up had a plethora of quotes that I wanted to use. So, here's the thing: I'm not sure that I am capable of even scraping the surface of what is so great about Garwood's books...except to say there is a magic about her earlier ones that is hard to wrap my arms around. So many intricate pieces exist in her novels that to take one piece away would in essence create a completely different story. Garwood's stories touch readers on a variety of levels, and there is a fairy tale quality to them that feeds into the needs of so many people. To be loved is universal, as is being accepted as you are, being an important part of a social group and finding that one person that believes in you no matter what comes your way.

I hope to explain some of what makes Garwood such a great author but, I know I haven't found the exact key. There is something inexplicable about the world she creates, the relationship between the hero and heroine and those around them. If you have never read Julie Garwood, I hope that I can convince you to try her; after that, I'm sure her stories will keep you coming back for more.

Heroines

It has been bandied about that Julie Garwood's heroines are TSTL. Now, I can see where some people may feel that way but, I would argue that this is in no way the case. Most of her heroines are quite capable and intelligent but they do have a charming cheerfulness about them. They do not become depressed or discouraged by the many pitfalls they suffer in life and for that some may judge them as simple. I don't see this as a fault because it is with this cheerful attitude that they face life's challenges and engage their heroes. If you have a tremendous dislike of TSTL heroines then I wouldn't suggest you start with Garwood's The Gift, which has a horribly clumsy and unlucky heroine. That said I plan to argue the strengths of Garwood's heroines and the circumstances that make them refreshing from the same old heroine.

Christina, from The Lion's Lady, was raised in the tradition of a Dakota warrior. She is quite capable of protecting herself and in one scene knocks a weapon from a thief's hand with great precision using her knife. This scene is also great for its humor because the heroine believes she must keep her ability a secret from the hero.

“It happened too quickly for anyone to react. Lyon heard the whistle of the knife seconds before the bandit’s howl of pain. He’d seen the glint of metal fly by his right shoulder. He turned, trying to protect Christina from the new threat, but didn’t see anyone standing behind her. Whoever had thrown the weapon had vanished out the doorway to the balcony, he concluded.

Poor Christina. She tried to look dignified. Her hands were demurely folded together, and she gave him only a curious look. She even looked behind her when Lyon did, yet she didn’t seem to understand there might be jeopardy there, lurking in the shadows.

Lyon quickly pushed her into the corner so that the wall protected her back.”…”There wasn’t any need, of course, for there had never been anyone behind her. She couldn’t very well tell Lyon that, however, and his concern for her safety did please her immensely.”

Christina works so hard to keep her past a secret from those around her that she is forced to tell falsehoods to keep the hero from finding out what is going on. The way Garwood sets this up is so charming that the reader cannot be frustrated by Christina and in turn, neither can Lyon.

What is truly wonderful about the character of Christina is that Garwood has her react to situations the way many of us wish other heroines would react, as when Christina is confronted by the 'evil other woman,' Cecille. Christina does not bow down under the onslaught but fights her with logic, saying that Lyon is not married to Cecille so he is still fair game. It is only when the woman threatens Christina's aunt that Christina decides she has had enough.

He had trouble believing what he was seeing. Christina had Cecille pinned against the wall. His former mistress wasn’t making a sound of protest over the violation. She couldn’t. Christina’s left hand was anchored around the woman’s neck, holding her in place. From the way Cecille’s eyes were beginning to bulge, Lyon thought Christina just might be strangling her to death. Cecille outweighed Christina by a good twenty pounds. She was much taller, too, yet Christina acted as though she was holding up a trinket for closer observation. The little angel Lyon wanted to protect used only one hand to secure Cecille. She held a dagger in her other hand. The tip of the blade rested against Cecille’s cheek.

Not only does Christina set Cecille straight, she also nicks her face to let her know she means what she says. It is rare that an author would allow their heroine to ever hurt another person physically unless retaliating in kind for fear the reader may not relate to the situation. I liked that this situation showed Christina acting exactly as the reader was told she would. We are told too often how a heroine is strong and capable but, there is no follow through to show us this is true. Garwood delivers the proof of her heroine's strength by their actions.

My other favorite scene from The Lion's Lady has to do with the hero coming home to find his boots and shoes lining the walk to his home.

“Did you see your shoes, sir?”

“I’m not blind, man. Of course I saw them. Would you care to explain what in thunderation is going on?”

“Your wife’s orders,” Brown announced.

“Past wife,” Elbert interjected with a cackle.

Lyon took a deep breath. “What are you talking about?”

He addressed this question to Brown, believing his young butler would make more sense than the old man snickering with laughter behind him.

“You’re being divorced, my lord.”…“Those were her very words. My mistress is divorcing you the way her people do. She said it was quite all right to get rid of a husband. You have to find someplace else to live.”

For the first time in my reading experience, I found a heroine who would retaliate when emotionally hurt by the hero. As readers we don't like our heroines to be doormats nor do we enjoy when the heroine runs away from her problems. In this case, Christina stayed put (because she was keeping the house - and Lyon's family, according to Dakota law, thank you very much) and was able to show her displeasure to Lyon. She insists that Lyon will have to start wooing her all over again. Lyon is quick to respond, with an equal measure of humor and logic, but you'll have to read the book to see the sexy way he gets Christina back.

