Tag Archives: Romance

Dogs and Goddesses, by Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich

I love these women. I’ve never met them, of course (although I do have a signed copy of Faking It that my writer-mom got for me at RWA one year) but I read Argh Ink and ReFabbing It on a daily or more often basis – pretty much as soon as they post anything, I read it. I enjoy – okay, enjoy is not QUITE the right word – their progress through their struggles, and I especially like reading their articles about craft and rewriting. I remember when they first collaborated on Dogs and Goddesses, when they were working through plots and characters and scenes.

I wish I liked it better. It’s not that I didn’t like it – it was fun enough – but it wasn’t as tight as I was expecting or hoping, and certainly not as good as their individual titles. My all-time standard for Jennifer Crusie and similar authors is Bet Me,  which has an excellent mix of friendship, lust, manic madcap slapstick, family tension, etc. This book had a lot of that, even all of that, but it doesn’t work as well.

I’ve been thinking about it since I finished the book, and I actually think that my problem is with the romances – they’re too quick. All three women fall in lust, sparked by the “temple tonic” and their latent powers, and by the end they’re in “love”. But none of the relationships are much more than sex. The closest thing is Shar and Sam, who actually do communicate as she tries to teach him what modern life is like. The other two couples don’t even have that.

Even the female friendships, the strongest part of the book, aren’t exactly organic. They’re friends because Kammani says, “You Will Be Friends” and then, magically, they are all inseparable friends. Even Gen and Bun get pulled into it. I suppose it’s part of the whole past lives/inevitable reliving aspect, but it didn’t work that well for me. I suppose in a book that makes such a big deal out of free will versus required service, having none of the relationships come apart through free will doesn’t sit that well.

It’s not bad though. Certainly better than some others that I’ve read (not by these three). It’s just not as good as their standalone books.

PS Lani Diane Rich is another author that’s a hero like Sara Gruen. She finished NaNo, found a publisher, and is now writing full-time (and teaching writing via StoryWonk and Writewell).

Crusie and Krissie are heroes of mine as well, but for other reasons.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I mean, it’s been recommended to me by a lot of people, including my best friend and my mother, both of whom have excellent taste in books, but the impression I’d always gotten from reviews and things was of a fairly light book. I knew I would like it; I wasn’t sure I was in the right mood for light.

And it is light, but it also isn’t. The style is fairly light – it’s an epistolary novel, so the tone is almost always that of friends chatting – but the subject matter isn’t always. It’s set post-WW2, so there’s all the dealing-with-that that you might imagine, and it revolves around the Channel Islands, which were occupied by the Germans. The basic idea (of the title, certainly) is that a group of islanders formed a literary society that, ultimately, saved their sanity during the Occupation.

The novel starts off with a writer on a book tour, who gets a letter from an islander telling her about their book club. She is, of course, instantly intrigued, and before long is corresponding with all of the members about their reading habits and their lives under the Occupation. Eventually she goes to visit, and learns even more about them and their lives.

The first half, where she’s on the book tour and just getting to know everyone through the letters, is much deeper than the second half, where she’s on Guernsey.  For various reasons, the first half of the book deals a lot with the power of reading, and the reasons that people – particularly these islanders – read the books that they do. I wish I’d had some post-its or something while I was reading it, because some of the phrasing is incredible.

The second half of the book is more of what I was expecting. It’s still quite good, of course, but it’s less about the power of reading and more a typical romance novel. Juliet (the writer) must decide whether to marry a rich American, stay in Guernsey, etc. Books are still an element, of course, but the overall theme is much more about Guernsey and the post-war recovery.

I don’t really know anything about the Channel Islands. I knew they’d been occupied during the war, but that’s about all I knew. I was fascinated to read about the conditions they’d been under while the Germans were there – one of the lesser known aspects of the war. I may have to learn more about them, after this book.

