Sunday Salon: Love and War

Hallo, Sunday Saloners!

The return to blogging went on apace this week, with a reflection on what the most interesting  collective noun would be for a collection of links (I am taking suggestions, but my favorite so far is "an enthusiasm of links") and a Thanksgiving exploration of hunger.

We had the autumn's first real Nova Scotian fog here this week.  The football field that my departmental offices look out on was suddenly shrouded in pea soup, lending it an isolated, gothic air.  I am newly struck with awe that that a football field can even adopt a gothic aesthetic.  My students, in response to my excitement about this weather development: "What fog?  This is nothing for Halifax."  Apparently it will be foggy for something like 165 days of each year here.  All I can say is: bring it on.  I can't get enough.

So I give you a picture or three from late spring (which is known as "fog season" in the Nova Scotian shipping community, I gather) of what my new homeland looks like in the fog.  This weather fulfills my longing to live every day of my life with the feeling that I am a character in an atmospheric novel.  My new life-novel appears to be something between a Sir Walter Scott caper and a noir.

Today will largely be spent in my sunny (for now) home library, attempting to scale Mt. Grademore (45 papers that need to be returned by the last day of class on Tuesday - I am praying that this batch doesn't contain a dozen that begin with variations on the phrase "Shakespeare wrote many great poems in his day.").  If I get bogged down or maddened I may attempt to leaven the experience with a fluffy romance novel or some episodes of "In Treatment"(which becomes ever grimmer as the first season progresses and is thus the perfect pairing with a fluffy romance novel).

Speaking of downy literature, what have I been reading and watching this week?  Well amidst these end-of-semester stresses, a strange pattern has emerged: everything I read or watch is either a sombre reflection on the horrors of war (Pat Barker's really excellent novel Regeneration and the Canadian film Passchendaele (2008) (Blu-Ray) [Blu-ray] - both about WWI - or the highly intriguing Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary about the first war between Israel and Lebanon) or an utterly distracting romance novel.

Today, uncharacteristically, I think I will focus on the romance.  This week I read several novels that, while doing their intended work of engaging my attention, also contained a number of romance conventions/pitfalls I find intensely irritating.

For instance: the heroine who is supposedly functioning a higher level of intelligence and competence than the men around her (including the hero), but is, as the plot unfolds, so profoundly naive that it takes her ages to catch up to plot events that we and the hero figured out instantly.  Or, for that matter, everyone's pet peeve of heroine who pretend to be dumber than she is to deflect the attention of the men around her from her real activities, but rarely ends up emerging from her bimbo masquerade.

And what about subduer plots: plots in which love makes a woman (or a man, for that matter) realize that it is a time to put an end to his/her previous swashbuckling ways, or in which heroes think that they have to protect previously strong women from their own wayward independence, usually by locking them up in a frilly room in some remote country estate.  Can't love be about mutual swashbuckling?  Can't we all just swashbuckle together?  Hmmm?

Let us say no more about those dismal books.  But, of course, this got me thinking about where my tastes (both aesthetic and ideological) run in romance novels, and why my favorite authors are, in fact, my favorites.  For the record, I now - after the diligent research effort of reading dozens of romance novels in the last few months after touching nary a one for most of my preceding life - can say a few things with some certainty about the romance genre and me.

First, it is impressive how many successful historical romance authors have Ivy League degrees and/or doctorates in Literature.  I am beginning to consider romance-writing as a serious sideline to my academic life.  I don't anticipate it will be easy.  My mother long ago professed that she was going to become a romance writer, so that she would have an excuse to visit romantic spots all around the world and write novels "on location."  This is a truly excellent piece of maternal wisdom, although, being a cynical teenager at the time, I did caution her that this might be a somewhat idealized view of what the romance writer's life was actually like. 

(My mother's best ever piece of maternal wisdom: "Whenever you feel unnerved by a new situation or place, just pretend that you are a heroine in a novel."  As you can see, I have taken this one to heart.  I recently tried to communicate it to my maternal grandmother in a situation of some stress, thinking that she would appreciate its transformative possibilities.  After all, she was the woman who used to take me to ornate British country houses when I was a small child and, at the top of the grand staircases, say to me "Let's pretend we are eighteenth century women with skirts so wide we have to turn sideways to go through doors" before sweeping majestically down the stairs.  To my surprise, she replied to our heroine-in-a-novel strategy with a resounding "Why on EARTH would I find that comforting?".  Don't be surprised if this whole intergenerational saga makes its way into my first romance novel.)

