Welcome back to At the Back Fence! After a wonderful summer vacation, it’s time to get back to talking about books and reading. Robin, Anne, and I each contributed to this issue of ATBF. Up first is a segment from me called “Mine,” an opening exploration of jealousy in romance, followed by segments from both myself and Robin on what we read during our summer vacations. Then Anne closes things out with her discussion of two of our most popular Special Title Listings that are close to her heart, those related to physical, emotional, and mental imperfection.
“Mine” (Laurie Likes Books)
There are a multitude of songs either titled “You Belong to Me” or which contain the lyric “you belong to me.” On its face – even to this avowed feminist – it sounds wonderfully romantic, and is often all the more so if it is said during an intimate encounter. During the extended kink-readathon I’ve been on this year, this sentiment seems even more prevalent, and if the hero also unconsciously growls “mine” while he’s making love to the heroine, it can definitely arouse the senses.
In some of the books I’ve been reading, though, it doesn’t stop there. The hero also lets the heroine know that he expects to be her sole lover from then on. He may even, in the heat of passion, exclaim, “I’ll kill anyone who touches you ever again!” (although that’s the G-rated version, as often specific body parts are mentioned ). Luckily, in most of these stories, the hero pledges his own fidelity in equally strong terms, but given that these men are quite often Dukes of Slut, his avowals take on extra resonance. All the more so because, in addition to being reformed rakes, these heroes are the dark and brooding, tortured sort who exude an air of danger who could definitely inflict physical pain on another man. These claims of ownership tap seem to tap into something that’s primal, and mostly male, but I’m starting to wonder whether or not I’m buying into something that’s beyond fantasy, and into the danger zone. Why, exactly, do I find it exciting to read about a man so lost in heat over a woman that he’s threatening violence?
The flip side of “you belong to me” is that flower-child saying, “If you love somebody, set them free. If they return, they were always yours. If they don’t they never were.” I’m honestly more a fan of the former than the latter, although I understand on an intellectual and sentimental level why the latter may be a healthier way to exist – and can also see that adopting the latter as a strategy might be wonderful for the passive-aggressive among us. I’ve only been jealous as an adult once in my life, and it was dreadful. Most of us have either experienced jealousy in the past, or perhaps, in our stupid teenage years, attempted to make a boyfriend jealous. Feelings of jealousy call to something insecure within ourselves, so that jealousy as relates to a lover can be overwhelmingly destructive.
Many, many years ago (within a few years of our marriage) a colleague of my husband’s had a crush on him that I discerned quite easily, and after my sister-in-law met the woman at an event during which my husband was not even present, she mentioned it as well. Although I trusted my husband implicitly, his friendship with this woman bothered me to such an extent that I asked him to give it up, which he did immediately. Even so, for a period of several weeks, I felt estranged from my husband, and it took work from both of us for me to feel the normal love for him I’d always felt before, and continue to feel to this day. Why the estrangement? Was it because the man was so dense he couldn’t see this woman’s obvious crush? Did I feel apart from him because I believed he subconsciously enjoyed this woman’s crush? Or did I somehow come to believe that just because another woman wanted him, he’d eventually return her affections?
Jealousy and betrayal seem to go hand-in-hand in romance novels. After all, most Big Misunderstandings are based on the hero believing the heroine has been unfaithful in heart or body with another man. In almost all instances, the heroine has not been unfaithful, but convincing the hero can run the gamut from “fairly easily” to “it took a whack on the head.” If it’s true that jealousy is less about another person than ourselves, what does this say about the heroes we read, and why we read about them?
I think we read about jealous heroes precisely because of how we have felt when we were jealous. The insecurity that accompanies jealousy feels horrible, it’s a feeling we’d never wish on anyone, let alone a person we loved. And yet, knowing that the person you love most is capable of feeling so badly over fear of losing you is quite powerful. It may not be healthy, but it’s strong, and perhaps that’s why I respond to it when I read it. And maybe, just maybe, reading about a dark hero who’d be dangerous to anyone trying to take away his heroine affords me the opportunity to deal with such a devastating thing as jealousy.
But then there’s the flip side…the romance novel and the jealous female. It’s true that many a romance novel villain is a deranged, jealous man, but just as most primary jealousy plots feature jealous heroes who are just that – heroes – jealous women often get different treatment. For one thing, they generally are not the heroine of the story. For another, there seem to be many more jealous women as a matter of course in a romance novel. They aren’t limited to being villains…there are just lots of women around who want the same man the heroine wants, which undoubtedly illustrates his popularity, but it also shows women in general in a somewhat catty, eye-scratching light. Is that because, as I’ve noticed from watching children grow into adolescence, boys physically fight to ease aggression, and when it’s over, it’s over, but with girls, a never-ending cycle of bitchiness is often the case – or is it the old-fashioned idea that woman are simply catty and of less substance than men?
And speaking of jealousy, when villains are jealous men, they are as apt to be jealous over love for the heroine as they are to be jealous over something or someone else, whereas jealous villainesses act out of jealousy over supposed love for the hero. The jealousy of a villain may last over years and through scheme after scheme. The jealousy of a villainess somehow seems frivolous in comparison, possibly because of what I alluded to earlier – that while boys and men may physically mix it up, girls and women are more apt to use words to hurt each other (unless they are named Krystal and Alexis Carrington) – or because jealous women remind us too much of dealing with nasty behavior in real life. Few of us have ever seen a man get into a fist fight over us, and most of us probably wouldn’t want to imagine fantasies involving two men in a fist fight over us, unless our man was defending our honor or protecting us from harm. But all of us have dealt with cliquish behavior from other women.
Of course, part of this theme’s allure is also in our enjoyment of beleaguered heroines who are wrongfully accused, and then the thrill of the grovel, but we’ve explored that theme in many a past ATBF segment, so let’s try and stay focused on jealousy and betrayal, why it’s such a powerful theme, and whether or not, once again, fantasy allows us to explore something we wouldn’t want to tackle in reality. Which romances have you most enjoyed that have employed this theme, and which did you find unpalatable? Is this a theme in general you avoid or look for, and just how dangerous do you want your intensely dark hero to be when it comes to the attraction he shares with his heroine?
