At the Back Fence Issue #305

June 2, 2008

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Much Ado About Nothing…Not Enough About Something

A couple of weeks ago I found myself sitting in the office of Donna Clayton, a woman I’d met the previous week before at the “graduation” dinner of a leadership program my husband went through over the past nine months. She is the volunteer coordinator of New Beginning Center, a local shelter for battered women (and their children), and we were trying to find the best slot for me to volunteer. Turns out she thought my skill set would best benefit the center by helping the development director write grants for private donations when I start later this week. Anyway, as our “interview” stretched into overtime, Donna began to talk about the death many years ago of a romance author who’d been killed by her husband in front of her sons. This may have been Nancy Richards-Akers, but alas, she couldn’t remember the author’s name, only that the author’s sister lived locally and set up a fund to collect money for the two young men. What struck Donna was the outpouring from romance authors in the area, many of whom whole-heartedly embraced the chance to help people they didn’t know in the slightest.

After leaving Donna’s office later that afternoon, I remembered that I’d actually read one of Richards-Akers’ books, and didn’t like it – The Heart and the Holly – ironically enough, because the hero behaves abusively toward the heroine. He nearly rapes her. While driving home I thought of Mary Jo Putney’s The Burning Point, the reunion romance between a woman and the ex-husband, who’d previously physically abused her. I hadn’t liked either of these books, which led me to this question: Are there romance novel behaviors that go beyond the pale?

Shortly thereafter, I “shelved” Janelle Denison’s Private Fantasies on Shelfari. Although I tend to have the least amount of recall where C+ books are concerned, I remembered this one, which I reviewed at AAR, specifically for its premise: A man discovers the private journal of a woman he’s long had an interest in, and decides to fulfill the sexual fantasies contained therein. In the process of doing so, he falls in love with her, and she falls in love with him. Of course, when she discovers his deception, much discord ensues. Her reaction was one that didn’t make sense to me; if a man went to such lengths to know me and please me, I would no doubt feel manipulated, but I’d also be plenty flattered and excited to have somebody know – and want – the “real” me when, even in our most intimate relationships we hold secrets.

I presented the premise to my husband, who said that had he been this woman, he’d have been humiliated and appalled. And therein lies the flip side to my earlier question: What have I read that should have bothered me, but did not? Other titles began to flood my brain: Christina Dodd’s A Well Pleasured Lady (one of my all-time favorites) and Rules of Surrender, which I’d generally liked, both feature scenes of what I consider fictional forced seduction. And what about Leanne Banks’ Expecting the Boss’s Baby or The Playboy and Plain Jane? Both books ought to have set my feminist hackles raising – that whole boss/employee sexual harassment thing, which also played a part in Elizabeth Bevarly’s That Boss of Mine – didn’t bother me a whit. I like all three of these books.

Interestingly enough, when the subject is fictional forced seduction, rape, near/rape, or spousal abuse, readers want to talk about it. But when it’s sexual harassment, it’s a much less volatile issue. Each of the plot points I’ve mentioned are explored in many romances, but while some result in fiery discussion, others don’t. And I wonder…why? And getting back to the premise of Denison’s book, what’s the normative reaction to it? Humiliation and horror…or “gee…I think that’s romantic”?

Last week I reviewed Drastic Measures, a short erotic romance by Shiloh Walker in which the hero takes “drastic measures” to assure that the heroine, a woman he’s secretly wanted for four years, does not end up married to his business partner. Her successful nightclub was fronted by her fiance’s money, but unbeknownst to her, he put it up as collateral against a larger loan from the hero. Shortly before the wedding he calls in the loan – unless the heroine goes out on a date with him. His gamble pays off in the end of what I thought was a sexy and romantic short story (my grade was a B-), but really, that’s incredibly manipulative and in real life I can’t imagine accepting that sort of behavior, let alone finding it reasonable.

Which leads me into the whole “reasonable person” test, a legal concept shared with us a decade ago by Marianne Stillings, onetime AAR reviewer/review editor and now Big Time Contemporary Romance Author Published by Avon. According to the Wikipedia, “The ‘reasonable person’ is a legal fiction which represents a reasoned outlook on a legal question. The perspective of the reasonable man is intentionally distinct from that of an ‘average person; contrary to popular misconception, the reasonable man is not necessarily average. The question of how a reasonable person might act, or what judgments they might make under the circumstances performs a critical role in legal reasoning.”

