Sunday Salon: A Little Romance

In graduate school, I worked for a professor who told me she had an aunt who believed romance novels had ruined her life. Now I can’t remember if the aunt had been married multiple times or not at all, but I suppose either one could feel like ruin to the right person. Whatever she took away from those books, it was not anything that could sustain her in the real world. I still think about the aunt from time to time, especially when I cruise past the aisles marked “Romance” at the book store, and I wonder, how many other women are there like her?

In junior high and high school, I read plenty of romance novels. I read Danielle Steele, Colleen McCullough, Susan Isaacs, Rona Jaffe, and Sidney Sheldon. As an English major in college I abandoned those books for the requisite Russians and other general Western lit fare, even though I still re-read some of them secretly. (Almost Paradise by Susan Isaacs was a particular favorite of mine. Isaacs can be laugh-out-loud funny.) And then there was grad school. Most graduate students in English think romance novels are the lowest of the low, and not even up for discussion, certainly not in a writing class. By that time I’d sold the few romances I had left, and stuck to a strict diet of modern short fiction and novels as prescribed by my peers.

Right after I moved to Atlanta, a co-worker learned I was an aspiring writer and invited me to a romance writing workshop at a Piccadilly Cafeteria. You had to pay a couple hundred bucks (not sure if this included any Piccadilly fare), and in return you got a sort of template for writing some series romance novels and a day-long workshop. Because I had a babysitter long ago whose idea of playing with me was to have me help her act out her Harlequin Romances with my Barbies, I could guess how this might work: a lonely heroine with mousy hair, a wallflower; a handsome mysterious stranger with a wounded heart and a past; a red-headed, man-eating rival. They’re in Italy, or a castle on the Moors, or perhaps on a cruise in the Bahamas. Lonely wallflower not only turns out to be stunning (sassy gay co-worker or best friend talks her into getting a makeover), but she beats the redhead at her game and gets the guy. I politely declined.

While I’m still not interested in writing romance novels, I am much more interested now in why people read them. As an aspiring writer, I want people to read my work, but at what price? And how far am I willing (or would I need) to go? Although I suppose I’ll always gravitate toward literary fiction as my first choice as a reader (and a writer), I am trying to branch out and read some genre fiction: mystery, science fiction, and yes, romance. In the last month I’ve read three novels that could classify as romance in some sense, three novels that give me a sense of paths to take as a writer:

Luanne Rice, Summer of Roses. I found a recommendation for this book here. This thriller writer said romance wasn’t her thing, but she thought this book was well written as far as romances go, so I thought I’d try it. (Confession: I don’t read thrillers either, but I’ve put this writer’s first book, Isabella Moon, on my TBR list. I’m branching!)

In a nutshell, the heroine has gone into hiding with her young daughter to escape an abusive husband. While she’s in hiding, she nurtures a relationship with a kind but wounded (both literally and figuratively) man, and together they find love. They are drawn away from their safe haven when the evil husband returns and tries to kill the heroine’s beloved grandmother. Another story intertwines with this one, as the detective who brings the heroine out of hiding develops a relationship with another woman who’s hiding (in the same place, just so happens) from the same abusive man.

Truth be told, I couldn’t finish it. Still, this was some of the cleanest prose I’ve seen in a genre novel. Rice doesn’t even fall into the “-ly” trap. You know: “She said hotly,” or “He remarked disparagingly.” She also does a lovely job with the scenery, and the pacing and suspense were perfect. My main problem was the…well, it was the…I guess that it was just so…emotionally overwrought. And a little bit contrived. Okay, a lot contrived. The wounds are too large (and too many) and the recoveries are too pat, and it’s all very dramatic. I wonder, genuinely, what attracts readers to these types of books?

Jeanne Ray, Julie and Romeo. Probably you can work out from the title that this book follows along the same plot lines as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Julie and Romeo are two single sixty-somethings who own rival florist shops in the same small town outside Boston. Their families have been enemies since everyone can remember, and everyone’s more than happy to keep it that way–except for Julie and Romeo, who are in love and looking for a way to be together.

I’m not sure where a book crosses over from romance into chick lit (a debate in-and-of itself), but this book works either way. Julie narrates the story in first person, and her voice is so convincingly real and humorous that the thin plot is not a problem. Instead, it’s more like having a girlfriend dish her relationship over a glass of wine. Her problems are real problems–a failing business, getting back into the dating game after thirty-something years of marriage, buying sexy underwear for a first date–so she’s relatable. I wonder if that’s the key for me: the situation in Rice’s book seemed so far-fetched, I simply couldn’t relate to it, no matter how well-written it was.

Alice Hoffman, The Ice Queen. Remember (you know, a few paragraphs ago) when I said that the plot for Summer of Roses was too emotionally overwrought? The Ice Queen could’ve easily fallen into the same trap, but for some reason, it didn’t. The story begins when the narrator is a child. She wishes never to see her mother again, and the same night her mother dies in an accident. The narrator comes to believe she has a strange power to cause harm to people through wishes. As an adult she wishes to be struck by lightening, and she is. The story follows her romantic relationship with another lightening-strike victim, and also her relationship with her estranged brother.

In some ways, this plot is just as contrived as Summer of Roses, but for some reason, it works better, and I think the simple reason is that the narrator is not a stock character, and the voice is unique. The main character in Rice’s book is interchangeable with any of the hundreds (thousands?) of characters in romance novels. The narrator in Hoffman’s story has a particular tale to tell, and only she can tell it. And also, the self-consciousness of the narrator (the character is unnamed throughout the book) and her situation:

“What was the difference between love and obsession? Didn’t both make you stay up all night, wandering the streets, a victim of your own imagination, your own heartbeat? Didn’t you fall into both, headfirst into quicksand? Wasn’t every man in love a fool and every woman a slave?”

She knows her ardor is overwrought, and this makes her believable in a way that Rice’s characters are not. The romance, the trouble, everything in Summer of Roses is too stock–but then, perhaps that’s the point. With stock characters, it’s easier for the reader to insert herself in the story than if the main character is unique. Maybe that’s where my professor’s aunt ran into trouble: she wanted too badly to live inside a romance novel, and the books made it too easy for her to do so.

*images from Sunday Salon and amazon.com

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