While reading message boards online, I have happened upon a phrase that stuck with me. The reader said that she couldn’t stand to see how “Heroine X settles for Hero Y”. She expected her heroine to find love with another, and regarded her turning to the hero and her finding love with him as ‘settling’. I have come across this phrase more than once in comments various places, usually when a romance heroine has the choice between a very compelling love interest and one who is slighly less fascinating, often a beta hero. If you think about it, how often does the heroine choose the less compelling, but more stable, love interest? Very rarely! Why is the more rational choice of a life partner called ‘settling’ and frowned upon in romance?
If you look at real life, you will see many women who end up not with the guy who was the most captivating they ever dated, the one they loved with the greatest passion and self-abandon. Yet their marriage to a guy they met a couple of years later, a guy whom they love less tempestuously but possibly more deeply, is often more happy and fulfilling than the all-encompassing, but at the same time more stormy and painful love they experienced when they were younger. Is such a love ‘settling’? Is it worth less than an amour fou? And if we approve of more temperate love in real life, why does it incense so many readers when it occurs in a romance?
One may argue that in order to make the fantasy work, the romance heroine must tame the most unlikely male around. A man spoilt by riches or fame, a man who’s slept with hundreds of supermodels or accomplished courtesans, a man who treats the heroine with suspicion or disdain until the second to last page, may appear as the greater achievement, may make the happy ending more fantastic and hence more romantic. Sparks of passion fly, quarrels lead to making-up sex, and all this is so much more compelling than the mundane everyday lives(no matter how happy they tend to be overall) we aim to escape when we pick up a romance.
So far, so good. My problems start when the difficult male who is about to be transformed by his love for the heroine turns out to be so obnoxious that I have severe difficulties believing in the HEA. If the hero behaves like an utter jerk to the last, if he’s been insanely jealous, accusing her of being a whore throughout the book, or has spent years being notoriously promiscuous himself, I rather doubt their relationship will survive the first quarrel, her first flirtation with a colleague at work or his first encounter with a long-legged blonde out to land a CEO. So what if he’s given her the best sex she’s ever had, or if he’s her long-lost first love? Does she really want to live with the guy for the rest of her life? Do I wish it on her? No! I have read several romances which had me longing the heroine had chosen – settled for, if you must call it that – the nice neighbor with whom she’d been friends for years instead of Mr. Super-Controlling Multimillionaire. Because I could have believed her happy with the neighbor, but the jerk? Not.
A famous example for a heroine choosing the less romantic lead is Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I have never liked Willoughby, as Jane Austen makes it abundantly clear he’s a selfish cad, albeit a charming one. But when I first read Sense & Sensibility, Marianne’s romance seemed too muted to me. It took a rereading some years later, and – I admit it openly – the appearance of the divine Mr. Alan Rickman in the role of Colonel Brandon on the screen to make me see that he is right for her, that his love for her is far deeper than Willoughby’s could ever be, and that Marianne has a far greater chance for happiness with Colonel Brandon. Is that settling? Possibly. But to me, it’s a very romantic story of a beautiful second love.
Do you like romances in which the heroine ends up with the less glamorous male lead? Do you sometimes like romances that are more muted than wildly passionate? How do you feel when the heroine chooses her partner both with her head and her heart? And how do you like Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon?