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At the Back Fence Issue #185

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

August 15, 2004

Welcome to At the Back Fence. We begin a multi-column segment on romance characters with my discussion on heroes to love (next time we’ll do heroines to love), with an “about what she said” follow-up from Robin on the same topic. Then Robin writes about books that fall off a cliff.

Heroes to Love

Earlier this summer I saw King Arthur, and in the process fell in love with Clive Owen. When I mentioned this to some friends, they suggested renting a few of his earlier movies. My hesitation is this; just as I love Jeremy Northam in period pieces like Gosford Park (in which Owen also plays a part, but not a traditionally heroic one) and Possession, and particularly when he plays the hero (as in Emma, An Ideal Husband, and The Winslow Boy – there’s more chemistry between he and Rebecca Pidgeon in this G-rated movie than in a dozen R-rated films I could easily list), I don’t think I want to watch him outside this box I keep him in. It was incredibly jarring, for instance, to watch Colin Firth play the rake in The Importance of Being Earnest even though I very much enjoyed it, because, well, he is Darcy, after all. I’ve seen photos of Clive Owen in his other movies, and he just isn’t the “same” as he is in King Arthur, which leads me to believe that it’s a combination of actor and role that so excites me.

I thought King Arthur was a wonderful movie and thoroughly enjoyed Arthur and his men, the various battle scenes and swordplay, and the romance between Arthur and Guinevere. I could easily see the movie as the first in a series of books, with subsequent books following those of Arthur’s knights who weren’t killed by the Saxons. He’s got all the traits of a romance novel hero, including a group of male friends and a troubled past, and displays amazing acts of courage. Not only does he beat the odds in rescuing a noble Roman family in the north, outside Roman territory, but he stands up to injustice. And when he learns his Roman “city on the hill” fantasy no longer exists (if it ever did), he finds a new people to champion, and turns a major foe into a comrade.

I’ve brought Clive Owen as Arthur into an At the Back Fence discussion about romance novels because I want to talk about best loved characters, heroes this time (we’ll tackle heroines next time). Were I to poll you all on your favorite heroes, I’ve no doubt that Jamie Fraser would just about top the list, and that J.D. Robb’s Roarke would certainly land somewhere in the top ten.

When I try to think about my ten all-time favorite heroes it’s more difficult; many of my favorite romances either feature heroes who behaved quite badly throughout much of the book or are favorite romances for reasons other than the hero specifically. Some of my favorite romances are very much on the light side and simply lack the gravitas of heroes from darker and more intense reads. And while I adore light romances, it turns out that I seem to love darker romances more. And as I only worked from my list of all-time keepers, some heroes who are truly wonderful were left out, but I limited myself to DIK-only reads. Here’s how it all breaks down (and the heroes listed are not ranked, btw):

Born in Fire
A Kingdom of Dreams
Lord St. Claire’s Angel
Mrs. Mike
My Dearest Enemy
Night Fire
Sea Swept
Tallie’s Knight
AlexThen Came YouDark
According to my list of twelve favorite romance heroes at left (see, even I can’t follow directions and come up with a list of simply ten), two-thirds were featured in dark romances.
Type Romance% of Total
Light Romance38%
Light/Dark Romance6%
Dark Romance56%

I’m going to briefly share why I so adore these heroes before asking you to list and describe your own:

