Sunday, 18 January 2015

A Box of Old Romances: *Massively* Overthinking Harlequin and other American Romances, Part 1!

I used to read a lot of romances as a teenager.  When I say romances, I don’t mean Mills and Boon, or the huge bodice-rippers with half dressed women on the front being ravished by pirates; not the English ones - as I quickly came to see that these were beyond wish fulfilment and were a sort of odd exercise in alternate reality, where we were all secretaries falling in love with our bosses, or tennis stars falling in love with our coaches, or businesswomen in a man’s world…falling in love with a man who might as well be our boss.  It was riven with an odd class consciousness (everyone was posh or well bred or rich or wanted to be rich; everyone was very aspirational or terribly beautiful or talented…no one at all was normal or troubled, unless they be beautiful and troubled). No.  I started reading American romances – Harlequin: the intimate Moments, the SuperRomances, the Intrigues, the Special Editions.  For anyone unaware, these subheadings signify different sorts of stories, e.g. the Intrigues were what is known as ‘romantic suspense’, relationship growth with thriller elements – Nora Roberts writes a lot of these nowadays, to name only the most successful one ever!  

The thing is, don’t think I was fooled – the American romances were also full of politics, and class themes, it was just that because they weren’t here, England, I found it easier to ignore obvious BS and enjoy my suspension of disbelief in a well told story where you basically know what you want to happen: you want two people to meet, have a journey together of actual travelling or simply of events they must face singly or together, and at the end you want not too many people to be suffering or dead, and you want the two people to have decided to be a couple.  It’s reassuring. The whole genre is very reassuring.

Now, its ultra reassuring because not only is it filled with tropes we all recognise (amnesia of hero or heroine resulting in behaviour change is an obvious one; rags to riches or vice versa is another incredibly common one), but it guarantees you that no matter what hardship the 2main characters suffer, they will be ok – and not lonely – at the end.  That’s quite powerful, specially when you are having a bad day, or a bad phase in life.

I have continued to indulge my enjoyment of the genre here and there, between other things, sometimes not touching a romance for years, then reading 20 all at once.  Recently, I had one of those astonishing ebay deals you get every now and again: 200 books for not much money at all.  The main haul of titles harked back from a period in life where I used to read a lot of romance as I was finding life hard (the late 90s, early 2000s).  So I got shipped a lot of books that reminded me of a period where I had some hope, but it was dying, and I was trying to find it again, by reading of love love love, over and over again.  Trying to brainwash myself to catch the vibe. (And while it failed, in the sense I eventually completely changed my life instead of staying firm in the face of difficulties, which the rather conservative romances would have wished me to do, I am sure, they none the less gave me many interesting and happy times in the midst of troubles.)

So I gathered up the box and opened it. Sorted, as I do, the books into their concomitant series and sections.  Recognised old covers, old and loved familiar authors. Realised some were in the box from even before I used to read.  I wondered how the tone of these books would change over time.  As each genre - fantasy, sci-fi, romance, all these niche genres – they all tell us so much about whenever they were written. They tell us of an eras dreams, an eras thoughts on relationships both intimate and political, larger.  They tell us about ideas on economics, on poetry. It’s all there, you just have to have one eye on the story and one eye on the subtext. 

I’m going to do an odd thing in these rambly reviews here. I’m going to half tell you about the stories in each of these books, talk about the characters and how I found them shaped - as I can’t help but do this, as a writerly person myself; and I’m going to let you be as amazed as I was to find I keep seeing politics in them, propaganda. Establishment stuff, both harsh and gentle. Read on and you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes, you’ll find I got all carried away with the story when I read it; but then spent the entire rambly review talking about the subtext!  This is partly because, as a foreigner, all this stuff is massively interesting as social history from a distance, for me, as an observer of an export of American culture.  I hope any Americans reading find it interesting, and don’t get offended at any speculations I make – or if you do, don’t take it too seriously.  Don’t worry, I find English culture ridiculous in some ways too; remember how I said I can’t even read our romances as they are just too stupid?!  I enjoy yours far more…and have no intention of stopping reading them, so far!
So.  Here is the beginning of another no doubt long and endless occasional series, the Romance Reviews Ridiculously Overthought! Welcome to my overflowing box of old romance books, dated anywhere between late 80s to the late noughties…


