January 29, 2007 – Issue #253
From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:
Mothers and Daughters
From Medea to Freud, mothers have gotten a bum rap. The mainstream modern mother doesn’t kill her kids, but she’s responsible for all their neuroses, whether by being too distant and critical or too intrusive and babying. Basically, the view we all have in our minds of “mother” is an impossible ideal. She’s a woman on a pedestal, nurturing, loving, and selfless. Those qualities can be difficult if not impossible to always live up to, which is why in fairy tales the mother is often out of the picture entirely and it’s the step-mother who is the root of all that’s evil in a heroine’s life. Why else would Neil Gaiman have turned the Snow White story upside down in Snow Glass and Apples, in which, as he puts it, the step-mother, while “possibly not as blameless as she makes out”, is “certainly maligned by history” in the “monstrous story of this little vampire Snow White and this necropheliac prince.”
But back to the ideal of “mother”. Two classic novels we’ve written about in ATBF – Gone With the Wind and Little Women – feature idealized mothers. And my own favorite novel, Too Deep for Tears, also features an idealized and nurturing mother, a woman so selfless that she allows her husband to leave her without guilt because it’s best for him. She’s so nurturing that years later, when he’s dying, she invites his two daughters from other women to come to her small Scottish glen in the Highlands so they can all be together as family. She is so loving that after his death, she helps heal their pain. That Mairi, she’s wonderful, but what flesh and blood woman could live up to that ideal? She’s not really a woman…she’s a saint. While I might have loved for her to have been my mother, I am not selfless enough that I would ever want to be her.
Even today, when most mothers work outside the home, the romance novel mother tends to be defined by her motherhood. She’s defined by it, but when she’s the mother of the heroine as opposed to the heroine herself, she’s generally not a three-dimensional character. She’s either a good mother or a bad mother, but she’s really not a person in her own right. She’s the heroine’s mother, and exists to provide conflict or healing. That is, when she exists at all. In a holdover from Jane Eyre and the gothic novel, romance novel moms are often absent from the picture.
The bad mother or the missing mother creates instant empathy for a heroine, but in a way I think it also infantalizes her in that she is an automatic victim. Something I never realized until sitting down to write this column is that my favorite Julie Garwood historicals all feature the missing mother (or missing mother and father). In The Prize, Guardian Angel, and Castles, both parents are out of the picture. In The Bride and The Secret, the heroine grows up without benefit of her mother. In the latter the heroine’s father remains out of the picture for much of the story, but in the former, the heroine always feels the outsider, never as much a part of her family or as loved by her father as her step-sisters.
Lucy Monroe’s December Harlequin Presents, Pregnancy of Passion, also features an outsider heroine. The illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Sicilian, her mother refused to marry because she wanted to pursue a career as an actress. This is a “bad mother” – we know this not only because her career took precedence, but because of her promiscuity. Her slutty behavior led the heroine to remain a virgin at age 24, but worse, the heroine never felt comfortable with her father, the woman he eventually married, and their daughter, because of it. Because of her mother’s catting around, the heroine never had a family. (My husband and I visited his mom a few weeks back, and as we usually do, we watched some old movies, one of which was The Best Years of Our Lives. The moment I saw how messy Virginia Mayo as Marie Dayo kept house, I knew she was going to turn out to be a slut…and yes, she was.)
Elizabeth Lowell’s 1990 Western, Reckless Love, was recently reissued, and it too features the missing mother. This paragon of beauty and virtue died while the heroine was quite young, and she was raised in the frontier by her father without guile and social skills. After his death she was forced to live alone and by her wits, in the wild for five years until the hero comes along. This heroine, too, is an outsider…and a victim.
Some years ago we did an ATBF segment about the evil mothers in romance entitled “No More Wired Hangers!”. I’m sure if we put our minds to it, we could create an endless list of memorable bad mothers who create nothing but heartache for the heroine, who then must overcome low self-esteem, poverty, neglect, or abuse to emerge triumphant at the end of the book. Now contrast these bad mothers with heroines who are themselves mothers. When the heroine is herself a mother, all of a sudden there’s more than one dimension to her.
Most of the historical romances I’ve read involving a heroine as mother features babies or small children, and often, the babies come at the end of the story, or are the focus of an epilogue. I don’t think many children exist in most of the single title contemporaries I’ve read over the years – unless they are women’s fiction hybrids – but many a series romance feature children, and of varying ages. In fact, the book I choose as my favorite 2006 series title was Raeanne Thayne’s Dalton’s Undoing, about a divorced woman who has moved her two kids – one a surly teenaged boy, the other a younger, asthmatic girl – from the big city to a small mountain town where her father lives. She is now the principal of the local school, and meets the hero after her son steals his car and runs it off the road. Although the big-city woman finding love in a small town with a hunky rancher isn’t exactly a new plot, what made this book special for me is that it featured “real-think”. The first line reads: “Some little punk was stealing his car.” And then a few pages later, when the hero catches the scared teen-aged joy-rider, he thinks to himself, “Good. He should be, the little dickhead.”
