Loving Problematic Books

Grading books is not always straightforward. For me, there is no rubric, no check-list of Do’s and Don’t’s. I have a few deal-breakers, but not many. When I assign a book a DIK grade, though, I often feel like it has to be perfect — or at least very, very close. The writing must be flawless. The characters, well-developed. The plot, exciting, believable, and interesting. But I’ve found that some of the books I go back to, the ones I re-read over and over again (the true test, in my opinion, of a DIK), are objectively problematic in some way.

“Problematic” can mean a lot of different things. Maybe there is a pretty huge logical fallacy upon which the plot hangs. Maybe there’s something that should be totally unromantic, unhealthy, or taboo. Recently, my fellow AAR reviewers and staff members got to talking about our favorite books that have some flaw or problem.

I recently revisited The China Garden, by Liz Berry. It is a British YA semi-paranormal novel that I first read when I was probably about 11 years old. The main character, Clare, graduated from the British equivalent of high school and goes with her mother to a mysterious old estate. She soon discovers that her mother was born there, and was meant to marry the heir and become a “Guardian” of the “Trust.” Clare doesn’t know what the Trust is, or its significance, because it’s all one big secret. But it’s something hugely important, and she — along with a local “bad boy” Mark — are supposed to be the next Guardians. The book is steeped in history — millennia worth of history — and symbolism and has an air of mystery surrounding it. Mark and Clare are great together and have really strong chemistry.

Oh yeah, they’re also half-cousins.

That’s weird enough, and then you think about the implications of their family lines. Their respective families (the Aylwards and the Kenwards) have been intermarrying for hundreds of years. Basically since the middle ages. Somehow, Mark and Clare have defied genetics, and are two fully-functional, attractive, intelligent human beings. I should be totally grossed out by this and throw the book across the room. But I just tell myself, “Don’t think about it. Just enjoy the story.” Some questionable relations also appear in Linda Howard’s Shades of Twilight, a book Lauren Onorato enjoys. The hero and heroine are distant cousins. Wendy also likes Someday Soon by Joan Wolf, and The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer – two more romances that bring together cousins. As Wendy points out, part of it is historical. “I know the idea wasn’t taboo back in the 1800s, the setting for both books, but when I think of my own cousins… No way.”

Another book I read recently had some red flags that I ignored, to my benefit. Overseas by Beatriz Williams was a thoroughly romantic book. It was the type of romance that I felt in my gut, and the type of book that had me re-reading passages as soon as I finished it. But it is not without its flaws. Overseas is a time travel novel in which Julian, a British military officer in WWI, goes forward in time. To summarize: WWI-era Julian meets Kate, who tells him that they’re in love. They spend a couple days together, then part ways. Modern-day Julian has spent years searching for Kate, in love with her, because she told him that future-Julian loved her. Yeah, that’s a bit confusing – time travel romance in which the characters know each other or meet in both time periods tend to be that way – but once I started thinking about it, the less sense it made. While I adored the romance, I also struggled with some of the flimsier plot premises.

And then there are the codependent and emotionally abusive relationships, the ones that in real life, we would do our best to get our friends out of. Overseas has tinges of that; Julian is controlling and secretive in a way that reminded me of Twilight – probably the most famously unhealthy fictional relationship. LinnieGayl says, “I am afraid to say how many times I’ve reread Linda Howard’s Sarah’s Child. On paper it’s a book I should hate. And it’s clear many, many readers do hate it. The heroine will do basically anything for the man she loves, Rome Matthews. He treats her horribly, and then when she becomes pregnant and has a child — a child he didn’t want — he pretends the baby doesn’t exist, makes her keep it in a room he never enters, etc., etc. Horrible, horrible man in his treatment of her. But I still love it…sigh.” Jenna Harper also loves a sometimes controversial J. D. Ward book. “I absolutely love (and often reread) J.R. Ward’s Lover Awakened, but when you boil down the actual plot, the heroine gets rescued by the hero and then spends almost the entire length of the story in his bedroom. In my head, that’s not exactly the kind of heroine that I respect and enjoy – Bella really doesn’t do much of anything except eat, sleep and have sex with Zsadist. But I love the book all the same.” Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire was similar for Jenna. “I found myself staying up until the wee hours absolutely transfixed by this book, but there are so many problems with it that it’s frightening. The hero has major anger management issues and is the walking example of a future wife abuser. He’s obsessive and controlling and jealous, and when he gets upset, he gets violent. The relationship between the hero and heroine is majorly co-dependent and unhealthy. But darned if I didn’t absolutely love this book. I actually felt bad about liking it so much because I really shouldn’t.”

Rape, “forced seduction,” and other power dynamics are often where this discussion leads. Lynn Spencer brought up a classic Patricia Gaffney novel, To Have And To Hold. “The initial sex scene between hero/heroine is very much a rape/forced seduction scene that can be truly uncomfortable to read. Even so, I thought the romance in the book was amazing overall.” Dabney also loved Price of Innocence and Prisoner of my Desire, despite some very forced seductions.

There’s a theme here. “I shouldn’t like this book,” “I’m afraid to admit that I enjoy it.” Whether the reason we are embarrassed to admit we like a book is that is poorly written or weakly plotted, or it is because we like it despite (or perhaps because of) some questionable relationship dynamics, we all seem to have at least a few of these problematic book loves. As romance readers, we get enough criticism as it is, even if we’re reading an unquestionably great romance novel. But throw in something controversial or troublesome, and to still admit to reading and liking it? That takes some guts.

Do you have a book (or books) that you love, despite or because of some flaw? Which ones?

– Jane Granville

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