  1. A Holiday Gamble, by Jane Feather (novella), part of the ‘Snowy Night With A Stranger’ Christmas anthology, 2008
    (Let’s start off gentle.  I received the box just before Christmas and there were lots of Christmas romances in it. This one had a beautiful glittery cover.  As I was feeling quite stressed and know Jane Feather to be a reliable author, I picked it straight up.  It’s not a Harlequin series title, as a few of the books in the box were not. Most of the reviews will be of those; but this and a few others will be an exception.  Also, this is a historical, and that will be an exception too.  Most of the titles I look at will be contemporary; not because they tell the times better- no, historicals tell wishes even better than contemporaries; but simply because the box has more contemporaries in it than anything else. This was lovely, very Christmassey.  Loved the female highwayman, caught in a strange trapped situation and having to rob to try and get out of it. It was quite a claustrophobic read, the pair shut in a hall with the dissolute and sinister guests. This didn’t have the annoying tameness that some of the American romances can have, in that it promises a scary or high staked situation, but then deals with it so gently you feel cheated.  This managed to give more depth in a small novella than I have felt from some full length stories of similar plot.  Felt quite real - the bravery of the female lead shone through.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  2. When Sparks Fly, by Sabrina Jeffries (novella), part of the ‘Snowy Night With A Stranger’ Christmas anthology, 2008
    (A very nice Christmas tale with the unlikely plot of the invention of safe explosives for mining work - I do like when historicals teach me something. Which happens a lot with romances, actually. This also taught me about the fire-y and definitely unsafe Xmas game of ’Snapdragon’.  I felt the hero’s guilt here, and it was well played; the heroine’s explanation of his punishing of himself held valid psychological truth – again, this is what romances can do so well, when they bother: emotional intelligence and explanations of behaviour.  It becomes like a puzzle to solve. ACTUAL BOOK.)
  3. The Wallflower, by Jan Freed, Harlequin SuperRomance,1998
    (Bit of a cracker, this one. Lovely strong female lead. 

    Though I did find some very illuminating stuff inside about Republican political bias and views, circa late 90’s.  The author bit stressed that she writes ‘strong sassy females in stories with traditional values’ – which was my first clue.  Then this, on p.21, showed me that I was definitely dealing with a Republican sensibility in the writer, which she had transferred to her characters.  The heroine, masquerading as a school student has a disagreement with the teacher, the hero, who replies: “There’s a great deal in the adult world that is unfair, Sarina.  Some people – the people who form the backbone of our society and economy – learn how to cope with challenge and adversity. Others continually blame circumstances for getting a raw deal and then ride the rest of us piggyback throughout their lives.”  That sounds so reasonable and commonsensical doesn’t it?!  And yet it can lead to so much judgement and harshness and callous behaviour.  There was a later bit where the hero laments the fact he can’t fancy a woman who “shared his traditional values” and wouldn’t mind staying at home and raising his babies and keeping house; instead finding another woman who does like him. The woman was a vice principal of a school – how is he so certain she would give up what the character gives every indication of as a satisfying career? Also, the hero himself accepts that his own woman is forming a new business at the end, just as she already had one and was very successful.

    I can’t help feeling some of these sentiments are contradictory: the traditional value bit seems to indicate that the man goes out to work and does the manly bring home bacon bit, and the woman is the angel in the house – a very important role, but circumscribed, and all manner of guilt implied for trying to do another role as well, or god forbid, instead.  And yet – in every single one of these American romances I read – ALL the women are exceptions to this stay at home rule, all very strong and sassy, all know what they want, none I have read give up their career at the end, and the men learn to work round it with very good grace.  So the values they propose are overturned each and every book.  I’m not sure what it means for the readers who might believe in these ‘values’? If you aren’t terribly sassy and obviously very go gettery, then you are doomed to be content to stay at home with no choice, reading vicariously of these other females living lives with more than one dimension?  Or: that there are always exceptions and they are always welcomed and gloried in by the people, especially the men, who subscribe to these values??  Not sure.  Also it’s women writing these…are they advocating changing the roles of women in families with ‘traditional values’?  Or showing that there is room for allsorts?  Again, not sure, as an outsider looking in.

