At the Back Fence Issue #163

Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

July 1, 2003

We dedicate this issue of ATBF to legendary actress and individual Katharine Hepburn. From Bringing Up Baby to Little Women to The Philadelphia Story to The Desk Set to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Hepburn’s life on and off the screen and stage served as inspiration to many of us, myself included. The first segment of ATBF was written before her death, and while at 96 she certainly lived a full life, her loss is nonetheless felt strongly, as was the death last month of the man who forever will be Atticus Finch – Gregory Peck.

The “L” Word (Robin Uncapher)

Have you ever read Katharine Hepburn’s autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life? If you like Katharine Hepburn movies or are interested in the actress, it’s an interesting and surprising book. One thing that makes this book so interesting is that Katharine Hepburn’s writing voice, intelligent, witty, sometimes humble, sometimes arrogant, and always interesting, is nothing like the person I always envisioned in my mind.

That Katharine Hepburn, the heroine of The African Queen, and the witty lady that Mike Wallace interviewed on 60 Minutes in the 1970’s, is wiser, more assured and mature than the real woman who wrote Me. Apparently the public persona of Katharine Hepburn can be traced back to some acting advice that Hepburn got from John Huston when he directed her in The African Queen. He told Hepburn to play it like Eleanor Roosevelt. And from then on, she did, not only in the movies but in interviews with talk show hosts and journalists like Dick Cavett and Mike Wallace. Hepburn charmed us all, me included, using her Roosevelt persona. But as an honest person who wanted to reveal her flaws as well as her strengths in her biography, she slipped back into her real voice long enough to write this book.

Katharine Hepburn tells the story of her long and life-changing affair with Spencer Tracy in her book. Most know that the two were a discreet Hollywood couple for many years. The fact that they were more than friends was known to virtually everyone inside Hollywood but not to the average moviegoer. Spencer Tracy was Catholic. Spencer Tracy was married and would not divorce. Hepburn writes that this was so that his wife, “Mrs. Tracy,” could carry on her work for deaf children and sign fundraising letters “Mrs. Spencer Tracy.” The Tracy’s were separated and did not live together. Hepburn and Tracy lived next door to one another for many years but, in fact, lived in Tracy’s house. In her book, Tracy is described as brilliant, irascible, charming, funny – and extremely difficult. That she loved him shines in every sentence of the book. With no self-pity whatsoever she describes lying on the floor beside his bed during his bouts of insomnia and dealing with his alcoholism up till and including the night he died. The two were not married but, given the sharing and the sacrifice they almost could have been.

In describing his death and the aftermath, Hepburn reveals all they were to each other for all those years, and, if I’m not mistaken, waited until Tracy’s wife died until doing so. Her discretion even after he was brought to the hospital is something remarkable given their relationship, particularly after Mrs. Tracy arrived. Hepburn describes how difficult his last days were and ends with this revelation: in all that time, Spencer Tracy never said “I love you.”

Katharine Hepburn says that it didn’t need to be said, that she knew she was loved. Tracy told her in many ways that he cared, she says. I read those brief sentences at the end of the chapter feeling stunned. Spencer Tracy never said, “I love you” to Katharine Hepburn? And it didn’t matter to her?

I’m not buying it.

No, I’m not. And it’s not just that he should have said it when he was sick and dying and she was taking care of him. It’s not just that he owed it to her, though he did. What did he put her through when she was first in love and he did not say it? Katharine Hepburn never says. But she gets in her licks in the end because she tells us he never said it.

If it hadn’t bothered Katharine Hepburn that Spencer Tracy never said I love you, would she have mentioned it in her book? I don’t want to seem callous, but it seems doubtful. Somehow Katharine Hepburn – with her all confidence, her charm, her multiple Oscars – was telling us in the most subtle of ways that she had suffered.

I hadn’t thought of Spencer Tracy’s reticence in years but it all came back to me when I read Keishon’s recent post on our Potpourri Message Board. She wrote:

“I was just rereading a favorite of mine, Reap the Wind, and the hero doesn’t say the ‘L’ word at all but you get a feeling that he does love her and it’s understandable as to why he doesn’t say it but I still would have preferred him saying it at least once.

“OTOH, I don’t care for the ‘L’ word until it’s appropriate. I don’t like it bandied about in my novels as it should be something one utters only when one truly feels so about their significant other.

“My question is how often in your reading do you come across this, where the h/h don’t use the ‘L’ word? Does it bother you? I was surprised to learn that it did bother me a little. Often it’s inferred but would it hurt to say it at least once?”

It bothers me. I can only think of one really good book where the hero doesn’t say it – Karen Ranney’s A Promise Of Love, in which a Scottish Laird, Alisdair MacLeod, marries Judith, a widow purchased for him as part of a sheep trade. The brutality of Judith’s previous marriage haunts her and much of the book involves Alisdair’s work to build trust between them. I fell in love with Alisdair and understood his desire to show Judith with deeds, not just words, that he could be trusted. But as the number of pages I had left in the book dwindled to a few I grew anxious. Why didn’t he say it? I have no idea. He never did say “I love you,” and like Keishon I felt cheated. In real life not saying “I love you” is as significant as saying it.

This is underscored during a critical moment in Adele Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline. The couple, Brent and Caroline, are getting along swimmingly and the two have a romantic tryst. At one point Brent asks Caroline if she loves him. He doesn’t declare himself mind you. He asks her.

Caroline is immediately wary; she sees this as the power move that it is and says she’ll never be the first to say it. The mood is broken and major hostility breaks out between the two.

