How Well do Category Romances Age?

With the publication of Harlequin’s Famous Firsts Collection, I recently read two romances from the 1980s, Debbie Macomber’s The Matchmakers and Anne Stuart’s Tangled Lies. Though Tangled Lies has a suspense plot, it is less prominent, and it seems fair to consider both romances essentially contemporaries, albeit very different ones in style. After finishing both, I found myself pondering whether they seemed more timeless or dated to me.

On the whole, I enjoyed both books a lot, and the elements I consider a bit dated didn’t distract me too much. I especially like the fact that Dori, heroine of The Matchmakers, is a very strong and mature character who never hesitates to stand up to the hero and to face her own emotions. Gavin, the hero, felt more old-fashioned. He is a single father with a job that requires him to travel, so his daughter Melissa stays at boarding school. In addition, as a former football pro, he announces football games on many weekends, so Melissa has to spend those at school. I was okay with the boarding school – if there’s only one parent in a family, and that one has to spend a lot of time away, it may be entirely reasonable for the child to go to boarding school. But being a sports announcer on the side is a hobby. A delightful hobby, yes, but still extra. I would expect a single father who lodges his child elsewhere during the week to make that child his top priority when he’s not working. So this father, perceived uncritically as loving and devoted in a 1980s context, came across as rather selfish to my 2000s eyes. The same applies to his inability to support his daughter as regards feminine clothes and make-up. As single mother Dori attempts to encourage and share her son’s love for sports, I would expect a single father to make an attempt to go shopping with his daughter and to enter into her budding interest in fashion. All in all, The Matchmakers applies a double standard to single parents that obviously felt natural in the 1980s, but which, I found just slightly annoying today.

I thoroughly enjoyed the love and sex scenes in both novels. The Matchmakers is Kisses only, but the slowly increasing heat between Dori and Gavin is described tenderly and with a great sense of humor, so I didn’t miss a thing. The sex scenes in Tangled Lies were probably considered Hot in 1984 (they’d probably be judged Warm now), and though the heat and passion came across with all the freshness I could wish for, I was spared all clinical details and the techniques checklist that mar so many Hot scenes written nowadays. So if both novels felt slightly old-fashioned to me in this respect, it’s only because present-day fashion in romance sex often makes the sex seem dreary and unsexy to me. Give me more of Macomber’s and Stuart’s restraint any day.

The hero in Tangled Lies is very rough around the edges, being rude and even violent towards the heroine several times. As this is only my third Anne Stuart novel, I depend on other’s opinions here, but apparently this is trademark Stuart and not so much a throwback to bodice-ripper heroes. I should point out, anyway, that the violence he uses is not sexual – he holds her back once and grabs a key from her another time, hard enough to bruise her arms, but he never hits her. So although this didn’t endear him to me particularly, wasn’t quite enough to push a red button either.

The part in both novels that felt most aged was the ending. In The Matchmakers, after a period of separation, Dori and Gavin reconcile in a very moving scene in front of their children, and then he spoils it all (in my eyes) by asking her to marry him straight away. They haven’t even slept together, both have been married before, and yet there is this proposal, in front of witnesses, no less. Possibly a proposal at the end and no sex before was a requirement for Harlequin Romances in 1986, but to me it felt so incongruent that it pulled me straight out of my reading. Throughout the novel, Gavin is depicted as a very honest, yet at the same time deeply private man. He is not given to big gestures, nor is Dori the kind of woman who seems to delight in them, so the proposal didn’t seem in keeping with either character. It did seem tacked on, and it was easily the element that seemed most aged in the novel.

Tangled Lies’ ending is far worse. The ending proper is okay, and then cometh the epilogue. And behold, babies abound and the bad boy suddenly finds himself morphed into a writer who potters around the house delighting in unfinished DIY projects. Were he female, he should have been pictured wearing a housedress. This ending was so cheesy and out-of-place, that it seriously undermined the impact of all that had gone before and left me rolling my eyes instead of sighing at the passion and romance between the couple. No matter if this is what was was required by Harlequin guidelines in 1984, the epilogue firmly places Tangled Lies on the “aged” shelf.

For me, the most dated parts of the 1980s romances were the endings, which were too marriage-and-babies centered for my taste, especially as this didn’t really fit the characters, and to some extent the earlier presentation of ideal masculine behavior. Interestingly, I had no problems at all with the balance of power within the relationships or with the way they grew, nor did I find the women in any way submissive or self-effacing. I actually enjoyed the more restrained descriptions of sexual desire and sex dramatically more than I do in many 2000s romances. There are some things that work very well when room is left for the imagination.

When you read older contemporary romances, what are the elements that you find most obviously old-fashioned, both in a positive and a negative way? Can the same differences be found in historicals and paranormals? What pulls you out of your reading when you read an older romance, and what do you actually prefer to present-day writing?

-Rike Horstmann

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9 Responses to “How Well do Category Romances Age?”

