Take Me, You Brute!
Beating our tiny fists against the broad, unyielding chest of the paperback romance.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Compendium of the Classic
It has ever been my intention to delineate the Characters, Plots and Metaphorical Language that make up the DNA of every romance novel. Unfortunately the scraps of paper from which to produce this conspectus are scattered willy-nilly like the "indeed"'s in a Stephanie Laurens Regency. It's time for the virtual jotting.

Hero. The ship captain. Generally the wayward son of a noble family. Girl is kidnapped or stowaway or cabin boy with artful disguise. Pirates/Captain of enemy ship may take Girl hostage. There must be a storm or a barrage or cannonballs. Girl probably falls overboard or is injured in storm/barrage and goes into a delirious fever. Either way, the Captain is forced to acknowledge that he Cares.

Hero. The spy. Also a rogue duke or similar. Invariably a history of distinguished and heroic service of king and country. Damned Girl, always putting herself in the line of fire! She will have to redeem herself by ferrying aristocrats to safety or disguising herself as a commoner--Cockney accent recommended.

Marriages. The marriage because Girl has been compromised. Cruel fate! Yet society demands it. The arranged marriage. The marriage of convenience. The surprise marriage with the Hero who was not the Marrying Kind.

Plots. Girl's irresponsible and eccentric father gambles away the estate. The ever-popular governess who wins the heart of the children's doting uncle or widowed father.

Girls. The spirited ex-tomboy grown to ravishing beauty. The persecuted stepdaughter. The debutante who has tired of the ton. The damsel whose carriage has tipped over or is otherwise in flustered distress. The bluestocking who enlightens the irresistible chauvinist. The physically flawed one: spectacles! plumpness! birthmark! limp! jolie-laide! If ever titled, must always be of lower rank than Hero.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Confessions: Penetrating the Myth (that's "miss" with a lisp)
I guess I'll have to admit this straight off.
I am a fake.

That's right. I'm just one of the guilty dozens who opt out of the rewarding elements of plot, character development, and enlightening historical commentary to instead skip straight to the naughty bits. When I flip through a book, I hope to give the impression of a discerning reader attempting to calculate whether or not a particular novel is worth her time, while really my brain is whizzing as it desperately attempts to tally the total amount of Words With Potential that are flying by: words such as "shaft", "gasp", "strain", "saliva", and "dollop". Once tallied, books with an exceptional number of WWP are placed at the top of my pile and others with no more to recommend them than a depiction of your run-of-the-mill-on-the-floss encounter between a fiery chieftain's daughter and a man wearing a slipping kilt and, well, naught else, are given places of secondary importance.

Don't pretend you've never done the same.

So, as a fledgling would-be connoisseur (yes, that is would-be PLUS fledgling, I am in the most beginning beginning stages) of the genre, I offer the only knowledge I have gleaned thus far - most of the primary sources conveniently located to my right, in a haphazard heap, wherein all evidence may be unearthed by use of the Where The Book Falls Open When You Drop it On a Table test.

Let's do just one today. I don't have time for much, there's a lot on my mind tonight besides king-sized shafts encased in the vice-like grips of involuntary internal muscle contractions.

A Well-Pleasured Lady by Christina Dodd.
Let's just begin by saying that Christina is lucky that she picked a good title, because the cover illustration SUCKS. I'd say it doesn't even count as an illustration; it's nothing more than a rose on a pillow. There's not even any glaring sexual imagery, and certainly no well-formed pectorals or disastrously oversized ball gowns to be had. Lucky for me, though, I can read almost as quickly as I can glance, and I knew immediately that this book had something to offer. Something it was hiding, teasing me with, between its coy, deceptively modest little covers.
Consider the long-awaited (and I mean long-awaited; my thumbs were practically chapped from page-flipping) scene on pages 245 through 262. If there's one thing I love about romance writers, it's that if you wait long enough, they'll reward you with a real doozy of a do. Generally speaking, of course.
"nether cheeks" (no context necessary)
"'You like humiliating me, don't you?' she asked, accusation making her voice tremble."
"'Is this humiliation you're feeling?...It doesn't taste like humiliation."'
"'Don't close your eyes' he warned. 'Don't you dare try and hide from me."'
"'You are abominable.'...'Yes,' he admitted. 'But only with you.'" (see that ellipsis? I won't tell you what goes there, it's too naughty)
"'I'm much better than all the dreams you never allowed yourself.'" (say this to yourself ten times each morning while looking at your reflection in a mirror, then experience a 24-hour supply of confidence and can't-miss animal magnetism!)
"'That's it, sweetheart. That's it... Hot. God!"' (this is a prime example of an author's calculated attempt to build up a sex scene, piling word upon word, until you feel like you're just there, like you're in the moment, and you're all hot-'n-bothered, and then you get rewarded with some hard-hitting, intensely punctuated prose-gasm. Talk about satisfaction)
"He'd changed the prim housekeeper into a creature of fire and light. What a triumph to take her so far... on her first time."

