Issue #98 (July 15, 2000)

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When Romance Novels Hit You in the Solar Plexus

The day I finished Suzanne Brockmannís Body Guard, I couldnít concentrate on anything. Usually when I finish a book, especially one I liked as much as I liked Body Guard, I have this nice settled feeling. Sometimes Iím a bit sad for having said good-by to a couple of interesting people. Sometimes Iím in love with the hero and mourn his loss or I like the "voice" in a book and want to find another one like it.

How did I feel when I finished Body Guard? Frustrated! Why? Because unlike 99% of the romance novels Iíve read, Body Guard has a secondary love story that is left unresolved. And this is not just any secondary love story. Itís one that, for me at least, began to overshadow the importance of the primary one.

Body Guard is the story of an FBI agent, Harry, who falls in love with the woman heís protecting. The secondary love story in this book involves George, Harryís partner, his ex-wife-Nicki and Kim a stripper who is Georgeís current fling.

George and Nicki have been divorced a relatively short time and the wounds are fresh. George left Nicki and apparently felt neglected in the relationship. More than anything else George seems want to bring his ex-wife to tears. He never manages it but he comes very close. How? Well there was that time he arranged for Nicki to meet him at a strip club and she got to see his face while he watched Kim undress. But this was nothing. There was the time when Kim was in Harryís hospital room alone and when Nicki walked in she knew right away why he was breathing hard and sweating bullets.

What made this story so griping was that the author did not make it apparent who you, the reader, were supposed to be rooting for. Kim, in spite of her profession, was not the cardboard "other woman," nor was Nicki the typical evil ex-wife. As Body Guard ends so does the romance between Kim and George, but then George tells Nicki heís completely over her!

Iím not sure why this book hit me so hard but Iím sure that identifying with Nicki had to be part of it. Iíve been happily married for years and I can only imagine how awful it would be to see my husband flaunting a sexual relationship with another woman.

Iíve been reading a lot of Suzanne Brockmann lately and Iíve found that even her lighter books tend to get shivery reactions from me. One example is Get Lucky, part of her Tall, Dark and Dangerous mini-series involving Navy SEALs.

Get Lucky didnít have me screaming, but it did evoke that thrill of recognition that you get when you read something that hits home. In this book hero, Lucky OíDonlon, is a U.S. Navy SEAL. Luckyís looks seem to rival those of Robert Redford in The Way We Were. (Remember how great he looked in those Navy whites?) To his annoyance Lucky is assigned to work with an investigative reporter, Sydney. Luckyís solution to the problem of controlling Sydney is to make a pass at her. Hey, girlfriends are easier to control, right? He is amazed when Sydney calls him on it and is even more stunned when she walks out the door.

I loved this interaction and one reason I did is that virtually any person over the age of eighteen can identify with Sydney. Attractive men and women often use sexual attractiveness to get what they want. What was interesting about this was that Suzanne Brockmann described Luckyís shocked reaction just as it would have played out. He was so used to using his looks that he hadnít even thought through the possibility that Sydney would be offended. What shocked him even more was Sydneyís willingness to address the truth directly saying something on the order of: guys who look like you donít hit on girls who look like me.

I wrote to Suzanne Brockmann and asked her for her thoughts. I asked, "I would love you to comment about how you use real men to generate crises in your romance novels. Do you agree with me that a situation that is a nightmare for a modern woman is more dramatic? Some romance writers punt at having a hero do something unconscionable. Why don't you?"

Suzanne replied:

"To be honest, I think that both nightmares and unconscionable behavior is relative. <g> Everyone's got their own definitions.

"My primary goal as a writer is to create characters who are completely real. I want to know these men and women so well that every thing they do - from the most minute movement of their little finger to the making of huge, life-changing decisions - rings completely true. And in the course of making my characters real, they sometimes cross the line into what some people might define as unconscionable behavior.