When I first read this passage my head shook purposefully with recognition. Oh yeah. Isn’t that just like a man, I thought, withholding the “L?” But part of me wasn’t so sure. Don’t men in love say that they’re in love? Men who don’t say it get to be the subjects of endless analytical conversations between their girlfriends and her friends. These conversations are all about “When will he say it? Will he say it? Why hasn’t he said it yet?” The HBO show Sex in the City described this very well in an episode where Carrie tells Mr. Big she loves him and hears nothing back. It drives Carrie crazy that Big says nothing and it drives her crazy knowing that now he has heard her say it to him, which changes the balance of power in the relationship, putting her at a distinct disadvantage.

Like everybody else I guess, I am often sure that my reaction is going to be the predominant one. It was soon clear from the answers to Keishon’s post, however, that many women aren’t overly concerned with hearing the hero say the “L” word to the heroine. Julie wrote, for instance, that it doesn’t bother her “as long as it was made clear through their actions that they love each other and will live happily ever after.”

But it was Maili’s post that truly opened my eyes to the variety of opinions on this subject because she could identify with not saying it. Ever the contrarian , Maili posted: “In love or not, I think it’s hard to say the three little words when you know that these three little words are the most overused, most abused and misunderstood phrase in the love universe. I didn’t say it to my husband until two years after we were married. No point in saying it because he said, ‘I know.’ I like it when heroes use alternate phrases or actions to illustrate their feelings for ‘their women.’ It shows the scope of their imagination and creativeness, and the depth of their emotions. Actions speak louder than words.”

Maili also pointed out that in some books words are used as a power play. She recalls romances where the phrase becomes a “bargaining chip” between hero and heroine. She wrote, “The heroine won’t sleep with the hero until he say the phrase and he won’t say it until she sleep with him. When he said the phrase, the heroine will then sleep with him – however bad or distant he was to her beforehand. I hated it. These made the phrase sounds like it is a ‘Open, Sesame!’ thing for heroes.”

Unlike Maili, I don’t mind the power play. In fact, I can identify with it. “I love you” is a phrase that may be bandied about in some circles but in my brief experience men have been stingy with it – not overly generous. If my daughter came home, for example, and told me she was marrying a man who had never said “I love you,” I would wonder if there was some power play going on on his part. And I would not be a happy mother.

Reviewer Teresa Galloway offers a very different perspective. She disliked the ending in Catherine Anderson’s Simply Love because of the heroine’s obsession with hearing the hero say that he loved her. Teresa wrote, “In the context of the novel he had excellent reasons for not having good associations with that word and not wanting to say it, and by the end of the book he was treating her in every way as if he loved her. Her meaningless insistence seemed extremely petty and shallow of her and ruined the book for me.”

This made sense to me. If a character really does have a good reason not to say, “I love you,” I would be willing to be understanding. That is not usually the case however. In the cases I can think of the hero seems to be grasping at straws to avoid some kind of emotional commitment.

Marianne explained her perspective on this, which, like Maili’s, grew from personal experience. She wrote, “After long experience, I can say that most of the men I have known have had trouble using the words because they are so often misused to designate casual affection. My husband of 32 years, who lives every day as if he loves me, seldom says it.” In her post Marianne referred to Stephanie Laurens’ Devil’s Bride, in which the Devil never actually tells Honoria he loves her until, as she wrote, “when he and Honoria have had three children, he sits in the garden with her, tells her he loves her, and explains very articulately how and why it is so difficult for a man like him, a man who lives what he feels rather than talks about it, to say the words. The book is one of the two about the twins Amanda and Amelia and while the book itself was not Laurens’ best, this particular scene is vividly moving.”

It’s not that I haven’t heard men say exactly what Marianne explains here. “I love you” is something men save for very important relationships, but it’s also something some men give as an explanation for not saying it, when they weren’t in love.

Those posters who felt saying “I love you” was important weren’t advocating books where the hero says “I love you” but treats the heroine badly in spite of it. Keishon discussed Laura Kinsale’s The Prince of Midnight, in which “the hero is a popular rake who falls in love easily and when he meets the heroine, he tells her that he loves her after meeting her and knowing her for one day and she laughs in his face sorta speak. In that book, he had to show rather than tell her that he loved her and in that instance, I wouldn’t mind him not speaking the endearment since it is a forgone conclusion that he did.”

Kelly, on the other hand, falls more on my side of the argument. She wrote that this is one of her major pet peeves and a book can be spoiled if “the word love is not used in a meaningful fashion by both the hero and the heroine.” She added: “It is one of the reasons I hated Devil’s Bride. I don’t read romance so I can read between the lines and interpret feelings from gestures and actions. I have enough of that in real life! I understand the whole ‘if the bond is there it doesn’t need to be spoken,’ but I don’t buy it. If the bond is there, then it should be spoken, anything less seems like a cop-out.” Kelly B, on the other hand, fell more on my side of the discussion. She argued that one of the reasons she hated this same book, why one of her main pet peeves is when the word “love is not used in a meaningful fashion by both the hero and the heroine” is because she doesn’t want to read between the lines and interpret feelings from gestures and actions. “It will spoil a book for me… I have enough of that in real life. I understand the whole ‘if the bond is there it doesn’t need to be spoken,’ but I don’t buy it. If the bond is there, then it should be spoken, anything less seems like a cop-out.”