    This book and the next one [Shenandoah], really got it through to me what is so comforting about these books in times of stress - the lack of movement, the lack of actual freedom, it all being very establishment and very proscribed in terms of roles and expectations.  Having your freedom removed to play a story we know the ending of, or a role we all understand from childhood, is in one way, very comforting. I fall back on these dreams that I know would make me ill if I tried to actually live them, whenever I am stressed. Bit like sexual fantasies, I suspect: not meant to come true, wouldn’t be the same at all!

    Lastly, on the politics bit- which really did quite strongly inform this book, in the background: I read and understood more than I usually do of the Republican ideal – this is why stories are such great teaching methods.  I really and truly think left and right are not that far apart: we place our emphasis differently and we seem to interpret events from different places - but I think we are actually championing similar ideas.  We’ve just got so used to only hearing the extreme views of either side [both stupid and unworkable; both hostile and superior sounding] that we forget we have much in common.  I can see why the right think they are so leader-suited; and why they think the left are weak.  From statements like that I quoted above.  It’s a misapprehension, a harsh judgement on others.  On the other hand - sometimes the left needs to be a damn sight more judgmental and show a bit of backbone – so, in conclusion, I say grandly – this was a FASCINATING bit of background social and political history.  I learned.  Always great.

    Annoyingly, I have banged on for so long about the political bits of this book I have not actually mentioned it had a basic if utterly cracking and well executed plot, seething with brilliant sub-characters [liked the bit when Fred went all cowboy on the bad character who was going to date rape Kate], and was fluid and without cliché in the writing.  The self-improvement aspects were wonderful too, a really positive message.  Totally recommended. If you like romance and are on the right- you’ll enjoy and agree with everything; if you like romance and are on the left – you’ll understand those others better!  Really can’t complain: very strong book
  4.  Shenandoah Christmas, by Lynette Kent, Harlequin SuperRomance, 2001
    (This was lovely too. Not quite sure why it didn’t annoy me, as one of the plot’s major sub characters was a Pastor [not a species I generally enjoy, though the TV show Rev softened me up recently], and the writer was clearly Christian, though it wasn’t overly played upon, despite the whole subject of the book being a Christmas Pageant involving a nativity play. I mention it as I generally try to avoid romances with religious overtones; I find they detract from me feeling that the characters are finding each other. It becomes too preachy.  It’s a fine line to walk.

    The really strong thing here was the main character, Cait Gregory – she just sailed off the page as strong but vulnerable, and not prepared to give up her career that she had had to fight for in the first place and had worked a lot to get to this point for.  I really liked her. I was rather surprised she did so well with the Thanksgiving dinner when she’d never done one before [there my enjoyably vicarious identification with her failed; I couldn’t see myself doing that well!], but she was characterised as someone who would succeed at anything she tried her hand at if she was determined. 

    Her musical leanings were really well done.  As were the children, and the non-talking Shep in particular. A very good all round family drama, with issues of sudden enforced retirement and depression, theft of community money, reasons for disliking Christmas, and family vs. career explored well. One of the strengths of romances can be the family focus; sometimes it can feel cloying, but in this case, I simply felt it as believable.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  5. Merry’s Christmas, by Pamela Bauer, Harlequin SuperRomance, 1995
    (Fascinating - just when I thought I would never like a man with a moustache ever again, who was NOT Tom Selleck; along comes hero Holden!  Oddly, this romantic hero was never fully physically described, just dark, tall, ‘tachey, and abandoned as a child, so sharing a huge bond from an early age with the heroine, with whom he spent a portion of his childhood in a foster home.  I am bit perplexed as to how he afforded to become a top lawyer when he came from absolutely nothing, but I know the genre’s belief in the power of the American dream wants me to gloss over this and believe he worked 90 jobs while studying college and making valuable contacts that usually only money would procure, in order to become the amazing success story he is at the start.

