Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Bad Good Guys and Good Bad Guys: A Primer, via Jill Sorenson's AGAINST THE WALL

In m/f romance novels, it's usually pretty easy to tell the difference between bad guys who only look like good guys on the outside and good guys who are hiding their vulnerabilities under bad boy masks. Especially if your romance is told in alternating points of view.

In real life, though, women are rarely granted direct access to a potential romantic partner's inner thoughts and feelings, particularly at the beginning of a relationship. So it can often be difficult to make accurate judgments about said potential partner's motivations, intentions, and/or character.

In her latest romance, Jill Sorenson gives less experienced readers a primer on how to tell the bad good boy from the good bad boy, even if you don't know what either is thinking. I've compiled a collection of quotes from the book, each of which refers to either the book's romantic lead, Mexican-American ex-con Eric, or to the book's villain, overprivileged white college boy Chip. Can you tell the bad good boy from the good bad boy in the quotes below? (answers appear at the bottom of the post)


1. There's something wrong with me, some hitch in my wiring. I can go straight and stay clean, but I can't be soft. I can't be normal. I can't stop getting turned on by risk and danger. I like being bad, especially in bed.

2. It's not that I don't enjoy oral sex as part of foreplay or even as the main event. It's just that X doesn't seem interested in anything else. And he takes without giving.

3. Back in the day I used to make fun of guys who got hung up on their girlfriends. I thought they were suckers, handing over their balls. Now I realize that I was the stupid one. There's nothing unmanly about wanting to keep your woman happy. It's a strength, not a weakness.

4. I wasn't raised to be weak. Taking chances is a part of my nature. But I'm trying to find the balance between standing strong and being too aggressive. I have to stay in control. It's like art. You self-edit.

5. I have to pick my battles with X. He can be hot-tempered, depending on his mood and the amount of alcohol he's consumed. I tell myself it's not his fault. He's a dedicated athlete, big man on campus, born to a wealthy family. Guys like him expect their girlfriends to fall in line.

6. Instead of using Meghan, I used Noemi. I've never been a nice guy. I don't know if I can be.

7. He grabbed her ass like he owned it. I might do the same thing if she was my girl, but not to be insulting. Not in front of her friends. Not to put her in her place or show her who's boss. I can't stand the sight of him disrespecting her.

8. Our relationship hit the skids as soon as I moved in with him. Then he stopped pursuing me and started trying to control me. It's almost as if he considers me his property now that I live in his apartment.

9. If I continue to stay silent and let him push me around, our relationship is going to implode. Maybe that's what I want.


1. Eric (the good bad boy).  Far from setting off alarm bells, the phrase "bad in bed" suggests adventure and excitement. If the risks involved are consensual, then you're in good bad boy territory.

2. Chip (the bad good boy).  Whether they're wearing a leader jacket or a letterman's sweater, guys who only pay attention to their own sexual pleasure, not to the pleasure of their partners, are bad.

3. Eric. Good bad boys, especially those raised in traditionally patriarchal cultures, often use male-inflating metaphors ("balls" as a symbol of strength). But they can also learn to recognize the gendered  blind spots that their culture teaches—if they are allowed to maintain a positive sense of masculinity while they do so.

4. Eric. Good bad boys also learn to recognize the limits and dangers inherent in a traditional vision of aggressive masculinity. Being strong is good; being violent is bad. Dance on the line, but have the control to know where that line is.

5. Chip. Beware the bad good boy who's been corrupted by his own privilege. Being an athlete, or a big man on campus, doesn't give you the right to tell your girlfriend what to do or how to act. Don't be tempted to excuse away bad behavior just because a bad good guy has privilege.

6. Eric. Trick quote! Yes, Eric fucked up by fucking another girl. But a good bad boy is self-aware enough to recognize his own asshattery, and wonder if it is possible for him to change his ways. The bad good boy would never question his own past actions.

7. Chip. A bad good boy often uses physical affection to convey other messages: I own you. I control you. I'm in charge. When he's conveying such a message during a "Slut Walk" protest march, caution flags should start waving. A girlfriend's body is not a tool, but the bad good boy certainly is.

8. Chip. A bad good boy doesn't expect you to do his laundry, his dishes, or his homework, especially without any thanks or compensation. And yes, while the shine can wear off the romance when you start living together, familiarity is one thing; being regarded as property completely another.

9. Chip. Even after you realize that your good guy is really a bad guy in good guy disguise, it can be tempting to not take a stand, to not get yourself out of the relationship. To wait for the bad guy to do something so bad that no one would blame you for hightailing it out of there and dumping someone who gives a convincing show of being a good guy.  Don't.