Secondly, I have now clearly identified my two favorite authors, both relatively new on the scene with only a handful of books between them.  First, Meredith Duran.  Duran's novels often have intensely silly plots (one of my favorites involves an argument over forged Egyptologist antiquities that brings an aristocratic cad/collector in contact with a prim archaeologist before quickly fading in narrative importance), but she shows more attention to the literariness of language than almost any other author I know whose novels feature rippling ab muscles and ripped bodices on the cover, and a fair number whose novels don't.  She brings a freshness to all the most conventional aspects of the romance genre (particularly those of character and language), and so each of her novels is dramatically different and highly thoughtful, despite any absurdities of plot.

Her linguistic inventiveness is especially evident (impressively) in the love scenes, which have long been the site of the romance genre's greatest absurdities of cliché.  If you are squeamish about reading about more amorous plot lines, you may want to stop now - I have attempted to deal delicately with the topic, but on the map of this blog post here (undeniably) be dragons.

Take the, ahem, climactic love scene from Bound by Your Touch, the novel with the Egyptological MacGuffin.  (I do have a complaint about Duran's titles, which all combine an inane sameness that reflects nothing about the actual novel- Bound by Your Touch, Written on your Skin, The Duke of Shadows - with a surreal likeness to the titles of Jeanette Winterson books.)  The anthropologist heroine is a woman of prim logical control (classic romance trope) who seduces the hero into dealing reasonably with his emotional life even as she herself is seduced along an opposite vector.  Thus, their love scene looks something like this (edited for [cough] family viewing):

She articulated to herself, in a coherent grammar of nouns and verbs, what he was doing. [...] Still she could not comprehend it. [...] He gave her the view deliberately.  He wanted her to look.  That realization re-embodied her.  Back in her flesh, her awareness ran south like a broken yolk [....]
Or some time later:
Even the floor that dug into her shoulder blades seemed welcome to her, a hard, pleasurable contrast to her laxity, to the melting in her limbs; it mistranslated in her mind as yet another dimension of his touch.
In historical romances, a lot of mental energy is devoted to the question of virginity's loss, and the newness of physical sensation for the heroine (and even, sometimes, the hero).  If I were to make an academic study of the historical romance, it is with this convention (the idea of this moment as a foundational trauma or near-mystical sensory epiphany) that I would start.  Duran thinks carefully, as always, about how to defamiliarize this event for her audience, and she does it in a way that clearly characterizes her cerebral heroine, who keeps interrupting the love scenes to analyze them:
[she was] abruptly conscious of spaces within her that had not been accessible to her awareness before.  Some word, he whispered then - she could not make sense of it - but she nodded, and this was all he required.
For Lydia, Duran's heroine, sex is a variety of intellectual inquiry, an exploration of unknown territories.  It is an expansion of awareness.  But at the same time, this intellectual awareness is the opposite of the sensory overload of physical contact, which should (but often fails to) take her out of her mind and into her body.  Thus even as she is engaged in expanding her intellectual awareness, she loses her control over language, and cannot make sense of his words.

To tell the truth, Duran's ideas are sometimes so complex that they are a bit befuddling or muddily expressed - I find myself pausing (for good or ill) to say "Wait, what did she just say?" - but I will take her complexity anyday over the dull normalcy of "the expected."  Genre writing (as Jane Austen or a fellow named Will Shakespeare could probably have been the first to tell you) is always a careful tightrope walk between fulfilling your reader's or spectator's expectations and defying them.  We KNOW how a romance novel will end, and this is a great part of its satisfaction.  But in Duran's novels, she manages to present these old patterns in new and intellectually interesting ways (as with her questioning of the conflict between thinking and feeling in Bound by your Touch), because she has a keen awareness of how romance works ideologically.  That is, she understands that genre fiction is about big ideas and important ones, even as it goes about addressing them in a pulpy way. 

