Genre Trouble: Open Season, by Linda Howard

Linda Howard is a favorite of many long-time romance readers. I’ve tried a few of her novels (all on audio) with mixed success. I don’t think I’ll ever love one of her books. Her alpha-heroes and gender dynamics aren’t really to my taste. But there’s no denying that at her best she’s a great story-teller. I figured a funny Howard might work better for me than an angsty one, so when Open Season became available on Audible, I grabbed it. If you don’t know the story already, check out the back-cover blurb.

I enjoyed it a lot while listening; its blend of romantic comedy and suspense kept me engrossed. But that same blend also left me troubled. 

My favorite part was Midas, Daisy’s puppy. This is our dog, Lucy, the weekend we brought her home. Like Midas, she’s a cream-colored Golden Retriever. And Howard describes such a puppy perfectly, especially the contrast of dark eyes and spectacular blonde lashes. Sure, there’s some clichéd puppy humor in the book (Midas eats Jack’s underwear while he and Daisy are having sex! Jack has to go home commando! sort of LOL), but I couldn’t resist the nostalgia trip. 

A lot of the humor in Open Season is of the “tried and true” variety, really: buying a party-pack of condoms in a small-town drugstore; testing to see if a guy is gay by asking him what mauve is–wait, he might know that from paint chips, try puce. I cringed sometimes at finding it funny. But Howard’s comic timing is good, and some things are tried and true for a reason (the gay stereotypes I could have done without, though they’re kinda-sorta exposed as stereotypes by some plot twists).

Daisy, the mousy librarian who gets a sexy makeover because she’s desperate for a husband and babies, is also an annoying stereotype in some ways. In other ways, she’s absolutely not. At the point where I was sure that Howard was going to stretch out the plot by having Daisy be a TSTL romantic suspense heroine, she doesn’t. Daisy stays right where her ex-SWAT-team (Chicago and New York, because just one of those cities isn’t alpha enough) cop boyfriend tells her to, and she lambastes him for thinking she’d be dumb enough to do otherwise. All the Howard heroines I’ve read have strength and smarts; they’re less stereotypical than they first appear.

Daisy and Jack are opposites who find themselves surprisingly well-suited. Their exchanges are often really funny, and they come to respect each other. But I didn’t buy the condomless sex episode. It may be meant to show that Jack is more ready for a commitment than he thinks, but I can’t believe in smart, mature people who stop to think about the fact that they’re doing it without a condom, then say “what the hell.” Is there a bigger desire-killer than the thought of an unplanned pregnancy? Not in my experience. I hate scenes like this with a passion.

My biggest problem was the way the suspense plot works with the romantic comedy plot. Suspense can be tough to bear on audio, because when the tension builds I’m stuck moving at the speed of the narrator. That was the case here; I was listening on the edge of my seat. But the suspense plot revolves around sex trafficking, and in the end I just wasn’t comfortable with that in an essentially comic novel.

I don’t mean that Howard played human trafficking for laughs. Far from it. The prologue, from the point of view of a young Mexican girl travelling illegally into the US, and finding a far different fate there than she expected, is tense, tragic and all too realistic.  Given the book’s synopsis, it came as a shock. The tone of that scene was utterly different from the rest of the book. After the prologue, we shift to a comic scene of Daisy waking up on her thirty-fourth birthday and deciding to get a makeover. The tension between the two tones and subjects was never satisfactorily resolved for me.

I asked myself why I could swallow murder in a comedy, but not sex trafficking and date rape drugs. I think it’s because when murder is played for laughs, the victim is usually unsympathetic (unless the comedy is really black; the tone of this one is mostly light). But teenage girls tricked into the sex trade on the promise of a better life are pure victims. To put that in a comic setting, even when treating it seriously, somehow seemed to me to belittle it.

