Friday, February 26, 2016

Sick Day Repost: What Can a Feminist Get from Reading Romance?

Thought I had managed to avoid catching the virus that has had my daughter low this week, but the headache, chills, and fuzzy-headedness that greeted me this morning suggest my optimism might be a little premature. So today, here is a repost of one of RNFF's earliest columns, about what a feminist might get from reading romance.

Earlier this year, out of the blue, a man named “Ken from NY” sent me an email via Goodreads. He wrote that he was primarily an adventure novel reader, explaining in detail what he loved about that genre. But he added that he was thinking expanding his horizons by giving romance fiction a try. He’d heard that Nora Roberts was one of the most popular romance writers out there, and since I had reviewed some of her books on Goodreads, he wondered if I might write back to him, to explain what I get out of reading romance.

Those familiar with the arguments of early feminist critics of the romance genre might be forgiven for doubting that a feminist reader could gain much of anything positive from reading a romance novel. Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (1982) and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Culture (1984) set the stage for such an assumption, arguing that in the battle between feminism and patriarchy, romance novels clearly side with the enemy. 

Contemporary scholars of romance have taken issue with many of Modeleski’s and Radway’s conclusions. But conventional wisdom has yet to be persuaded; most non-romance readers still take it for granted that romance as a genre is bad for women. How, then, could I explain my reading tastes to Ken from NY, even while justifying to myself that said tastes should not automatically disqualify me from claiming an identity as a feminist?

I ended up sending Ken in NY a brief list of 5 benefits I get from reading romance. None of them are at odds with feminism; several of them stem directly from feminist beliefs. In future posts, I’ll be discussing romance scholars’ ideas about romance’s potential benefits, but today I share my own list (with a bit extra expounding to highlight the connections I see between romance and feminism). I also invite you to offer your own thoughts about ways in which romance as a genre is, or has the potential to be, feminist.

Pleasure in reading good writing 

This isn’t a benefit of reading all, or even most, romance, much to this literary critic’s chagrin. But good writing is there to be found in the romance genre, and as a literary scholar, I take particular pleasure in reading stylistically interesting writing. Georgette Heyer, Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale, Mary Balogh—all in very different ways—offer the pleasures of language, as well as the pleasures of story. I don’t think such pleasure is feminist per se, but I don’t see it as negating feminism in any way.

A better understanding of how people relate to one another in romantic relationships

At its core, feminism is committed to the equality of men and women. Central to that commitment is feminism’s call for us to explore and understand the differences in power between men and women, differences that often stand in the way of achieving such equality. While much early feminist activism focused on equality and power in the workplace, power dynamics are often as much, if not more, at play within personal relationships, particularly within one’s relationships with a sexual partner.

Romance novels, by definition, are all about such relationships; at the heart of the romance novel’s central conflict is a struggle between two individuals intent on negotiating how power will be divided and/or shared between them.
The romance genre provides not just one, but a multiplicity, of models of the ways in which two people might undertake such a negotiation. Some offer examples of feminine submission to a dominant man; others explicitly reject such submissiveness while implicitly endorsing it; still others marry action and ideology, presenting protagonists who share power equally and/or equitably.

Since we often tend to surround ourselves with people similar to ourselves, such a variety of examples might not always be available to us in our everyday lives. It can be a welcome relief to discover that the way your parents, or your siblings, or your friends came to understand power and its use within their love relationships are not the only models out there. Though the covers of romance novels tend to look the same, the power dynamics between romantic partners that lie behind them can differ radically. By comparing and contrasting how different books portray what a successful negotiation of power in a romantic relationship looks like, a discerning, feminist reader can learn not only about equitable models, but also about the tricks our culture uses to convince women to accept inequitable ones.

Romantic yearning via proxy

Traditionally, romance as a genre has been characterized by a strict heteronormativity (i.e., a belief that the only proper ending is one in which a male and female protagonist end up in a committed relationship, most often marriage or engagement). The publishing of romance novels featuring gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual protagonists during the past decade suggests that the genre itself is not inherently heterosexist. But with the exception of erotic romance, the genre still does take monogamy as its norm (Ann Herendeen’s historical romance Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander a charming exception—more about this book in a future post). 

