While I was sick last weekend I downloaded a few light reads from the library to help cheer me up and pass the time. All of them were romance novels — which (as I emerged from my Neo-Citran haze) struck me as noteworthy and led me to the realization that it has been about a year since I posted “Confessions of a (Former) Non-Romance Reader.”
In that post I admitted that I’d always been casually dismissive of romance novels because I assumed they were “so formulaic as to be essentially interchangeable and so numerous they are clearly also disposable.” The mind-opening discovery (one that, as I said, would not have been such a revelation to me “if I’d been taking the whole genre more seriously from the start”) was that romance is not so much a formula as a form, a genre which, like mystery or science fiction, “can contain multitudes.” The challenge, once I had belatedly grasped this point, was to pick out ones I would enjoy from the overwhelming array of available titles. A year later, this is still the biggest challenge! I’m aware, now, that there are many subgenres of romance, and both within and across them there’s a whole array of ‘tropes’ which can be tweaked, revised, and subverted in unlimited permutations. And then, of course, there are the more individual factors like an author’s voice and style and pet interests (literal as well as metaphorical). Sometimes it seems you should be able to enter your preferences into some kind of recommendation generator and walk away with exactly the book of your dreams. Wanted: one paranormal romance set in 13th-century Spain, told in first person, featuring an alpha male, a prostitute with a sad back story and a heart of gold, a marriage of convenience, and an English bulldog! And in fact you probably could come pretty close to this mix-and-match perfection, if you were really clear on what you wanted and had enough sources to suggest titles.
As a relative newcomer to the world of romance fiction, I have been discovering my own preferences through trial and error. I’ve tried not to think too hard about what they might reveal about me (as a person or a reader), but I still feel that there’s something more intimate about romance fiction than about mystery fiction because “few of us (happily) have personal experience of murder, but most of us (happily or not) have been through our own experiences of relationships”: I still suspect that “the things we find unrealistic, sentimental, naive, or foolish are as potentially revealing as the things we find admirable, desirable, dreamy, or delightful.” I have also still found the romance novels I’ve read to be mostly slight or insubstantial: though I see no reason why they should be considered a guilty pleasure, for me they are definitely diversions, books I don’t feel obliged to read with great care or without interruption or, in general, to take very seriously. I’ve been reading them for fun. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But it does mean, for instance, that I shrug off bad writing (and bad grammar! get some editors, you supposed professionals, and learn the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’!) and clichés and stereotypes and other signs of intellectual laziness more casually than I do in books for which I have higher expectations. I’m also still not aware of any books explicitly and deliberately within the genre of romance that ‘transcend the genre’ (that problematic phrase!) and take us into the literary realm the way something like The Maltese Falcon has been seen as doing for crime fiction. Maybe when a novel about relationships goes really literary it simply shades into the ‘marriage plot’ novel and thus loses its identification with genre fiction. (An interesting potential case study: Mark Helprin’s new novel In Sunlight and In Shadow sounds pretty romantic in this review, while in this one the same novel is condemned as a bad imitation of Danielle Steele and Nora Roberts, “a bad romance novel, driven by a preposterous, melodramatic plot and filled with some truly cringe-making prose.” The genre affiliation, that is, comes up only as a condemnation–though Kakutani does seem, by implication, to be allowing that there is such a thing as a good romance novel.)
So what do I like in my romance novels, you may be wondering? Well, as it was Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You that turned me around the first time, it’s probably no surprise that my favorites are in that vein: sprightly “contemporaries” with mature characters (mature enough, that is, to be established in some kind of self-respecting career and otherwise doing something interesting with their lives besides falling in love) and a sense of humor to leaven the sentimentality of the love plot. I suspect my preference for novels that closely approximate the film genre of romantic comedy comes from my own resistance to taking the whole idea of instant attraction, mutual adoration, and living happily every after very seriously. I didn’t know this before, but apparently I am both a romantic and a cynic, and so the cheerful lack of realism in this particular approach works well. I’ve read a lot of Crusie’s novels, and of them, Anyone But You (which I reread last weekend) remains my favorite (I find the heroine’s inhibitions about her aging body tedious, but that’s really my only grumble), followed by Bet Me, Welcome to Temptation, Faking It, and (to my own surprise) The Cinderella Deal. These are all ones I’ll happily reread, sick or not. I also really enjoyed Maybe This Time, which is a sly rewriting of The Turn of the Screw. Second best so far (though with reservations) is Julie James: Practice Makes Perfect is fun and, again, sprightly, and the ones I’ve read in James’s FBI / US Attorney series mostly entertained me without annoying me, though I find her men a bit too predictably ‘tall, dark, and smoldering’ and her women too physically perfect and too prone to need rescuing at the end. I liked A Lot Like Love best of these ones because I enjoyed all the details about wine: I realize this may be the wrong place to focus in a romance novel, but hey, it’s my fun that this is all about, right? And this turns out to be a trend: I enjoyed Ruthie Knox’s Ride with Me as much for the biking and the scenery as for the witty repartee and the sexual tension, and though I found Nora Roberts’s Bride Quartet too saccharine for my taste overall, I was intrigued by the inside look at the lives of a florist, a baker, and a photographer. While I like the ‘she humanizes him’ trope of The Cinderella Deal, it’s the painting that really engaged me. I like the emphasis to be more on the emotional and intellectual relationship then on the physical — if the relationship or the novel is mostly about sex, rather than about the people having sex, then it’s not for me. I was raised, after all, on Elizabeth and Mr Darcy: it’s all about the deferred gratification! Victoria Dahl and Jill Shalvis would be more popular with me if it didn’t seem that they invert these priorities too often; Knox’s About Last Night was not a favorite, for the same reason.
I have yet to read a “historical” that I really like or would promptly download to read again. Mostly they seem to take themselves too seriously and thus run up against my cynical streak. I liked the concept and, mostly, the execution of Judith Ivory’s The Proposition, and after I read my first Mary Balogh (The Ideal Wife) I thought I was on to something and borrowed a bunch more, but I got kind of tired of them. The only Heyer I’ve read is Sylvester and I didn’t love it: no doubt something’s wrong with me, given how beloved she is. I haven’t even tried “paranormal” romances, and though I think Julie James’s novels probably border on this category, I also haven’t focused on “romantic suspense” as I’m reading for fun, not anxiety. I’ve downloaded or sampled a lot of other titles from the library, but just taking what’s available turns out (predictably) to be the worst way of finding something that actually suits me or fits my mood. I’ve realized that this is another way in which my romance reading is not like my other reading: I don’t put down a ‘literary’ book because it’s not exactly what I already want (imagine how far I’d have made it in the Patrick Melrose novels with that attitude!). Also, most of the time I figure the onus is on me to read to the end before making up my mind about a book, but I’ve been happily trying but “DNF”-ing all kinds of romances. Not much really seems to be at stake, and that’s only partly because so many that I’ve read (or started to read) have been borrowed from the library.
And that’s where I find myself a year later: not necessarily wiser but more experienced and less judgmental, both of the books and of myself. Now, as then, I’m open to suggestions. Wanted: sassy, literate contemporary featuring mature independent heroine with interesting job, tall, dark, but not necessarily smoldering and definitely not domineering hero (preferably, neither of them will be stinking rich), plenty of witty banter and sexual tension, sophisticated urban setting preferred but not required, cats (for a change) rather than dogs.*
*Update: It sounds like In Bed with the Opposition is a good bet for me! As it happens, too, I’m rewatching The West Wing when I get the chance (so much more relaxing than watching the actual U.S. election coverage, which tends to give me indigestion).