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At the Back Fence Issue #137

April 15, 2002

We’ve been talking about romance novel unreality in the last couple of issues of At the Back Fence, and Robin spins that wheel again in a new direction with this issue of the column. She takes a look at unwed mothers in series romance, and with a synergistic two-step, Suzanne Brockmann responds to Robin’s segment in a Write Byte on Harlequin/Silhouette, the company that publishes 75 or so series titles each and every month. With the help of author Sally Tyler Hayes (aka Theresa Hill), we’ll begin a discussion of the Guardian/Ward Romance, after which I’ll share our mini-poll results on the Desert Isle Keeper.

— Laurie Likes Books

Those Unwed Mothers (Robin Uncapher)

As a former literary fiction snob, I’ve put aside many of my old prejudices concerning romance novels. Clinch covers, heroines falling out of their bodices, 30-year-old billionaire CEOs – I read’em all. When people tell me “I hate those romance books,” my first reaction is to ask how many of “those books,” they have read and to talk about some of the wonderful books that are my favorites. Though I started with traditional Regency Romances and went on to read mostly historicals, books in almost all the sub-genres sat in my tbr pile.

There was only one real exception to this which was the “baby book,” those series romance sporting pregnant women and/or babies and young children on the cover. Though willing to read series romance with millionaire CEO heroes and amnesiac virgins, I drew the line at baby books. Why did I groan at the sight of these titles? First off, I don’t find babies particularly romantic. My kids were born many years after the wedding and I associate the first year with a new baby with being in love – with the baby, not with falling in love with Dad for the first time. Second, while not wanting to preach about this, I am a firm believer in the idea that married people should be the ones having babies and that, though accidents happen there is nothing in this world less romantic than an accidental pregnancy.

Then, this year, without warning, I found that I was reading a surprising number of books with accidental pregnancies. The first was Judith Duncan’s Murphy’s Child.

Murphy’s child is the story of Jordan Kennedy and Murphy Monroe. The story opens when Jordan, who inexplicably broke up with Murphy a number of months before, arrives at the construction site of his contracting company and announces to him that she is pregnant. She tells Murphy, rather coldly, that she is letting him know that she is pregnant so that he can share in the life of his child. Murphy, who is still in love with Jordan, would love nothing more than to patch things up, but Jordan makes it clear that it is not an option. Murphy may participate in the child’s life but not in hers.

Things change considerably when Jordan actually has the baby. Murphy is astonished when he arrives at Jordan’s apartment to see that she is disheveled and exhausted, a very typical new mother of a colicky baby.

What makes Murphy’s Child both interesting and realistic is that you can see the way that taking care of a very young baby would make a very controlled, closed person have to lighten up and even ask for help. Jordan may want to be the perfect Mom and do it all herself, but sleep deprivation and worry about colic have warn her down. Murphy moves in to help take care of the baby, and well, you can guess the rest.

By strange coincidence, just as I was finishing the book my postman delivered the Suzanne Brockmann title I had long been searching for. It was Everyday Average Jones and sported (!) a pregnant young woman on the cover. In front of her stands a Naval officer in dress whites who holds what is very clearly and engagement ring box behind his back.

Everyday Average Jones starts off with a bang. The heroine, Melody Evans is a hostage in a U.S. Embassy. Navy SEAL Harlan “Cowboy” Jones rescues Melody, goes through a couple of hellish days with her, and finds himself in a passionate affair. Reading this I had to admit that if there is an excuse for having unprotected sex, being relieved that you haven’t been killed by terrorists is probably one of the best.

Then, on returning home, Melody cuts off the affair. It’s not that she doesn’t like Jones. She’s crazy about him. But Melody would like a husband who is out there mowing the lawn on weekends not running off to scary places whose names she is not even allowed to know.

Jones drops in on Melody for a visit, finds she is pregnant and starts his long, persistent campaign to marry her. Melody, who has enough money to stay home with her baby until he reaches kindergarten age, is determined not to marry “just because she is pregnant.” Though I could see her point in a theoretical kind of way I was like every other reader rooting for Jones every step. I knew that deep down in her heart Melody was not facing the truth which was that she and Jones were meant for each other. When I finished the book I was grinning ear to ear.

Murphy’s Child and Everyday Average Jones had some things in common and some differences. In both books the pregnancy was accidental and condoms were the only form of birth control that anybody seemed to consider. In the former the condom broke while in the latter, the couple found themselves without a condom at a critical moment and things seemed to get away from them. Jordan seemed older and more mature than Melody. From the start she decided that telling Murphy about the baby was the right thing to do. It was right for the baby and it was right for Murphy. Jordan also had a few real world problems. She needed to go back to work when the baby was six weeks old (a very short time as any new mother will tell you). The baby’s colic was realistically portrayed with everyone totally exhausted.

The realistic feeling of Duncan’s story contrasted with the more fantasy atmosphere of Brockmann’s. Melody experiences what I think of as “funny” pregnancy symptoms. She is constantly throwing up, so much so that the entire town is used to seeing her car pulled over on the side of the road. Reading Melody’s symptoms wouldn’t make anyone not want to be pregnant.

