“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Last month, I posted about the varieties of Regency romances I’d been discovering, and in the process gave a thumbnail history of the romance novel since the seventies—from my perception.
Well, that kicked off an exchange with some fellow readers, two of whom claimed never to have read a romance. But when I mentioned titles they’d read and loved and pointed to online reviews that made it clear some readers filed these squarely under romance—and loved them for it— they began to get the idea that ‘romance’ had begun broadening out to more or less match the old dictionary definition of romance.
Since I’d been cudgeling my brain trying to come up with a topic for this week’s blog (after 260 of ’em it’s getting tougher to think up what to write about–suggestions gratefully received) I thought I’d go ahead and summarize our discussion here, and see what others think.
To start off, I floated an amendment to the dictionary definition, to say that a romance can be any of those sub-definitions, but it has to have an upbeat ending, which usually includes finding love/a place/meaning, preferably all three.
At least as I see it from here, it’s been many years since the romance novel was constrained to one basic plot: heroine hangs onto her virginity until she gets a ring/wedding bells. Actually, it’s been a generation. People can laugh about the bodice rippers of the late seventies (and in some cases rightly so) but those began breaking that glass ceiling of good girl guilt, and since then romance has grown, ramified through all genres, and flourished.
So we started discussing books that may or may not be marketed as romances, but that didn’t conform to what they’d understood as romances. For instance, Annamarie Selenko’s long-loved Desiree was marketed strictly a historical novel but there are many of us who fell in love with that book at a young age for the romance. When I read it in later years, noted that it was structured very much like a romance.
So one person pointed out that that was exactly why she’d been reading Judith Tarr’s historical fantasies for years: for the romances. As well as the world-building and all that, but yeah, causing one person to point out that relabeling novels as romances might upset some people.
In another conversation, up came the question: why? That seems to bring us right back to romances being “lesser” on the Great Ladder of Literary Worth. You know, well below important books written by important men in which the characters are trying to kill each other, or set state against state. Books about power are important. Books about fundamental human relations and the search for happiness just have no literary merit, nuh uh.
Finally one asked me for examples of some recent reading that weren’t marketed as romances, but were what I thought of as romances.
A recent BVC omnibus release, Jennifer Stevenson’s Hinky Chicago series was first to mind. The books themselves came out a few years ago, and the omnibus cover definitely evokes a subgenre of romance, but they weren’t originally published as romance or fantasy, they’re more magical realism.
The three books can be read independently of one another, though they all center around Jewel Heiss, whose boss sends her undercover to investigate what these matter-of-fact Chicagoans call . . . no, can’t quite get the m-word out, so they sidle along with “hinky.” You know, like the gritty marshals who are chasing Dr. Richard Kimble say in The Fugitive.
Only here, it means an elusive kind of magic that no one can pin down. But Chicago is full of it, and weird stuff is happening that can’t be explained away.
Told in a deceptively funny, raunchy narrative voice, these books delve into some meaningful discussions of love, trust, family, identity, and other on-the-nose observations about human life and interaction. Very much in the tradition of magical realism, but they come to upbeat endings, which can include . . . romance. So I think of them under my big spreading tree of romance.
Then there is the romantic suspense novel, which is still romance, but has the heart-rate-escalating tension, action, and mega body count of a thriller. I read two of these recently, no, I inhaled them: Spotless, by Camilla Monk, and its sequel (which I liked even better), Beating Ruby.
Not only does the heroine have more agency in the second one, there is actually a love triangle—something that usually causes my eyes to roll—but the dynamics were so gripping I just sat and read until the last page, my work forgotten. Woven into the high-octane action and spycraft is all kinds of meta about romances that had me cracking up. The narrative voice, the humor, had me hooked from the first paragraph.
These two authors are nothing like one another, except in creating complex characters, andunpredictable storylines, that left me smiling on the last page: romance.
Suggestions of other romances that might not seem to be romances welcome, or even romances that are, but which might draw in the reader who has never read one and might like to give them a try.