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At the Back Fence Issue #201

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

June 1, 2005

Earlier this year I went on an extended Harlequin Presents glom, and after talking about these books to friends at AAR a couple of months ago, one of them suggested an ATBF column focused on these romances. In trying to schedule it, it seemed that June 1st, the date we kick off our annual Purple Prose Parody Contest, would be most appropriate, because if these books are anything, they are filled with…ahem…memorable prose. We realize that the HP line may not be of interest to all of our readership, yet I think that elements from these books, while having a unique HP-ness to them, are easily recognizable to all romance readers.

So let’s not only consider Harlequin Presents romances in particular, please expand your thought processes and consider the whole of romances as you read through this column. My ATBF co-columnist Anne Marble began to read HP’s way back in the late 1980s, before either reviewer Lynn Spencer or I had even begun reading romance novels. While Lynn and I started to read romances at roughly the same time (the early 1990s), I am most definitely the newbie when it comes to reading Harlequin Presents romances. Following all of our segments is information to kick off our ninth annual Purple Prose Parody Contest, including a look at the big prize for the year.

Because I Can’t Help Myself (Laurie Likes Books)

Whenever in the past month Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback has played on the radio, I invariably say it’s a pretty silly song, but within a few seconds will start singing along with it. If I’m with my daughter, what follows will first be a lively discussion as to whether Stefani’s not as good on her own as she is/was with No Doubt, at which point I generally ask, basically as a non sequitur but still “Gwen-related,” if the whole Harajuku girls thing has gotten out of hand. My daughter has no answer for that, but then, I don’t have a very good response to the question she then asks: “Mom, if you think the song is silly, why do you always sing to it?” as my answer is basically, “Because I can’t help myself.” And that, in a nutshell, is my glib explanation for having gone an extended glom this year of Harlequin Presents romances.

Before I started to read romances way back in the early 1990s, I had this idea in my mind that they were written for the frumpy, dumpy, and lumpy who “weren’t getting any” in real life and for their thrills had to resort to reading unbelievable stories about powerful, wealthy men imposing themselves on innocent young women. Where, precisely, I got this idea I’m not sure, but it might have come from looking at Harlequin Presents titles at the grocery store. After all, when anyone wants to bash a book, they say it’s “like a Harlequin romance,” regardless of its publisher. Whether or not that’s because Harlequin Presents is the most successful of Harlequin’s series lines and therefore may be somewhat synonymous not only with Harlequin but with romance in general in much the same way as “Kleenex” or “Coke” are considered generic terms at this point, I can’t say. What I can say is that if people judge books by their covers, than judging a Harlequin Presents by its cover invariably leads to judging it by its title.

When I dove head-first into romance novels, I devoured Medieval and European Historicals by the gross. It wasn’t until a few years had passed that I began to read Contemporaries, and then, finally, Series titles (although I’d been reading Harlequin Historicals all along). I read Harlequin Temptations, Silhouette Intimate Moments, Silhouette Desires, Sillhouette Special Editions, Harlequin Blazes, and even a couple Silhouette Romances, but never seriously considered reading a Harlequin Presents…because of their titles. I’m convinced that much of romance’s reputation as being old-fashioned grew out of Harlequin/Silhouette’s view of the world according to women. While many of the other lines have become more modern, a perusal of titles doesn’t lead one to believe that the HP line, the most successful line worldwide, I might add, is among them.

But earlier this year, while browsing the UBS, I came across an HP written by an author I’d previously adored as a Contemporary author and thought, “What the hell?” I perused that section of shelving and when I left the bookstore that day, my purchases included some HP’s, each of which featured words such as “Billionaire,” “Virgin,” “Secret Child” or “Mistress” in their titles.

I don’t know if this is the case for everybody, but for me, titles featuring those words are not, as I’m assuming Harlequin believes them to be, “deal-makers.” They may very well be for legions of other readers, but for me they sealed the deal the other way for nearly a dozen years. It’s unfortunate that so many of the titles are complete misnomers – I’ve yet to actually read an HP starring a mistress (thankfully so, actually). After all, who in the last 30+ years uses the term “mistress” when referring to a woman in a sexual relationship with an unmarried man? What kind of woman, I wondered, in the 21st century, would want to read His Boardroom Mistress or The Greek Tycoon’s Secret Child, or, heaven forfend, His Virgin Secretary? But, going further, and looking beyond their titles to their back cover blurbs, what modern woman would want a steady diet of books featuring antiquated premises such as the marriage of convenience, the arranged marriage, or plots one might have expected to read in the 1950s, including those about incredibly wealthy men seducing virginal young women with the intent to set them up as mistresses?

Well, I can wonder no more, because that woman is apparently me. And the best reason I can posit when asked why is “because I can’t help myself.” Actually, there’s a bit more to it than that, and it has to do with one of the many changes romance readers go through over the years. Each of us have gone on gloms over premises, character types, and/or books we previously thought we’d never go for. It’s happened to me every single year I’ve been reading romance, sometimes more than once. This particular change probably started a year or so ago when I began to read Western/Frontier Historicals and encountered men more …challenging than usual.

You may not agree that there is such an archetype as the Gamma Hero, but he’s definitely the type of hero I’ve long since preferred. The Beta Hero strikes too close to home and since he’s generally such a good guy, there’s just not enough drama associated with him for a meaty read. As for Alpha Heroes, for too long they struck me as Alpha Asses more than anything else, domineering and dominating, unable to brook disagreement, quick to jump to the wrong conclusions, and often downright nasty.

When I went on my Western/Frontier glom, that started to change…well, it had to because, let’s face it, the men who settled the West had to be tough, decisive, strong, and capable. These were not men whose only form of exercise came from dancing or taking turns around Almack’s or boxing or fencing at a club. These were not men of leisure, going over accounts with estate managers or administering largess to those who lived in cottages on their land. These men were far more like the Medieval hero, but without all the baggage of court life.

