Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Complicated relationship to "romance"

You know what I'm not too keen on in romance story lines? Long, melodramatic separations, where lovers are *ripped apart* and must live their lives without each other for years and years -- marry other people (miserably). Pine away and grow thin and pale. And why? Maybe because one believes the other is dead, while the supposedly dead one is busy being supposedly dead because of some dumb misunderstanding. Or maybe one of them is just an a**hole (which I thought was totally the case in Eva Ibbotson's A Song For Summer which completely put me off, though I love some of her other books.) Anyway, however many drear years later, once they're not young and cute any more, they get to be together. Ick!

I was reading this fat, fat historical by a writer of an award-winning YA novel, and I was somewhat surprised to discover that her adult novels are not so *award-winning.* I mean, they are guilty pleasure books. And there was pleasure, until there wasn't. The historical part was interesting, there was some nice spiciness and she's a good storyteller, but I started sensing a *ripped apart* coming on, so I cheated and skimmed ahead, reading a little here, a little there, and piecing together the terrible maudlin un-fun-ness that was to come. Really. Lies, murder, having to marry a maniac so one's lovechild will not be born out of wedlock when one's true love is off being supposedly dead. And by the time the lovers are reunited, he's "gaunt." Where's the fun in that? I couldn't finish it, knowing what was coming.

The worst case of *ripped apartness* I can remember is [SPOILER ALERT]: Corelli's Mandolin, which I thought was really gripping up until the utterly miserable ending. Talk about the hero becoming an a**hole! Anyone else read that? I didn't see the movie, but I'm guessing they changed the ending, because man did Captain Corelli turn into a suckhole.

I have an uneasy relationship with romance because: I LOVE romance in a story -- in my opinion, any book is better with a dash of spice and yearning (yes, any book; try me) but I HATE goopy icky sentimental shmaltz. It makes me embarrassed for the writer, and for myself. I love the elements of a romance novel -- exotic settings, big feelings -- but I want it to be smart and unembarrassing, with real characterization (well, you know, sort of real. I don't mind them all to be pretty and just a bit more clever than they ought to be!) and a strong plot and an interesting world, be it historical, contemporary, or fantasy.

And I do not want the heroine ever ever EVER to be named something absurd like "Preshy" (short for Precious.) GACK BLAAAGH!!! I came across that in an Amazon review when I was looking up something to do with Italy. I did NOT read the book, nor was I looking to, I swear. It was a random link. Preshy!!! I think I just threw up a little, in my mouth.

The thing is, I DO like guilty pleasure books, sometimes a LOT -- I loved Company of Swans even though the it was a little embarrassing and the heroine was shiningly and perfectly GOOD. And I devoured the totally guilty Black Jewels Trilogy, blushingly, because man, I should not have liked those books. But I DID. And I learned some things about storytelling from them, because guilty and embarrassing or not, Anne Bishop knows how to never give you a place to close the book. Ever. Until the end. That's a skill to study up on, wherever you find it.

Anyway. I haven't really explored my *smart romance* options too much because I denied to myself for oh so long that I like romance in a book. I denied fantasy too. Being an English major can teach you to deny fun in reading! Maybe one of the reasons YA is so awesome is that it mingles elements like this so effortlessly, and without going overboard into the land of embarrassment. Well. I don't know. I just thought of some obvious exceptions to that premise. Maybe it's not true!

Thoughts on romance? Any total pet peeves? Examples of delicious absurdity? Recommendations?

Some books I loved that have romance in them are:
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb (YA, cross-over)
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale (YA, fairy tale)
Ever by Gail Carson Levine (YA, mythic)
Dream Girl by Lauren Mechling (YA, very teen)
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

I'm sure I'm leaving out some major ones. This was mostly gleaned from skimming my Goodreads or just the few on the tip of my mind. I want to clarify that I don't read "romance novels", not bodice-rippery things, that's too much guilty and no pleasure. For me. Outlander-type books are about as guilty as I get, and yes, that's a romance novel, but it's not a churned-out one. It even had a *ripped apart* as I recall, and maybe that's why I didn't read the second one -- I think I read the beginning and lost the will to continue. Anyway. Others?

And for fun, I just randomly found these, um, altered covers, on the web. Funny!

P.S. Forgive me for being too lazy to put in links. Any of the above books will pop up on Amazon if you're interested.

