Loving Problematic Books

chinagarden Grading books is not always straightforward. For me, there is no rubric, no check-list of Do’s and Don’t’s. I have a few deal-breakers, but not many. When I assign a book a DIK grade, though, I often feel like it has to be perfect — or at least very, very close. The writing must be flawless. The characters, well-developed. The plot, exciting, believable, and interesting. But I’ve found that some of the books I go back to, the ones I re-read over and over again (the true test, in my opinion, of a DIK), are objectively problematic in some way.

“Problematic” can mean a lot of different things. Maybe there is a pretty huge logical fallacy upon which the plot hangs. Maybe there’s something that should be totally unromantic, unhealthy, or taboo. Recently, my fellow AAR reviewers and staff members got to talking about our favorite books that have some flaw or problem.

I recently revisited The China Garden, by Liz Berry. It is a British YA semi-paranormal novel that I first read when I was probably about 11 years old. The main character, Clare, graduated from the British equivalent of high school and goes with her mother to a mysterious old estate. She soon discovers that her mother was born there, and was meant to marry the heir and become a “Guardian” of the “Trust.” Clare doesn’t know what the Trust is, or its significance, because it’s all one big secret. But it’s something hugely important, and she — along with a local “bad boy” Mark — are supposed to be the next Guardians. The book is steeped in history — millennia worth of history — and symbolism and has an air of mystery surrounding it. Mark and Clare are great together and have really strong chemistry.

Oh yeah, they’re also half-cousins.

That’s weird enough, and then you think about the implications of their family lines. Their respective families (the Aylwards and the Kenwards) have been intermarrying for hundreds of years. Basically since the middle ages. Somehow, Mark and Clare have defied genetics, and are two fully-functional, attractive, intelligent human beings. I should be totally grossed out by this and throw the book across the room. But I just tell myself, “Don’t think about it. Just enjoy the story.” Some questionable relations also appear in Linda Howard’s Shades of Twilight, a book Lauren Onorato enjoys. The hero and heroine are distant cousins. Wendy also likes Someday Soon by Joan Wolf, and The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer – two more romances that bring together cousins. As Wendy points out, part of it is historical. “I know the idea wasn’t taboo back in the 1800s, the setting for both books, but when I think of my own cousins… No way.”

Another book I read recently had some red flags that I ignored, to my benefit. Overseas by Beatriz Williams was a thoroughly romantic book. It was the type of romance that I felt in my gut, and the type of book that had me re-reading passages as soon as I finished it. But it is not without its flaws. Overseas is a time travel novel in which Julian, a British military officer in WWI, goes forward in time. To summarize: WWI-era Julian meets Kate, who tells him that they’re in love. They spend a couple days together, then part ways. Modern-day Julian has spent years searching for Kate, in love with her, because she told him that future-Julian loved her. Yeah, that’s a bit confusing – time travel romance in which the characters know each other or meet in both time periods tend to be that way – but once I started thinking about it, the less sense it made. While I adored the romance, I also struggled with some of the flimsier plot premises.

And then there are the codependent and emotionally abusive relationships, the ones that in real life, we would do our best to get our friends out of. Overseas has tinges of that; Julian is controlling and secretive in a way that reminded me of Twilight – probably the most famously unhealthy fictional relationship. LinnieGayl says, “I am afraid to say how many times I’ve reread Linda Howard’s Sarah’s Child. On paper it’s a book I should hate. And it’s clear many, many readers do hate it. The heroine will do basically anything for the man she loves, Rome Matthews. He treats her horribly, and then when she becomes pregnant and has a child — a child he didn’t want — he pretends the baby doesn’t exist, makes her keep it in a room he never enters, etc., etc. Horrible, horrible man in his treatment of her. But I still love it…sigh.” Jenna Harper also loves a sometimes controversial J. D. Ward book. “I absolutely love (and often reread) J.R. Ward’s Lover Awakened, but when you boil down the actual plot, the heroine gets rescued by the hero and then spends almost the entire length of the story in his bedroom. In my head, that’s not exactly the kind of heroine that I respect and enjoy – Bella really doesn’t do much of anything except eat, sleep and have sex with Zsadist. But I love the book all the same.” Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire was similar for Jenna. “I found myself staying up until the wee hours absolutely transfixed by this book, but there are so many problems with it that it’s frightening. The hero has major anger management issues and is the walking example of a future wife abuser. He’s obsessive and controlling and jealous, and when he gets upset, he gets violent. The relationship between the hero and heroine is majorly co-dependent and unhealthy. But darned if I didn’t absolutely love this book. I actually felt bad about liking it so much because I really shouldn’t.”