"Take, for example, Harry from Body Guard. This is a man with about a ton of emotional baggage. His ex-wife and son were murdered - due to his own dangerous job as an FBI agent. And he does some pretty unforgivable stuff - to his surviving children, to the heroine, and to himself - as he attempts to cope with their deaths.

"As I write those words, 'Cope with their deaths,' I'm still astounded by how impossible a task I perceive that to be. (Talk about personal nightmares!) I have two children and I can think of nothing more terrible than losing one of them. I would never recover.

"Everything Harry does, every breath he takes, is filled with the complete and total pain he feels after losing a child.

"Does that make his behavior acceptable? No. Does it make it forgivable? Maybe. It certainly makes it more understandable. But in my book, (no pun intended!) it makes him real.

"You mentioned Luke 'Lucky O'Donlon from my Tall, Dark and Dangerous series about a team of Navy SEALs. When he wants to control the heroine, Syd, he doesn't see anything wrong with using sex as a weapon. He considers making friends with her for about two minutes, winning her support that way, but decides that he could probably control her better if she were his girlfriend. He doesn't recognize this as being a Bad Idea, capital B, capital I.

"But this fits perfectly with his backstory - who he is, where he came from, what he's learned in his twenty-something years of life from having a too-handsome face, the body of a God and an unfair dose of charisma.

"Think about a classic example of misguided love - the man who loses his job, but leaves for "work" every morning because he can't let his wife worry. Yes, true, there are other elements that keep him from telling her - shame, grief, pride - but he tells himself that he's protecting his wife.

"By lying to her? Some kind of protection, huh? Personally, I value truth and honesty very highly, and having such a secret concealed from me would more than likely mean the end of that relationship, despite the deceitful person's "good" intentions.

"I'm fascinated by deceit - in fact, my next book, The Defiant Hero, has a major theme which deals with deceit on various levels. The heroine's daughter has been taken hostage by terrorists (one of my personal nightmares - a child in jeopardy, combined with another of my nightmares - being lied to and being forced to lie in return!) and she's willing to lie and even kill to get her little girl back. The hero's a liar by nature - a man who's spent nearly his whole life hiding behind a facade, whose covert work with the SEALs takes advantage of his ability to artfully conceal the truth in any given situation."

Of course since Body Guard had driven me up the wall I had to ask her about Georgeís story. I asked if Suzanne had any plans to do George's story in the near future and if Nicki would be the heroine. To which Suzanne replied:

"I'm definitely going to write a sequel featuring George. (One extremely vehement reader made me promise that I would - and made me write my promise in her copy of the book! <g> I didn't have to write it in blood, thank goodness! <G>) I can't guarantee that Nicki will play a major part in the sequel, though. There may have been too much pain and anger between these too characters to ever let them reconcile. But I'll think about it. (Incidentally, I've received an equal number of letters and emails asking me to write a sequel about George and Kim. Again, we come back to personal preferences and individual tastes!)

Suzanne Brockmannís books are contemporaries and not ones that I would put in the "dark" category. They hit me hard, but in a different way than the serious historicals do. As I was thinking about this topic I couldnít help but contrast my feelings reading the Brockmann books with a historical that evoked a lot of emotion, Patricia Gaffneyís To Have and To Hold and a very dark romance, Lily, which Gaffney published in 1991. What interested me was that while more terrible things happen to the heroine of Lily, itís To Have and to Hold that is the more powerful read.

To Have and to Hold is the story of a real rake. When the book opens, Sebastian, the aristocratic hero hires a woman who is an ex-convict as his housekeeper. He does this so that he can force her to have sex with him.

Ah you are saying, he wants to seduce her. He will call her into the library, give her an intense stare and say, "I will seduce you my dear." She will tremble, say something suitably feisty and eventually give in.