For me, reading a romance novel is like watching those wonderful sci-fi flicks from the 50s that are all metaphorical expressions of Cold War anxieties about America's places in an apocalyptic world (think The Incredible Shrinking Man or Invasion of the Body Snatchers).  Even when I am appalled by the form or politics of them, I find the ideas under the surface to be fascinating, complex cultural expressions.  Even better, as with Meredith Duran's books, when I feel confident that the makers are just as fascinated as I am by these ideas and in love with the possibilities of the genre.  Duran writes self-aware romance of the best type.  So far there have been three: The Duke of Shadows (an Anglo-Indian epic in which the hero feels loyalties to both cultures and thus belongs in neither), Bound by your Touch, and Written on Your Skin (my least favorite, but still well worth a read, about a hero and heroine who are both rebellious control freaks and battle for dominance as they become ensnared in a long bout of espionage together).

Righto.  My second new favorite genre author is Sherry Thomas, who is as skillful with establishing tense, fervent romantic plots as Duran is with complex language.  My affection for Thomas's novels is tied up with a matter of my personal taste in romance narratives: I have discovered that most of my favorite romances seem to be about couples who are in neither the first flush of youth or of their acquaintance, couples who either grow to love and admire each other slowly over time or who, despite early infatuation, have a major falling out that leaves serious scars to be overcome. 

For one thing, these plots avoid one of my least favorite romance plot abominations: a rakish hero who, upon first laying eyes on our heroine, is obsessively captivated into slavish fidelity by her, and proves unable to be in the same room with her without pouncing on her and uttering the words "You had better leave now.  If you don't, I can't guarantee I will be able to control myself." ("Oh, poppycock," my inner feminist mutters both skeptically and punningly, "Take responsibility for your own bodily actions, you childish lout.  Her beauty doesn't deprive you of moral choice.") 

Perhaps it is just the result of having been in a decade-long relationship that has developed and changed substantially since we met as teenagers (or when I, at least, was a teenager), but I find more romance in the realities of love's accretion and maturation than in the coup de foudre of love at first sight.  And there is more narrative tension in overcoming the real impediments of living together (as two different personalities, neither perfect) and resolving your turbulent history than there could ever be in author's tortured attempts to keep lust-smitten rakes away from flattered but sheltered teenaged maidens.

Duran's Duke of Shadows is a gripping example of this sub-genre, in which the smitten hero and heroine are separated by the events of history, and she is unable to recover from the traumas that she endured during the war, the fact that she had to endure them alone, and the realization that her beloved  moved on with his life while she suffered.  When they encounter each other again, they are both adults leading successful lives but carrying emotional scars.

And Sherry Thomas has carved out a highly satisfying niche in the sub-genre.  In Private Arrangements, the hero and heroine meet and are smitten as teenagers, but Gigi (the stronger personality of the two) is so impatient to possess Camden (who is still honorably entangled with another girl he has known since childhood) that she perpetrates a rather significant deception to manipulate him into marrying her.  You see, she is in a difficult situation: she is a woman of action, determined to define her own fate, in a world in which honor deprives people (especially women) of the power to make decisions purely on inclination.  Camden, of course, finds out about the betrayal, and they have the kind of falling out that can wound a relationship irreparably.  They spend the next decade on separate continents, behaving impeccably about one another in public, but never speaking or meeting.  It is only when she petitions for divorce that they have to come to terms with the primally scarring events of their marriage.

Thomas's Not Quite a Husband is another Anglo-Indian tale of trauma, set amidst bloody imperial conflicts.  Romance novels have a fascination (for obvious reasons) with the far-flung corners of the Empire, but I am always wary of these settings, which are often uncomfortably Orientalist and unthoughtful about the social power of their colonialist heroes and their portrayals of colonial subjects.  But Not Quite a Husband left me absolutely shattered in a way that romance novels almost never do.  It again concerns a coldly cerebral heroine (do you sense a pattern here in my academically-slanted taste in heroines?), a doctor this time, and her brilliant mathematician/playwright/Renaissance man of a beloved, who is quite a few years younger than she is (hurrah for this!) and has adored her since childhood. 

This time he is the one who commits the originary betrayal, and her error (like Camden's in Private Arrangements) is that she doesn't confront him with her knowledge of it honestly.  So betrayed is she that she closes herself off from him emotionally and physically, while he flounders about in romantic bewilderment until she finally demands an annulment.  At the beginning of the novel, he seeks his ex-wife out at her post in India after several years of separation, in order to deliver an urgent message from her estranged family.  As they travel back towards England, they are caught up in a rebellion (did you know that the history of colonialism in Southeast Asia can be told largely as an attempt to throw English lovers together and then tear them apart?) and forced to piece together their shattered past.