[Oh! And my belly has been fizzy as a fish tank today. Not in any way I've quite felt before, so I can only assume it's a little someone swimming around, but I can't be sure. It's gurgly and burbly. So odd! Is it Small Human doing this?]


Anonymous said...

I usually cannot stand romance novels ...too silly and uninteresting...not even good as what I consider the snack food of books. I did however pick one up years ago in desperation when I had nothing to read and was away from home. My sister had a book that I absolutely loved by Jude Deveraux called A Knight In Shining Armor. There is an element of time travel in it that I always love in a story.

If there had been a hulking hunk of a man with long flowing locks on the cover, I would have skipped it.

tone almhjell said...

Yes, I get very impatient with gloop, too. And I'm absolutely unimpressed with brooding, dark, dangerous males who really are just a**holes. Until something hits a soft spot and I just have to know how it ends and then read the page where they finally meet and get to kiss over and over, feeling like a complete idiot. That happened to me with Elisabeth Haydon's books, where the heroine Rhapsody is insultingly perfect and the hero is, well, lost and confused. But I devoured that story. Blush.

I do, however, believe there has to be some hardship to a wonderful romance, though having the lovers meet at seventy after crappy lives is perhaps overdoing it. I feel like I'm betraying my eleven year old self, dissolved in tears and choking with disbelief and horror, but I think that Romeo and Juliet with a different ending would not be as gripping.

Deva Fagan said...

Oh I felt the same way about A Song For Summer! It was such a disappointment after how much I loved A Countess Below Stairs. I enjoyed it up until the point where it seemed like it was about to end happily and then.... they were ripped apart. I really wanted to shake Marek! I did go on to read A Company of Swans after that and it restored my faith in Eva Ibbotsen, thankfully. I have The Morning Gift in my to-read pile.

My most hated pet peeve (often applied to romance plotlines, but equally offensive elsewhere) is when the book (or movie/tv show) rely on "Stupid Plot" to maintain false tension. As in, when the writer makes the character do dumb things and be willfully stupid to create conflicts. Ugh.

I love a well-done romance, though, and what I think I like best is when the tension in the romance comes not so much from something between the characters (do they really love one another) but from external pressures forcing them to make hard choices. Also, a dash (or more) of humor in the relationship is important to me in order to make it seem real.

Some of my recently read favorites for romance are: Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's Wife, Laura Whitcomb's A Certain Slant of Light, Maggie Stiefvater's Lament, and R. J. Anderson's forthcoming Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter.

Whew, didn't intend to go on that long, but it's a topic I find very interesting!

Lexi said...

Ha ha! I would TOTALLY read that preshy book!
My least favorite thing is when the hero is this perfect guy who fixes everything when the heroine messes up. And the heroine is some weak girl with good hair. Kind of like Hannah Montana (but without the good hair part)(and also it's Hannah's dad who fixes everything)

tanita✿davis said...

Hee! Yes, being an English major can totally make you deny everything. I love a smart romance -- (there, I said it OUT LOUD!) but I do hate the manufactured misunderstanding crap like wow and my word.

There's just no need for all of that stumbling -- most of us stumble in more subtle, realistic ways anyway, and most of the time, you can't step in the metaphorical stream twice anyway, so what's with the "eons later, gaunt lips meet" crap? Once people are gone -- especially years down the line, no matter how romantic it would be to think otherwise, aren't they gone? I dunno, could be I have no faith in True Love. But sheesh.

storyqueen said...

I laughed out loud at the book covers! I couldn't decide which I liked better, but I have to admit that Scottie McMullett is kind of hot. It made me kind of want to write a fake romance story based on one of the covers.......I Married a Sissy Boy is just BEGGING to be written!

Anyway, I absolutely love a good LOVE story....who doesn't? It makes me feel something as a reader. The best books are the ones that make you feel.

Sometimes I used to think it would be fun to write a big, sprawling love story, but I'd need the right pen name. Romance writers have great names.

Laini Taylor said...

hee hee, Storyqueen, yeah, Lord of the Hissy Fit has a pretty nice chest, too!

Deva, several of your titles are totally on my [updated to add] list! I also liked Lament and am dying to read Spellhunter!!!

Tone, I agree there must be some hardship, and it's hard to pull off -- to make it seem not manufactured, like Deva says, the "stupid plot." But there are plenty of books I enjoyed that employ the same plot devices I mock. It's just the difference of good writing!

