At the Back Fence Issue #167

September 15, 2003

In order to transfer columns from our old format more efficiently, links to authors have been removed from the text because our new design includes a mini-search module at the bottom of each page. If an author’s name appears in this column, chances are we’ve either reviewed their books, discussed their writing, or interviewed them, so feel free to search for them at AAR using the module.

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Although all the topics presented this time were worked on independently, it turns out that there are some running themes throughout. Lists Editor Rachel Potter’s discussion of the amnesia plot is followed by a segment on mythology, the collective unconscious, and how classic myths fit into today’s romance novels. That leads into a short discussion entitled “A Surprise,” and then we come back to a classic theme – the big misunderstanding. And finally we move back to the collective and a segment on shared reading histories.

In Defense of the Clichéd Plot Device (Rachel Potter)

This month, in my duties as Lists Editor, I’m updating the Amnesia List. In doing my preliminary searching for new titles, I came across a number of AAR reviews that trumpeted the fact that this particular series romance was not an amnesia plot (not to mention the earlier ATBF segment generally decrying the amnesia plot).

This started me wondering :What’s intrinsically wrong with amnesia plots? Why do we look down our noses at them? Is it because amnesia itself is so unlikely or is it in the execution of the plot that most authors go wrong? Yes, amnesia is rarely believable and the approach authors usually take with it is medically unlikely, but the modern Marriage of Convenience stretches the limit of believability too. Both are staples of romance and daytime soaps, but “amnesia” is always said with a sneer. Why?

To American readers amnesia plots should appeal as an extension of our national philosophy. At its heart, the amnesia plot explores the question “Who are we when we don’t have to be us?” It’s a way to examine how identity is different from one’s integral self. Isn’t that what we are about as a country – both historically and presently?

Just recall Emma Lazsrus’ famous poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The American Dream is all about creating yourself anew. So is the amnesia plot.

Recently I got a chance to watch the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. During my marathon of 78 Buffy episodes (seasons 1-4) I noticed that the Buffyverse makes it much easier to ask that same question. No amnesia is necessary. Instead, you can be cursed into a new identity, chemically regressed to your most basic adolescent self, or body switched. I was always extremely pleased to see these Buffy plots because it meant both a change for the actors and also further character exploration, in terms of what it meant to be Buffy or Willow or Giles at their cores.

Why can’t we give amnesia romances the same kind of slack? Really what they are trying to explore is that nature/nurture question we all ponder. When you distill us down to our most pure essence, filtering out all the conditioning and environmental factors and group dynamics, who are we? Are we better? Are we worse? Are we recognizable?

Perhaps we have so much disdain for the amnesia plot because losing your memory almost always produces the same results. It’s interesting that in romance, memory loss commonly results in a less complicated, nicer personality. Recently I read Mary Jo Putney’s Uncommon Vows. The heroine was quite feisty to start off with and completely opposed to the hero’s lascivious plans for her. One knock in the head later and she’s docile, innately sexual, and eager to please. She’s a lusty little saint – any hero’s dream come to earth.

This example illustrates well the pervasive underlying myth we have in America, that if you take away any cultural factors, we are all basically the same underneath. Culture, money, social status, manners and such are all just social constructs obscuring true selves. This is a very nice democratic ideal, but is it true? Do we really believe that? Apparently so. It would be interesting to read a Phineas Gage-type story in which head trauma leads to less desirable personality characteristics and the hero or heroine has to cope with the challenges of living with someone completely different and not necessarily better. This would be an excellent opportunity to examine what love truly is.

I believe the amnesia/change of identity plot still has some life in it if authors would take it more seriously and not use it as a gimmick. The complexity of the human brain and the notion of identity are fascinating concepts and could provide thought-provoking material. What do you think?

The Stories of Our Lives (Laurie Likes Books)

Last week my daughter said that she’d learned from her 6th grade English teacher that The Lion King was based on Hamlet. As I silently blessed the teacher, I was brought up short when my daughter then asked, “What are Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast based on?”

Mythology and religious stories can be considered part of the collective unconscious, to be perfectly Jungian about it. The story of how Hercules ascended Mount Olympus after a life filled not only with triumph but adversity is not the only religious story about the son of a god and a woman who becomes immortal as a result of good works, and scholars have drawn parallels between Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and Pandora’s opening of her box. This is one reason given for how easily the pantheistic Greeks accepted Christianity as their faith.

Other mythical stories are about succession, how power is transferred from one generation to the next. Ouranos, after all, prevented the birth of his children only to suffer castration at the hands of his youngest son, the Titan Chronus, which resulted not only in his own death but in the birth of the goddess Aphrodite. Similarly, Chronus feared the power of his own children and swallowed them at birth, only to be tricked by his wife into swallowing a stone in lieu of Zeus. When Zeus came of age, he forced his father to regurgitate his siblings and ascended Mount Olympus with them.

Other myths tackled nature, sexuality, fidelity, and love, and over the years, fairy tales were spun around these same concepts. In many instances the violence associated with myth was transformed but the morals remained the same. While Disney may take myths, fairy tales, and Shakespeare and create animated features with them, so have romance novels borrowed from these rich traditions.

The Beauty and the Beast story goes back into history quite far; in fact, some peg the myth of Cupid and Psyche as the original Beauty and the Beast story. But the story we know today as Beauty and the Beast grew out of the full-length novel written by Madame Gabrielle de Villeneuve in 1740, not for children, but for her rather famous literary salon. She based her written story on oral traditions, and in her version, the beast’s transformation back into the prince occurs before the end. A subsequent shortening of the tale does end when the beast transforms into the prince, and was written in 1756 by Madame Le Prince de Beaumont. This is the story most of us are familiar with, focuses on Beauty’s virtues, and is clearly aimed at a younger audience.

There are countless take-offs on Beauty and the Beast in modern romance novels. Authors as diverse as Judith Ivory and Amanda Quick have written historical romances with this theme, which has also been explored in series romance by authors such as Amy Fetzer and in single title contemporaries like one I recently read, Susan Wilson’s Beauty, but we’ll talk more about that particular title later on. For now let’s move on to other mythic and/or fairy tale themes common to romance novels, what they might mean, and why they endure.

Part of romantic love is sexual attraction, and exploring how beauty and ugliness might come together is endlessly fascinating. So too is the complexity of marriage and familial relationships; the twelve gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus were as dysfunctional a family as we’ve ever seen, involved in infidelity, jealousy, revenge, trickery, and just about every sort of betrayal you can imagine.

Another theme common to romance novels with a lengthy history is the passing of power and wealth. And when adding this succession theme to the element of family, sit back – you’re in for a roller coaster of a ride. One reason I think historical romances continue to resonate is because many medievals deal with the passing of power as a result of war and other conflicts. Go back to Chronos and his father, and Zeus and Chronus and you’ll see an early depiction of this; read medievals focusing on the Norman conquer of England or historicals set in the Regency where father and son are in conflict and you’ll see what I mean. And perhaps the will stipulation and arranged marriages endure even in contemporary romance because they too deal with transfers of wealth and power from one generation to the next.

And then there’s Cinderella, a story where goodness wins out over selfishness. There are at least 500 (some say 1,500) versions of this tale, and many a romance has featured a Cinderella-like heroine. Perhaps the earliest rendition of Cinderella comes from China, but instead of a fairy godmother there is a magical fish to assist the heroine. I can remember watching Leslie Ann Warren and Stuart Damon (known to many as Dr. Alan Quartermaine on General Hospital) in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version on television while I grew up. Later I shared this version with my own daughter on video when she was younger and its themes combining beauty and goodness against the ugliness of selfish behavior are truly parts of the collective unconscious.

There are many more fairy tales and myths out there that continue to resonate today, that continue to be a part, thematically speaking, of modern romance novels. Let’s discuss some on the At the Back Fence Message Board, but here are some quick ones to help jog your memory:

Narcissus was cursed after spurning a nymph by the goddess Aphrodite so that he might know what it was like to feel love and meet no return of affection. He is thirsty after a long hunt one day and stops to drink out of a pool of water, only to see a beautiful man in the water – his reflection – smiling at him. When he touched the water the man’s image disappeared, but Narcissus was awe-struck by the man’s beauty and stared at his reflection for days, unable to eat or drink. He eventually withered away. Like all the gods on Mount Olympus, Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, was a vengeful god, and beauty’s legacy in romance novels is obvious. Heroines can be pure and beautiful, but chances are, if a woman is sexual, she’s up to no good. Aphrodite, after all, tricked mortals into sleeping with her, was at the root of the Trojan War, and cheated on her husband with the god of war. Compare the sexual goddess Aphrodite with virginal heroines such as Sleeping Beauty (well, not Anne Rice’s version) and Snow White. Icarus was a young man of hubris who flew too high in the sky, daring to get too close to the gods on his wings made of feathers and wax, only to have them melt when he got too close to the sun. While pride has its place, too much of it and a literary character is sure to get burned. Romance novels are filled with characters who have suffered as a result of pride, and in many instances, these characters are doomed to villainy. Although there’s not a myth specific to Athena and Aphrodite, surely there are lots of themes comparing the attributes of these two goddesses, the former the goddess of wisdom and war. Even though beautiful women are often considered “good,” they are also the cause of mayhem among men, and when provoked by jealousy, can do great harm. How are intelligent heroines portrayed in romance? The bluestocking heroine is often also beautiful and brainy, which allows readers to have it both ways. But even when she’s not, she’s always one of the “good guys.” Can you think of a romance where the heroine was a beauty and the villainess was a bluestocking? I can’t. The story of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades explores the bonds of parental love, which knows no bounds. Demeter was willing to let the Earth go fallow in her desperate search for her daughter after Persephone was stolen by Hades. The other gods realize they will suffer (if the Earth goes fallow there will be no sacrifices to them) and work out a deal with the god of the underworld so that (even though she ate the pomegranate seed) she only has to remain with Hades three months of the year. While this story is one of mother/daughter love, families are critical in romance novels. Many of us absolutely adore sequels that explore the love relationships of family members and certain authors are revered for creating wonderful families. But while often a solid, nurturing force, families can be damaging. Just as parents meddle to arrange marriages for their children in romances, don’t they often do just about anything to bust up a relationship? Big Mis, anyone? Zeus and Hera’s relationship was perhaps stormiest of all on Mount Olympus. How ironic is it that Hera was goddess of family and marriage given that Zeus cheated constantly cheated on her? Though he did cheat on her with seemingly every mortal woman that moved, Hera’s jealousy is depicted quite venally in ancient myth, with innocents paying the price for her husband’s infidelities. Evil ex-wives, ex-girlfriends, and evil mothers/mothers-in-law are a staple in romance novels, and their behavior is rooted in a very deep place. While many a male villain is nasty because he’s obsessed with power and money, all it often takes to severely piss off a woman in a romance novel is for another woman to fall in love with her ex, or her son.

Obviously I’m more of a lover of Greek mythology than other mythologies, but I think this is a good start to get us talking about the larger themes that become intimate ones in individual romances. For instance, the terms “infidelity” and “infidel” are based on the same root word, but infidelity is a word we associate with unfaithfulness in marriage. It is a “micro” word. Infidel, on the other hand, refers to entire groups of people considered religious non-believers. It is a “macro” word. While entire civilizations were built upon myths – how the gods affected the environments of those who lived in those places, in those times – they are of interest to us when viewed in the “micro” sense, when we think about the themes used in the books we love.

A Surprise (Laurie Likes Books)

Not long ago I read a reissued book by Susan Wilson, a novelist I’ve enjoyed in the past. She first came to my attention in 2000, with Hawk’s Cove. While Cameo Lake, in 2001, didn’t live up to my expectations, her 2002 release, The Fortune Teller’s Daughter did, and I look forward to her new book, Summer Harbor, which I believe might be a sequel to Hawke’s Cove – at least it’s set there.

A few weeks ago I received a romance novel from Pocket (they continue to send me some releases even though AAR’s Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill receives and assigns all books for review). It was entitled Beauty and it was written by Susan Wilson. Given that her novels all have a romantic component, I was intrigued, only to discover when I looked at the copyright page, that it was a reissue of a book first published in 1996, four years before the first of her women’s fiction novels were released. In fact, according to BYRON, she had no books published after Beauty and before Hawke’s Cove. Because the book was quite short, I wondered whether perhaps it had been published as a series title under a different name, but no, this was originally published by Pocket in 1996. Okay, then, because she wrote it and because it was labeled “romance,” I’ll read it.

Beauty is not a genre romance; it reminded me, both in style and content, of Twelve Across and Three Wishes, both by Barbara Delinsky, the former originally a series title from 1987 reissued in 2000, the latter women’s fiction published in 1997. Getting beyond why Beauty is marked “Romance” on the spine when it isn’t a romance, though, and I have a larger question: Are there authors writing fiction, womens’ fiction, mystery, suspense today that began their careers as romance writers that you or those you know didn’t realize wrote romance?

My husband, for instance, reads Tess Gerritson, but had no clue she began her career writing series romance. And my cousins were tickled to see me wearing a purple baseball cap embroidered with the words “Plum Crazy” last year when they figured out it was a Janet Evanovich/Stephanie Plum cap. They had no idea Evanovich also started her career as a series writer. I imagine there are some readers who only know Barbara Delinsky as an author of women’s fiction, and I know of at least one author whose first non-romance release was marketed as her “debut.”

Big Misunderstandings as a Guilty Pleasure (Anne Marble)

Kick me out of the romance reader club. I confess, now and then (all right, all right, more often than not), I like to read big misunderstanding books. Yes, yes, I know they are the bane of romance plots, but I can’t help myself. I like the darned things – except when I hate them.

Sometimes, I’m even drawn to the ones I am sure I will hate. I swear I must have a Big Mis Gland. Sometimes, like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, my Big Mis gland cries “Feed me! Feed me!” This is why I keep an emergency stash of Kat Martin historicals and the like on my shelves.

Now what is it about the Big Mis plot that I like? Maybe it’s the emotional tension. Maybe it’s the grovel at the end, whether it comes from the hero or heroine. Maybe I just like feeling smarter than the hero and heroine. Or maybe I like these plots because when I started reading romances, almost all romances had a crisis about three-quarters of the way through the book where the hero and heroine split up for a while. Hence the big misunderstanding. So maybe I just got used to the good ol’ days of heroes and heroines who suddenly turned into blithering idiots on page 300 (page 140 or so in series romances). Oh, nostalgia!

I’m not kidding here. Some of my first memories of romance novels involve Big Mis plots. Some I remembered because they were memorable, others I remembered because they were so over-the-top. Yet even if I rolled my eyes at the stupidity of the characters, I still managed to love the repercussions of the Big Mis. I knew there’d be ladles of angst and tension. Even better, I knew that eventually one or both characters would have to admit they were wrong, apologize, and maybe even confess to a secret. I’ve always liked plots with those elements. Even when I was young and my main reading consisted of authors like Beverly Cleary and Scott Corbett, I was both fascinated and repelled by the fairy tale of Patient Griselda, which I consider to be the ultimate Big Mis story – with the biggest doormat of a heroine ever.

In Patient Griselda, Gualtieri, the Marquis of Saluzzo, is wary of the dangers of marrying an “unsuitable woman,” but is forced to marry to get an heir. A beautiful peasant woman named Griselda proves all he desires; she is beautiful and obedient. But rather than thanking his lucky stars, he remains suspicious and forces her to endure a series of horrible tests to prove herself over a 13-year-period. Not only does he verbally abuse her, he forces her to work as a servant dressed in rags, and convinces her that he has had their children killed (instead he sends them off to a kinswoman, who raised the daughter on the sly for 12 years, the son for 6). Eventually he hatches an elaborate plot as her final test of obedience, informing her that he is kicking her out and taking a lovely young woman as his new wife (unbeknownst to Griselda et al, his “betrothed” is none other than their daughter). And how does Griselda respond when Gualtieri asks what she thinks of the lovely young bride-to-be?

“My lord,” replied Griselda, “I think mighty well of her; and if she be but as discreet as she is fair – and so I deem her – I make no doubt but you may reckon to lead with her a life of incomparable felicity; but with all earnestness I entreat you, that you spare her those tribulations which you did once inflict upon another that was yours, for I scarce think she would be able to bear them, as well because she is younger, as for that she has been delicately nurtured, whereas that other had known no respite of hardship since she was but a little child.”

It’s at this point that Gualtieri determines Griselda is worthy after all; she’s passed his final test. Frankly, I think the one in need of tests here is Gualtieri – of the Rorschach variety – but at the celebration that follows, Gualtieri was judged the wisest of men (albeit guilty of subjecting his wife to intolerable tests) and Griselda was judged wisest of them all.

Like many other readers, one of my first romances ever was Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower. That book is both a perennial favorite of many romance fans and a classic eye-roller for many others. The whole thing starts because the heroine, Heather, thinks she has killed her aunt’s slimy brother. Then she runs off and is mistaken for a prostitute by a couple of sailors, so she lets them bring her to their captain, Brandon, who thinks she is a prostitute, because she thinks they are police who know she committed murder. She doesn’t even balk when she sees the ship, because she thinks they are already ready to transport her to Australia. (I know justice was swift and cruel in those days, but come on, this is ridiculous.) Brandon rapes her, she gets pregnant, and romance novel history is made. The book goes on like this, with more big misunderstandings, some stemming from the volatile combination of Brandon’s jealousy and the “murder” Heather is still trying to conceal. It was an exciting read, especially once everything came out right at the end. At the same time, it was frustrating, even in those days of yore, when my Big Mis gland was more demanding and… All right, all right, maybe I was just a less picky reader.

Although even when I was a less picky reader, I knew that when the plot hinged on a silly Big Mis, that something wasn’t right. I found it hard to respect a “hero” who would condemn the heroine he loved so much because he saw her hugging a man, who of course would turn out to be her beloved stepbrother. And I found it just as hard to respect a heroine who, instead of saying “That was my beloved stepbrother, you ass,” would say something along the lines of “You’re right, I’m a slut.” before striding away and waiting for him to grow some common sense.

Big Misunderstandings that Go Thud?

Okay, so Big Mis stories can be fun. But as we all know, so often, when the characters don’t use common sense, they can fail. So what makes a Big Mis plot got phhhhsssttt, so much so that even a “closet” fan like me hates it? Usually, rampant stupidity. And characters who forget the concept of rational discourse. (Intercourse, they can manage, but discourse is beyond them.) Oh, and let’s not forget heroines get so caught up in pride and anger that they counter stupid accusations by pretending the hero is right. Yeah, that’s sure to seal the health and stability of your relationship.

Like most other readers, I hate, hate, hate big misunderstandings where smart and balanced characters suddenly become jealous, mistrustful twits. Especially just in time for a nice little conflict before the ending. Or those where one of the characters keeps essential information from the other for no apparent reason. (Gotta give Woodiwiss credit, at least Heather had a pretty good reason for concealing information; she thought she had murdered someone!) Oh, and let’s not forget stories where the secondary characters conveniently avoid telling the characters that they are wrong about each other. (Oh, I’ll read those stories in a pinch, to settle my “Big Mis gland,” but I usually end up disappointed and cranky once I do so.)

In the 1980s, Harlequin Presents romances were famous for Big Mis plots. (At the same time, they put out some groundbreaking work, including books that broke rules still enforced by the Romance Police today.) I ate these books up, but I also learned to skim them before buying so that I didn’t end up reading a truly silly Big Mis. Skimming saved me from reading one where the entire plot hinged on the heroine being unable to have children and ass/u/ming that the hero would not marry her because he wanted to have lots of children. Instead of telling him this, she walked away. If she had T-A-L-K-E-D to him, the book would have been about 70 pages long. Another one hinged on the hero getting the wrong impression about the heroine when a conniving relative called him from the hospital on a bad connection and told him that his wife had a “spontaneous abortion” (miscarriage). He spent years angry because he thought she had aborted his baby, and she fumed because she thought he had refused to come help her recover from a miscarriage. I guess hubby never heard Relationship Tip Number 535: Never divorce a spouse based on something a conniving relative told you over a phone with a bad connection.

Contrast those plots to Robyn Donald’s Captives of the Past (Harlequin Presents 952), in which the heroine escaped an abusive first marriage but never told anyone about the abuse – because she didn’t fit in with her step-family. When she learns that her younger sister is going to marry her abusive ex-husband, she tries to intervene, but no one believes her. They believe the ex-husband’s lies and think she is simply jealous and trying to make trouble. Even the hero refuses to believe her. This led to a believable crisis. She had to stop the marriage, but no one believed her when she finally told them about the abuse because she had concealed the truth from them, giving the evil ex time to spread lies. No, the characters didn’t behave as PC characters in a current romance might, but they were all too believable, and the Big Mis worked. (By the way, thanks to Donna on AARList for helping me remember the plot.)

Harlequin Presents were not alone in the Big Mis department, though. Consider the early Heather Graham novel, A Season for Love, a series romance put out by Candlelight Ecstasy. This is one of those “heroine married to wealthy dying artist to whom she has never made love meets the love of her life on a cruise” books. Because she’s devoted to her dying husband, Ronnie lies to the hero, Drake, and pretends their shipboard romance was just a fling. When Drake later finds out she is married to a wealthy dying artist, Pieter von Hurst, Ronnie keeps up the pretense, letting him think she is a gold-digger. Even when the devoted dying husband frees her from the marriage, everything happens so that the hero takes that the wrong way, too. Pieter was behind a lot of what happened as he tried to push the two together. So ya woulda thunk if he wanted Drake to fall in love with his wife, he might have pointed out that she wasn’t a gold-digger or something. Yes, I enjoyed this book when I first read it, but I also wanted to bash Ronnie, Drake, and Pieter at the head with a rubber mallet. From romance novel to Whack-a-Mole.

And then there’s Diana Palmer’s Heart of Ice. Yup, Anne’s trotting that one out again. This is the one where the hero thought the heroine was a slut because she wrote sexy romance novels. Not only does he make this silly assumption, but at one point, she pretends to be a slut to secure a Big Secret. Lots of people in this book know that she is an innocent, but no one thinks to walk up to him and say “Her parents were missionaries. She is a virgin. You are acting like a dope.” Yet did I throw this book down after the first such moment? Oh, no, a true Big Mis addict can’t bring herself to do that. I read that book in the course of an afternoon – because I was too horrified to pull away. That’s part of the frightening power of the Big Mis to and addict like me. Stop me before I throw the book against the wall again.

Another Big Mis that didn’t quite work for me was in an historical romance novel. Near the end of the book, the heroine was kidnapped by a baddie who lusted after her. The baddie did thought he was raping her, but there was a big catch. He had no penis – it had been replaced with a reed or other device. When the heroine manages to get back to the hero, the hero tells her it’s okay if she the baddie raped her because he knows she didn’t want to have sex with that man, and she says something along the order of “No prob. He had no penis, just a reed, so he didn’t rape me.” The hero doesn’t believe her, and she gets angry, and then he gets angry at her because he thinks she’s not telling him the truth. Eventually they make up once the baddie is killed and indeed proves to have a wooden woody. The hero points out to the heroine that it was only natural he would disbelieve her story because it was so outlandish. Well that’s exactly the point. Who would make that up?! If she were telling a lie, she would have said something like “He didn’t rape me, he was impotent.” Only someone telling the truth (or a romance writer!) would say something about the wooden woody. On the other hand, at least this didn’t take up the whole novel to resolve, so it was only a blip in an otherwise good romance. That says something for the skill of the author. Too many authors let the Big Mis run away from them.

A silly Big Mis takes over Annette Couch-Jareb’s Cyber Bride, reviewed in 1999 by Blythe Barnhill. The plot hinged on a whopper of the Big Mis. The hero spent most of the book believing that the heroine was married to a much older man. It’s true that she was close to an older man named Harry. However, Harry was her…. (wait for it!) grandfather! It all seemed too contrived for Blythe.

Other AAR reviewers have had similar experiences with the Big Mis. Robin Uncapher admits that in her mind, the dumbest Big Mis of all time is the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo kills himself because he thinks Juliet is dead. Interestingly, in the play The Elephant Man, John Merrick said that Romeo didn’t really love Juliet because if he had, he would have made sure she was really dead before doing something so stupid as killing himself. John Merrick believed that Romeo loved only himself, and that he killed himself because the illusion was over. Or maybe that’s just another way of saying that he was “in love with the idea of being in love.” Interesting point. I think that many of the heroes and heroines in bad Big Mis plots don’t really “get” love. When they see a flaw, real or imagined, in the person they think they love, it shatters them.

Teresa Galloway hates Big Mis plots that hinge on the hero thinking that the heroine is a slut. She wonders why these heroes are both so good and so bad at figuring out who is a virgin and who is not. Reviewer Marguerite Kraft doesn’t like the major Big Mis (there are several) in Twitney, My Love Whitney, My Love. Because a complete stranger tells Clayton that Whitney has been sleeping her around, he rapes her, only to discover that, wonder of wonders, she is a virgin. As presented in the original edition of this book, the scene was especially brutal. But Marguerite wonders what would have happened if Whitney hadn’t bled. She also hates the way this plot implied that Clayton would have been justified in raping her if she really had been a slut, and that the rape was only wrong because she was a virgin.

On the other hand, LLB loves the way the whole deflowering thing was handled in a couple of books – Catherine Coulter’s Moonspun Magic, and Johanna Lindsey’s Once a Princess. In Coulter’s book, the Big Mis is partly predicated on a Big Secret; the two often go hand in hand. The heroine was injured in an accident that killed her parents, and as a result, her leg and hip is scarred and, what’s worse, she comes up lame when she over-does physical activity. She believes she is hideous as a result of her injuries and is mortified that others should discover her flaws. He knows she has a secret to reveal, but thinks it must be that she’s not a virgin, and so it goes between them until the true secret is revealed. His twin brother, a villain in the piece, drops evil hints throughout that he and the heroine have been lovers, feeding his brother’s jealousy and fear that the woman who is so passionate in his bed wasn’t a virgin. How the hero reacts when he discovers her real secret works wonderfully. He’s mad, but not because, as she feared, she’s “deformed.” No, as he tells her in a fury, if only she’d told him the truth about her injuries, he could have helped her discomfort (and he wouldn’t have been jealous and thought she’d slept with his brother).

In Lindsey’s Once a Princess, the hero makes huge assumptions about the heroine’s virginity (or lack thereof), believing at one point that she was a prostitute. He refuses to believe she’s a virgin even after he deflowers her and she eventually stops protesting her innocence – what’s the point? It’s only later, much later, just before their marriage at the end of the book, in fact, that his valet slyly leaves him evidence of her earlier virginity. By this time they’d already grown to love and learned to trust one another – virginity truly isn’t an issue anymore – and when he confronts her with the proof that he’d been an idiot, it’s a nice reminder of how far they’d come as a couple. To me, that sounds like a healthier relationship than so many of the “Whoops, you’re a virgin, I guess you’re okay after all” plots that hinge on a hymen , an awfully small piece of flesh on which to stretch an entire plot.

Let’s face it, if a Big Mis plot fizzles out, it’s usually because it feels contrived, and the reader’s suspension of disbelief is stretched as thin as a hymen. Contrived enough for readers to ask questions along the lines of “But what if she hadn’t bled?” or “But why did he believe the stranger/evil step-mother/circus clown?” I know, I know, we’re not supposed to second-guess the author. But if the hero spends the entire book loathing the heroine because he thinks she slept around, and they split up three-quarters of the way through, and then, on page 199 (of a 200-page novel), he finds out that she was a virgin and suddenly decides he was wrong and she is an angel, you have to wonder… Or if he learns that the heroine is an actress/model/romance novelist early in the book and decides that means she’s a slut/a slut/a slut, then you have to wonder….

Big Misunderstandings that Pack a Wallop

Okay, we’ve all seen examples of the Big Mis that didn’t work. How can the Big Mis work? There are three important words: character, character, character. Get the picture?

I’ve already ranted about Big Mis plots with characters who act, well, out of character. On the other hand, if an author creates a Big Mis plot in which the characters have real, believable reasons for distrusting each other or hiding stuff from each other, I am in what my brother calls “Dummy’s Heaven.”

And by believable reasons, I don’t mean “My wife slept around, so all women are whores.” Puh-leaze. Oh, and just because the hero has managed to be betrayed by every woman he knows since the was four years old, that doesn’t mean it’s OK if he distrusts the heroine. That goes in the Department of Contrivances, I’m afraid.

But when a Big Mis plot works without being contrived… Ooooh.

Take Johanna Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire – echoing Henny Youngman, many fans would say, “Take Prisoner of my Desire – please.”) Rowena must consummate her marriage to a skanky old lord and carry his child, or her evil step-brother will take it out on her mother. The skanky old lord dies, putting a huge wrench in their works. So the evil step-brother decides on the perfect plan – let’s kidnap a serf who looks like her husband, chain him to the bed, and make Rowena have sex with him. The “serf” is a knight, Warrick deChaville, however, and Warrick takes his revenge on Rowena, taking her away and imprisoning her. Sure, it’s a plot that gives a lot of readers hives, but it works because Rowena is driven by desperate need to do what she does yet at the same time doesn’t dare tell Warrick why she is doing it, and Warrick’s need for vengeance against her also makes perfect sense. It’s the kind of plot only Johanna Lindsey in her prime could have gotten away with.

Another Lindsey that could have gotten embroiled in a Big Mis and didn’t was Hearts Aflame. In that one, the heroine, Kristen, becomes the Viking slave of a Saxon, Royce, when her brothers attempt to raid his lands but fail. She sees her brother Selig cut down in battle. Later in the book, Selig turns up alive, and she helps him disguise himself as a Celt. Once Royce and Kristen become lovers, Royce does get jealous because of her secrecy, but that doesn’t overtake the book. The reason? I think it’s because Kristen is too busy kicking butt. Sure, Royce is an alpha male, but Kristen is an alpha female. In the first scene, she draws a knife on a would-be rapist. I like this woman. If faced with a Big Mis that lasted too long, she would have sliced it in half with a sword.

The Funny Big Misunderstanding

Even readers who loathe big misunderstandings usually don’t mind them at all when they’re used comically. I think it’s because we’re willing to stretch our willing suspension of disbelief a little more when we’re reading something funny.We’ve come to expect contrivances in comedies, just as we expect them in most sitcoms, and we don’t mind as long as they make us laugh. If we’re laughing, we’re less likely to roll our eyes – it really is hard to laugh and roll your eyes at the same time.

A contrived Big Mis that would ruin a serious romance can work like a charm if it’s made farcical.For example, take the beginning of Bonnie Tucker’s Hannah’s Hunks. For several pages near the beginning of this Harlequin Love & Laughter, the hero (who is working undercover) thinks the heroine is running a male escort service because she handed him a business card that said “Hannah’s Hunks.” This manly agent nearly flips his lid when she asks him if he wants to try one of her hunks. But before he can arrest her for being a madam, her “hunk” turns out to be a type of candy!