What other romance novels give younger (teen and new adult) readers models for how to tell the difference between good guys who appear to be baddies, and bad guys who look squeaky clean?

Photo credits:
Bad/Good Road signs: Global Alignment Coaching
Amber Rose Slut Walk: Vibe
Good Guy/Bad Guy Chess pieces: Cylifelens

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Running the Rings: Kate Elliott's COURT OF FIVES

Theorists of high fantasy often point to the conservatism of many of the genre's most popular and well-known works. In an interview in the International Socialism Journal, author China Mieville describes the nature of this conservatism:

If you look at stereotypical "epic" or "high" fantasy, you're talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there's a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it's because he's a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they're likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it's a bad kingdom...). Strong men protect curvaceous women. Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters—and often whole races—lining up to fall into pigeonholes with "good" and "evil" written on them.

It's not fantasy itself that is inherently conservative, though, Mieville cautions. Build on a different model than Tolkein, or base your moral insights on a different intellectual framework—say, the insights of postcolonial theory—and you're just as likely to create works that critique, rather than embrace, "feudalism lite."

Such as the work of World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott.

Though her past books were written for adults, her new Court of Fives series is for the YA market. It's first book, Court of Fives, is set not in a feudal society, but in a colonized one. Our first-person protagonist, Jessamy, and her three sisters are oddities in the society of Efea: though their lighter-skinned father, Captain Esladas, emigrated north from Saro, and is thus a member of the Patron, or ruling class that conquered Efea 100 years earlier, their darker-skinned mother, Kiya, is a "Commoner," or native Efean. Though they are biracial, Jes and her sisters have been raised following Saroese customs, and are allowed little freedom of thought or of movement through the royal city where they live. But since their strict father is a military officer, he's often away from home, and Jes has taken advantage of his absence to sneak out to train for the Fives, "an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom's best contenders" (flap copy). Think a giant obstacle course, but with five separate sections, each with mythological resonance.

It's bad luck that Jes's wandering father arrives home just on the eve of her first competition at the City Fives Court, invited to watch the competition in celebration of his recent military victories. It's even worse luck that her father's patron, Lord Ottonor, dies soon after the games. For now her father is faced with two equally untenable choices: fall into penury due to his debts to Ottonor, or accept the patronage of Lord Gargaron, who demands Esladas throw over his socially unacceptable "concubine" and her offspring and marry a Patron woman instead. And give over Jes to him to be trained in his palace five court "stable."

Jes, who has always had her eyes determinedly fixed on her five court training, cannot regret her father's decision for her own sake. Especially when it reunites her with Kalliarkos, the young man against whom she raced in her first competition, a Patron princeling whose kindness (if not his competitive prowess) sparks her admiration. But she can certainly blame her father for her sisters' and mother's sake. Especially when she discovers what her father's new patron really meant when he promised that his stewards would "take make provision for the women so you can travel to the frontier with peace of heart and a calm spirit ready to do battle" (136).

Efea's colonial society is a fiercely patriarchal one, as well as a racist and classist one. Though Jes understood this as far as it related to her own personal situation, she'd never before had the sickening realities of the lives of the less privileged forced in her face—until her family is torn apart. Kalliarkos, in contrast, knows far more about the corruption and cruelty of the ruling class than Jes does, and he finds it sickening. He may be willing (with a little prodding) to help Jes rescue her mother and sisters, but he wants no part in the court intrigues that animate his Uncle Gargaron and his grandmother. He has no desire to become a soldier, as his uncle wishes; he knows he'll really be just a pawn, a figurehead, the person to be trotted out to appease the masses but with no say in how they are treated. Instead, he, like Jes, is determined make a name for himself by running the Fives, becoming his own man, charting his own course. But he will be forced to take up a military life—unless he can somehow emerge the victor at the next Royal Fives Court.

Jes is a planner, a schemer, a fighter, the child who "should have been my son," as her newly promoted General father tells her (271). She may have come to care for Kal, but she is as little able to turn her back on the struggle for power, as he wishes to do, as she is to participate in it solely for personal and familial gain, as do Kal's relatives. And so, at the novel's climax, Jes is faced with her own set of two equally untenable choices, just as her father was before her.

Thus the black and white/good vs. evil set up in the beginning of the novel becomes far more nuanced, far less easy to navigate. And the stereotypical gender roles inhabited by Jes's sisters and mother—flightly flirty privileged girl; quiet disabled scholar; self-sacrificing wife—all grow more complicated, too, as Jes's view not only of the world around her, but the world inside her own home, grows more acute.