What I Read on Vacation (LLB)
I went on a cruise of the Baltic last month with my mother, sister, niece, husband, and daughter. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip (look for my on-line trip diary, complete with photos, soon). It also afforded me the opportunity to read, as I always do on vacation, a lot of books. In the week before leaving, I bought and downloaded to my dedicated e-book reader, which already contains some fifty titles, several additional books, including new releases, releases (both current in print and others now out of print) new to e-book format, some classic titles I was able to download for free from various sites online, and e-book versions of some of my favorite titles in case I was in the mood to re-read something in specific. But because the reader’s battery wouldn’t last the entire length of the flight to Copenhagen from Dallas (although it lasts a good, long ten hours between rechargings), and because of any disaster that might affect my ability to read (if, for instance, because the ship cruises through Europe, it’s not set to handle American current and we didn’t bring a converter, or I lost the e-book reader, or it broke), I decided to bring some print books as well. You can never be too careful when it comes to having things to read, can you?
As you can imagine, deciding which books to bring half-way around the world where you won’t be able to buy any other reading material (those sundry stores on-shop are extremely limited in what they offer, and most cruise ship libraries are not romance friendly either) is a difficult proposition. Just as I chose very carefully for my e-book reader, making sure I had a great deal of variety, I chose equally, if not more, carefully among my print book options so that I ended up with a two trad Regencies, two European Historicals, one Western/Frontier Romances, two Contemporary Romances, and two Harlequin Presents, one by an auto-buy author. And then, two days before we left, my daughter insisted we go on one last trip to the bookstore so she could buy Al Franken’s Lies…And the Lying Liars Who Lie Them (she’s a girl after my own heart, you know?), and I panicked. What if I didn’t like anything I’d packed? So I picked up another two books – a Silhouette Desire and a paperback released last year in trade-size (see how much money I saved by waiting?).
Because we flew internationally, we had to arrive at the airport very early, so early that I was able to read most of that Silhouette Desire before we’d even boarded the plane. Linda Conrad’s Seduction by the Book turned out to be slightly better than average, but what it mainly offered me – which I greatly appreciated – was a distraction from anxiety. When you are the primary person responsible for getting three people half-way around the world in this day and age, it can get stressful.
In Ellen Micheletti’s review of Conrad’s book for AAR, she wryly writes that “in proper romance form, hurricane=sexual passion.” In fact, I bought the book because the back cover blurb’s first sentence read: “The hurricane that imprisoned them…alone…in his island fortress…” The hurricane romance, like other weather-based romances, is part of a larger grouping of Cabin Romances, and one of the very first Cabin Romances I ever read was Donna Kauffman’s delicious, hurricane-based Wild Rain. Conrad’s book, about a physical therapist who falls in love with the wealthy young widower whose leg she was hired to heal, couldn’t compete with Kauffman’s, but the hurricane didn’t disappoint; that section of the book was its best part.
Next up was Lucy Monroe’s latest Harlequin Presents, Blackmailed into Marriage, featuring an “only in an HP” storyline of a woman forced to marry a man of her grandfather’s choosing in order to get the monetary help she needs to have her daughter’s congenital heart defect repaired. Although I enjoy her full-length single title releases better than her Harlequin Presents and Brava short stories, I can’t stop myself from reading all of her writing, even if too many of her heroines think they are duds in bed for a variety of reasons. And her HP’s offer up, as do most of the HP’s I’ve read, traditional-yet-ludicrous storylines, generally peopled by oh-so-macho heroes who are larger than life, often sporting a manaconda.
What set this particular HP apart from her others is that the heroine suffered with a sexual problem – one for which there was an actual physiological reason – which the author explored in a manner that was loving and sensual, and that this hero was a softer version than her usual HP male and far more than he seemed on the surface. Given that this is her most recent HP, I can only hope she continues in that vein, creating heroes for the line who are more like the heroes she created in The Real Deal and another of her recent single title releases, Ready, which I read earlier in the summer. All of her heroes eventually step up to the plate, but Damien from Blackmailed into Marriage reacts to Lia’s vaginismus in such a way as to make her believe that his helping her work through the problem medically is actually sexually fulfilling. And when he makes it an integral part of their love-making – even when it is no longer necessary to do so – he proved how special a man he was.
I mentioned Ready, and though I read it prior to the cruise, it’s worth some discussion here as well, particularly because it was the first of her books/short stories I’d read after The Real Deal to feature a more “Simonesque” hero. Ready is the first in a trilogy of romantic suspense novels featuring three mercenaries who work together. Joshua Watt, the book’s hero, (his sister was the heroine from Monroe’s short story in the Merry Christmas, Baby anthology), sets out to protect writer Lise Barton (whose brother was the hero from the same short story) from a stalker. The two had met when their niece was christened, but Lise was scared off by her attraction to Joshua, who, as a mercenary, feared his job was incompatible with a stable home life.
This sounds like a book we’ve all read before, but what made it work for me is that Joshua was as confident and strong as you’d expect from a man in his position, but never a macho ass, and that Lise – who never felt very sexual before – becomes very sexually aggressive as she and Joshua get closer. While Lise’s previous asexuality is annoyingly similar to Amanda’s from The Real Deal, her discovery of what she likes sexually was something I enjoyed. I’m sure many of us have been happily surprised when we realized something we once thought sinful, “dirty,” or icky was instead downright decadently fun, and went at it with joyful abandon. Monroe captures that in a way that I think most readers would appreciate – it’s not sugar-coated, but it’s not exactly X-rated either.
Since I was already on a Monroe roll, the next book I read on my cruise was Come Up and See Me Sometime. In this contemporary romance, Alex Trahern is committed to getting revenge on the man whom he believes was responsible for his father’s heart attack – his dad’s former boss, John Harrison. His plan includes having an investor buy Harrison’s company and dismantle it. He doesn’t plan on getting involved with Harrison’s head-hunter daughter Isabel, who, coincidentally enough, is looking for a man to provide her with a family of her own.