Nope. Like I said this is about a man who hires a woman for sex and there is no seduction about it. Sex is a condition for employment. Rachel, the heroine makes it clear she doesnít want sex. Rachelís employment is what keeps her out of prison and so she has no choice. Sebastian doesnít try to wring Rachelís consent from her or arouse her to the point where she will change her mind. Rachel's arousal is relatively unimportant to him even while he is having sex with her.

This scene horrified me because it was not forced seduction. It was a kind of nonviolent rape. What kept me reading was the assurance from many readers that there was a point to all of this and that the book would turn the corner. Also, the story was so compelling that I simply could not stop reading it. I was dying to know if Sebastian would realize how awful he had been. Later, Sebastian did reform and I was very glad that I had continued reading because the book became a Desert Isle Keeper for me. Part of the reason for this is because the first half of To Have and To Hold is so powerful.

One thing that I noticed is that the early chapters of To Have and To Hold are written in a way that is cold, unromantic and creepy. It was pretty effective. I had a discussion with Nora Armstrong, one of my colleagues here at AAR, about this. Nora had this to say about the language in To Have and To Hold:

"One of the things I most admire about Gaffney is her understanding of when to refine her language and when to go balls to the wall with it (in case you haven't noticed, I'm quite a connoisseur of vulgarities). TH&TH is one of the few books where the f-word is used with absolute appropriateness, something along the lines of, 'If all he wanted was a hard, fast f---' (Now, Brockmann uses them appropriately, too, but her characters' world almost demands it, doesn't it? So speaks the former Army NCO. But I digress.) She wrote it because that's how Sebastian thought it. He also thought of his male organ as a 'cock,' so she uses that when she's in his head, whereas Rachel had probably never heard the word so would never have thought to use it (Really well done, isn't it, that Rachel, who had been so brutally debauched, was still innocent at her core, while Sebastian had to stumble around quite a bit to find that last shred of decency in his soul? And then he depended on this broken spirit, who refused to surrender her dignity to anyone, to help him learn how to nurture it. But again, I digress...).

"I guess my point is that it's so easy to use a word merely for shock value, but it's much trickier to use words that shock because they're the only ones that will fit the characters who speak or think them, at that moment. Gaffney does this really well in To Love and to Cherish, too, BTW: Anne is just ever so much more earthy in her thoughts than Christy, even though she rarely verbalizes everything that's on her mind."

Knowing how controversial To Have and To Hold was when it first came out, I wrote to Patricia Gaffney and asked her about the book. Although she had written not only about the book for us in the past, but about political correctness in general as well, I wanted her thoughts now that the book's release is farther in the past. She responded:

"The reason I think that book worked is because readers couldn't help liking Sebastian. Which is amazing when you think about it. I've always thought it's because he was on to himself, he had no illusions, he knew perfectly well what a rotter he was. He was self-aware. And he hated himself, but he figured being a bastard was part of his heritage, why fight it. People have told me (somewhat sheepishly) that they liked him even before he reformed - and some even allow as how they liked him better before he reformed. Ha! And you know, that was the hardest part about the writing - not making him do dastardly things (that was easy) but trying to make him an interesting character even after he saw the light. And Rachel's such an integral part in all of it; I think readers liked watching her evolve from ghost to full-bodied woman, and hoping one day she'd be a match for this man. To me she was as interesting a character as he was - well, more so. But I'm always more interested in the heroines than the heroes, not just in my books but anybody's."

I suggested my theory to her that what hits you hardest what you identify with and that Sebastian had some creepily believable aspects to his personality. In reply, Patricia wrote, "Or what scares you the most. Helplessness, for example. That was Rachel's dread. She gave up. Go ahead and do it, then, you bastard, but you can't touch me inside. I'm already dead."