As someone who has been married for 15+ years, and who was with that same partner for 8+ years before marrying, yearning after an unattainable love object isn’t really something I get to experience much any more—my love object is right here beside me in bed every night. But by identifying with the characters in romance novels, I get to re-live these feelings second hand. Such identification often reminds me of the early days of my relationship, which helps me to renew my commitment to that relationship, and to monogamy. While monogamy may not be the only feminist choice for how to participate in a romantic relationship, I don’t believe that monogamy in itself is inherently anti-feminist—do you?

Pleasure in knowing what to expect—there will always be a happy ending waiting at the book’s conclusion

This one is a bit tricky, and I’m still working it out for myself, so let me know if it doesn’t make sense yet. It starts with the idea that literary critics tend to value the original, the unique, and the special over the generic. “Genre fiction,” defined as books intentionally created with the conventions of a particular literary genre in mind, so that readers already familiar with the genre will know what to expect and will be pleased by the familiar, is commonly set up in binary opposition to “literary fiction,” with literary fiction clearly viewed as the superior of the pair. Not surprisingly, since romance is the most commercially popular form of genre fiction, romance is often seen as the wormiest apple in the genre fiction barrel.

In the past decade, literary critics have begun to take issue with the idea that genre conventions are inherently limiting (see for example Mary Bly’s essay, “On Popular Romance, J.R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study”*). But I’d like to make a slightly different argument, one that doesn’t urge us to look for the original, the special, within the generic, but instead holds up for admiration the very repetition that is the central characteristic of genre fiction.

In our everyday lives, we have to continually renegotiate our relationships, particularly those with our romantic partner, if we are to maintain them. Reading a single romance, which often gives the impression that a couple’s problems are largely over once they have cleared the hurdles placed in the way of their relationship, could be seen as the opposite: holding up a false model, denying the necessity of the constant dance of love, hurt, anger, and forgiveness that make up the day-to-day workings of most real-life relationships.

But if you read romances on a regular basis, you actually find an echo of the relationship work you have to slog through each and every day. Though each individual novel presents different characters undertaking this relationship work, the repetition of the pattern across multiple romances more closely resembles the repetitive pattern of work you do in real-life relationships. I’m continually hurting the ones I love, especially my partner; I’m continually being forgiven. And I’m continually being hurt, being disappointed, and forgiving in my turn. Repetitively encountering the pattern through my reading of many romance novels heartens me for the work of enduring the same repetition in my day-to-day life.

Pleasure in reading the sex scenes

If you want to make a romance reader mad, just toss the label “pornography for women” in her (or, more rarely, his) direction. Sometimes the insult is meant to suggest that romance novels are somehow harmful or denigrating to their readers, just as reading or viewing pornography is thought by many to be degrading to its consumers. More often, though, the accusation seems to suggest a belief that unlike men, women are more likely to find sexual pleasure when emotional connection is also present; in order to become consumers of pornography, they need it to be encased within the protective shell of a romantic storyline. Romance novels are really just wolves in sheep’s clothing, such people seem to claim, pornography made palatable by the addition of narrative gloss.

The “pornography for women” label also suggests that women in particular should be ashamed about being interested in, and reading about, sex. As a feminist, I take exception to such a belief. I openly acknowledge that I find the reading of sex scenes in romance novels fascinating. More than that, I often find reading them a turn-on. Returning to reading romance novels in middle age, after leaving them behind after adolescence, helped me to get through a time in my marriage when stress and personal problems had made me feel like sex was the last thing I should, or even could, give a damn about. But getting turned on by a romance novel made me want to search out actual sexual pleasure again for myself, and share it with my partner.

Though feminists have long been at odds with one another about whether pornography is denigrating to women or a positive celebration of their sexuality, if pornography is defined simply as sexually-related subject matter that sexually stimulates its reader/viewer, then calling romance novels “pornography for women” is no insult in this feminist’s book.