The revenge storyline isn’t exactly a new one either, and while I didn’t like this book as much as I liked Ready, I did like Alex and Isabel – and Alex’s mother. If you are a reader who cannot abide by control freak heroes, this one isn’t for you, but for those who enjoy reading people who simply must scheme and plot, only to have it go awry when met with human nature, it’s a fun read. Although Alex pursues Isabel with zeal from the start, he doesn’t realize he loves her until far later, and yet his love for her is evident to the reader very early on, and that’s fun to read as well. In a nice reversal of roles, it is Alex who “holds out” for marriage, and while Isabel isn’t asexual, she does believe she’s a dud in bed, which nearly destroys the honeymoon. The manner in which Alex convinces her she’s not is very sexy, which made up for the “been there, done that” nature of this particular plot point, but I really hope that Monroe will find new ways to handle sex and her heroines in future releases.
Another thing deserving mention from Come Up and See Me Sometime: Isabel’s best friend Bettina. I very much enjoyed Amanda’s best friend Jill from The Real Deal and looked forward to an equally well-drawn character in the new book. Instead, Bettina reminded me of J.J. Walker from Good Times, something that became apparent the moment she opened her mouth and referred to Isabel as “Girlfriend.” I don’t think a reader should be able to determine a character’s race from the first word she speaks. Bettina was as much the ubiquitous Sassy Black Friend as gay characters are often the Sassy Gay Neighbor in romance-land.
After reading three books in contemporary settings, I decided to read something historical, and grabbed Her Perfect Earl, a trad Regency from Bethany Brooks (in the same month as this trad was released, her Chick Lit/Inspirational Novel was released under the name Beth Patillo). Given that the plain heroine in this trad goes to work for the “perfect” hero as governess to his unruly children, it should have read like a dream – I love Governess Romances. And though I enjoyed much of the story, it was one of those books wherein the parts were better than the whole. I think the author lost me in meshing those parts of the story that were conventional with those I hadn’t expected. I think had the book been slightly longer, I’d have been better able to absorb the unexpected, particularly the novel plotline of a secondary romance involving Esmie, the governess, with another man, the father of the heiress the hero was determined to marry in order to save his estate.
I then turned to another contemporary romance – Erin McCarthy’s Houston, We Have a Problem. I’d read some of McCarthy’s short story contributions to those many Brava Romantica anthologies in the past year, and while I’d not been blown away, the storyline for this single title sounded fun: Dr. Houston Hayes, an established (and hunky) orthopedic surgeon shares an attraction with Dr. Josie Adkins, a clumsy young intern, and they decide a night of passion will create a sense of equilibrium so that they can get back to working together. While one night is never enough, a shark bite and commitment issues stand in the way of an HEA. Although not recommended for the beach, for obvious reasons, this was a perfect summer read. It was sexy, fun, and with just enough depth to have me on the lookout for another single title by McCarthy.
Finally there was Julia Quinn’sIt’s in His Kiss. I have a bad habit of watching TV shows when nobody else is watching, only to stop once the shows take off with the public at large. I sometimes do the same thing with authors, and while I fell in love with Quinn’s first romance, I hadn’t read her since 1999. That’s right…all those Bridgerton stories went by, and I didn’t read a one of them. Why, precisely, I’m not sure. Chalk it up to reverse snobbery, but there you have it.
Now I’m kicking myself, because It’s in His Kiss turns out to be one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year. The dialogue simply sparkled, the chemistry sparked, and the story’s construction was so perfect that I never did the movie equivalent of checking my watch while reading Quinn’s book. No, I simply sat down with my e-book reader, began at the beginning, and didn’t stop until the book ended, reading all the while with a delighted smile on my face over the romance between two somewhat difficult, intelligent, and unique individuals who found each other through their love for a somewhat difficult, intelligent, and unique old lady. Hey, I’m difficult…I like difficult.
Clearly it’s time to search the house for all those Julia Quinn books I glom-bought and never read. You can bet it won’t be another six years before I read her again…it’ll be more like six days, or as soon as I find where I stashed them.
There you have it…what I read on my summer vacation. We want to know what you read over your own summer vacation later on, but first, here’s Robin to share her own reading experience.
What I Read on My Summer Vacation (Robin Uncapher)
Back when I was in college I had a friend, a fellow history major, Ted, who was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in Paris in the summer of 1974. Ted was not a wealthy kid and European vacations were a bit less usual for college students than they are now, so this was a very big deal. Ted was very excited before he left and I was even excited to be able to ask him about it. When I saw Ted in September I couldn’t wait to ask him about Paris. What had it been like? How was the food? Was it incredibly beautiful? Were the people friendly or did they really hate Americans? Most of all, was it romantic? Did Paris have that amazing, indefinable quality that everyone tried to describe?
Hearing all my questions Ted shrugged and gave me a sheepish grin. He told me rather guiltily that he barely remembered a thing about the trip. While his parents had been trying to show him the museums, the walks and the wonderful restaurants, Ted had been largely absent – well, at least mentally. From the time he had stepped on to the plane he had been deep in a book, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, which tells the true story of the men who started out with incredible hopes and dreams in the Kennedy White House and ended up being the architects of the Vietnam War. And so instead of picturing Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron dancing up a storm or Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn dining on that boat on the Seine, Ted spent his two weeks in Paris in the White House with John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, watching Robert McNamara and others design the incredible failure that was Vietnam.
At the time, sitting in a dorm room at George Washington U. in Washington, DC, I remember feeling that Ted had wasted a big chance. I loved the book myself, almost as much as Ted did, but going to Paris was a once in a lifetime thing. How could Ted have missed really experiencing Paris? He might not get to go back but he could read Halberstam’s book any time. Couldn’t he?
Now, so many years later, I have a different opinion. It’s true that Ted could have read The Best and the Brightest later. He could read it again now. It’s still in print. Ted was going to college in Washington, DC, surely a better place to read that book from most people’s perspective. But unlike my nineteen year old self, I no longer begrudge the younger Ted his time reading Halberstam in Paris. I know now what I did not know then. You can go to Paris many times but you only get so many chances to be completely swept away by a book. Ted would only read the book for the first time – once. And what better place to be swept away by anything, than Paris?