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The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes

 

I’ve finished it now, and my reaction is basically the same. It’s a good book, very engaging and mostly well-written. I just don’t think it’s the book that he thinks it is.  The subtitle is “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” but, at least to me, it was much more about the web of scientists and protégés that Joseph Banks developed. So much more time was spent developing the history of the Royal Society and discussing some of the feuds and connections that the argument about the Romantic Generation just sort of faded away. There are still mentions of Coleridge and Byron and the war(s) with the French, but those are not even remotely the focus of the book in the same way that Joseph Banks and his relationships with the scientists discussed are. Again, it’s not a bad book – in fact, it’s a very good book. It’s just not a book about the Romantic Generation, except coincidentally.

I say mostly well-written above. There are a few rogue commas, and a couple of odd phrasing and structure things. There are a couple of passages I want to point out: two odd ones, and one other.

First, a footnote talking about comets: “In modern times the passage of Hale-Bopp (1997) inspired a mass suicide by the Heaven’s Gate cult, though that was in California.” Um, exactly why does the location matter? Why does it matter enough to be put in an aside phrase? And why, exactly, does that phrase seem so dismissive? ‘Comets are interesting and mystical and have inspired odd behaviour. But only in the past, except in silly California.’ That’s how that sentence comes across to me: as though it’s somehow less relevant because it was in California.

Second, the first chapter about Humphrey Davy – and, actually, the second chapter about Humphrey Davy – is presented a bit oddly. I can’t remember exactly what confused me about the first chapter during the bulk of it, but the chapter ends with the sentence “At a glittering reception afterwards, Jane Apreece told Humphrey Davy that she loved fishing.” Um…..okay. I know he’s an angler and all, but quite a bit of the chapter has been about his (presumed) love affairs and the women chasing him, and …. it’s a really abrupt way to end a chapter, especially when Jane Apreece was only introduced in the preceding sentence. And then this isn’t resolved for another couple of chapters, past a chapter about the Vitality experiments and Frankenstein. Also, the second chapter about Humphrey Davy, chronologically after he and Jane Apreece have gotten married, keeps referring to future-to-them events (“Jane would remember it regretfully during a similar trip the next year” or things like that) with very little, if any, follow-up. Don’t tease us with emotional insight and then not actually provide any emotional insight!

Third, because it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, here is one of the sappiest love letters I’ve ever read. It’s from Humphrey Davy to his wife, when he’s on a fishing trip and she’s back in wherever they live: “I flirt with the water nymphs, but you are my constant goddess. I make you the personification of the spirit of the woods, and the waters, and the hills, and the clouds….this is the earliest form of religion. I breathe a sigh upon paper from the thought of being apart from you for only two days. My dear, dear Love creates a void which no interest or amusement can fill….The longer I live, the more I shall love you, my dearest Jane.”

Okay, it’s sweet. Sickeningly sweet. Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

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A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy

Hardy is an interesting author to read. I absolutely adore his style: the writing is beautiful and evocative and emotional. However, he can be absolutely heart-wrenchingly painful to read.

The first Hardy I ever read was Tess of the d’Urbervilles which, as my old literature students will tell you, has a main character with the most unremitting bad luck of any character in fiction. Throughout the book, bad things happen to her, and she deals with them in the only way possible that will keep further bad things, or worse things, from happening, and then worse things happen anyway. But the writing is so gorgeous that even as you’re weeping for Tess (and cursing the people responsible for her situation), you absolutely love her.

And then there’s Jude. Oh, Jude the Obscure. Again, absolutely gorgeous writing, and a book I will never ever read again. There is one particular scene which is horribly inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to experience. I read it on a train in Italy, with my friends who had already read it looking on, and I actually shrieked in horror. They knew exactly where in the book I was. The mental image of that scene will never, ever leave me.