  • Rogan from Born in Fire: The love between Maggie and Rogan was most assuredly born in fire, but, as I wrote in my DIK review, it is “Rogan’s patience and skill will allow the fire not to consume them in a quick fit of passion but to burn slowly for the rest of their lives.” Roberts created a wonderful hero to complement the tormented Maggie and it his combination of self-assuredness, commanding persona, business acumen, good looks, and comforting patience that attract me to him.
  • Colin from Castles: As a second son, Colin has earned his way in the world. His five-year plan meshes wonderfully with Alesandra’s omnipresent lists, just one of the many ways these two fit together, and his finding fault with every other man proposed for Alesandra to marry shows readers how head-over-heels he is even though he’s not yet realized that fact for himself . He’s also devastatingly sexy in how he deals with his wife’s fears about sex, and his sense of humor comes through in everything he says and does, including how he uses his wife’s list to show her he loves her – a man without a sense of humor could never have done it.
  • Patrick from Indiscretion: I fell in love with Patrick early on, when it became clear that he would do anything to prove to Anne that he loves her and is worthy of her love. That “anything” includes this aristocrat playing a servant not only shows how far he’ll go in doing this, it also provides many of the funniest moments in the book. How can you not love a proud man who allows himself to be seen as someone born below-stairs, particularly when doing so makes it all the more difficult to spend the type and amount of time he needs to make his case with his heroine?
  • Royce from A Kingdom of Dreams: There’s a scene at the end of this brilliant medieval in which Royce makes a promise that nearly kills him. Though he’s worked to prove his trustworthiness, at the end Jennifer’s family plays into all her insecurities. As a result she extracts a promise that this famed warrior will hold himself back against her family in a tourney, and he does until that moment when she finally realizes that her family hasn’t played fair. Her running down onto the field and pledging her fealty to him is an act of courage in itself, and though I love Jennifer, I love Royce even more; after all, she does so after what he did for her.
  • Justin from Lord St. Claire’s Angel: Watching this cynical man find kindness and selflessness in himself made for a gut-wrenching read. It also made Justin a favorite hero. I was a goner when he arranged for Celeste to have hot baths that eased the pain of her arthritis, although it’s hard to determine whether that’s more romantic than a handsome and hard man falling in love with a plain woman whose voice is of the angels.
  • Sgt. Mike from Mrs. Mike: Though in no way is this a light read, I fell in love with Sgt. Mike early on, in one of the book’s light moments. Sgt. Mike, with a wink and a smile, tells Katherine Mary to “spit ’em out…and next time cook ’em” at the end of the disastrous currant pie scene. Sgt. Mike seems to know exactly how to love Katherine Mary, even at their most difficult time, when he must give her up in order to win her back forever.
  • Avery from My Dearest Enemy: When I originally read this book I decided I loved Avery because of what he was not – a rake. And though deemed physically feeble by his uncle, he is not the typical tortured hero. Instead he’s made his way in the world and become an altogether wonderful man, confident and responsible, while retaining just enough self-doubt to remain human. His candor with Lily, first in their epistolary relationship, and then later, after they kiss, is delightful, and he is among the most realistic of romance heroes I’ve ever read.
  • Burke from Night Fire: Perhaps I love Burke because at the time I read Night Fire, he was the first “gamma” heroes I’d read, and certainly the “nicest” of Coulter’s heroes at that time. His patience in showing Arielle that she is safe with him (after years of abuse by her repulsive first husband and her nasty brother) knows no limits, and it is through a combination of intellect and instinct that he proves this to her once and for all.
  • Cam from Sea Swept: Cam was my favorite hero the year Sea Swept was released, but makes this final list as a result of his appearance in a secondary role in Chesapeake Blue. Not that the reformed bad boy wasn’t wonderful in his own story, but his growth and maturity by the fourth book in Roberts’ series well and truly sold me on him. I’ve said it before, at times I wish I were Anna so I could be married to Cam!
  • Alex from Splendid: My love for Alex goes a long way in proving my “first as favorites” theory. Splendid was my first Julia Quinn, and, along with Deborah Simmons’ The Vicar’s Daughter, among my first romance romps. Alex is simply divine – handsome, clever, a good lover, wealthy, and not at all tortured – and head-over-heels in love with Emma, so much so that he colludes with buttinsky relatives on both sides to compromise Emma into marriage.
  • Magnus from Tallie’s Knight: While it’s true that Magnus wants a wife in order to have children, he’s not so much interested in having an heir as he is in wanting children. That’s unusual in a romance hero, particularly a traditional Regency Romance hero. And it’s but one reason I fell in love with him. He never stops trying to make Tallie happy, a very endearing quality that has its humorous (albeit frustrating) moments as when she explains why she won’t move during sex, and its more poignant moments, as when she believes he’s abandoned her in the country – in actuality he’s gone on a quest for her.
  • Alex from Then Came You: Alex doesn’t set out to change Lily so that she conforms to his ideal view of a wife. He loves her for herself, not despite herself. And so he fell in love with her, grabbed onto her, held on for dear life, and happily went for a hell of a ride. In a way he reminds me, as does Rogan, of my own husband in that he seems totally satisfied in our marriage even though I seem to lack some of the “wife” genes other women have in abundance.

