The back cover of Lucy Monroe's The Real Deal proclaims:
"Like a classic Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn/Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie - but with plenty of steamy heat - Lucy Monroe's novel introduces a pair of delightfully sparring opposites whose undeniable attraction is about to take them beyond the edge of reason...and right into the throes of delicious passion..."
||With the front cover of this trade-size novel looking like a thoroughly modern Chick-Lit read and the back cover talking about Tracy-Hepburn and Day-Hudson, I could not pass up this book. Chick Lit may not quite be my thing, but if the author had somehow managed to bring in the kind of romance and humor I adored from those old movies, I figured this book might hit the spot.
I'm so pleased to announce that it did, most assuredly, hit the spot, but not in any way I'd imagined. This is neither a Chick-Lit/Romance hybrid nor a novel where witty repartee rolls off the tongues of its characters. Instead, this is a fairly intense romance between two outsiders who find a way in with each other. And while a good deal of its allure comes from the sexual pleasure Simon and Amanda give each other, there are many themes arising from this book that I want to explore.
And so we're doing a sort of experiment with this column. Long ago, in October 1997, I did a Laurie's News & Views devoted to discussion points on Dara Joy's High Energy. I'm going to try something similar here, but with a major difference. The author is joining me in the discussion.
But first, here's my take on The Real Deal:
After a disastrous marriage to a man who made her feel totally inadequate as a woman - and whose three-way with both a woman and a man finally precipitated her divorce - petite and busty Amanda Zachary is totally focused on her career. The only person in her life who loves and cherishes her is her best friend, certainly not her family. She's a junior executive who's managed to convince the head of a competitor's computer firm to merge with her own company, and her boss has entrusted her with closing the deal. Unfortunately, she's going to have to delay the champagne toast, because even though Brant Computer's president, Eric Brant, is all for the merger, his cousin, who runs the development end of the company, doesn't want to sell his family's legacy.
Simon Brant is devastatingly handsome - very tall, extremely strong and well built, with expressive gray eyes and long dark hair. He's also very much the loner geek (he earned his PhD by age nineteen). He immediately notices Amanda as a woman - and that he makes her nervous, which tells him she notices him as well, even though it seems she's hiding her femininity for some reason. Simon lives on an estate on a remote island in Puget Sound with his majordomo, Jacob, a retired Secret Service agent who is now part crusty "Uncle Charlie" (My Three Sons) and part gourmet chef "Mr. French" (Family Affair)...and Simon's most trusted confidante (aside from Eric).
Because of Simon's working habits, the only way Amanda can get time to convince him that the deal would be good for both firms is to pitch him at his island home. Simon's not big on the social graces. He works for hours on end in his lab, disappears at odd times, and given his physical strength and grace, it's a shame he doesn't have a clue how to connect with women, which is why his former girlfriend is now happily married - with a second baby on the way - to Eric.
Regular visits for meetings at Simon's home don't seem to be working - not even when Amanda becomes his Tae Kwon Do "dummy" and gets all hot and bothered in the process. Eventually it's decided that for her to do her job she must move into his home and see him during those odd hours when he's not working, swimming, or sleeping. The sexual chemistry between them escalates, but Amanda's so unsure of herself as an attractive woman that she misinterprets all the signals Simon's sending her, and since they're mixed anyway, it's easy to see why.
Amanda wants Simon - it's that simple - and even though she knows it's unprofessional to mix business with pleasure, it's the first time in her life she's felt real physical lust. Simon wants Amanda, and even though he knows it would cloud things to become involved with her, she makes him feel intense desire. Not only that, she inspires in him protective feelings, and an unusual need to understand her. As you might imagine, this sets the scene for many misunderstandings, mixed messages, and hurt feelings on Amanda's end before the two manage to get things right. And they get things right through a combination of physical intimacy, talking, understanding, and learning to trust. And even though Amanda is the character who lives in the "real world," she has farther to go in learning to accept herself, which, of course, must come before truly being able to love another.
