At the moment I’m reading The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie, but I stopped, because I was so embarrassed at a main character’s actions. Do you know this phenomenon? You read a novel about a character you generally like and admire, and at some point the character acts in a way that makes you feel deeply embarrassed on his or her behalf. When this happens, I am usually pulled out of my reading, and often the book languishes for days, even weeks or months on my bedside table before I pick it up again, if ever. So feeling embarrassed about otherwise likable characters can be a serious hindrance to my enjoying a book.
Archive for the ‘Rike AAR’ Category
On the whole, I don’t mind seeing variations of the same old plot in what I read. Well, I do read plenty of genre literature after all! The finesse and/or psychological depth in which a well-known plot is handled can actually enrich my pleasure in reading a great deal. That said, there are a few plotlines out there that I would really like to retire for a couple of years or so, and which may very well keep me from buying a new publication unless it’s by an autobuy author.
Recently, I reread Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March. It’s a book I’ve read with great pleasure before; this time I was particularly struck by the way the relationship between the poet Catullus and society lady Clodia is portrayed. He loves her with all his heart and writes great poems to her and about her; she sometimes admits him as her lover and spends time with him before jilting him again in favor of a rival. The novel leaves no doubt that Clodia is cruel and capricious; however, at this reading, I suddenly felt that I understood her right to jilt him, and her urge to do so. In spite of the undoubted depth of Catullus’ feelings, it is quite clear that Clodia does not feel as deeply for him. Yes, she might have treated him with far less cruelty, as Caesar points out to her, in ending the affair. But for the first time, my reaction as a reader was sympathy with her desire to regain her autonomy in the face of Catullus’s overwhelming love and of his general wonderfulness.
Recently, I sorted some of my bookshelves. Truth to be told, I mostly did it in order to procrastinate doing some other work, but when I had finished, I was really pleased: The books looked so neat, with many from the same publishing house standing next to each other, and next time it won’t take me ages to find a specific book. An added bonus, I unearthed my copy of Meg Cabot’s The Boy Next Door, which I had been hunting for the last two years and which I accused both my sister and my father of having borrowed and forgotten to return.
A friend recently started a book club, and I was delighted to join. Sure, what I like best to read are romances and mysteries, but to include one book per month that was outside my usual reading range sounded like a great idea. So far we have met twice, the one book I have read until now was not quite to my taste, but still interesting to peruse, and I like other participants, all women. None of the other women read romance extensively, although one is like me in that she openly and unabashedly prefers happy endings. The other thee women are more into literary fiction, with some women’s fiction and detective stories added. So far, so good. There is only one thing that is driving me up the wall.
Sandy’s recent blog entry about Bad Boys made me think of the Bad Boy’s counterpart, the Bad Girl. To qualify as a Bad Girl, it’s not enough for a heroine to simply be strong, independent and kick-ass. No, like her male equivalent, she needs to be selfish, pleasure-seeking, careless of others, wasteful and possibly promiscuous. She may be tortured because of a terrible childhood or a disastrous marriage, but she may not act the way she does because she secretly supports her seven minor half-siblings or the whole village – no martyrs here, please!
On the weekend that started off this year’s summer vacation for us, two of my husband’s oldest friends came to stay. They are very dear people, but when they left Monday morning, my husband told me that he was really looking forward to finally getting some time for reading. I understood him perfectly well, as one of the highlights of each holiday and vacation, for us, is getting uninterrupted time for reading.
When you suddenly find yourself with hours to spend on books, it can be quite an adventure of its own to choose one’s reading matter. There
are lots of titles on all of our TBR shelves, and if you go traveling during your vacation (and don’t own an e-reader of sorts yet), the decision of which books to pack can take considerably more thought than what clothes to put into one’s suitcase. During the years, I have taken books of several different catergories on vacations.
WARNING: This article contains spoilers below the cut for Someone Like Her by Janice Kay Johnson.
Last weekend, I wrote a review for Janice Kay Johnson’s contemporary romance Someone Like Her. While I liked many aspects of the book a lot, I felt the relationship between hero and heroine to be unequal, and to some extent this spoilt my pleasure while reading, and my belief in the HEA. Two days later, my mum phoned me and told me about a situation involving a relative, and I couldn’t help wondering if his marriage, also an unequal relationship, might have something to do with it. (Mind you: Both my cousin and his wife are lovely. It’s just that there is a very obvious imbalance in their marriage.) So I am inclined to take this issue rather seriously, and it makes me wonder how it is treated in romances, which are about relationships in all their facets.