So, if you can, go through your keepers and share how many are light, dark, or in-between. Then list out your favorite heroes, keeping your list as close to ten as possible. Were they from light romances, dark romances, or combination romances? And just why are they your favorites? Remember, we’ll do heroines next time around.

About What She Said (Robin Uncapher)

I know what LLB means about getting attached to an actor in a particular kind of role. I love Cary Grant but have trouble accepting him in some of his early roles – the ones where he is not a nice guy, charming and sophisticated. Cary Grant, IMO just has to be a nice guy or I get all upset. His early role as a cockney in Sylvia Scarlett with Katherine Hepburn did nothing for me. His later role in the soap opera like Penny Serenade was less jarring but still did not work because, in my mind, Cary Grant just had to be the kind of guy who could laugh at his troubles.

I had similar problems accepting Robert Redford in roles that did not include women. The only exception was All the President’s Men, a movie so riveting that nothing got in the way. But Redford in other woman-less roles was just wasted. He was too brilliant as a romantic lead to want to see him in anything else. I know he was supposed to be great in The Sting, but I was sorry there was no love story. Same goes for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yes, Katherine Ross was sleeping with him but there was no romance – and to me Redford without a romance is wasted.

I’ve given some thought about my favorite romance novel heroes. Most are dark, though there are some exceptions:

DerekDreaming of YouDark
RobinAngel RogueDark
Major ReedWith This RingLight/Dark
Lord Peter CarltonThe Mad Miss MathleyLight
AlexThe Bronze HorsemanDark
MichaelShattered RainbowsDark
ThomasWinter GardenDark
HartleyLord Carew’s BrideLight/Dark
Lord RagsdaleReforming Lord RagsdaleLight/Dark

I think I tend to fall in love more with the darker heroes, even though I absolutely love many light books. It must be tougher to write a light yet irresistible hero. The two light heroes that stand out for me are Robin in Mary Jo Putney’s Angel Rogue and Lord Peter Carlton in The Mad Miss Mathley.

Robin in Angel Rogue is just unique for me. He was a light guy dealing with a dark situation. At the start of the book he is still deeply in love with an old lover who rejected him. He had been a spy and has been through hell. He meets the heroine, who is a runaway with her own problems. The heroine, Maxi, sees all that is sad in his situation. But Robin is the kind of person who can make lemonade out of lemons wherever he goes. He is very smart, speaks a number of languages, knows how to juggle (of all things) and spends a great deal of his time making her life better. He is short, slight and blonde. After finishing Angel Rogue I had a terrible time getting him out of my head. I was in love and there were no similar heroes in other romance novels.

Lord Peter Carlton in The Mad Miss Mathley also had me falling in love. He is Cary Grant (in Bringing Up Baby). Once you have that picture of him you can’t get it out. He is so witty, so handsome, so tender…sigh. But writing him required a light touch and an unbelievable wit.

I do think that my favorite heroes are dark but, the best of them, usually have some light moments. I remember reading an old Linda Howard where the heroine reflects that the hero has no sense of humor. She is surprised she could love someone without a sense of humor. Much as I liked the book that hero would never be a favorite with me. There is a kind of amazing connection that can happen when two people in love make each other laugh. Lord Ragsdale in Carla Kelly’s Reforming Lord Ragsdale made me laugh so much I wanted to be with him regardless of whether he loved me. Of course I would rather have him love me.

Books That Fall Off a Cliff (Robin)

My favorite romance novel, Mary Jo Putney’s Shattered Rainbows, has two distinct halves. In the first half of the book, Michael and Catherine – the hero and heroine – meet and become friends. He is an officer and a soldier preparing for battle at Waterloo. She is the wife of a womanizing cad, known for her selfless devotion and nursing of soldiers on the battlefield. The romance between them is subtle. Catherine is faithful to her husband and Michael is determined to do nothing to compromise her. Not one word of love passes between them. Michael is in agony but does his best to ensure that Catherine knows nothing of his plight.

When Michael is wounded at Waterloo he almost dies. Catherine nurses him and finds a way to save his life; he actually receives a transfusion. But the two must part.