Judith Hampton from The Secret is another heroine who relies on her inner strength to do what she must. Judith leaves England in the company of five fierce Scottish warriors to go to her friend, Francis Catherine, who married into and resides with the Maclean clan. Francis Catherine is pregnant and believes that she will die during childbirth so Judith promised she would come and help with the birthing because she is "too stubborn to let her" die. While she is waiting for Francis Catherine to give birth she is forced to attend to two other births that frighten her immensely.

“Iain?”

“Yes?”

“I’m scared.”

He smiled. “I know.”

“I don’t want to do this.”

“It will be all right.”

He took hold of her hand and led the way to Isabelle’s cottage. It was so dark she could barely see the path ahead of her.

“I supposed the midwives would do all the work,” she whispered as she was being dragged along in his wake. “And I was going to give them suggestions. Oh God, how arrogant I am.”

When Judith enters the cottage and sees Isabelle in pain she reclaims her confidence and gets to the business of helping Isabelle give birth. In the end, Judith faces her fear even though after each birth she ends up sobbing her heart out. In truth she is much stronger than even she herself realizes and it is a nice change of pace to meet a character who does what she must even in the face of great fear.

All of Garwood's heroines share a strong loyalty with the hero, friends and family. After that, each heroine is uniquely their own person and that person is without a fault strong in their beliefs and capable of any task put before them. Jade from Guardian Angel is a pirate who doesn't mind using trickery to get what she needs. When Jade is captured by the bad guy the reader settles in, preparing for hero Caine to ride to her rescue. In the end Jade frees herself because she knows how to pick locks.

“Where is she?” Caine roared through the door.

The anguish in his voice tore at Jade’s heart. She pulled the door open and rushed inside.

They were all in the drawing room. Lyon, Jade noticed, was holding Caine by the shoulders. Briars stood in front of the two men. Sir Richards stood next to her. Both Cyril and Alden stood behind the director.

“She’ll die of starvation before you find her,” Briars shouted. She let out a snort of amusement. “No, you’ll never find her. Never.”

“Oh, yes, he will.”

Briars let out a screech when Jade’s soft voice reached him.

Cain and Lyon both whirled around. Caine simply stood there, smiling at her. She saw the tears in his eyes, knew her own were just as misty. Lyon looked as startled as Richards. “Jade…how did you…”

She looked at Caine when she gave her answer. “They locked me in.”

Nicholaa from The Prize is a warrior woman almost in keeping with Christina from The Lion's Lady. Nicholaa manages to turn back three attacks on her home while her father and brothers are at war. It is only when the Norman king sends his baron warrior Royce that her keep falls but, even then she is smart enough to hide in plain sight. The battle of wills that ensues between Royce and Nicholaa is an absolute pleasure to watch.

I could pick each of Garwood's heroines and explain how they defy the standard of historical romance heroines. Julie Garwood defies convention to create heroines who are as fierce and loyal as her heroes. Even so, each heroine is different and has certain quirks that make them suitable for the heroes of their stories. I don't believe that Julie Garwood's heroines fit the definition of TSTL as each is capable of getting themselves out of scrapes and knows when to ask their hero for help. As a result there are no horrible misunderstanding plots to be found in her books and her heroines are not the kind to go out looking for trouble. For that alone, I don't think you can label these heroines TSTL.

Heroes

How in the world was I going to define Julie Garwood's heroes without getting us into a debate about the archetypes of heroes? As far as I am concerned, Garwood's heroes are part of the reason for the invention of a new term called the gamma hero coined by author Deb Stover and referred to in Laurie's News and Views Issue #63. Before I get into this I did find the article We Need A Hero: A Look At Eight Hero Archetypes by Tami Cowden here at AAR to be helpful in determining the difference between alpha and beta. In this article the alpha is the chief archetype and is described thusly: "He might have been born to lead, or perhaps he conquered his way to the top, but either way, he's tough, decisive, goal-oriented. That means he is also a bit overbearing and inflexible." These are some of the traits of a Garwood hero but, there is so much more.

From the same article Cowden describes the beta hero as the best friend. "He's kind, responsible, decent, a regular Mr. Nice Guy. This man doesn't enjoy confrontation and can sometimes be unassertive because he doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. But he'll always be there. We all knew this guy in high school and didn't appreciate him. If we were smart, though, he's the guy we married. He's a people person and he'll always put the needs of others first." The Garwood hero is in no way unassertive or overly worried about other people's feelings (except for the heroine) but I do believe that he has a tendency to make life long friendships and does try to think of others needs. Just as a quick side note, Suzanne Brockmann argues that there is no middle ground between the Alpha and Beta hero; she believes that Han Solo from Star Wars (a gamma hero to me) is truly alpha. "Alpha males are. . . alpha males: strong, tough, stubborn and complicated in ways that mystify the more logical female brain. And yes, it is more logical to cry when you are sad, to grieve when you suffer loss - to express deep emotions that you feel rather than to lock them up where they can grind your insides into shreds."

This doesn't mesh completely with the Garwood hero as they have taken what life has thrown at them and become better, stronger for it. Therefore, they are not men who hold onto life's hurts and devolve into self-torture.

Brockmann's conclusion however, does hold strong to the Garwood hero. "When they love, they love completely. Eternally. Endlessly. They may not be able - or even want - to speak such feelings aloud. But when it happens, when they give in to their feelings and allow themselves to love, it's very, very Big."