Tanita, "eons later, gaunt lips meet." (snort!) :-)

And Lexi, I'm with you on the perfect guy solving poor girl's problems. Blech.

I guess it's hard to write a smart romance! So many potential pits and snares.

andalucy said...

I read A Company of Swans on your recommendation and loved it. I'll have to check out Black Jewels Trilogy. I was an Eng major too so I'll prepare myself for the guilt.

So, would you call Jane Austen "romance"? Somehow that doesn't quite fit, does it? It doesn't fit the guilty pleasure category. Anyway, that's the kind of romance I like. Spirited, smart, flawed heroines. My fav romantic hero would be like Henry Tilney--funny, a little naughty, but good at heart.

One thing I appreciated about A Company of Swans was the lack of sex scenes. I would not object to well-written sex scenes, but I have yet to read one that doesn't come across as scary, ludicrous, or just... wrong.

xegbp said...

I am with you on the goopy love, I like smart romances. One of my favorites that has two romances that I love is The World to Come by Dara Horn. I loved the Time Travelers wife and I know I will get flack for this but I absolutley did not see it as a romance. I thought the relationship between the two leads was depressing and disturbing. Alex will not even talk to me about it, I think she actually hung up on me when I tried to explain my thoughts.
One of my other favorites is Jane Austin's Persuasion, which you must hate because the lovers are seperated for a very long time. You always have such fun topics, wish I was in Portland and we could sit down over coffee and discuss romance stories.

Laini Taylor said...

Calandria, YES, Jane totally counts -- without any guilt! And how funny about Company of Swans. Part of what I liked about is was that there was sex! But yeah, it was hinted at, not graphic. You're right. So many sex scenes are just creepy. (I don't know if you should try Black Jewels, though. You'll probably shudder and never listen to another one of my recommendations!)

And Xegbp, I wish you were too! I actually love Persuasion. Like I said, good writing is all. I'll have to try the Dara Horn book. And I don't totally disagree with you about Time Traveler's. I can see your point, but I still thought it was romantic!

Kiersten White said...

Oh, I Married a Sissy Boy is going to have to go to the top of my to-be-read list. Sorry, Blackbringer. You'll be very next, I promise.

I used to think I wouldn't be able to write romance in my books (notice that's romance in my books, not romance books) because it would feel too voyeuristic to imagine those feelings for other people.

Turns out I only like writing books with romance in them. A little bit (or a lot) makes everything more interesting. But you're right--it has to be grounded in reality (even if it's in fantasy, or paranormal, or whatever) in order for it to have that spark.

That, or it has to have a sissy boy.

Stephanie Perkins said...

OHMY#$%&. I Married A Sissy Boy. Yes, that's totally the best one.

Okay. Granted, I'm a huge Diana Gabaldon fan, and her books DO break your long-icky-separation rule (which I hate too, I SWEAR, I really really do), but . . . give her another chance! Yes, there is rippage, but she is a smart smart SMART writer. And the series just explodes with awesomeness. The third one, Voyager, is my favorite, but I enjoyed losing myself in all of them.

Mary Stewart is one of my all-time favs. She writes wonderful thrillers set in exotic locations with a dash of romance. Moonspinners is great (set in Greece), and I also highly recommend Nine Coaches Waiting (set in France).

My favorite YA romance writers: Maureen Johnson, Rachel Cohn (I sooo wish I had written her Gingerbread series), Sarah Dessen, and (the queen) Meg Cabot. And I don't know if I've ever heard anyone say it, but I think John Green writes romances too ;)

Sharon Shinn writes great romantic fantasy. Her YA series that starts with The Safe-Keeper's Secret is wonderful (and I always feel bad that they got lame covers, because the writing is lovely). I also liked her adult book, Summers at Castle Auburn, and I've heard great things about the rest of her books too (I just haven't gotten to them yet).

Banana Yoshimoto writes achingly beautiful short love stories. I'd start with Kitchen, it's my favorite.

I loooove Katie Fforde. She's as close to real romance novels as I get (technically, I've heard them referred to both as Women's Fiction and Chick Lit), but they're these cozy English novels with kooky girls building gardens or starting baking business or fixing up old cottages or whatnot and handsome, slightly grouchy men and lots of tea and wine drinking. I. LOVE. THEM. Candy candy candy! (If anyone is interested, try Restoring Grace, Highland Fling, or Stately Pursuits.)