You get the gist. Basically, this scene is exciting and unique because not only does he roughly deflower a virgin in a strategic move to ensure her marriage to him (see? I do read some of the plotty parts), but he also pins her into a corner, lifts up her petticoat until she orgasms, puts his head between her knees and talks demeaningly for a while until she orgasms, and then flips her around, slams her against the wall - "When had he opened his breeches?" - and looks intensely into her eyes until she orgasms again, twice more.
Friday, July 6, 2007
One Night For Love, by Mary Balogh
I have just come up with a genius new term for a romance novel you don't finish: Codex Interruptus*. I know, I know, codex isn't that kind of book but it is a kind of book and therefore I am brilliant. This is the third brilliant thing I've done today, the others being putting fresh raspberries in my cottage cheese, and giving up on One Night For Love.

I may roll my eyes at those irrepressible bad boys who co-star in most of these novels, but I sure do miss 'em when they're gone. Neville Wyatt is so, so earnest and pure-hearted that he's almost transparent. A beautiful blond major fighting Napoleon in Portugal, he finds himself drawn to his commanding officer's winsome daughter, Lily Doyle. When commanding-officer is wounded and dying, Neville nobly volunteers to marry her, to protect her from Rape at the hands (erm) of the French. He is as good as his word: the next day he marries her, they admit they've been in love all along, and they have One Night For (remarkable, transcendental) Love. Why only One Night? Because the next day Lily is shot, Neville rushes to her side, gets shot himself, and falls unconscious knowing that Lily is dead. Or is she...?

She's not, and she shows up soon enough, right as Neville is about to remarry, and he of course does the honorable thing and stops everything and reinstates Lily as his wife. If he had had her kicked out of the church and married the bride-in-waiting I might have been able to finish this book, but he didn't, so I couldn't. I must shake my head and sigh in unison with Roger Daltrey, "Lily, oh, Lily," for I thought this kind of heroine had come, none too soon, to extinction half a century ago. Lily is what Little Eva from Uncle Tom's Cabin would be if Little Eva had grown up and got laid. She's whimsical and philosophical and she's always doing eccentric things like running barefoot on the beach and befriending peasants.

You see, Lily doesn't come from this stilted English class system. They're so insular they can't recognize their unnaturalness, their rigidity! This illiterate army brat charms the pants off the populace with her impulsivity and homespun wisdom. Her life has been so hard (more later) that she is filled with insight beyond her years, a veritable Chicken Soup for the Regency Soul. She flits around being charmingly astonished at things like servants and parasols, and in general devotes herself to spreading sunshine where'er she goes. But don't by any means get the impression that she is one-dimensional. For between the time of her supposed death and the time of her reappearance, Lily was...Raped.

I think romance writers are trying to atone for the years in which heroes routinely raped heroines into falling in love with them. Now every other one you pick up has a heroine who has been raped and a hero who must fix her. It goes something like this: Hero is passionately embracing Rapee. Rapee suddenly snaps and begins sobbing and clawing like a wild animal. Hero stops immediately and says, "My darling! Someone...has hurt you! Tell me who it was and I'll kill him!" Rapee demurs and sobs in Hero's arms. Hero reflects sagely that whoever is planning on loving Rapee will have to do it right gingerly for a while. Rapee confides that what would really make her feel better is to have sex with Hero. Hero obliges, reminding Rapee through gritted teeth that he will willingly pull out at any time. Rapee assures him that it is not necessary and presently orgasms. Hero orgasms too. Hooray! Rapee has been cured! Now she's up for anything!