For the definition of a gamma hero I think Laurie said it best when she defined him as having "the best qualities of both the alpha and the beta hero. He is strong yet not overly arrogant. He leads, but not by cruelty. He may have a bad reputation, but it is undeserved. He can do battle, but never with the heroine. He too may have been tortured in the past, but doesn't appear the wounded animal, lashing out at those he loves." Laurie's definition seems to fit the Garwood hero perfectly. There is nothing too heavy or dark about these men yet, they have had their share of tragedy in their lifetimes. They are leaders in their social class whether they are the laird of a Scottish Clan or an English duke. They take their duties to others very seriously and this responsibility forms an integral part of their world view. They are confident, logical, intense in their emotions, strong-willed and used to getting what they want. Being a leader has molded them into men who know their worth to those around them.

To put it simply, these heroes are incredible. Even though they have all the traits of an alpha male, they are also capable of strong feelings. Their competence, intelligence and patience are very attractive. At not point did I feel that these men floundered in their decisions or agonized over a decision already made. They are straightforward thinkers who have no doubts in their abilities to provide, lead and finally love.

It is much easier to generalize about the strengths of Garwood's heroes because they have to be near perfect to capture the heroine's heart, not to mention the reader's. Most of Garwood's heroes have lived a life of honor and duty long before setting eyes on their heroine. It is refreshing to meet a man who has already accomplished so much and who has had a happy life before meeting his ladylove. This is a trademark of Julie Garwood's heroes and heroines. The idea of their relationship is not to save them, but to join them in their lives together. Even with this being plainly evident, Garwood makes the reader believe that these two people were not only meant to find one another but, were meant to face life's challenges together.

Conflict

Julie Garwood is the master of external conflict. Her stories do not center on mistrust, dislike - or the big misunderstanding. For that matter, until a few years ago they did not focus on suspense (although there is usually something in the heroine's background that engenders a sub-plot). Even so, the reactions of the heroine and the hero are such that they may get mad at each other but they yell and hash it out rather than act like children and sulk. Many of Garwood's stories feature a built-in conflict that would form the basic premise if Garwood weren't Garwood. For example, one of my favorite themes is the hero and heroine who meet and fall in love even though they are from families divided by years of feuding. These stories can quickly become mired down by mistrust and divided loyalties. In Garwood's The Gift, though, the hero and heroine are married as children and it is evident in the way a fourteen year old Nathan cares for his 4 year old bride that this story is going to be different. After throwing a temper tantrum and biting her father on his knee, Sara is thrust into Nathan's arms.

The groom stood straight as a lance. A fine sweat broke out on his brow. He could feel her gaze on his face yet didn’t dare turn to look at her. She just might decide to bite him, and he didn’t know what he would do then. He made up his mind that he would just have to suffer through any embarrassment she forced on him. He was, after all, almost a man, and she was, after all, only a child.

Nathan kept his gaze directed on the king until Sara reached out to touch his cheek. He finally turned to look at her.

She had the brownest eyes he’d ever seen.

“Papa’s going to smack me,” she announced with a grimace.

He didn’t show any reaction to that statement. Sara soon tired of watching him. Her eyelids fell to half mast. He stiffened even more when she slumped against his shoulder. Her face was pressed up against the side of his neck.

“Don’t let Papa smack me,” she whispered.

“I won’t,” he answered.

He had suddenly become her protector. Nathan couldn’t hold onto his bored expression any longer. He cradled his bride in his arms and relaxed his stance.

Garwood takes a unique look at the division of family in The Gift but the reader knows she is in good hands when Nathan looks out after his child bride. Throughout the story, Sara's loyalty rests solely with her husband and the loss of her family is not something that she agonizes over.

In The Prize, Nicholaa is a defeated Saxon while Royce is the conquering Norman who forces her surrender. Already there is plenty of conflict available for Garwood to manipulate and the reader prepares for the 'I love you, I hate you' plot that is about to begin. What the reader finds instead is a story of two people compromising to bring peace and union to their marriage and their keep. Royce wants to make structural changes to Nicholaa's childhood home that became his upon marriage. Even though Nicholaa is upset she realizes that the changes Royce wants to make would be truly beneficial to her people. It is only later that the reader and Nicholaa discover that Royce had originally wanted to tear the whole keep down and start over but, he didn't wish to upset his wife so he compromised and left her home standing.

In The Lion's Lady, Lyon was previously married to a woman who died in childbirth while giving birth to her lover's child. Already the reader is tensing because we have all met the hero who hates all women because of the 'evil woman' from his past. As this plot goes, Lyon has sworn off women and is able to scare away most of the women in his social circle just by frowning. Christina, however, is an enigma to him and she is not at all overwhelmed by Lyon's surly disposition. The unique and fun part about this story is that Christina continually lies to Lyon about her past. When he discovers her lies Lyon does not go off the deep end thinking that Christina is like his first wife. Garwood makes Lyon's acceptance of Christina's lies believable because Christina herself cannot even keep her lies straight. As a result Lion concludes that she must have reasons, and further, that she isn't lying out of spite or to be malicious. Eventually Lyon begins to correct Christina's lies, which becomes a humorous thread throughout much of the book.

“I promise I won’t interfere until you ask me to,” Christina said, interrupting his dour thoughts. “Mrs. Smitherson did show me how to defend myself,” she hastened to add when he gave her a dark look. “I would know what to do.”

“Summerton,” Lyon answered on a long, drawn-out sigh. “The people who raised you were called Summerton.”

