At the Back Fence Issue #260

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April 9, 2007 

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:


I have a confession to make: I’ve never had make-up sex…or even “angry” (Moonlighting, Dave and Maddie “do it”, “bitch”, “bastard”, slap, slap, boink”) sex.

I have some other confessions to make: My husband and I didn’t hate each other when we first met. My husband never died, then reappeared after I’d fallen in love with another man. I never married a man to prevent his dead wife’s rich parents from taking custody of his adorable small children. I didn’t offer myself to a duke to erase my brother’s gambling debts. I don’t have a long-lost, previously illegitimate sister, and she doesn’t own a ferret or a weasel or a monkey who perches on her shoulder. I never married my husband’s twin – evil or otherwise – by mistake.

My mother was not a courtesan and my father did not disown me. No crazed lunatic has ever tried to kill me in various and sundry ways, eventually failing because he spent so much time detailing his nefarious plan that I was rescued before he could finish the job. I’ve never taken refuge with a man at a ramshackle cottage in a rainstorm, nor have I ever taken deathly ill as a result of walking in the rain. The first time we made love, my husband didn’t say,“Look into my eyes while I make you mine”, and speaking of eyes, while I like to think mine are a pretty shade of blue, they don’t turn into the color of peacock feathers when I am angry…or sapphires when in the throes of passion. And, wait, I just checked with my husband: he never wondered what color my nipples were.

Whew…glad I got all that off my chest.

Each of these is practically a romance novel staple, and I’ve never experienced any of them. Here are some more, provided by AAR readers and colleagues:

Blythe I’ve never sneaked out of my house at midnight so I could go break into someone’s house and poke around his study, looking for documents/jewels/old diaries.
I’ve never offered or taken “love lessons” for the socially disadvantaged.
I’ve never disguised myself like a boy, though with my new ultra-flattening sports bra, I probably could do it. Teresa I don’t have a gay best friend (though that sounds like a great thing to acquire – where you do you get one?).
I’ve never made friends instantly with someone else’s adorable 2-year-old. Lea I never sacrificed my reputation or placed myself in danger to save my worthless sister from a dangerous suitor (I’m reading Devil’s Cub right now).
I never stowed away on a pirate ship.
A very handsome man never kidnapped me to gain revenge on my family.
My evil brother, stepfather, or stepbrother never sold me into marriage.
I never refused to marry a man I love because he doesn’t really love me – although my purpose was to get him to marry me all along. Lee I’ve never gone into a house without turning on at least one light…or gone down into the basement on a dark and stormy night. Cheryl I’ve never been kissed by a highwayman.
I’ve never had a modiste beg to make me a new wardrobe.
I’ve never had a champagne douche.
I’ve never had a man carry me up two flights of stairs and not be winded (either of us).
I’ve never been the wager in a game of cards.
I’ve never had an eccentric spinster great-aunt leave me a fortune. Damn. Mrs. Fairfax I’ve never had sex (or even foreplay) while riding a horse (or a camel or a Mardi Gras float).
I’ve never even met an FBI agent, much less made love with one in a safe house. Bessie I don’t have a feisty grandmother/grandfather who is determined to see me married to the grandson of a friend.
I’ve never told a stranger off only to discover that he is my new boss. Lisa My body has never “betrayed” me.
I’ve never met a spy – especially one secretly working for the crown on a mission to thwart the evilness that is Napoleon!
My clothing has never been ripped off me -shame, that one! (can someone drop my husband a line?) Chris

I’ve sure never done the deed in a church vestry with the vicar and all the family and friends right outside the door – the unlocked door!

Jane I’ve never skinny-dipped in a country pond while being watched (and lusted after) by a hot guy.
I’ve never gone disguised into a brothel. Cheanne

I’ve never known a man to be perpetually erect like Linda Howard’s heroes are wont to be.

I’d never particularly noticed this about Howard’s heroes, but AAR’s Cindy previously noted…”Linda Howard heroes are perpetually hard. It’s not romantic when the heroine has to say ‘for the love of all that is holy, please go rub against something else already!!'”