The more Western/Frontier romances I read, the more I began to crave the hard-edged hero, the politically incorrect hero who falls in love with a good, strong (or seemingly weak) woman against his best efforts to avoid intimacy, and changes, for the good, as a result. Oh, he’s no pushover by the end, but his hardest edges have been softened. He may look like the same domineering man he’s always been to everyone else, but with the heroine he’s got some gentleness to him as well. Apply what they say about reformed rakes and you’ll get the picture.

The Harlequin Presents line offers contemporary settings for heroes like these. True, they are not common contemporary settings as, to a one these heroes are incredibly successful businessmen and therefore mind-bogglingly wealthy (even when they’ve inherited a family business they’ve made it all the more successful). They are also incredibly good-looking, generally live in an exotic locale, and for Americans at least, are “foreigners,” from Italy, Australia, South America, Spain, the Middle East (in some very vague, non-Islamic sense) or England. They tend to be highly sexed and wonderful lovers (natch) but also domineering and dominating, unable to brook disagreement, quick to jump to the wrong conclusions, and often downright nasty, like dogs with a bone, where the heroine is concerned, even before they’re a couple – how else would you describe a hero who threatens the heroine that he could have her thrown out of the country if she crosses him, as Blaize Stephenson does in Robyn Donald’s A Summer Storm? In fact, it’s this bizarre love-based hostility only existing in romance-land that forms the basis for many an HP relationship.

Have I convinced you yet? Hardly! If the heroes of these books are all of these things, than what are the heroines like? Well, in most of the titles I read, the heroines were not virgins – and if one was, it didn’t make her “better” in the eyes of the hero. If the hero was lucky enough to be her first, he was arrogantly pleased about it (likewise, while overly and overtly macho, many an HP hero encourages his heroine to continue in her chosen profession, something of a surprise to me). As with many a heroine depicted in a Western/Frontier romance, the HP heroine is perhaps outwardly reserved yet spunky underneath, or fresh-faced and naive yet resourceful, highly intelligent, and stronger than she looks. And if she is experienced and successful, she’s met her match because no matter how powerful an HP woman may be professionally, her hero is more powerful. In, yes, an old-fashioned way, regardless of this woman’s demeanor and/or position, she’s somehow all the more feminine as a result of her relationship with the hero, just as he’s more of a man as a result of being “gentled” through love.

I’ve realized in the years since picking up my first romance novel that it’s quite possibly for a woman to live one type of life and at the same time happily read about another type of life, even if it goes against the political and/or social grain. In other words, if I had a “real” job (outside AAR) and were lucky enough to earn more money than my husband, I’d be thrilled – and so would my husband. A tremendous disservice is done to romance readers when we’re told that Romance is anti-feminist, as many of the romances I most love feature women of great responsibility, ability, and power. But if those critics are going by the HP model, I can see why they may think as they do. And yet, as I’ve argued many a time in this column and on AAR’s message boards, give us credit as intelligent people who know the difference between fantasy and reality. After all, I can differentiate between the two, and if in reality I’m an Alpha female, who’s to say I can’t enjoy a romance featuring an ultra-Alpha male?

I’m a fan of Carl Jung, particularly his theory of the Collective Unconscious. Perhaps less well known is his analysis of dreams. Jung’s theory was that each person in our dreams represents a different facet of our own personality. I mentioned on the ATBF Message Board last month that many years ago, while going through a particularly difficult time, I dreamed I was on a spaceship and somebody pushed me out of an airlock into the void. That’s when I woke up, btw, and according to Jung, part of me had just killed another part of me. In working through the dream I learned a pretty basic truth, but as with many basic truths, one that doesn’t necessarily hit home until you’re hit over the head with an anvil – or a dream like this one. As a result of the dream and Jung’s views I learned that self-protection, cutting yourself off from your feelings, doesn’t work, and worse, it makes you die on the inside because you not only cut off the bad, but the good as well.

In a roundabout way I’m getting to the idea that a reader can enjoy reading a variety of premises and maintain her confidence and independence as a woman in much the same way as a reader may enjoy both Romantica and “kisses only” traditional Regencies. If multiple facets of my personality are manifested in my dreams, why can’t and why shouldn’t a variety of romances speak to different parts of me…and you?

It’s been said that the sign of true intelligence is the ability to hold opposing views in your head. Whether or not that’s true I can’t say, but it is true that we can and often do hold opposing views in our heads – so it’s not only possible but probable that we could read and enjoy a storyline that goes against our grain – even if it “sells” a world view with which we disagree, or realize cannot be true. We as people are complex and multi-faceted, and it stands to reason that as readers we would be equally as multi-faceted. I don’t recommend that everyone go out and start reading Harlequin Presents novels because not everyone would like them, but if you do, you might find that they are a sort of guilty pleasure read. They certainly are for me, and I have many additional HP’s in my stash to turn to when I feel the need or desire.

As for the uninitiated, just know that, in addition to the settings and character types, these books are anything but subtle. Consider Lindsey Armstrong’s The Hired Fiancee, in which the hero is so wealthy that he can (and does) throw a $50,000 engagement ring into the river after his fake fiancee breaks off their engagement. Then there’s Cathy Williams’ His Virgin Secretary (fyi, in no real sense of the word is the heroine in this book the hero’s secretary). In one amazing scene, the heroine climbs out of the swimming pool, sees the hero looking at her and moves to cover herself up. The hero stops her, taking hold of her arms. She tries to stop him, reminding him that his almost-fiancee is close by, but he points out that her nipple has gotten “erect” and asks her whether it’s the cold or her body’s response to him before running his finger over the pert little bud. HP’s also often feature words and/or phrases unusual outside the world of HP’s, and are written in a lush, overly ripe manner that makes this the perfect column to kick off our ninth annual Purple Prose Parody Contest. Stick around for that.

As any romance reader knows, part of discovering a new avenue of reading is making discernments within that avenue. My HP experience has been no different. I already have a “favorite” HP author – Cathy Williams – and know the types of stories that work for me, and those that don’t. Given what I’ve already shared in this column about where I’m at as a reader, it probably won’t come as any surprise to learn that, generally speaking, my least favorite HP’s feature heroes who, while still arrogant and manipulative, are less like dogs with a bone, or, if you prefer, dogs in the manger, about their heroines. As far as subtlety goes, I guess I don’t want it in my HP’s. This lack of subtlety creates a unique intensity, making the endings all the better.