It is always wonderful to experience the moment when Garwood's heroes and heroines first meet. Each is floored by their response to the other and it is only a matter of time before the men claim their women for their very own no matter what obstacles are placed in front of them. Julie Garwood creates characters who know their value and accept that they have fallen in love without throwing tantrums or emotionally hurting each other. The men are usually taken unawares by their feelings of love but, once they realize it they do not fight it or try to cast the heroines from themselves because they are not good enough. The heroines, equally, do not make the heroes suffer in doubt about their feelings and do not run from their men.

Humor

Julie Garwood's humor...quite honestly she makes it look so simple, problem is I don't even know how to write about it. Readers and authors have talked about how hard it is to gauge humor in a book because what one person finds funny another will find forced or worse, not funny. Not only is Garwood's humor hard to explain, it is hard to show! Garwood has a way of setting up a funny line chapters in advance. For those who love Garwood, the checkmate scene from The Prize is a classic but, how do I explain it without stripping it of it's magic? Well, I can't.

I decided to the best way to approach this would be to show you some of the dialogue and situations from Garwood's books. Before this segment I hadn't read a Garwood for a few years. It's bittersweet to re-read books by your favorite author when you know that the author has moved to writing another style of book. However, by page eighty of The Bride I had a smile plastered on my face. In each of her books the dialogue is charming, magical and fun. Some of the conversation is just downright hilarious but then, we have already talked about how different people will react to the humor. I hope my selections do Garwood justice.

From The Bride:

“Look at me.”

He waited until she obeyed his command before speaking again. “You’ve shown me how courageous you are, wife. I’m very please with you.”

Her eyes widened I surprise. Alec smiled. He’d just found a rather simple way to placate her: praise. Wasn’t it true that all women liked to hear their husbands’ expressions of approval from time to time? Alec decided to remember that fact for future use.

“You might be please with me, husband, but I’m certainly not pleased with you, you arrogant Scotsman.”

The thunder in her voice surprised him as much as her retort.

“You don’t want my approval?”

She didn’t bother to answer his question, but the anger in her expression told him he’d misjudged her. She wasn’t one to be swayed by praise. Alec nodded with satisfaction, “Tell me why you were so frightened.”

Jamie shook her head. She stared down at her hands while he stared at her frown. “I asked you a question,” he reminded her.

She shook her head. Alec held his patience. “A wife must always obey her husband’s commands,” he instructed.

“Is this another on of your Highland commandments?”

“It is,” he answered with a grin.

“Why is it the rest of the world only needs to obey ten commandments to get to heaven, but you Scots have need for so many extra ones? Is it because you’re all such sinners, do you suppose?”

From The Lion's Lady (remember, Christina was brought up by a Dakota tribe but has kept this a secret from Lyon):

He thought she didn’t even realize what she was doing. Her gaze was directed on the gentleman singing the song, her manner relaxed, unguarded.

Lyon knew she wasn’t aware she was being watched, either. She wouldn’t have eaten the leaf otherwise, or reached for another.

“Sir, which one is Princess Christina?” Andrew asked Lyon, just as Rhone started in choking on his laughter.

Rhone had obviously been watching Christina, too.

“Sir?”

“The blond-headed one,” Lyon muttered, shaking his head. He watched in growing disbelief as Christina daintily popped another leaf in her mouth.

“Which blond-headed one?” Andrew persisted.

“The one eating the shrubs.”

From The Prize:

“Did you want to get me drunk?” he asked.

“Oh, yes.”

“Why?”

“So I could seduce you.”

She couldn’t be more specific than that, he decided. “You thought you needed to get me drunk in order to seduce me?”

She nodded. The top of her head bumped his chin again. She rubbed the ache away. “You are sotted, aren’t you? You drank at least twelve goblets of ale. I counted.”

She’d miscalculated by at least eight cups, unless she’d kept count of her own consumption by mistake. “Have you ever been drunk, Nicholaa?”

Her gasp nearly knocked her off his lap. “Good heavens no. That wouldn’t be ladylike, Royce. Only common wenches get drunk. Besides, I really don’t like the taste of ale very much.”

“You could have fooled me,” he drawled.

She smiled. “Yes, I did fool you,” she agreed. “I got you good and sotted, and you didn’t even notice. Wasn’t that clever of me?”

“You still haven’t explained why,” he reminded her.

“I think you’re very handsome, Royce, but you already know that.”

That explanation didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t irritated, though. Nay, he was astonished. “You think I’m handsome?”

“Of course,” she answered. “I have this plan, you see, and you’re following it quite nicely.”

“And what is this plan?”

“Now that you’re sotted, I’m going to confess my lies to you. You’re too drunk to be upset. Then I’m going to seduce you. Do you see how easy it is, husband?”

“No,” he answered. “Tell me why it’s easy.”

“In the morning you aren’t going to remember what I told you.”

The woman was as daft as a donkey.

I told Laurie that I thought Garwood could teach a course on opening lines and hooks. So, if you don't mind I'll let Garwood's writing speak for itself with this from The Gift (Sara accidentally uses rancid meat to make soup for Nathan's crew):

End of Chapter Six: Sara was eager to find out what the men thought about her soup. The aroma had been quite nice when she’d finished stirring in all the spices. It should have a hearty flavor, she thought, for it had simmered long hours.

It was only a matter of time before the men came to thank her. She brushed her hair and changed her gown in preparation for their visitations.

Her staff would soon be completely loyal to her. Making the soup was a giant step in that direction, anyway. Why, by nightfall they would all think she was very, very worthy.