Will Jes's heroics on the Fives court lead her to become involved in a far larger game—the overthrow of corrupt colonial power? If so, will the change consist of throwing out a "bad" king (and queen) only to replace them with purportedly "good" ones? Or will the political change prove as radical as Elliott's questioning of gender roles is?

I'll be anxiously awaiting Poisoned Blade, the second book in the series, which is due to hit the shelves this August, to find out.

Photo credits:
Woman Climbing: John Lund

Court of Fives
Little, Brown, 2015

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Controversial Douchebag

A while back, I wrote a post about romance writers who used the word "bitch" in their novels, and the possibilities of reclaiming that derogatorily-gendered term from its sexist roots for feminist purposes. Of late, though, I've been bugged by a quite different gendered insult, one that seems to be coming up more and more frequently in the contemporary romances I've been reading.

The word? 

    "She was jealous. You know how it goes," he said.
     "Of course I know how it goes. Doesn't make you being a douche bag okay." (Sarah Mayberry, Anticipation)

     Blake nods fervently. "Blast from the past, huh? Those are awesome. Well, not always. Sometimes they suck. You know who called me out of the blue last week? This douchebag I knew in high school—know what he wanted? For me to bang his girlfriend.  . . .  Turns out this chick's dream was to bone a pro hockey player, and the douchebag thought it would be a nice birthday present for her." (Elle Kennedy and Sarina Bowen, Us)

     "Guys? Thanks, but don't worry. I can handle myself," she said. "I can defend myself. And I can prove to this douchebag that I can code."
     Abraham's eyes gleamed. "Game on, Peach." (Cathy Yardley, Level Up: A Geek Romance Rom Com)

Ah yes, the oh so disgusting "douchebag." In each of the above romances, all of which featured empowered women and enlightened men negotiating their (hetero & queer) romance lives with skill, insight, and aplomb, the insult "douchebag" is tossed out to denigrate a male who denigrates women. In Level Up, heroine Tessa uses it to indicate that her fellow computer programmer colleague Abraham is a jerk for assuming that because she is a woman, she cannot code as well as he can. In Us, secondary character Blake uses it to indicate that a guy who thinks that giving his girlfriend a birthday present consisting of the chance to sleep with a famous sports star is a misogynist.

And in Anticipation, heroine Blue uses the term to describe the male protagonist, who, at the start of the story, is not at all ready for hero status. By calling Eddie, her best friend (and 10-year crush) a douchebag, Blue makes it clear that Eddie's penchant for ignoring her whenever he had a girlfriend, and then expecting her to be ready to party when he breaks up with said girlfriend, is not okay. Later in the novel, Eddie even applies the term to himself when he recognizes how poorly he treats Blue, "since you put your cock first pretty much every time," suggesting that he's moving in the right direction on the "respecting women" learning curve and getting closer to achieving hero status (Kindle Loc 774).

In all these books, "douchebag" is used as a putdown of sexist men. But I had always associated it with sexism, hence my distaste for the word. How did two such opposite connotations adhere to the same word? A short foray into the history of the douche seemed in order...

"Drop it, Douchebag!"
I first heard "douchebag" from the mouth of Sgt. Mick Belker, one of the more colorful characters on my favorite television show of the early 1980s, Hill Street Blues. Mick, an undercover copy, often dressed as if he lived on the streets, all the better to fit in when he was in the middle of an investigation. He talked to the criminals he arrested as if they were dogs ("Sit, hairball"; "Sit down, dog breath"); growled at them as if he were a canine; and rained a colorful shower of insults down on their witless heads, including the memorable "dog drool," "kidney bag," and, of course "douchebag." I could be wrong, but I recall "douchebag" changing over to "dirtbag" fairly early in the show's run, perhaps because the insult was considered too raw for prime time TV.

I didn't really connect Mick Belker's insult to the print ads and television commercials I occasionally saw for a feminine hygiene product called a douche. I didn't use a douche, nor did any woman I knew. So it wasn't until my women's studies classes at college that I understand why being called a "douchebag" would be considered an insult, one applied exclusively to men.

A comment on a post on the Dialect Blog entitled "On the Evolution of 'Douchebag'" gives a succinct explanation of the sexism inherent in the term:

It is an insult more because a douche bag is used by a woman to clean her vagina. To call a man (you never call a woman a douche bag) a douche is the lowest insult. Our society is very male centered right now so it makes sense that anything having to do with the lowly woman would be a great insult to a male in this macho culture. It is the same as being called a tampon or a pussy. If it is female it is derogatory. This furthers the misconception of women as "unclean" or dirty, especially when menstruation is concerned.