To date, Riccardo’s Secret Child and The Greek Tycoon’s Secret Child, both by Cathy Williams, have been my favorite Harlequin Presents romances. Both earned straight B’s from me, strong proof of the “because I can’t help myself ” factor – in other words, why else would I gobble up like candy a group of books (or glom an author) when I can recommend only two without qualification?

Riccardo’s Secret Child is not a traditional Secret Baby/Secret Child story, and nearly all the HP’s I’ve read with “Secret Baby/Child” in the title are not “secret baby” stories encountered in other series lines or single titles. These babies tend to stay secret only en utero, sometimes possibly for no more than a few pages. I know they’re out there, but of the dozens of HP’s I’ve read to date, none feature a hero who discovers years later that they had a child with the heroine. Riccardo’s story presents a novel twist on that theme. Here’s what the back cover blurb reveals about the book:

Millionaire businessman Riccardo Fabbrini was furious that his child had been kept a secret from him! He blamed his motherless daughter’s guardian – prim, pretty Julia Nash – and he intended to use the most powerful method of revenge at his disposal: seduction! After all, no woman had immunity against the full force of his charm….

But with each tender kiss he shared with the surprisingly passionate Julia, Riccardo’s anger began to dissipate, and his strongest emotion was replaced by something new, something he’d never felt before….

Julia Nash’s brother is the man Riccardo’s ex-wife left him for. Neither her brother or his ex-wife saw fit to tell Riccardo he’d fathered a child, but after their death, when Julia became guardian for the little girl, she decides Riccardo must know about his off-spring. When told he is shocked, devastated about being kept away from his daughter…and supremely angry with anyone who knew about his child but didn’t see fit to tell him.

Although Julia is not his type (of course…are they ever?), he is torn between his lustful feelings for her and the desire to take revenge upon her family. He decides to tackle both problems by insinuating himself into Julia’s life so he can seduce her and break her heart. But things never turn out as planned, and after a wild seduction scene in the private garden of a club, Riccardo steps up his plan to be a part of not only his daughter’s life, but Julia’s as well.

Most of the HP heroes I’ve encountered are beyond arrogant…they’re angry, and particularly so at the women they are coming to love. And the heroines are guaranteed to behave feistily, guaranteeing constant conflict and drama. For instance, Julia decides to have a make-over – nothing to do with Riccardo, though (right) – and to go to a party, but allows him to believe she’s going out on a date dressed like a siren. Riccardo decides he will move himself into Julia’s house so he can be closer to his daughter (while pursuing his revenge, presumably), but he’s obviously really there because he can’t stand the thought of being away from Julia, or the idea that another man may take an interest in her.

If none of this sounds particularly plausible, it’s not. From the seduction scene to Riccardo’s moving into Julia’s house to her taunts of him that are entirely out of character, the storyline is preposterous and melodramatic. I liked it anyway. The author pushed several of my emotional buttons, making it nigh unto impossible for me to stop turning pages to see: what unbelievable course of action Riccardo would next take; how Julia would respond to his high-handedness; but most importantly, when and how they would finally admit their feelings. I didn’t read Riccardo as a stalker; I saw that his presumptuous, macho behavior grew out of his overwhelming and frightening love for “the enemy.” Julia wasn’t clueless; her head-held-high behavior was clearly a defense mechanism to avoid being hurt when, as she assumed they would, the attentions of a powerful, wealthy, and handsome man toward a rather unexceptional woman waned.

“Oh, how the mighty have fallen!” might be a catch phrase to describe the typical Harlequin Presents male as I’ve encountered him. I think that’s part of these books’ charm, which takes groveling to new heights. These lusty and proud Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards are more likely to get a tear in their eye than the stoic Western/Frontier hero, though, and that’s also part of their appeal. Throughout their stories these men steamroll the heroines, manipulate situations, and work things to their best advantage. They often don’t realize until “too late” that they’ve done so because they are so overwhelmingly in love with the heroines that they’ve behaved obsessively, but when it hits them, it hits them like a ton of bricks. That’s what happened with Gio Cardella and in Kate Walker’s A Sicilian Husband. After a passionate night together, Gio lets Terrie Hayden (most likely a gold digger, of course) believe that he’s married (he’s not – he’s a widow and father of a young son) and the two fight. Later, Gio seeks Terrie out at her apartment and convinces her to go to his home in Sicily, presumably for a vacation – but really to see if she’s pregnant with his child. Only HP readers realize that he wants her with him because he can’t bear being apart from this woman. It’s only after a very late misunderstanding in the story that Gio admits to his true feelings.

As another example, witness the back cover blurb for The Greek Tycoon’s Secret Child:

Gorgeous billionaire Dominic Drecos has sworn off women… until he spots the most beautiful girl he has ever seen and decides he has to have her! Matilda Hayes truly is stunning, but she makes it extremely clear she is off limits.

Dominic, however, doesn’t give up easily, and Mattie very quickly falls for his irresistible charm. She has never experienced such a powerful, burning attraction before. She also has a new dream job — but then the bombshell drops: she discovers that not only is Dominic her new boss but she’s also pregnant with his baby….

Dominic Drecos, the hero of The Greek Tycoon’s Secret Child, lives in London, and is waited upon one night while entertaining clients at a club by Matilda Hayes. Though both are immediately attracted to each other, he assumes she’s little better than a whore for working there and she assumes he’s your typical grab-ass patron. He insinuates himself into her life even though she’s still living with her one-time teenage love. Though the love is gone, they’ve not actually gotten around to breaking up with each other because of the history between them. But also because he’s mooching off of her, which makes it all the more difficult for her to be successful in the classes she takes during the day so that she won’t have to be a barmaid by night.