When they meet again Catherine is a widow. To me, as a reader, this was a great relief and I thought, now it’s really getting good. Finally Michael and Catherine could be together! Easy for me to say – I wasn’t writing the book. Mary Jo Putney, once she had dispensed with Catherine’s husband, had to figure out a way to continue the story. Continuing the story meant coming up with something that would keep Michael and Catherine apart. MJP’s solution is a second half of the book which is good, though not as good as the first. Catherine and Michael pretend to be married to secure her inheritance. They travel to an imaginary island. There is a fairly unbelievable action plot which is relieved by one amazing love scene.

As a whole Shattered Rainbows is a great romance, my very favorite. But I have to admit that it is a great book because of the first, unforgettable half. Whenever I reread the book I reread the first part and skim the rest.

The book does not “fall off a cliff,” but it does level out, or go downhill just a bit. I am not sure of this but I have a hunch that one reason the book levels off has to do with the way that modern romances are written. In today’s romances, the hero and heroine usually take the first half of the book getting to know each other and falling in love. Somewhere around the middle of the book they are in love and acknowledge their feelings in some way. Usually there is a love scene at this time. The second half of the book often involves resolving problems that would keep the hero and heroine permanently separated. This often means an involvement in some sort of action, suspense, or mystery that needs to be resolved before they can be together.

Had Shattered Rainbows been an old-fashioned, pre-1980s romance, Mary Jo Putney might have kept Catherine married and prolonged Michael’s time in the field. As in Gone With the Wind or in M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, they might have been separated for hundreds of pages and finally come together in one moving (G-rated) love scene in the last pages. Catherine and Michael would not have known each others feelings until they declared them in the final chapter – as happens in Dickens’ David Copperfield or in Thackery’s Vanity Fair.

But Mary Jo Putney was writing a 1990s book and so, she had no choice but to write a second half of her love story in a way that kept the couple together but emotionally apart. It’s a tough thing to do and nothing shows that so well as books one comes across where the author fails and ends up writing a terrific first half of her story and a so-so second half.

A fair number of books seem to go downhill once they reach that faithful point where the heroine and hero must be together without resolving the story. I think of these books as “books that fall off a cliff.” Have you read any lately? They are books you almost wished you hadn’t finished, books where the author wrote a cracking good one hundred or one hundred and fifty page story – and then did not seem to know where to go with it.

I thought a lot about this recently when I reviewed my reading log. My notes on Blair Bancroft’s 2003 traditional Regency, The Major Meets His Match, are typical of my frustration with books that don’t quite work in the second half. After a promising start, Bancroft’s book took a plunge. I detailed its fall in my reading log:

“Another book that falls apart in the second half. Hero is an engineer in line to succeed a viscount to become an earl. He is summoned by the earl when the heir dies and the second son is almost killed. The heroine is the snobbish daughter of a duke who lives with them. First half of the book is her being annoyed that he is taking over (the old earl is sick in bed and the heir is in a coma.) The second half is a farcical mystery about who is trying to kill the viscount. The humorous tone of the second half doesn’t match the first half. All kinds of new characters are introduced. The author seems to be stretching the story to make her word count. In spite of that some of the book is very entertaining and the hero is good. This book could have been excellent had it been rewritten to make the first half fit the second.”

Three of the trads I read in the first part of this year had the problem of falling apart in the second half. One was Bancroft’s book; another was Barbara Metgzer’s The Diamond Key. The third was The Redwyck Charm by Elena Greene, about which I wrote:

“This book takes a nose dive in the second half. First few chapters are very like A Civil Contract. Heroine is a cit. She becomes a dancer to escape her grandfather and hide from an arranged marriage. During this time she accidentally meets the hero. When she is exposed she is furious because she is sure the hero was simply tricking her. The premise is asinine and the heroine never apologized or seemed even slightly worried about being ruined. In fact she was the one at risk. Then, towards the end of the book she agrees to marry the hero in a marriage in name only. The author seemed to be straining to keep the tension up and was willing to let the plot be sacrificed. The last 30 pages were painful.”

These were just of the few of the books I read that were far better in the first half than in the second. For some reason the problem seemed more prevalent in the trads I read, but it came up in other books too. Non-trads noted for this problem included Julia London’s European Historical, Highlander Unbound, and Lynn Isenberg’s Chick Lit book, My Life Uncovered.