What do you think of the above list? And what other aspects of the romance genre do you think are, or could be, feminist?

Mary Bly, "On Popular Romance, J.R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study." Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Seelinger, New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012: 60-72.

Photo/Illustration credits
• Gender equality:
• Monogamy wine: Sara Golzari and Sali Golzari Hoover
• Happily Ever After ticket: afavoritedesign
• True Horse Romance cartoon: Rubes © by Leigh Rubin

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Rewriting the Passing Narrative: Beverly Jenkins' FORBIDDEN and Shannon Gibney's SEE NO COLOR

“Passing is a deception that enables a person to adopt certain roles or identities from which he would be barred by prevailing social standards in the absence of his misleading conduct. The classic racial passer in the United States has been the “white Negro”: the individual whose physical appearance allows him to present himself as “white” but whose “black” lineage  (typically only a very partial black lineage) makes him a Negro according to dominant racial rules." —Randall Kennedy, "Racial Passing"**

Racial passing, that is, a person with black ancestry "pretending" to be white, was a common theme in myriad American novels in the period from 1880 to 1925, by both black and white authors. The very concept of passing relies on a rule not found in any other country besides the United States, suggests literary critic Juda Bennet*: the "one drop rule," which argues that having no more than one-drop of "Negro" blood makes a person a "Negro." Black and white exist as absolute opposites, an essentialist binary in which white = power and black = lack of power. The one-drop rule protected white society against the challenge people who had both black and white ancestry presented to the strict "you are either white, or you are black" binary. To acknowledge people who had both black and white ancestry as something other than either black or white would be to challenge the absoluteness of the binary, a binary whites used to justify their oppressive treatment of blacks. The idea of biracial identity did not exist in post-Emancipation America, Bennet argues, and did not come into widespread use until long into the 20th century.

From Clotel, or, The President's Daughter, A Narrative of
Slave Life in America
by William Wells Brown (1853).
The biracial daughter of Thomas Jefferson, Clotel ultimate
commits suicide by jumping off a bridge
I could not help but think about Jada Bennet's analysis of earlier passing narratives as I read two recently released novels with biracial characters. Especially about one of the most common tropes that Bennet found in this body of literature: the death, by novel's end, of the protagonist who passes. Such characters (primarily women, deemed "tragic mulattoes") raised disturbing questions about just how permeable the strict lines between black and white actually were. If a person with "black" blood could pass as white, what did it actually mean, then, to be white? To be black? If some black people could look white on the outside, might they be no different from white people on the inside? Bringing up such possibilities through the creation of characters who pass proved incredibly disturbing; by killing off characters who pass, Bennet argues, such narratives evade, at least temporarily, these disturbing questions.

Both Beverly Jenkins' historical romance Forbidden and Shannon Gibney's YA contemporary, See No Color, reimagine the traditional passing narrative. Jenkins' novel, set in 1870 Denver, features a male, rather than a female, protagonist who passes. Rhine Fontaine grew up on his father's Georgia plantation. But he enjoyed few of the privileges of being the son of the owner, for his mother was not Fontaine's white wife, but an enslaved black woman. Rhine first realized that his light skin and green eyes signaled "white" to others when he was ten; though he was supposed to be acting as his white brother Andrew's slave servant, he and Andrew sat down together and ate in restaurant for whites. Though their father whipped them both for their transgression, neither forgot the experience, and after the war, Rhine left for the west, "headed to his own future; one he planned to live out as White" (Kindle Loc 73).

William A. G. Brown, African-
American owner of Virginia City's
Boston Saloon, from 1866-1875.
His story inspired Jenkins's Rhine.
After five years in Virginia City, Nevada, Rhine has carved out a prosperous, respectable life. He owns his own saloon; he's on the city council; and he's engaged to marry the white daughter of a fellow councilor. Unlike the protagonists of many an older passing narrative, he does not distance himself "his" race: he opens his saloon to black and white alike (although whites won't come, since there are blacks there); he advocates politically on behalf of rights for the town's Coloured population; and he lends money and invests in business in the black community. Nor is he psychologically traumatized by his passing. To himself, he acknowledges that "By passing, he'd gained a lot in terms of wealth and prestige, but he'd lost a lot as well" (1128), but his examples of loss—having to listen to racist jokes, and to be looked at oddly when he protests against them, and not being able to attend all-black celebrations and social functions—do not torment him.