This asininity has been regurgitated for Neville and Lily, and spread as far as it could go. I don't know how many times we heard Neville say, "Would it help to talk about it?" and watched Lily bite her lip and shake her head. But even Rape can only take you so far with a Boy Scout and a Pollyanna, and 200 pages in, when Ms. Balogh divulged that there was a plot against Lily's life, I curtsied and murmured, "Uncle."

*Yeah, so I googled it and unfortunately it's been done. But I didn't know that when I made it up!

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Thursday, July 5, 2007
Shadows and Lace, by Teresa Medeiros
I cut my pearly white teeth on Teresa Medeiros' Breath of Magic and Touch of Enchantment. I read them both in the same afternoon, slack-jawed at the euphemistic (but thorough) sex scenes, and confused by the all the morality: The heroine was a virgin? They got married before they had sex? They got married, period? Where was the unrepentant sleaze I had been led to expect? I took comfort in the other romance novel truism: they were crappy, so crappy as to exceed all expectations. Not only was the natural order of the universe therefore undisturbed, but I was now freed to read any romance novel bearing the Sword of Irony and the Shield of Self-Deprecation.

From that day my triumphant strides have led me to Julie Garwood, Johanna Lindsey, Lisa Kleypas, Lisa Jackson, Christina Dodd, Jo Beverly, Amanda Quick, and many other standard-bearers of the romance genre, but I had yet to reencounter Mme. Medeiros.

Imagine, then, my disappointment as I curled up with Shadows and Lace: it wasn't that bad. The only genuine snicker was prompted by the cover art, and that's always a freebie anyway. Oh, there was the occasional "'tis" and a few French phrases, but not enough to make one lose one's place casting one's eyes up to the heavens.

So, you know the drill: cowardly father gambles away virgin daughter to mysterious peer/pirate/riverboat gambler, virgin daughter's lashes tremble with unshed tears, erstwhile untameable hero reforms just enough to return her (but not enough to take the edge off that sex appeal), she comes back like a starry-eyed boomerang, he discovers he can't imagine life without her, near-mortal injury or illness recommended but not required.

The dark and brooding Sir Gareth of Caerleon wins the use of Lady Rowena Fordyce for a year. Don't worry--he won't use her in that way; he's too busy bedding everything else in a skirt. Little does Rowena know that his heart is enclosed in a wall of guilt and pain. Just a hint: it involves statutory rape, near-incest, and murder. Who can soften (and then harden) such a man? Perhaps a petite, kittenish blonde, who is given to falling asleep in the cutest places, getting into scrapes, and looking just adorable when she's angry.

But what's this little innocent to make of his seedy past? Rowena muses, "God does not fight on behalf of the guilty." Since Gareth is so powerful and successful, does that not mean he is innocent? And he's so masterful... Gareth, jaded (but of course!) by all the hot lovin' he's been getting, finds himself yearning for an inexperienced coquette (read: cocktease), and he sure can pick 'em. During their first encounter? "'Fill me,' she whispered. 'Now.'" This in spite of an established and belabored disparity in their sizes--like, on the lines of lion and pussycat.

Rowena's remarkable facility is enough to keep Gareth saving her charming rump [sic] for 300-odd pages, but they pass readily enough. A jealous lesbian and a soupçon of BDSM, a cultivated tolerance for heroines who stamp their feet and pout, and a steady trickle of incredulity that someone would write a romance novel with such a dark subplot, allowed me to come--at last--full circle, and achieve closure with Teresa Medeiros.

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The Burning Seed
SHE had always longed to write her doctoral thesis on the romance-novel archetype, for indeed, there were no novel romances, and neither did she desire them.

HER FAMILY mocked her cherished dreams, cruelly forcing her to read the classics, or books of cultural signigicance--but they could not break her spirit.

HER SISTER, in the fullness of time, blossomed into appreciation or rakes, rogues, and roués; of spears, swords, and shafts; of waves, whirlpools, and waterfalls of ecstasy; of raised purple-gilt lettering.

TOGETHER, they could not deny their destiny. In the end, nothing could keep them from...THE BLOG.