Love scenes in many a romance don't actually propel the storyline. In The Real Deal they do. Amanda has no confidence in her sexuality - indeed, has never felt particularly sexual before - and because her ex-husband was such a bastard, it's not only her body she lacks confidence in, it's her ability to make love. Amanda brings out the pirate in Simon; think Tyber in High Energy, with intensity ratcheted up ten-fold. After one major misunderstanding Amanda plans to leave the island. She's stubbornly waiting by the ferry, which has already been delayed for hours, and refuses to go back to the house even if it means sleeping in her car until service resumes. Simon shows up and she dismisses him, saying, "I won't keep you," to which he responds, "Well, I'm damn well going to keep you," picks her up, and carries her away.
The misunderstanding I just mentioned was the first time I cried while reading this book, and quite frankly it's an epidemic. Not only did I tear up a few times, one of the only minor annoyances accompanying my reading of the book was that Amanda cried too often. Not big boo-hoo crying, but when she felt rejected tears would fill her eyes and often over-flow. Given her background it was understandable, but it got to be slightly too much.
Getting back to the love scenes...we know what ails Amanda, but Simon has a problem too. And while many a romance novel features a hero with, ahem, impressive attributes, the author makes the size of Simon's penis part and parcel of the story.
The Real Deal is a surprisingly sweet - given how sexual it becomes - and touching love story between two good people who've been waiting all their lives for someone to understand them and to accept the love they have to give. This is something Simon realizes, and when he experiences how precious it is, he goes to great lengths to prove it to Amanda, who returns the favor very simply in the end. And they lived happily, oddly, and "you-and-me-against-the-world" ever after.
Here are the themes I'll be talking about with Lucy Monroe:
- The Ugly Duckling or Faux Ugly Duckling
- The Enigmatic and Beautiful Loner Hero
- The Geek Hero
- Sexuality, Sexual Chemistry, Sexual Confidence, and Love Scenes
- The "Manaconda" (I'm very proud of myself for making that one up!) *
- Weird Words
- The Idiosyncratic Sidekick (crusty or otherwise)
- The Orphan or Orphan by Proxy
* 9/2008: I've been informed that somebody else came up with the term "manaconda" prior to me; it's the title of an Ellora's Cave anthology published in May 2004, almost six months prior to my writing of this column.
The Ugly Duckling or Faux Ugly Duckling
Amanda's ex-husband told her she needed breast-reduction surgery, monitored every morsel she put in her mouth, and forced her to exercise at least an hour a day. Simon thinks she's perfect - petite even - which may explain why he sweeps her off her feet quite literally more than once and carries her around. By the end of the book Amanda is confident in her charms as a woman.
Amanda, like many a romance novel heroine before her, is an Ugly Duckling, although I think she's more of a Faux Ugly Duckling - a woman who needs encouragement and perhaps a slight make-over to get her out of those boxy suits and shine as a beauty. Other variations of the Ugly Duckling Theme are these: the plain heroine who attracts the hero despite her looks; the plain heroine who is nonetheless beautiful to the hero; and the plain heroine who, over the course of the story becomes beautiful in the hero's eyes. Mary Balogh's The Obedient Bride fits that first variation while Denim and Lace by Patricia Rice fits the second. Kimberly Cates' Stealing Heaven is an example of the third. And then there is the beautiful swan who pretends to be an ugly duckling, but we won't get into that because self-esteem is the issue at hand.
I asked Lucy about the theme and its variations. Here's what she had to say:
First, I will tell you that my favorite heroines are usually the ones who do not recognize their own beauty. Whether they are homely in a physical sense, but beautiful inside, or both, they touch a chord deep in me as a reader. I think Lynne Graham and Amanda Quick are my favorite authors for this type of heroine.
You see, I believe that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder and the heart of the person being beheld. I don't think false beauty (as in outward perfection with an ugly soul) fools people of any depth for very long. Which is why I have such fun as an author exploring this particular theme. The moment of truth for both the hero who sees the beauty of the heroine and the heroine who finally acknowledges her own value in some way are extremely satisfying moments to put to paper. Since I believe that you do not have to be society's idea of physically perfect to have a loving man see you as a goddess among women, I write these scenes not as someone exploring fantasy but as an author putting what I see to be truth before readers I hope will share my vision.