Mothers with a capital “M” in other words whether they are good or evil, they tend to be completely defined by motherhood.
Also, think about the fact that the heroine’s mother is depicted differently as a mother—than the heroine herself. The heroine’s mother seldom seems like a person. She’s a mother—perhaps because we readers identify with the heroine. The heroine herself, in books where she is a mother, usually has a more complicated viewpoint, whether good or bad about being a mother
I thought about this last weekend when reading two romances:
I’m the mother of a teen-aged girl, so I’m more sensitive to the trials and tribulations involved in parenting than those who haven’t had that particular opportunity, but let’s face it: the mother-daughter relationship is one all of us have found troubling at one time or another. Even if we don’t have daughters, we have mothers. At best I have a difficult relationships with my own mother, and my sister, while very reliant on my mom, has an even more unusual relationship. And though I vowed I would never be estranged from my own daughter, after two and a half years of serious upheaval, we’re at a point when I’m not sure we can ever move beyond estrangement. My husband assures me that my own daughter doesn’t hate me (he, of course, is immune to her wrath), but it sure feels like it, and given the rather drastic measures we’ve been forced to take recently, I can only pray we’ll all come out of it “okay”.
Romance novels explore emotions and relationships between two people who come to love one another. But most romances do not exist in a vacuum, and other relationships are also explored…those between friends, siblings, and parents. I find it odd that while the relationship between the heroine and her mother is often critical – even in those romances where the heroine has no mother – given that these days more and more romances feature somewhat older women, and often divorced women, that there aren’t more romances that delve into difficult relationships between heroines and their daughters. This seems to occur more often in women’s fiction, but just as I assume many a romance author is working through her own “issues” with her mother when writing romances, surely many a romance author has “issues” with her daughter. I’d like to see them.
In my extended family, I am known as the child at heart, the one who will gladly watch cartoons with the neices and nephews, will get down on the floor and play with the toys, and the one who will play video games. In other words, a part of me never grew up. You might say that I am guilty of arrested development.
That’s certainly the case when it comes to some of my reading choices. Both the Lucy Monroe title I mentioned earlier, and the book I chose as my favorite guilty pleasure for last year – Cathy Williams’ The Rich Man’s Mistress – are books that if I tried to describe them to you, you’d wonder why I liked them. Indeed, I wonder the same thing, because both books are filled with the same sort of emotional behavior one associates with junior high school. Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but neither is it adult or mature.
Since Williams is my favorite HP author, I’ll focus on her book, which begins when Miranda, wealthy English party girl, is injured in an avalanche while skiing alone and takes refuge in a rambleshack cabin with Luke Decroix, whom she assumes is an irresponsible vagabond. She doesn’t have a clue that he is actually supremely wealthy, friendly with her father, and that he promises her father he’ll try and “straighten her out” while she heals…and until they can remove themselves from the cabin, which is now cut off from the world from the snow storm.
The two are extremely attracted to each other, but Luke is disdainful of Miranda’s lifestyle, and she finds him boorish. When she discovers a laptop in the cabin, he shows her the floorplan of a large house owned by the same rich man who owns the cabin; apparently the man has employed Luke to oversee renovations on the house. Miranda had once studied interior design and begins to noodle around with it. One day, in a fit of pique, Miranda rips the electrical cord out of the wall, which brings down Luke’s wrath…it also brings the almost unbearable sexual tension between the two nearly to the surface. The two eventually succumb to their lust in what is likely the sexiest love scene I’ve ever read in an HP. All this before they say their goodbyes.
Miranda returns to London determined to become an interior designer, only to discover that Luke is not poor, Luke actually owns the house and wants to hire her to design its interior, and…oh yeah, Luke had previously promised to help her get her life on track. After refusing, Miranda eventually agrees, but only if their relationship stays professional and totally non-sexual.
What follows are a series of parlays between the two of them, as Luke tries to turn their professional relationship back into a personal one while Miranda resists. Rudeness, petulance, attempts to make the other jealous – all of these behaviors constitute the remainder of the book. Miranda knows Luke wants her, but she believes he only wants her body, and so denies them both. For his part, Luke wants more than simply sex, but is incapable of behaving as an adult in his attempts to create a relationship. And so, more of the same, with high-handedness thrown into the mix, until eventually, in a scene that had my crying while at the same time being incredulous that I was affected to this level, the two, in classic Williams fashion, duke it out before it all ends happily ever after.
Miranda and Luke do not behave as adults behave; their reactions to each other are primal yet juvenile, and while Luke might be commended for fulfilling the promise he’d made to Miranda’s father, he does so in an immature way. Neither character is particularly likable – Miranda really is a party girl and Luke really is high-handed and rude – and yet I ate the book up. All three of us are guilty of arrested development, and since this isn’t the first time I’ve liked a book that evoked junior high school levels of emotion and behavior, I wonder which books you’ve read fit the same arrested development mode.
Tales from the Ballot Box
(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)
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