I have not seen Ted for years but I would lay money that while he has forgotten some of the cafes in Paris and some of the attractions, he has not forgotten being nineteen and sitting on the Paris subway, totally lost in a book about America. I am sure that whenever he remembers Paris his mind returns to that summer when he learned how a young President picked young men so bright, so handsome and successful that it would seem virtually impossible for them to fail. And yet, fail they did in one of the most spectacular disasters in American history. Ted probably remembers how he thought about the book. How he asked himself about the way men work together and what the young World War II veterans of the 1960s (the Greatest Generation) were thinking when they made those mistakes. What assumptions had they made based on their experience? What mistakes would he make in life, based on what was happening in the world now?
I often think about Ted and his Paris vacation when I think about the perfect vacation book.
Great vacations of mine have often been dominated by a particularly spectacular read. Perhaps I should explain that I have never been a great fan of the popular “beach book.” You know what I mean, those big fat books that the NY Times and Washington Post Book review sections believe they should dismiss, but condescend to praise with the understanding that the book is a lowly “beach read,” and “fun.” (The word fun is usually couched in a clarification that the reviewer knows this is not a serious book or “important” book.) No I don’t usually like those books unless they are romance. Even then I do not read them on the beach; reading on the beach is overrated. It’s too hot, too bright, and the books tend to be too heavy. I have tried to read a fat hardcover while sitting on the beaches of Cape May Point in New Jersey and have yet to get through more than a page. It doesn’t matter if the book is Tolstoy or Danielle Steel, there is something about books and the beach that just don’t work for me. I’m more of a magazine on the beach person. The September Vogue is almost as fat as a book and requires a lot less concentration.
But a great vacation read is something else again. One of my best vacation reads happened a few years ago when I left my suitcase at our house, filled with all of my vacation books. There I was in our rental house in Cape May with nothing to read but an old copy of David Copperfield that someone had left. Lying down to take a nap I opened the book and was once again swept into the magic “I am born.” What a wonderful vacation. I read the book for the sixth time and have great memories of the trip.
On another occasion, also in Cape May, I fell in the bath, hurt my knee. (It was a bad fall. My three year old daughter told the upstairs neighbor “Mommy fell in the tub and now she is going to die.”), and ended up needing a cane for the next three months. From that point on in the vacation, moving was a trial. I could not even supervise the children on the beach because I was afraid to try and run after them. But the vacation was saved by a terrific book, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography by Justin Kaplin. In this book Kaplin puts forth his amazing idea that Mark Twain was more than a pen name. He was a character, invented by Samuel Clemens for the lecture circuit. Mark Twain dressed in white suits. He was witty and irreverent and he sold books like nobody’s business. Mark Twain said funny things that everyone quoted. Sam Clemens, by contrast was a serious writer and a private person. I loved this book and will never approach any book by Mark Twain quite the same way as a result. It completely saved my vacation and when I remember those days on the couch what I remember is being secretly delighted for the excuse to read and read to my heart’s content.
This year’s trip to Cape May Point included some pretty good books, but none so memorable as that. Still it was a great time for catching up and I was glad to be back to reading romance. Much of this year was taken up by one of the longest and most difficult reading slumps that I have ever experienced. Luckily, just before August first of this summer something snapped and I was back into it.
My first book of the vacation was an old Julia Quinn, To Sir Phillip With Love. I liked this book for all of the reasons that I usually love Julia Quinn, which is to say that Julia Quinn is great fun and knows how to write comedy about simple things that never change. To Sir Phillip With Love is a rather simple story of a widower, Sir Phillip Crane, who suggests to a spinster (Eloise Bridgerton) that she visit him with the idea of their becoming engaged. Sir Phillip suggests believing that the spinster in question is probably plain, over-the -hill and will make an adequate mother for his mischievous children. When Eloise arrives and turns out to be beautiful, Phillip is disconcerted, to say the least.
This is my favorite kind of romance, a good story without a silly external plot. There are no jewel thieves – and no spies. No one is hiding a secret that anyone with an ounce of sense would tell. Instead it’s a kind of high wire act that spends an immense amount of time on observations of human foibles such as naughty children, women who talk too much, and men who can’t deal with feelings. It’s funny and even though it doesn’t feel like a “serious” historical, its humor is timeless enough that it’s characters could live in the 19th century…or the 21st.
To Sir Phillip With Love was also a good beach book – light and funny and romantic. I didn’t actually read it on the sand (my copy of Oprah Magazine served that function) but it was great on the porch.
My second vacation book was Francis Ray’s You and No Other. I had not read Francis Ray before, and this book hit the spot. What I was in the mood for was a light contemporary in an urban setting, and this book satisfied that desire. Morgan Grayson, a successful Santa Fee lawyer, falls in love with Phoenix Banister, an upcoming artist stuck working for a very established famous artist. Grayson comes from a self-made, very successful African American Santa Fe family. This family is all over the place. They seem to show up on every date and their back stories are constantly being reiterated. Had I been in a different mood, I am not sure I would have wanted to see so much of them. But, like an old episode of Love Boat, the book has appeal (and unlike Love Boat the writing is good). I liked the book better than our reviewer and would have given it a B or B-. Francis Ray is someone I will be reading again.
My third and last book was Jessica Benson’s Lord Stanhope’s Proposal. I have been planning to read Benson again ever since I laughed myself silly over The Accidental Duchess. This book surprised and delighted me. While The Accidental Duchess reminded me of Chick Lit gone Regency, Lord Stanhope’s Proposal was like a long lost unpublished manuscript of Georgette Heyer. Not only was it funny, it was clever and smart and made me feel pretty smart just for enjoying it. It’s not a book written in the familiar formula. Nowadays most Regency-set historicals, even most trad Regencies, introduce their hero and heroine almost immediately. Benson’s book takes its time building characters so that when they are introduced, the joke is so much richer, The heroine, Calista, is a bluestocking and a minister’s daughter whose parents are determined to railroad her into a dull marriage to a fat, old squire, The hero, Lord Stanhope is actually called “the Nonesuch” by his admirers (in a nod to Heyer) and truly would be a temptation to any woman, even one determined, as Calista is, to devote her life to study and good work.
What amazed me about the book is this: Not only did I enjoy it. I enjoyed it at the beach, a place where I generally do not read traditional Regencies (except for Carla Kelly, whom I read anywhere). I am not sure why this is. Concentration is hard to come by it seems and some trads take more concentration than a lot of historicals or contemporaries. At any rate, I loved this book and do hope Jessica Benson would write a little faster as I am getting impatient for her next effort.