Hardy has a particular gift for making horrible things seem inevitable. There is a point in the book, the Judicture* if you will, where you know that bad things are going to happen to these characters and there’s no way they can stop it. It is the point where the story shifts from “things are fine” to “life is hell”.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is an early Hardy, and it’s pretty obvious. It’s not a bad book by any means, it’s just not as clear or refined as his later books. There are definite indications of what he will become as a writer, but the full impact is not there yet.

The indications certainly are there, though. The language is approaching the beauty and clarity of later books like Tess and Jude – I don’t have specific examples but it was certainly easy to read. The mood, while I’m sure devastating to Elfride (the main character), was not nearly as traumatic to read as Tess or Jude. But the most striking indication of his later greatness is in the themes.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is basically about a young country girl and her love life. Elfride, who just turned 19 when the book starts, is a completely innocent parson’s daughter in the Southwest of England (probably Dorset, less than a day’s journey from Plymouth anyway). She falls in love for the first time with Stephen Smith, a man whom her father thinks is unsuitable for her (he’s lower class). They become secretly engaged, and even run off to get married, but she gets cold feet at the last minute and they return unmarried. She tries to be faithful to him when he goes to India to make his fortune and prove himself, but then falls in love with Harry Knight, an older man (who happens to be Stephen’s mentor). She doesn’t tell the older man about her past, and he refuses to marry her when he finds out that she’d had a (non-physical, although he doesn’t know that) lover before. After a year or more of separation, Knight and Stephen meet, realise the truth, and go to each try to win Elfride again – only to come on her funeral procession and her now-widowed husband. They decry her as false, but leave the grieving husband in peace.

All the elements are there: love and the way society sees love; women’s roles in love and society; the clash between classes; the clash between country and city; secrecy and its devastating effect on relationships. These themes are more developed in Tess and Jude, of course, but they’re certainly there in Blue Eyes.

(You know, it’s much harder to shorten the title of a Hardy book that doesn’t have the main character’s name in it. Tess and Jude = easy. Even The Mayor of Casterbridge can easily be known by “Casterbridge”. But “A Pair of Blue Eyes”? “Blue Eyes”, I suppose. The funny thing is that apart from one incident, her blue eyes aren’t really a plot point at all. I suppose it’s just another example of how relatively undeveloped Hardy was at this point.)

Anyway: love, society’s view of love, women’s roles in love. Elfride, as I mentioned is an innocent. She’d had a brief flirtation with a local boy that, in her eyes, was just kindness, but in his eyes was true love. The boy then dies, and his mother blames Elfride and hates her bitterly. She then does everything in her power (which is not much, but enough) to destroy Elfride’s future happiness.

Then there’s the old attitude (that still hangs on, to some extent, today), that a woman should be innocent until marriage, but a man is expected to be experienced. Both Stephen and Knight (although, to be fair, Stephen got the idea from Knight) think and say that the sweetest first kiss is an awkward one, because it proves that the woman has never been kissed before. Knight even falls in love with Elfride because he believes that she has never loved anyone before. He tells her so (and then is it any wonder that she can’t confess that she has, in fact, had a previous boyfriend?). He leaves her because he can’t accept the fact that she was planning to marry someone before him (and because she hadn’t told him, but mostly it’s the fact that she’d had a boyfriend before). Knight himself, on the other hand, is considered very wise and experienced – and indeed he has thought about the subject extensively although he is a rarity who has no physical experience himself.

And, a vent: Boys. When you break up with a girl, and leave the country, and do your best to forget her, and do not communicate with her in any way for a year, she is in no way “false” when she marries someone else. When you give her no indication that you are ever coming back or that you still have feelings for her, she is not “false” when she marries someone else. When you have moved on, or at least tried to, then you have to expect that she will do the same. I know that in The Princess Bride, Westley says “Why didn’t you wait for me? Death cannot stop true love,” and it’s very sweet and romantic. But that is an idealised fairy tale and should not in any way be taken as reality. Reality is this: the woman has just as much right to move on, change her mind, and find a new relationship as the man does. When you disappear completely, you can’t expect her to wait, unknowing and unchanging, forever.