Imagine that Big Mis playing out in a serious romance, especially one that dragged on for pages. It would go phhhhsssttt. Picture your reaction if the hero suspected the heroine for pages and pages, only to find out she was dealing in sweets rather sex. How big would the dent in your wall be? It sounds about as contrived as the Big Big Mis in Cyber Bride. But lasting for a few pages, in a short, funny romance like Hannah’s Hunks, it was just right.

Let’s face it, most Big Mis plots are silly to start out with. So putting them inside a comic framework may be the best use for them! A Big Mis may be easier to take if it occurs in a humorous book. In a funny book, the Big Mis, no matter how serious, can’t overtake the plot. There is too much else going on, and the reader is having too much fun to worry about the Big Mis. Julia Quinn, for instance, used a Big Mis in Everything and the Moon. Yup, that’s right, Julia Quinn. She is definitely not the type of author anyone associates with the Big Mis! In Everything and the Moon, there is a Big Mis – the hero and heroine were in love but driven apart years ago. But unlike so many similar books, this one isn’t about anger and bickering, it’s about two characters who made assumptions in the past and who grow beyond them. In a farce, lots of misunderstandings, big and little, can create comedy.

Funny Big Mis plots are, well, fun – but they usually don’t satisfy my cravings. To really do that, I need lots of angst and stuff. Unfortunately, the serious Big Mis plots so often take out the fun and replace it with inane behavior. Sigh, what is a “closet” Big Mis fan to do?

Of course, Big Mis plots in comedies go back a long time – even before Three’s Company. I love Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, even though its Big Mis is quite lame. Claudio acts like a complete twit and believes that his fiancée Hero betrayed him with another man. So why do I love this play? Because it’s really about Beatrice and Benedick, that’s why. By making Beatrice and Benedick the real central couple, Shakespeare turned Much Ado about Nothing into a romp. Had it been about Claudio and hero, it would have been the comic version of Othello. Can’t picture that? Don’t worry, neither can I. I doubt even Harold Hecuba/Phil Silvers could have turned that one into Broadway gold.

When is a Big Mis Plot Not a Big Mis?

In the right hands, stories about miscommunication and secrets no longer seem like a Big Mis plot. A great example is Adele Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline. Caroline wants to study botany and is accomplished at mathematics – not desirable traits in a woman in Regency England. She secretly plans to travel to America to study botany at a university. But an unexpected arranged marriage to Brent Ravenscroft threatens her plans. She plans to get an annulment and travel to America later, only she has to fight her attraction for her husband. Yes, once Brent learns of Caroline’s secret plans, he is angry. But both characters have secrets, and it takes a lot of effort for them to mend their relationship.

In My Darling Caroline, the elements of the Big Mis plot are there, but the characters act like real people, so it no longer seems like a Big Mis plot. It becomes a plot about miscommunication and secrets, rather than a Big Mis story. Or maybe a book like this really is a Big Mis plot, but we’re just afraid to use that label. This is like categorizing some heroes as “gamma” instead of “alpha” – some fans have said that they think “gamma” is just a label that readers use if they feel guilty about liking alpha heroes. Maybe if a book is that good, people don’t want to admit that it’s a Big Mis plot because so many Big Mis books suck.

What do you think? I think it’s a tough call. As you might have noticed, I’m a fan of Big Mis stories and have learned to stop being guilty about that. Yet at the same time, I still don’t feel right labeling My Darling Caroline as a Big Mis story. It is, instead, the kind of story that can please both fans and detractors of the Big Mis. Big Mis fans get all the elements of the Big Mis – secrets, tension, angst, and apologies – but without the contrivances.And those who hate the Big Mis get a powerful story with, of course, secrets, tension, angst, and apologies. I think a story like MDC shows what I like about the Big Mis story, without actually being a Big Mis story. Although there was a suspense subplot in this book, the greatest tension came from wondering when Caroline would tell Brent her secret wishes – and wondering how Brent would react. The tension came from the characters, rather than from contrivances, and that made the tension all the better. The book wasn’t about a Big Mis, it was about characters trying to work through secrets and lots of baggage and coming to know each other.

Passing On the Books We Loved (Laurie Likes Books)

Reading Anne’s enthusiastic remembrances of Big Mis romances she loved years ago reminded me of some of my own favorite books, although these are books from my childhood. And when I finalized my recent Q&A with Jill Marie Landis and realized that one of the books she loved growing up was mentioned by several posters on a message board discussion this spring, I thought we could talk about the idea of passing on the books we loved.

At the end of May, author Carla Kelly asked what books we loved that our children or grandchildren now love, I’ll admit I haven’t been too lucky in this area; my daughter’s reading tastes differ greatly from my own, and I can’t interest her in Mrs. Mike, Gone With the Wind, Emmy Keeps a Promise, or The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. We’ve had far more luck discovering contemporary YA fiction together, although one series we both loved at roughly the samela age was Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family series. When I discovered the Betsy and Tacy series for her when she was much younger, I wish I’d known of it when I grew up.

