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Mainstream or Women's Fiction?
A very strong historical romance writer, Patricia Gaffney, debuted in hardcover contemporary fiction this summer. Some call her novel mainstream fiction whereas others call it women's fiction. The Saving Graces is about four women and the times they share with one another as the best of friends. Each woman is a Saving Grace because together they saved a dog, named her Grace and adopted her. There are men attached to these women as well. One woman is in a marriage where her husband is a control freak. Another has fallen in love with a married man. A third is driving her husband crazy with her obsession over their failure to conceive a child. The fourth is divorced from a long term womanizer, battling breast cancer and lives with a man as opposite from her former husband as possible. Gaffney manages to keep all of these balls juggling in the air beautifully and bring them to the ground in a very satisfying resolution. Some of the women do end up with the right man and others, thankfully, don't end up with the wrong one. This is an intensely personal book. You can picture yourself, your friends, the author herself perhaps, as characters within the book. It is that universal and realistic. The focus is definitely on the four women though and the men revolve around them instead of dominating the story in their own right.
The Saving Graces is now tied with the author's To Have & To Hold in my A+ list of books. The two books couldn't be more different, and yet, each is excellent. To Have & To Hold is a Victorian historical romance with the incredible love-him or hate-him Sebastian Verlaine as hero. Gaffney meets all the tests of constantly escalating the tension between the leads who are front and center for that entire book. In sum, The Saving Graces is oranges whereas To Have & To Hold is apples. You can't really compare them but you can appreciate both being excellent. Like Phillips, Gaffney can write in two different formats.
One difference we can draw between the genre of romance and women's fiction is that in the romance there is room to render the hero is every detail. You can discover every nuance and facet of him throughout the novel. One does not have that luxury in women's fiction. If the hero is very important to the reader, this is one difference which may matter to her.
Gaffney's cover, by Harper publishing, on The Saving Graces elicited a strange response according to my local librarian. She said all the women patrons really liked the novel but they were a little irked by the cover. The cover is a beach scene. It looks like a very good photo transfer to me which oftentimes has the same effect as a painting. The readers at the library felt that a beach scene should only have been used if the whole story took place at the beach. Part of the story does take place on a Cape Hatteras beach. However, the rest of the book occurs in suburban Washington, D.C. It never occurred to me before that if you put a landscape on the cover that this meant that the entire story had to take place there. It didn't bother me to have the beach in only part of the story. I would have preferred some image which tied into the The Saving Graces more particularly, however, perhaps of them saving the dog all together.
I asked around to see why I didn't receive any nominations for this cover since other scenes of places were nominated for best contemporary cover 1999. The response was that this cover just didn't do enough, wasn't exhilarating enough for them. Perhaps the publisher was looking for an image which might please everyone somewhat but, more importantly, would offend no one. It is a mindset we encounter all too often on book covers with a female audience in mind. As beach scenes go, I thought it was a pretty good one if you'd already decided to use an image of a place. I can't fault the artistry of it either. The cover designer for this novel was Honi Werner.
People On The Cover
I recently discovered Diane Chamberlain as an author of women's fiction. The first books I read of hers, all fairly recent, also had locales as their covers. I kept going through her backlist until I hit a paperback edition of Keeper Of The Light, published by Harper's in 1992. This novel became my favorite Chamberlain, as did its cover. It is also the hardest one for me to decide whether it is a romance or women's fiction. Harper's calls it fiction on its spine.
There are four primary actors in the plot. One of them is dying, which sets the other three into action. Olivia is the emergency room doctor who tries to save Annie's life when she is shot. However, Annie took several bullets in the heart and dies on the table. It is Annie's widower, Alec, with whom Olivia gradually falls in love.
Further complicating matters, is that Olivia's husband, Paul, the third character, was having an affair with Annie right before her death. This is not really a coincidence because Paul kept secret from Olivia that the reason he wanted to move to this town was to see Annie again. Olivia doesn't know he and Annie went to college together and were a couple then. There are more twists and turns in this plot but Olivia and Alec remain very dominant characters who are falling in love throughout the book, although they face enormous hurdles.
