We've spent some Saturday evenings geeking out about science fiction and mystery novels. Tonight it's time for romance novels.
Romance novels are, fundamentally, about people falling in love. In the case of mass-market genre romance, those people are a man and a woman. (Do please chime in in the comments on gay romances; the last time I read any the ones I found didn't hew very close to the genre conventions I most enjoy, so I stopped reading and am way out of date.)
So what differentiates one from another? Well, there are subgenres, of course. The big divisions are between historical and contemporary, and single-title or category. Tonight I seem to be in a contemporary single-title mood, so that's where I'll focus this time.
Beyond those distinctions, romance has not been immune to the vampire craze, and there are plenty of other supernaturals out there. Within historicals, you can find many different time periods and locations (though the sheik-and-harem plot of cliche is extremely dated, if in fact it was ever common). Many straightforward romances of no particular subgenre have a mystery subplot.
But subgenre aside, different authors have different styles. They build distinctive characters, they play with one element of the genre or another, they return to their own specific tropes.
You could drop me inside a Jennifer Crusie book and it probably wouldn't take me long to figure it out. Most of Crusie's books have a central item of food, a favorite musical artist, and a pet with a lot of personality. Also humor, strong friendships between women, and lots of romantic sparring -- the descriptions of Dove bars in Welcome to Temptation may send me running for the fridge (or grocery store), but one of the strongest tells you're in a Crusie book is that the women rate their relationships with each other as highly as any relationship with a man.
In Crusie's brash, fun Bet Me, there's a cat with personality, both Elvises -- Presley and Costello -- and oh, the food. Cal gives Min permission to eat food that tastes good, even if she does have a bridesmaid dress to fit into. This one goes above and beyond one central food: Chicken marsala, hot dogs, Krispy Kremes...all lusciously described and woven not just into desire but acceptance between two people with as much baggage as they have wit.
Bet Me bounces lightly off of fairy tales from several angles. There's a fairy tale wedding, a spot of love at first sight, a Beast, an improbable fairy godmother figure...and a dyslexic businessman and an overweight actuary.
Crusie's Fast Women has a few things to say about bad marriages, and they're things that a group of best friends tell each other:
"It's a terrible thing to be married to the wrong man," Margie said. "It's like being trapped at a bad party that never ends. The voices are always too loud and the jokes are dumb and you end up standing against a wall, hoping nobody notices you because it's so much easier that way. It's like you're trying to avoid somebody who's the only other person at the party."
"So we didn't have sex," Nell said. "I know, I know, it was the middle of the day and we were at work, but do you know how long it had been since I've necked? I mean, just necked? Tim and I never did that. We talked about work and we had sex, but we never fooled around and then didn't do it." Nell shoved the last of the chairs under a table. "I'd really gotten to the place where if I got kissed, I started taking off my clothes."
Fast Women also fits into the class of books where the baggage the heroine enters with is exhaustion -- a woman who has spent so long taking care of everyone around her that she has nothing left for herself. That's when the hero steps in. You could read these books as "weak woman, strong man" stories, but does that really describe a story of a woman who keeps the people around her going until she's sucked dry? And can you see why such stories might appeal to a woman who comes home from work to household labor and family needs?
In Jude Deveraux's Sweet Liar, Samantha Elliot has nursed her dying father, supported her no-good husband by working two jobs, and been shoved out of the life she knows. Michael Taggert takes her shopping. He feeds her pate and chocolate mousse. And together they find the truth about her long-missing grandmother. In its details it's a more extravagant fantasy than Bet Me or Fast Women -- the clothes are more expensive, the food less everyday, the man a multimillionaire math genius weightlifter from a giant extended family of romance heroes -- but maybe to you that's not as satisfying as Fast Women's story of professional respect after years of pretended passivity or Bet Me's contentious family dinners. Some of us are looking for fantasy elements and some of us want our fantasy to be framed in the everyday(ish).
That's the trick, really. A romance novel should be an unabashed fantasy. For someone. The question is which fantasy is yours.
I could go on...and on and on. Like football? Seek out Susan Elizabeth Phillips' interconnected books about the Chicago Stars. Like figure skating? Try Kathleen Gilles Seidel's Summer's End. Her Please Remember This can't be summed up by naming a sport (as if any of them can, really), but you'll find a rich story of small-town life, archeological excavation, speculative fantasy fans, and fine needlework.
So tell us. Who do you like to see falling in love?