Does “I love you,” have to be said? For me it does need to be said unless there is a compelling reason not to say it. I’m a verbal person who loves words, who needs words. This doesn’t mean that words solve problems without actions or that “I love you” can be believed if it comes from a man who treats a woman cruelly. If I had had bad experiences with the words “I love you,” I might feel differently about them but I can’t help wondering if a hero who holds back is thinking more of himself and his own commitment problems than he is thinking of the heroine’s happiness.

But what is it about the specific words “I love you,” that are so important to me and many other women? People on the message board pointed out that for men in particular the words “I love you,” can be difficult to say. The more I thought about this the more I realized something. When I read a love story, either a romance novel or a love story in another kind of book, it is the hero that I watch for the “I love you,” not the heroine. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is fairly understated about her feelings. It is Darcy who declares himself openly, putting himself at her mercy with the words:

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

I watch for the hero to say “I love you” precisely because I know many men have trouble saying the words and because, knowing that, the words mean more to me. And why do men have trouble saying these words? There are probably lots of personal reasons but one of them has to be the fact that the first person to say “I love you” in a relationship is traditionally the man. The first person who says it runs the risk of not hearing it said back. Saying “I love you” to someone for the first time can be a terrifying prospect. I heard a talk show host the other day who said he once said it to a girl and she said “thank you.” I suppose that is better than Han’s Solo’s famous “I know,” or the hero of the movie Ghost, who said “ditto,” but what any human, male or female, desperately wants to hear in answer to those words is “I love you, too.”

Speaking of the famous Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore movie, I’m not a big fan of the movie, but I did wonder if Swayze’s character’s reluctance to say “I love you” in that movie hit on some raw nerve in the female population. You will recall that in the movie, Swayze plays a young man who, despite having a wonderful relationship with his significant other, steadfastly refuses to say “I love you.” It is only after the young man is dead, looking on as a ghost, that he regrets not telling the woman he loved that he loved her. That’ll teach him! Naturally by the end of the movie he manages to get his feelings across (with the help of Whoopi Goldberg, in her Oscar-winning role), which resolves the internal conflict between the couple.

It is that moment of male vulnerability that I think many women look for in a love story. For one minute, or maybe much more, the hero declares himself in a way that is unrecoverable. And when he does, there is no going back. He doesn’t get to say he didn’t mean it (nobody would believe him). If the heroine rejects the hero at that point it is far more devastating to him (we know) than if she turns down his offer of sex or even marriage. As a result this moment, to me, is far more exciting if, like Mr. Darcy, the hero is diving into the unknown and declaring himself without knowing the feelings of his beloved.

If an author can portray this risk without using the words “I love you” I don’t feel the lack. There are not many examples of this in literature. The words “I love you” work so well in expressing what needs to be expressed that few writers have heroes declare themselves in other words. There is one instance however that stands out in my mind and it is from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. In a wonderful letter that leaves no room for interpretation, Captain Wentworth declares himself to Anne, a plain spinster who has lost her looks. He writes:

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.

“I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”

Does Captain Wentworth ever say “I love you?” Not beyond what he says here about loving no other but her. But who needs “I love you” when a man declares that his soul is pierced?


The All-Nighter (LLB)

Sometimes there’s a marvelous synchronicity at work in the world. How else could you explain the release of the new Harry Potter novel just a few weeks after author Carla Kelly started this thread on one of our message boards? “Just curious, kind sirs and mesdames: What was the first book that you every stayed up all night to read? You know, the first flashlight-under-the-covers book? Mine was Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, and I think I was in the 7th grade. Of course, I’ve always loved the sea.”

I have a confession to make – I never stayed up all night as a kid reading. My mother was strict about bedtime, and while I took advantage of many opportunities to defy her, I always went to bed when she told me. I’ve always felt I’ve missed something and so have never lowered the boom on my own daughter when I catch her 1) in her bed with a flashlight, 2) in the bathroom with a flashlight, or 3) (and most inventive of all), in her closet with the light on.

Her first all-night reading experience was just after the fourth book in the Harry Potter series was released. That’s when she realized it was time to get busy and read the first three books. I’d already read part of the first book aloud to her (then, coincidentally – or not), I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning finishing it. Even though she’d always enjoyed reading, it wasn’t until she realized she might feel left out of something important if she didn’t catch up that she took the plunge and made it her goal to read the first three books before Amazon delivered the fourth the day it went on sale.

I believe this was on a Monday in July, and the clock was ticking toward Saturday morning. My daughter does not make pronouncements lightly, and by Saturday morning, sure enough, she’d finished the first three books in the series. When the FedEx delivery man dropped off Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, she disappeared with all 734 pages of it. The next day she did not come bounding out of her bedroom until noon because, of course, she’d stayed up all night long to finish the book. When she asked if I was angry at her, I simply shook her hand and congratulated her on becoming a “real” reader and member of the all-night reader’s club.

I’d never really been a late night person myself until college, and I doubt textbooks constitute great all-night reading experiences, particularly when the titles are things like “Quantitative Methods of Political Research” or “Understanding Public Policy.” And for the first couple of years of working a full-time job, I was honestly too exhausted at night to do much of anything except sleep, particularly since I’m not an early morning person either and had to get up at 6 a.m. But eventually reading became a great way to get away from the stress of work, and I’ll admit that there was more than one day I went to work on a sponge bath after staying up all night reading.