In addition to HP heroes being beyond arrogant and often angry, they are also manipulative, proof, I suppose of their cunning abilities to succeed in the cut-throat business world. They are able to have their first “dates” because Dominic promises help to the club’s owner if he’ll give Mattie time off. Later, after Dominic realizes Mattie isn’t the gold digger type (and thankfully, that doesn’t take long!), he decides to help her be a success in life, but he does it on the sly…what do you think happens when she discovers the truth behind her fab new apartment and job? And what do you think happens when Mattie learns she’s pregnant, sometime after they’ve split up over his manipulation? More manipulation of course, but also true love.

I have a soft spot for heroes who use manipulation to help heroines. Yes, it’s conniving and playing god, but when I read about it in romances, I often choose to see it as romantic rather than as an insult to the heroine’s ability to take care of herself, and/or succeed on her own. It’s the whole fantasy versus reality thing again – an underlying reason why I went into government rather than business as a career was because I knew my father would be unable to pull strings to help my career – but it seems somehow “romantic” for the hero to love the heroine so much that he’ll go to such lengths to help her along her way. And, in this instance, actually, while I understood Mattie’s not wanting to be manipulated, I thought her childishly petulant for refusing to see that all Dominic wanted to do was help her because he cared for her.

Perhaps my favorite scenes in this book come when Mattie informs Dominic of her pregnancy. For two intelligent people, neither has a clue what the other is thinking. He’s incredibly angry that she’s chosen a noisy restaurant to drop this little bombshell on him, and she takes his anger to mean something else entirely. They decide to continue their discussion in a more quiet locale, so Dominic follows Mattie to the crappy apartment she moved into after they broke up, and goes ballistic when he sees where she plans to raise their child. Mattie clearly loves Dominic but believes he can’t love her because he didn’t have enough faith in her to make it on her own, and so puts on facade that she doesn’t need him in her life…or that of their baby. Dominic loves Mattie but believes she doesn’t love him because she so disdains everything he has to offer. It’s a tug of war from start to finish, and I adored every single melodramatic word.

I could go on and on about the dichotomy Harlequin Presents novels are for me – after all, I LOL when I read that Julie Elizabeth Leto “could never write for Harlequin Presents [because] the men are too alpha and the women too weepy for me. My heroines would use that money their former lover’s family paid her off with to hire the Italian magnate’s Uncle Guido to bump his ass off and drop his lifeless body off the coast of Sicily. But that’s just me.” In a way, that’s the fun of these books – I know they’re outrageous, overly-written, flowery of prose, melodramatic, and because of their settings, characters, and storylines, lack meaningful realism. How many women do you know who meet their beloved as Angie Blessing met Hugo Fullbright in Emma Darcy’s His Bought Mistress? When Angie’s best friend makes a mistake and, instead of her own picture going up as a singles ad, Angie’s picture lands on a huge billboard on a crowded street with the caption “Foxy Angel” underneath, she just can’t convince Hugo Fullbright that she’s not looking. When she shows up for a business appointment with him, he doesn’t believe her story that it was “her friend” who placed the ad, and offers to spirit her away to Tokyo for the weekend.

See what I mean?

On the other hand, these books fit where I am right now on my journey as a reader, speak to emotions I must need to hear at this point in time, and like those old Calgon commercials, “take me away!” to places I’ll never live and people I’ll never know. They also allow me to imagine what it would be like to be a different kind of woman, in love with a different type of man. More than that, though, they’re just plain fun.

Reading and enjoying these books, for whatever reason, is also more proof that as readers, it’s probably wise to “never say never.” Each and every time I’ve not read a book because of a premise, storyline, or character type, I’ve eventually read one that changed my mind. Refusing books out of hand has never helped me as a reader, and forcing myself out of my comfort zone usually pays off in some way.

I’m not alone at AAR in reading Harlequin Presents romances. New reviewer Ha Nguyen, loves the series romance format in general because they are more romance and less plot. While the titles might be overwrought, they at least provide clues as to what them is prominent in the book. She finds that reading HP’s are like “eating only my favorite desserts for dinner – at least every now and then. Sinfully unhealthy and unbalanced, but sooo delicious.”

Ha’s favorite HP author is Michelle Reid, and she cherishes many of her older titles (she’s been published since 1989) as re-read keepers. For her these books are “romance in essence, intense and emotional. Reid completely focuses on the romance and doesn’t add any unnecessary subplots which would distract from the adorable hero, heroine, and their passionate relationship.” Ha isn’t such a big fan of this author’s newer books because they lack Reid’s “trademark emotional intensity.”

Like me, Ha considers HP’s guilty pleasures. Among her other favorite HP authors include Susan Napier, and the older works of Lynne Graham, Charlotte Lamb, and Emma Darcy, for a variety of secondary reasons, but mostly because they “deliver deliver dominant, good-looking, strong, honorable heroes who love the heroine unconditionally and obsess over her insanely.” I’ve had mixed luck with Emma Darcy myself and actively disliked Lynne Graham, but will now have to suss out some older Charlotte Lamb titles at the UBS…

Both Anne Marble and Lynn Spencer have read a multitude of Harlequin Presents novels, and each of them has written about them for this column. First up – Anne Marble.

Harlequin Presents – A Love and Hate Affair (Anne Marble)

Since I started reading Harlequin Presents in the late 1980s, I’d had a love/hate affair with them. I don’t even remember my first one, but I probably found it at the Book Rack in Maryland, a used bookstore near my home at the time. Eventually, as I discovered new writers writing a different kind of romance, I turned away from HP’s. Maybe I no longer needed what they gave me, or at least I didn’t need my fix as often. Yet for several years, HP authors were a major part of my life.

In fact, one of the great delights of my lust for HPs came when the bookstore rearranged the titles so that they were sorted by authors’ name rather than by number. (I shudder to think at how much work this must have been as even then, HP had more than a thousand titles available!) They hadn’t done this for any of the other series romances, so I think it proves that a lot of HP fans were looking for their favorite authors – Robyn Donald, Caroline Mortimer, Daphne Clair, Anne Mather, Violet Winspear, Charlotte Lamb, Emma Darcy, and Penny Jordan, among others. Oh, yes, and how can I forget Janet Dailey, the first American to write HPs? This helped me look for books by favorites, and to avoid books by authors who’d let me down (or pissed me off) in the past. (For example, I tended to avoid Sara Craven because one of her books started out with the hero spanking the heroine when he got angry at something she said. I recently reread the scene and now suspect he spanked her because he realized he was going to lose the argument.) Quite a few of the authors I loved are still writing, although many have also retired or passed away.

