Recently, AAR’s Maggie Boyd reviewed the book Starlight on Willow Lake, and one of the reasons it received a C- from her was the unrealistic depiction of the heroine’s career. This got me thinking about romances and careers. We are all (mostly!) experts on our own day jobs, from stay-at-home parenting to freelance journalism to brain surgery, and seeing our lives depicted inaccurately can be very jarring in a book.

For me, as a historian, I was never able to get into Lauren Willig. I tried The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, which includes a plot in the past running opposite modern historians doing research, and it didn’t look like history at all. While her researchers were reconstructing individual conversations (if I recall, and it was years ago, they happened to be recorded in a diary), I was in the middle of a project trying to find out if a woman I was researching had four children or five, and what years they were born. The level of specificity of the Willig sources (written by people theoretically spying, who shouldn’t have written things down!) felt just absurd. I don’t know if her later books change this, or even if that book improved by the end, because I DNFed it.

I had the same problem with a non-romance, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, because her characters were reading old sources at a rate that matched the unfolding of the plot. A letter (again, it was years ago, so it might have been a diary entry) would talk about Turkey, so they’d go there, then read the next letter, which talked about Romania, or whatever… it was ridiculous. Real people would have read all the letters before setting out anywhere. The only reason they didn’t is that later letters revealed plot points, so the author had to force them to happen later in the book. It annoyed me so much that the book was another DNF even though her writing was marvelous.

I asked AAR staffers to weigh in with how their professional lives affected their romance reading.

Maggie elaborated on her Starlight on Willow Lake critique: As someone who works in and employs people for the home health industry I found the description of Faith McCallum’s job completely improbable…. the heroine is lauded for her work in the field, has excellent references and yet is out of work for three months. It’s dependent on location of course but few home health workers have problems finding jobs. It’s a low paying field with taxing work; we are normally begging for employees. Most agencies I know keep a “Help Wanted” ad running year around because help really is always wanted. I also found it awkward that Faith treated Mason

[the hero] as her employer [when his mother Alice was the patient]. Technically, he is paying her salary, but in medicine it is the patient who is treated as the client, and confidentiality laws tend to protect them. I found it odd that Alice was treated by Faith, a supposedly experienced care worker, as someone who had no right to privacy. Icing the cake for me was Faith’s complete lack of professionalism. She accepted expensive gifts from the client, which is strongly frowned upon. She brought her children to her interview and had them repeatedly interact with the patient. She seemed to draw no lines between her work and private life.

Lee: The book that bothered me a LOT was Grace Burrowes’ A Single Kiss. And yes, she is a lawyer in real life though I suspect she’s a single practitioner. Anyhoo, in A Single Kiss one of the partners is constantly hitting on and touching a new hire, a female associate. There is just no way that that is acceptable behavior. And the fact that the associate didn’t see anything wrong with it just made me roll my eyes over and over again. In real life, the female associate would speak to the HR person and the other partners would speak to the idiot saying things like “Are you crazy?!?! Do you want to have the EEOC file a complaint against us?”

Lynn: As a lawyer, I find myself getting frustrated with a variety of things having to do with depiction of the profession. However, the lack of awareness regarding ethics rules for dealing with clients is what truly gets me going. I’ve read a few books from various Harlequin lines that center on an attorney who just KNOWS her criminal defense client is innocent. And they start a relationship while she’s representing him.  Um…no. Sleeping with your clients is barred by the ethics rules in many states and I’ve seen attorneys get suspended or disbarred for it.

I’ve also read a few small-town romances where the attorney character blabs personal client business to others in town, supposedly for their client’s own good or to play matchmaker for their unwitting clients.  I guess the term “attorney-client privilege” didn’t sink in with these folks.

On a more positive note, I have enjoyed some lawyer romances. Do-Over by Dorien Kelly and Practice Makes Perfect  by Julie James are both good ones. I have my minor quibbles, but overall, both authors a good job of showing the weird combination of high stress and tedium that can go into a civil practice. Law has its moments, but it’s definitely not all courtroom drama.