One of my friends at The Romance Reader, Susan Scribner, has had fun reading books for the first time along with her own daughter. When her daughter, mine, and Blythe’s put together their list of Young Adult Fiction for AAR last year, I knew that many of the titles on all three girls’ lists were books Susan, Blythe, and I read along with our daughters. As Susan pointed out, “I dreamed of sharing the books I loved with my children but I’ve learned that you have to let them be themselves. And that sharing doesn’t only go in one direction.” Like my own daughter, Susan’s finds many older books slow-moving and wasn’t interested in the Little House series, although, unlike her daughter, mine has enjoyed the Narnia Chronicles, and, like Blythe’s daughter, thought Anne of Green Gables was wonderful.

But if it weren’t for my daughter, I’d never have discovered, as Susan did, both Louis Sachar (Holes, There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter). And, like Alison Kent, if not for daughters would I have ever discovered Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson series (even though simply mentioning the title of the fourth book – Dancing in my Nuddy-Pants – in mixed company has my daughter wishing I were invisible).

But many children remain traditionalists and enjoy books beloved by parents and grandparents; even in our house we have a daily reminder of The Velveteen Rabbit because of the threadbare condition of a certain stuffed bear who remains a valued member of our family.

One book that resonated for at least two generations of readers is The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Not only does Landis have fond memories of it (and Calico Captive, both by the same author, Elizabeth George Speare), but former AAR Editor and upcoming Avon author Marianne Stillings recalls staying up most of the night reading it. And she loves that her two daughters “love it as much as I did.”

For Carla Kelly, the book was Alice Dalgliesh’s The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, first published in 1952. Her mother read it to her while growing up, and she returned the favor by reading it to her oldest grandson. And how many women and their daughters, do you suppose, are like Blythe and her daughter, both of whom love, love, love A Little Princess, first published in 1905? It’s the story about a young girl whose magical early life is rudely ripped away when her father dies and she becomes an orphan under the supervision of a cruel school headmistress. It’s her imagination that gets her through the tough times, and by the time she’s rescued by a mysterious benefactor who turns out to be a family friend, it’s impossible not to be bawling like a baby. With so many mythic themes in A Little Princess, one can only wonder how many romance novels were written in homage to Frances Hodgson Burnett (who also wrote The Secret Garden).

Other books that have been passed from one generation to the next are Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, which explores the Revolutionary War through the eyes of a young man injured in an accident. But when I say “passed,” that doesn’t necessary mean successfully. Pegg was thrilled when her daughter was assigned to read it in school and gave it a tremendous build up. Unfortunately, her daughter hated it, leaving mom terribly disappointed. On the other hand, Marianne’s daughters both enjoyed it.

Susan has had mixed success with her three sons. The Narnia books are a family favorite, but she couldn’t get any of them to read Caddie Woodlawn. But as with the other Susan, and me, sharing of favorites goes both ways. She discovered Robin McKinley’s Beauty when her son got it as a gift. She writes, “He and I stayed up late reading it out loud to each other as my husband shouted up the stairs ‘it’s past his bedtime, turn out the light,'” adding that her eldest son convinced her to read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and “the middle one loved Richard Russo’s Empire Falls so much he practically stood over me until I finished it. He was right; it’s a lovely book.”

It’s wonderful to love a book beloved by a loved one, and I hope to hear from more of you about books shared – in both directions – between parents and children. My daughter, btw, read Caddie Woodlawn in school last year – and hated it. Thankfully she loved The Phantom Tollbooth or I’d have started to wonder just who her “real” mother was!

Time to Post to the Message Board

  • Let’s talk about the amnesia plot. Given its rarity in “real life,” why is it such a popular device in romance? Is it because, as Rachel noted, it allows for reinvention and/or a second chance?
  • What was the first amnesia book you read? How many have you read since? What are your favorite romances featuring the amnesia plot, and why? Which titles didn’t work for you, and why? Whom would you like to see tackle the amnesia plot?
  • Are you fascinated by mythology? Is it Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse, Native American, or some other ancient culture that grabs your attention, and why? And do you agree, as Carl Jung postulated, that these ancient myths are part of the collective unconscious?
  • Can you think of mythological themes that appear in romance novels? Which ones appear most frequently in the ones you read? Why do certain themes persist for hundreds, if not thousands, of years?
  • Are there authors writing fiction, womens’ fiction, mystery, suspense today that began their careers as romance writers that you or those you know didn’t realize wrote romance?
  • What myth do you think applies most to the Big Mis plot? So many of those plots are about a hero’s lack of trust for the heroine, as duly noted in Patient Griselda. Where does this come from? Can we blame it all on Aphrodite or the fear of being ravaged by a succubus? And what about the Big Mis plot perpetrated on purpose by a family member? (Think Paradise or Danielle Steel’s The Promise.)
  • Amnesia? The Big Mis? Marriages of convenience? Mistaken identity? Characters in Disguise? What are your guilty pleasure plots?
  • Are you ever nostalgic for the days when the Big Mis ruled in romance novels, or are you glad they went the way of parachute pants?
  • What are your favorite Big Mis stories, and what makes them better than the rest? Which big misunderstanding plots drove you nuts? Which seemed the silliest, most annoying, or most contrived to you? And if you generally don’t care for the Big Mis, do they work for you in comic plots? If so, why?
  • Which favorite book(s) have you shared with a loved one that then became a favorite of theirs? And vice versa, has any book loved by your child, parent, significant other, or friend become a favorite for you?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books, Anne Marble, and Rachel Potter

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