(This rant is based mostly on the book and partially on personal life events. Yeah, I’m still mad about that one. It’ll be a while longer before I’m fully over it, I think.)

The class clash, and the clash between city and country, is seen most in the character of Stephen Smith. The city is seen to be a haven of culture and experience – anyone who comes recommended from the city must be a person of worth. When Elfride’s father finds out that Stephen is not just a country boy but a lower-class country boy, all of Stephen’s education and employment count for nothing. Stephen is accepted with open arms when the parson thinks he is an architect’s assistant from London; he is essentially thrown out of the house when his father is a local labourer. Elfride even points this out – that Stephen himself hasn’t changed, just their knowledge of his parents, and if his parents had been labourers from, say, the North, Stephen still would have been accepted. But because they are aware of his low birth and his local history, he is suddenly unacceptable.

Knight, too, is incredibly condescending toward Stephen. Knight has lived in the city much longer and maintains fewer ties to the local area. What ties he does have are loose, and higher class. This makes Knight not just an acceptable suitor for Elfride, but a superior person (even though, in my mind, Stephen was much better for Elfride and more of a person that I’d like to know).

Finally, secrecy. It’s when secrets are revealed that the Judictures come in this book (although, as I’ve said, they’re not as devastating as the Judictures in Tess or Jude). Stephen’s revelation that his parents are local labourers leads to his banishment from the parsonage, and hence to his and Elfride’s elopement. The parson’s secret relationship with a local (rich) woman prevents Elfride from confiding in him about her relationship with Stephen. Elfride’s (unwilling) revelation about her previous relationship leads to Knight’s departure.  If any of those three secrets hadn’t been secrets, the story would have been much, much different. Even if the telling of the secrets had been different (well, except for the first one which is almost entirely down to the parson’s snobbery), the story would have been much, much different.

The story revolves around miscommunication, misapprehension, and misunderstandings from almost the first word. It shows signs of the greatness that Hardy achieves in his later works, without the emotional devastation that makes him painful to experience.

*Judicture = a combination of Jude (from Jude the Obscure) and juncture (the juncture of “life is fine” and “life is not fine”). Spread the word. Let’s get in the OED someday.

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In Defense of a Genre

I ran smack up against the romance-novel prejudice today at one of my volunteering gigs. The manager and book sorter were trying to decide whether and where to shelve a bunch of Danielle Steel/Catherine Cookson type books that they had gotten. I didn’t actually see the books, since I was on the computer at the time, but those were two of the names that they mentioned in their discussion. The books appeared to be “single title” books, the kind that are often about 500 pages long or so, densely plotted. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re not trash. And yet the manager and book sorter at the shop were trying to decide where to put them so that people could find them, but so that they wouldn’t be obvious. Because they don’t want anyone to think that they sell “that kind of book.”

Those were their words. “That kind of book.”

What kind of book exactly? Best-selling books? Danielle Steel (and again, let me clarify that I don’t know specifically that they were actually Danielle Steel books, just that they were Danielle Steel – like books) was on the Publisher’s Weekly best-seller list throughout the 80s and 90s. There were years when she had no less than three books on the best-seller list. Books they don’t like? Nobody’s going to like every book, or every type of book. If you limit what you sell in your store to books that you like, you’re going to run out of books and run out of customers. Books that are badly written? We sell Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell, both of whom have (to my eye) absolutely abhorrent writing styles. (I say this as someone who has read at least four of both those authors’ books.)

I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I’m pretty sure that by “that kind of book” they meant romance.

Because who would possibly want to read romance novels? Who would want to read books that usually have a female lead (and often a strong female lead), that portray relationships both platonic and romantic, that present fairly universal questions about character and human interaction and love? No, we’d much rather read something that preys on our fears both personal and global, that glorifies violence, that is usually racist (against whatever ethnicity is currently “the enemy”) and sexist. Or, even better, the agony memoirs of people – usually children – that have gone through horrific ordeals of abuse and neglect, so that we can feel appropriately guilty about the state of the world, slightly smug that our lives aren’t like that, and satisfied that we’re part of the solution simply by participating in the publicity of the problem.