It's only after he rescues young cook Eddy Carmichael from a con artist in the desert, and finds himself unexpectedly attracted to the beautiful black woman, does Rhine consider telling others beside his brother and his best friend about his biracial background. Jenkins doesn't dwell on Rhine's decision; in fact, it is first mentioned only in passing (no pun intended) during a conversation he has with Eddy about honesty: "He thought about the lie he'd been living though he'd be changing that soon" (2975). And though Eddy worries after she hears the truth that if Rhine tells others that his former white friends and colleagues will "undoubtedly denounce him and maybe even threaten his life," no actual violence occurs. Rhine even takes pains to secure his future financially, so that his white debtors cannot default by claiming that a white man cannot owe money to a black one. Thus, Rhine's passing does not result in tragedy and death; Jenkins rewrites the passing narrative, constructing the rejection of passing as a gift of romantic love.

See No Color, Shannon Gibney's contemporary YA, considers a very different kind of passing: the passing a child of color is often forced to do after being adopted by a white family. What's most important to sixteen-year-old Alex Kirtridge is not the color of her skin, but her determination to follow in her father's footsteps and succeed as a baseball player. So it's more than a bit of a shock when her younger white sister, who's always been a bit of an oddball, brings up the subject of race in the middle of a cozy family dinner:

"What do you all make of Alex being the only black person in our family? I mean, I've been thinking about it, and I know I'm not the only one. Sometimes I see people staring at us int he grocery store like they can't figure us out, and I feel weird, and I know it must be like ten times weirder for Alex. But it's like this secret, you know? Like no one is supposed to actually admit that she's black, or maybe more that she's not white. But it's impossible because she's just right there with us and its like 'How can't you see this?'" (29)

Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's home run record,
an important touchstone for Alex
Alex isn't stupid. She knows about the history of racial discrimination professional baseball players in America had to face. And she knows that the few black girls in her Wisconsin high school taunt her for being uppity, for thinking she's white when she's not. But it's only after Reggie, a black player on an opposing baseball team, asks her out, and shows her an African American culture far different than the one she imbibed via the media and her white family, that Alex really starts to think about what it means to be biracial. What it means to "be the only black person" in an all-white family.

Alex's family has not encouraged her to think about her blackness. And when she begins to think about it despite their hopes that she'll ignore it, they actively discourage her. Brother Jason, a year younger than Alex, tells her, "Alex, this isn't about anyone feeling better. It's about reality. I've never seen you as black and neither has Mom or Dad or Kit, okay?" (72) And her father sits her down for a special heart-to-heart: "I just want you to know that your mother and I, we will always see you as just you, as Alex. There's nothing black—or particularly . . . racial—about you to us because you're our little girl and always will be" (58).

But Alex is starting to see the assumptions that lie behind her parents and her brother's "unseeing": "Something about the way he said 'black' made me cringe a little. Like it was the worst thing a person could be. I remembered his tone when he used the word "mixed" to describe me, however, and in contrast, it was almost prideful" (58). Asking Alex to "see no color" is to ask her to agree to the tacit assumption that being white is normal, being black is inferior. Alex's parents are asking Alex to "pass" so they will not have to confront their own deeply denied racism. And to ignore their racism is to ignore the deep shame Alex herself often feels at not being "black enough," at so often feeling like an outsider to the black culture of which so many people assume she's a part.

Discovering that the people you love are asking you to collude in their own racism is a disturbing wake-up call. But it is one that many transracial adoptees face, Gibney's novel asserts. In large part because many white families continue to "see no color."

Many students and adults I've talked with about race over the years argue, like Alex's father, that they "see no color" when they look at other people. Those who say this say it with pride, believing that it shows how unprejudiced they are. But Gibney's novel suggests that despite the positive intentions behind such refusals to differentiate people by the color of their skin, "seeing no color" is ultimately a refusal to recognize the very real ways that racism, particularly racism against people of African ancestry in the United States, continues to negatively impact their lives.