Both Melody and Jones think a lot about the fact they made a stupid mistake having sex without protection. I had the distinct feeling that writer Suzanne Brockmann, felt in a bit of a quandary basing a book on this kind of behavior, and wanted to make sure that any girl reading it would know that the characters regretted it. Though as a reader I understood this, I knew it was hopeless. No matter what Brockmann said about it, the reader knew that this accidental pregnancy was the best thing that had ever happened to these two people – though they couldn’t see it at the time.

By contrast, Jordan and Murphy seem to treat the accident as just one of those things. Given the fact that, unlike Melody and Jones, Jordan and Murphy had an ongoing relationship I didn’t understand this. Jordan is portrayed as something of a control freak, so it was surprising to me that she wasn’t using the Pill or insisting on two forms of birth control – not just condoms.

I started wondering about this idea that “accidents happen,” that women wouldn’t be using two forms of birth control. Is it possible that series baby romances, without meaning to do so, are inadvertently glamorizing unprotected sex; that they are implying that a woman who plans for sex is just a bit loose?

Then, in one of those weird coincidences that sometimes happens, I started noticing all the babies and accidental pregnancies showing up in the books I read in 2002. I’d read twenty-one books so far this year. Most were published before 2002 but in the last five years. Of those two have been historicals, two women’s fiction, ten were contemporaries, Eight were series romances.

  • There were 5 unwed mothers total
  • There were 6 births – 5 of which were definitely accidents. The 6th is a pregnancy that is mentioned years later, the reader is not sure if the pregnancy was planned – only that the couple was not married
  • Both of the women’s fiction books featured unwed mothers
  • One of the single title contemporaries featured an accidental pregnancy and couple that married for that reason. These were secondary characters.
  • Two of the series titles featured accidental pregnancies. One of these titles contained two accidental pregnancies, the second of which happens when the couple are reconciled and planning to marry.

Hmm. Reading contemporaries sure was different.

I couldn’t stop thinking about both these books – they were terrific. Though I seldom rate series romances an “A” I would have given a “B+” to Murphy’s Child and an “A-“ to Everyday Average Jones. They were excellent, fun stories.

Why were they good? Why did they appeal to such a large group of women? Thinking about this I was reminded of the days when I lived in Brooklyn Heights, New York and had first had a baby. I had lived in the neighborhood for fourteen years but when I had a baby it was like a whole new neighborhood. Women in the Arab grocery stores complimented my baby, women on the street stopped and told me to put a hat on him (which he immediately threw off). The deli man gave him a free cookie. The lady at the supermarket checkout gave me her cure for colic.

Babies bring all people together, especially women. Baby stories are free of the kinds of errors that show up in books about the police, business and travel. For a writer its an easier story to write. A baby book doesn’t need an external plot, the baby itself is a big enough story to carry the book.

I would recommend them to most people. In fact I recommend them now…except….

Except that it was starting to bother me that there were so many books with similar stories on the market and that many of them were implying inadvertently or otherwise, that having a baby by accident was a romantic thing. Worse yet, both of the plots I read implied that pregnant was a way to get a man to commit. In Everyday Average Jones, the hero admits that he would never have considered marriage unless the heroine was pregnant. In my opinion, for the most part, married people should be the ones having children. No this doesn’t mean that gay couples shouldn’t have children or that many single mothers aren’t excellent at it.

But, by and large it is better for everybody involved if Mommy and Daddy get married before junior comes along. In fact when I think of the least romantic things in the world, getting pregnant by accident is right up there in the top ten. I realized that I had been thinking about this for sometime with regard to baby books but hand had hesitated to write about it mainly because, I guess, I don’t want to be seen as some kind of prude. I’m not a prude, but in thinking about these books I started to wonder about how very young girls might view the romantic aspects of an unplanned pregnancy.

And what was bothering me was not that talented writers like Suzanne Brockmann and Judith Duncan chose to write about unexpected pregnancies. What bothered me was that this kind of book has become a whole sub-genre in itself. You could say that books are just imitating life. There are a lot of illegitimate births in this country but since when do romance novels reflect the real difficulties of real life. Melody has enough money to stay home with her child until he or she is five! Jordan does have a few money worries, and plans to go back to work after six weeks but there is no mention of her childcare problems, usually a new single mother’s first and biggest worry.

Romance novel unwed mothers often forgo telling the father. Child support payments are either rejected or not mentioned at all. Abortion might as well not be legal (I’m not saying a heroine should choose it but few heroines even think about it.) Giving a baby up for adoption is similarly ignored.

So I posted on the PotPourri Message Board asking if this was bothering anyone else.

Wow. I guess it was.

The first person to post was Janet who made some comments that I thought about all through the discussion that ensued on the Potpourri Message Board and canwetalk. She wrote:

“I don’t think you are a prude at all. I have often bemoaned the recent tendency of ‘oops, I had sex by accident for the first time in my life, and now I’m pregnant’ in romances, (especially series).”I mean, these are supposed to be intelligent women! But they never say, ‘No, not all the way until we pick up some condoms and spermicide.’ It’s always, ‘My God, I’ve never felt this way before… ooops, just had sex with (insert Hero’s name)! Oh, how could I?’ (And they never seem to think of getting the morning after pill.)

“And I have wondered why, in a genre with a mostly female audience, abortion or adoption is never even considered. Not once. In fact, it is always Evil Bitch/First Wife who had the abortion. (And we all know what happens to them, don’t we?)