    Hmm.  It’s also fascinating that I am never this cynical while reading these rather lovely stories – in this case, the hero and the heroine only ever meet at Christmas, and are reunited for a last Christmas at the start as she is getting married to someone else unsuitable [too old and dry], and he takes it upon his Holden self to apprise her of this, hence Christmas story.  The added element of the foster child Holly and the heroine’s wish to help her, was very sweetly and oddly realistically done, till the treacley end.  But…this story, whilst not passing any reality tests, felt very real while reading and I enjoyed it very much.  A caring heroine, the musical Merry, who has CDs out but still plays in department stores on large pianos in a sequinned dress [lovely imagery there in those scenes].  I enjoyed the sleigh ride [sounded wonderful, sniff, real dream stuff].

    I find I am very much enjoying the variety of scenarios and the greater depth of tone in these SuperRomances set in the late 80s through to late 90s.  They feel much more real than the later ones; not sure why.  I started one the other day that began with a violent car crash and a theft - that would not happen in a modern one: too much.  The old ones seem to be able to peel romance and hope from anywhere; the newer ones have a limited range of acceptable scenarios and heroes, especially (Navy SEAL anyone?).  The older stories also have better titles: Merry’s Christmas is oddly inspired!  I criticise this books tenuous hold on reality; but I really did love it.  So there’s my schizo opinion; seek out this book for a good Christmas romance.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
  6. A Christmas to Remember, by Kay Stockham, Harlequin SuperRomance, 2007
    (The last one I will read in 2014, which whispered in with my finishing it just before New Year. I liked the idea of a man with amnesia waking up to be a much better person and realising his past self had done awful things; namely to the woman he is now falling in love with. Of course, it all became rather preposterous when it turned out he really wasn’t that man, and was another man altogether, who had always been decent, though obviously also had his own problems. It, when you think about it, overrode the whole need for forgiveness to get over events of the past that was one of the overweening messages of this book. I’m discovering that a lot of these later SuperRomances, are very Christian in tone, just in the background, moreso than the older ones [which were more overtly Republican in tone than the modern ones, as if they have swapped one version of an ideology for another as time moved on; noticeably from the late 80s-90’s to the mid 90’sthrough to early 2000’s].

    Anyway, the funny thing is, whenever I come to review these books I always start talking about the messages and themes in the background, which of course I am noticing whilst I read them, but on the other hand, as I read, I am usually completely caught up in the story and the character. This one I read in 2 days, one half in just one evening, as the characters were so very readable.

    The heroine, Mallery, suffered a bloody awful family, especially her mother and father, that just would not let her forget an event of her past, getting pregnant on the eve of college from a quick relationship - that had been very painful for her as well, but they acted like it was this big shame on their entire family…move along from tribal times, people, enter the 21st century.  Family pride always sounds good, but it leads to such harsh judgement. I wanted to really yell at her parents.  Anyway, she managed to do a very good thing for her mother, despite the woman’s annoyingness [the story actually tried to handle the theme of depression here, and as a frequently depressed person, I likely should have been a lot more sympathetic to the mother, but I just found her annoying…ah well, no one likes a mirror!]  Good book, enjoyable, if a bit overwrought emotionally – then again, had I not eaten it up so fast, I might not feel that way about it; if I had read it slower I might not have been so overwhelmed by the wrenching, that is, after all, a big part of this genre here and there…ACTUAL BOOK.)