At the time I discovered HPs, I was reading all sorts of romances, including many I would avoid today – even captive Indian bride stories. I read series romances, too, including Diana Palmer and early Heather Graham. Many of the stories I read were full of plots about silly big misunderstandings. It was as if heroes and heroines weren’t allowed in most romance novels unless they failed a relationship quiz from a magazine. Still, at their best, these stories were potent and heart-wrenching tearjerkers. To be fair, at their worst, the stories could still be potent and heart-wrenching tearjerkers. Sure, I knew the authors were playing me like a puppet, but I wanted to get played. We watch Hitchcock movies knowing Hitch is going to use characterization, music, camera angles, and so forth to make us worry about the characters. I read HPs knowing I would probably share the heroine’s heartache, or at the very least, join her in wanting to thump the hero over the head.

In this world, the HPs weren’t all that different. OK, they were different, just not all that different. While most series romances took place in the U.S., and were sometimes about regular people, the HPs promised exotic locations; older, wealthy heroes; and almost always, younger (much younger!) virginal heroines. Not to mention big misunderstandings by the bucketful. I ate big misunderstandings (and big secrets and spats) up like candy. The heroines were usually British, and while the heroes were British, they could be wealthy Italians, wealthy Spaniards, wealthy sheiks, wealthy… well you get the point. The writing could be weak, often relying on stock phrases such as “his sardonic scowl.” At this time, the books were entirely from the POV of the heroine.

At the same time, these books took chances. Some of the first romances I saw about spousal abuse, drug abuse, and suicide, among other controversial issues, were HPs. A great risk-taking example of this is No Escape by Daphne Clair, where the hero asks “What sort of woman can walk out on a baby?” And over the course of the novel, the author tells us and makes her sympathetic. Also, for all the books that depended on the heroine’s virginity to prove her innocence (oh sigh), I also saw books where the heroine wasn’t a virgin, and the hero accepted that. Sex? Yes, they did have sex, at a time when most series romances coming out of the U.S. did not.

There were several plots I sought out – even as they frustrated me. One was the revenge plot – the hero or heroine seeking vengeance against the other. In more stories than I care to remember, the hero was wrong about the heroine – for example, he wanted revenge against her because he thought she’d slept with a friend and somehow driven him to suicide. Of course, he never found that she was innocent until he had totally screwed her over, often literally as well as figuratively. Then there were those stories where the hero used the heroine as part of his revenge against someone in her family. I didn’t like this plot so much. Even the silliest of big misunderstandings makes more sense than hurting an innocent because you have a beef with someone in her family. Stories where the heroine sought revenge were rarer but no less powerful. In fact, I think my first HP was a revenge story of sorts. In Lindsay Armstrong’s Enter My Jungle, the heroine was trying to make her way in the big city and not having a good time of it. Because she was distracted while trying to rush to a job interview, she got into an accident with at a traffic light. The hero was the prosecutor who handled her case. After the trial, she overheard him make a crass comment about her and became determined to get him back for this. Yet he isn’t as bad as he seems, and he gets her a much needed job. Eventually they marry, although she goes back home when they have problems in the marriage. In some ways, both characters were so high school – he said rude things about women, and she tried to show him up. Still, at the time, I thought the machinations of the plot were cool. Besides, who hasn’t overheard someone say something rude about us and imagined getting back at them?

Another plot I liked, for some twisted reason, was the one where the heroine took the place of someone else, such as a sister, and then ended up getting the punishment that was supposed to be leveled against her double. (This plot is far from dead. The heroine in one of Laurie’s favorite romances, Daydreamer by Jill Marie Landis, took the place of a double.) This one is tough to pull off because it usually involves the heroine being brave enough to agree to take someone else’s place, and yet dumb enough to believe that the other person isn’t up to something. Still, the moment when the hero realizes he has been tormenting the wrong person is worth the price of admission.

What drew me to these stories? After all, they were often full of silly big misunderstandings, and often, heroes who treated the heroines like dirt. But sometimes, that’s where the fun was. What would the heroine’s secret be? What would the hero think of her? Would she stand up to him? When would be learn to trust her? Most of all, when did that !@#$ admit he had been wrong?

Many books hinged on the heroine’s virginity – that hoary (but never whory!) old plot where the hero realized she was “all right” because she was a virgin after all! It was an annoying plot, and I remember thinking “But what if she’d had sex, even just once? He wouldn’t know to trust her – but she was still a good person!” That was a dark cloud over many of the HPs I read. After all, I knew these people weren’t behaving as normal people should. I was young, but I wasn’t that stupid. I knew the heroines were being jerks and that the heroines were often meek, when they weren’t simply too proud. At the same time, in the best of these books, I loved reading about how they clashed. In the best books, I went along for the ride. These books were roller coasters of emotion. In the worst of these books, the ride was more like riding kiddy cars while sitting next to the arguing hero and heroine. In these cases, I had different ways of coping. Give up on the book and trade it in. Give up on the book and then toss it across the floor, and then trade it in. (Didn’t want to damage the wall.) Skim the book. Or go ahead and finish it, but put myself in the heroine’s place and imagine how I would react to the hero. If the heroine couldn’t be bothered to stand up for herself, I stood up for her. If she was too proud to argue with him, I took care of that, too. If the hero was an absolute idiot, I imagined him getting a clue.

Although I got a weird kick out of reading these stories of big misunderstandings, some simply went too far for me. Some heroes were too cruel – or simply too stupid for words – and some heroines seemed to be wearing “kick me while I’m down” signs. Just about every title hinged upon a big misunderstanding, and some were as flimsy as cobwebs. After a while I learned to glance through the books before buying them, just to make sure I didn’t end up with a really silly big mis. Sure, it was cheating, and I may have missed out on some good reading, but it was a sacrifice I had to make.