A douchebag holds the water or other liquids used to clean a woman's (purportedly dirty) vagina (or, in some cases, stores the water after it has been used to clean said vagina). So, the insult in being labeled a "douchebag" lies in the word's association with women's bodies, in particular, women's sexual bodies. If you're a douchebag, you're not just disgustingly effeminate, you're marked by a particularly female taint. Hard to argue with the sexism of that.

But it turns out that the history of the word "douche" makes the connotations of the term "douchebag" a bit more complicated.

Douche, coined in the 16th century from the French word for "shower," originally referred to "a jet or stream of water, or the like, applied to some part of the body, generally for medicinal purposes." But by the early 19th century, the word had taken on a more specific meaning: "a jet of water (or a solution of water and other substances) introduced into the vagina as a means of cleansing the uterus and cervix, treating infection and haemorrage, or esp. preventing conception after intercourse" (OED) (note: the douche is NOT an effective method of birth control).

A medical technique became a commercial product in early 20th century America, when male advertisers began to sell douches as female contraceptives (albeit via euphemistic wording). From the 1920s to the 1950s, douches were aggressively marketed to women with one part shame and one part "science": "One most effective way to safeguard her dainty feminine allure is by practicing complete feminine hygiene as provided by vaginal douches with a scientifically correct preparation like 'Lysol'." Yes, that Lysol. (See this informative post by Historiann for more of the horrifically sexist details).

In the 1960s, after the introduction of the birth control pill, fewer women relied on douches for contraception. Drawing on the new popularity of feminist discourse, advertisements shifted away from male science and towards female sharing. Rather than panicked wives, ads began to feature reassuring mothers counseling their concerned daughters to use Massengill or other douche preparations to rid themselves of that "unfresh" feeling "down there." Or smart, intelligent women, who wanted to show their friends how to instill "confidence," or feel "natural" by douching. Douche as empowerment? Just check out the Massengill ad below.

You can still by douches in your local pharmacy, despite increasing medical evidence of their harmful effects (PubMed lists a 1918 "A Clinical Lecture on The Bad Habit of Vaginal Douching," pointing to a very long history of warnings against the practice). Why?

So, on the one hand, "douchebag" is a deeply sexist insult, one that relies on the belief that women's bodies and women's sexuality are by their very nature filthy and in need of cleaning, and that being the end recipient of the results of that cleaning is the most disgusting thing a man could ever imagine.
But on the other hand, the word points to the sexism of the men who created the douche as a commercial product, and used fear and shame of female bodies to market it to the female American masses.

Who would have thought that one small word could be such a double-edged sword?

What comes to your mind when you read the insult "douchebag" in a romance novel? Sexist insult? Or empowered dissing of sexism?

Photo/video credits:
Mick Belker: Internet Movie Firearms Database
Lysol douche ad: Historiann
Massengill commercial: YouTube

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Autumn Love: Noelle Adams' LATE FALL

Bad enough to think that people your parents' age might be having sex, my teenage daughter tells me; it's just out and out gross to think that people old enough to be your grandparents might be getting it on. But one's sex life does not end the day one joins AARP,  as I take great pleasure from reminding her. Neither does one's love life. A senior citizen can fall in love just as easily as can a teenager.

Not that we would know it from reading romance novels. Depictions of protagonists above 50 in the genre are about as rare as hen's teeth. A scarcity that Noelle Adams' latest contemporary romance, Late Fall, only just begins to address.

Though it is told using first person present POV, Late Fall begins on an elegiac note; having just buried her latest of a series of beloved dogs, 71-year-old Ellie Davenport tours her home, two acres in the Virginia mountains, one last time before moving. Ellie, who has never married, is recovering from a broken hip, and has realized that she no longer has the energy or the income to do the daily upkeep at her longtime home. So she's sold her house and land to her nephew, and is poised to begin a new stage in her life at Eagle's Rest, an Assisted Living facility.

Ellie knows that she'll be meeting new people, but doesn't realize how much living at Eagle's Rest will feel like being back in school again—the gossip about this person's son, this one's grandchild; the friend groups and the cliques; and especially the women (who outnumber the men by a good margin) competing for male attention. Eagle Rest's most popular man about campus turns out to be Dave Andrews, a former colleague of Ellie's at the college where she spent much of her career, working as a librarian. The two never got along very well back then ("I didn't—and still don't—like those charming, schmoozing kind of men," Ellie notes when she first discovers that Dave is among Eagle Rest's residents (Kindle Loc 316). A numbers guy, he spent five years trying to cut the library's budget, with Ellie fighting to block him at every turn. Ellie was not sad to see the back of him when he tired of academia and returned to corporate finance, and isn't all that thrilled by the idea of encountering the arrogant man again.

