Issue #33 (September 10, 1997)

Death of a Fairy Tale:
I don't know about you, but watching a full week of coverage on Princess Diana nearly did me in. My husband, who is known for his acerbic humor, asked often, "Is she still dead?", and, of course, he had a point. While I didn't get up in the middle of the night to watch the funeral, I did watch most of the television specials during the week, furiously channel flipping from one show to the next, and back again. And I must have watched Elton John's new version of Candle in the Wind ten times last Saturday.

Why did I, why did we all become so captivated by this story? We were captivated in life, and in death, and I think Diana, as both Elton John in his interview with Barbara Walters, and her brother, in his eulogy indicated, this was a woman who didn't know the impact she'd had on the world.

Last week I asked us to start thinking about tortured heroines. After watching Diana's boys walk behind her coffin and hearing Elton John sing, watching millions of people in their grief, and after crying many times myself, I began to think that perhaps Diana represented the ultimate in tortured heroines.

There's more to the story than the fact that the Princess was a wonderful mother, crusaded for charities and wanted a world-wide ban on land mines. It's the story of how she turned her flaws and faults into assets. It's the story of a woman who wasn't book-smart, but people smart. But it's mostly the story of a woman who didn't quite "fit in" to the world she married into. And isn't that something that we can relate to?

Two themes in romantic fiction have always resonated with me. First is the heroine who doesn't know how special she is, although those around her do. According to the coverage last week, Diana was not just a beautiful body and face, she had a wicked sense of humor and was able to touch people in a way that others couldn't. She was insecure like many of us, and yet she was revered. There are many books on my keeper shelf with a heroine such as this.

A second theme I am fond of is one where those closest to the heroine don't "get" how special she is, don't understand how lucky they are to have her. While by the end of the romance the family has come around, the heroine has had to work hard to prove herself. Part of this family, of course, includes the hero. It's not difficult to make the leap from romance novel to Diana, with her divorce and coolness from most of the Royal Family. Unfortunately, real life in this instance did not mirror fiction and it seems the Royals did not appreciate what they had until she was gone.

Why do these themes resonate? I think that rather than grand reasons, they resonate for small ones - they hit close to home. Hasn't each of us gone through a period in life, likely as a teen, fantasizing that "they'll miss me when I'm gone"? Who among us hasn't had mother-in-law problems, or times when our husbands/lovers didn't understand us? While newscasters and celebrities were pontificating on the importance of Diana's death, I think many women were sadly crying because she touched our inner insecurities. And because she transcended them, at least until that car crashed into the cement barrier at 85 miles per hour and snuffed that candle in the wind.

In romance, we find these same themes, often wrapped around larger ones such as trust and betrayal. One book I traded in because it was so bleak and full of despair, was Catherine Coulter's Fire Song, where the heroine was not trusted by anyone in her husband's family, none of whom thought she was special at all. While that book didn't do a thing for me, I've read many books that utilized these themes wonderfully, such as Catherine Archer's Velvet Bond, where the heroine was loved and trusted by all but her husband, and Born In Fire by Nora Roberts, whose tormented heroine, instead of being reviled by a mother-in-law, is instead reviled by her own mother. (Note from LLB October 10: To read my follow-up on this column, click here. To read reader response, click here.)

The Tormented Heroines listing begun last week has resonated with many readers as well. While we may love tortured heroes because we want to witness how true love can heal, we love tormented heroines because we see in them part of ourselves. With their often horrible lives, we can be thankful that our lives are better, and with their happy endings, we can be hopeful that our lives will be better as well.

I noticed my mood picked up considerably after the weekend, coinciding with the end of all the Diana coverage. Did any of you notice the same? What do you make of my psychoanalysis? Please e-mail me with your comments, and to add to the Tormented Heroines list.

As a coda, I must add that a tiny little part of me wonderered, after all the outpouring of love and affection for her, if Charles and the Windsors suffered a pang of remorse over missed opportunities and what might have been. And, that part of me that is like my perpetually acerbic husband asks, how long will Camilla have to hide, do you think?