The Enigmatic and Beautiful Loner Hero
Simon lives in his head and hasn't a clue how to live like normal people. Very few people know him, let alone understand him, and he seems fine with that. As a result he lives like a hermit, but it isn't until Amanda comes along and melts the ice covering his soul that he realizes how important it is that he no longer be alone. Simon's good looks totally blindside Amanda, who not-so-jokingly suggests that he lives as he does in order to keep the groupies away. He seems to have no idea how good-looking he is, and if he does, he doesn't seem to care about it. All he sees in himself is an oddity; certainly not a man to love.
The vast majority of romance novel heroes are devastatingly handsome, so Simon's not alone there, and many a romance hero is a loner, often because of great hurt in his past. I know I'm attracted to handsome loner heroes because I feel I married one, although he didn't have a great hurt in his past. And yet I still joke around with him and say that had I not come along, he'd be living in a cave somewhere. I'm sure many woman feel that way about the men in their lives; women seem naturally more gregarious in their "gatherer" role. Hunting, as we know, is often a solitary activity.
Mysterious heroes are a staple in romance novels; indeed, the Gothic hero is mysterious, and the Gothic hero is also a loner. Whether he's isolated on the wind-swept moors or secreted in a fortress...or lives on a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest, a man who isn't easy to read is a challenge many women want to tackle. And while the enigmatic hero is not necessarily dangerous, he could be. Simon, for instance, is physically very strong, a master of martial arts, and collects antique swords. Think perhaps of Duncan MacLeod as an absent-minded professor and you'll be able to picture him.
So what does Lucy say about the beautiful and enigmatic loner hero?
Yum. Seriously. I married one too and sometimes his physical perfection just blows me away and he is so unaware of his appeal. Simon is very much that way and it gives him the depth he needs to be heroic rather than an egoist. The appeal of this type of hero is the lack of over-inflated ego, in my opinion. It's the difference between Mel Gibson and Will Smith. Both are beautiful men, but Mel is almost embarrassed by the way women see him while it's very obvious Will eats it up.
As a reader, I love the danger element...it gives depth and it tells me that no matter how "introverted" a hero may come off at first, he's a man who can take care of his mate. It's very basic, very primitive if you like, but extremely satisfying for the reader all the same. Perhaps there is a part of us that likes to see the more primitive relationship between the male and female on a level we allow ourselves to be comfortable with. As a writer, I have a lot of fun with the types of stories I can write using this type of hero. They are very different from the stories where the hero is perfectly aware of his appeal. I write both and find satisfaction in doing so, but to match heroes and heroines you need the right balance and sometimes that calls for what you call the beautiful and enigmatic loner hero.
The Geek Hero
Simon can work in his lab for three days straight, then collapse on his bed with his clothes on...or off. He may wake up in the middle of the night and work out for two hours or abruptly walk out of a meeting or meal to finish an experiment, much to the bewilderment of those around him. He lives in his head and doesn't understand the emotions of those around him; as a result he cannot maintain a relationship with a woman. His island home is a construct that gives him what he wants - safety and acceptance - and it isn't until Amanda comes along that he realizes he can have those things with another person.
The Geek Hero is such a delight for readers that we maintain a list of romances featuring nerds, geeks, and absent-minded professors. Intelligence is a key component of a man's attractiveness to a woman, and the fantasy of transforming a man who lives in his head to also live in his heart is one that warms the cockles of many a female.
I've enjoyed several books starring geek heroes, including Jane Ashford's The Bargain, Leanne Banks' A Date with Dr. Frankenstein and Expectant Father, Dara Joy's aforementioned High Energy, Jayne Ann Krentz's Trust Me - and who can forget SEP's Dexter O'Conner from Lady Be Good, a character who took a secondary role and played it to the hilt? (There's actually more on him later.)
Here's Lucy on the Geek Hero:
Just reading the words "geek hero" puts a smile on my face. I love 'em. Trust Me is one of my favorite books! I've got this t-shirt that says "I love nerds" and that about says it all for me as a reader, doesn't it? I'm drawn to books even by authors I've been disappointed by in the past if they have a geek or nerd hero. Writing them and achieving a believable balance with the alpha characteristics that are incorporated in the heroes that make themselves known to me isn't always easy, but it is always worth it.