I asked my AAR colleagues if they had also experienced this problem. For LLB, the book that most memorably fell off a cliff was Edith Layton’s The Cad. The book was heading toward DIK status for at least the first half, until a “very sad and hand-wringing middle,” complete with a 100+ page separation and dreadful situations the heroine is forced to endure simply because the hero couldn’t be bothered to spend five minutes explaining things to his staff and to her, sent this one falling off a cliff. Though six years have gone by since she read The Cad, she still shudders in thinking about what could have been and wonders what would have happened had the book been a trad so that the second half would have been severely truncated.

Rachel Potter mentioned a few romances, first among them Lord Ruin by Carolyn Jewel. She found the final third of the book “completely unrelated” in terms of emphasis, pacing, or tone, to the first two-thirds. Lord Ruin was “the best completely disjointed romances” Rachel ever remembers reading. Laura Kinsale’s Uncertain Magic was another disjointed read for Rachel, who remarked, “Great beginning, and then suddenly there are faeries and other strange supernatural forces that take all the emphasis off the heroine’s creeped out uncertainty about the hero. Plus there’s a house fire. I hate house fires.” Rachel also listed The Suitor by Sandy Hingston; she felt it “went downhill in the last 100 or so pages.”

On the Potpourri Message Board PB posted that she’d had the same problem I had with Julia London’s memorable Highlander Unbound, a book I loved right up to page 267. As I wrote in my reading log:

“The first 2/3 of the book are wonderful. The hero is a Scotsman who comes to London to try to recover a valuable statue from some relatives. He finds a room in the home of a tightwad aristocrat. The house is dark, dank, dusty and generally creepy. Every character is carefully drawn. Not only were the hero and heroine unique, so was the servant, the villain aristocrat and the heroine’s daughter.”

But then, when I got to page 267 the book seemed to fall off a cliff! Suddenly the heroine was doing things that seemed unlikely, to say the least. The setting changed. I could not believe it. And, to top it off we have some hints of cute BDSM in the love scenes, nothing gross mind you, but I wondered if the heroine suddenly had managed access to the Internet in 1815! It was just stupid IMO. Still, the first 267 pages were so, so good that I would grade the book a B.

To my comment that Highlander Unbound “fell off a cliff,” PB responded, “Yes!! The ending of this book was completely unsatisfying,” adding, “the ending made me think everyone in the book was insane. [The heroine] sold the thing they wanted most…so they all (Liam included, despite his vow some few pages earlier to kill her) welcome her into the family with open arms!” Because she’s normally a fan of London’s writing, PB “kept waiting for this one to save itself, and it only took a nose dive at the end. And made me so not anxious for the next book.”

Aside from her comments on Highlander Unbound, PB offered some insights into why books sometimes fall apart in the second half:

“In the books I’ve read, the let-down at the end seems to belong to one of the following categories:

  • One character – the heroine, usually – has been very strong and even sensible during the book, and it’s only page 300. If she continued to act reasonably, the book would be over with one good, sensible conversation right then and there, so instead she goes off on a bender about something (I’m not worthy, he deserves more, blah blah blah). It totally destroys my good feeling for the character and the book…it’s very annoying for a character to get a lobotomy all of a sudden.
  • The conflict between the hero and heroine has been worked up into such a thing, it seems impossible for them to be together, so something very hokey/contrived/just-plain-stupid happens to sweep the objections neatly out of the way between pages 350 and 360. I can understand, and root for, people working out their differences and getting over their personal hang-ups, and even for deciding to thumb their nose at ‘what will people say’ but if it seems like they’re very much against it, then all of a sudden have some epiphany about life because of a rainbow or something, it just makes them look flaky.
  • Another reason, which is usually more of a contributing factor, is when a book is part of a series, and some of the issues in the book are left open for future books. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it leaves me howling mad; if I’m not already planning to buy this author’s next book long before the end, nothing left unresolved in the last five pages is going to persuade me otherwise.

“So I guess it usually looks to me like the author paints herself into a corner, and has to go through some weird contortions to get out of it.”