  1. For me, in the external plot it’s communications. When the book is set in a time when there were no family computers automatically hooked up to the Net, or when not everybody carries a mobile phone. It’s a weird one, because it wasn’t that long ago, but it’s changed the way we interact, so sometimes, I find myself thinking “why doesn’t she call his cell?” followed by a duh moment.

    Plots – the overly high-handed hero. Obviously the old “rape into love” books are completely unacceptable these days, but sometimes it’s just that the hero railroads the heroine.
    And that’s partly the heroine’s fault. OMG, the wimpy heroine. Weak, feeble, won’t stand up for herself or tell the hero to get lost when he so very needs it. And she gives up everything for lurve. The career that means to much to her at the start of the book somehow goes up in smoke by the end. You don’t see that as much these days, thank goodness, and I’ve gladly stepped back into the world of the category romance.

    And fashion. But, I have to say, that’s not always in the old books. At least there’s some excuse there. In some of the modern category romances you can read about heroines of 24 or so who dress like grannies. No tats, no party wear, nothing daring at all, except for a bit of lace on their undies. Knee length pencil skirts and neat blouses, not just for work but for everywhere, and the idea that a miniskirt means tarty.

  2. Yulie says:

    I agree with Lynne about the communications side of things – I read a Brockmann category a couple of months ago, and it was strange to have the characters looking for pay phones.

    Clothes as well – most things eventually come back into fashion at some point, but it can still pull me out of the story. I read one 1980s contemporary in which the super-rich heroine wore a fur coat – I don’t know anyone around my age who wears fur coats, and I’m sure today she’d have come across a PETA activist or two (and then been featured on TMZ).

    I’m not sure baby epilogues really date a book – there seem to be plenty of them in more recently published romances, including ones where it really doesn’t fit the characters and the plot.

  3. Jessa Slade says:

    Hey, I still have to look for pay phones! And, yeah, it sucks.

    I’ve found most of my paranormal and fantasy romances have aged fairly well. I’d say the out-of-this-world elements help buffer the story from anachronisms. Although I admit, some of the tech in SF stories makes me giggle now.

    I thought it was interesting how in Jennifer Cruise’s Bet Me, Min’s clothing came across as very 80′s. I wasn’t thrown out of the story though because it was so wonderful.

  4. BevBB says:

    Cigarettes.

    You know, really, I have no idea why they throw me so much in older stories. But they do. Someone can pull out a cigar or a pipe and I don’t bat and eye but a cigarette and I’m checking the copyright date. Honest to goodness. It’s like someone has programmed my brain or something. A the weird thing is that I have no idea what date I’d be looking for … :/

  5. library addict says:

    I agree with Yulie that baby epilogues aren’t a sign of “aged” for me. But it sounds as if such an epilogue simply did fit this particular story (Tangled Lies).

    I reread an early category romance last year in which the heroine was looking through the hero’s RECORD collection the first time she went to his apartment :lol: CDs have been around a while, so that kind of threw me.

    I also agree that the one thing that most often dates a book for me is the descriptions of the characters’ clothing. But unless the passages are overly long this is usually a minor quibble. I think if the characters stand the test of time then the book does.

    It’s often interesting to see how much writers have grown in their craft. There are some writers I discovered later in their career whom I would never have read again if I had read their early stuff first.

    I like the fact that we usually get much more of the hero’s POV in more current romances than we did in the many books of the eighties or even early nineties.

    I don’t read that many historicals nowadays because I dislike the way so many writers have the characters behave far too politically correct for the setting. The historicals I read in the eighties and nineties had their share of clichés and problems, but I’ll take an overbearing, uncommunicative hero over many of the spineless heroes I’ve read in recent historicals. And though there are always exceptions, I thing older historical romances had more variety in terms of settings and plots.

  6. willaful says:

    I have written about this before, but in regard to categories — particularly Harlequin Presents, the main line I read — I often find the older books feel less dated than the more recent books, which have far more emphasis on a) virginity, b) “mistresses” and c) abortion as something no decent person would ever even consider.

    The element I find most dating — it died out sometime in the early 80′s, thank God — are the “punishing” kisses. And though sexual harassment is still around in office romances, it is far less blatant and obnoxious.

  7. Lynn Spencer says:

    Lynne –

    I agree so much with most of what you said. When I’m reading something older, I can move past the fashion descriptions to an extent (though one in which the heroine was pretty much arranging her hair into satellite-dish bangs threw me). It’s the wimpiness of the heroines in some of the older ones that really dates it for me.

    I don’t think modern category books are always 100% dead on with gender roles, but they do seem to feature fewer mousy, passive heroines. I’ve always bought a few category books, but I’m definitely reading more now.

  8. Jane O says:

    I don’t know if things have changed, but it used to be that kids in boarding schools only went home for vacations, not for weekends, so leaving his daughter in school for the weekend isn’t a sign of selfishness. I think this is still pretty much the case, at least in the Northeast. Now if he left her there for Christmas or Spring vacation — and there were parents who did — that’s a different story.

  9. Kiragirl says:

    Im with you on Tangled Lies. I liked most of the book but then I got to the ending and i was thinking “Where did that come from?!” It just didn’t fit.