“This is just an example. I don’t want to start a flame-throwing debate on a very emotional subject, I just wonder why it is never really addressed. I have read one book where heroine considered it. (And her husband immediately leapt on her and called her selfish, just because she dared to have doubts about having a child at the age of 42.)

“And adoption. If the heroine gives up her baby for adoption, (no matter how poor or young she is) she must always be punished for it. She must spend years denying herself any joy in her life.

“And when the stud who impregnated her and forgot about her comes back! ‘You chose to go to college and get an education and a career? How dare you not keep my child and live in utter poverty for 18 years, while I made my fortune and cavorted with super-models?’

(He never stops to think that had he been up diapering baby all those years, he wouldn’t have his fortune.)”

I was so interested in what people had to say on this topic that I posted it on canwetalk as well. (Although we adhere to a confidentiality of posting on canwetalk, those involved in the discussion waived confidentiality for this column.) Lots of people posted on this topic, first posting on the accidental/unwed pregnancy issue, but then the discussion changed focus to the many issues that make having a baby such a challenging thing in our society – and the way romance novels do and don’t deal with those challenges.

The first thing people started to mention was the fact that in this society there is no longer a stigma attached to being an unwed mother and that, perhaps that is one reason the books are accepted. LLB made this point in saying, “We live in a P.C. world where the social stigma has been taken out of being an unwed mother. While I’m very pleased that a child born outside a marriage is no longer tainted with the ‘bastard’ moniker, I can’t help but think that – old fashioned as it sounds – married people should be making babies.”

This lack of stigma crossed my mind as well. It’s a tough question. Those of us who grew up in an America where high school girls were expelled from school for being “in trouble,” and “a bad influence,” while their boyfriends went on to continue without stigma didn’t really feel comfortable with the issue. Those days were terrible in many ways and yet, there really was a benefit.

LLB also mentioned that the cluelessness of modern heroines can be annoying; she was raised to be in charge of her body’s health and well-being, which included knowledge of birth control after reaching puberty. She added: “I can’t say I’ll offer my daughter the Pill as my mom did when I went to college, but she’ll know, as I did, that having an unplanned – and unwed – pregnancy will limit career achievement. And given that unprotected sex today can kill you, I think the “oops, I had sex by accident for the first time in my life, and now I’m pregnant’ romances don’t reflect our modern world today; Harlequin in this way seems stuck in a time warp.”

Another question that came up on the Message Board was something that started me wondering. Are romance novels a repository of traditional values on the female role in life? When I first began thinking about the baby books my thought was that having a baby out of wedlock is hardly a conservative thing. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to wonder. In using the word “conservative” here I am not (nor are others) saying that romance novels are pressing a conservative political agenda. Hey I just got through writing an ATBF about the left-wing anti-business slant of many romance novels set in businesses – so I am not saying that there is some Republican conspiracy afloat whose purpose it is to oppress women in the form of romance novels.

No, in thinking of romances as conservative I mean that the way that many of the books, especially series romance view the role of women. How are many of the baby romances painting a traditional role for women?

Nice girls don’t plan for sex; it just happens to them with their true love – Few romance heroines in series romance take responsibility for their own birth control or seem to have ever heard of the Pill. After reading a bunch of series romances I get the distinct impression that “nice girls” don’t plan for sex though nice heroes do. In many, though not all, of the books I’ve been reading lately it is pretty common to have the hero telling the heroine that he isn’t prepared. She is often too absorbed in passion to have remembered! In series romance in particular condoms are the only form of birth control mentioned. And can you spell s-p-e-r-m-i-c-id-e? Nobody having sex in days of AIDS should be having sex outside of a serious monogamous relationship without this.

  • Babies are so little trouble that only selfish women worry about supporting one while they work – Romance heroines either mysteriously find they have enough money to quit work for five years (like Melody in Everyday Average Jones) or find they have a wonderful doting extended family that can’t wait to take care of the baby (as in Murphy’s child) or they figure they will work part time mysteriously being able to support a child on less work than before (as in Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner). Women who use daycare are vilified almost as an afterthought.
  • Careers are for selfish women – In the world according to romance novels women have careers for self-fulfillment, not to pay the bills. Very few series romance novels include women with serious careers. The idea that a woman would have a serious career because she wants to educate her children and have them live in a comfortable home, is simply not addressed. There is often a careless “yes, we could have more money if I worked but I love my kids too much.” There is never a “yes I could stay home and enjoy my kids but I’d like to see them in college.”
  • Heroes allow heroines to work but they don’t really want them to – One great myth of romance novels is that heroes “allow” their wives to make choices based on the woman’s happiness – not the bills. One conflict that never arises is the husband who wants the wife to work, to pay half the bills, and the wife (or unwed mother) who wants to stay home. Though I know lots of couples with this conflict I have never seen one in a romance novel.

On the Potpourri Message Board Kelly wrote a post that indicated that her mind was running the same way. She wrote:

“I get the feeling that romance novels, in many ways, are a repository for a lot of conservative values. (Or perhaps traditional might be a better word.) The abortion issue is definitely an example of that – as others in this discussion have said, it’s never considered and those women that do have abortions/think of it are usual evil in some way – the abortion is used as a way to illustrate her poor character. Adoption is another issue – the heroine self-flagellates for most of the book, even though it usual is the least selfish option. (I can think of one book, albeit historical, that had both a guilty heroine (she gave her child up for adoption) and an evil mistress who died while having an abortion – I got a definite “punished for her sins” vibe.) It seems that for a large part, the only ‘acceptable’ solution for a woman to reach is to raise her baby.”Also, I’ve read a couple of books in the past few weeks where the hero feels he must marry a woman – do right by her, as it were – because she is pregnant. I am all for accepting one’s responsibility, but what about child support and visitation rights? Shotgun weddings, in my opinion, only lead to trouble down the road.