Rape, “forced seduction,” and other power dynamics are often where this discussion leads. Lynn Spencer brought up a classic Patricia Gaffney novel, To Have And To Hold. “The initial sex scene between hero/heroine is very much a rape/forced seduction scene that can be truly uncomfortable to read. Even so, I thought the romance in the book was amazing overall.” Dabney also loved Price of Innocence and Prisoner of my Desire, despite some very forced seductions.

There’s a theme here. “I shouldn’t like this book,” “I’m afraid to admit that I enjoy it.” Whether the reason we are embarrassed to admit we like a book is that is poorly written or weakly plotted, or it is because we like it despite (or perhaps because of) some questionable relationship dynamics, we all seem to have at least a few of these problematic book loves. As romance readers, we get enough criticism as it is, even if we’re reading an unquestionably great romance novel. But throw in something controversial or troublesome, and to still admit to reading and liking it? That takes some guts.

Do you have a book (or books) that you love, despite or because of some flaw? Which ones?

– Jane Granville

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21 Responses to “Loving Problematic Books”

  1. In “Sarah’s Child,” when you know that Rome has lost his previous family, wife and two children, in a horrific car accident, his behaviour makes much more sense. When he gets Sarah pregnant, he feels obliged to marry her, but finds it very, very hard to accept another family.
    I love the book, too, and one that’s even more reprehensible, “Loving Evangeline,” because the hero is more controlling and less traumatised. Rome I can forgive because of his past (my irritations are with Sarah for passively accepting what he does instead of getting him into therapy), Robert less so.

  2. Lynda X says:

    I find Kristen Ashley books just like this. There is something about them, but in real life, the men would be very, very abusive and the women wimps and victims.

  3. LeeF says:

    If I believe all of the forums and discussions, I apparently like a lot of books I “shouldn’t” so I will go with the front runner- The Book That Shall Not Be Named – 50SoG. Shoot, I will cop to enjoying/re-reading the entire trilogy. :-)

    • Aida says:

      50soG was so much fun! Kinda reminded me of all the series romance books I read that go like “lovestory-of-young-virginal-klutzy-girl-&-rich-handsome-gazillionaire-great-in-bed-hero-with-a-dark-side”. Only 50soG was in 3 volumes, is available in ebook, and is due to be made into a Hollywood movie (or so the buzz goes).

  4. Paola says:

    Midnight Run by Lisa Marie Rice. The plot is absurd, there’s insta-love, more sex than actual story, an heroine that leaves the hero for a stupid reason, but I really love it.

  5. Kim says:

    I like Double Standards by Judith McNaught. Although the hero is guilty of sexual harassment by today’s standards, I can overlook it because of when the book was written. Also, Alissa’s Miracle by Gina Gray has many of the same features as Sarah’s Child. The hero was abused as a child, so some of his bad behavior can be explained.

    • Aida says:

      I looove Double Standards! Yup, it would be sexual harassment in today’s standards. But Nick, the hero, was just sooo good at groveling in the end so I can forgive him for that :)

  6. LeeF says:

    Kind of a side note: when I first started reading reviews about self-published books, I just knew the grammar and punctuation errors would maked me crazed. Not so much. What DOES yank my chain is a supposedly “edited” book that lets the book get printed without catching the I vs me errors. Can still hear my 4th grade teacher “If you would say we it is you and I- if you would say us it is you and me”.