I’m always taken aback when it happens, even though for the past 11 years I’ve been an insomniac and often read far into the night. Since I’m on medication for it, I know I’ll eventually get to sleep. But even though I’m “supposed” to go to bed at the same time every night, when I’m engrossed in a book and absolutely don’t want to put it down, I don’t. It happened just last week when I read Club Dead by Charlaine Harris, the third in her Sookie Stackhouse series. I actually think I’ve read all three of the books in this series when I should have been sleeping. Same goes for most of the LKH and Anne Rice books I’ve read. Perhaps there’s something about horror and/or fantasy that causes me to pick up these books in the evening instead of the morning.

But I’ve stayed up reading when I should have been sleeping with all kinds of novels. There’s a feeling you get when you’re reading a book you don’t want to put down, isn’t there, a buzz of sorts, that keeps you going when you’d otherwise be nodding off? Whether it’s by flashlight, closet light, itty bitty book light, or the light in the living room, reading when other people are sleeping somehow makes me feel like part of that “reading” club I mentioned to my daughter.

My husband, who isn’t a “bookie,” tells me he’s never stayed up all night reading for fun, but says when he was a teenager he stayed in bed all day reading In Cold Blood. The in-bed, all-day read is a luxury most of us don’t have as adults, or don’t have often (although I’d say an all-day vacation read counts), but my husband wants to know if he can join the club because he read instead of doing what he was supposed to have been doing that day. So, even though it was without a flashlight, is he in or out?

Carla’s post engendered a myriad of responses. Readers not only love to talk about books that had an impact upon them, but I can tell there’s a great fondness in remembering how old you were when you joined the all-night readers club.

My ATB co-columnist, Robin, remembers staying up to read Mary Poppins. She recounts: “I was too chicken to get a flashlight so I sneaked out of bed and sat next to the doorway. There was enough light peeking through for me to read. One night my mother came up and I was in huge trouble. She was soooo disappointed. I was the disgrace of the house. You would have thought I had been caught planning a bank job.” “The next one I remember was Jane Eyre. The book I had was illustrated, an old book club edition. Nobody had told me the surprise about the mad wife in the attic. I sat wide-eyed under the covers with a flashlight reading about the creaks in the house and scarey noises keeping Jane up. The whole book was a revelation. Was Mr. Rochester a hero or a villian? Did Jane love him? Did he really love her or would he marry the pretty rich lady who came to his house party? And what were those scary noises in the house every night? Turning the page to see a terrifying picture of a hideous mad wife brandishing a dagger made me jump. I was living in the book and must have jumped two inches in the bed!“To this day I strongly believe that that is the best way to read Jane Eyre is at midnight, under the covers, not knowing the big scary surprise.”

Gone With the Wind, the subject of our last ATBF column, was the first all-nighter for more than one reader. Mae writes: I was twelve or so… it actually took a couple of those all-nighters, with much napping in between. Thank god for summer break! I also pulled a lot of all-nighters in high school, and not writing essays either. But high school… who really needs to be awake in high school?”

Jenny was somewhat younger when she stayed up all night to read – she was nine and the book was Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. Nine must be a good year for defying parents on bedtime. Unlike Joey from Friends, who doesn’t read Little Women until Rachel loans it to him in an hilarious episode from the third season, Sandy read it the summer she was nine. She carried the book with her for days, and doesn’t remember whether a “tattle-tale sibling” prevented her from pulling a total all-nighter.

Little Women seems to have been a favorite “flashlight read.” Fair recalls reading it, and a reading a Reader’s Digest condensed version of Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede under the covers with a flashlight when she was a child. As for staying up all night, that didn’t happen until she was an adult, reading Stephen King’s Misery.

Like Fair, Irene didn’t actually join the all-night reader’s club until she was an adult. But when she was first married, her sailor husband was away at sea, and she had no “day job,” she writes, she “stayed up one night reading James Clavel’s Tai Pan. And a couple of years later, I got to spend a week in Hong Kong (the setting of the book) with my DH as his ship was there over Christmas. Way cool.”

While I never condone the taking of things that don’t belong to you, Peggy’s post made me laugh. Her first all-nighter was Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain. She was ten at the time and has re-read it too many times to count. She adds, “Johnny was a silversmith’s apprentice at the time of the American Revolution and got to hang out with Paul Revere and friends. Later my mom became the librarian at the grade school I attended, and when the school closed and the books were dispersed to other schools, somehow the copy of Johnny Tremain with my name still on the checkout card from the 5th grade, ‘disappeared’ and ‘reappeared’ on my book shelf, where it resides in pride of place to this day.” But as Louise Meriwether’s Daddy was a Number Runner somehow ended up on my living room book shelf when it should have stayed on the shelf of the Tarzana branch library in Los Angeles, I’m not one to point fingers.

Kelly was eight when she stayed up far past bedtime reading. The book was Harriet the Spy, a book I so loved as a child that when I was in elementary school I carried a notebook around during recess and demanded that my new glasses be the ugliest, round, brown tortoise-shell glasses ever purchased by a horrified mother. Kelly shares that she “was not quite as sly as Harriet and was caught” by her mother, who let her finish “on the condition that she was to hear no complaints about being too tired for school the next morning.”

Certain books have a continuing appeal. Whether a historical classic like Jane Eyre or a more modern classic like Harriet the Spy, or a brand new classic like the Harry Potter novels, many of the books that captivated us at a young age are quite familiar. For dk and xina, for instance, it was the mystery-solving, confident, cool, and collected Nancy Drew that kept them up long into the night. While my daughter didn’t read many of the books in this series, I know they continue to be successful; after all, when we put together our Young Adult Special Title Listing last year, four of Scarlett Barnhill’s favorites were from the Nancy Drew series. dk was a third-grader when stayed up late for The Secret of the Old Clock and xina missed her bedtime as a fourth-grader for The Ghost of Blackwood Hall.