“This hasn’t touched on the number of virgins, women who didn’t enjoy sex when they tried it, lack of masturbation, use of a little thing called a birth control pill, or, as someone else mentioned, the morning after pill when the condom breaks….

“I am not saying that because I am pro-choice, don’t think sex outside of a totally committed relationship is a bad thing, and think that marriage probably isn’t the best way to ‘do right’ in all circumstances I am right about all of these things, they are my beliefs. However, I know I am not the only woman to think this way, but the bulk of romance novels written (at least that I have read) do not seem to reflect these viewpoints. Society is changing, and I don’t see the romance novel industry changing with it all that much. I am not saying that indiscriminate sex without consequences should be portrayed or celebrated, I just wish that contemporary set novels would age their value system to something a little less 1978 and a little more 2002 to more accurately reflect the times we live in.

“Let me finish by saying I don’t mean to offend anyone or imply that whatever beliefs you hold are outdated or wrong; my point is that society as a whole is changing somewhat and I wish that every now and again, the fictional world of the romance novel would reflect that.”

The more I have thought about this the more I have thought that Kelly is right that traditional might be the better word to use to describe the way that women in romance novels are portrayed. And it does seem strange to me that a genre that would promote such values would also publish story after story about unplanned pregnancy. Frankly the whole thing is pretty creepy, to me, because accidental pregnancy is the story of a woman who didn’t want to be in the mother role being thrust into it rather than choosing.

Having spent the last few weeks talking about this topic on the Potpourri Message Boards and canwetalk, I find that I’ve learned a lot, and thought a lot about many different points of view on this topic. But wherever I go with it I am left wondering.

Should there be so many series romance novels based on the story of an accidental pregnancy? Are publishers encouraging these stories too much? Is the reader with traditional feelings about a woman’s role the only one who is being catered to by romance publishers? Am I, a forty-seven year old career woman who once enthusiastically championed a wonderful daycare center-part of their target audience? And, is series romance giving women the message that planning for sex is unfeminine and unromantic?

Like the ad says: Inquiring minds want to know. This is an open-ended discussion and I’d love to hear how all of you feel about it.

As I pondered all of these questions I wondered how Suzanne Brockmann felt about them. I sent her a copy of this segment and asked for her comments. Her response was so frank and interesting that it warranted an adjunct but stand-alone page. We hope you’ll link to Suzanne’s Write Byte on unwed mothers, birth control, and other musings on Harlequin/Silhouette.



The Guardian/Ward Romance (LLB and Sally Tyler Hayes)

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a thread on one of our message boards requesting titles with “Gigi” themes. A reader asked: “I just saw the movie Gigi (1958 with Leslie Caron) again the other day. Can you suggest some stories with that same theme? (Hero knows the girl as a child and falls in love with her after she has grown up?) The only one I could think of was The Emerald Garden by Andrea Kane.”

Interestingly enough, I had just read Sally Tyler Hayes’ Her Secret Guardian, which featured a hero who had been watching over the safety of the heroine since she was a youngster. The heroine is a doctor in a “Doctors without Borders” type organization. At the start of the book she is contacted yet again by a mysterious man in the dark who always appears and warns her when the country she is working in is about to become too volatile and dangerous for her to stay. She has never seen this man in the light of day and though his accent is different upon each meeting, she knows it is he and feels a connection.

Little does she know that he’s been looking out for her since he was a young military officer. He does make an off-hand comment that she’s grown up to be a beautiful woman, which clues her in to the fact that he knows something of her history. But though the tension between these two is so thick you could cut it (think Linda Howard chemistry – it’s that powerful), he has done everything he could to keep his identity a secret while always protecting her.

Because he was already a grown man (he was 24) when he first saw the heroine as an 11-year-old girl, he didn’t have any feelings for her other than protective ones. Then she grew up and he came into contact with her during those episodes in which he warned her of those unsafe situations. She doesn’t know, of course, any of this, or that he’s often been behind the scenes assuring her ability to get to safety. All of which are very good things, because if the author hadn’t carefully laid this groundwork, Her Secret Guardian might have had an “ick factor.”

Though I’ve been a fan of Leslie Caron in American in Paris and Daddy Long Legs, Gigi was never a favorite movie for me. Somehow the idea of raising a young woman to be a courtesan (other than in the movie Dangerous Beauty) will never be a favorite premise. But as long as we’re speaking of Daddy Long Legs….

The idea of an older man and younger woman does not necessarily turn this reader off. I know it does for other readers, but my general concern is to worry about the woman being alone after her much older husband has left his mortal coil. I’ll even go so far as to say that the Guardian/Ward Romance – in general a small sub-set of the older man/younger woman group of romances (not always, but in general) – is something I’ve enjoyed in the past, but only if certain things do or do not occur. Even so, the thought of this premise is so problematical as a general rule that it is the one and only Special Title Listing we have wherein there is no graphic to accompany it.