So what do you all think makes for a great vacation book? Do you go for the light reads? Do you have any wonderful memories, like my friend Ted has, of reading a book in a wonderful place? Let us know. Next year’s summer vacation is less than a year away!
Close to My Heart (Anne Marble)
I don’t have a single favorite Special Title Listing. I have several. But the one that’s closest to my heart is the Less Than Perfect listing. I also like the related list, Beauty Is in the Eye, which used to be a part of the Less Than Perfect list. I’ve always been drawn to stories about characters who were not “perfect.”
What’s so special about this Special Title Listing? It’s hard to pin down because there is more than one kind of plot here – and many different types of readers. Everyone has a different reason they like (or dislike) these stories, or a different type of story they prefer to read.
For me, the “Less Than Perfect” and “Beauty Is in the Eye” plots are divided into several main types. There’s the story about the plain heroine who becomes beautiful in the eyes of the hero because he’s so in love. Then there’s the story about a hero or heroine who overcomes a disability. Finally, you have scarred heroes and scarred heroines. Sometimes these stories blend into more than one of these themes. For example, a scarred hero can be disabled as well. And a Plain Jane heroine can be disabled.
Plain Jane Heroines
First, the Plain Janes, probably the most popular of this sort of story. These can be found primarily on the Beauty Is in the Eye list, although some beleaguered heroines qualify for inclusion on both lists. Indeed, this is one of the all-time classic plots, dating from before the birth of romance novels. It brings to mind classic stories, such as Jane Eyre and Rebecca. The heroine of Rebecca was so plain that she didn’t even have a first name. In the play based on this novel, the heroine is referred to as “The Second Mrs. DeWinter.” You can’t get much plainer than that.
Why is this type of story so popular? Probably because so many people do not fit the typical concepts of beauty. OK, let’s face it; a lot of us are plain. So we can relate to this heroine’s plight. We can relate to not being the prom queen. In fact, a lot of us can relate to being the gawky or geeky kid. For us, stories where a plain heroine finds love can be everything from sweet revenge to the date with the popular kid that we always wished for.
OK, there’s another possible theory. Some critics have speculated that Daphne Du Maurier made the heroine of Rebecca so meek not just because that made her more identifiable to the average reader, but because she wanted her readers to feel stronger than the character. I remember wincing for her when she did things like cowering because of Mrs. Danvers or hiding the item she had broken because she felt so guilty, even though it was her own house. Or naively letting Mrs. Danvers talk her into wearing that costume at the ball. Do we like reading about meek Plain Jane heroines because we feel stronger than them? Naw, I don’t think so. First, the nameless heroine of Rebecca was an exception. Most Plain Jane heroines aren’t that meek. Besides, the second Mrs. DeWinter did become stronger as the novel went on.
For all the classics, one of my favorite romances about a plain heroine is Donna Simpson’sLord St. Claire’s Angel. Not only is Celeste, the heroine, plain, she also suffers from arthritis. She even learns that her employer hired her simply because she is plain, so that her employer’s brother-in-law, Justin, won’t be tempted to dally with her. But dally with her he does, and while he starts out simply trying to give her a few secretive kisses, he ends up falling in love with her as a person. Celeste is a prime example of what can go right with a plain heroine. She faces her situation with quiet strength, rather than being sappy or annoying. She is a mouse, but while she doesn’t roar, she is no weakling.
Then there’s Lady Caroline Grayson, the heroine of Adele Ashworth’s debut romance, My Darling Caroline. This heroine was very intelligent, and born in an era that didn’t respect intelligence in a woman. Luckily, the hero, Brent, was wise enough to accept her talents. And caring enough to respect her wishes for their marriage. Besides, who can resist a Victorian hero with the guts to let his wife take care of the bookkeeping or who stands up for her unusual skills at a dinner party?
Another plain heroine with hidden strengths behind her apparent mousiness is the heroine of Mary Balogh’sThe Temporary Bride. The rakish hero picks her as his bride because when he firsts sees her, he thinks she is colorless and thus meek. She’s the perfect choice, he thinks, because he wants to shock and horrify his father by marrying a mousy, meek woman. Mousy she is, meek she is not. Charity turns out to be perhaps the only woman in the world who could have helped this rake reconcile with this family. Few other women may have had the patience or strength.
Not all Plain Jane heroines are meek (or seem to be so). Some don’t flinch at throwing a table at the hero, like the heroine of Catherine Coulter’sThe Sherbrooke Bride. I also loved Penelope Featherington of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton books, particularly her own book, Romancing Mister Bridgerton. Now, that girl was smart. I was rooting for her throughout the entire series, not just during her book. What made the hero special was that he figured out she wasn’t a mouse, where many other people were simply blind to her attributes (even her own mother, who kept making her wear dresses in colors that did not suit her at all).
Whether meek or strong, Plain Jane heroines aren’t perfect – I mean besides their looks. The best writers allow their Plain Jane heroines to have good traits balanced by flaws, but unfortunately, sometimes the flaws overtake the character. Many are doormats, with the personality of a goldfish – the crackers, that is. Many of the heroines of older romances fit this profile all too well, folding like origami when the handsome hero clashed with them. Some are tormented because they never get the attention they crave. Others have decided they will never find love, and this might make them … prickly or stubborn. (They may have to develop this shell in order to survive.) Just like the heroes from the wrong side of the track who think they don’t deserve love, Plain Jane heroines often refuse to believe the hero can love them.
What is the line between a likable Plain Jane heroine and one who comes across as, well, a stick in the mud? For me, it’s whether I wouldn’t mind meeting the heroine in real life. I’d love to read one of Donna Simpson’s or Mary Balogh’s plain heroines any day. They are kind and sympathetic, and they don’t whine. On the other hand, plain heroines who come across as prudish or priggish are another thing entirely. For example, in Delia Parr’s Sunrise, the plain heroine, appropriately named Jane, comes across as a prude.
Yet in the best of these stories, the heroine’s inner beauty shines to life, helping her win the hero she truly deserves. Just like the fairy stories where the royally born heroine is forced to disguise herself as a servant girl, but can’t hide her “inner princess.”