Chapter Seven: By nightfall they thought she was trying to kill them.

And last, because I could go on and on, from The Bride:

End of Chapter Ten: “I wonder Alec, how long it’s going to take your wife to accept us?” he remarked.

“Little time at all,” Alec predicted. He started toward his bed, then called over his shoulder, “She’ll settle in, Gavin. You’ll see.”

Chapter Eleven: She started three wars the first week.

What Happened?

So after so much success what went wrong? Some will argue that nothing went wrong and that Julie Garwood writes great contemporary suspense today. Well, for me, that became part of the problem. To pinpoint where things began to change I think you would only have to look at For The Roses.

For the Roses was a great story about people on the outside of life finding each other and creating their own family. Four street children in New York City find an abandoned baby in a street alley and call her Mary Rose. Hoping to make her feel loved and wanted they move to Montana and set up house as her adopted brothers. In reality this story is about five people who created a family and want to protect their loved ones from those who wish to tear it apart. Harrison is the hero and has been hired by Mary Rose's father to find her. Harrison spends more time interacting with Mary Rose's brothers than he does with Mary Rose so it seems a little rushed when Harrison and Mary Rose decide they are in love. There is not the usual sexy banter or getting-to-know-you dialogue that Garwood excelled at and it was sorely missed by this reader.

Garwood followed For the Roses with a sequel to The Bride and with a series of novellas, culminating in Come The Spring. Though I bought it in hardcover I've yet to read it. I heard on AARList that the hero and heroine don't meet until after the first hundred pages or so and that the story is more about the burgeoning friendship of Cole Claybourne and U.S. Marshal Daniel Ryan. I hoped that Garwood would once again write about romance but decided to pass on this one, hoping that Garwood would once again write about romance. That said, her website tells what came next.

The opening page of Julie Garwood's website declares: "Julie Garwood - Suspense that cuts straight to the heart." I can tell you that I did read her first contemporary romantic suspense novel, Heartbreaker, but I don't remember all that much about it except that I wished for more romance. Once again, the hero and heroine fell in love - only I'm not sure I was there to see it.

I noticed while writing this segment that two of Garwood's romantic suspense novels earned DIK status; was it just me, then, who thought something was missing? Then I read Andrea Pool's review of Mercy and it became plainly evident that the story is not just about the relationship between the hero and heroine because "at least half the story is told from the villains' points of view."

After writing this I think I will try one more Garwood romantic suspense novel as I believe I have a hardcover copy of Killjoy hiding in my bookcase. Sandy Coleman is the reviewer whose taste in romance run closest to mine so I don't think I will try Murder List, which she graded a D+, but maybe I will find something of the old Garwood magic in Killjoy or Mercy. From Sandy's review it looks like Julie Garwood will not be writing historical romances anytime soon, so I may have to settle for all the wonderful keeper historicals she wrote in the past.

LLB: Before moving on to Robin and leaving the subject of Julie Garwood's early greatness, I'd like to bring one other aspect into play - the love scenes she wrote up through and including The Wedding, which is sequel to The Bride. Not long ago on our Potpourri Message Board, a reader suggested that while she enjoys lighter historicals, she "just can't see the leads as 'sexual beings'," adding that she "because the humor is such a big focus of the plot that sexual attraction seems so odd and disjointed."

I have a different take on humor and love scenes and think that some of the most effective love scenes I've read occur in humorous romances. I actually have a theory I'd like to kick around and see what you all think about it. I think the combination of humor and sex enhances both because no matter how close we are to our significant others - both in bed and out of it - there must be maintained some level of mystery in order for the lovemaking part of it to be as good as it is. There are, for instance, certain things I would never tell my husband, no matter that he's my best friend and closer to me than anyone. To do so would simply destroy the mystery. And so I think humor acts as a surrogate for those things and allows more closeness while at the same time allowing that mystery to be maintained.

Business & Romance Redux (Robin Uncapher)

Lately I have been telling my husband about the Christmas present I am sure he wants. It’s a fourteen-cup food processor, like the one seen on the Food Network, capable of kneading two loaves of bread at the same time. This is a really terrific present and a lot more money than I ordinarily spend. But hey, it’s worth it and what a lucky guy he will be. No more measuring everything twice to make two loaves. No more splitting big recipes in half and hoping they will work. No more letting the old seven cup Cuisinart overheat and watching it turn yeast, flour, water and sugar into glue.

What a fortunate guy my husband is to have me even considering this present! This new food processor will solve all the problems that he never had with the old one...never having touched it.) He doesn’t see it that way, perhaps because he hasn’t cooked anything since 1977. He’s got nothing against food processors but what he knows about them is completely theoretical, even though he has been living with a cook and eating homemade bread on and off for the past 28 years.

And here is the thing, if you asked my husband if he knows anything about bread making he would probably tell you he does. It’s me who knows that he does not. If he read a story about someone making bread he’d be all set, and probably sure that he had some insights. But if he wrote about bread making it would sound like a kind of cartoon bread making and, it is entirely possible that his breadmaker character would do something like take all the ingredients and throw them into a blender.

Which leads me to my main point. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of contemporaries where the author sounds like my husband writing about bread. There is a cartoonish quality to many of them. It’s not the suspense plots, it's not the secret babies (romance writers are often believable when it comes to dealing with the struggles of childrearing). It’s the fact that much of the writing in contemporaries becomes simplistic whenever it describes anything outside the home including business, an election campaign or society in a place like Washington, DC.