Going for early morning walks alone is one way introvert Ellie carves out solo time for herself at Eagle's Rest. But when Dave comes across her resting from her morning exertions on his bench, and upbraids her, Ellie won't give him the satisfaction of moving, or of being rude to him in turn. Instead, she invites the annoying man to sit beside her. And he does. Every morning thereafter.

At first, their benchwarming sessions are quiet. But as grumpy Dave admits he remembers Ellie, and the two begin to share details of their lives since they last met, a wary friendship begins to form. And as the sharing moves from superficialities to things that really matter, Ellie begins to recognize that while aspects of the arrogant Dave she once knew certainly remain, Dave at seventy-five is a lot more vulnerable, and a lot more lonely, than she ever could have imagined.

It may be just as easy to fall in love in your 70s as it is in your teen years. It may even feel the same, as Ellie is surprised to discover when Dave holds her hand: "I'm almost embarrassed by how much I enjoy it, how I feel a little breathless as I sit beside him. It seems like this sort of thing should feel different as you get older, but it doesn't. It really doesn't" (1141). But additional emotional experience and (often) lessened physical capabilities does make the experience of that love far different. As the blossoming of Ellie and Dave's relationship shows, in realistic, bittersweet, and yes, romantic detail.

Can you think of any other romance novels (rather than women's fictions) that feature elderly protagonists?

Photo credits:
Dog grave: Palm Beach Bike Tours
Couple walking: UConn Today

Brain Mill Press, 2016

Friday, March 11, 2016

Male Friends and Romance Heroes

My adolescent daughter seems to spend far more time hanging out in mixed gender friend groups than I did when I was her age. I've been wondering if that's true of my favorite authors of New Adult romance, too, and if so, thinking about what effect such a change in everyday adolescent social relationships might be having on the depiction of romance heroes in their books.

For an earlier generation of romance writers (say, the women who contributed to Jayne Ann Krentz's 1992 essay collection Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance), relationships between men and women in romance were/are, by the very nature of the genre, adversarial. The central story of romance is the conquest of the alpha male hero by the moral, virginal, emotionally-adept heroine. In Krentz's words, "Romance novels are tales of brave women taming dangerous men" (113). Or, in Doreen Owens Malek's: "So what is the fantasy? Simply this: a strong dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman" (74). Or in Daphne Clair's: "The thrill is in the contest and the chase, in the complicated advance-and-retreat by which the strong-minded heroine, while appearing to be hunted and ill-used, finally turns the tables on and lovingly entraps the hunter" (67). Even Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who asserts at the start of her essay that she is an "outspoken feminist," echoes Krentz's belief in the characteristics of the romance hero: "He is the mightiest of the mighty, the strongest of the strong. But because he has been tamed by our heroine, because she exerts such a powerful emotional stranglehold over him, his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command" (58). For the romance writers in Krentz's collection, men are dangerous, scary, and above all powerful; it is the romance heroine's task to use emotion (i.e., love) to "tame" that power and use it to her own ends. Female empowerment comes from subjugating the male, overcoming her own limitations because, as Phillips asserts, "his strength now belongs to her" (58).

Do women who hang out in co-ed friendship groups fantasize about this type of heroic masculinity? I'm guessing probably not, or at least not as often. My daughter doesn't value her male friends because she can tame them and thereby borrow their power; she values them because they encourage her and support her as she works to discover the ways in which she herself can exercise power in the world around her. After experiencing supportive, rather than antagonist, friend relationships with boys, would a young woman truly wish for a romantic partner who is more "dangerous beast" (in Krentz's formulation) than encouraging partner? Or to read about one in a romance novel?

Would love to hear from romance writers about if/how their friendships with boys/men when they were teens have influenced their vision of what makes for a perfect male romance hero.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

My Cheating Heart

When it comes to readers' romance novel no-nos, a hero who cheats on the object of his desires is probably at the top of the list. Whenever I've seen the topic come up on various romance blogs I frequent, many readers express their dismay and disgust for romances in which adultery or some other form of emotional cheating plays a role in the romance storyline.

What, though, of books in which the heroine is the cheater? By some quirk of chance, my romance reading (and film viewing) this past week has been filled with romance heroines who either are tempted to cheat, or who actually engage sexually with men other than the one with whom they start the story. Thinking about these books (and film) and the quite different outcomes each grants their not entirely faithful heroines made me wonder about the ways in which female infidelity can be examined through a feminist lens.

Unlike Emma Bovary, the ur-female cheater of the literary novel (Flaubert's lauded Madame Bovary, 1857), none of the heroines in the works I read/watched ended up dead. But are they punished or rewarded for their transgressions?

(Since the endings of all of the stories are discussed below, you may not wish to read if you want to avoid spoilers...)