    And lastly, for this post:
7. Sunflower, by Margot Dalton, Harlequin SuperRomance, 1992
(This was a lovely time capsule gem of a romance.  They don’t write them this way anymore!  The main character experienced a car crash and major theft as the starter, then inherited a rodeo horse and becomes a travelling rodeo helper out of a desire to help the horse away from that life. And to be nearer the hero who is disarmingly genuine and easy company. 

The car crash and theft at the start was quite wrenching, and a good sudden explosive beginning.  It reminded me how tame and derivative a lot of the more modern romances can be.  The old ones basically pick any scenario, craft a heroine we feel we know and could almost be – never too thin or beautiful, simply genuine and with dreams and hopes; and a hero who could almost be real, he’s just a touch larger than life.  They may well have a formula, these older books, but the formula has definitely changed in modern times, and I think I prefer the old.  So much more setting, scenery backdrop, portraits of communities of people [as opposed to communities of values, which ends up preachy].

The nicest thing about this entire romance was the sense of the wider company conveyed. Not only the other rodeo riders, male and female, but the people watching, the sense of being involved in events, involved in a whole scene.  You really felt you were there, and you shared the heroine’s experiences of feeling part of something [and face it – why are we reading these books if we don’t want to feel part of something?].  There was an epic scale to the way some of the events were told, a sense of pulling back and surveying the wider scene that I really enjoyed, it felt real and authentic, emotionally [which is where it needs to feel real, in these stories].

The next thing to mention was the excellent portrayal of two characters, subsidiary but vital to the plot action: Clem and Cody.  Clem is a rodeo clown who is losing his nerve, and he is painted so incredibly well: I felt his small wiry physicality, his passion for another better life [he wants to start dog kennels], and his bravery at the last, saving Robin from the also incredibly well painted bull, Whirlwind.  Excellent characterization of an animal- not anthropomorphised, just told and told well. I felt the animal too.  The whole scene where Clem goes up against the bull at the end was so well done, it was actually like my first ever watching of Titanic: as in, I got so involved in the story of Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio and Billy Zane, that I completely FORGOT [yes truly I did, that first time] that the ship was going to sink, and I was surprised when it started to!!  I actually forgot I was reading a romance, where things mostly are guaranteed to end up well, and thought Clem was going to die.  When he went into the field, I actually stopped reading, put the book down and started crying, as I really thought that was the end of him, and I had to prepare myself!  I was amazed when he made it through.  Now, THAT level of involvement is Damn Good Storytelling.  Damn good storytelling can show [of course,] in any genre, but I’m always so happy when it does show up in a romance, as it can be a very lazy genre, especially nowadays.  This book Had Me Going, I was fooled.  I’m impressed.

Then of course, there’s Cody, a very underplayed sociopath.  He was very nicely done - he wasn’t over the top, as so many of romance’s villains are; he didn’t speechify…he was simply gradually laid out, till you became more and more uneasy at the way he didn’t quite make sense or add up as a sum of his actions. And then he had a psycho fit at the end, and you realized he was a completely different kettle of fish to what you had thought; and that the hero Matt, had been correct to get angry with Robin and warn her away from him from the start.

And then it ends, quietly and calmly and nicely.  We go from thinking gentle Clem will die, from finding a stabbed body, from Robin being gored by that bad bull…which is all pretty heavygoing action for what has become a lighter and fluffier genre by the moment [unless you class some of the rougher new paranormals or suspenses, in terms of action] – to everyone getting explained and calmed and off they go. And even though it’s all pretty unbelievable, in terms of the high drama and of the happy ending, you just flow right along with it, as it’s so well written and convincing.  Emotionally.

I think Margot Dalton is the best of this old box of books I’ve read so far. I’m hugely hugely impressed.  This book was magic. 

Also: Sunflower – that is a much better title for a romance, or any book, than the usual titles romances get these days!)

And that’s it for this first outing of this occasional series. These will get read between other things, and when I feel down – as they do perk you up.  So I won’t overburden you with loads of these reviews.  But if you’re into romance, you could do worse than look out some of these oldies.  

Yes, old romances have covers where men are sewing!  What a different world we live in!

No comments:

Post a Comment