Note: My problem is not with the authors or victims of the “Tragic Lives” genre. My problem is with the people who read them for the reasons that I’ve given above, which then lead to things like James Frey’s “memoir” because hard-life memoirs are what sell.

But, yeah, who would want to read romance? Who would want to believe that, even for a little while, happy endings are possible? Who would want to identify with someone whose life isn’t quite perfect, who doesn’t have their ideal job or their ideal house, or whatever, but still gets the guy (or girl) anyway? Who would want to fantasize about being a princess, historical or modern, dripping with jewels and dancing at balls, who finds the one man who doesn’t care about her money?

Yes, they’re escapist. They’re fiction. A lot of fiction is meant to be escapist. Yes, a lot of them are not very good. The same can be said about a lot of different genres, and yet those are still on the shelves, while romance is hidden away, shoved to one side or tucked on a lower shelf so that the “good” books take center stage.

Oh, and when it comes to the “sex” argument, I have read more explicit sex scenes in crime novels and “literary” fiction than I have in most romance novels.  In fact, I was starting to wonder if a requirement for “literary fiction” was to include at least one graphic sex scene. Sometimes a scene that only included one person.  (Ew.) (Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom. You probably didn’t need to know that.)

Romance novels are a valid genre, and a valid choice for readers. Just like any genre – crime, fantasy, science fiction, etc. – is a valid choice for readers.  To limit that choice simply because of your personal preference is unprofessional at the very least.

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Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers, by Marika Cobbold

I first heard about this book on a blog – can’t remember which one, sadly – and thought it sounded interesting. Interesting enough, at least, to put on my amazon wishlist (which is what I use as a reminder of books that sound interesting. You know, in case I ever run out of books to read). So when it was on one of the display shelves at the newly refurbished local library, I couldn’t resist.

And it is an interesting concept, for sure. Romance novelist turns cynical, Aphrodite and Eros try to help, etc. And I really wish I’d enjoyed it more. I didn’t not enjoy it, but it certainly didn’t live up to my expectations, given the glowing review that had made me put it on the wishlist in the first place.

I liked the main character perfectly well. I was incredibly happy when she walked out on her boyfriend, because he was emotionally abusive and icky. And I completely understand her cynicism about love and romance, since it’s something that I feel quite a lot (and I’m only 29).

But. The more I think about it, the less works.

The ending was absolutely the weakest part of the book. All of the character development, all of the story wrapped up in a “here’s what happened” epilogue. And the love story itself boils down to Cupid’s – sorry, Eros’s – arrow. Why do they love each other? Because Eros shot them at the right time. It’s the equivalent of the fairy godmother waving her wand, and it’s such a cop-out.

And the most frustrating part of the ending is that it doesn’t resolve any of the questions that the book poses, which are good, valid questions about the nature of romance and its place in modern life. The book is filled with valid cynicism about romance, the emphasis put on romance to the detriment of love and partnership, and the role and responsibility that romantic, escapist fiction plays in the world. These are perfectly good questions that deserve to be looked at. But all of the cynical doubts are resolved off-stage through a deus ex machine that’s not even seen, only reported.

It left me feeling hollow and disappointed. Yes, there was a happy ending in the traditional romance way (a wedding), but there was no resolution. And resolution is more important than a stock ending. The perfect ending is not the only reason that people (me) read romances. It’s nice, sure, but even more important than the perfect ending is the feeling that the happy ending is possible. That the problems will be overcome. And it’s not about the fact that there’s a wedding as much as the fact that there’s a relationship. There was no relationship in this book, at least not one to hope for. We weren’t given a picture of any relationship other than cynicism; we weren’t given any evidence to support the idea of “this time it will be different” at the end.