Anne: This is one reason I’m glad so few writers find copyeditors interesting. I’ve never come across a romance where someone is trying to edit articles from a weekly science journal — probably because reading about that would be like watching paint dry. If somebody did start a trend of romances about copyeditors (eek!), I’d probably find all sorts of distracting errors. (“See edited an article with 256 references in a couple of hours?! WTH?!”)

OTOH I will point out that office workers in novels rarely worry about a long commute and rarely get stuck in a traffic jam — unless it’s romantic suspense story where the characters are trying to stop the villain before it’s too late.  They all seem to pop into the office as if they have transporters. Even lower level employees who could not afford apartments near the office seem to live nearby. So we already know that quite often, characters are in what I’d call “JobLand” rather than in something resembling a real job.

Haley: I see librarians in books sometimes but it’s always a very flat depiction. It’s rare that there’s any sort of description of what they actually do during the day. It’s like authors think they want a character to be bookish/shy/reserved so librarian is the career of choice. Yet most librarians have to be outgoing because our job is customer service, community outreach, programs, etc.

Melanie: Yes. This. Librarians seem to come in one of two categories – either the shy, bookish type who became a librarian to read all day (I wish!), or the secret sex kitten. And generally, the sex kitten is an erotica-only occurrence. Librarianship is actually a service industry. I don’t know about others, but I spend the vast majority of my day talking with students at my university, supervising other staff and student workers, and dealing with problems. I would absolutely love to spend my day reading books, though!

Blythe: I get irrationally annoyed when books make mistakes involving academia. I don’t know whether it was too many years of either being in grad school or seeing someone go through it, but I’ve read books with someone faking a degree and getting a job as a professor, books where someone is still working on a dissertation and somehow up for a job as head of a department, and one ridiculous book where the hero was something like 27 and had THREE PhDs. This was She Who Dares, Wins by Candace Havens. I could not handle this. And then there’s the famous Ana or whatever her name is from Fifty Shades who sails through college with no email address. Sometimes I just can’t suspend the disbelief.

Mary: It’s not my day job, but I read one YA novel where the hero had graduated from college, joined the police force, made detective and was the most valuable member of the force at the ripe old age of 23 or 24. That gave him a year or two to surpass all the veterans.  Quite a feat.

Jenna: Yes, I read and reviewed a book which featured a hero who was a retired Navy SEAL at the ripe old age of 27-28ish, and he’d been in the teams for 10 years. Given the fact that he couldn’t even enlist until the age of 18 plus the years of training to become an active SEAL, the whole thing was beyond eye-roll inducing.

Dabney: My husband is a plastic surgeon and I help run his practice. Plastic surgeons tend to come in two flavors in Romanceland. There’s either the “I’ve never done a boob job in my life. I only fix cleft palates.” types–a character in Kristan Higgins’ If You Only Knew was of this ilk. Or there’s the “I have no soul and I only make the plight of the average woman worse by encouraging women to alter themselves in destructive ways” villain types. The truth is more complicated. Most plastic surgeons have a practice that is somewhere in between. The doc who does boob jobs is also gifted at post-breast cancer reconstruction. The practitioner who does TCA peels also removes and minimizes the scars on many a skin cancer victim. Few specialities require more training. I’ve met many many plastic surgeons in the past three decades and most of them are sane “I’m here for the patient” types.

This bias extends to women who’ve had plastic surgery. Read a book where a woman has implants? I’m willing to bet (Jill Sorenson’s Backwoods is an exception) she’s the bitch of the piece. It’s estimated that almost 5% of adult American women have breast implants. Are they all nightmares? Not in my experience.

What about you? Have you ever read a hero/heroine who shared your day job? How do authors do at depicting your work? When they make ridiculous mistakes, can you overlook it, or is that a deal-breaker for you?


Caroline Russomanno

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Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day.