Photo credits:
William A. G. Brown: Tahoe Daily Tribune
Hank Aaron: CNN
"I'm Adopted": Survivors Blog Here

*Bennett, Juda. The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion in Modern American Literature. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
**Kennedy, Randall. “Racial Passing.” Ohio State Law Journal. Vol. 62:1145, 2001.

Avon, 2015

See No Color
Carolrhoda LAB

Friday, February 19, 2016

Short Takes for a Short Week

It's a short work week here in the U. S. (Monday was our combined Presidents' Day holiday), so here's one short post from me. I've been reading up a storm, and have a bunch of recommendations for new books from RNFF favorites, all later books in ongoing series:

Collateral damage. That's what well-heeled New York philanthropist Arden MacCarren is after her investment banker father and brother are arrested for masterminding a massive Ponzi scheme. Though she knew nothing about the fraud, Arden's left dealing with the fallout, despite being known as the weak one in the family. Looking for a safe space to hide from all the negative publicity, not to mention find a technique that will help her fight back against her increasingly debilitating panic attacks, Arden enrolls in a private drawing class. Having hot sex with the class's tattooed male model, a former marine, is just a way to help them both escape for a few moments from their own emotional wounds. Or is it? A story of two wounded warriors, both helping one another remember the fighter inside.

Best lines:
      "You saved me," he said. "They saved my life so many times, but you saved me, too."
     "I'm in good company, then," she said. When he looked back at her, one eyebrow raised, she added, "You taught me how."

Full-length books in Buchman's Night Stalkers series follow a predictable, yet still entertaining pattern: two heterosexual coworkers in the Army's SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment Airborne) helicopter aviation support group strike sparks of one another during an initial action-packed mission, grow closer, spend a leave together, then return for one major mission that allows them to overcome any last doubts either may have had about making a long-term commitment. Our protagonists here are of the opposites-attract variety: Captain Justin Roberts, a sweet-talking Texan who can pilot a helicopter as easily as he can gentle a horse, and fellow Captain Kara Moretti, a mouthy Italian from Brooklyn who pilots the hottest RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) in this woman's army. Yet despite their differences, Kara and Justin keep finishing each other's sentences, insulting and wisecracking their way through stressful situations while silently in mutual awe of each others' skills. Lots of cool tech, high-stakes action scenes, homages to (rather than stereotypes of) ethnic roots, and of course, heartfelt respect for competent military women.

Best lines:
"Families normally didn't happen in the same unit of the military. Hell, sex wasn't supposed to happen in the military at all—as if that made one lick of sense. Come on, people, corral a clue. Why would a career guy want anything less than a soldier babe?"

This follow-up to Maher's Rolling in the Deep, in which two coworkers won millions in the lottery, features the brother and friend of the lucky winners. Mexican-Italian Tony Lopez was supposed to be the successful sibling of the family, taking care of his younger brother and mother after his father passed, earning a business degree and running a successful store in his Queens neighborhood, marrying his childhood friend and parenting two beautiful daughters. But one divorce, one failing business, and one brother striking it rich later, and Tony is a man on the verge. Especially when the best friend of his brother's new love walks in the room. Cuban-European Beth Cody, single, pregnant, and happy to be both chalks up her raging lust for Tony to pregnancy hormones. But after the one-week friends-with-benefits deal she negotiates with him heads into deeper territory than she bargained for, can Beth reconcile her need for independence with her growing feelings for Tony? And that's not just a sell-copy tagline question, but a real issue, both for Beth and for readers wondering just how to keep their own sense of self while committing to a romantic relationship with another.