Sexuality, Sexual Chemistry, Sexual Confidence, and Love Scenes
Amanda is so unsure about her sexuality and her ability to "do sex" that initially, the only way she feels comfortable with Simon is to play captive; after all, when one is tied up one cannot "mess up." And her previous lack of sexual desire makes it almost understandable why she's never experienced something I think most women take for granted these days. The love scenes these two share truly advance the story, and all sorts of consequences get explored as a result.
Many readers have a "take it or leave it" attitude about romance novel love scenes. The two best romances I've read this year, The Real Deal and A Family for Gillian, represent that inner polarity. The latter is a traditional Regency, kisses only, thank you very much, while the former is filled with lovemaking. Both, though, feature moments when the chemistry - and sex - between hero and heroine are absolutely critical to the story's development.
Many of the book's revelations come about as a result of the sexual chemistry between Simon and Amanda - and her refusal to accept that the attraction between them is mutual. Simon may be a loner geek, but he accepts himself as a man, which at first makes it difficult for him to understand why Amanda isn't similarly accepting of herself. But as the story progresses, Simon's ease with his masculine identity, along with his intelligence, aid him in helping her understand and eventually revel in her desirability as a woman.
In a way, Amanda is a variation on the Buttoned-Up Librarian - the Buttoned-Up Businesswoman - but her backstory is so thoroughly fleshed out that she is in no way a caricature. I asked Lucy to explain the myriad layers of sexuality in her book. Here's what she had to say:
This is a question that rarely gets asked in this particular way...with the acknowledgement that sensuality in a book isn't always optional, that the love scenes can (and I think should) move the story forward both in terms of the emotional arc of the story itself and the personal growth of the characters. I believe that lovemaking is an incredibly important element of a strong, healthy relationship. You'll notice I didn't say sex. It's a matter of semantics that is really quite important.
You can have sex without love, but not lovemaking and it is lovemaking that will deepen a healthy relationship. A relationship can start with sex and that's one level of sexuality, but it is the emotion sparked by the sex and/or lovemaking that really moves the story in another direction and layers the levels of sexuality in a story. You begin with one layer...the attitude each character has about their own sexuality and the sexuality of others. You move to another level when those characters begin to share that attitude through both overt and covert communication and reach another level when they act on those attitudes. Human sexuality exists at so many levels for each of us, that should be true of the characters in our favorite books as well. In my opinion, Susan Elizabeth Phillips reveals each layer of her character's sexuality superbly and shows the overwhelming emotion connected with each layer in a way that both readers and other authors trying to analyze her work cannot miss.
Remember Dexter O'Conner, the secondary hero from SEP's Lady be Good? Right before he and Torie become intimate, he tells her, "If, at any time, my size bothers you, please say something at once." He's not talking about his height, and when she actually sees what he means, the always-talking-back Torie is speechless with astonishment.
Prior to The Real Deal, that's always been my favorite scene involving the Manaconda. It's almost become passe to read a romance featuring a hero sporting an extra-large package. I often wonder why, because most women don't react to penises in the way men react to breasts. Simon's penis seems to be of pornographic proportions, and it's an issue of some concern with him. His first youthful relationship with a woman ended badly when he discovered just why she was sleeping with him, and though he is otherwise very certain of himself as man, he hides this part of himself from Amanda when they are naked more than once. It's not only that he doesn't want to hurt her, he doesn't want to scare her.
Why did Lucy decide to make the Manaconda part of her story, and how did she determine to make it an actual issue?
First and foremost because this is how Simon came to me. Characters are so real to me and as they make themselves known in my head, they often have characteristics that surprise me, but Simon's larger than average penis wasn't one. It is symbolic of having what society often alludes to as male "perfection" turned back on him and making it a handicap. It was his side of the pseudo ugly duckling issue. Beyond that, it symbolized his larger than life masculinity. Not just his physical masculinity, but the essence that makes him a man.
Symbols in fiction come in many shapes and sizes, but in romance we see the Manaconda (cute term by the way) often as representing a hero who is quite simply more than your average guy. It's not about being bigger, it's simply about being more. More strong. More reliable. More honorable. More courageous. More all the things that make a hero a hero. We see the same symbolism often portrayed in taller than average heroes, those who have muscles that are enviable and those who are smarter than your average genius. It is one more way of defining the mythic heroic archetypes so important to our genre. And quite frankly, I've done a lot of lay counseling with women over the years and the "too big" issue is much more common than we allude to in polite conversation, particularly early on in a relationship when sexual chemistry is so new and the level of arousal at a higher pitch resulting in a bigger hard-on for the man. This is where sexual incompatibility can become a serious issue that has to be dealt with...but that's another question and not one you asked.