The discussion of all-night books took an interesting turn when (former AAR editor) Marianne wrote about The Witch of Blackbird Pond. She mentioned that she was in her early teens, had school the next day, and “could barely keep” her eyes open, but “just had to see what happened.” She added that her two daughters love the book as much as she did. After this post, Carla Kelly once again asked a terrific question: “What books that we loved do our kids now love, or what books we shared with them are they reading to our grandchildren now?” There were so many thoughtful responses that we’ll do this as an ATBF segment mid-month.

But getting back to the topic at hand, another author who kept young readers up past their bedtimes was Ray Bradbury. I’ve never been an SF reader, but one of the high points of junior high was when Ray Bradbury talked at one of our assemblies about what it takes to be a writer (one of the benefits to growing up in the Los Angeles area was coming across famous people at school, the grocery store, driving through the neighborhood, etc.). As someone constantly reading and writing, I’ll always remember his biggest piece of advice, that writing requires not only imagination and creativity, but discipline – always discipline.

I doubt Scottish born and raised Maili has met Mr. Bradbury, although perhaps she’s gotten a look at J.K. Rowling? Still, when she was ten, her great-uncle gave her a copy of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and she spent her first sleepless night as a result of reading. Maili shares that reading this book “corrupted” her mind; she hasn’t looked at life the same way since.

While this was Maili’s first foray into all-night reading, her favorite was a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book that allowed her to create her own stories, even if she “remembers spending a lot of time cheating” by backtracking and going a different direction if she didn’t like where she was headed. This rang a bell for Sarah, who believes her first all-night read was a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. She cheated too, in order to get to her preferred destination.

Sandy C recalls her mother giving her a copy of The Secret Garden. She didn’t begin reading until late in the day, could not put it down, sneaked downstairs for a flashlight, and read under the covers. She added, “That was the demise of my good nights’ sleep… from that point on I would read late into the night.”

I’m not sure Sandy really fooled her mother; I think every woman comes with a switch that gets turned on when she gives birth to her first child. Not only do we have eyes in the backs of our heads, always know when we’re being lied to, but we also somehow know when our children are not sleeping. Apparently Gail was not privy to this information when she was growing up. She shared: “My mom evidently possessed this extrasensory ability. I slept in the bottom bunk of a bunk bed for a few years while growing up and I used to hang a blanket over the top railing and make myself a cozy little ‘tent’ (I never did get that canopy bed I coveted!)… I naively thought this would shield me from prying parental eyes until it was pointed out to me that my flashlight illuminated my every move under that ‘tent.'”

Robert Louis Stevenson kept Mrs. Giggles up all night when she was ten and discovered Kidnapped. She recalls “walking around terrorizing the nuns at school with curses” she learned from the book. Author Nicole Burnham doesn’t say if her first all-nighter was with Stevenson, but his Treasure Island is one of her favorites as well. When she was a kid, she writes, she pretended she was “Jim Hawkins, out to fight and outwit pirates. Picture a geeky nine-year-old running through the woods, pretending to be wielding a sword, and singing ‘Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum!’ and you get the idea.” Her first “grown-up all-night book” was The Thorn Birds, which she read in junior high school. She can’t remember ever doing the same thing since, but when she first finished McCullough’s Australian epic, she immediately re-read it.

Debbi was a high school freshman when she stayed up all night reading Silver Jasmine, which BYRON lists as a 1980 historical written by Janet Louise Roberts. She shares, “Yes – a bodice ripper… I loved it! It had everything in one book – young heroine forced to marry, taken away on a ship, sugar cane fields and rum making, and horrible, evil kidnapping villain.”

Many, many other titles were fondly remembered, but this seems a good place to stop. I’m turning things over to Anne Marble for The HEA Ending.

The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth (Anne Marble)

Romance readers know that when they read a romance novel, no matter what the subgenre, no matter what the style, no matter what the setting, no matter who the author, there is at least one thing that is a guarantee. The HEA ending. While I think most readers appreciate this and look forward to it, some see it as a limitation. A recent discussion on our Potpourri Message Board began with this quesion: “Do most romance readers concur with these statements? Do romances have to have an ‘optimistic ending’? Do you agree that ‘the relationship is rewarded with emotional justice’? While I think that the vast majority of published romances fit this definition, I don’t think that this defines a romance. I agree with Cruisie when she says that for Romances, ‘The conflict in the book centers on the love story.’ But I also think a story that ends badly/sadly but is centered on unconditional love is still a romance. I think romances don’t have to end happily.”

If you want to bring out some diverse opinions among romance readers, just ask readers if they think romances need to have a happy ending. Maryann perhaps represents a majority of romance readers in her response to the HEA question.

“When I go into my favorite book store and look for books in the ‘Romance’ section, I expect that there is going to be a HEA. No peeking at the last page to make sure ‘Hero and Heroine’ are together and smiling. When I look at books in the ‘Fiction’ or ‘Mystery’ sections I don’t have that same expectation. I go into the book with that uncertainty. I read romances for the HEA, not necessarily the white picket fence and 2.5 kids variety, but with the expectation that the h/h will have their HEA whatever it is for them together.”