Best lines:
     "No doubt you think you've got this all handled, Elisabeth."
     That stops me. She never calls me by my full name.
     "You think, Oh, hey, I don't need a man. And guess what? You're actually right about that."
     I raise an eyebrow. It's not exactly what I was expecting her to say. I always assumed she disapproved of my lifestyle, that she wished I would settle down already.
     "You're a confident, competent woman," she says. "Don't think I haven't seen that. and admired it. You take excellent care of yourself and you make your own path. I love that about you, Beth."
     "Thanks, Mom, but—"
     "And I'll say it again. You don't need a man."
     "That's what I—"
     "But you are allowed to want one," she interrupts. "That's not against the rules, you know."

With so many historical romance authors dipping a toe in contemporary waters of late, it's a delight to find an author experimenting in the other direction. In Tempted, contemporary author Molly O'Keefe gives us a Western romance set in post Civil-War period, with protagonists attempting to figure out how to make a life for themselves in the wake of wartime trauma and upheaval. After seeing her once-abused sister now happily married (in book #1 of O'Keefe's Into the Wild series), Annie Denoe chooses to take her future into her own hands, moving to Denver and taking a nursing job with Dr. Madison. Luckily for her (though not so happily for him), the handsome doctor is nursing an addiction that often leaves him unable to do his job, a gap which Anne's medical training at the side of her doctor father leaves her all too ready to fill. When Madison offers marriage to protect her reputation, Anne finds his kiss far more interesting than his proposal. It's her best friend, army veteran Steven Baywood, though, not Dr. Madison, with whom Anne wants to explore her newfound interest in the carnal side of life. But Steven's war experiences, especially his time in the notorious Andersonville prison, have left him unable to be touched—emotionally and physically.

Best lines:
     "Do you love him?" Steven asked in a whisper.
     "I don't think that's as necessary an ingredient as my mother would have me believe. Do all those men love the girls at Delilah's?" [the local whorehouse]
     "Why are you doing this?"
     "Why not? Why shouldn't I?"
     "Anne, this is . . . shocking."
     "Well, maybe I am shocking."
     I am. I am very shocking, and no one ever noticed because I was so busy being invisible. And I love you. I love you so much and it hurts to be caught like this. Stuck like this with you. If I don't change things, they will never change.
     I will be like this forever with you.
     "Marriage is a very permanent step to satisfy curiosity," he said.
     "Are you suggesting another arrangement?"
     "Do you understand what you are asking?"
     "Yes . . . . I am asking you, if my marrying Dr. Madison in order to satisfy my curiosity about sex bothers you so much—are you volunteering to be my lover?"

Friday, February 12, 2016

Do Women and Men Write About Love Differently?

In a recent essay in The New Yorker online's "Page-Turner" section called "The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels," author Adelle Waldman argues that there is a clear difference between the ways that men and women novelists write about love. Or, at least, men and women who pen literary fiction.

Women authors, Waldman suggests, depict love as a process of judging potential partners based on intelligence, intelligence of a specific kind: "The ideal mate, for Jane Austen's heroines, for Charlotte Brönte's, for George Eliot's, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality." In contrast, our most literarily lauded male writers "devote far less energy to considering the intelligence of their heroes' female love interests; instead, they tend to emphasize visceral attraction and feelings." A search for equality, she concludes, is a "much greater psychological driver" for female writers than it is for males.

Tolstoy's Kitty and Levin...
Waldman uses examples from only a handful of novels to explicate her argument—Eliot's Middlemarch, Austen's Sense and Sensibility, and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels for the female side; Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Saul Bellow's Herzog, Philip Roth's "The Professor of Desire," and Karl Ove Knausgaard's autobiographical Min kamp novels for the male—so it is easy to find exceptions to her gendered rule. She even calls attention such exceptions herself, at least from the male side (Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy, Jonathan Franzen, Norman Rush). Yet these are the exceptions, she argues, for "even those male writers who are most attentive to love and sex tend to direct their attention elsewhere—to the face, the body—and to personality only in a loose sense." In sum, male writers depict love "as a profound, mysterious attraction," while women writers prefer show love "as a partnership with a like soul, a person uniquely capable of understanding one's inner life."

