Critics of romance novels often cite a long list of problems with the books and one of the most frequently used is that the books are formulaic. Some authors embrace that idea and give a guide to what they think of as “the formula” such as Paula Graves or Rita Clay Estrada and Rita Gallagher. Others like Anne Gracie heartily reject the idea. Harlequin calls it a format and insists that all genres use such a tool. Continue reading
A few years ago, my husband gave me an anniversary card that looked something like the picture on the left. “Look!,” he wrote inside. “They found one of our wedding pictures!” It was a joke, of course. I mean, we weren’t nine. But we were both nineteen, which even in 1989 was really young. I am pretty sure people thought we were crazy, and when I look back, there may have been something to that. My mom was completely horrified. She’d married at the ripe old age of twenty-three, and in her mind, getting married meant that you immediately dropped out of college and started having babies right and left, which was not the life she pictured for her honor student daughter. It doesn’t have to mean that. In my case, it did mean that I switched universities (ending up at one that was likely better suited to me anyway), but my husband and I both graduated a year early and didn’t have children right away. With time and perspective though, I can see exactly why my mom was worried. As I went on in life and discovered others who married young, I found that I was the exception rather than the rule. Most people either got married because they were expecting, or married with the intention of both partners remaining in school only to have one drop out to support the other. It’s not that getting married very young is an impossible road, but it creates some unique obstacles that older couples don’t necessarily have to face.
A few years ago I read a very interesting article (which of course I couldn’t find for the life of me when I wrote this piece) that spoke to the challenges of marrying young. It was actually written in sort of a blue state/red state context, and addressed marriage differences and why divorce rates were lower in blue states. The article phrased the dichotomy in a way that stuck with me: “Adults creating families vs. families creating adults.” Do you grow up, meet someone, and build a family together, or meet someone, build a family together, and then grow up? It’s the challenge of an early marriage in a nutshell. My husband and I are in our forties, now addressing some of the issues that a lot of people addressed in their twenties. I love my husband, and we’re still married as we approach our 25th anniversary. But would I advise my daughters (20 and 22) to make a similar choice? Probably not, and they haven’t.
Why do I bring this up? Well, partly it’s because I am at a stage where I am talking and thinking a lot about my marriage and my choices. But it’s also because the heroine of the book I’m reading is eighteen. Granted, she is eighteen in 1812, which is a lot different than being eighteen in 1988 or 2014. It takes us longer to grow up now because life is complicated in ways that it wasn’t 200 years ago. But still, she’s eighteen. The hero thinks she’s young, and she is. And because I married young, because I’ve walked down that road, I know what is ahead of her better than most. I believe that young love is real, because I’ve lived it. But I also understand the intricacies and nuances of what’s ahead. It’s a little harder for me to romanticize it.
It made me wonder whether we seek out romances that mirror our own love story, or avoid them because they are too real. On one hand, if it has worked for you, you know it can work. Linda Hurst, who used to co-write Pandora’s Box with me years ago, was a firm defender of love at first sight romances. She fell head over heels crazy in love with her husband in a moment and knew that it was real and could work outside a romance novel. I’ve also defended young love over the years because I’ve lived young love. Periodically I’ve seen someone say (on our message boards) that you can’t possibly be in love with someone you met at fifteen. Yes, I personally know otherwise. But I am not exactly sure that I seek out romances where couples face the problems I faced.
Do any of us? If your spouse is in the military and suffering from PTSD, do you enjoy military romances? Or do you think they downplay the struggles? If you’re raising step-children, do you enjoy reading about step-families in romance? Or is it all just too real? If we didn’t need desire fantasies, we probably wouldn’t read books with bizarre will stipulations, secret babies, or shapeshifting wolves.
Where do you stand? Do you like romances that remind you of your own romance? Or do you just think, “I can get that at home” and seek out something completely different?
Every romance needs a hero and heroine, but sometimes a secondary relationship is so striking, so interesting, that it almost steals the show. Pride and Prejudice is, of course, about Elizabeth and Darcy. But it’s about Elizabeth and Jane too. Some of the best moments and the best dialog are about them, and about their relationship and their differences. Series and stories involving siblings are a dime a dozen, but books that really nail sibling relationships are a lot rarer. We see a lot more Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (with its very surface relationships…Bless her beautiful hide!) than we see the Bennett girls.