Actually, if you look in an ATBF column from March of last year, you’ll learn a lot of readers confess to peeking at the endings of romances. As far as I can recall, I have never peeked at an ending to find out if the hero or heroine dies. In romances, I expect them to live, and in other genres, I don’t necessarily expect that, so I don’t mind if they die (unless the ending is badly written). I will, however, peek at the end of “big secret” and “big misunderstanding” romances to make sure the plot lines were resolved well, and in some cases, to make sure there is a satisfactory grovel. And I still peek at the endings of Gothic romances to make sure the heroine ends up with the interesting guy rather than the boring one. (You know you’re in trouble when the most interesting character is dragged off by the cops at the end.) The very first issue of this column started out with survey questions about end peeking and a discussion of the HEA. End peekers and the lust for the HEA seem to go hand-in-hand – maybe because so many readers have been burned by sad endings in the past.

Author Julia Quinn looks at it from a publishing standpoint. In her mind, a romance novel defines “a very specific type of novel, one which must have a happy ending, and the romance must be the primary focus of the book.” But a romantic novel is a “much more general term and can apply to any novel containing a romantic theme,” whether or not this is the novel’s primary theme, or if there is an HEA. She adds, “As refers to books, ‘romantic’ is an adjective while ‘romance’ is a specific term. Thus, all romance novels are romantic, but all romantic novels are not romances.”

This viewpoint is echoed by PilotToBombadier, who also believes that romances have to end happily; “If they don’t then it’s Women’s Fiction, plain and simple.” On a similar note, Dick states: “HEA is as essential to a romance novel as flour is to bread. Neither recipe would work without the essential element.”

But a reader’s response to the “HEA ending required for a romance novel” may depend on where she lives. In Europe, for instance, books aren’t always classified as they are in the U.S. and a romance might easily sit next to general fiction on the shelf. And even for readers used to seeing romances (and mysteries and SF) separated from general fiction – such as Beverly – the recipe isn’t necessarily cut and dried. She points to “the great number of romances that end rather abruptly and unrealistically with a to-the-point ‘happy ending’ once the ‘romance’ is perceived to be over.” She added that some stories are “actually pretty satisfying in their own way and still leave one with the sense that there’s more to the couple’s ‘story’ that hasn’t unfolded yet.” Beverly talks of a longing for “emotional reality,” what she calls “a ‘sense’ that the couple in a romance will be able to make it over time,” and compares this emotional reality to historical accuracy.

I think Beverly reads some of the same books I read. How many readers finish a romance and don’t believe there will truly be an HEA in the long run? These are not successful romances in my mind; a romance in which I don’t believe in the couple is a failure for me. And unfortunately, these failures happen more often than I want to think about.

What does it take for me to distrust in the HEA? Distrustful heroes, for one. Take just about any “big misunderstanding” book or any romance with an overly jealous heroine. After I read Rosemary Rogers’ Wicked Loving Lies, I wondered how long it would take before Dominic decided Marissa had betrayed him again. And after I flung… whoops, I mean finished… Diana Palmer’s Heart of Ice, I wondered how long that relationship would last. How long before Egan lapsed back into distrustful ways?

Ironically, I didn’t feel the same about Travis Danvers in Elizabeth Lowell’s To the Ends of the Earth (a rewrite of The Danver’s Touch), maybe because I truly believed Travis had learned the evil of his ways. And because I believed Catherine had learned to let go of her pride. Besides, Catherine wouldn’t let him go into a “distrustful hero relapse,” not without a fight. And maybe that’s what the HEA is all about. Both characters must learn to get along, and the reader must believe that both characters will work on problems that come up in the future.

Another type of HEA that doesn’t feel right to me is one that is rushed, and perhaps this is what Beverly meant. In the best romances, the reader gets to see the relationship grow. However, not all romances have that. My first review for AAR was for Emily Dalton’s Dream Baby, a book that suffered at first from a distrustful hero. Once the hero got over himself, the relationship zoomed forward at light speed, and just didn’t buy it.

Also, some books that are too plot-heavy feel as if the HEA is rushed. If the hero and heroine are running from drug dealers, they might get some great “danger sex,” but they won’t have the time to sit down and ask each other, “If you were a tree, which type of tree would you be?” When I read Lisa Jackson’s Dark Emerald, for instance, I suspected that poor Rhys was so busy keeping Tara from getting herself killed that he didn’t really get to know her.

Keishon agrees that some HEA endings are rushed. She mentions Linda Howard’s Kill and Tell, a romantic suspense novel in which she thinks the relationship was rushed. The book may have been better served had it featured a one-night stand (which is how a straight suspense novel would have been written), or it might have ended with the promise of a future relationship. For Keishon, a happy ending isn’t a requirement in a romance, but does need “some hint of a future together. I feel that if most romances don’t have the length to support a realistic romance, please just let them date or something. I don’t want to hear about wedding bells. How realistic is it, especially if the hero waited years to find that special someone and all of a sudden he falls so hard that at the end of a week he’s proposing?” However, AAR’s Jen S. believed in the HEA ending for Howard’s book. “Both the hero and heroine are still alive, there’s an implied commitment that the relationship will move forward, and the h/h are happy/content.” For Jen, “wedding bells and babies” are “romance staples.” She asks: “Would a reader be content with a book that said ‘romance’ on the spine, found in the “romance” section of the bookstore by a known ‘romance’ publisher/imprint such as Harlequin/Silhouette, Avon, or Jove where at the end of the book the hero dies in the heroine’s arms? I don’t think so, because it’s not what the reader expects. Whereas if they found it in the literary fiction section of the bookstore, with ‘fiction’ on the spine, the reader might love it because it’s met their expectations.”