...or Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw?
Does Waldman's framework fall apart if we try to apply it to romance novels? Some romance novels are deeply invested in the vision of love as a meeting of the minds, the discovery of an intellectual soul mate, the finding of an equal. Others, though, lean far more toward the "love as a mysterious, inexplicable attraction" pole. Still others draw on both discourses, suggesting that the most successful relationships occur when both inexplicable attraction and intellectual compatibility coexist.

I think you would agree that examples of all three can be found in romance novels written by women. And, I would argue, those written by men.

A few questions that I have, then, after reading romance through the lens of Waldman's argument:

• Are literary writers more bound by gender conventions than are romance writers, at least when it comes to the depiction of love?

• Are female romance writers who focus primarily on "love as mysterious, inexplicable attraction" drawing their models from male literary writers?

• Are female romance writers who embrace the purportedly male model simply reclaiming a type vision of love that was, for socially constructed reasons (patriarchy, sexism), until recently only permitted to male novelists?

• Which vision of love is more empowering for women?

• Are both visions a fantasy of sorts? Or is one more realistic than the other?

• Which vision of love do you, as a reader, prefer to find in your romance novels?

Photo credits:
Anna Karenina: WomenArts
Middlemarch: Pinterest

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Learning to Parent: Huntley Fitzpatrick's THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO

When my daughter made the transition from picture books to chapter books, she noticed a worrying pattern: more often than not, the child characters in her books had parents who were dead. I had to explain to her that the fictional dead parents trend was not a reflection of reality (no, Daddy and I weren't going to die anytime soon), but rather a literary trope common to the genre. Kids with parents have less freedom than those without; authors of books for children, then, often killed off their protagonists' parents to give their characters more opportunity to experience adventured unhindered by protective and interfering adults.

In contrast, many YA books are all about parents—or at least about teen protagonists' conflicts with them. Moms and dads in YA fiction often are the ones who put the "problem" in the "problem novel": woefully inattentive or painfully controlling; demanding perfection or too lost in their own addictions to demand anything; stressed out, drugged out, or too mentally ill to help their adolescent offspring negotiate the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. Not dead, certainly, but readers might be excused for wishing many YA parent characters had kicked the bucket.

Eight isn't quite enough for the Garrett family...
Huntley Fitzpatrick's The Boy Most Likely To has a lot to say about parenting, but in a way far different than many a YA novel. Its two protagonists, Alice Garrett and Tim Mason, come from very different families, with very different parents. Alice is the eldest daughter in a family of eight (and counting) kids, a tight-knit, loving group, even if its members often get on each other's nerves. Tim's family, by contrast, is more about secrets and distance: his mother focused on collecting cute teddy bears and pillows with platitudes embroidered on them so she won't have to face the problems of her siblings or her children; his father as coldly judgmental and emotionally distant as an icebox, for reasons we, like Tim, never do come to understand.

At the start of the novel, though, both Alice and Tim are faced with disruptions in their usual family dynamics. After being hit by a car several weeks earlier, Alice's father is still recovering in the hospital; between focusing on her husband and her own pregnancy, Alice's mother has little to no time to devote to the daily tasks needed to keep her sizable family afloat. Nineteen-year-old Alice thus finds herself thrust into the role of parent to her six younger siblings, a role that she's not at all thrilled by.

Seventeen-year-old Tim, a friend of one of Alice's younger brothers, appears to be on the exact opposite trajectory. His aloof father (whom Tim refers to as "Nowhere Man") seems not to have noticed that his son has been making an effort to turn his hot mess of a life around: acknowledging his drinking problem; attending daily AA meetings; and holding down a job for the first time. Judgmental Mr. Mason sees none of it. In fact, in the book's opening scene, he gives his son until his eighteenth birthday to start "acting like a man—in every way," or he'll cut off his allowance, insurance, and funding for college. And kicks him out of the house to boot.

When Alice's brother offers Tim the apartment over their garage, Alice is incensed: now that her eldest brother is moving in with his girlfriend, Alice envisioned the apartment as hers, a place to get away from the madness that is her family. Readers of Fitzpatrick's earlier novel about the Garrett family, My Life Next Door, may envision a "boy gets adopted by a happy family" scenario will follow, complete with happy love story for Tim and Alice. Yet the story that unfolds is far more intense that the book's light romance cover art suggests.