Bethany Chase's The One That Got Away, more women's fiction than romance, presents the most conventional (and most morally acceptable) version of the cheating heroine: the heroine who initially chose the "safe" partner, and whose character growth requires her to reject that partner in favor of the man who makes her feel more. The book's title is a bit of a misnomer; the story is more "the one who slept with me one time, who I thought I connected with instantly, but who then never called me back." And who then, of course, shows up back in town years later, making the sexual sparks fly all over again. Too bad protagonist Sarina is engaged to someone else. A really nice older man who loves her deeply. Too bad that said man is hundreds of miles away, working for months in Argentina. Because when Sarina is asked by her former one-night stand, Eamon, to design his new house, Sarina discovers that she wasn't really wrong in her initial assessment of Eamon.

Sarina's cheating is fairly mild, on the cheating scale of the stories I read/watched this week. She and Eamon go on outings together; they snuggle and even sleep over without sexual contact; they kiss. If Sarina had been a little more self-aware, she would have broken up with her good-guy fiancé far earlier. But that would have left us with a far shorter novel. Instead, we watch Sarina lie to her fiancé, lie to Eamon, and especially lie to herself about her true feelings, too afraid of hurting others, and especially of being hurt herself, to break off her engagement until the emotional cheating line has clearly been crossed. Sarina does ultimately achieve her happy ending, but not before we have to witness her being verbally punished for her misdeeds—not only by having to suffer the frustration and anger of her (finally) ex-fiancé, but also Eamon's, after she fails to tell her new love she's broken up with the old. Cheating here is okay if it is done in the cause of true love, and if the heroine is narratively punished before achieving happiness.

Sarah Polley's 2011 film, Take This Waltz, like Madame Bovary, features a woman who has already committed herself to another man when she is drawn to another. While on a trip for her work as a travel writer, 28-year-old Margot meets and flirts with attractive artist Daniel. But when she discovers that he lives just across the street from her, she reveals that she is married. The two keep running into one another, mostly on purpose; during their time together, they flirt some more, and Margot reveals some of her emotional vulnerabilities around her anxiety issues. From the scenes we see of Margot's life with her husband of five years, it is clear that though the two care for one another, they are not as in-synch with each other emotionally as at least Margot wishes they were. A scene in which Margot approaches Lou sexually while he is trying to cook (he's a cookbook writer), and he rejects her, and she tries to explain how it takes courage to put herself out there in that way, something Lou seems to completely not get, is particularly painful to watch.

Towards the end of the film, Margot leaves Lou in favor of Daniel. A "happy montage" sequence follows, showing Margot and Daniel moving in together and having sex with one another, suggests Margot made the right decision. But when the montage starts to include sex scenes that feature a third party, one time a man, one time a woman, the "happily ever after" gets a little more complicated. And when the same shots that opened the film reappear now, shots that we were led to assume were shots of a discontented Margot with her husband but turn out to be of Margot with Daniel, doubts start to grow. In case we were in any doubt about those doubts, a scene in which Geraldine, Margot's recovering alcoholic ex-sister-in-law, falls off the wagon and tells Margot that leaving her brother is the same as Geraldine trying to escape via liquor, hammers the point home:

"I'm the embarrassment? Me? Do you know, we're doing the same fucking thing here?.... I think you're a bigger idiot than I am. I think you really fucked up, Margot. In the big picture, life has a gap in it. It just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic."

The final shot of the film doesn't show Margot killing herself as Emma Bovary did when faced with the disappointing truth that her affairs are not sufficient to achieve her dreams. Instead, it shows her riding alone on a carnival ride, one which she rode with Daniel earlier in the film. Is Margot being punished for thinking to find a truer love than the one she had with Lou? Or is she facing the universal human truth to which Geraldine gave voice: that life is filled with gaps, with dissatisfaction, that we're never fully happy? The message is as ambivalent as the lyrics to the Leonard Cohen song "Take This Waltz" that serves as the film's title and  "happy" montage accompaniment.

Readers of Willow Aster's contemporary romance Maybe Maby will likely focus on the book's depiction of a heroine who struggles with OCD and depression. But because I read Maby this week, the small plotline about Maby having sex with one guy while she's dating another is what caught my eye. Maby didn't realize when she broke up with cheating Dalton that all of their mutual friends would end up with him, not her. Even Saul, who started out Dalton's best friend but quickly became Maby's. But Saul's guilt over their one-time kiss while Maby was still with Dalton, as well, perhaps, as his fears of doing something that might exacerbate Maby's mental health, has kept him away. Now, nearly a year later, when Maby is just starting to date younger man Coen, Saul is inexplicably back on the scene. Maby's been crushing on Saul for a very long time, and to have him trying to make his way back into her life leaves her quite torn. She even goes as far as kissing him, even knowing that every "any sign of feelings came into the picture, you got cold feet."