These thoughts occurred to me as I read Laurie's newest DIK - Lucy Monroe’s The Real Deal. It’s not all that common for her to be absolutely crazy about a romance novel. Like all of us, Laurie loves romance novels, but it was clear to me from her first mention of this book that it struck a chord. And that is really what good romance novels are supposed to do. They are not about solving crimes, raising children, renovating English estates, finding lost dogs or portraying small town America in a realistic way. As romance readers we know they are about emotion, about what happens when a man and woman fall in love. When a romance story works it's because the chemistry, the dynamics between the couple is compelling and, on some level, realistic. The story can be about a space alien from 2050 who goes back in time and marries a Regency miss from 1810, that’s okay. But the emotion between the two characters has got to be as familiar to the reader as that of a small town sheriff who falls in love with the local veterinarian (who happens to be a single mother with whom he had a one night stand the night after high school graduation.)

Like all of us, Laurie knows a thing or two about emotion and the dynamics between men and women. That’s what made the book work for her. The Real Deal is about a junior financial executive, Amanda Zachary, who has been given the task of talking computer scientist Simon Brant into approving a merger between his family's computer firm and her own. The conflict in the novel, naturally, is that these two are working at cross-purposes. While Amanda struggles to advance her career by selling a business deal, Simon wants to continue to work at a business that affords him complete creative freedom, and the ability to protect loyal employees whose jobs would be eliminated in a merger. It’s a great idea. Except for one thing.

It doesn’t make any sense.

Laurie, you ignorant slut! (Sorry, I have always wanted to say that.)

Here is the problem. You can’t have realistic emotions between people who are acting in a way that real people don’t act. When the reader is not all that familiar with how people interact in a given situation, a book can work emotionally. But when a reader is aware of how people act in certain situations and the kinds of motivations that drive people in business situations it can be a deal breaker.

If you have been reading Laurie’s column for a long time you know that she has a pretty good amount of experience in the work world. She worked for the City of Dallas in a job that involved a lot of responsibility. She managed people. She has experience with senior pressure, office politics and the kinds of interactions that people have in office settings.

But being in business and being involved in mergers and, for that matter, most kinds of sales is different from a career in government. (It is worth mentioning here that my own non-cooking lawyer husband has worked in and out of government for years.) Sales and persuasion are very big parts of business and many people outside of business are unconsciously suspicious of what happens when people work in those areas. The Real Deal involves people who are supposedly involved in business and a major investment banking deal. Many of the details in the book are inaccurate, but that isn't the worst problem because The Real Deal is a romance novel. The worst problem is that the book gets critical motivations wrong, attempts to make rather clumsy anti-business points and condescends to people who are involved in business.

Amanda is a tortured heroine from contemporary central casting. Much time is spent explaining her insecurities and the way that she compensates for personal problems by excelling in business. This is problem one. A nervous, insecure woman who doesn’t have a whiff of self-confidence with men is not going to be a the person anyone sends in to sell an important investment banking deal. A nervous insecure woman is not going to do well in business period. What is most disturbing about this, to me, is the underlying implication that readers of the book are so unsuccessful themselves that they would be comforted by the idea of hapless Amanda.

Putting aside all the romance it is pretty obvious that, like a lot of romance novels, The Real Deal has an ax to grind which is as follows:

  • Business mergers are shady deals done by selfish people who care about nothing but money
  • Women in business are insecure and use business as a way of compensating for those insecurities
  • Unscrupulous executives encourage female executives to sleep with clients
  • It's okay to disregard the interests of the people paying your salary, so long as it's for love.

The fact that this author has such an anti-business stance contributes to the inaccuracies in the book and these inaccuracies are important, not because The Real Deal should be teaching readers about mergers, but because the motivations of the characters are so screwed up. For example, one important plot point in Monroe's book is that Amanda’s evil boss tries to pressure her into sleeping with Simon Brant, the partner who is holding up the merger. This makes no sense whatsoever. Though unscrupulous people in business have certainly used sex to bribe clients and others, virtually no one in business wants an executive on their team sleeping with the opposition! Why? Because it makes that executive unreliable. Simon could just as easily sway Amanda as she could sway him. Furthermore, Amanda is clueless that she doesn’t use this argument to dissuade the boss. Much has been said about Amanda's lack of ethics in sleeping with Simon. Though this is valid the problems go beyond lack of ethics. Amanda is so insecure, so needy that she should never have been given this kind of responsibility - and it's hard to believe that she given such an important role.

In fact, Amanda’s whole role in this plot is unbelievable. Since when does a company, any company, use an internal financial executive to try to sell and investment banking deal? Companies use lawyers and investment bankers for this. In fact, this part of The Real Deal is so nonsensical that my mind played a trick on me. Throughout the book I assigned Amanda the role of investment banker, assuming that she worked for an investment bank on behalf of her client. It took Laurie’s correcting me on this point for me to realize that Amanda actually worked for the competitor company that wanted the merger.

The fact that Amanda is not really an investment banker may explain why she seems to be one of the worst mergers salespeople in the history of that business. When trying to convince Simon of the merger all she can talk about is facts and figures, even though he tells her repeatedly that that is not his priority. What a terrible salesperson! She glosses over his very real fears that loyal employees will be put out of work. All she can do is talk about things that don’t matter to him. It amazed me that Simon liked her at all, but then, her intellectual abilities did not seem high on his list.