It may also have had to do with the nature of the romance plot. When she decides to find a man, Daisy essentially tries to make herself an object of desire. She bleaches her hair, gets a make-up lesson, gets some classy-sexy clothes, and heads to the Buffalo Club. There’s a lot of emphasis on the fact that she’s at risk there, because someone is slipping GHB into women’s drinks. Unbeknownst to her, a friend is using her as bait to catch the rapist; also unbeknownst to her, police chief Jack Russo is watching out for her. In the context of a plot about traffic in young virgins, I guess it made me uneasy to find any of this either funny or romantic.

Daisy isn’t a victim. She develops a plan to get what she wants, carries it through, and triumphs, if not in quite the way she expected. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with her goals, either. But the way she puts herself on the sexual market, placed in a novel that also deals with a market in young girls, is just . . . a little squicky for me. Perhaps the contrast between sex which a woman chooses and sex that is forced on her is the point. But I couldn’t read it that way. I can’t really pinpoint just why this collision of tones and genres troubled me, but it did.

I enjoyed this book, but I’m not sure I could reread it.

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5 Responses to Genre Trouble: Open Season, by Linda Howard

  1. LoriA says:

    I have the book, but never got around to reading it. I really liked Howard at one time, but I think eventually I grew away. Or she did. Or we both grew apart … The two story lines twining together do sound a bit odd and off-key.

    Condoms were very weird at one time. Some authors completely ignored them, because they thought they were unsexy to write about, while some readers knew if there weren’t any condoms, there was going to be an unplanned pregnancy (you can’t have that many secret baby stories yet expect readers to believe the condoms existed even if not mentioned). Anyway, I remember a number of discussions, pro and con, about how readers (and authors) felt about the inclusion or omission of condoms/safe sex. If the scene In this book was such that there was no way for the couple to have condoms around, then maybe Howard just wanted to make sure people would call the H&H stupid for their decision, vs. stupid for not even thinking about safe sex?

    • lizmc2 says:

      They don’t have a condom. And yes, at least they notice! I just find “I can’t stop myself/I don’t want to stop” in this type of situation so unrealistic that I can’t buy it as sexy and romantic, even though I think it is meant that way. If you can stop long enough for a semi-rational discussion about whether to go ahead, you can find some other way to satisfy yourselves. And these people are in their thirties.

      Being careless about the possibility of pregnancy is just not fantasy territory to me. But maybe I’ve been missing out all these years!

      • LoriA says:

        I think there used to be a line between reality and romance that probably did not help the genre’s image. There was a lot of “we got carried away,” and readers read it as romantic. Well, some readers did. 😉

  2. Rosario says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the juxtaposition of the trafficking plot and the comedy. There was something that made me very uncomfortable about it, and I think your explanation is exactly right. Not that I found Howard’s humour particularly funny. I’ve read most of her supposedly funny ones, and the humour always seems a little lame, a little too based on old-fashioned gender dynamics and stereotypes for me to really enjoy. I much prefer it when she’s all about the angst!

  3. kaetrin says:

    It’s been a while since I read this one. I have the audio but haven’t gotten to it yet. From memory, I enjoyed it but liked others better. (I’m not sure I gave it as much thought as you did, but the points you raise are probably why).

    Have you read To Die For? The narrator on audio (Fran Liebow) takes a little getting used to but if you can persist she actually turns out to be great for the story. I read it first and listened last year/earlier this year. Some people detest Blair Mallory – she’s self absorbed, manipulative and gorgeous – very much the stereotypical cheerleader type I believe. Her love interest is Wyatt Bloodsworth and he gives as good as he gets, even though he learns to pick his battles. I found it laugh out loud funny myself, both in print and on audio. If you haven’t tried it and are inclined to, I think you won’t be conflicted by the murder plot – someone is trying to kill Blair. There’s a sequel, Drop Dead Gorgeous also, which I liked but not quite as much as bk1. Joyce Bean narrates that one (she did the first 3 fever series books). Strangely, I ended up preferring Liebow’s narration but I nearly gave up on it rely on. Like I said, I definitely found persisting with her narration style worthwhile. Both books are written from Blair’s first person POV, which is a little different for Howard I think.

    …all this long post and you’ve probably read it and hated it already…. 🙂

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