But when Maby is unfairly fired from her job, she goes into a tailspin that has her considering suicide. When Saul, worried, breaks into her apartment, he feels he has to rescue her, even though she's decided to set her suicidal thoughts aside. He insists she come to his apartment with him, where he proceeds to feed her pizza and wine and then goes in for a kiss. Feeling that she should give him a second chance, despite her doubts, Maby proceeds to sleep with him.

The sex is good, but still, Maby is unsure. Because she really likes Coen. A lot.

Many readers hate to see a romance heroine (or hero) sexually intimate with another character once she/he has met the book's love interest. But Maby's act here isn't cast as cheating ("It's not like Coen and I were exclusive or anything, but..." [page 143]), not by Maby, and not by the narrative. Instead, having sex with Saul helps Maby figure her out own feelings, her feelings about Saul, about Coen, and even about herself. Rather than being used as a reason to punish the heroine, Maby's sex with Saul is instead used to show us how different Maby's two suitors are. When Saul finds Maby in emotional distress, he gets her drunk and has sex with her; later in the novel, when Coen finds Maby in a harmful OCD spiral, he takes her to the hospital to get help. Which man do you think she ultimately chooses?

Jessica Hawkins' contemporary romance/women's fiction Slip of the Tongue, like Take This Waltz, features a married couple. But unlike the film, in which Margot breaks up with her husband before sleeping with Daniel, Hawkins' protagonist, Sadie, ends up embroiled in an affair while still married. And while still deeply in love with her husband, Nathan. Nathan's always been the perfect husband, doting, kind, worshipping the ground Sadie walks on. Until one day, he just stops, shutting her out cold with no explanation. Whenever she tries to talk to him about it, he puts her off, or tells her he needs time to figure out what he wants. The small clues he reveals during Sadie's anguished questioning—he always has to give in to Sadie, does she really love him if he's always the one who has to make the sacrifice—leave the reader wondering if Sadie is the one responsible for their marital breakdown. Since the narrative, like all of the other novels discussed here, is told only from the female point of view, it is hard to see whether Nathan's criticisms are at all valid, and if they are, to what degree.

Each time Nathan pushes Sadie away, Sadie finds comfort in her new neighbor, Finn. At first, their connection is friendly, then flirty. But as each of Sadie's attempts to confront Nathan falls on seemingly deaf ears, Sadie begins to take comfort in Finn's obvious attraction. And soon she is taking more than emotional comfort.

Can a marriage be salvaged after such an act of infidelity? In romance, if the unfaithful one is the husband, it can and often has been. But when the wife is the one who crosses the line? Hawkins asks romance readers to step back from the judgmental stance most are likely to take when faced with a protagonist like Sadie, and to empathize instead. And to consider that the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of both partners is often the cause for infidelity, rather than ultimate evil on one side and innocence on the other.

For me, it was both disturbing and refreshing to read a romance in which the fantasy is not that a hot guy rescues you and rocks your sexual world, but instead that a hot guy rocks your sexual world and then your husband fights for you to get you back in spite of your transgressions.

Are there other romance novels out there that show their heroine cheating but that don't condemn or punishing her for her actions?

Friday, March 4, 2016

To Love Me Is To Know Me?

I think back to our argument. No matter how many times I tried to brush aside my unease by telling myself we'd find a compromise on the issue, there was one stubborn nugget of hurt that wouldn't budge. "I realized the reason that the whole thing upset me so much was it—it made me feel like you didn't even know me." —Bethany Chase, The One That Got Away

In mid and late 20th century heroine-only POV category romances, hearing the hero speak the words "I love you" typically served as the climax of the story, the point at which the virginal, innocent heroine could be declared the winner in the romantic battle between the unemotional, detached masculinity and emotion-filled, connected femininity. Because heroines were typically flat characters, placeholders for the reader, discovering their individual uniqueness was not a requirement on the path to falling in love for any category hero. Oh, the heroines might be praised for being innocent, or kind, or smart, or embodying any similarly generic positive characteristic, but rarely for any distinctive, unique talent or personality trait. Emotion given voice, the hero's love declaration was a promise that he would care for, protect, and cherish the heroine. But rarely was such a promise built on a special knowledge of the beloved, a knowledge that others did not share.

Though the out-loud love declaration is still an essential element of the majority of romance novels today, I've been wondering if that declaration has lessened in importance. Or, perhaps that the declaration carries less weight, at least in the more realistic contemporary romance, if it is not preceded by a recognition of the individuality of the beloved, a knowledge of the beloved that others around her often are not able to see.

