A Fine Romance

 

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!

Me.

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!

 

  • ElizaC says:

    I’ve been doing a ton of cozy mystery reading during the pandemic – something light and amusing. Haven’t done many romance books. I do think one of the best romance book series is the Harriet Vane/Peter Whimsey books – even though they are technically a mystery series. You can tell that Dorothy Sayers put her heart into the character of Harriet Vane. The BBC series with Harriet Walter and Edward Petherbridge is a very good adaptation of the books.

    • Musette says:

      I absolutely LOVED Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and yes, it definitely wove a romance through the series (wasn’t it Peter who insisted Harriet wear the dog collar to protect against the assailant? (or was that Ngaio Marsh)… either way, that was a lovely, romantic thing to do, to help protect your beloved from strangulation.

      xoxo

  • Patty says:

    I went and ordered a couple of these! I used to love romance novels – Wolf and the Dove, etc., etc., but these sound more grown up and funnier than the stuff from so long ago. I neeeeed some fun books for the summer. I sometimes get knuckled under with reading that is “smart” and find myself not enjoying it. Then I usually go find some trashy science fiction stuff to read to blow out the brain cobwebs and remember how much I love to read! I’m working on the new Andy Weir one now (Remember The Martian? They made it into a movie with Matt Damon, who I hate, but I loved that book) and it is a palate cleanser for me. Then I’m reading a couple of these and then I’ll be asking you for more! I have no shame in my reading game, I read what makes me happy, and I will quit any book no matter where I am if I find myself in the “I just do not care what happens to these people.” Thanks for these recommendations! I am a big Romantic too, at least theoretically.

    • Musette says:

      Theoretically, my Aunt Fanny. You are even more romantic than I am!
      I think you will LOVE this genre – especially Kleypas and MacLean – and PLEASE get the Cecilia Grant. You will thank me!

      xoxoxo

      • Musette says:

        and I have that new Weir on my ‘to read’ list – you’ll have to lmk how it goes! xoxoxo

      • Patty says:

        Maybe! I love me some Austen. I think because she gets the romance, but it is sensible! Even when it’s not. So appreciate this list because I do love me some romance novels, but had no idea where to start because much of it is just awful! I mean, Wolf and the Dove was great when I was 17, but it just won’t work for me now without a lot of laughing and gagging. 🙂 I picked up one each of those three to give a try! Thanks so much! One of these days when I am not perpetually buried, we have to catch up on the phone!

        • Musette says:

          well… um… depending upon which 3 you got, they might (miiiiight) be a little gaggy – but, do you know, I think that’s why I like them. they bear ABSOLUTELY NO relation to reality. None. But they are pretty fab writers so I just suspend all disbelief and strap in. Mostly, they have not failed me!

          xoxox

  • Calrayo says:

    What a fun post! I’ve read a few of Jasmine Guillory’s books and they’re super fun for contemporary romance. I also love T. Kingfisher (pen name for Ursula Vernon). She writes snarky, fun fantasy novels that usually have a strong romance element. Her characters are grown-ass adults in the 35-45 range, so obstacles to HEA tend to be along the lines of respecting the hell out of the other person and not wanting to distract/bother them, or being too busy saving the world. It’s great.

    • Musette says:

      see? that’s Tuesday for me.
      1. Listen to Roy Hargrove. Cry.
      2. Respect the hell out of the other person (whomever/wherever he may be)
      3. Be busy saving the world!

      Love it!

      xoxoxo

  • Sharon C. says:

    While I try (usually unsuccessfully) to read a wide variety of genres, romance novels have never really been my thing. Wuthering Heights totally lost me in junior high; and while I’ve read a few Georgette Heyers, I generally lose patience with the characters (looking at you, Scarlett O’Hara!) and the constraints of period societal norms.

    Like Cinnamon, I prefer my romances as a companion to a robust action or mystery story. Frank Yerby is my favorite–The Saracen Blade, The Golden Hawk, and many others, spanning a WIDE range of times and places. [My mother got me hooked on his stories after I’d read through most all of Agatha Christie, thanks to her as well.] His books are still available through used bookseller sites, fortunately. And I enjoy the female characters Dan Brown teams with Robert Langdon in Angels and Demons and his other books.

    • Musette says:

      Hey, sweetie!
      Wuthering Heights is a slog. There, I said it. A. Slog. 😉 You’re welcome!
      Where we do diverge is at the Societal Constraint. I give over fully to it because to stay in this era whilst reading HR makes the whole thing nigh-on impossible to accept. Knowing some of your tastes in reading material I don’t think this is the genre for you, overall, which is what makes the world go ’round!
      I’ll have to check out Frank Yerby, thanks!!!

      xoxoxo

  • Maya says:

    I think romance novels are a lot of fun. I like the ones that involve travel back in time. Lynn Kurland is my favorite and has done two great series involving time-travel. She is a compelling writer. I also like Jude Deveraux. She does historical romances. I tend to read romance novels in spurts and thoroughly enjoy them. There are other very good authors but these two come to mind immediately. Stigma? Nah – that’s silly and pompous.