Then there are plain heroes – the guys who are bald or a little overweight or all of above. You know, those who look like the contestants on “Average Joe.” Those are pretty rare. While we love reading about Plain Janes finding love, it’s harder to relate to a beautiful heroine snagging a “less than beautiful” hero – after all, we want the heroine to get the best-looking man.
Romances are fantasies for women, and most women don’t have a fantasy of being courted by someone average (or less than average) in looks, unless he has … a really nice personality. They might be married to someone like that, and will love him, but just as guys who read adventure novels want to be the super spy, women who read romance novels want that vicarious thrill of getting the really hot hero. I think that’s why plain heroes are few and far between. However, the right author can take this “less than hot” hero and turn him into something sexy. Much in the same way that some celebrities who aren’t all that good looking can become sex symbols. Anybody who can relate to getting a crush on a not-very-attractive celebrity can relate to a heroine falling for a less than handsome hero.
Still, there are plain heroes out there, such as the hero of Loretta Chase’sLord of Scoundrels. Like so many plain heroines, he faced scorn because of his homely looks, although unlike them, he responded by becoming dissolute. (Too bad more plain heroines can’t respond in this way!) Then there’s the homely hero of Roberta Gellis’Tapestry of Dreams. Also, the hero of one of my favorite Balogh trads, Lord Carew’s Bride, is not only ordinary looking, he is also marked by a limp and twisted hand – a remarkable contrast to the gorgeous (and yet so evil) villain of that novel. And Carla Kelly has a balding hero in Summer Campaign, and a bald and overweight (gasp!) hero in Miss Billings Treads the Boards.
The second major type of story is the one about characters with a disability or other feature that sets them apart. Like Plain Jane heroines, these stories go way back. Think Cyrano de Bergerac, or for that matter, think of the Spencer Tracy character in Bad Day at Black Rock, the stranger with one arm who comes to a small town and faces the dark side of human behavior. In the past, disabled characters were often portrayed as evil, as in Richard the III. Today, luckily, times have changed. We no longer see disabilities as a sign of evil. Today’s authors are more understanding and realistic, portraying disabled characters as people.
Disabled characters can face huge challenges, such as blindness or loss of hearing or even paralysis. Or they can be set apart with a relatively minor difference, something that just sets them apart. It’s easy to root for this sort of character. In romance novels, these characters often have to fight against prejudice and disdain. In a way, it’s like a fairy tale character striving against all odds to find happiness.
Even if we don’t have a physical disability, we’re all different in some way or another. Just as most of us blend in, like Plain Jane heroines, at the same time, we’ve all stood out at some time or another. Even the beautiful people stand out sometimes. In school, it doesn’t take much to be different – having red hair or being tall or short or having braces. No, it’s not the same as having a disability, but it can help us relate to these characters in a personal way. Do you remember that kid at school who walked funny or was easily scared or was somehow different than everybody else? That was me. And that might have been you, as well. Even if you weren’t that kid, you knew somebody like that.
In romances about characters with disabilities, the heroine is often called upon to help the hero how to cope with a new-found condition – just as the heroines often end up helping addicted heroes to recovery. This is a classic, and powerful, motif, sort of a more serious version of the old “heroine nurses hero back to health” plot. Some of these verge on “Beauty and the Beast” plots as these heroes can be quite churlish once a disability, such as an injury or blindness, brings them down. For example, the hero in Christina Dodd’sCandle in the Window sometimes acts like a boar – then again, so would I if I were a knight suddenly blinded in battle. Yet the heroine, blind from birth and hired to help him learn to cope with his condition, has to learn to trust him as the novel progresses. This sort of theme is best when both characters find some kind of healing, physical as well as emotional, in the end. Something is lost when the heroine helps bring a wounded or disabled hero out of the doldrums, but only gets a manor house and noble title in return. The hero In Laura Kinsale’sFlowers from the Storm, the heroine helps nurse the rakish hero back from a stroke (which was diagnosed as madness), and becomes vital to him in more ways than one. But the experience also changes the heroine in powerful ways.
These stories can be powerful tales about healing and about overcoming the odds, often in more ways than one. Yet just as Plain Jane heroines can sometimes use their plainness as a shield against love, so can disabled characters verge into “woe is me” territory. Others decide they don’t need anyone to take care of them, thank you very much – these are rather similar to the “feisty” heroine who refuses to listen to the hero during a time of danger. The best stories about disabled characters are the ones where the character avoids self-pity. But just as tormented characters can become embroiled in their past, disabled characters can use their disability to avoid commitment. Also, these stories can verge into “heroine must tame beast” territory all too easily.
Not all wounded heroes needed nursing, although some may need a different type of caretaker. Although not a character in a romance novel, one of my favorite disabled characters has become a favorite of many romance readers. He is the brilliant yet slightly nuts hero of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series. Miles was born with a condition that gave him brittle bones – on a planet that saw physical disability as a sign of hated mutations. (In the backwoods, some people still practice infanticide on children born with disabilities, even fairly minor ones.) Miles is under five feet tall with a twisted frame. That doesn’t stop him from having both a military career and a penchant for tall women. Miles isn’t perfect – Bujold takes place to show him as being prone to moodiness, if not outright bouts of mania. Interestingly, some readers think that now that he has married, Miles has become too dull and “tamed.”
When it is the heroine who is disabled, the tables are turned. The hero is often called upon to be, if not actually the caretaker, then the rescuer. In romances with disabled heroines, the hero is often the one who drags the heroine out of her bubble. Unlike so many disabled heroes, the disabled heroine rarely gets to become prickly or disagreeable. Instead, they are more likely to react by walling themselves off from the world, like the paraplegic heroine of Catherine Anderson’s Phantom Waltz. The heroine of Mary Balogh’s Silent Melody has been deaf since childhood, and the hero is the only person who can communicate with her. (Some people are critical of this book because, among other things, they believe it was unlikely that the two of them could have developed a sign language on their own, but I see it as a part of the “hero as rescuer” theme.)