Many very popular books came under this sort of scrutiny by readers. Rosario, for instance, wrote about her problem with Suzanne Enoch’s England’s Perfect Hero; she found herself “fascinated” by the hero in the book’s first half, adding, “This is a guy [with] some psychological problems deriving from his war experience, and these problems are very real and very scary, not the ubiquitous nightmare (that wonderful excuse for the heroine to come into the hero’s bedroom to see what’s wrong!).” Unfortunately, she felt the book’s second half was “taken over by a very boring suspense subplot, and the worst part was that Robert, who had slowly began to crawl from his emotional black hole, jumped right out of it and became some kind of action hero.” Rosario called the result “very disappointing.”

Sandy Mc criticized a similar flaw in Deborah Smith’s A Place to Call Home, arguing that “The book starts out with such detail, painting such a wonderful picture of our hero and heroine and the small southern community they live in as children. It falls apart once they reach adulthood. Everything becomes much sketchier in terms of their worlds and motivations. I think the author just loves writing about southern towns (Duh!) and sort of loses it at times when the plot forces her to stray from that type of environment.”

Jo-Ann responded that she “just made” a note on second halves in Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. She wrote, “I was thrilled at the beginning of the book. It was just about perfect. The beginning had me laughing at the subtle humor and gasping at the depth of the fear and emotions being experienced. It was wonderful, but the second half got bogged down in the heroine’s everyday life and just seemed to go on and on…and made me numb there for a while. Sigh.”

AAR’s own Jennifer Keirans believes that some authors are more prone to this problem than others. She wrote:

“I personally think that Laura Kinsale is fairly prone to this. Rachel already mentioned Uncertain Magic. I would add My Sweet Folly to the list. It starts out incredibly well, goes along nicely, and then just sort of crumples towards the end.

“For me, what usually causes the fall-apart-in-the-second-half syndrome is the intrusion of a suspense subplot. I think that writing good romance and writing good mystery/suspense are two very different skills, and a lot of authors who write great romance do not write great mystery/suspense (undoubtedly the reverse is true, as well).

“Mary Jo Putney is a perfect example. I almost always enjoy watching her characters interact with each other, seeing all the little details of how they fall in love, and how they cope with the challenges that keep them apart. I also think she writes terrific historical fiction, and I love reading about how her characters are part of the tapestry of real events – like Catherine and Michael in Waterloo, or the hero and heroine of The China Bride set against the clash of British and Chinese cultures. But the more important her suspense subplots are to the book, the less I like it.

Dancing on the Wind is one of my favorite Putneys. I love the hero and heroine. I absolutely adore them. The love story between Kit and Lucien is absolutely one of my favorites in all of romance. But much of the second half of the book involves them running around eluding bad guys in a castle, being chased by big scary clockwork toys. It’s just bad. I hate to say that, but there you go. I love the book anyway, but I skip a whole lot of the second half.”

Much as I hate to agree with Jennifer about My Sweet Folly, I do understand her comment. It remains another huge favorite with me, but to some extent it does so in spite of the second half. The first half of the book is so amazing that it carries me through to the end.

I wonder if you all have had similar experiences. Do you think any of the books mentioned “fall off a cliff?” Why do you think this happens with romance novels. For me it happened most often with trads this year; is there a particular sub-genre in which you find this syndrome?

Time to Post to the Message Board

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

Name your favorite romance novel heroes, the books they are featured in, and why you love these characters so much. And, although we didn’t discuss this in the column, which heroes from what books did you most dislike, and why?

Since we’ve talked about movies, let’s talk about actors as LLB and Robin did. Which actors are your favorites, and for which roles? Are there certain roles for which actors seem destined? In other words, do you tend to “box” actors in to certain types of parts, such as Jeremy Northam and historical, heroic roles, or Clive Owen in King Arthur?

Which romances have you read that fell off a cliff? Why do you think they faltered in the second half (or final fourth)?

Are there romances you continue to love, such as Robin’s favorite, Shattered Rainbows, even though the second half of the book is nowhere near as good as the first? Or do most romances, once they falter, destined to be less than a favorite memory for you?

Are there any authors (or sub-genres – like trads have been for Robin this year) whom you believe are prone to cliff-falling romances? Why do you think that is?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books and Robin Uncapher

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