  • Dina C. says:

    Great post Musette! Love all the very apparent research you’ve done on this essay! I’m a romantic in many ways, and I’ve read romances on and off at various times. Jane Austen is my numero uno alll time favorite, and Georgette Heyer is another great writer I enjoy. Just re-read five of her books this winter. I completely agree that they are a great escape from the grim realities of the real world. Jo Beverly and Mary Balogh were two favorite Regency romance writers that I used to read. But I like romance best as a side dish to the main storyline which is a Mystery, usually a relationship that evolves over the course of a few books. I’ve read that the sales of romance novels skyrocketed when they became available on Kindle, and that both men and women were buying them. More privacy, less shame!

    • Musette says:

      I read somewhere (Smartbitches? One of the writers’ blogs? somewhere..) that a man picked up one of his wife’s romance novels (I think it was one of the 3 I mentioned) in order to become a better lover – and apparently it worked!
      Re the stories: what I like about the writers I mentioned is, somehow, they manage to make the story as important (if not more) than the romance. There’s one, ‘Hello Stranger’ about England’s first licensed female doctor that is fascinating! The romance is a nice underpinning but definitely takes a backseat to the story of the emergence of modern medicine (hygiene/sterilization, dealing with infection, etc) as well as political intrigue.

      xoxo

    • Musette says:

      Dina –

      Meant to lyk – if you are an Austen lover you MUST read (if you haven’t already) Pamela Aidan’s Darcy trilogy (P&P told from Darcy’s perspective). It’s absolutely gorgeous! xoxoxo

  • March says:

    WHAT A FUN POST. I fully admit to my own (internal) eye-rolling about the romance genre in the past — I blame Fabio too. But I ALSO became aware at some point of the slut-shaming aspect and the general … looking down upon the romance genre as a reflex (societal and intellectual) that is based in sexism. There’s the sense that romances are somehow less worthy / more contemptible, whereas the mediocre spy novels you pick up in airports (generally written by men) are perfectly acceptable. I haven’t dipped a toe into the genre much, but I plan to!

  • Cinnamon says:

    Sigh. Really fun read. I am right there with you on reading stuff that gives you this sort of hope. Historical romances don’t do it for me, though. Rather, I had a long run of a specific vampire series by JR Ward. Read about 10 of them and then she did a weird turn, started adding too many side stories and going more in a supernatural direction and that did it for me. Bu-bye. But the first 6 or 7 really did the business.

    • Musette says:

      I hate when that happens! I was Much in Love with Laurell K. Hamilton’s early Anita Blake novels – then she took a detour into (fashion? too much HMSex? I can’t remember now) and THEN she got into major internet beefs with her fans – and it just got to be too much.

      xoxo

  • Tara C says:

    I haven’t read a historical romance novel in many years but I’m not opposed to the genre, just got bored with it. Now I’m more likely to read humor or travel writing. I love essays too but right now they’re too much serious when I need something light and distracting.

    • Musette says:

      I think I’m enjoying them precisely because, until 2 months ago, I didn’t really know anything about them. I read a few too many for this post, so am now taking a break, but I like the coziness of them (much as I like Georgette Heyer’s 30s mysteries, which are fun and oddly HEA as well).
      For travel, I love Tim Cahill’s essays! He always makes me LOL! and teaches me something in the bargain. It’s because of him that I took flying lessons! (I’m not certified and am likely to not land well – but it was a valiant effort)

      xoxo

  • Barbara says:

    I have been reading Georgette Heyer novels for nearly sixty years and still love them. I usually reread two or three of them a year. They are a source of comfort and delight for me. I also love Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Thanks for this post!

    • Musette says:

      You’re welcome – it was a pleasure to write! Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is my new bestie! I doubt I will read 90% of what is reviewed but the comments give me LIFE!

      And the Heyer romances are timeless, with the romance itself just the underpinning to really lovely stories! My first was A Civil Contract (found it in the kiosk at Lagos airport – 2am – on one of the last Pan Am flights. Saved my sanity!)

      xoxoxo

      • Barbara says:

        My first Heyer was Sprig Muslin. I checked it out from the public library when I was thirteen, based on the cover. Oddly enough, the cover was not a couple. It was a scene of a carriage and a man with a gun holding the carriage up. There was a scene like that in the book.
        I too love the snark and wit at SBTB.

        • Musette says:

          I loved ‘Sprig Muslin’! Her covers changed over time, depending upon when they were published. Two of my Repeat Reads are ‘The Nonesuch’ and ‘The Quiet Gentleman’ and have several iterations; the cover art is all over the place!!

          xoxox