Suzanna I’ve never Sacrificed Myself so that my father/mother/siblings could go on wasting money and failing to face reality. Or disguised myself as a boy, crammed my titian tresses into a cap, thrown myself on a horse and ridden madly off in all directions. Or run away from my old life heading for London with no money and no clue what I’m going to do when I get there. Nor have I ever made love in the crow’s nest of a sailing ship, somewhere out in the middle of the Atlantic! Georgia Peach I’ve never made love in a carriage still wearing my ball gown. Steph

I have never been asked to seduce another spy by my government to get vital information that can save the world!

Strawberry Girl I’ve never been ravished by a pirate in his private chambers kinda/sorta against my will. But I’m looking forward to it!
I’ve never been kidnapped at gun point by an escaped convict from a courthouse lobby/convenience store/my own house and taken for the ride of my life, all the while falling in love and fighting to clear his innocent name. Nikki I have never been a member of a family where every single person in it is beautiful or handsome, all the women are petite despite giving birth to ten kids apiece and all the men are taller than average, hung like stallions, and rich. Anne I’ve always worn underwear when going to work, no matter how hot it is.
I have never become a virginal sex therapist.
And I’ve never made a naked sculpture of a man I had never seen naked. I did make an ashtray in nursery school, though. Does that count? Jen H I never managed to attract the attention of a professional athlete, famous actor, billionaire mogul, member of the modern nobility, or any combination thereof, even when the above-mentioned Most Eligible Bachelor has recently felt bored and jaded when in the company of an endless succession of beautiful supermodels. Trish I’ve never been put on the auction block by my debt-ridden father.
I’ve never been abducted in the desert and wound up in a sheik’s harem.
I’ve never been stalked by some crazy and had a handsome hunk proclaim himself my bodyguard. Jebe I never had a secret baby…that I know of, that is.
I never tried to seduce someone just for revenge or been seduced out of revenge
I’ve never, ever had sex in the courthouse bathroom, yikes! have you seen it in there? But it was good fun reading it! Jillian I have never given my virginity to a handsome stranger on the off chance that I would never get the opportunity again. Lynn I’ve never dated a professional assassin.
I’ve never known anyone who stayed a virgin into their 30s just because they “forgot” or never got around to having sex with anyone along the way).

Yes, we’ve all read at least some of these premises, and often several times. Were we to sit down and describe the premises to a person who doesn’t read romance, I have no doubt they would think we were quite odd, or worse, totally lacking in discernment – ie, the ability to know the difference between fish bait and the finest Russian caviar.

What I also think it illustrates is this: a part of us never entirely grew up. I’m actually quite proud of the fact that among my extended family I am the adult who willingly watches cartoons with the kids or plays video games with them. What can I say? I love Winnie the Pooh, as any of you who ever read my tag line undoubtedly know.

What’s more, I think I’m not alone in never having completely grown out of childhood. To me, reading romance and all the attendant inconceivable premises illustrates what I like to call “arrested development”. Yes…I believe that in some small way none of us ever outgrew junior high school. If that sounds like a condemnation, I don’t mean it to, because nobody’s perfect, but I can’t come up with any other explanation for why we love such silly stuff at times. Okay – so you think you’re not guilty of it. But I have no problem admitting that I have arrested development, and isn’t it part of “healing” to admit that you have a problem?

Some years ago I interviewed Neil Gaiman. I asked him why the vivid imaginations some people had as children never waned while for most others they were lost in adulthood. He disputed my assumption, saying that he didn’t believe childhood imagination recedes over time for anyone…it’s just a question of whether or not you pay attention to your daydreams. I think that makes a lot of sense; after all, we’re told that we all dream at night, even if many of us have no recollection of our dreams.

Now, I’m not comparing Neil Gaiman’s vivid imagination to my arrested development tendencies, but I believe that we never completely grow up. We’re not all Peter Pan and Wendy, but I imagine the part of us that delights in hearing the song of an ice cream truck during the summer or building a snowman with our kids on a frigid day like today is a slightly different variation from the 14-year-old who asks her best friend Sue to find out from her friend Tom if Rob, that guy across the cafeteria, likes us.