When someone gets it right, it feels like a bonus. My recent favorite is Courtney Milan’s novella, The Governess Affair. It is of course about a governess and a former boxer turned finance man of sorts. But it’s also about sisters. Serena (the titular governess) is the bolder sister who, after she is raped by the Duke of Claremont, stations herself outside his home every day, vowing to keep her vigil until he agrees to support her child. Her sister Frederica is basically agoraphobic. Frederica can’t understand why Serena takes so many risks. Serena can’t understand how Frederica can live like she does – or how it is even living. They love each other, though they don’t understand each other. Toward the end of the story, Serena thinks:
Maybe Freddy would always think Serena strangely broken, and Serena would always cringe, thinking of her sister ensconced in her rooms, slowly turning to stone. There was no convincing each other, no understanding each other.
But when Serena had most needed it, her sister had given her a place to stay. For all that Freddy made her stomach hurt, they still shared an affection made bittersweet by all that divided them. Perhaps God gave one sisters to teach one to love the inexplicable.
I was so struck by the last line that I texted it to my own sister – something I’m pretty sure I’ve never done before. She’s an artist, with all the creativity, originality, and free-spiritedness that implies. We love each other but tend to see life differently. I’m not sure she’s ever understood, for example, why anyone would spend years writing about romance novels when one could spend years writing romance novels (though she’s stopped saying that…at least out loud). We found common ground over the Milan quote, which she liked as much as I did. It was more insight than I’d bargained for in a novella.
While I have seen authors handle easy, companionable sibling relationships well (Nora Roberts comes to mind here, but there are others), I was hard-pressed to think of books that really went below the surface, or delved into more complicated sibling relationships. Who can you think of who “gets” the sibling relationship and does it right?
Total aside about sibling differences: I could tell you every detail of the t-shirt my sister is wearing in the picture above, but I’d be very surprised if she could (remembering things from thirty years ago is more in my wheelhouse). Although you can’t see it, it has Snoopy on it – in sunglasses, throwing a frisbee. It was the last one of its kind in the BYU bookstore, and she got it in a fair-and-square coin toss. I had to settle for the much less cool one with Snoopy sleeping on his house. It’s okay – now that it’s been thirty years, I’ve decided to let my resentment go.
Do you believe in the power of love to reconcile what is opposite or different? I do. Not without reservations: Some positions are opposed too far to be overcome easily, for example a union between an unrepentant racist and a person who despises racism. And in some instances, where there’s no real compromise possible, love may not be enough to bridge the gap, like whether one wants to have children or not, a pet or not. But in many cases love may bring together people that hold opinions and beliefs that differ, and may make a relationship possible that both partners would have declined for rational reasons before they actually fell in love.
My own marriage is an example of the opposites-attract kind. My husband and I are respectively conservative and green, Catholic and Lutheran, of working-class and academia background. And our marriage works well. We still vote differently (sometimes arguing about details, but always respecting the other’s right to a different opinion), we take turns attending both our churches together, and when we visit with our families, one of us may sometimes roll his or her eyes at the other family’s idiosyncrasies, but always prepared for tolerance. Continue reading
In her recent review of A Lady by Midnight by Tessa Dare, Sarah of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, mentioned something that caught my attention. A certain group of supporting characters who arrive in the heroine’s village, early in the novel, were seen by Sarah as being “a carriage full of sequel-bait…[not] so much individual as they are at times like an assembly of future characters and convenient plot devices.” This jumped out at me, because I have felt this sentiment before, reading various books by various authors.
For me, the carriage full of characters in A Lady by Midnight worked, and I personally did not feel that they were sequel-bait. (Incidentally, in a Goodreads chat to celebrate the book’s release, Dare mentioned that there are only two other planned stories in this series, a novella and a novel, neither of which will be about any of the carriage characters… Although Dare did not rule out the possibility of revisiting one of the characters at a much later date.) But I don’t mean this as a critique of either Sarah or Dare. Rather, this is just a recent example of a phenomenon that I have been experiencing myself – the expectation of sequels. In this case, I happened to read Sarah’s review just after reading Dare’s comment that she did not intend to write books for these new characters, and it got me thinking.
Last week we featured a sneak peek at 2012 debut authors. This time, I’m taking an early look at Chick Lit and Women’s Fiction for 2012, a category that at times has been a bit of a problem in the Annual Reader Poll at AAR. Some years we pollsters wonder if we’ll have enough votes for any single title to declare a winner. This wasn’t the case in the 2012 AAR Reader’s Poll for books published in 2011, when Jill Mansell’s To the Moon and Back was the winner in the category. A number of 2011 books captured readers’ attention and received quite a few votes in the category.
