Romance Roundup – Sparkly Cowboys!
Romance novels have a long history of, well, romanticizing types of men who are entirely best avoided in real life. Arguably, this began with my beloved Regency romances, since as a matter of historical fact, the typical Regency “buck” or “Corinthian” was a thoroughly deplorable creature, chubby, alcoholic, and positively dripping with venereal disease. Likewise virtually all the favorites of romance writers: Scottish highlanders were griping, small-minded domestic rapists; English dukes are petty, money-grubbing landlords; young billionaires are notorious douchebags and always have been; and outright laughter should be the only response to the very idea of romantic members of biker gangs.
It’s an insistence that has quite a bit to do with lazy, stereotypical ideas of “powerful” occupations, and it’s depressing that even now, well into the 21st century, we have a bestselling series of books in which a male multimillionaire treats his girlfriend like a plastic toy. It’s depressing that we so seldom see romance novels that don’t care about the status or money of their men – almost no romances starring assistant retail managers or transit police or writing instructors as their male protagonists (it’s perfectly OK – expected, even – for the female characters to have these jobs, because they’re going to be rescued from them in the end anyway).
But perhaps the most popular of all these strange romanticized types is the cowboy, or some cowboy-type derivative, and that’s decidedly odd. I’ve met and known actual cowboys, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, romantic about them at all. First, they tend to be strangers to hygiene (something they share in common with Regency dandies, Scottish highlanders, English dukes, biker dudes, and most billionaires, come to think of it … hmmm…); second, they tend to be aggressively, stupidly virginal; third, they live to dip: as with professional baseball players and managers, chewing tobacco is literally the center and focus of their entire lives, so these supposed romantic icons keep plastic cups of congealed brown spittle in strategic locations in their trucks and throughout their homes, and their teeth wobble in their sockets, and their tongues are dark, slimy brown. And fourth and most damningly, they’re completely unimaginative – as one visitor to 19th century America (who would later go on to become both a billionaire and an English duke, though thankfully not a douchebag) quite accurately remarked, the average cowboy’s life and mentality is virtually indistinguishable from the livestock he tends from dawn until sunset every day.
And yet, every new batch of romance novels is guaranteed to feature at least a couple of stories in which headstrong, capable young women are (eventually) swept off their feet by these chaw-spewing troglodytes. Take these three new releases:
Wild About the Wrangler by Vicki Lewis Thompson – The trouble with this otherwise-delightful novel starts right on the cover, where we see a girlishly beautiful young man, topless, in black hat and weathered jeans, looking pensive in the chaparral. With his bubble butt and his lack of a “cowboy tan” (i.e. fish-belly white except for his forearms), he looks nothing like what his character, expert rider and horse-tamer Mac Foster, would really look like. In Thompson’s Texas Panhandled story, Mac is smitten with up-and-coming artist Anastasia Bickford, who’s off-limits for any number of reasons, including that she’s his boss’s sister. In a world where the two would ordinarily have nothing to do with each other, chance brings them together: Anastasia turns to Mac to help her overcome her fear of horses (a decidedly inconvenient fear, since she’s made a career of drawing them). And love blossoms, despite the fact that Mac as he’s described would not only have nothing in common with anything in Anastasia’s world but would also, realistically, have no interest in her world, since it doesn’t involve livestock, Tetris, or chaw. Might as well find a sparkly vampire in the Panhandle.
When Somebody Loves You by Shirley Jump – In this new novel from the wonderful author of the “Sweetwater Sisters” series, the big black-hatted lunkhead on the cover is “reclusive quarter horse breeder” Hunter McCoy, who’s been burned by personal tragedy and has buried himself in his work when he meets “practical Jersey girl” Elizabeth Palmer, a magazine writer who travels to Chatham Ridge, Georgia to find and interview this Hunter McCoy guy. She’s embraced by the town; since this is “The Southern Belle Book Club” series, she joins said club and chats with its members (not about books, mind you – some fantasies are too much even for romance writers), and eventually she meets Hunter and senses a wounded animal in need of healing. What follows from there is fairly paint-by-numbers, but again, the basic premise is flawed by egregious wishful thinking: I’ve met horse people, and to put it mildly, they have no interest in spontaneous romance erupting in their lives. They’re very, very careful android businesspeople – spontaneous romance would slough off them like water off a duck’s back. In real life, Hunter’s personal tragedies would curdle into racism and alcoholism, and Elizabeth would be viscerally hated for the mere fact that she’s a writer.
Wrapped and Strapped by Lorelei James – Once again, this book (James’ follow-up to her irresistibly-titled Hillbilly Rockstar) is problematic right from the cover, which agains shows a slim and beautiful young man topless and Stetsoned in a field. His skin is shiny with sweat, and his trapezius muscles are as defined as in a Michelangelo sculpture (he’s even got pronounced iliac ridges! A very nice feature, but try getting them outside a New York City gym) – in short, he’d be, at the very least, mocked by any real cowboys he happened to encounter (problematic too is the tease in the title, when in fact no cowboys are wrapped or strapped in the course of the book, more’s the pity). The cowboy in question this time is ranch foreman Hugh Pritchett, who’s quickly thrown into unwanted contact with LA do-gooder (and vegetarian, for God’s sake) Harlow Pratt (sister to Tierney, sister-in-law to Renner, friend to Tobin … you know, just your typical Wyoming names …). In reality, a ranch foreman out West would be a humorless, sexist bore, but in James’ telling, Hugh has a hidden taste for sarcasm that matches Harlow’s as they make creative (or is it procreative?) use of a horse trailer and embark on their rocky road to romance. Wrapped and Strapped is much the most enjoyable of our trio this time around, and not just because James is the most adept writer of these three by a wide margin. No, a large part of the enjoyment comes from the fact – tipped off in those wacky names – that James embraces the fact that she’s writing quasi-fantasy.
As for quasi-fantasies about nonprofit aid workers or hotel shift supervisors or highway maintenance workers, well … those will have to wait.