A few days ago a (fully vaxxed and masked – settle down, people) friend visited. On the way to the garden she stopped to look at a stack of books on the table.
Ted Chiang’s ‘Exhalation’ – a nod of approval
Carl Zimmer’s ‘Soul Made Flesh’ (his book on the brain) – another nod of approval
A collection of Octavio Paz’s poetry (in Spanish and it’s Paz. and it’s poetry.)
‘How Pleasure Works’ by Paul Bloom (h/t Missy March) – ..sooo approving
‘Seduce Me at Sunrise’ by Lisa Kleypas….
‘Wicked and the Wallflower’ by Sarah MacLean…
(record scratch)….. wait. what?
she couldn’t have looked more shocked than if she’d found a gallon bag of Colombian Marching Powder in that stack.
I waited like a cobra for her to say something… finally, she asked ‘ um. are you writing an article about Romance novels?’….. “yes”, I replied (noting her look of relief)…”but I also rather like them” (relief erased). Which leads me to this post (which is about how I came upon the new (to me) genre and then we’ll go to the policing of women in general – don’t worry, it won’t be grim, I promise. It’s me. I’m mean as a snake but I’m almost never grim. Life is grim enough)
well.. let’s begin with the fact that my BFFFE just told me that I am, without a doubt, the most romantic person she knows. Huh. I would’ve said I was the most pragmatic, least romantic person on this planet – then I remembered that I am the gal who lets Roy Hargrove break her heart on purpose – at 10a – on a TUESDAY. I love Jane Austen, who is all about the HEA (Happily Ever After) – Bronte, not so much because HEA is iffy. No ambiguous endings or sadness, thank you – if I want that .. well, Life. And I’m okay with that – just not in my relaxation reading material. Especially not right now, when life is so brutish and uncertain.
So I guess I am romantic. Who’dathunkit!
I love the alien world of the leisure class in Regency & Victorian periods, especially Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. In her Heyer biography Jennifer Kloester writes that she lived in a time where the vestiges of Regency Life still existed, giving her novels an authenticity that just glides across the page. She’s right. Very controlled and mannered (my absolute favorite behavior), very much true to the social constructs of the era. ‘Closed Door‘? More like ‘NO Door’. You get a kiss (sometimes just on the hand) once the marriage proposal has been accepted – and that’s it. And that’s fine.
But I’ve been a snob about contemporary writers of Historical Romance for no particular reason, though I’mo Blame Fabio. However, parts of that has changed. Let’s go tripping through a teeny bit of Regency, Victorian and the early Industrial Revolution eras (written by 3 current authors) for a hot minute, emphasis on hot. I’m new to this contemporary Historicals genre (came to it via this Atlantic Monthly article and then this Bustle article on slut-shaming – honestly, it’s a wonder I get any work done at all) but have fallen HORD for a few writers: Sarah MacLean, Lisa Kleypas and Julia Quinn (non-Bridgerton because I am sick of Bridgerton; not her fault, Blame Skynet) – all of these writers write erotic romance (I think it’s called ‘Open Door’, where the sex is all up in there* (NO pun intended (okay, maybe a little) – but as with any other novel (romance or otherwise), the Hot Monkey Sex is (or should be) complementary to the story (otherwise it’s just porn, imo, which is fine but Not Mah Thang); all three of these writers weave interesting stories about interesting primary characters and even more interesting secondary characters. Let’s face it, the romance HEA is a foregone conclusion – at least it’d better be; I am NOT here for some sad-assed ending. If I wanted that .. well… Life, yet again. okay that was a bit grim – but you know what I mean. These authors’ well-written books take me out of my very dark view of the world. The heroes are gorgeous, cut, hung, astonishing lovers, rich/powerful – but they are also interesting & intelligent (as opposed to the boring, cutout characters that too often show up in less capable hands), though sometimes a bit exhausting (lots of thinking about how much they want/love the heroine which is charming but has to stay in balance so it doesn’t start to feel stalk-y (I’ve been stalked – twice – it is not a good thing). But in the Romance genre, isn’t that the fantasy? Not the ‘stalk-y’ but the notion that someone is so in love with you that you are some Total Focus subroutine running through them on the 24/7 – okay, that sounds creepy but it’s FANTASY ROMANCE! They aren’t psychos, they’re