I often remember HPs not by the title or characters or the main plot, but by the big misunderstandings that got in the way of the characters. Let’s see. There’s Dragon’s Lair, by Sara Craven, an HP in which the heroine (married to the hero at the time) was in the hospital after a miscarriage, and the heroine’s evil mother called him on the phone from the hospital, on a bad connection, and told him that his wife had a spontaneous abortion. Of course, he misheard, thought the heroine had had an abortion, and divorced her. She thought he’d refused to come to her side when she was losing their child, so she let the divorce go through. Years later, they meet again, and he refuses to tell her why he’s so angry with her because of course she is supposed to “know.” Only later do they (gasp) talk and work out a problem that most normal people would have solved with a little… critical thinking.

Then there was Karen van der Zee’s A Secret Sorrow – the heroine falls in love with the hero right away, then overhears him say that he wants lots of kids. She can’t have kids, so she breaks off with him without an explanation to save him from the unhappiness of being married to her. I know, I know – gag me. Oh, and there was Mistaken Adversary by Penny Jordan: the heroine works from home and visits her ailing aunt at night. When the hero, her new boarder, learns that she goes away every night, he ass/u/mes that thinks she’s having an affair with a married man! I’m not making this up!”

In another story the married hero and heroine had broken up near the start of the book, perhaps even before the book started. Why? She told him that she was pregnant. Instead of being happy, he told her that he was infertile. Why? Because when he was young, he caught a childhood disease, and the family doctor (who must have been about 80 at the time) told him he could never have children. So clearly, the old doctor couldn’t be wrong, his wife had to be sleeping around. I’m not sure whether this one is Carole Mortimer’s Uncertain Destiny or Jacqueline Baird’s Shattered Trust. Either way, the plot serves as a reminder… Always get a second opinion before accusing your wife of being a loose piece of trash.

Yet for all the HPs that failed for me, there were some that worked so well. For example, Robyn Donald wrote a book about a heroine who had been unable to convince anyone that her first husband was abusive, and had to do what she could to prevent him from marrying a relative. And in Madeline Ker’s The Wilder Shores of Love, the hero helped the heroine get over a heroin addiction. A strong hero comes in handy when you’re in that sort of bind. For all the big misunderstandings, HPs were often about characters learning to love and live again after a trauma or betrayal, heroines finding their independence, and so forth. The stuff of romances, after all. All that, plus titles like The Judas Kiss.

What made the difference between the HPs I like and those I didn’t? It’s hard to say. When you look at the summary, they look alike. But we all know that a favorite author can take a tired plot and make it sing. Some authors could work magic with HP plots, even as they still included traditional elements. And sometimes, I liked certain books just because, darn it. There were some books I should have hated, and yet I did not. I liked them instead, including the one where the hero kept telling the heroine that she couldn’t be a good artist because she hadn’t lived life (there was also a sexist connotation to this). And he told her that once they married, she would have to give up her painting. He was surprised when she jilted him! She lived for a while on her own, at a near poverty level. They met again, long after, and as usual, the hero was angry and mistrustful until they were drawn into each other’s arms again. Later, she felt guilty once she learned that he had planned to give her a private art studio as his wedding gift. Sure, that was nice of him, but why didn’t he think of mentioning that to her before the wedding? Ironically, because the !@#$ had made her suffer, she was a much better artist. Gah. Yet for me, the book worked, even as I wanted to clobber the hero – I think because the heroine had to get away and, yes, suffer before the two of them were ready to be together.

Then there was Madeline Ker’s Duel of Passion (although it could be a Sally Wentworth book), built around the idea that the hero thought the heroine was fat. The heroine had gained a lot of weight for a movie. Not knowing she had gained the weight for a part, the hero said something snarky about her weight to the woman he was with – although I think he said it more because that woman was jealous than because he believed it. The heroine overheard the comment and vowed to make him fall in love with her and then dump him. This was easier than she expected because the hero didn’t recognize her. Of course, she ended up falling in love with him, and as you can guess, they had some problems to work out. The hero came out looking either better or worse than you’d expect because once he learned what she’d overheard him say, he claimed he didn’t really “mean” it. I probably should have hated this book. Maybe I just liked the idea of the hero being shown up for making a stupid comment about a “fat” woman. Maybe I liked the fact that the heroine got revenge on the hero, while so many other plots involved the hero getting revenge on the heroine for something he thought she’d done (she was always innocent), or worse, the hero using the poor woman for revenge on her father or brother or some other family member.

In some cases, the amount of time between tearful big misunderstanding and separation and eventual reunion and reconciliation had a lot to do with my patience for the story. If the characters spent months or just a couple of years apart, I could believe in the story. If they spent 10 (or even 20!) years apart with the bitterness between them, I couldn’t swallow it.

Also, as with other stories, in some cases, I found it hard to believe in the HEA when I closed the book at the end. That was the biggest problem with some of those older HEA’s. The heroes could be so jealous that I couldn’t believe the heroines would ever be happy with them. Sure, he trusted her now, but what would happen in the future? What if he saw her with another man? Would he go back to his old tricks and distrust her, even divorce her without taking the trouble to find out that she was talking to the new dogwalker?

There were also some HPs that went beyond the usual, even (for the most part) beyond the big mis. Sometimes, they could just be regular stories. Sandra Marton’s Love Scenes featured a soap opera actress heroine trying to film a love scene. She was so bored that she ended up thinking of shopping lists and errands while they tried to film the scene, and her fellow actor was bored, too (he was gay). The hero and heroine met because he saw them playing out this scene and made some crass comments about how she might act the scene better if she knew what it was like to get kissed. He demonstrated, and before we know it, they were cast together. Though they clashed, they learned to get along as well, although not without some fights along the way. It had its clashes, but it had its moments of fun as well.