  7. Eliza says:

    The only problematic books I have (other than those plagued by poor handling of language in general) are the ones I don’t enjoy either because of my individual taste or mood at the time–regardless of whether or not they are the flavors of the month or ones that seem to be universally disliked. I have a very broad “suspension of disbelief,” remembering I’m reading fiction and really wanting to enjoy whatever it is I’ve taken the time to chose to read. So, “half-cousin” stuff and son on tend not to be issues for me.

    Although Byron may have been the first to say it, I prefer Twain’s expanded version: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

    Emerson turns it around, though: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

    Two other related quotes that I just flat out enjoy: ““Imagination and fiction make up more than three-quarters of our real life” and “The only imaginative fiction being written today is income tax returns.”

  8. Blackjack1 says:

    I would definitely put Gaffney’s _To Have and To Hold_ as a problematic book that I very much liked. In more recent years though I would include Linda Howard’s _Death Angel_ in this category. I loved this book and some aspects of it were so appealing, including the chilling plot of a hit man hired to kill a woman with whom he’s had a sexual relationship and grows to love. On the other hand, the hero is sketchily drawn at best, the story relies upon supernatural and even quasi religious elements and imagery to sustain it, both main characters are near anti-heroes, and the ending has a lukewarm “HEA”. Nevertheless, I am drawn to this book and it ended up working for me.

  9. Cora says:

    Regarding The Grand Sophy, personally I find the horribly anti-semitic caricature in the chapter where Sophy visits the moneylender a lot more problematic than the cousin relationship. And yes, I still love The Grand Sophy in spite of the anti-semitism, though I always hesitate to recommend the book to anyone because of that chapter.

  10. Mark says:

    Most of the U.S. cousin taboo comes from poor understanding of genetics in the 19th Century. Actual genetic risk, even with first cousin pairings, is low.

    • Carrie says:

      Mark is right. In the United States, there are 17 states that presently allow first cousin marriages. There are several others that allow it under certain conditions.And, yes, this does include a lot of the South, but that number also includes California and much of New England. Genetically, the risk of problems increases roughly 2-2.5% over non-cousin marriages. The risks are low due to the fact that first cousin marriages are relatively rare in this country so there is very little concentration of deleterious genes. In countries like Pakistan where 1st cousin marriages are the norm and have been for generations, the % of birth defects is somewhat higher, but not astronomical.

      Anyway, just a long way of saying 1st cousin marriages never bother me in books.

  11. CChip says:

    There are only 2 problematic books that I’ve read and still loved them. One, which has already been mentioned, is Sarah’s Child. Rome was emotionally constipated. The man lost everything he loved and did not want to suffer that pain again. Despite how Rome treated Sarah, I loved the book; it’s a DIK for me.

    The other is Dancing with Clara. I hesitated to read this due the reviews about Freddie’s, shall we say, “roaming eyes”. Despite that, I loved it. I just had to read Tempting Harriet just to see what happed to them. They did get their HEA. Whew!

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  13. Aida says:

    “Do you have a book (or books) that you love, despite or because of some flaw? Which ones?”

    Hmmm, when I was a very young romance reader, I used to prefer books where the heroines are virgins. Even though I know that that is not a politically correct way of choosing the books I read. So yeah, I love Shades of Twilight, Sarah’s Child, Lynne Graham’s Harlequin Presents, this book by Diana Palmer where the guy is a cowboy or a rancher and the girl is a young virginal something, Judith McNaught’s regencies, Iris Johansen’s Loveswept titles, pre-2000 books by Lisa Kleypas, some stuff by Sandra Brown, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and ok Nora Roberts too. There is a very nice article on why readers like me love virginal heroines in the book, “Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women” (it’s a non-fiction book written by romance writers and edited by Jayne Ann Krentz on the appeal of the romance). That explains some of it, I think :)

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