Maili makes a point echoed by so many readers when she says “it’s about the level of belief in a couple’s commitment to each other.” It’s enough for her that a couple openly acknowledge their wanting to be together; she doesn’t “need to know they’ll marry each other and have kids.” In contrast to Maryann’s earlier declaration, Maili can “figure out (whether they are meant to be together) by judging their emotions and actions toward each other during the story. I prefer this to a couple who don’t seem to be compatible with each other, yet they end up marrying each other. That screams, ‘Have a phone number of a divorce lawyer standing by!'”

What about endings that are satisfying on their own, and yet come with an epilogue? For many readers these are false endings – like the scene in a horror movie where the characters see the villain fall of a cliff and then take a cab home, only to learn that the villain is their cab driver.

Epilogues are almost as controversial as the HEA itself. A lot of readers look forward to epilogues that show the hero and heroine happy and raising a brood of children. (Needless to say, this is extremely controversial if the book was about a heroine who couldn’t have children!) Yet some readers want to gag when they read scenes where the hero bounces a child on his knee while patting his pregnant wife on the tummy with his free hand. I can’t comment on this kind of epilogue because when the epilogue gets too cloying, my eyes glaze over. While some people are reassured by reading the epilogue, I would rather be reassured by a relationship – and an HEA – that I can believe in from the start.

Kajia loves the emotional payoff of the HEA but doesn’t always believe in it. She considers herself “pretty flexible” about what constitutes a happy ending and recalled a novella she’d read long ago where the hero and heroine both died in the end – think Romeo and Juliet in Medieval Iceland, a hero ordered killed, and a heroine who kills herself rather than be without him. Kajia notes, “The ending worked for me well enough that I remember this story out of dozens that I read at that time but practically nothing of any other stories. My acceptance of (endings) other than HEA’s in romances has probably also quite a lot to do with the fact that I don’t tend to categorize books into romance novels, romantic fiction, women’s fiction etc. To me it’s all the same.”

Yet there are many romance readers who demand a clear HEA, even when not reading within the genre. Some refuse to read woman’s fiction because it might end tragically. Others ask people to tell them the ending before they agree to read a novel, even if it’s fantasy or SF or historical fiction. For example, on the ATBF message board in response to last month’s column about Gone With the Wind, one reader didn’t want to read the book because she simply prefers HEA endings.

Or, as Jennifer wrote, “Calling Nicholas Sparks a romance writer is an insult to every hardworking member of the RWA. Has the man ever heard of a HEA???? Blech, blech, blech.” Come on, Jennifer, tell us what you really think!

And yet I’ve heard people say that romance won’t get respect until readers “get over” their need for the HEA. Well, that’s just plain silly. Genre requirements are not alien in other genres. Imagine mystery fans saying “I wish I could find more mysteries where they don’t catch the killer at the end.” You just don’t hear that. It’s not considered shameful when mystery readers demand that the murder be solved at the end. So why should romance readers be told that their genre won’t grow up or get respect or whatever until the heroes and heroines start kicking the bucket?

Even with the stipulation of the HEA, there is enormous variation in what can go on in a romance – as the categories in our Special Title Listings illustrate. Within the formula, romances are diverse and satisfying… and also feature HEA endings.

I once read an essay defending so-called “formula” fiction from its critics. The author pointed out that there is no shame to following a formula, even one that is considered “rigid.” Chippendale chairs, he reminded his readers, are made to a rigid formula, and yet they are considered works of art. Sonnets must also follow a formula. So why is there a shame in the formulas found in romance novels, let alone those found in other genre fiction?

Jen S also points out the reasons for these distinctions. Many people love tragic endings, a good cry, and “want grand emotional upheaval. Bully for them.” But, she asks, what about those of us who read romance because we get enough tragedy, tears, and upheaval in real life? What’s the problem with wanting guaranteed happiness? She adds, “Is it so wrong to want those books that offer that guarantee to have a clear label? Is an author really being held back by the genre as a whole because readers expect HEA? Why is the HEA always looked as a limitation? ‘Look at the poor romance author, she’ll never get any respect as long as she’s held back by the HEA, if only she could write something truly dramatic and tragic then she’d get the recognition she deserves.'”

Jen also talks about marketing in U.S. publishing, reminding us that labels are “shorthand for readers to pick books that will most likely appeal to them. The idea of two protagonists falling in love and having a meaningful relationship can be find in each genre, but it’s the romance marketing label that guarantees the HEA. Those who write and market romance know that, they know what readers expect and they know if they write something different it’ll get a different label so they don’t get a bunch of letters from disgruntled readers who bought a book expecting one thing and got another. You can have a romantic story without a HEA, you can even call it a romance, but the books in the romance section, with the term romance on the spine are going to have a HEA ending.”

An End in Shining Armor

One of the most controversial endings to a successful and very popular romance novel occurs in Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor. Given how many times the ending has been discussed, it’s no spoiler to say that the person the heroine eventually ends up with is not the “true” hero, but his reincarnated soul several centuries later. Many wondered if Deveraux would change the ending in her 2002 re-write of the book – she did not.

It seems that for every two readers who love this book, there’s one reader who loved it… until the ending. I can’t count the number of debates I’ve seen about this point, and while many authors are loathe to say anything negative about any romance, the rule has often been broken where this book is concerned.

