Beyond Heaving Bosoms
Beyond Heaving Bosoms, by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, is a delightful look at romance in general – its history, its strengths and flaws as a genre, its tropes (does this ever go into tropes!) and its authors. This isn’t a comprehensive guide to romance, and since it was published in 2009, it sometimes feels very retro and doesn’t reflect the modern developments and changes in romance. But it’s wittily written, often hilarious, and just plain unashamed of the fact that it’s a celebration of the genre we love.
My favorite parts of this book were the role-playing game at the end, the story of the Cassie Edwards scandal, which I always thought of as “Savage Plagiarism”, and the romance tropes. As someone who picked up her very first romance novel in 1992, I knew exactly what the authors were talking about when they mentioned how the heroine on the cover would have billowing tidal waves of hair and eyeshadow of a color that didn’t exist in nature. The Big Mis, the historical hero’s name being a combination of predatory animal + natural feature, the heroine’s magic vagina, which not only heals angst but confers monogamy upon the most committment-phobic rake, it’s all (un)covered here.
And the role-playing game was just plain fun. You can play as the ordinary, unremarkable heroine of a romantic suspense, the gorgeous heroine of an old-skool historical, or the tatted, katana-wielding heroine of an urban fantasy. From there, you navigate your way through a maze of tongue-in-cheek clichéd plot developments to the climax. No, not that sort of climax. Your character can die in this game. I made the wrong decisions and my poor heroine got “…you discover the blissful numbness laudanum can provide you, and spend the rest of your life in an opiated haze.” Dire.
That said, this book is heavily focused on paranormal romance and historical romance, perhaps because these offered the most potential for amusement, but I would have liked to see the authors tackle other sub-genres. Surely there’s plenty of cliché-mining to be had in contemporaries and inspirationals as well. And while the breezy style nearly always worked for me, humor is subjective. The book tackles rape in romance seriously, but also includes a sidebar of Hallmark cards that a rake could send a virgin after raping her (e.g. Sorry, I thought you were a whore), and readers who don’t like terms such as “Mighty Wang” might want to look elsewhere. Finally, a few lines simply haven’t aged well. At one point the authors ask, “Are you a woman? Look in your pants.”
On the whole, though, Beyond Heaving Bosoms is well worth a look, especially for readers who remember or are curious about what romance was like back in the day. It’s the kind of book you can dip into here and there, and includes plenty of recommendations. It was a fun read, and I just wish there was a longer updated version to enjoy as well.