According to the definition, then, reasonable people are not average people; they are better than the average person, more intelligent, more capable. And isn’t that what we want from our heroes and heroines? And yet, defying reason is occasionally what draws us to a character. As in Drastic Measures. It wasn’t a reasonable action the hero took; he took a risky action, and it was out of nature for him. Wow…two flaws. Behaving unreasonably, and against character, which can be a killer for many readers who can’t reconcile a drastic change in character if it seems to occur only to forward the plot.

If heroes and heroines (especially heroes) were reasonable, books would be incredibly dull. Heroes and heroines have to make big mistakes to make the story move, and to make them interesting. Who would pick up a book if the back cover said “He wanted her so badly he was ready to ask her out on a date…”? That sounds like someone we meet every day. That’s why, despite ourselves, we’re more likely to pick up a book that says something like “He wanted her so badly he kidnapped her…” Also, doesn’t “He swept her away to his deserted manor to protect her from a common enemy.” sound more interesting than “He helped her by contacting the local constables and reporting the attempt on her life…”? As a general rule characters must be larger than life. They need to make big mistakes and have dramatic flaws. Normal people forget birthdays. Romance novel people run away from a loved one because they heard a lie about them. As Anne likes to say, “They’re thisclose to being Othello.”)

I spoke about this with Anne over the weekend, who suggested readers try and imagine Kresley Cole’s A Hunger Like No Other had the tormented hero not kidnapped the heroine. Would it have made such a stir otherwise? She argued that while some people hated the hero for the way he treated her, many others who hated the way he acted couldn’t help themselves from reading more and more to see what happened next. After all, do we really expect a hero who has been bound and tortured for over a hundred years to be reasonable?

In another recent – and recommended – read, Loretta Chase’s Your Scandalous Ways, readers might be pre-disposed right off the bat not to like the heroine, who is a courtesan. Not only that, she is playing a dangerous game with a politically powerful man, her ex-husband, for no real reason other than a compulsion to do so. Not reasonable behavior, and yet this heroine is beyond likable. She is lovable, and intelligent, despite the mental tick marks readers might have made in their minds against her. The book is immensely readable, even though, as Marianne might say, the entire story is predicated upon the heroine’s suffering from “Occasional-Lapse-In-Judgment Malady.”

And what about that scene in J.D. Robb’s Innocent in Death, in which Eve hauls off and decks Roarke after discovering he and Magdalena, the only ex-girlfriend he ever had who ended it with him (and not vice versa) engaged in a clinch that she knows the other woman engineered specifically to create dissension in the Roarke mansion? Right after she socks Roarke, she does the same to Magdalena, then leaves the mess for Roarke and Summerset to clean up. Roarke follows Eve upstairs to confront her about punching him in the face. She readily admits to knowing it was a set-up, but says she hit him anyway because he’s a man. Not only a total lack of reason, but spousal violence to boot!

The result of the tableau set up by Magdalena is one of the most humorous and erotic love scenes between Roarke and Eve, and illustrates quite vividly their romantic feelings for each other. Huh? Romantic? We’ve all read about or watched fight scenes that lead to make-up sex, and while those moments might be erotic, they don’t come across as terribly romantic. Except that Eve finds Roarke, in high dudgeon over her treatment of him simply because he possesses the Y chromosome, very arousing in that moment. Quite frankly, she wants “to rip his clothes off and bite his ass.” She provokes him, playfully, the two end up rolling around on the floor while getting naked…

He hooked a hand in the collar of her shirt, tore it down the front. On a chain under it, she wore the diamond and the saint’s medal he’d given her. the arms of the shirt hung on her weapon harness.

“Bloody cop,” he muttered, hitting the release.

“Bloody criminal.”

“Former, and no convictions.” He pressed his mouth to hers, swore at the burn in his wounded lip. “You pack a punch, Lieutenant.” He reared up enough to look down at her face – brown eyes full of challenge, wide mouth curved in a smug smile.”You’re my goddamn Valentine.”

The entire essence of their relationship exists in this moment…not just the lust and humor, but the acceptance, the love, and the way these two people fit together like two halves of a whole. Instead of celebrating Valentine’s Day with “a snowfall outside the window and gypsy violins singing in the air,” their celebration “would be desperate, and a little rough. And as real and urgent as their heartbeats.”

J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts isn’t averse to using violence in her romances; Eve isn’t the first of her heroines to haul off and smack the man in her life. It’s never bothered me in the least, but for some readers it’s troubling. I remember receiving email many years ago filled with complaints about the heroines in Sea Swept and Jewels of the Sun for that very reason (the author addressed this criticism in an issue of ATBF). Of course, you’d never see a Robb/Roberts hero raise his hand to his heroine (unless they are working on combat skills, as Eve and Roarke are wont to do), but it is interesting, isn’t it, to wonder why more of us weren’t upset with Anna and Jude or found their actions abusive, and to imagine the hoopla that would have accompanied Cam or Aiden smacking them around?