AAR’s DIK Review of this book was originally written several years ago, but was revisited by the original reviewer when Deveraux re-wrote it. It’s still a DIK for Liz, but as she wrote in her review, it’s no longer the A+ it used to be because she now finds the ending “not wholly satisfying.” And yet there are many readers who believe that the unique manner in which the author brought Nicholas’ soul back together with Dougless, even after the sadness of him living out his life alone in the past, made it all the more romantic. As Louise commented, “While I felt sorry for his lonely life, I knew that he truly loved her because he told her and absolutely believed, ‘My soul will find yours.'”

Romantic but not a Romance

However unusually KISA ends, Louise wants romances to have HEA endings. But she doesn’t mind tragic endings in works that are romantic but not genre romances. She realizes that real life is filled with unhappy endings and no guarantees, and while romances give her that guarantee of a happy ending, she can enjoy books and/or movies without an HEA.

I love having the choice to buy books that are romantic without being romances. A romantic subplot can really add something… human… to novels in other genres. Try to imagine Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor without the love story. Bleh! Sometimes authors from outside the genre can shine a new light on relationships without running into taboos common to most romance writers. On the other hand, I sometimes want to give those authors a copy of a romance novel with a note that says “Mary Jo Putney did it better.”

Maggie can also separate the romance novel from the romantic novel. She doesn’t think of a book featuring romantic elements but sans an HEA as a romance and points to Tess Gerritson’s The Surgeon. She describes the book in this way: “It was clearly more of a mystery because at the end you are unsure if the male and female lead are going to continue their relationship but you are sure the mystery has been dealt with. To me, the distinction is important because I don’t want to see every single book which has romantic elements labeled a romance, anymore than I want to see every book that has a hint of crime or mystery labeled a mystery.” Quite emphatic about the point, she added, “The genres satisfy different reading desires and should have different names.”

Here Today, Gone in the Next Book

Some romance writers have “gotten around” the HEA requirement by killing off a character in a later book. For example, the original hero of Betrice Small’s Skye O’Malley dies in All the Sweet Tomorrows, and Skye O’Malley goes on to marry several times after that and lives to a ripe old age.

This sort of thing is (cough, cough) controversial in romance. But it can be done with sensitivity. AAR reviewer Leigh Thomas contrasts two romances to illustrate this point. Home in His Arms, a contemporary sequel to the post-WWI set The Golden Raintree. The sequel features the original couples’ granddaughter and when it begins, the grandfather is already deceased. Leigh describes the “sad, but very nice” scene in which the grandmother “falls asleep beneath the tree and when she ‘wakes’ up he’s there and they’re both young again, just like they were in the first book.”

On the other hand, Leigh was very disappointed in Anne Stuart’s very hard-to-find Maggie Bennett trilogy. The hero of the first book (Escape out of Darkness) dies between the first and second book (Darkness Before the Dawn). Leigh says, “It would have been bad enough if he’d just been killed off, but then to replace him with a one-note jerk who was nowhere close to the hero of the first… Argh.” Maybe that’s why the books are so hard to find. There are probably copies of the second book imbedded in the walls of romance lovers all over the U.S.

I think marks for most, er, creative “offing” of a former couple should go to Katherine O’Neal. According to AAR’s Jennifer K, “The heroine of Silent Surrender is the daughter of the hero and heroine in O’Neal’s first book – The Last Highwayman. While there’s nothing unusual in that, we learn in the course of the story that when she was a child, her parents were tried and hanged. I imagine that if there were legions of Last Highwayman fans out there, they’d find that a bit of a shock.” I’ll say!

AAR reviewer Rachel Potter wonders what the author was thinking when she did that. After all, for most romance readers, there’s an implicit trust between reader and author where the HEA ending is concerned. There may be a few bumps along the road, maybe even some embankments that leap in front of cars, but it will come. It will happen. In The Princess Bride, Westley tells Buttercup, “This is true love – you think this happens every day?” Romance readers know that it can, if they have a big TBR pile or a bookstore with a good romance section. They also know that, as Shakespeare said in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Getting to the HEA is half the fun.

Psst, Laurie, cue the sunset.

Time to Post to the Message Board

histbut OT: What are the most memorable old movies you’ve seen, and which actors and/or actresses made a long-lasting impact on you?

histbut In many classic romantic novels like P&P, words of love are fairly subdued. By contrast, Captain Wentworth’s letter in Persuasion and Rochester’s declaration in Jane Eyre are far more expansive and emotional. Let’s talk about similar declarations in other classic novels – both subtle and expansive – and how well you liked them.

histbut If you’ve ever stayed up all night reading a book, do you feel kind of special, as though you really do belong to the “all-night readers’ club?” What other bookie behaviors make you proud?

histbut Have you ever done anything book-related of which you are ashamed? This might be failing to return a library book – permanently – or lying to a friend who asked to borrow a particular book, or anything else. ‘Fess up, chances are we’ve done it too!

histbut How do you feel about the marketing of books in the U.S. as compared to Europe? In the U.S., books are compartmentalized in bookstores while in Europe there’s less overt labeling, although “romance novels” have perhaps an even worse reputation over there than here. Do these labels and marketing efforts limit us or help us?

histbut The concept of “emotional reality” is worthy of further exploration. What are some romances that succeeded in this arena, and which failed, and why?

histbut That some romances have “rushed” endings in order to provide an HEA is obvious, but is there a real way this could be changed and still satisfy readers? For instance, if a romance novel sequel were an actual sequel rather than the story of a friend or relative and an eventual HEA was guaranteed after two or three books instead of one, would that work? What other scenarios can you think of that would satisfy readers and yet not lead to so many of those rushed endings?

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


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