And for anyone reading this who likes chick lit, Marian Keyes is brilliant. Her series with the Walsh sisters is fantastic. You don't have to read them in order, so I'd start with Anybody Out There? or Rachel's Holiday. Her books aren't swoopy romances, but they are romantic and very SMART.

And yes, of course, Jane!

And a million more. Sigh! Romance.

(Yeah, you totally knew I had a lot to say on this one, didn't you? I'll stop now, but I could go all day.)

Stephanie Perkins said...

And I'm still barfing about Preshy.

andalucy said...

Oh, were those sex scenes?! ;-) But, you know what I mean, right? It was tasteful and romantic instead of SILLY like most of them.

Oh, I meant to add: Yay for Small Human! Wait until s/he starts pushing the little foot between your ribs.

R.J. Anderson said...


You have harrowed my soul.

Also, I have to heartily second the recommendations for Mary Stewart. Love her. Love love love love love. Try THIS ROUGH MAGIC or MADAM, WILL YOU TALK or TOUCH NOT THE CAT... now that is how smart, suspenseful romance is done. And it doesn't depend on any of the parties leaping to wrong conclusions and running off in tears because they happened to spot the object of their affections being kissed by someone else, or any of those other cliches that I find so annoying.

Laini Taylor said...

Ooh, so many good recommendations! I'm making a list! Maybe I should make a master link list and post it? But not until AFTER I get some work done today!!!

Anonymous said...

I have to line up with Stephanie about Diana G- read them all and though you do get all the quicksand stage stops, she is superb . . . Sex is not essential for me as opposed to 'romance' or can we just call it 'chemistry'. I've put otherwise good books down that, once in the realm of physical contact, had the characters we thought we knew and loved (or at least cared about) doing things that were just down right . . . EW! Don't get me wrong, I'm no prude I like voyeurism via sizzling prose as much as the next girl but isn't it just better when the writing takes into account our brains?

Laini, I just love your description and like xegbp, I would love to join a group with you--Suz

Amber Lough said...

I wasn't going to comment this time b/c I seem to always comment and people probably think I'm some sort of crazy woman, BUT I snorted while reading this post and HAD to comment. Tee hee! I love the Blind and Buttonless Horseman. Do these covers really work on women? Does it really make them buy the books?? I just don't get it. If, for whatever reason, I was going to read a book like that, I'd wrap it up in a paper bag.

Who are these people that read these books? I would like them to explain it to me, so that I can understand them. I just hate being so judgmental.

Romance is lovely, when it's done right. Thank you (the posters, too) for giving out some great suggestions so I don't waste my time reading mindless, boring rippage.

BTW, I was a Russian major, so the books we read weren't what I'd call "fun," either, although I do love me some Dostoyevsky.

Rachael King said...

As I started reading this post I immediately thought of Captain Corelli... and yes, they Hollywoodized the ending. But I love that book so much I forgave it everything.

And I'm with you on The Time Traveller's Wife. I gave it to my boyfriend to read and I swear it brought us closer together. (Now married!)

Laini Taylor said...

Amber, I know. They're pure escapism, I guess. I remember seeing a woman on a talk show once who read ONE A DAY!!! And it's not that I didn't enjoy the great lit I read as an English major, it's just so *exclusive* and the whole experience kind of trains you to snub popular fiction. I was such a snob. Thank God that's past!

And Rachael, Captain Corelli! WHY??? The book was so good, but all I remember clearly now is the hideous thing he did at the end. Time Traveler's Wife=wonderful. I gave it to Jim too, and it totally BROKE him and he was so mad at me (he kept hoping for a miraculous happy ending), but in the end, he loved it. YOUR book has a great romance in it too, in a completely not-embarrassing or guilty way :-)

Debbie Barr said...

I, too, am an English major. I don't deny I like fantasy, and books with some romance in them (I've never been a big fan of all romance), but I am always scared to do such things around other English majors. Or, heaven forbid, English Professors. ;)

Also, those romance book covers are just wonderful. :)

Stella said...