There’s really nothing to be guilty about. Do you remember that therapist who proclaimed that once people reached full maturity, they no longer had to fantasize? What a crock! Without fantasy we wouldn’t have Shakespeare, let alone Nora Roberts. And then there’s this: when you first started to read romance, weren’t some of those same silly premises part of what drew you in? Didn’t you just love it the first time you read about a twin who took her sister’s place or a pirate who carried off his captive? The visceral feelings these premises provide can’t be denied. In a way it’s like listening to somebody tell ghost stories or read fairy tales. You know what’s coming, but you can’t wait to hear “it was a dark and storm night” anyway.

There’s a time and a place for all kinds of romance reading. I don’t think enjoying an “issue” romance makes me a better person – or a more grown-up one – than if I enjoyed a piece of fluff better. Anne helped me get my thoughts in order while writing this column, and she reminisced about the first time she read a serious romance featuring a woman recovering from an abusive marriage. She was surprised that romances could be like that. But she also remembers her first Julie Garwood, and the pure fun of enjoying herself (gee, I forgot to ask if it was the one where the princess of a fictional European nation falls in love with a second son who prepares a list of men for her to marry, then finds fault with all of them, or the one with in which an Englishwoman travels to Scotland to help her best friend through childbirth, only to fall in love with the tribal chief who is the avowed enemy of her not-really-dead father). We both came to the conclusion that as long as the reader knows what to expect – be it issue exploration, over-the-top melodrama, or light and frothy piffle – as long as the book delivers, we’re happy.

Let me tell you about a romance I adored; to me it’s the perfect example of my arrested development. Cathy Williams’ The Rich Man’s Mistress is filled with the same sort of emotional behavior one associates with being a teenager, and a young teen at that. Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but neither is it adult or mature. I’m not sure why, but Williams is my favorite Harlequin Presents author. Somehow she manages to wring emotion out of me despite my best efforts.

The story begins when Miranda, a wealthy English party girl, is injured in an avalanche while skiing alone. She takes refuge in a ramshackle 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 floor plan 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 once studied interior design but, being a rich girl, never actually put her talent to use. She begins to noodle around with the floor plan. But like all spoiled rich girls, she cannot stand to be ignored, and one day – in a fit of pique – she rips the electrical cord out of the wall, which brings down Luke’s wrath. It also brings to the surface their almost unbearable sexual tension. Though the two remain as wary of each other as two lions forced to share a den, they 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 spoiled 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 there are too many instances of stereotypical “romance novel” behavior to keep a proper count.

This isn’t the first time I’ve liked a book that evoked such childish levels of emotion and behavior – I’ve read a number of Cathy Williams’ HP’s and nearly all of them are similarly evocative, and given the number of examples you all provided earlier in the column, I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who occasionally reads in arrested development mode.

What separates a book like The Rich Man’s Mistress with something that brings out the worst of arrested development? There’s absurd, and then there’s ab-surd. Maybe what the best of “arrested development” books do is combined arrested development with characters we can relate to – and not just on a junior high school level.The best romance authors make us relate to people we might usually despise, such as a spoiled party girl, a high-handed hero, or for that matter, an arrogant vampire lord. After all, haven’t we all enjoyed a romance we never thought we’d like? What’s an evil, shape-shifting twin among friends?

I’d love to hear from all of you about romances that illustrate your arrested development, and also, premises like those given earlier in the column. Do you ever feel guilty for enjoying a romance featuring a silly premise or plot? Who’s your Cathy Williams? Also, what makes a story work for you despite its outlandishness?

Time To Celebrate the Silly:

What are your confessions? What have you never done that you’ve read about in romance novels?

What do you think about the the theory of arrested development in relationship to why we read and accept, and sometimes adore, silly premises?

Which romances illustrate your arrested development?

Who’s your Cathy Williams?

What makes a story work for you despite its outlandishness? Have you ever enjoyed a romance not despite its outlandishness..but because of it?

Arrested development in some ways seem akin to a guilty pleasure…are they different in name only?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)