Thomas's novels are best when she keeps her focus on the intense, tormented details of her protagonists' realistically scarred relationships.  The conflicts she writes (down to the dialogue of the fights themselves) are utterly convincing as traumas, and even as we see how the hero and heroine should be together, we wonder quite serious if they ever could resolve these old and terrifying issues of trust and betrayal and truth and fidelity.  But too often Thomas throws in a subplot which is not quite as convincing or fleshed out as the main narrative - although it always has the potential to be.   This makes me wonder whether it is difficult for the romance genre to sustain multiple plot-lines in a satisfying way - do we have trouble pouring our sympathies (and empathy) into more than one couple at a time, or do multiple plots, unless very deftly handled, underscore the formulaic sameness of the way we talk about falling in love?

Well, as usual I find myself rambling on at Dostoevskian lengths, so I will pause here for today and return to Mt. Grademore.  But I will put these questions to you, fellow Sunday Saloners: are you readers of romance?  What constitutes a really strong love story for you?  Do you have recommendations for me of authors whose work shows Duran's inventiveness with language or Thomas's fervent realism of plot?

5 Responses so far.

  1. It's normally my personal policy not to comment on blog posts that mention either myself or my books--an author's presence tends to discourage dissenting opinion on his/her works and what good is the internet if readers hesitate to throw a book against a wall?

    (Besides, I like to be very quiet about my self-googling.)

    But since I can't seem to find an email address listed in your profile, and since I can't help myself whenever I have a chance to recommend my favorite romance authors to new-ish romance readers, I have decided to give the policy the shove.

    If you like books by Meredith Duran and moi, then you must try Judith Ivory and Laura Kinsale. When Meredith's and my debut books came out--on exactly the same day--readers compared the deep anguish of Duke of Shadows to Laura Kinsale's work and Private Arrangements grown-up characters to those populating Judith Ivory's books. Although with our subsequent books, I think Meredith is actually writing more like Ivory--she is the finest prose stylist of among our generation of romance writers as Ivory is of hers--and I am plumbing the depth of romantic despair a la Laura Kinsale.

    My favorite Ivory is BEAST. Mer's fave Ivory is BLISS. Both are astonishing books. If I could write like Ivory, I would. Her prose is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

    Mer and I both love Kinsale's THE SHADOW AND THE STAR. I also love FOR MY LADY'S HEART and SHADOWHEART.

    The Kinsale book that always show up on Best Of list is FLOWERS FROM THE STORM, a book too difficult and painful for me to read but since you are a reader of literary fiction, you might do just fine. Extra fine if you like being shattered by your romances.

    You might also want to look up Patricia Gaffney's To Have and to Hold, a book that engenders endless controversy and adoration both, and beloved by Mer.

    Unfortunately many of those books are out of print, but you should be able to find them on Amazon.

    But read them slowly, since neither Ivory nor Kinsale publishes on a regular basis, once you've gone through their backlist, there is no one like them, not even Duran and Thomas. :-)

  2. Thanks so much for the recommendations, Sherry - they were the highlight of my week! I was just coming to the end of my list of romances that I felt really confident would be both enjoyable and intellectually interesting, so the timing couldn't be any more perfect. A longer email response is in process!

  3. I'm wondering if you might like Pam Rosenthal. You mentioned the "cerebral heroine, who keeps interrupting the love scenes to analyze them" and when Jessica at Racy Romance Reviews reviewed Rosenthal's latest novel she thought that "This kind of reflexive self-consciousness is not our normal mode of being in the world — not even for writers and scholars."

    Tumperkin's review of the same book is here and RfP's review is here.

  4. Thanks for the rec, Laura! I have been thinking about taking up Rosenthal's novels lately - in fact, I think one is waiting for me, unopened, in Los Angeles right now (it looks like "The Slightest Provocation" - is that the most recent?), so perhaps I will take it up as soon as I get there at the end of the week.

    Also, I have just nipped over to your blog, and am really enjoying your post about the article in the Yale Herald. It is going right on my Google Reader - can't wait to read more!

  5. Her latest is The Edge of Impropriety, which won a RITA last year. I have a couple of hers in my pile of books to be read, but I haven't quite got round to picking them up yet, so I can't recommend them personally, but a lot of people seem to have liked them and praised her style of writing.

    I'm glad you liked what you saw at Teach Me Tonight. It's an exciting time for romance scholarship. The Journal of Popular Romance Studies should be publishing its very first issue sometime soon.

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