While we’re on the topic of bad behavior, what would you say about a racist protagonist? Dorothea Benton Frank’s terrific Southern Fiction novel, The Land of Mango Sunsets, which earns a DIK from me, features a very flawed woman. Rather than taking charge of her life and participating in meaningful activities, she is instead constantly victimized and concerned with the superficial at the expense of the real. This small-minded woman has become alienated from both of her grown sons in part because their mates do not come up to scratch; her eldest son is in love with a dour Jamaican woman.

As in the best of women’s fiction, Miriam Elizabeth Swanson’s personal journey is one of enlightenment. After being beaten down once too often, she grows a spine and determines to live a real life, and to do so she must reconcile with her children. Of all the changes she makes, her acceptance of a black woman into her heart is probably the least realistic given its speed, but it’s as a result of Miriam’s letting go of old biases that her family becomes whole again. And even though it happens too quickly – in a slow-moving story – the way she and her new daughter (and her family) come together is absolutely lovely.

Of all the things I cannot abide, it’s dishonesty, perhaps because I’m a reformed liar myself. And yet, earlier this year I liked Erin McCarthy’s You Don’t Know Jack, which is predicated on, if not an out-and-out lie than a serious omission of the truth. The book, which Robin wrote briefly about in an earlier ATBF, and which I reviewed on my blog back in February, tells the story of what happens after the hero withholds his true identity from the heroine because he fears if she knew who he really was – a millionaire “suit” and somebody who’s currently investigating a grant proposal for illegalities that she earlier submitted to one of his family’s foundations.

I can’t say why the hero’s lying to the heroine in McCarthy’s book wasn’t an issue for me (instead, I rooted for him all the way through), perhaps because, as all romance reader know, lies and omissions of truth are often at the basis of two major genre themes: trust and betrayal. Jessica Bird’s The Billionaire Next Door won, overwhelmingly, in this year’s annual reader poll, as the Best Series Romance, and the trust issue takes center stage in her book too, albeit not as a result of any sort of lie, but rather as a result of the hero’s misunderstanding of the role the heroine played in the life of his father. Though the Big Mis plot device has been over-used and often poorly used, it works in Bird’s book because the heroine is very much an adult – and she deals with the hero on a very adult basis. True, being accused of nefarious deeds was devastating, but she didn’t let it devastate her. She prepared to get on with her life. As compared, say, to the heroine in Lynne Graham’s The Italian Boss’s Mistress (an HP, natch), who behaves like a little girl with each misunderstanding to come her way where the hero is concerned. Which one do you think passes the reasonable person test?

Romance novels are filled with all sorts of behavior and activity that “should” bother me, but don’t; each author handles each issue in each book in a unique fashion. I may not tolerate lying, but sometimes a lie works in a book’s context. If a lie sets up meaningful conflict – or adds to it – rather than simply drawing out a weak conflict or padding a page count, I’m there. But if the lie is over something stupid, I generally send its perpetrator through a mental reasonable person test…not a good thing where romance novels are concerned. Romances are fantasies, after all, and if I’m trying to determine what’s reasonable and what’s not as opposed to simply enjoying the story, the author has failed me.

Question to Consider:

Are there any actions/behaviors in romance novels that always go beyond the pale for you? If so, what are they, and if not, for what book(s) have you made the exception?

Looking at it a little differently, what behaviors or actions stand out as those that should have bothered you, but didn’t? Have you, like me with the Denison book, ever questioned a character’s response to something, only later to discover that his/her reaction was on point and yours wasn’t?

Do you ever mentally put a character through your own version of the reasonable person’s test? If so, what instances led you to do so, and if you’ve taken this step, do you already know they’ve failed the test? In other words, if you’re questioning behavior that seems ridiculous, has the book already lost you?

How much reality – ie, reasonableness – do you really want in a romance novel? When you assess your reading so far this year, which books have you enjoyed more, those featuring reasonable behavior or those in which characters behaved unreasonably? Does the rationale for unreasonable behavior make a difference?

Are you more accepting of over-the-top behavior from the hero? Or have you found that there are some behaviors the heroines can get away with that the hero is no allowed to do, like Robb/Roberts’ punch-happy heroines?

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

 (AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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