I could go on and on about my problems with this book. It would make no difference to those of you who love the story. I wish it made no difference to me. But my problems with it aren't isolated. To me, The Real Deal is the tip of the iceberg and the iceberg is real life, in other words most life that exists outside the home.

A similar problem popped up when I read The Cinderella Rules by Donna Kauffman. Clearly this book has its admirers and one of them was our reviewer. I have a feeling that our differences on the book go back to the same things that divide Laurie and I on The Real Deal. Undoubtedly the relationship must be what hooks this book’s admirers. The view of Washington had me thinking cartoons and of my husband describing breadmaking. The Cinderella Rules is full of statements like, "Never underestimate the role of sex in the workplace." Unfortunately the workplace in Washington is hardly touched upon in the book.

Kauffman's book features Darby Landon, a woman who raises horses on a ranch in Montana. In order to help her sister, Darby agrees to get a makeover in Washington, DC and assist her father with some Washington social engagements. She falls in love with Shane Morgan, a playboy who has recently been given the job of running a business for his godmother.

From where I stand this is not a bad plot. Darby and Shane are opposites. Darby is a fish out of water, a smart woman in a tough situation. It could have been terrific. But the problem comes in in the execution. In this book the Washington, DC social scene is about 70 years out of date and populated by the Oliver Wendal Holmes' “great men and the women they married when they were very young.” Darby can’t seem to get her mind around the fact that she is not changing herself to fit into a group of rich, stupid people who were shallow and selfish enough to gain status. She is joining the social scene made up of some of the smartest, most self-directed people in the world, people who, for whatever reason, spend most of their time thinking about issues that affect us all.

Well, that is what Darby would be trying to get her mind around if she were really in Washington, DC. Instead she is in shallow-big-city-romance-land. She herself is so shallow she appears to have never read a newspaper. The relationships between people in The Cinderella Rules have little or nothing to do with life in the real Washington. As a result the book lacks drama. It could have been set anywhere.

I thought of this last month when I began reading a thread on AARList with the subject line: “What happened to contemporary romance?” In response to this thread Angela wrote, “It got corny. I stay far,far,far away from contemporary romance because some of them began to read like historicals: marriages of convenience, runway heroines, Byronic heroes, etc,etc. The stuff you see in historicals (or...is it vice versa?). I sometimes get the feeling that maybe, the [contemporary romance] author has a secret hankering to write historical romances, but don't feel comfortable enough to write them.”

I have read eleven contemporaries this year with grades ranging from A to D. In fact, my favorite book of the year so far is Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, a book which touches on the training consulting business. As I was involved in that business for almost twenty years you would think that that would be the book that would have bothered me the most. But, even though Crusie did not get everything perfect, her take on training consulting was pretty good. There were two reasons for this:

  • It was clear that Crusie did not have a lot of negative, preconceived notations about training consulting. As a result there was no need to put in inaccurate details to prove her point.
  • The conflict between the book's hero and heroine is personal, not professional. You don’t need to know a lot about a business when the central romantic conflict is personal. Had Crusie tried to set up conflict between an evil training consultant and a “good” public school teacher, for example, there would have been problems.

One book where the background worked pretty well for me was Beauty Queen by Julia London. I had some problems with heroine Rebecca Lear, mainly because I have a tough time feeling sorry for wealthy, gorgeous women who have been given everything their hearts desire and then wake up one morning saying things like, “Who am I really?” and “I’ve lived my life trying to please everyone else.” Rebecca is a lousy mother, a college drop-out and pretty much of an all around screw-up except of course that no one can see it. She’s not overweight, poorly dressed or socially inept. Her problems are all inside. And to me, it was Rebecca who was the most cartoonish thing about the book. I simply could not stop feeling annoyed that she was so ungrateful for what the world had given her.

To her great credit Julia London describes Rebecca’s faults in detail, though she clearly has more sympathy for her heroine than I did. But what also makes the book work is that Julia London is not trying to sell us on the idea that Rebecca’s faults are a professional asset. Rebecca is up against Matt Parish, the book's hero, a lawyer with more experience in politics. Not only can he see her faults but also these faults, inexperience and naiveté do make problems for her in the campaign. Also, Rebecca’s assets - ie. her looks and charm - do get her further than is really fair. And isn’t that real life? As someone who has been around political campaigns for a long time I could easily imagine a Rebecca Lear, beautiful, charming and wealthy, going up someone like the more experienced Matt Parish. In fact I think I have seen it, many times..

For me Beauty Queen was an average read. Bet Me was an extraordinary one and The Real Deal was below average. But, as I look through the contemporaries I read this year, not one really used the work environment in the gritty way that Suzanne Brockmann used the war in Afghanistan or the way that Linda Howard described child abduction in last year’s Cry No More.

Why I wonder, is that? Plenty of contemporary novels do work when they are set closer to home. My favorite series book this year is Mommy Said Goodbye by Janice Kay Johnson. It’s a story about Craig Lofgren, a man accused of murdering his wife. The heroine, Robin, is a friend of the missing wife, who befriends Craig’s daughter and gets to know him as a result.