Though there were many clues before the above in Bethany Chase's The One That Got Away that narrator/protagonist Sarina had chosen the wrong man, as soon as I read that passage, I knew that Sarina's relationship with her fiancé was not long for the page. Though said fiancé takes issue with her claim—"So, you're breaking up with me because I can't read your mind"—Sarina, and many a romance reader before her, does believe, or at least hope, that the one she loves will know her well enough to know things about her that she has not previously explained or discussed with him (in Sarina's case, her desire to keep working after they have a child). You can't love me if you don't know me, Sarina's claim implicitly argues.

Though romances, rather than women's fictions, far more often celebrate that knowing than discuss its lack, the assumption that one's romantic partner will know one, often better than one's colleagues, friends, and even family members, seems to me to have become a staple in much of realistic post 20th century contemporary romance, in a way that it wasn't in older works of romance fiction. I could point to many, many lines in the novels I've read which express this sentiment. Loving someone is no longer enough; a romantic partner must know you, too.

Have you noticed this trend? And if so, what do you think is causing it?

Photo credit: A Quote a Day

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Romancing Religion: Amber Belldene's NOT A MISTAKE

Though religion plays a large role in the lives of many Americans, not just evangelical Christians, it's rare to find mention of spirituality in romance fiction outside the Inspirational subgenre. And as All About Romance's article on the Inspirational Romance points out, "the audience and the characters are almost all evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants and have been so from the very beginning," so finding an Inspy romance with feminist values is almost as difficult as finding a single needle in a very large haystack.

That's why I was so thrilled when Amber Belldene, an author who is also an Episcopal priest, sent me a copy of her latest romance. The first in a series cheekily titled "Hot Under Her Collar," Belldene's Not a Mistake does not link finding a romantic partner with discovering God, as do the majority of inspirational romances. Instead, it explores how two people's deeply-held religious beliefs can impact the course of their romance.

"a blue shape appeared. A tiny little cross,
unmistakably positive"
Belldene's story opens not in church, but in a drugstore, where newly minted Episcopal priest Jordan Sykes is scouring the aisles, searching for a pregnancy test. Only two weeks into her appointment as rector of St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church, Jordan doesn't want to believe that her unexpected one-night stand on the night of her graduation from seminary could have led to an even more unexpected conception. The birth control shot she'd got before spring break surely should have protected her. Shouldn't it?

The Reverend Doctor Dominic Lawrence, religious ethics professor at Jordan's seminary, had long been attracted to his kind, whip-smart student. But with a father who had abused the authority of his religious position to coerce women into sexual relationships, Dominic has long been committed to stamping out all sexual improprieties in the church. His book on the topic, Sins of the Fathers, has made him the go-to guy whenever potential sexual improprieties in the church raise their ugly head.

When he is called in to consult on a case of a priest accused of having an affair with his secretary, Dominic tells himself it's only right to visit Jordan, who is working in the same town as the accused. Guilt over their one night stand, guilt over taking advantage of her, has plagued him for months, and he owes Jordan an apology for his hypocrisy.

The Episcopal church: 40+ years of women priests
But Jordan isn't happy to see him, isn't happy to hear his mea culpa. "If I accept your apology, I'm letting you take responsibility for something we did together. And, honestly, I should have known it would eat you up like this. If anything, I'm the one who needs to day I'm sorry" (Kindle Loc 154). Dominic, with his background of investigating sexual improprieties, cannot help but see himself as a perpetrator, with Jordan as his hapless victim. But Jordan refuses to accept being cast in that role. She had a long-time crush on Professor Lawrence; she accepted his invitation back to his house; she engaged wholeheartedly in their hot sexual tryst. Her misjudgment of the date of her birth control shot may have been a mistake, but her decision to sleep with Dominic definitely was not.

Their disagreement here mirrors the clashes they'd often had during his ethics classes, over whether the letter or the spirit of the law is most important. Is keeping a secret a nod to privacy, or is it a lie? Is it better to trust in grace and forgiveness, or rules and consequences? To love others like hell, or to hold them to the hardest line?

With such differing approaches to religion, is it any surprise that when Dominic discovers that Jordan is pregnant, the sparks, both physical and intellectual, continue to fly?

In her humorous, sexy, and above all compassionate story, Belldene combines romance and religion with a respect for the passion that lies at the heart of both. And with a respect for a woman's agency and power that is all too rare in Inspirational Romance.

Not a mistake, indeed.

Photo credits:
pregnancy test: Youtube

Not a Mistake
Hot Under Her Collar series
March 2016