This summer during RWA's national conference I introduced myself to author Jennifer Greene, whose eyes sparkled when she reminded me that we've referred to her writing as filled with "Jennifer Speak." Having read The Real Deal, I'd say Jennifer has competition for writing unusual and colorful prose. Here are several samples I noted:
- "He flicked a glance to the water in her hand..."
- "His mouth quirked."
- "The snick of unlocking doors sounded...:
- "He started reefing off his clothes..."
- "...sending a skirl of pleasure through her..."
Being a person who loves words - and loves making them up - I got a kick out of these instances in particular and asked Lucy about Lucy Speak:
LOL Well, I adore language, read dictionaries for pleasure and the whole idea of Lucy Speak has me grinning hugely. I'm always looking for a new way to put something and sometimes it comes off right, sometimes not...but I always have fun doing it.
The Idiosyncratic Sidekick (crusty or otherwise)
Amanda has Jillian, the soap-opera actress who is her best friend, fierce protector, and the only person Amanda could rely on in her life until Simon came along. Simon has Jacob, who found him at a low point in his life and serves nearly the same function in his. Many romance novel leads are alone in some way; they are orphans, only children, or on the outs with their families. Without families, friends or older mentors often fill the void. In Amanda's case she was an unexpected child who never received affection from her family, or her ex-husband - only from Jillian. As for Simon, his mother died when he was a child and though he was an adult when his father died, he'd been on his own for years, having gone to college at age fifteen. Jacob is more or less a stand-in as both mother and father.
Jacob is unusual, to say the least. A former Secret Service agent who now runs Simon's estate, he also has a subtle hand in running interference for Simon's lack of social graces and his inability to understand human nature. He is a master of his surroundings, adopting various tones of voice and behavior to do his job, something no doubt honed in his government service. His comments percolate in Simon's head until he acts, and his protectiveness of Simon eventually extends to Amanda. He also has the odd habit of using people's full names when they aren't necessary: "Thought you were supposed to convince him about that merger Mr. Eric Brant wants."
A strong and loving sidekick can make an already good read a great one, while a grating sidekick can knock a good read down a grade. Here's Lucy on sidekicks:
Secondary characters...sidekicks...gosh, they are so important. Like my central characters, they make themselves known and I revel in writing them. There's just so much fun we have together, these characters who are not being beset by the emotional hurricane surrounding our central characters. Sure they play their role, but they give the reader and the writer necessary breaks at times from the emotional intensity of a story.
I'm taking a stab at this because I've never really analyzed it, but I think the difference between grating and enhancing is not only the likability of the sidekicks, but also the depth of characterization. We just watched Agent Cody Banks II and were so disappointed...everyone was a caricature and it became literally painful to watch the story unfold as one stereotype character after another walked on stage. The first Cody Banks was very entertaining with some powerful writing...but the second relied almost entirely on "formula" and yes, the secondary cast grated on my nerves like a metal file in the hands of a prisoner bent on escape.
The Orphan or Orphan by Proxy
Earlier I mentioned that many a romance heroine or hero is, like Jane Eyre, an orphan. I consider those who are on the outs with their families to be Orphans by Proxy. Either way, there is generally (at least) one person in their lives to mentor them or otherwise provide the sort of family they've never experienced on their own. It's this relationship that keeps the "orphan" from being entirely alone. At times this is their lifemate but in other instances it's the sidekick discussed above.
Regardless of whether or not these are true Orphans or Orphans by Proxy, the creation of such characters provides an automatic sense of empathy from the reader. A true orphan may have grown up on the streets or in foster homes; an orphan by proxy may have had to leave home too soon to escape a wicked step-parent. In The Real Deal Jillian provides for Amanda the type of acceptance and love she never knew in her own family while Jacob protects Simon from being hurt by those who don't understand such an enigmatic man.