During the opening scene, which depicts Alice trying to feed four of her siblings with yet another oatmeal breakfast while dealing with the early adolescent romantic angst of her younger sister, Alice wonders: "How does mom stand this? I pinch the muscles at the base of my neck, hard, close my eyes. Push away the most treacherous thought of all: Why does Mom stand this?" (19).  Alice may hate it when people come up to her mom in public and make disparaging remarks about the size of her brood, but she has no plans to follow in her mother's offspring-prolific footsteps. In fact, she's pretty sure she doesn't want any kids of her own at all. Which may be one of the many reasons for her love 'em and leave 'em ways when it comes to her own romantic life.

Tim, then, should prove a welcome diversion to Alice when he moves into the above-garage apartment Alice's older brother just left. Tim's an incorrigible witty flirt, and has had his eye on older Alice for a while now But Alice sees Tim only as another problem, "yet another person who needs a mother, a maid, a manager" (42). And she's not at all happy to find the "hot mess inside and out" taking up residence in the apartment she had thought would soon be hers (42). But after a few encounters with the new tenant, ones in which Alice initially tries to  fix or mother Tim but ends up interacting with him as an equal, Alice finds herself inexplicably attracted to the quick-witted but emotionally messed up young man:

     "At least you've got your running shoes on." She looks down at my feet. "No you don't even, do you? Who jogs barefoot?" Her toes tangle with mine for a second, then move away. She looks down at the sand, not at me, draws a squiggly line between us.
     "It matters?"
     "Traction, honey," Alice says.
     "I thought that was only when you'd broken a leg. Navy Seals do it. So I've heard."
     I wait for her to make fun of that, but instead she smiles a little more, almost undetectably, unless you're looking hard at her lips, which I may be doing—says, "Maybe put off the BUDs challenge until you've built up more . . . stamina."
     There are so many ways I could answer that.
     She moves closer; smells like I've always thought Hawaii would, green and sweet, earthy, sun and sea mixed together, smoky warm. Her greenish gray eyes, flecks of gold too—
     "You've only got one dimple," she says.
     "That a drawback? I had two, but I misplaced one after a particularly hard night."
     She gives my shoulder a shove. "You joke about everything."
     "Everything is pretty funny," I say, trying to sit up, but sinking down immediately, back groaning. "If you look at it the right way."
     "How do you know you're looking at it he right way?" Alice's head's lowered, she's still circling an index finger in the sand, only inches from brushing her knuckles past my stomach. The morning air is still and calm—no sound of the waves, even.
     "If it's funny," I wheeze, "you're looking at it the right way." (35-6).

Until the novel takes a sudden turn, and Tim finds himself unexpectedly forced into a parenting role himself, when (SPOILER ALERT HERE), a one-night stand from his mirky past shows up, infant in tow, claiming that Tim is the father. Can the boy whom everyone thinks is one most likely to "forget his own name even before we do," "turn down the hottest girl in the world for the coldest beer," and "be six feet under by our fifth reunion" truly parent a baby (57)? And can Alice, who has already put her life on hold to care for her own siblings, form any kind of meaningful bond with a boy already burdened with a child of his own?

Through both Alice and Tim, Fitzpatrick shows not only the joys, but the repetitive, mind-numbingly dull, and physically taxing work that goes into caring for young children. Parenting is not something that comes naturally to Alice because she's a female; neither is it something that comes unnaturally to Tim because he's a male (in fact, the mother of the baby proves far less comfortable with parenting than either Alice or Tim does). Both have to work hard to learn new skills, to rein in their impatience and boredom, and to be forgiving not only of the mistakes made by their charges, but also of those they themselves have made, and continue to make. In many ways, by learning to parent others, Tim, and even to a certain degree Alice, learn to parent themselves.

And thus are prepared themselves to step into an adult romantic relationship as a partner, rather than a needy child.

Photo credits:
Eight is Enough cast: Wikipedia
Sober baby bodysuit: Cafepress

The Boy Most Likely To
Dial, 2015