Last week, I talked to two stunningly attractive men. There I was, happily married and all, just talking to them, and came out with my toes tingling and a broad smile on my face because that’s how hot they were. Because this happened within two days, it got me thinking about what made these men so very attractive. One is a colleague, and admittedly he is tall and dark, but he is definitely balding and deals with this by shaving his head. The Jean-Luc Picard look, if you want. So he is passably good-looking, if you like that style, yet what makes him breathtaking is not his looks, but the way he deals with you. His gift is true attention to people. He enjoys talking to you, and smiling at you, and while he does so his expression tells you he really values and likes you. And it’s not on the surface: He remembers what you spoke about weeks later, and comments on it. He is genuinely interested in people, not afraid of showing it, and shares his own opinions and experiences openly. Talking to him always cheers me up, because he gives me the present of his concentration and approval.
The second man I talked to, a college student, used to be an awkward adolescent, but when I met him last week I could only think how much he’s grown into himself. He is not at all conventionally attractive: He is of middle height, stockily built, just a tad overweight, with features too pronounced to be considered handsome. Yet he stood there, and glowed with energy just beneath the surface, with good humor and with self-confidence. He knows who he is and is happy where he is, and when you see him, you get the impression this energy he has may lead you into a great adventure. (If you wonder about my enthusiasm: My second boyfriend had the same sort of attractiveness, so I know what it feels to be fascinated by a man like that.) Add to that the courtesy and generosity that stems from true self-assurance, and he becomes nigh irresistible.
I am positive these two men get a lot of female attention – I know my colleague does. Yet you won’t find many men like them between the covers of a romance novel. Partly I think this is due to marketing pressures, partly because – pardon me, authors! – they are far more difficult to write. Because it is far easier to insert “tall”, “dark”, “handsome”/”rugged”, “brooding” than actually take the time to develop a character who has the gift of true attentiveness, as my colleague, or that of joyful energy, as the college student.
Thinking about these men (and very pleasant that was!) made me consider romantic movies I’ve watched recently. I haven’t been to the cinema lately, because none of the romantic comedies that were on really attracted my interest. Instead I watched a number of DVDs, often together with my husband. Romantic movies that stuck to my mind are: Sideways, with Paul Giamatti; Garden State, with Zach Braff; Punch-Drunk Love, with Adam Sandler; and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with Jim Carrey. None of these actors has the kind of looks that are celebrated again and again in romances. None has the kind of (screen) personality, either. Yet I found these films delightfully romantic and loved the male leads, with all their no-more-than-average looks and their foibles and eccentricities. I do not particularly care if an actor is physically perfect to enjoy his performance. I have been known to watch a film just because it stars Mark Ruffalo, whereas I avoid anything with Matthew McConaughey in it. So where are the Zach Braffs and Paul Giamattis in romances? Are there any?
If you are looking for unconventional heroes, AAR offers three Special Title Listings: one about Beta Heroes, one about plain and ugly heroes and heroines (Beauty Is in the Eye …) and one that includes heroes and heroines with a physical defect (Less Than Perfect). On the second list, heroines by far outnumber heroes, whereas on the third, numbers are about equal. So it appears that a physical defect is acceptable in both romance heroes and heroines, whereas plainness or actual ugliness in a hero is not tolerated easily. Even writing a blond or red-haired hero, a short or a stocky hero seems to be a risk not many authors are prepared to take. Are we readers really so single-minded, so bound by convention that we insist on tall, dark & handsome, no matter what?
Getting back to the two men who impress me so much, can I come up with romances that feature heroes with their kind of attractiveness? An attractiveness, which, when I encounter it in real life, makes my toes curl and thus should be equally appealing when I read about it in a romance?
The joie de vivre and energy exuded by the college student are comparatively easy to find, if still rare. Rupert Carsington from Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible comes to mind instantly, as does Tristan, Duke of St. Raven, in Jo Beverley’s St. Raven. Yet these men are still described as extremely handsome, with the usual dark good looks and a tall, muscular physique. Where’s my stocky, medium-sized hero that has the same sort of charm?
I am hard pushed to discover an example of my colleague’s brand of attractiveness in a romance. The one character I can come up with is Gervase, Earl of St. Erth, in Georgette Heyer’s The Quiet Gentleman. He wins over his hostile family by listening to them and by getting to know them, and he is extremely good at paying attention to the heroine’s concerns. And he has this smile. He is as good-looking as most heroes, but at least he’s blond. I’ve liked him a lot since I first read the novel at age fourteen.
So, fellow-readers, what real-life characteristic in a man make your toes curl, and are there romances you can recommend that feature a hero of this kind? Do you know of any other heroes of the sort I describe here? And authors, if you read this blog: Have you written about unconventional heroes, and what have the audience’s reactions been to them? Can we encourage you to write more of these heroes? Please?