For me to enjoy the Guardian/Ward premise (whether or not it’s an “official” guardianship), first and foremost the hero must not have “had an eye on” the heroine as though he were “waiting for her to grow up” so he could have her. This is an automatic no-no for me and has been since I read Catherine Coulter’s Devil’s Embrace. From what several readers have said, Diana Palmer has utlilized this premise from time to time, and it’s a turn-off for them as well. Though in reverse, the fact that the heroine in Suzanne Brockmann’s Admiral’s Bride fantasized about the hero when she was a teenager has always bothered me, specifically because the fantasies she had were not a grown woman’s fantasies, but the fantasies of a young girl before her sexual awakening. Then one of the following scenarios must be in place:

  • The guardianship must be a relatively new phenomenon to either or both the hero and heroine
  • The two must never have met before the legal relationship had formed and the heroine is for all intents and purposes already an adult
  • One or the other (or both) is in the dark about the legal relationship.

This final scenario fits one of my favorite Guardian/Ward Romances – Teresa Medeiros’ Once an Angel. In Once and Angel, the hero washes ashore an island and the heroine soon realizes he’s her guardian but keeps it a secret, allowing them an idyllic period before they are forced to return to London and her identity revealed.

Once an Angel is most definitely a fairy tale romance, and the author says her inspiration came from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (a terrific book and wonderful movie as well!). Though the premise is outlandish, its fairy tale rendering and pathos make it a wonderful read, a true DIK for me.

There is no “ick factor” in it, although had the hero known who the heroine was and she didn’t, I’d have screamed “foul!” While there is no legal guardianship in Hayes’ Her Secret Guardian, it is the hero who knows who he is to the heroine…so why wasn’t it icky that they fell in love, particularly since he’s known her since she was a child?

That’s the mystery to me, and the best reason I can come up with is what I always fall back on when something works for me that shouldn’t: the skill of the author.

I decided to ask Sally Tyler Hayes about this. Here’s what she had to say:

My first defense of any romance involving a connection between the hero and heroine that stems from childhood has to be Deborah Smith. She does it, and does it so beautifully, how can anyone not love it? Obviously, I’m not talking about a hero who’s a young man or even in his late teens salivating over a little girl. But there’s more to love than salivating, and so many times, the best love relationships start out as friendships. Childhood relationships can be so intense. If you have trouble in childhood and have just one person who listens or understands or is on your side when you’re weak and have little power and are confused, it can mean so much. Which sets up the possibility for very intense relationships and very intense loves.

Read Deborah Smith’s A Place to Call Home or Silk and Shadows. The hero is the heroine’s champion, and she is his. That’s such a powerful idea. Relationships like this have to change as the main characters grow up, and eventually sex does come into it, but as I’ve seen in so many books, the sex part is something that hits the hero over the head at some point, when that little girl he’s always admired is suddenly turning into a woman. Next thing the hero does is stay very far away, telling himself absolutely nothing like that is going to happen between them. Which usually lasts until the heroine grow up enough to attack him, and then she’ll either get rejected cruelly and fear that he never saw her as anything but a friend, or they’ll end up in bed and she’ll probably get pregnant. Guilt, regrets, all sorts of bad feelings come into play, and they’ll be apart for years, until he comes back to town much later and finds that she’s had his child, and they all end up together.

I’ve loved both kinds of stories. I’ve written both. I have to admit, romance is not always politically correct. I don’t think it ever will be. Does it need to be? After all, something that occurs in a book is fiction – it’s not real. Doesn’t that give the author some leeway to creating something that we wouldn’t necessarily want in real life?

Here’s an odd example of what I mean. Some friends and I were discussing a recent episode of Once and Again, where a teenage Grace has a painfully obvious crush on one of her teachers, played by Eric Stoltz. I have no idea what the age difference between the two is, but it’s not a small one. He’s certainly in his thirties and she’s about 17. We can tell he’s a good guy from the way he’s treated her; we know he’s going to do the right thing and not cross any of the lines he shouldn’t. That’s what makes him hero material, remember. Haven’t most of us probably been Grace? Can’t we all remember at least one older guy we knew as high school girls, one guy we somehow developed a crush on, and even though nothing ever happened, we sure wish it did? We remember how painful it was to watch Grace wanting him – not to have sex with her – but to smile at her in that special way, to take her hand in his…. To be waiting for her one day when she does grow up and he’s no longer her teacher.

Those of us talking about it were all ashamed to admit it, but couldn’t quite help ourselves. So while Eric Stoltz was doing the right thing – staying away from her and staying in teacher-mode, we were all at home silently wishing he would kiss her. That he didn’t of course, sealed the deal for us – he was a hero, he did the right thing, he treated her kindly, but oh….

Of course, if Grace on the TV show was our daughter, we’d have been shocked and outraged. But knowing she’s a character on TV, we see blossoming romance and teenage angst and longing, and the romance reader in us thinks about what we’d like to see happen. Which brings me back to the fantasy…these thoughts and premises aren’t real so why can’t they be both fun and sexy?

