With the publication of Harlequin’s Famous Firsts Collection, I recently read two romances from the 1980s, Debbie Macomber’s The Matchmakers and Anne Stuart’s Tangled Lies. Though Tangled Lies has a suspense plot, it is less prominent, and it seems fair to consider both romances essentially contemporaries, albeit very different ones in style. After finishing both, I found myself pondering whether they seemed more timeless or dated to me.

On the whole, I enjoyed both books a lot, and the elements I consider a bit dated didn’t distract me too much. I especially like the fact that Dori, heroine of The Matchmakers, is a very strong and mature character who never hesitates to stand up to the hero and to face her own emotions. Gavin, the hero, felt more old-fashioned. He is a single father with a job that requires him to travel, so his daughter Melissa stays at boarding school. In addition, as a former football pro, he announces football games on many weekends, so Melissa has to spend those at school. I was okay with the boarding school – if there’s only one parent in a family, and that one has to spend a lot of time away, it may be entirely reasonable for the child to go to boarding school. But being a sports announcer on the side is a hobby. A delightful hobby, yes, but still extra. I would expect a single father who lodges his child elsewhere during the week to make that child his top priority when he’s not working. So this father, perceived uncritically as loving and devoted in a 1980s context, came across as rather selfish to my 2000s eyes. The same applies to his inability to support his daughter as regards feminine clothes and make-up. As single mother Dori attempts to encourage and share her son’s love for sports, I would expect a single father to make an attempt to go shopping with his daughter and to enter into her budding interest in fashion. All in all, The Matchmakers applies a double standard to single parents that obviously felt natural in the 1980s, but which, I found just slightly annoying today.

I thoroughly enjoyed the love and sex scenes in both novels. The Matchmakers is Kisses only, but the slowly increasing heat between Dori and Gavin is described tenderly and with a great sense of humor, so I didn’t miss a thing. The sex scenes in Tangled Lies were probably considered Hot in 1984 (they’d probably be judged Warm now), and though the heat and passion came across with all the freshness I could wish for, I was spared all clinical details and the techniques checklist that mar so many Hot scenes written nowadays. So if both novels felt slightly old-fashioned to me in this respect, it’s only because present-day fashion in romance sex often makes the sex seem dreary and unsexy to me. Give me more of Macomber’s and Stuart’s restraint any day.

The hero in Tangled Lies is very rough around the edges, being rude and even violent towards the heroine several times. As this is only my third Anne Stuart novel, I depend on other’s opinions here, but apparently this is trademark Stuart and not so much a throwback to bodice-ripper heroes. I should point out, anyway, that the violence he uses is not sexual – he holds her back once and grabs a key from her another time, hard enough to bruise her arms, but he never hits her. So although this didn’t endear him to me particularly, wasn’t quite enough to push a red button either.

The part in both novels that felt most aged was the ending. In The Matchmakers, after a period of separation, Dori and Gavin reconcile in a very moving scene in front of their children, and then he spoils it all (in my eyes) by asking her to marry him straight away. They haven’t even slept together, both have been married before, and yet there is this proposal, in front of witnesses, no less. Possibly a proposal at the end and no sex before was a requirement for Harlequin Romances in 1986, but to me it felt so incongruent that it pulled me straight out of my reading. Throughout the novel, Gavin is depicted as a very honest, yet at the same time deeply private man. He is not given to big gestures, nor is Dori the kind of woman who seems to delight in them, so the proposal didn’t seem in keeping with either character. It did seem tacked on, and it was easily the element that seemed most aged in the novel.

Tangled Lies’ ending is far worse. The ending proper is okay, and then cometh the epilogue. And behold, babies abound and the bad boy suddenly finds himself morphed into a writer who potters around the house delighting in unfinished DIY projects. Were he female, he should have been pictured wearing a housedress. This ending was so cheesy and out-of-place, that it seriously undermined the impact of all that had gone before and left me rolling my eyes instead of sighing at the passion and romance between the couple. No matter if this is what was was required by Harlequin guidelines in 1984, the epilogue firmly places Tangled Lies on the “aged” shelf.

For me, the most dated parts of the 1980s romances were the endings, which were too marriage-and-babies centered for my taste, especially as this didn’t really fit the characters, and to some extent the earlier presentation of ideal masculine behavior. Interestingly, I had no problems at all with the balance of power within the relationships or with the way they grew, nor did I find the women in any way submissive or self-effacing. I actually enjoyed the more restrained descriptions of sexual desire and sex dramatically more than I do in many 2000s romances. There are some things that work very well when room is left for the imagination.

When you read older contemporary romances, what are the elements that you find most obviously old-fashioned, both in a positive and a negative way? Can the same differences be found in historicals and paranormals? What pulls you out of your reading when you read an older romance, and what do you actually prefer to present-day writing?

-Rike Horstmann