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“Men and women can’t be friends…” or can they?

In Mary Balogh’s 1997 Trad. Regency The Last Waltz, Gerard Percy is living and working in Canada when he learned that he has unexpectedly inherited an earldom. He returns to host a Christmas party at his new estate, to which he invites his Canadian friends, brother and sister Andrew and Jeanette Campbell.

About halfway through the book, Gerard suggests that he and Jeanette might marry, because at least they get along. She turns him down:

“And yet,” he said, “you are one of the dearest friends I have ever had, Jeanette, man or woman.”

“You need more than friendship in your life’s partner,” she said. “… One day, I am going to share the sort of love with a man that poets write of.” She smiled impishly.

“I envy him,” he said.

“No, you do not,” she said. “You need only my friendship, Gerard, as I need yours.”

While Gerard kept moving and married the heroine, Christina, that little conversation stopped me cold. I could not, off the top of my head, think of another m/f romance novel where the hero has a deep, storied friendship with a woman. Sisters, yes; sisters-in-law, sure; friends who go on to become the heroine, yes; platonic female friends, no.

I wonder about this, because in real life, one of the absolute best signs (is the opposite of ‘red flag’ a ‘green flag?’) in a guy is his ability to be friends with a woman. Friends are fully realized humans who require emotional give and take. If a man can’t put women into that category, he’s not ready to be a hero.

Is it that a real female friend might read like a rival? Jeannette is, after all, a potential wife in place of the heroine. But heroines get clichéd ‘gay best friends’ all the time. I think I may have read a hero with a lesbian friend (or partner? They might have been law enforcement) once, but nothing like the passels of gay besties our heroines have. And authors could always work around rivalry by making the heroes friends with married women, but that almost always seems to happen via his friends or brothers, who were the heroes of a previous book.

I said that I couldn’t think of a single other book with this feature, which seemed bizarre, so I went and searched my keeper shelves to see if specific titles might jog my memory. I did come up with a few, although many of them aren’t exactly what I’m looking for.

Carla Kelly’s The Lady’s Companion features a hero, the bailiff of an estate, who is as much of a friend as possible given class and employment lines to the lady of the estate, who is elderly and in poor health. This isn’t quite the same as being able to have a friendship with a woman who could have been a lover, but it’s a wonderful relationship.

In Linnea Sinclair’s Dock Five series, the heroine, Chas Bergren, is on good friendly terms with her ex-husband Philip Guthrie. Not exactly the same as a male-female friendship without sex ever, but it definitely made me like both of them better than characters who loathe their evil exes.

There are a number of series where the heroes have female teammates – Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling stories, Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series, and Joanna Bourne’s Spymasters books, to name but a few. While I appreciate the respect and loyalty they usually show each other, the characters rarely have direct one-on-one emotional intimacy except to scold each other about being clueless in courting someone else.

Miles Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is friends with a girl from his childhood, and also remains on good friendly terms with his ex-girlfriends.

The one perfect match I found was Jeffe Kennedy’s The Orchid Throne. This book’s hero, Con, has a long-standing friendship with fellow warrior and survivor of mine servitude Sondra. The two are respectful, supportive, and understanding, and have real emotional relationship with each other. So there is another one of these magic creatures out there. And I like them, and I’d like to read more!

So can anybody recommend to me other m/f romances where the hero has actual female friends? Also, can people who are more versed than I am in m/m romance pitch in – do friendships for these heroes break down along gender lines? What about f/f romances and male friends? Or romances with nonbinary characters?

~ Caroline Russomanno

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