One of the main reasons we read romance novels is to experience the sense of family they provide; almost every Nora Roberts fan will say one reason they read her is because she does families - in particular, brothers - so well. I'm fairly certain that I love Sea Swept as much as I do stems from Anna being an Orphan by Proxy and from the wonderful sense of family Roberts created with the Quinn "brothers."
I asked Lucy about the Orphan and Orphan by Proxy and here's what she had to say:
There's a lot to be said for the instant empathy a reader gives an orphan, but it is also true that the backstory that leads up to the orphan state is usually made up of emotionally powerful moments. It's harder to write a tortured hero for instance if he was raised by two really neat, really normal people who are still in his life.
For me, the orphan state comes naturally as a part of character development and I actually find myself having to work harder at characterization and conflict for characters that come to me with an intact family. Perhaps that is because it is so much easier to write a story focused on two main characters when one or both characters doesn't have a family that demands screen time. Any book written about my family would have to be women's fiction because as strong a relationship element it could have, nothing and I mean nothing happens in a vacuum with me and my sisters. We share in raising our kids, taking care of our mom, striving to be the best wives and friends we can be. The stronger the element of extended family in a story, the more careful the author has to be to maintain the natural balance of the romance...but that's just my opinion.
On Books We Love That Aren't Perfect
After I read The Real Deal it stayed in my mind for days, and I kept going back and re-reading certain scenes over and over. And yet I couldn't decide whether to grant this book DIK status or a grade of B+. My reticence of DIK status was that this is not a perfect book. There are clunky moments - even some of my favorite scenes feature clunky writing. Then too, there's that whole sex angle; was I re-reading the love scenes (among others, many others) only because they were hot?
Actually, yes and no to that last question. Some were undoubtedly hot, but there were clunky moments in two of the love scenes. What ends up in the large bathtub after Simon and Amanda take a bath together had me hoping they'd jump in the shower to clean up, and while I never used to like the term "cl_t" - either in shortened or long form - I've gotten over that and now have a new pet peeve term: "labia." (And, surprisingly enough, I find that other word erotic now - go figure.) Then there are those "engorged tissues"...you get my point. And once in a while the dialogue seems stilted, as when Amanda refers to not fitting in well in Southern California where she lives. But when added up, these clunky moments pale in comparison to the tremendous number that are extremely effective.
In the end this one earns DIK status because I can't remember the last time I wanted to relive the reading experience over and over again. I wanted to experience what Amanda feels when Simon declares he's going to keep her shortly after she felt so rejected and humiliated that he didn't want her, and to experience those moments when Simon talks to Amanda about feeling odd-man out in the world except when he's with her. I loved those moments when Simon finally made connections between Amanda's insecure behavior and how he wanted her to see herself (as he saw her) - as entirely lovable.
I also mentioned earlier that the book deals with consequences throughout, of becoming personally involved with someone you're involved with in a business relationship - and of what can happen if you indulge yourself entirely in sexual passion. This is not the first time I've loved a book that others did not, but I'm particularly unsure how other readers are going to respond to this one.
While I wasn't able to announce this column's content previously so that some readers might read The Real Deal before-hand, the themes discussed are common to romance novels, which means it's not at all necessary to have done so. By all means let's expand the conversation and explore other books you've read and enjoyed (or didn't), and whether or not some or all of these themes are ones you gravitate toward/away from in your reading. I've tried to provide a good start, and Lucy Monroe added further dimension to each talking point. And if either my love for the book or Lucy's responses to my questions encourage you to read it, I hope to hear how well you liked it (The Real Deal at Amazon).
Finally, I hope we can talk about flawed books you love regardless; it's a relatively unique experience for me to go that extra step in granting a book DIK status when it's not just about a perfect read. So, what books do you love that aren't perfect?
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the topics up for discussion this time:
- The Ugly Duckling or Faux Ugly Duckling
- The Enigmatic and Beautiful Loner Hero
- The Geek Hero
- Sexuality, Sexual Chemistry, Sexual Confidence, and Love Scenes
- The "Manaconda"
- Weird Words
- The Idiosyncratic Sidekick (crusty or otherwise)
- The Orphan or Orphan by Proxy
- On Books We Love That Aren't Perfect
I look forward to your discussion on any or all of these talking points on our Potpourri Message Board.
|TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books and Lucy Monroe
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