And I remember now I’m supposed to be talking about my Grace in Her Secret Guardian. I didn’t set out to make much of any connection between them when she was a child, but as stories grow, you never know where they’re going to take you. At first, all I knew was that Grace had suffered a terrible loss, that she didn’t trust anyone, that she had no ties with anyone, except the people she met through her work. She was completely rootless. And I knew Sean was watching over her, but I didn’t know why. Deeper into the book, I knew she’d lost her family and that it happened when she was a child. That Sean had some connection to that event and that he felt responsible for her. So, there was the relationship that started when she was a kid, but there was nothing sexual there.

Much, much later (so much later I felt really stupid that I didn’t see it earlier) I figured out that Sean not only felt responsible for what happened, but that he’d been rescuing her from the very first. That he’s the one who pulled her out of that demolished building. That she had a very vague memory of him doing that and sitting by her hospital bed as she recovered. Even more, that she’d taken solace in that memory of him, retreated into it whenever things got bad, even though she’d never gotten a good look at his face or known his name. He’d become the one person she actually trusted, that she remembered helping her through the worst time in her life. Think about how powerful that connection is.

I know you’re thinking of him knowing of their connection and her not knowing gives him more power than she has, and that the power thing is part of the ick factor.

But we’re not talking about a man having power over a child. We’re talking about two adults, and adults find power in a relationship in all kinds of places. I don’t think it’s ever truly all in one person’s hands or the other. If one person has all the power and uses it carelessly and ruthlessly, then that person’s a jerk, and we wouldn’t write a romance with a person like that, anyway. If the first person uses that power in some jerk-like ways, but is falling into something that seems a whole lot like love with the other person, then the other person has a great deal of power over the first.

So, with Sean, he does know more, but the things he knows have him completely trapped. He can’t walk away from her, because she’s in trouble and he’s sworn to always protect her, and he can’t let himself fall in love with her, because there’s no hope of it ever working out. Because when she knows everything he’s done, he doesn’t believe she could ever forgive him, much less love him. He definitely doesn’t have a great deal of power there. Grace is pretty much of a mess, too. She wants him in a way that scares her. She’s fallen in love with a man who’s like a mythical being to her, and now she’s confronted with the flesh-and-blood man who’s even more attractive. But she’s lost too much and doesn’t let herself do love at all.

Maybe that’s the answer to why it works – they’re both such a mess. Seriously, I think it works because you feel like you know Sean, the man. You know he’s honorable and brave, that he will do anything to protect Grace, and that he will be harder on himself than anyone else ever could be. In other words, he’s a hero.

Now, I’m scared to tell you the next part, but I have a May-December book out right now, with a big age gap between the hero and heroine, and it strikes even closer at the ick factor in other ways which I won’t explain because it would bring up spoilers in the book. I worried and worried over the age gap and the other thing, but so far I’ve only seen one person who was uncomfortable with either and I’ve had a lot of people say they loved it. So, give it a chance. If you want to debate that one, I’d be happy to. (Do I dare mention, the book I just turned in features a hero and heroine who met as children?)

The Desert Isle Keeper (LLB)

About 300 readers took part in our most recent mini-poll, which asked how many romance Desert Isle Keepers they had. The poll results are surprising, perhaps only to myself because I made a boo-boo in some of my own assumptions in framing the question. The results are next, followed by some analysis.

I don’t keep romances I’ve read, even if I’ve loved them 5%
15 votes
I’m the pickiest romance reader in the world with 1 – 5 DIK’s 3%
11 votes
I’m incredibly discriminating & have 5 – 10 DIK’s 8%
23 votes
Many romances are good but not many are great; 10 – 15 DIK’s 9%
28 votes
I have a nice collection of 15 – 20 DIK’s 6%
18 votes
I’m proud of my lone keeper shelf of 20 – 30 DIK’s 7%
22 votes
I’ve been reading romance a long time & have 30 – 40 DIK’s 6%
19 votes
I fall in love with particular authors; I have 40 – 50 DIK’s 9%
28 votes
I’m a very enthusiastic romance reader & have 50 – 75 DIK’s
30 votes
I love falling in love with romance & have 75 – 100 DIK’s
10 votes
What can I say? I have more than 100 DIK’s!
83 votes
(Total Votes – 287)

As the results began to come in, I realized I’d underestimated how many romance Desert Isle Keepers most readers have. Had I not done so, I would certainly have created more categories for the “more than 100 romance DIK’s” catch-all that account for 28% of the total votes cast. This incorrect assumption was based on my own reading experience that has more or less been validated over the years – with one (albeit major) exception – which I’ll explain.

Most romance readers I’ve come to know read a great number of DIK’s in the initial year or two of reading romance, after which the number drops dramatically and remains far lower. Since this was not only my experience but that of most people I’ve talked to, I mistakenly also assumed that the number of DIK’s granted in that first year or two was not only my experience, but that of most other romance readers as well. Kathy, for instance, writes that she’s been reading romance for eight years and awarded DIK status more often early on than she does now.

I’ve since determined that the number of romance DIK’s I awarded in the first year or so of reading romance was in fact lower than it was for many other readers. Where I awarded DIK status roughly 20 times in just over a year, many other readers awarded far more than this, particularly if they fell in love with certain authors and glommed them during this period. ATBF co-columnist Robin Uncapher, for instance, glommed Mary Jo Putney, Mary Balogh, and Julie Garwood in her first year of reading romance, accounting for many more DIK’s than I experienced that first year.

