About a week ago, I woke up and all I wanted to do was read a romance novel. I am not proud, but I am trying to own my shame. I blasted through the two books I had in the guest room closet and have moved on to both the library and the bookstore for more. If you have never read “historical romance fiction”, I can fill you in:
All the lead characters exist on a kind of mix’n’match continuum as follows:
A. Reformed Rakes Make the Best Husbands (gorgeous cynical bastard)
B. Laconic Warrior (gorgeous gruff protector)
C. Ordinary Guy (If you are looking for him, go find LaVyrle Spencer)
There’s also a whole cowboy thing, but the Old West is too dusty.
The Reformed Rake will have lean muscle mass and feline grace. He is a charming companion and an excellent dancer. His cynical bastardism may be a result of a feminine betrayal in his back story.
The Laconic Warrior will be heavily-muscled and rip doors of their hinges: Giant oak doors with giant iron hinges. There is an excellent chance he will also be a Highland Laird. He will sleep out of doors and bathe in the lake, even in the dead of winter. He will be intimidating and often frighten women, but not the heroine, no, she will take one look and see the handsome man no one else has been able to see underneath all the tartan and scowling.
These men are overwhelmed by the protective impulse they feel for the enchanting bit of fluff they’ve just met. These are Men of Action and are not distracted by such trifles as feelings.
The following elements will usually appear in some form:
1. Clenched jaw with visible muscle twitch to show anger
2. Clenched teeth as he clings to restraint in the face of the lust she has innocently aroused in him, and he is holding back lest he overwhelm or harm the woman with the strength of his passion
3. No matter where he lives, he will be tanned from head to toe. This bronzed glow will be surprising, and pleasing, to the heroine.
A. Victim of Circumstance (beautiful pawn)
B. Wallflower (otherwise ignored fabulous woman)
They are slim, but curvy goddesses as a rule. They always have more book learnin’ than is historically accurate, but I appreciate this token feminism. The Victim of Circumstance is either rich and exploited, or poor and exploited. The Wallflowers just need someone to finally notice them.
The following elements will appear in some form:
1. Cascading hair
2. A naturally tiny waist not really requiring a corset.
3. She holds herself like a queen, or
4. She is accident prone.
5. The Reformed Rake will require a lot of forgiveness.
6. The Laconic Warrior will require her to recognize he loves her before he is able to give in to this vulnerability and tell her.
Things You Have to Overlook
Blatantly anachronistic elements mostly with regard to social and sexual mores. If I wanted historical accuracy, I’d read Jane Austen. Incidentally, the things the hero and heroine do during their intimate moments has gotten much more adventurous since I started reading these books in the 1980s. I find it distracting. I blame the mainstreaming of porn.
No one can get out of that period clothing so quickly. Just once, I wish the heroine would be inwardly cursing all the damn layers that are taking so long to remove.
The age difference of at least 10 years, specifically the youth of the women.
Consistent Narrative Elements
Blazes of sensuality
Synonyms for heat
Oblique references to male body parts
Even more oblique references to female body parts
There is a lot of arching
Someone will be “vexed”
Something will be “sinewed”
Many things will be sensual
Being a pirate is cool
I think you should be up to speed now, but before I start, I must tell you that the book included a bonus chapter from another of the author’s novels. It was set in present day Boston and our hero (read: Kennedy) meets his prospective partner at a charity event when he THROWS UP ALL OVER HER as he has appendicitis. Then, because she is a doctor visiting from out-of-town, she performs the appendectomy. That’s right: she performs a random minor surgery at a local hospital at which she has no privileges. This is why I stick to historical romance novels.
Interjection December 2013: This was a pretty good summary of the tropes of the 1990s, but things have changed since then. The hero and heroine types have not changed but the women tend to be older and more experienced now.
And now to the business at hand:
God’s truth, I can’t even remember the heroine’s name. Let’s see if it comes back to me. The setting is England in 1206. Something exciting has happened with King John and his barons. Johana (!) is recently widowed after years of torment at the hands of her verbally and physically abusive husband, and the family priest. Childless despite her years of marriage (That’s right! She’s not a virgin and she never knew it could be like this), she is a valuable pawn as she has land holdings in Scotland that have been in dispute. Having avoided remarriage as long as she can, she ventures with her loving brother, Nicholas, to make a political match by marrying Laird Gabriel MacBain, a gruff and gorgeous warrior. By marrying her, he gains full title to his clan lands, and she is safely removed from the proximity of those who would exploit her for her wealth (I know). Although he now has the land, he is cash poor and that’s where the whisky subplot comes in. There is also some stuff about clan infighting and which plaid she is wearing.