The cover, done by artist/illustrator Roger Kastel, shows everything going on in the story by having key images on the front and stepback. The lighthouse is the source of Annie's secrets, which gradually unfold. The other three characters need to discover those secrets in order to move on with their own lives. Thus, we see Annie's pink profile cutout on the front cover looking at the lighthouse, which is visible from the stepback. In the two page stepback, there is a flip image of Annie but in full color showing her red hair and her stained glass art work. The stepback also shows Olivia and Alec in the water near the lighthouse. This is one of their early dates. It's somewhat of a clinch but it really doesn't bother me since it doesn't show on the front cover. If Chamberlain has another cover like this on a later book of hers, I haven't seen it.
Breaking The Silence is a 1999 women's fiction novel by Chamberlain published by MIRA (part of Harlequin/Silhouette). The lead character is Laura. There are many other characters, all of whom will have an ultimate, life-altering impact upon Laura. The story opens with Laura's much older husband killing himself in their home while she is away. Unfortunately, Laura's daughter, Emma, is in the house when this occurs and from that moment on refuses to speak. Laura's husband was not Emma's father and Laura contacts Dylan, who is the real father, to help Emma break through the silence. However, Dylan is not able to penetrate it; the story must go all the way back to an old woman, now confined in a nursing home, who was involved in some frightening experiments in a mental hospital years ago. This is a hard novel to put down, there is so much going on, but the accent is as much on this plot as it is on the unfolding romance between Dylan and Laura. This story does not quite hit those high romance notes which Olivia and Alec hit in her earlier work.
The cover has bold, eye-catching colors with red and gold dominating. However, the image is not much. It is simply a view of the front of a house and its front yard with a fence and two trees. It does nothing for me. This image repeats on the spine and the back in smaller form. No artist/illustrator is credited for the art work. This is another cover which vaguely pleases everyone while offending no one but I like it much less than the beach scene on Gaffney's novel. There are an incredible number of contemporary romance and women's fiction novels with houses on the front cover similar to this one. Far too many for my liking. I bought this novel because I had read an intriguing review about it and not because of its cover. There is a wonderful scene in the novel where Dylan and Laura are in his hot air balloon (Dylan owns and operates a hot air balloon business). Seeing that image on the cover, perhaps high over the countryside, would have been more appealing to me.
A very recent entry into women's fiction is Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married by Marian Keyes from the UK. The novel contains a lot of humor which worried me initially because I often don't get British humor. To my delight, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Lucy is a twenty six year old Londoner who lives with two other women. She and some friends visit a fortune teller who predicts Lucy will be getting married - the husband, she warns, will turn out to be someone very unexpected. Daniel, the hero, is a great guy, Lucy's best friend, great looking and admired by her friends. Lucy thinks, however, that the unexpected man is Gus, who she meets one night at a party. Lucy has been attracted to men like Gus before because he is an alcoholic; her father's alcoholism has made her codependent. Lucy won't admit, even to herself, however, that her father is an alcoholic.
The fact that the novel deals with alcoholism isn't what makes it women's fiction because we've seen Mary Jo Putney do that very effectively in the Regency Romance The Rake & the Reformer and later in the re-written historical romance, The Rake. What makes this book women's fiction for me more than any other factor is that during a big chunk of the book, Lucy is with Gus while Daniel is with Lucy's roommate, Karen, in sexual and dating relationships. Of course, this also presents a good deal of humor. And, Lucy and Daniel are not directly in rising conflict with one another throughout the novel, often the hallmark of a romance novel. This story is far more about Lucy and all of her relationships than about Daniel and Lucy as a potential couple.
The cover for Lucy Sullivan is the only one where I have received a nomination for it as best cover and nomination for it as worst cover for 1999. I find this cover rather campy; it reflects the offbeat humor of the novel itself. Lucy is inside the fortune teller's crystal and dressed up for the prediction: her wedding. She even has an expression on her face which seems to say, "All right, what's going on here, where is he?", which captures the tone of the novel. Since the cover reflects the actual novel so well, I believe it works. The cover was designed by Nadine Badalaty and illustrated by Lee McLeod for Avon books.
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