Kathy’s experience of glomming onto backlists during the initial phase of romance reading is similar to Robin’s. She writes, “Once I discovered an author I liked – Garwood, Balogh, Putney, Kinsale – I devoured everything on their backlist.” While I did some of that myself, reading Garwood’s entire backlist (backward, I might add), I did more glom buying than glom reading.

Not all readers experience such a slacking off of DIK’s either. Maggie, for instance, awarded DIK status a dozen times for historical romances in each of three years. After a slacking off, she discovered contemporary romance and the DIK’s she’s awarded increased yet again with her glom reading of authors such as Suzanne Brockmann, Linda Howard, and Jayne Ann Krentz. Then too, readers like Jess point to sites such as AAR for pointing her toward more DIK’s than she’d been finding on her own.

Also, there’s some discrepancy in what exactly constitutes a DIK, and what exactly constitutes a romance. When I read a book (romance or otherwise), I know by the time I close the back cover whether or not it’s a DIK. I’ll either tell myself the book’s the best I ever read, that I’ll want to read it over and over, or will simply run to my computer, open BYRON, and plug in a grade of A-, A, or A+. There’s only been one instance in the past 8 years of romance reading where I didn’t know at the time that the book was a DIK. Some years later a reader sent in a DIK Review of the book that inspired me to re-read it and the book became a DIK for me as well.

Similarly, I know what I consider a romance novel and what I don’t. Usually – but not always – the spine holds the biggest clue, but sometimes the spine will say “fiction” when it’s really a romance (some of Nora Roberts’ releases come to mind). But most of all I rely on the answer to this question: “Is the book a genre romance?” In that way I know that Janet Evanovich’s Loveswepts were romances but that her Stephanie Plum series is not.

But I’ve been learning that what’s cut and dried for me is not always the case, and that others work under more fluid conditions. Let’s start with what constitutes a Desert Isle Keeper.

Very long-time romance reader Peg has been reading and collecting romances for almost 45 years and has kept 775 romances. She considers 381 to have been grade A reads but admits that if she had to carry them to a deserted island, she could bring that number down to 200 DIKs by sticking only to the A+’s. Wow! Her criterion for DIK status is re-readability.

Long-time AAR visitor (and frequent Historical Cheat Sheet contributor) Teresa Eckford goes by comfort factor in determining a DIK read. She writes: “I prefer to think of them as my comfort reads. These are books that I just don’t think I can live without. Do I re-read all of these books? No. But I just can’t imagine getting rid of them.” Former Beverly’s Book Basket columnist Beverly agrees with Teresa’s equation: “My favorite comfort reads are the books I’d grab for a desert island because I reread them so often.”

Of course, the concept of re-reading is one that many people can’t understand. My mother is one of these people, and though I got my love of reading from her, she doesn’t keep anything she’s read and doesn’t understand why someone would read a book more than once (or see a movie more than once, I might add). Dick, who is new to the genre in terms of length of time he’s been reading romance but not so new in that he’s already read 200 romances, asks: “The concept of Desert Island Keepers eludes me. Does it mean that you re-read the books more than once? That you retain them so that you can forget what they’re about and re-read them many years hence? How often do you re-read one of these books? What do you get from many re-readings that reading a new book wouldn’t supply? Were I to review a romance book, or critique it, I would definitely re-read it. But why take the same route to ‘escape’ twice?”

As someone who not only keeps DIK’s, but also keeps any book graded B- or higher, there have been times when all I’ve wanted to re-read was a single scene. In other instances, I’ll reach for that DIK when I’m burned out on reading, when I’m in a particular mood, or when I just have a hankering to read a book again. I watch certain movies over and over – I’ll never tire of Terms of Endearment when I need a good cry and could probably watch The Secret of Roan Inishe every month – and feel the same about my DIK’s. There are only a handful of DIK’s that are DIK’s solely because they are just “the best book ever” that I won’t read again, but this category is comprised mainly of non-romances.

Re-reading a beloved book can often be better than the initial read. Sometimes it’s easier to savor certain scenes or characters when they are already familiar and you don’t have to worry how the hero and heroine will get to their HEA. I find this particularly true for humorous romances. Some readers who commented on this wrote that they like to re-read mysteries, even though that obviously means they’ll already know “whodunit,” likely because this allows them to focus more on character and writing style than plot.

In her message board response to Dick, AAR Reviewer Mary talked about the re-reading focus, and the idea that re-reading escapist fiction is no different than re-reading other fiction – presumably literary fiction:

“It appears to me that you may be assuming that the experience of reading romance is somehow different from reading anything else, because of the mysterious ‘escapism’ factor. I don’t make that distinction myself, and I doubt that many fans do. Many times I’ve finished a book that I loved and turned right back to page one to begin again. The second time is to appreciate the writing nuances I missed the first time while I was caught up in the story. One thing that all of these books have in common is that I enjoy the re-read as much as the first read.”

Sharon keeps all her DIK’s even though she doesn’t re-read them because they represent her “security blanket.” She likes to look at them but would not re-read them when she’s got so many books TBR. Maili too doesn’t re-read her DIK’s, but for an entirely different reason – though these books are “perfect,” she fears re-reading them may “ruin” her “memory and awe” of them.