If the ending had been good, or at least satisfying, I could have overlooked some of my annoyances in the rest of the book. But since the ending didn’t resolve any of them, I have to wonder why they were there at all. Aphrodite’s behavior as a “therapist” completely mocked the seriousness of both main character’s mental conditions (he has OCD, she has hallucinations that worry and upset her). It may have been intended as comic relief, but it didn’t work. The mental problems of the characters were never resolved either. The hallucinations just sort of appear, probably as a shorthand for “my life is falling apart”, but since they’re neither taken seriously by anyone other than the main character who’s having them, nor resolved, they serve no purpose. (And why can’t a woman be dissatisfied with her romantic relationship and romance in general without seeming to go mad?) There’s also the ridiculous and unfair way that Rebecca is treated as the relationship guru, especially by her goddaughter. Seriously, this girl bases her cold feet on Rebecca’s attitude, and everyone backs her up on this. Since when did writing romances mean that you had to be the perfect romantic yourself? There’s also the previously mentioned lack of a redeeming love story. Every apparently happy couple is really unhappy and usually adulterous. Again, it’s not the ending that makes a romance worth reading, it’s the relationships that build up to that ending. And this book just didn’t have them.

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Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare

The more I experience Much Ado About Nothing – at one time my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies, although it has since been superseded, I think, by As You Like It – the more I am convinced of two things:

  1. Claudio sucks.
  2. Beatrice and Benedick were “together” before the men went off to war, and it did not end well. I am not sure yet how they broke up, but that’s where the root of their bickering comes from.

This is also a play absolutely filled with references and wordplay that doesn’t exist anymore. I want to do a bit more research about some of them, which may help me figure out a bit more about point 2.

Let’s look briefly at Claudio. He is one of the most shallow creatures in literature. He falls in love with Hero because she is pretty. There’s virtually no indication that he’s even talked to her before the play starts (even though most interpretations do play it as if Hero at least had a crush on Claudio pre-play). He is also far too easily convinced by rumour, insinuation, and flat-out lying that he is being betrayed. It happens at the party, when the most disreputable characters in the play tell him absolute lies that the Prince is wooing Hero for himself, and it happens again the night before the wedding  when he is led to believe that Hero is not a virgin. In both of these cases, he takes the word of people that should not be trusted – Don John and his men – and you would think he would know that they cannot be trusted, since Don John has only recently been reconciled with the Prince! He does not seek out any further proof in either case; he is so non-confrontational that he is more willing to believe ill of his friend and his love than to do anything in his own behalf! He does not deserve Hero, at all, and it’s so frustrating to watch, read, or hear.

Now on to Beatrice and Benedick. They clearly know each other before the play starts, in a way deeper than Hero and Claudio – Beatrice “promised to eat all of his killing”, there “is a kind of merry war” between them, and the best quotation: “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.”

Their breakup I get from things like their mutual protestations of never marrying, especially to each other. It’s definitely a form of protesting too much, like they’re trying to convince each other and themselves. They’re also very willing to believe that the other loves them based on overheard lies and rumours, as if they had already had these suspicions themselves – but they, unlike Claudio, ultimately confront the other with this information and get confirmation. The quotation above also gives clues to it – false dice, as if there was some sort of misunderstanding, the idea that Beatrice has lost Benedick’s heart and the implication that it is a more distant losing than simply their conversation at the party.

There are a few lines that I do not have cultural context for yet, to know if they support or alter my argument: “Signor Mountanto” – is there any symbolic significance to the name “Mountanto”? There’s also a line that’s cut out of most performances that I’ve seen/heard: Beatrice says “He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle’s fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt.” I….have no idea what that means. What is a “jade’s trick”, that Beatrice accused Benedick of using? Why does Benedick refer to Hero as “Leonato’s short daughter”? There are others, I am sure…..I will need to do a closer rereading and some research.

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