just In Love in that Romance Way that would be skeevy in real life. But here, it’s all weirdly workable, with obligatory Conflict stalling the HEA for awhile – and lots of hot-as-hell interactions because that’s. the. point. Also they have butlers! housemaids! cooks! scads of dough (inherited or amassed in ruthless-but-decent fashion)! benevolent control of entire sections of London’s underworld (MacLean’s Bareknuckle Bastards trilogy is primo, with a phenomenal Brothers backstory)!!! Uber-but not asshole-Alpha males (decent, damaged guys (and these guys have ISSUES) finally brought ’round by emotional growth). (Usually) great plots and excellent dialogue. And did I mention HOT? Yass! So, with all that money and power and all that staff and 1800s, they have plenty of time to think about adoring their ladies, which they do, fabulously (sign me up) and then they are shocked and locked-up by actual Love and have to Fix Emotional Stuff so they can HEA – the classic trope! shut UP! It’s lovely. Trust me. The heroines are also intriguing – I thought they would be wan and submissive but Nope! they’re written with current sensibilities, even as they hew to general behavior in accordance with the ideas of that very rigid age (which provides the emotional and erotic tension, and that’s the swoony part of the Hot Monkey bits – I mean, c’mon. When things are so rigidly controlled, class divide is A Major Thing, and ‘reputation’ determines your world , there is So. Much. Tension. By the time you give a steamy glance or simply touch hands, everybody is panting! And don’t even with Second Base, let alone Sliding to Home! It’s enough to set all London ablaze. The delight in these 3 contemporary authors’ books is these heroines, in their corsets and kid slippers, constrained by the era’s rigid conventions that define them, are nevertheless determined to live their Very Best Lives. And since HEA is definitely on the table, I am free to bask in the Stupid Reasons Conflict, as they figure out how to get there. Mostly on the sly or roundabout because 1800s, still they get what they want and I am here for it. Usually it’s the heroes who have to get with the program, which makes for some interesting character development (the ones where the hero hews the course while the heroine dithers a bit are almost too fabulous, as if a tiger Mary Poppins mated with the Archangel Michael to birth that man… GIMMEEE!!! lol!) . Either way, there are complementary strengths that make the whole thing work with Hot Monkey Sex finally happening. The one that got me interested in this genre, however, turns that trope upside down. Cecilia Grant’s ‘A Lady Awakened’ (the cover is the art for the Atlantic article) turned out to be one of the most interesting novels I’ve read in awhile and I can’t tell you about it because it would ruin it, except to say it is written backwards and a little bit sideways, opening up with some really crappy sex – I mean Stone. Cold. Awful. So bad, it was shocking – and Ms. Grant is sneaky as hell, making the sexual evolution a somewhat marginal part of a story that is based on them having sex. Clever girl. I was startled by how invested I became in the lovely, subversive tale! And I finally figured out (because I am SLOW, Lawd JEEBUS!) why I am liking these 3 Historical writers so much. The actual fantasy is (drum roll)… besides being all cut/hung/rich/fab, these 1800s men work hard to accept and allow their ladies to be their Very Best Selves while also being willing and able to wrap them in that HEA cocoon of privilege and protection and support. I’m sorry, ymmv, but that right there? The ULTIMATE fantasy for me. Can you tell this cobra has made some Stupid Man Choices in her past? Welp! yeah.
And scenes can be funny as hell! There’s a MacLean involving a botched ‘ruination’, a quart of pig’s blood and a suspected murder charge – when they get to ‘see… what had happened was’ I was HEAVING! And a Lisa Kleypas I particularly love, where the heroine is delicateAF (Scarlet Fever survivor and about the size of my right arm) with a fragile mien. Everybody hovering over her as if she’s about to shatter into a bazillion pieces. Ha. Looks can be deceiving… strap in, buckaroos! In this one scene the villain poisons a family member who’s clocking out fast, no amount of beating and threats from the heroine’s hunky brother will get Villain to reveal the antidote… so… without further ado the heroine, in all her fragility and lace, takes a paraffin lamp, pours it all over the wardrobe Hunky Brother has stashed Villain in… and sets that damn thing on fire!