Getting to know an accused wife-killer is hardly the stuff of normal life. So why is Mommy Said Goodbye so much more believable to me than The Real Deal, Bet Me or Beauty Queen? The answer is simple. Johnson's book considers raising a child in the suburbs. The details, problems with scheduling, problems with teachers and other parents, are all there. And, as a result, the emotions are right. We may not have been accused of killing a spouse but most parents do know that uncomfortable feeling that comes from talking to the teacher when a child is doing poorly in school. There is always the subtle undercurrent—who’s fault is this? The teacher, no matter how understanding, wants to make clear it’s not her. The parent, no matter how supportive of education, wants to make sure his child is not being singled out and also does not want to be blamed for problems. In Mommy Said Goodbye there is more going on. The father is trying to show he is a normal dad. The teacher is trying to make sure that the child does not pay for mistakes the parent made.

So, in spite of the suspense plot (not really because of it) Mommy Said Goodbye really works. How I wish that there were similar details about the relationships between people in offices. Wouldn’t it be great to read a romance novel with the real feelings between people doing an employee performance review? Isn’t there a lot of real drama when people think a layoff is coming or when one employee in an office is doing his best to ruin the career of another? Do we really need books about billionaires cutting corners or female executives who are so insecure and love starved that they sleep with their clients or opponents in business deals? I don’t think so. Romance novels are about emotions and relationships. Books with business settings would be far better if they focused on the day to day emotions and relationships at the office and left the judgmental bashing to the Sunday morning pundits.

All the romance statistics I have been reading tell me that romance readers are a cross section of America. Nowadays that means many of us work in business. It's time that romance writers and editors stepped up to the plate with business settings, to which romance readers can relate. Romance is about emotion, but you can’t get the emotions right when the relationships and the settings are so often wrong.

Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we'd like you to consider this time:

Julie Garwood: is she or was she ever one of your favorite romance authors? If so, why did/do you love her writing? Which, do you think, are her best books?

If you don't like her, why? Which book(s) did you try that led to your decision?

Garwood is one of many authors who moved from writing Medievals and European Historicals into other sub-genres. First were her Westerns, then came her Romantic Suspense. Have you been with her all the way? And, if not, at what point did you jump off the bandwagon? Can you put your finger on why that happened?

Cindy talks about her romance reading prior to discovering Julie Garwood, and how it changed as a result. Regardless of whether or not Garwood was a pivotal author for you, have you had such an experience? What was it, who was the author, what was/were the book(s)?

As Maggie Boyd did in her Authors at Their Best segment on Johanna Lindsey, Cindy talked about hero archetypes in her segment on Julie Garwood. Is there anything particularly useful to you in her segment on that point, whether it's about Garwood's heroes in particular or heroes in general?

Cindy's segment was broken down into sections on heroes, heroines, conflict, and humor. We've had a fair amount of recent discussion about heroes, heroines, and even couples, so let's focus on conflict and humor. What type of conflict(s) do you most enjoy reading about? Is it a mostly external conflict, a mostly internal conflict, or a combination - perhaps a couple at odds who eventually work together to resolve something? Which books featured your "favorite conflicts?" What about the least favorite?

Humor is perhaps the most difficult thing to convey well; Laurie and Cindy may believe that Garwood did it better than any other romance author while another reader would strongly disagree. What is/are your favorite type(s) of humor, and which author(s) write it best? And, flipping that around, are there any books or authors whose attempts at humor made you wince or grit your teeth?

Laurie's theory about humor and romance and love scenes and sex is outlined at the end of Cindy's segment. Can you relate to it at all, think it has any validity, or does it make no sense to you whatsoever?

Robin's got some fairly strong thoughts and feelings about the way business is often depicted in romance novels, and in fact, has now written about it two times. It's an issue that often bothers Laurie as well, but for a different reason; heroes and heroines in contemporary and series romance often have important jobs or careers, but they almost always seem to be jobs/careers "in name only." If you have strong ideas and/or feelings about business and romance, what are they?

As Robin went to work on her segment, she and Laurie talked about it a couple of times on the phone, and each time Robin was more and more bothered by The Real Deal at the very same time Laurie was loving it more and more (and more). Which book(s) have you loved a great deal that a close friend thought sucked big time? What was your reaction? (Robin, I may be an ignorant slut, but I'm rubber and you're glue - everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.) And on the flip side, how do you react when a close friend raves about a book that you abhore?

Robin quotes Angela as asking "what's happened to contemporary romance," and wondering whether or not contemporary romance writers really have a "hankering to write historicals" instead. Do you think this is the case, or do you think the problem may be that authors who formerly wrote historicals and moved into contemporaries really don't have as strong a contemporary voice as they do a historical one?

Robin's favorite series book this year is set in a suburban community and while the hero is accused of murder, the book works for her mainly because it deals with some of the real issues faced by women who live in the suburbs. Would you rather read more real life in romance or does the fantasy work best when you can escape farther away than that?

If depictions of business in romance don't push a particular hot button for you, what does - and let's move beyond the expected "hot buttons" of infidelity, "forced seduction," etc. Is it the "career gal gives up the big city for idyllic small town life?" Perhaps it is millionaire heroes...you get the idea. If you think your hot button is a common hot button, why do you think it continues to be written (beyond the obvious "it sells").

As AAR is making a major change in how the site is presented to the world, it doesn't hurt to reflect a little. Maggie Boyd and now Cindy Smith have found interesting and thoughtful information by going back through earlier columns at AAR. Whether it's about heroes, heroines, humor, alpha, beta, gamma, tstl, or glomming, do you ever go back to earlier columns, and if so, is it worth the effort? Do those earlier columns still work today?

Cindy Smith & Robin Uncapher

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