I then suggested that Sebastian hits a woman hard because at one point or another just about every woman has been in a position to feel vulnerable. Sebastian is so selfish that he is believable. Patricia wasn't so sure about that, stating:

"I've never known a man remotely like him. Just lucky, I guess. <g> I'm inclined to think his appeal is much more basic. You're either drawn to the spectacle of what is, let's admit it, basically a rape (although nonviolent; but only physically nonviolent), or you're appalled by it - but in either case, you can't look away. Like a car crash, you're horrified but you have to see. And then you have to find out what happens next. How in the hell is this book going to end? How is it even going to get to the middle? This 'hero' is a devil - how can this be? And then the trick, as a writer, is to make his transformation believable. With Sebastian, I had a very long way to go."

Another thing that got me about Sebastian was that even after he is reformed he remains a typical man. There is a segment at the end of the book where Sebastian wonít commit. Itís a situation that is familiar to most modern women. Sebastian is thinking something along the lines of - gee, this is great. Great sex, we laugh a lot. Why think about the future?

Now this is something with which virtually every woman who married a man over age 19 can identify. Talk about an issue that hits you where you live. Most women that I know got pretty close to a nervous breakdown before their husbands made a commitment. In the case of TH&TH the heroine was also worried about prison - but that's not what hits the reader in the gut. What hits her in the solar plexus is: here is this woman, who is going to get pregnant if this keeps up, and he is paying no attention to the future. What did Patricia think of that? She wrote:

"So true. This I agree with a hundred percent. Some readers told me they could forgive his earlier bad behavior, but they really loathed him when he tried to wriggle out of getting married. I never actually got that till now - thanks for explaining it to me. Fear of pregnancy is elemental, it's been hard-wired in women since marriage was invented, since the first notions of "respectability." No - way before that, on second thought; from the beginning, when we lived in caves and HAD to have a mate to survive.

It was interesting to contrast this with Gaffneyís 1991 romance, Lily. I should start out by saying that I got a big kick out of the book, but itís a real old fashioned potboiler of a story. It reminded me of those silent movie melodramas where the heroine won't marry the villain. He threatens to evict her and her ailing father. When she still won't do it he ties her to the railroad track. Lily begins when Lily, a young woman who has recently lost her father, runs away from her evil guardian who is trying to force her to marry his son. After a short time spent on the run, Lily gets a job as a maid-of-all-work in the manor of Devon Darkwell (love that name!). What happens to Lily? Everything! This poor girl gets the prize for most tormented heroine. At various times she is seduced by Devon, beaten nearly to death by the evil housekeeper, accused of attempted murder (twice) publicly humiliated at her aborted wedding, left starving and pregnant and, finally in labor while caught out of doors. Devon is a hero from the old school. He was awful to her.

Lily is a fun book but not a terribly affecting one. I mentioned to Pat that Lily went through some incredibly tough times and asked if my enjoyment of the book may have stemmed from my own penchant for melodrama. I told her that a friend of mine who had read it thought it was influenced by the older, picaresque form of romance and believed if Gaffney were writing it today, it would be much different. Since I've not read any really recent Gaffney, I asked her how her writing has evolved, and how she's seen the genre change as well.

Gaffney responded:

"Poor Lily, the things I did to her. I can only think I was going through a sadistic phase. 'Picaresque' - what a polite word. <g> I think of Devon as a sort of Sebastian-in-training. But as flawed as Lily is, you know, I'm still fond of it, and I can't say that for all my books. I like the gothic atmosphere, all that stuff. And the 'melodrama,' as you say. And it's got one of my favorite characters (of mine) - Meraud, the witch on the moor.

"Yeah, we've come a long way. Lily's very old-fashioned; in fact it was old-fashioned when I wrote it, and I knew it, did it on purpose. But I don't think it would fly today. Too much machismo. Too much bullying.

Could it be, I asked her, that the reason why To Have and To Hold hits the reader harder than Lily does is because Devon was just too awful a person. Isn't there a point, I asked, where you say to yourself, "would I put up with this?", and the answer is no. By the time the hero stands up at the wedding and denounces her its all over. I really wanted her to dump him and go do a marriage of convenience with his brother Clay (hey a whole new book!).