Oh, I love romance in a novel, too, but NOT "romance novels" - not those bodice rippers that make me want to stick a finger down my throat and get it over with. I loved The Time Traveler's Wife, too (one of my favorite reads) but also enjoyed Melissa Marr's The Wicked Lovely, Kirby Larson's, Hattie Big Sky, Catherine Murdock's The Dairy Queen (what a great character D.J. was) and the Elizabeth Bunce's A Curse Dark As Gold (what a delicious romance). I've never written romance before so this was an especially interesting post for me because a romance scene is waiting for me down the pike and I'm shaking in my slippers.

Great post! Thanks so much!


Em said...

I'm trying to think back to when I read Eva Ibbotsen's books. I really didn't like one of them, and I'm thinking it was SONG OF SUMMER. It just seemed a bit off.

And those covers are hilarious! :)

Colleen said...

My son's primary nurse when we were in Children's Hosp three years ago was named Precious. When she first introduced herself I thought I misheard but she was pretty used to that kind of response and repeated her name and pointed to her name tag and yep - she was Precious!

I do have to say she was outstanding - amazing in every possible way. So I learned not to judge people by their names although really, you have to wonder why on Earth her parents did that to her!

Laini Taylor said...

Yeah, Colleen, I have a completely different attitude regarding judging actual people by their names and characters! When an author does it, it just says so much about the kind of book, but with an actual person, not so much. I've heard/read some snippets this year about courts intervening in the cases of really unforgivable naming of babies, like some White Supremacists who named their children Adolf Hitler and Aryan Nation!!!

Earthmamagoddess said...

ohhh so so excited to hear about the Small Human and all the burbeling about happening...the first time it is so magical and makes me gush....it is my favorite part of being pregnant, feeling the baby.

thirding Diana G....smart, and while totally agreeing with you on the STUPID ripped apart bs....it only happens a bit in her books and the sex is just right not too harlequin or throbbing with members etc. just REAL. lovely moments and my most favorites.

Also time travelers wife is my other favorite book EVER and I seriously avoided the ending twice b/c I was so upset. It is so well done.

Love this list of great reading ideas, and just so thrilled for you and Jim.

Anonymous said...

I had the same response to Outlander.

The romance story line that gets me absolutely irate--not that i enjoy your pet peeve much, either--is when the woman is unhappily married and finds perfect happiness with the sensitive and intuitive man she has an affair with and then gets the courage to leave her husband and continues to have perfect relationship with man from the affair. Complete Garbage.

Amber said...

Made me giggle. hehehe

I went through is period in college, when I was reading ONLY silly romance. Don't know why. Just needed to not think much,maybe. But I learned to have a little love for them. But i haven't read a really "guilty" one in a long time! Maybe I should. lol

For guilty pleasure, I love Philipa Gregory books, "The Other Boleyn Girl"...But I'm not sure thats really "romance".

Best historical romance, "Forever Amber". Read it today. Although, SHE is sort of an asshat, I gotta tell you. LOL


Anonymous said...

Really need to read Time Traveler's Wife and Outlander. And I agree about Forever Amber...love that book.

Anonymous said...

Really need to read Time Traveler's Wife and Outlander. And I agree about Forever Amber...love that book.

Emily J. Griffin said...

Something that really annoys me about romances, especially when it comes to YA is the "insta-love" factor.

New boy moves to town, girl speaks to him twice, suddenly they cannot live without one another. Bleck!

I get the whole YA, everything's magnified ten-fold bit (I'm still about 14 years old when it comes to sappy love), but it is just so over the top sometimes!

As for Time Traveler's Wife, The Sugar Queen and A Certain Slant of Light-- those are three of my favs. I think if forced to choose a singular all-time favorite book, it might end of being The Time Traveler's Wife.

Oh, and can books please just show up wherever I go at exactly the point when I need them?

violetismycolor said...

I absolutely rolled on the floor, laughing at those covers!

Chantele Sedgwick said...

Those covers are awesome!;) Congratulations if there is indeed a small human swimming in side of you!:)

Deirdre said...

I read my full allotment of romance novels in my teen years - gasp, sigh. Now I know a little romance goes a long way.

The Outlander books are just plain fun. I've read all of them, some several times. And yes, there's a bit of ripping apart, but it's always followed by some really good coming back together. And history and politics and adventure.

Connie Onnie said...

I had wondered if you had ever blogged about A Company of Swans. How fun to find this old post with its great comments and recommendations. I LOVE LOVE LOVE The Sugar Queen!