Tempestuous Torment:
Sounds kind of like the title of a romance novel, doesn't it? Well, it may well be, but I wanted to talk a bit more about tormented heroines. Since beginning the Special Title Listing for them last week, some heroines have been suggested more than once. They are Lily from Lisa Kleypas' Then Came You, Ghislaine from Anne Stuart's Rose at Midnight, and Rachel from Patricia Gaffney's To Have & to Hold. The torment for Lily had been both the lack of loving parents as well as the kidnapping of her daughter by the child's father. For Ghislaine, it had been the death of her family as well as the loss of her innocence in the French Revolution. Both of these heroines are from books which are powerful reads and reside on my all-time keeper shelf (reviews of both can be found on the Desert Isle Keeper Review page.)

While I haven't read Patricia Gaffney's book, it is both controversial and beloved. Reader Pam wrote that "Rachel resonates for me because she survives. This woman goes through ten years of false imprisonment. She's lost her youth. She's been homeless. She's humiliated and denegraded by her employer. I would have been ready to cash it all in, but Rachel, proud, beautiful Rachel survives and eventually flourishes. I was so happy to see a good outcome for her. Who deserved it more?" After reading what Pam had to say about her, I put the book on my "to buy" list.

I'd like to hear from those of you who have strong feelings about a particular heroine. You can submit titles to the list and/or tell me about a special heroine by e-mailing me.

Run for the Hills:
While we can identify with tormented heroines, what about those tortured heroes? In Issue #5 of this column, we discussed the tortured hero and how we love to read about him, but how we would run for the hills if confronted by one in real life. That was midway through last year. Have our tastes changed since then?

The answer, as I've heard from you so far, is both yes and no. For me personally, I go back and forth in my preferences. For quite awhile I preferred lighter to darker romance. But lately I've begun to better appreciate tortured characters, probably since I've read some excellent examples in recent months. And, in most of these instances, the tortured character isn't of the "love-hate" mode I generally dislike, and is often part and parcel of the tortured hero.

What's so special about a romance with a well-written tortured hero is that he has so far to come, and when a journey is long and hard, the redemption and the love is all the sweeter.

I'd like to hear from more on you about tortured heroes, so please e-mail me. But I'll share some of the comments I've received so far:

Liz wrote that she:

"cannot get enough of tortured heros. If fact the majority of the romances I read have tortured heros. All that dark brooding is very sexy to me. I read some books with beta & gamma heros, but my favorite romance will always be the one with the tormented soul. . .

"What could be more romantic than someone who has a jaded view, problematic past, etc, falling in love and living happily ever after? The tortured soul has to struggle internally with himself and overcome their fear and their self. I guess this is what I really like about it. I think overcoming your own 'self' is the ultimate struggle. To put away whatever baggage you carry around, and let yourself become vulnerable. To me, that's what a romance is all about! In a romance with beta or gamma heros, the internal struggle isn't usually what they are focused on because they aren't carrying around all that tortured soul stuff within them. They've already found the vulnerabilities within themselves and accept it. The tortured soul hasn't, that's what they are struggling for, to accept vulnerability and let someone come into their lives that they can love, and be loved by."

On the other hand, reader Andrea finds herself "sick of tormented heros. I love alpha heros but they do not necessarily have to have had a tragic life before meeting the heroine. . . If the hero has had a terrible past I would prefer him to be strong enough to put it behind him and get on with his life. I can't identify with someone who is unable to separate the past from the present. . . If I see the word tormented or wounded on the back cover I can't get the book back on the rack fast enough."

So, are you like Liz, Andrea, or myself? Do you prefer the tortured hero, are you sick of them, or do you vacillate? Again, please let me know by e-mailing me.

Too Stupid to Live?
In the last column, I asked on behalf of an author about a type of heroine she named "too-stupid-to-live". She provided some examples, one of which stuck in my mind because both the heroine and the book are an all-time favorite for me. Then reader mail started to come in, and the book and the author were mentioned again.

Again, I plead ignorance - I just don't get it. How can it be that I find Joyous from Jill Barnett's Bewitching so, well, bewitching, when some of you find her contemptible? This is clearly a book loved by many, and yet, clearly a book that is not loved by many others. In an effort to get to the bottom of this, I asked Jennifer Crusie, known for her smart heroines, to comment on the too-stupid-to-live heroine. Here is what she had to say:

I think your too-stupid-to-live heroine is often a function of plot-driven narrative. The events in a good story happen because they're driven by the character's psychology and needs. And sometimes those needs are at odds with where the author wants the plot to go. A good author respects her characters enough to change the plot if sticking to it would violate character. For example, the old Gothic heroine was young and inexperienced, but she was supposed to be smart. Yet when there were screams in the attic, the Gothic heroine often went up to see instead of calling 911 or running for her life. If she truly was smart, that was a character violation committed because the author needed her to go upstairs for the plot to work. Another facet of the too-stupid-to-live heroine is created by the idea that love is based on need; that is, if she doesn't need somebody to rescue her and take care of her, why does she need the hero? It's an attempt, I think, at showing motivation for love, but it's such an immature motivation that it ends up backfiring because as soon as the heroine grows up and gets smart, the whole fabric of their relationship is destroyed. It's just a very old-fashioned idea, that dumb helpless women are so cute that they're catnip to strong men. I do think some historical authors are justified in doing heroines who are completely inexperienced in life and therefore lack basic common sense because women in some historical eras were so protected that they didn't have any chance to develop common sense. So it would be entirely realistic for these women to make mistakes because they have nothing in their experiences to base judgments on. But they should learn fast . Regarding the smart heroine in contemporaries, I like her because I like smart people, male and female, but more than that, I like writing about people who are straining to grow and learn no matter how old they are. All of my heroines are quest heroines; something at the beginning of the stories propels them on a search for something that is, at a thematic level, always a search for self-knowledge. At the end of the books, my heroines always know more about themselves, and that knowledge has changed who they are and made them stronger and smarter. A dumb quest heroine is an oxymoron; you just can't get there from here. So that's why I write about smart women.

I think what Jennifer has said may explain things for me, at least in her discussion of heroines in historical romances, and Barnett's Joyous in particular. After all a witch would be a fish out of water, wouldn't she? Would a witch really have much common sense?

But while I think Jennifer made some excellent points, I just don't think I've run across too many heroines in this category. Indeed I've read books where the heroine does the horror story equivalent of going into a dark basement without a light, but a single instance doesn't make a heroine stupid. If it did, than how about all those feisty heroines who constantly "stand up" to heroes who are considered dangerous?

I'm probably in the minority here, because many of you wrote in about the stupid heroine, including a couple of authors. Casey Claybourne wrote, "You've presented some very thought-provoking articles here; particularly of interest to me was the ditzy heroine/humor discussion. Since I try to write humor, I paid special attention, of course. I don't think I've as yet fallen into that trap, but it bears consideration for future work." And from Deborah Simmons, I heard, "I totally agree with the author who complained about bird-witted heroines. Often, it seems as if writers are unable to inject humor into historicals without making the heroine the butt of the joke - even woefully pathetic at times! I find these books real wallbangers. I'm also keenly aware of trying not to do that. I tend to go the other direction and poke fun at my heroes, who, hopefully, are big and strong enough to take a little ribbing."

Perhaps I'm onto something with the feisty heroine who constantly brays at the dangerous hero, because reader Karen, for whom stupid heroines top her list of pet peeves, wrote that she thinks feisty heroines can come off as stupid unintentionally when they put themselves in danger, never do as they are told, and are totally heedless to any consequences.

Teresa Medeiros was mentioned as well as Jill Barnett in terms of the stupid heroine. Surprisingly, the wonderful Julie Garwood heroine with her quirkiness and the delightful Amanda Quick heroine lacking in common sense were not, although Karen wrote that Quick's heroines are "frequently so naive that they come off as stupid." She added that the naivete of young heroines, especially when paired up with older heroes, is something she's never cared for. "Why would a man of experience, taste and refinement want to team up with a child who must be constantly looked after to keep her from making an idiot of herself or harming herself or others? When a hero exclaims 'Why you foolish, adorable child!', I know I have a wallbanger."

What do you make of the too-stupid-to-live heroine? Do you think she exists, or are you as baffled as I am and love those heroines who are like fish out of water? Please e-mail me with your thoughts on the matter.

The Cover Controversy:
When I opened up discussion on covers, I not only asked about the front of covers, but I asked about the backs as well. About whether or not they accurately depict the story-line. While I've received so many responses that it was necessary to set up stand-alone pages, all but one has been about the front cover. Please give a thought to the back cover as well and whether they can be trusted when you are browsing for books. Then e-mail me with your comments.

Laurie's Picks & Pans:

  • Born In Fire by Nora Roberts, 1994 (Desert Isle Keeper review)
  • Love in a Chinese Garden by Rachel May, 1997 - a pan

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

Follow-up on the Death of a Fairy Tale
Readers respond to the death of Princess Diana

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