Maybe fun is the main reason I have read so many HPs. When they were no longer so much fun for me, I stopped reading them so often. Even when I was a big fan, the books that I was able to put down unfinished were the ones that simply weren’t fun, because the hero was a jerk or because either character jumped to conclusions too easily. Eventually, as I read book after book with big misunderstandings built on tissue paper, the line as a whole stopped being fun. When that happened, I looked to other writers and other lines for my fun. Still, sometimes I miss that big misunderstanding fix. Sometimes I’ll read a Harlequin Presents again. In today’s category romance market, HPs are a breath of fresh air, free of some of the cliches that annoy me about series romance today, even as they make their own cliches. I’ll even deliberately seek out books I know will be fraught with big misunderstandings. Why? Because when they’re done right, these books can be a lot of fun.

Harlequin Presents & The Fairytale Read (Lynn Spencer)

Though I’ve been reading romance since the early 1990’s, somehow I managed to make it to 2004 without ever having read a Harlequin Presents novel. I used to focus my series romance reading on historical romance and suspense/action-themed romance, and it has been only recently that I have branched out into straight contemporary titles. While I love modern-day fairytales and exotic settings, I must confess that the lurid-sounding titles (His Virgin Mistress, Having the Boss’ Baby, His Pregnant Princess, The Latin Lover’s Secret Child) of these books really put me off HP in the beginning.

An article posted at my local library actually motivated me to start reading from the Presents line. According to the article, Harlequin Presents is Harlequin’s best-selling category line. Though I had not viewed the books with anything other than morbid fascination, I figured that there must be something good here since so many people seemed to keep on buying them. So, I went down to the bookstore, combed through the titles and came up with His Forbidden Bride by Sara Craven as the one which sounded most interesting to me.

To my happy surprise, I not only liked this book. I ended up liking it so much that I went back to the used bookstore for more. I had gone into the book expecting flowery writing, an alpha hero and plenty of money and exotic locations. Craven’s modern-day fairytale of a young English schoolteacher vacationing in Greece and being courted by the young heir to a Greek fortune had all of this and more. Craven’s writing was vivid without going too far over-the-top and her alpha hero managed to be strong and charming all at once. It rather swept me away for a pleasant afternoon’s dream of reading.

Other Harlequin Presents have given me mixed results. One would definitely have to be in the mood for a very alpha hero in order to enjoy most of them. The stories tend to revolve around very strong alpha males with vast fortunes who tend to hold dominant positions in the business world. Their matches are most often women who are young (sometimes much younger than the hero) virgins who tend not to have nearly as much money, but they make up for it in strength and pluckiness. Indeed, several HP novels I have read have used “pluckiness” when describing the heroine’s admirable qualities. Pluckiness and long legs will get a heroine very far in HP-land!

However, HP authors do tend to mix up the formula in subtle ways which I did not expect to find. For instance, the heroines in today’s HP novels are rarely from the reticent, sometimes spiritless “good girl” mold often associated with novelists in earlier eras. Craven’s schoolteacher heroine, for example, was not afraid to speak her mind to her wealthy suitor when she did not approve of how things went in their courtship. And in The Sicilian Marriage by Sandra Marton, the heroine may wind up with the hero in the end, but she is certainly going to call him on his domineering habits along the way. Some authors, such as Karen Van Der Zee, the author of Marriage Shy, mix up the formula in bolder ways by featuring heroines who fall outside the usual mold. For instance, the heroine of Van der Zee’s novel is a divorcee in her forties, mother of a grown child and very much able to stand as the hero’s peer rather than being inexperienced and awestruck. These digs at the standard formula still offer readers the fairytale quality of most HP novels, but they are also refreshing.

While the power imbalance in the HP books does disturb me, the best authors in this line make their heroes strong yet charming, or they show the heroine’s ability to bring out a more emotional side in her “tough guy” hero. This prevents the stories from becoming the “autocrat/doormat” pairings that I had feared. I have had good luck with books by Sandra Marton, Karen Van der Zee and the few by Sara Craven that I have tried (must admit that I haven’t come across the spanking one that my colleague Anne Marble mentioned). However, when the alpha hero seems more domineering or humorless, I have trouble warming up to the story. For instance, in Jacqueline Baird’s His Inherited Bride, the hero’s cold dominance and his emotional detachment in scenes in the first part of the book when he essentially decided to show his ability to coax a sexual response out of the unwilling heroine rather repulsed me.

In Baird’s book, the primary conflict between the hero and heroine was a Big Mis involving the heroine’s desire to use her inheritance to pay her mother’s cancer treatment while the hero thought she was a gold digger who came to Chile only to get her money and run. These sorts of conflicts are not unusual in HP books. After all, this line does not feature suspense or action subplots so giant misunderstandings loom large in many of the novels. Some of the better authors create characters who are engaging and whose methods of dealing with conflict are logical enough that I keep reading happily. However, one cannot escape finding a few novels where one suspects the page count is due solely to the h/h’s obtuseness or the Big Mis is so completely unrealistic that one simply cannot suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the tale. Thankfully, out of the “modern”(2000 and after) batch of HPs that I have read, these have proven few and far between.

The bottom line? I still love historical romance and I still love romantic suspense. However, branching out into HP’s has been a good thing for me (though I do wish they would come up with some better titles). While I cannot imagine myself taking in a steady diet of these, I definitely enjoy the occasional fairytale read. When I feel the need to be utterly swept away from reality and to visit a more exotic world, Harlequin Presents offers me that brief escape – and I imagine that is part of their allure to others as well.

Purple Prose & the 2005 Purple Prose Parody Contest (Laurie Likes Books)

Although high among my romance pet peeves is purple prose, sometimes, as evidenced by my enjoyment of Elizabeth Lowell series romances and Harlequin Presents novels, they don’t bother me. Purple prose, though, is part of romance’s history, and for many authors and readers, continues to be part of the enticement of reading romance novels. Purple prose can be stylistic (over-use of ellipses, exclamation points, italics, and/or short paragraphs) or text-based ( flowery terms, overly written descriptions and dialogue, and euphemisms in love scenes).

AAR’s history with purple prose goes back many, many years. We conducted our first annual Purple Prose Parody Contest in 1997, and in addition to eight years of PPP entries, our Purple Prose Parody section also features the Encyclopedia of Silly Sex and The Purple Dictionary of Historical Romance.