As Johana settles into her new life with the imposing Laird, his love and gentleness, honestly, he really is a teddy bear, help her to heal and find her own identity and role as his partner. Along the way, she kills a group of wolves with her bow and arrow, she learns golf, and she gets over her fear of his wolf hound. I have to go back to the wolves for a second. She kills 4 wolves and her husband sets the bodies on fire rather than making a blanket out of the wolf pelts. I’d want a wolf pelt blanket myself.
I chose this book because I was familiar with the writer. It’s dangerous to take a chance on these novels because they often used to include an assault in which the heroine’s “body betrays her” and she gives in and enjoys it, OR, or the hero starts raping her, realises she is a virgin and then, AND ONLY THEN, feels guilty for the assault. You can see how I’d want to avoid that. The entire genre is very repetitious in plotting (obviously) and Garwood loves a nice, obvious subplot involving court intrigue. Generally, I skip ahead to get back to the romance. It’s really what I’m looking for and she does a good job with it. I’m actually not a big fan of the Laird/Highlander genre. I prefer the cynical bastards; they are generally witty, charming and fiercely intelligent, and I like that in a sexually-objectified man.
I’ve already started reading my next book Almost Heaven by Judith McNaught. I loved it when I was 20 and expect I will love it again now. It features a gambling roué named Ian Thornton, rumoured to be the illegitimate grandson of the Duke of Stanhope.
Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.
Tagged: book reviews, historical romance, Julie Garwood, romance review
Thank you for making me laugh from the depths of my shame spiral! Much to my chagrin, I started reading romance novels a few months ago. I blame public broadcasting! The conclusion of Downton Abbey left me hankering for a period romance, but alas I’ve run through most of the classics. A friend, whose literary tastes I, admittedly, don’t entirely trust, recommended Georgette Heyer. I read a few of those, then stumbled on a recommendation on the NPR book page – NPR! – for Julia Quinn. I read The Duke and I, and since then have read four more of hers, plus a few others. I am hopeful this is a phase I will soon outgrow! But until then, I’ll enjoy your reviews and your humorous take on the genre.
Lisa. Kleypas. The Wallflowers or The Hathaways. Plus Dreaming of You and Where Dreams Begin.
Thanks for the recs! I’ve read three of the Wallflowers books over the past few days and am waiting for the 4th from the library. (Bad case of strep throat.) Very enjoyable! I’ve been checking them out from the library on my kindle to avoid disapproving looks from my husband, but I just discovered a nearby bookstore that sells them for $1, so cheapness rapidly overcame other scruples. I picked up Where Dreams Begin so I’ll be reading that soon. I read Lord of Scoundrels since you and others called it a classic of the genre – and clearly, I am a lover of the classics – but Lord Dain did not do it for me. I found myself googling “STD tests in Regency England,” so worried about Jessica’s health was I. At least Sebastian in The Devil in Winter mentions using protection. I just finished What I Did for a Duke. I liked the characters, but found the language a bit coarser.
Finding the right level of language is catch as catch can. Kleypas has a great backlog you can work through, but she no longer writes historicals; she’s moved on to hardcover contemporary romance. I suspect it is far more profitable. I only read 19th century British for some reason. Julia Quinn is very funny and gentler; tamer and wittier. Her Bridgerton books, which can be had used for a song, are very good. Skip Francesca and Gregory though (that will make sense in time).
I loved Lord of Scoundrels for the camp elements, but I know what you mean. I also felt the sub plot went on a bit. The good thing about Loretta Chase is that she is reliable. Always good, sometimes great. There is often some kind of road trip or intrigue that requires rushing about.
God, I loved Sebastian in The Devil in Winter. Just had to mention that. Westcliff didn’t work for me. Matthew was fine (are you on to Daisy yet?), and I adored Simon Hunt. I actually track the heroes names on The Shameful Tally here on my so-called blog. Simon is the most common, and most writers include a Sebastian eventually.
I’ve just discovered Tessa Dare. She’s a newish author and I think is just hitting her stride. Her “Stud Club” (I know) trilogy was fun, if occasionally a bit much for me, and the Spindle Cove books are fun. There is a new one coming out next week. Apparently, I am now a person who knows these things.
You want to read Courtney Milan. You really do. She is the current best and brightest. I reviewed her Turner brother books for CBR. If you have a Kindle, her books can be had reasonably on Amazon. I have read everything of hers I can get my hands on. Even the novellas are worth it. AND she has a new book coming out in September.
I have a disapproving husband too. I told him that if I was reading War and Peace he wouldn’t complain. I’m doing my best to overcome my shame and remind myself that women reading fiction by and for women are judged disproportionately harshly as opposed to, say, grown men who read comic books.
On a related note: If you want to read the biggest baddest romance novel series of all time check out Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Mswas would be so happy to know I am recommending it. A whole bunch of the Pajiba ladies have read them and Mel Biv Devoe just started. Lainie Fig and I recently finished the 7th book. I have a review of those books up too, if you want to get a sense of them.