But in other years we’ve had more problems. First, a lot of AAR readers avoid both genres and leave the category blank on their ballot. Now this isn’t a problem for the readers; I tend to have a number of blank categories on my ballot each year as well (Biggest Tearjerker, Best Love Scenes, Best Romantica/Erotica to name just a few).
I don’t remember much from Psych 101, but I do remember Sternberg’s Triangle of Love. Sternberg sees Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment as the three corners of love. Pick any one or two components and you have various kinds of relationships; combine all three, and you have what he calls the Consummate Love.
Which is sort of what 99.99% of romance novels is about. Except in the romance world, there’s a fourth corner: Fidelity.
Wait. Isn’t that the same as Commitment? Well, not according to Dan Savage, the love and sex columnist who was featured in the New York Times Sunday Magazine two weeks ago. He recognizes that monogamy is right for most couples, and that’s great. What he doesn’t like is our society’s assumption that monogamy is right for all couples:
“Folks on the verge of making those monogamous commitments need to look at the wreckage around them (Schwarzenegger, Clinton, Vitter)…and have a conversation about what it’ll mean if one or the other partner should cheat. And agree, at the very least, to getting through it, to place a higher value on the relationship itself than on component of it, sexual exclusivity.”
Mr. Savage doesn’t support thoughtless infidelity, but he’s asking for smarter boundaries and honesty, an acknowledgement that: Continue reading
“Will you marry me? You would be well advised to say no.”
These are the words Edmond uses to propose to Mary in Mary Balogh’s The Notorious Rake. I first read it well over a decade ago, but it remains my favorite proposal in all of romance. And as a veteran reviewer of nearly twelve years, I’ve seen my share. Because I’ve seen so many, the unusual proposals stand out, and are duly noted. Also duly noted: A new Disturbing Trend, one you’ve probably noticed too. Heroines can no longer accept their first proposal from the hero. No matter how logical it may be, no matter how much they love the guy, they just can’t say yes the first time around.
Oh, we all know why. It’s because he didn’t ask right . The scenario goes like this: Hero and heroine have sex. It is 1815. She might be pregnant, because hey, it’s 1815. The hero, who has been in love with the heroine forever but just didn’t realize it, is secretly thrilled. Now, finally, he has an excuse to do what he’s been wanting to do for some time, which is ask this gorgeous woman to marry him so they can have sex legally whenever they feel like it. So he gets down on one knee, professes his regard and his fervent hope that she will accept his hand. Only to hear, “I can’t marry you! I won’t force you to marry me just because I am ruined and might possibly be pregnant!” Never mind that those are actually excellent reasons for getting married in 1815, particularly if you love someone anyway.
This weekend I’m going to be at a retreat. And, believe me when I say, I could definitely use it.
My destination is In the Company of Writers, a retreat sponsored by the Washington chapter of RWA and includes local luminaries who could not possibly be more luminous – Mary Jo Putney, Patricia Gaffney, Susan Donnovan, Sophia Nash, and Kathleen Gilles Seidel to name just a few. And this year’s special guests are very special, indeed: Roxanne St. Clair and Charlaine Harris. (And, yes, that was an internal fan girl squee you heard just now.)
The gathering also includes editors and agents, so the chance to learn more about the business side of romance will also be invaluable.
Despite the fact that I’m speaking on Sunday morning and will be a bundle of nerves up until that moment, you know what I’m most looking forward to? Spending a relaxing weekend in an out of the way hotel with a group of wonderful women who share my love of romance and who love to talk about it just as much as I do.
It’s empowering. It’s relaxing. And, gee, it’s just plain fun.
I’ll be reporting more about the weekend soon – including more about the panel discussion on social media and reviews that I’m sharing with Barbara Vey of Publisher’s Weekly. But until then, what the best way you know to recharge?
– Sandy AAR
Okay, so the photograph of the cast of Designing Women wasn’t exactly on target, but I’ve been remembering with great affection some of my favorite Julia Sugarbaker moments. RIP, Dixie Carter.
For my generation, there is a very public way to declare a serious relationship. It’s not a class ring or letter jacket. The question “Have you been pinned?” died long ago.
Today, the question is, “Is it Facebook-official?”
Facebook offers several relationship options: Single, It’s Complicated, In an Open Relationship, and In a Relationship. When you’re “In a relationship” with someone, it’s for real. You’re committed.