Our annual PPP contest is a favorite feature here at the site. It showcases the amazing creativity and humor of our readers, authors, and occasionally, our review staff. As the years have progressed, the entries have become more complex, as we generally try to up the ante in order to keep it fresh and exciting.

Today we kick off our ninth annual PPP contest. Those unfamiliar with the contest may want to read entries from earlier years, and those considering whether or not they should submit a parody themselves should know everyone who does contribute enjoys themselves immensely. To those sending in entries, the best entries are celebrations of the excesses of what you love.

Although love scene parodies remain the most frequent of entries, we encourage entrants to let their imaginations run wild. Homages to favorite authors, use of the “merge-matic” concept (Whitney, My Savage Love, anyone?), parodies of the Big Mis or Big Secret, homages to your favorite Chick Lit novel, big-city heroines giving it all up for her small-town sheriff, epilogues replete with characters from previous books in a series and multiple rugrats, or Regency ball scenes…there’s no end to what you might do in a winning entry.


As fewer and fewer Western/Frontier romances are published each year, we’d like to see some of you tackle the Western Romance this year. Between wagon trains, cattle runs – and rustlers – picnic basket auctions, heroines who can ride and shoot like men, steely-eyed sheriffs and cowboys, and the villain who lives next door, forcing the heroine into marriage to save the farm, I’m hoping for our best contest ever. You’re not limited to parodying the Western – but in case of a tie, it might well be the deciding factor…we’ll see.

Because last year’s prize was so coveted, for 2005 I’ve again chosen to award a collection of cosmetics from Bare Escentuals, with a value of $80. Pictured at right, the Four-Piece Color Kit in Evening Bag is comprised of a “Smile” lip gloss, “Surprise” glimpse (for the eyes), “Beauty” blush, a wet/dry eye shadow/liner brush, and silk evening bag. This kit looked so good I ordered one for myself (it’s entirely too easy to get hooked on BE products – if you try the foundation, you will never go back to liquid, cream, or powder)! Because of the cost of the prize, once again there can only be one winning entry – AAR’s editorial staff will step in if there is a tie.

Click here for detailed instructions in our ninth annual Purple Prose Parody Contest. But these are the basics: Entries cannot exceed 1,500 words and must be received no later than midnight, June 28th via  . Your  must include as the subject line: “2005 PPP Contest” and your name and snail mail address needs to be included with your entry. How else would I know where to send your prize should you win? Voting begins on June 29th and continues through midnight, July 13th. The contest’s winner will be announced on July 15th.

Time to post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

More so than any other books, Harlequin Presents novels are very much guilty pleasures for Anne, Lynn, and me in much the same way as Diana Palmer romances are a guilty pleasure for AAR’s Jennifer and Linda. How do you define a guilty pleasure read? What are you guilty pleasure reads, and why?

Romance novel titles – along with their covers – can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but the HP titles may take the cake. In addition to the actual titles, though, many of the books are parts of un-connected series such as Latin Lovers, Greek Tycoons, Wedlocked!, etc. How off-putting can titles be to you? What are the best titles you’ve come across in your life as a romance reader…and which are the worst?

I’m convinced Harlequin would like to be (and probably already is) the Microsoft of publishing for women. Several years ago they began, with the MIRA imprint, to publish single title Romantic Suspense. Last year they kicked off the HQN, a mainstream romance imprint, and Luna, a Fantasy imprint featuring strong women. Next year they will be launching Spice, a single title Romantica imprint, and last year, with Silhouette Bombshell, expanded series books beyond romance into action/adventure. Is their dominance in Romance publishing a good thing or a scary thing?

Harlequin Presents novels offer politically incorrect heroes. Is this a type of hero you enjoy reading, do you prefer a more enlightened male, or is variety what you’re looking for? Who are your favorite politically incorrect heroes, and what are some of the bad things they’ve done? Conversely, who are some un-p.c. heroes you abhorred, and why did their behavior bother you so much?

Along those lines, what about manipulative heroes? Who are your favorite heroes who are Machiavellian at worst or just plain old manipulative at best, even if for the good? Conversely, who are some manipulative heroes you abhorred, and why did their behavior bother you so much?

A major criticism of HP’s (according to our last reader/publisher preference survey), is that they’ve gone downhill in recent years. While I’ve read quite a few HP’s thus far, my knowledge of the line over time is limited; the earliest HP I’ve read to date was published in 1991. If indeed the line is less good than it once was, what is the difference?

Perhaps more than in other romances, there is often a disparity of power and wealth in Harlequin Presents novels. In general now, and not specifically considering HP’s, is this disparity something you gravitate towards or against when choosing romances to read, and why? Do the disparities make for better conflict, or simply an impossible situation for the heroine, who generally does not have the power or wealth?

HP romances have some pretty horrendous titles. In general now, and not specifically considering HP’s, what have been the worst titles you’ve come across, and why? Are their buzz words or terms you automatically shy away from? On the other hand, are there any romance novel titles you thought were wonderful, and why?

How varied do you like your romance reading? I’m not talking about reading across sub-genres now, or even a preference for light or dark books, but variety in character types. In other words, do you swing from machismo male to beta hero or do you tend to prefer one over the other, or something in between? The same for heroines – do you like darker, perhaps scheming heroines or sweetly devoted ones, or something in between?

For the most part, Anne has grown out of HP’s. Others of us, over the years, have branched out to new avenues of romance reading but continue to read “what brung us.” Are there avenues of romance you’ve let behind, and why?

What has been your experience when rereading the books you used to love? A lot of readers are afraid to reread the books that “brung them” because they’re afraid they might hate them now. Have you ever reread a book you once loved and loathed everything about it because you no longer like that kind of story? OTOH, have you ever reread a book you thought you wouldn’t like anymore and found it was much better than you remembered?

Why do you think certain traditional elements (such as wealthy heroes and even the big mis) are still popular with so many readers? Is it because it’s familiar? Is it the fairy tale element? Are these stories guaranteed to provide for meaty conflict? All of the above?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, Anne Marble, and Lynn Spencer

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