Although I consider myself a fairly typical romance reader in many ways, there are a considerable number of readers who read more than I do, seem to pick books better than I seem to, and who perhaps aren’t as picky as I am. Not long ago Blythe (AAR’s Managing Editor) and I were having a discussion of how many books we’d read since the start of the year. We were bemoaning how low that number was for both of us. Considering that, at the time, that number averaged out to more than one book a week, I mentioned to Blythe how odd our discussion would sound were it heard by a non-bookie. I read more than 80 books for each of the last several years. Were I at a cocktail party and mentioned this factoid, most of those within earshot would be surprised. But for many romance readers, that number would be low, particularly if the reader enjoys series romances, which are short and can often be read in an evening.

As for making better choices at the cash register, I’ve noticed for a long time that other people seem to pick more books they end up enjoying than I do, and/or grant DIK status more easily. I honestly can’t imagine having said after more than 100 romances, “This is the best book ever!” Obviously I’ve said it more than once, but saying it a couple of times a year at this point seems more reasonable to me than saying it a dozen times. But then again, lots of the books others say after fabulous are books I haven’t read, and aren’t drawn to read. Were I to read them, would I enjoy them as much as others seem to? At this point I’ll never know; I’m told that I’m a stubborn and difficult individual.

Before ending this discussion of DIK’s, I want to leave you with Steph answers to Dick’s question. I think it sums up the concept wonderfully well:

“I understand why you could find the DIK concept baffling or eluding. But, really, it’s just a way to express that a book connected with you – heart and soul – in some way. It’s one of those books that makes you sigh or cry or laugh till it hurts. It’s one of those books that you go to again and again. It’s like a great old movie that your aunt introduced you to, and you just keep coming back because nothing else really equals. Just the other day I reread Paradise by Judith McNaught, and I remembered all the reasons I loved that book. I have a book I read 10 times in high school, and am thinking about digging it out of a box I have at home and reading it again. It’s really all about that connection – if it’s not there, it’s not a DIK.”

Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:

histbut Let’s do the Time Warp Dance – Harlequin/Silhouette dominates the market for series romance and at this point is the only publisher for these type of books. Are they stuck in a time warp; do they believe readers will think heroines who use birth control are slutty?

histbut The Target Audience – Should there be so many series romance novels based on the story of an accidental pregnancy? Are publishers encouraging these stories too much? Is the reader with traditional feelings about a woman’s role the only one who is being catered to by romance publishers? Is Robin – a forty-seven year old career woman who once enthusiastically championed a wonderful daycare center – part of their target audience? And, is series romance giving women the message that planning for sex is unfeminine and unromantic?

histbut “Oops, I had sex by accident for the first time in my life, and now I’m pregnant” – Do you find it odd that some romance novel heroines who have maintained their virginity far into adulthood sometimes “give it up” in a moment of fevered lust almost by accident? What are we to make of these women, particularly those who end up pregnant? Didn’t their mothers teach them the same things our mothers taught us – mainly that they should be responsible for their reproductive systems whether or not they have been sexually active?

histbut Romance Novel No-No’s – Using a condom more than once, resulting in pregnancy seems to be “allowed” in romance novels, as do single mothers who refuse monetary support for their children. On the other hand, women who have had abortions are generally depicted as evil “other” women, as are some women who couldn’t make it on the ranch in 20 below weather or who insisted upon having a high-powered career. What are your romance novel character “no-no’s” when it comes to a heroine’s behavior?

histbut Suzanne Brockmann’s Write Byte – Suzanne Brockmann touched on a number of politically and/or socially volatile issues in her Write Byte. Feel free to comment.

histbut The “Official” Guardian/Ward Romance – Is this a cherished premise for you or do you find the idea vaguely distasteful? Of “official” guardian/ward romances, which did you most enjoy, least enjoy, and why?

histbut The “Unofficial” Guardian/Ward Romance – There are many romances out there that feature unofficial guardianships such as the Coulter title and Hayes title mentioned in the column. Do these have an “ick factor” for you never, sometimes, or always? What are the titles of ones you enjoyed, did not enjoy, and why?

this image is owned by All About Romance and may not be used without express permission How did she do that? – Sally Tyler Hayes, in her book Her Secret Guardian took a premise that was vaguely unsettling and made it sing for me. How did she do that? What are books you’ve read that the author pulled off despite an inherent “ick factor” for you?

histbut The Power of Childhood Relationships – Sally Tyler Hayes argues persuasively that connections made in childhood can be incredibly profound and intense. Is this what’s at the base of the traditional Guardian/Ward Romance and why they resonate for many of us?

histbut If A, B, and C, (but not D), than E – I noticed as I was writing about the Guardian/Ward Romance that I have an internal set of checkmarks that sometime stop me in my tracks when I’m reading a romance. If you notice this about yourself, are we too rigid, have we become politically correct, and how should we respond to Hayes’ question: “Which brings me back to the fantasy…these thoughts and premises aren’t real so why can’t they be both fun and sexy?”

histbut Desert Isle Keepers – For those of you who voted in the poll and had more than 100 DIK’s, I’m sorry there wasn’t a more specific category. Feel free to share the number of DIK’s in your personal library.

histbut Do you “Just Know?” – When you’ve finished a book, do you “just know” it was a DIK for you? Have you ever changed your mind and bumped it up to a DIK? Conversely, have you ever removed a book’s DIK status?


histbut Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

histbutSuzanne Brockmann’s Write Byte on the company that sells you series romance

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