How long do you think it took Villain to reveal the antidote!? LOL! Holy cats and crackers, I cackled SO hard. What a badass, Miss Fragile. The hero, btw, is nowhere near when that action occurs . But when he finds out how she’s saved the day, his heart swells with pride and delight (and lust, though I suspect that part swelling isn’t his heart). My own vicious heart loved this SO much. And when they are done well, there is a squickton of sly humor in them, in slithery little asides (which is different from the LOL! I experienced when Fragile Gal set that wardrobe ablaze – that was just me ;-). I get a bit tired of the hero, hot as he is, with the whole “I’m not GOOD ENOUGH for you” trope (hysterical review here) – but I guess Conflict. Right? And since I’m looking for some Not Real Life I’ll take it – Fragile Girl barely does, though, which cheers me up a bit. He may be HotAF and the love of her life – but she’s DONE with his foolishness, PTSD notwithstanding. GET WITH THE PROGRAM! and let’s get it on! Good for you, Fragile Girl!
As I mentioned in my previous post ‘Solid Girls’ it’s usually the secondary characters who provide that depth of the story arc – they also balance out the Hot Monkey Sex parts – I love all the panting and desire and everything but let’s face it, a little goes a long way. Funny? A touch of snark? That is Forever..
Anyhoo, I’m stunned to find I really enjoy this genre – it’s comfy escapism at its finest, settling my bitey little soul right the hell down. But there really is a stigma attached to it (no matter that the 3 writers mentioned above have legions of fans and are laughing like lima beans all the way to the bank). In the Bustle and Atlantic articles (and here’s where we get to the grim(ish) part) MacLean and Luther posit it’s because women are still being policed – by men and, sadly, by other women. And one of the areas that is most policed is women’s sexual and romantic interests, which is still perceived as a threat on so many levels. Romance novels, especially as sub-genres open up, give women – in fact, everyone – an opportunity to explore their interests (did you know there is a whole genre devoted to dinosaur erotica (never in my whole life did I think I would type those two words together. It’s definitely not ‘romance’ – I mean, could you really have a relationship with a dinosaur? What would you talk about? And cuddles? Those TRex arms are a little short) Yeah. I’ll just leave that here with a link. Read the review (I love www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com by the way; it’s a great site – LUH THEM!), then read the comments…. all the way to the Cuttlefish Erotica mention. After you change into a clean pair of pants and wipe the snot off your monitor, come back and talk to me. You’re welcome). For a lot of society that seems to be very scary. Not the dinosaurs. Women’s sexuality and lust for life. Though sex with dinosaurs also sounds very scary. Ymmv. And, yes. I’m judging. I’m laughing – but I’m judging. 😉
On the edge of smut/slut-shaming myself for enjoying these 3 writers, I was going to qualify them, saying I can’t binge them, as if they were Mallomars, but I can’t binge any genre (nor can I binge Mallomars. sigh. getting old is a Beast (h/t MacLean))! I can’t even binge Paz! All writers start to read the same after Book 2, if read too close together, no matter the genre. I tried bingeing Ted Chiang’s ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ and nearly gave myself an aneurysm. But I’m still trying to understand and justify my interest in Historical Romance and am fascinated by that need to justify as well as the overall stigma – why do you think this particular genre is so challenging for so many people to accept? A well-written book is a well-written book. And a poorly-written book, no matter the genre, sucks. Is this a guilty pleasure? Possibly. Except.. do you know.. I find that I don’t really feel the slightest bit guilty.
Let me know your thoughts. Do you read any Romance? Do any of you write in this genre? How do you feel about the stigma? I. Haz. All. The. Questions. I’m probably not going to dive too deeply into the genre because it’s construction season and I can’t get through my current reading list but if you have recommendations, gimme!! I’ll have TGirl poke a winner for that Yuzu Soda from Strangers Perfume Patty talked about awhile back. It’s lovely! Fizzy!