In response, Patricia wrote:

"Hey! Great idea! Clay was a sweetheart. <g> You know, I wrote a draft scene after the wedding, when Devon ruins Lily, and in this scene she shoots him. Wounds him almost mortally. It was so satisfying. Son of a bitch deserved it. But it didn't work with the rest of the book as I'd envisioned it, so I took it out. But it was very comforting to me while it lasted.

"Lily is a very old fashioned book, not only because of the hero but because of the kitchen sink plotting that has you constantly wondering where the book is going. Lily's trials and tribulations are not ones with which we readily identify."

This brings me to a powerful Regency Romance that I recently reviewed, Andrea Pickens' The Major's Mistake. In this book, a woman who has been sexually assaulted by her husband's friend is accused of adultery. Miranda and Julian have only been married for a few weeks and upon hearing the accusation, Julian immediately enlists in the army vowing to get a divorce.

The book takes up years later. Julian is returning from the war lame from shrapnel wound. On visiting his elderly aunt he is stunned to discover his ex-wife and his son living on her charity. Julian's first instinct is to try to take his son. When his aunt threatens to take the two to Scotland to escape him, he agrees to a plan by which he may visit his son a few days a week.

Miranda is a woman whose life has been absolutely destroyed by her ex-husband. She has no money, her parents have disowned her and she is an outcast from society. When she meets her husband she is primarily terrified that he will take away her son, the only thing she has.

I have never been divorced, but I could not help but reflect on the difficulties that these two have. Miranda doesn't trust Julian and why should she? The man virtually threw her away. What could he say to erase that? For we know, without being told, that the greatest tragedy in this poor woman's life has been that she still loves this man in spite of everything and she doesn't know what to do with that love.

Loving Julian as she does, seeing him regularly is torture. But not to see him would be to hurt her little boy, whom she loves more than anything. It's easy to identify with this terrible predicament because we see it all around us. Millions of children experience it every day. You don't have to be divorced to understand it and if you have children you can only shiver at the horror of the situation.

One nice thing about The Major's Mistake is that Julian has grown up over the years. He's seen people make mistakes and he is ready to forgive Miranda long before he realizes that he has misjudged her.

This book hit home in a different place than any other romance novels I've mentioned because it introduced the terrible agony of subjecting one's children to unhappiness born of romantic problems. I thoroughly enjoyed this book but it did make me tense and preoccupied in ways that the others did not. On the other hand this book contains one of the most contrite heroes I've come across and when I closed the book I knew that Julian and Miranda were going to be happy together.

As I have been reading these books I could not help but wonder how other readers feel when a book hits them in the solar plexus.

Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are some specific questions to think and post about:

Do you ever find yourself preoccupied and unable to concentrate because a situation in a book has become too absorbing? Which book and which situation? If you have read Suzanne Brockmann's books, The Body Guard in particular, please weigh in on how you felt about it!
Suzanne Brockmann talked about creating characters that are real people. Have you ever had a romance novel stop you cold because it portrayed a character or situation that you could recognize. Is this as likely to happen with a light romance as with a dark brooding one? Tell us about it.
I found that Patricia Gaffney's To Have and To Hold, a story about a rake's reform hit me harder than the more melodramatic Lily, even though Lily seemed even more tormented than Rachael of TH&TH. Patricia Gaffney wrote that "Lily is a very old fashioned book, not only because of the hero but because of the kitchen sink plotting that has you constantly wondering where the book is going. Lily's trials and tribulations are not ones with which we readily identify." Tell us your reaction to this author's comments.
Edith Wharton said that people want to read a sad story with a happy ending. Andrea Picken's The Major's Mistake is such a book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Why do we love to get our hearts broken and mended? Can you think of some other books that break your heart in the best way possible? Tell us about them.

--Robin Nixon Uncapher

In conjunction with Suzanne Brockmann and Patricia Gaffney

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