Then again, if you have no patience with the “hero was rescuer” theme, the hero wasn’t much of a rescuer in Balogh’s own Dancing with Clara. In this book, Clara, who is unable to walk, marries Freddie, knowing full well that he is marrying her because she is an heiress. He then cheats on her. I think most authors would make this guy the evil first husband rather than the hero – you know, the first husband who made her life hell and then died so that she could find true love with a real hero. After all, one of the biggest taboos in romance novels is adultery, and this hero not only cheated on the heroine, he cheated on a heroine who could not walk! This is certainly a controversial book – but at least it takes the disabled heroine plot away from the “hero as rescuer” theme. While that story can make for some great romantic reads, just like the “heroine as caregiver” plot, it is a simplified view of disabilities. If you were to believe in disabilities as they are so often portrayed in romance-land, you would start to think that disabled men are curt brutes who push away the people they love, and disabled women are emotional wrecks who lock themselves away from love.
Scarred Heroes and Heroines
I think scarred or disfigured characters are in a category all their own. Scarred heroes are straight out of Beauty and the Beast, and of course, The Phantom of the Opera. They are symbols of danger, where plain heroines are simply a sign of a normal woman who finds love. There’s something primal in a scarred hero, like women of ancient times who might be more attracted to an older, scarred man than a young, pretty man because that proved he’d survived battle.
One of my favorite “Less Than Beautiful” themes is the scarred hero. This is because even before I started reading romances, a romantic hero – of sorts – entered my life. I knew I was too easily scared, so I made myself watch the horror movies they used to show on TV. Imagine my surprise when I found they were often less scary than my own fears. In fact, sometimes they gave me the ways to handle it. One day, in the late 1970s, I saw the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera on TV (the one with Claude Rains). There’s a part where the Phantom is leading Christine into the cellars of the opera house, and he tells her not to fear the darkness because sometimes the darkness can be your friend. At this time, this was a comfort to me. Maybe it helped that no matter what makeup or mask he was wearing, Claude Rains had one of the greatest voices in Hollywood. When he said this, he helped assuage my fears.
Another masked man already entered my life at about this time, but he was far from a hero. I had seen Star Wars when it first came out, and like so many others, I loved Darth Vader. Like the Phantom, he was a mysterious dark villain who was often more interesting than the people opposed to him. When the first Star Wars movie came out, there were reports of women falling in lust with Darth Vader, perhaps the ultimate case of that “love with a masked stranger” fantasy. And maybe there was a little of that “I can reform him” fantasy there as well…
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, when I first started reading romances, I couldn’t resist ones with scarred heroes. They didn’t have to be as scarred as the Phantom, but they did have to be tormented. When Charlotte Vale Allen came out with the romantic novel Night Magic, a modern-day take on Phantom, I ordered it and got antsy when the package didn’t arrive fast enough. I also enjoyed more typical romance novels with scarred heroes, and that passion lasts to this day. (What do you expect from someone who used to have a poster of Michael Crawford as the Phantom of the Opera on her bedroom door?)
I think Michael Crawford himself gives us clues about the attraction for this kind of hero. It’s all too easy to think of the Phantom as an evil scarred killer, and some people can’t get past that. But the Broadway version gave the world that romanticized version that some of us were waiting for years. Still a killer, not sane, but sympathetic. In his autobiography (yes, I am such a geek that I own both the book and the audiobook), Michael Crawford talked about some of the emotional elements that entered his performance. He wanted to show the Phantom’s nobility, but also his vulnerability. In interviews given around the time Phantom was on Broadway, it became clear where Michael Crawford was getting those emotions from. He admitted that he didn’t do well in the love department in high school, either, and you can see those emotions in his Phantom. Sometimes, it’s not actor/singer Michael Crawford on that stage – it’s a young student, fresh from being rejected by yet another girl. Michael Crawford made the Phantom sympathetic because he brought so many powerful and yet common emotions into the role – the feelings of rejection, the loss of a loved one, unrequited love.
Now this is a romantic hero, one who reminds us that disfigured people deserve love. Society is still vexed by the idea of disfigured people being allowed to find love. Look at how our press acts when a beautiful actress marries a guy who’s overweight or gawky-looking. Some people seem offended, as if it was their business who that star married. People act even worse about those who are disfigured. Society sometimes wants to tell disfigured people that they can’t love and shouldn’t be allowed to love. I’ve heard of cases where someone saw person with facial disfigurements in public and later asked “Why do those people go out into public?” When you hear people say things like that, how can you not feel? It’s all you can do to reply “Because they have every right to do go out in public, just like you.” It’s no wonder that scarred heroes and heroines so often hide, if not behind an actual mask, then behind an emotional mask.
The best “less than beautiful” romances can bring all those factors into light. For example, one of the first romances about a scarred hero that I read was a historical romance by Phoebe Conn called Captive Heart – way back in the days of the Zebra hologram. In this Medieval, the hero is a warrior who had been scarred by a bear attack. He doesn’t realize it at first, but his intended bride has learned of the scars and no longer wants to marry him, making the heroine (a slave) take her place. Once the hero learns the heroine isn’t who she said he was, he becomes jealous and possessive. I’m not sure if this was because he truly believed she was sleeping around (they were spending most of their time alone, so I suppose he thought she was having an affair with Hern, the forest god) or because he was upset at the rejection by his intended bride and taking it out on the poor heroine.
The hero’s behavior in Captive Heart shows that extra layer of emotion often added to stories about scarred heroes. The layer of danger mentioned earlier. Often, the scarred heroes are tormented because of their scars, hated by society, and forced to live outside of society, like the Gothic heroes of the past. This is one of the problems of the scarred heroes. They walk a tightrope between being proud tormented men who bear the scars of the past and jerks who use their scars as a shield to avoid facing the past. Many of these heroes fall off the tightrope. Heck, like the old Gothic heroes, some of them can be outright alpha heels who might give Darth Vader a run for his money.
Confession time. I like those scarred and dangerous heroes once in a while. However, I can’t live on a steady diet of them. More often than not, I’d rather read about scarred heroes such as the one in Balogh’s The Secret Pearl. In the first chapter, Adam shocked readers by hiring the heroine as a prostitute and then taking her virginity brutally, not realizing he was her first. Oh, and did I mention that he was married? Hard to see how he could be redeemed, isn’t it? And this hero he does everything he can to make it up to her, tracking her down and getting her a decent job as governess to his own child. And as the book goes on, we start to realize how bloody noble that man is. The way the relation between Adam and Fleur develops is so emotional that I will be eager to buy the reprint, due out this fall. It’s time to reread that sucker. Anyway, I’ll take Adam over the guy in Conn’s Captive Heart – well, most of the time. Sometimes, I want to take a trip with one of those dangerous heroes. In the right hand, that hero will be both dangerous and sympathetic at the same time, an outcast who is responding as best as he can to a cruel world rather than just another alpha heel.
And when it is the heroine who is scarred or disfigured… well who can’t feel sympathetic for her? It’s like becoming desperate as the prom approaches because you don’t have a data all over again, and in spades. We know the heroine deserves love, and yet, she will find it hard because people judge her by her appearance. To a certain point, men can sometimes get away with being scarred – but it’s completely different for women. So much depends on our appearance. A scarred heroine has been clearly told “You’re not good enough,” especially if her scars are facial.
While there are more Plain Jane heroines than plain heroes, I think there are more scarred heroes than scarred heroines. This may be because it’s simply easier to make a scarred hero sexy and attractive despite his scars, while we might feel nervous about reading about a scarred heroine. Or the reason for the relatively scarce number of scarred heroines may be because, particularly in the past, men are more likely to become scarred – through war or through a duel, for example. Unlike heroes, who are often scarred because of war or an attack, heroines are often scarred because of abuse, or as in Donna Fletcher’s The Irish Devil, because of an attempted rape. They are almost always made to feel like dirt because of their appearances as well – the heroine of Jo Beverley’sSecrets of the Night has become recluse because of her scars.
That scarred or disfigured heroines are often the victims of abuse is notable. Perhaps being scarred both physically and emotionally by the abuse grants those heroines an extra level of sympathy. How often have we read stories where the heroine is scarred because she was beaten by an abused parent or neglected, or because some villainous creep tried to rape her? In these stories, the physical scars, heaped on top of everything else, can be a symbolic badge that brings the ill treatment of the heroine to light. In some stories, of course, those scars can be a shield that the heroine can put up to avoid committing to the hero. Just as scarred heroes walk that dangerous path between reclusive heroes and masked killers living below an opera house, scarred heroines sometimes run the risk of going off the map as far as being self-pitying or having too much abuse piled upon them.
In the end, I think what these themes all come down to, however, is that all of us deserve to be loved, no matter what society tries to tell us. Whether we are plain, or geeks, or scarred, or fat, we all deserve to win the love of our life. Society sometimes tries to argue about this. That’s when we just have to argue back by grabbing another book about a scarred or plain or limping hero or heroine.
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:
How do you respond to the concept of ownership in a romance novel? Does it raise your feminist hackles, or do you think it’s romantic and/or sexy to read a hero – or heroine – uttering “mine” or “you belong to me?” Just how dangerous do you want your intensely dark hero to be when it comes to the attraction he shares with his heroine?
How common a theme do you think jealousy is in romance novels in general…and in the romances you read? Why is it such a powerful theme? Which romances have you most enjoyed that have employed this theme, and why, and which (and why) did you find unpalatable? Is this a theme in general you avoid or seek out, and do you think authors treat men and women differently when it comes to jealousy? Given how unpleasant it feels to be jealous, why do some of us enjoy reading books with this theme?
What sorts of books do you choose to read on your summer vacation? How do you go about making the selection process, and how much thought goes into your decisions? Are there certain kinds of books you will or will not read on a vacation?
How many books did you read on your summer vacation? What were they, and how well did you enjoy them? If you read any of the books Robin or I read, did you like them or not, and why?
What makes a perfect summer read? Can you recall certain vacations by specific books you read? Have you ever been stuck – and possibly in a panic – without books to read on vacation? How did you resolve your dilemma?
Are you a fan of the Cabin Romance (or its close counterpart, the Road Romance)? What about Governess Romances? What are some of your favorite titles for these types of books, and why, and which of these books worked less well for you, and why?
What authors do you enjoy even though they seem to be stuck on particular plot points, themes, or characterizations? For these authors, what are their sticking points? Do you continue to read their books indefinitely, or does there come a time when, unless they strike out in new directions, you give them up?
All of us who read romance realize that an author can take the same old, same old, and make it something new. Which of the books you’ve read lately managed to achieve this sense of newness in the face of a tried and true storyline, premise, or character types, and just what did the author do to keep things fresh? Conversely, which books, whether you enjoyed them overall or not, got stuck in some sort of rut, be it with a stock character or a stock theme?
Do you sometimes confound yourself with odd reading – and buying – behavior? Do you sometimes “save” a book you’ve been looking forward to for a later time? Do you stop reading a favorite author for no particular reason? Have you glom-bought without reading…whether for a favorite author, or in order to “catch up” on a series that began three books ago? How often have you wanted to smack yourself when odd reading behavior kept you from reading a book you later loved? And how often has glom-buying been a disappointment?
While much of romance is filled with beautiful people, some wonderful books feature characters who are physically, emotionally, or occasionally, mentally imperfect. How often do you crave such a book, and which of the three “types” just mentioned are, for you, the biggest draw, if any?
Do you think there are enough romances out there peopled with physically, emotionally, and mentally imperfect people? If you actively look for books featuring such imperfection, why do you think you are drawn to these stories? What have been your favorite books of this ilk, and why? Which of these books did not meet your expectations, and why?
Anne specifically writes about Plain Jane heroines and wonders why this is such a popular theme. Why do you think the Plain Jane romance resonates? As for plain heroes, do you wish more were written about, or do you wonder why any woman would want to read about such a man? Or perhaps, did you wonder why any woman would want to read about such a man until you read a particular book featuring a plain man…if so, what book turned on the lightbulb over your head?
Anne also writes about characters with disabilities. If you’ve read and enjoyed books with disabled characters, do you have a preference for the hero or the heroine having the disability? In other words, does the romantic fantasy work better for you if the heroine is the nurturer or the one being nurtured?
The Beauty and the Beast theme has endured for centuries, and today’s romances often draw upon that theme with a combination of physical scarring and the shroud of mystery. Over time, though, physical imperfection has also been associated with evil. Discuss.
TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, Anne Marble, & Robin Uncapher
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