E-Love Fairy Dust

More happy reading experiences, this time featuring electronic communication.

There are lots of debates around Romanceland about the importance of accuracy in historical romance, but far fewer that are obviously about “temporal” accuracy in contemporary romance. If you pay attention, though, the discussions are there: the complaints about idealized small towns where Walmart hasn’t killed the mom and pop businesses (a Mayberry nod seems timely today); about authors who don’t get various professions right; about characters who don’t talk or act like real twenty- or thirty-somethings today.

I’ve read many contemporary romances where the characters may occasionally talk on the phone, but don’t e-mail, text or IM. Even middle-aged moms like me arrange dates with friends and family primarily by text or e-mail these days. If my teen and I are doing it, young lovers should be too (oh man, that came out wrong). So it was refreshing to enjoy a couple of books where the couples fell in love partly via contemporary electronic communication.  

Sophie Kinsella, I’ve Got Your Number (audio narrated by Jayne Entwistle)

I have Issues with chick lit. The humor is often too slapstick for my taste, and too much at the expense of the heroine; it relies on her being a bigger idiot than any woman I know. As with reality TV, the cringe humor makes me anxious, not amused. Kinsella’s Shopaholic series is on my “never in a million years” list based on the title alone. On the other hand, I enjoyed Remember Me? a kind of anti-chick lit in which the heroine awakens after an accident to find she’s forgotten the last three years of her life. In the interim she had accomplished every Bridget Jones clone’s dream: the make-over, the dream job and the hot guy. But she doesn’t much like the person she’s become in the process. The story raised surprisingly complex and engaging questions about the nature of success and happiness.

So when I saw people giving good reviews to I’ve Got Your Number and highlighting the texts between Poppy and Sam as a big part of the charm, I decided to try it (I love epistolary novels, and this has a lot of those elements updated). It’s hard to give a detailed review of an audiobook, so I refer you to the links above. Entwistle’s slightly breathless and girlish style was perfect for the Poppy’s first-person narration. At times Poppy’s insecurity, obtuseness, and meddling in Sam’s life (she finds his former PA’s discarded phone and begins reading and responding to his e-mails) drove me nuts, but in audio, where I could be doing something else as I listened, the annoyance was never too great. I loved the urban (London) setting and Poppy’s circle of friends, both of which are common in chick lit but can be harder to find in contemporary romance.

The way that Poppy and Sam get to know and like each other via texts and other electronic means did indeed feel contemporary; Kinsella did a great job of giving them distinct and appropriate voices in these various modes of communication. Each has something to learn from the other, but while they initially seem like opposites, they also turn out to have a fair bit in common. The book is funny–I may have laughed out loud while walking the dog–and sweet, with great chemistry between Poppy and Sam even though they aren’t physically together for much of the time. I’d love to see more of this kind of slow-developing relationship and “conversation” and less insta-lust and sex in romance.

Delphine Dryden, How to Tell a Lie

Allison (Psychology) and Seth (Economics) are professors whose research work takes them into online multiplayer games. [Note: these people are way too secure and work far too few evening and weekend hours to be fully believable very-early-career academics, which at 30ish they would be; but I don’t know that I’d want to read about them if they were. The research parts were good, though.]  I know nothing about this world, but Dryden made it feel authentic to me: she captured the appeal without poking fun at characters for being geeky. Allie’s work is on cues that someone is lying in non-face-to-face communication, and this theme is woven throughout the story in really clever ways: she’s aware not only of when Seth is lying to her (almost never) but when she’s lying to him/herself (more often) about she wants.

They meet in the game and then discover at the story’s opening that they work at the same place in real life and can see each other from their office windows. Their online, anonymous flirting has been safe for Allie, in particular, and she’s wary about moving into a real life relationship. They have cyber sex (via message and voice chat) after they meet but before they have “real” sex. I thought Dryden used the online interactions really effectively to keep the sexual tension going even in a “hot” book where sex is part of the relationship early on, something that can be hard to pull off. It also meant that the chemistry between them was intellectual and emotional as well as purely sexual, which I loved and don’t see enough. The ending felt abrupt and a more tentatively hopeful resolution would have been more convincing at that point in the relationship than what we got, but I smiled my way through this book.

What I enjoyed about both these books was that the “epistolary” elements created a fun, flirty chemistry between the characters, something I also found in the e-mails in Barbara Hannay’s Molly Cooper’s Dream Date (reviewed in the epistolary link above). I’d love recommendations for more books with a relationship that develops in part via texts, e-mails, etc. (and yes, I know that’s a much-praised aspect of A Certain Trilogy).

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16 Responses to E-Love Fairy Dust

  1. willaful says:

    I don’t remember exactly how the epistolary element plays into the romance in Attachments — that is, if there’s an online exchange between the hero & heroine — but it was a terrific book. I think you’d like it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I did love it (in fact it’s in the review link with the Hannay book) but don’t think they really talk to each other–he reads her e-mail to her friend. So it doesn’t have that flirty interaction. You know, I got that book from the library but I am going to have to buy a copy so I can re-read. Even if they don’t e-flirt with each other.

  2. willaful says:

    Remember Me is the only Kinsella book I’ve really liked. (I have similar issues with chicklit.) Will have to try IGYN.

  3. Cristin Harber says:

    I never thought about electronics in romance before. I can’t recall reading any where it plays a role, but it does make sense. I think it would be so much more prevalent in YA (though I don’t read any) than adult contemporary because that’s the way teens fall. Adults may use their smart phones to plan play dates but teens live through their cells. Great post.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Cristin. I don’t read much YA either but there must be some books that at least reference texting! I loved Jaclyn Moriarty’s YA Year of Secret Assignments but it’s pre-texting, I think. It’s a mix of letters, diary entries, e-mails, etc. between the characters, some of whom become romantically involved. I teach college and all my students now text non-stop. I expect they will as they get older, too.

  4. VacuousMinx says:

    Steve Kluger’s Almost Like Being in Love is a wonderful gay romance that is a mishmash of journal entries, letters, snippets of conversation and other documents. It’s really hard to describe but try out the sample and see what you think. No explicit stuff.

    I bought the Dryden book because of you. I expect to like it. 😉

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I bought it because of willaful! The fairy dust is really flying. It was a great cranky-day read, short, fun, hot and mostly satisfying.

      I really enjoyed the Kluger book I read, so I should try that one.

  5. Rohan says:

    I hated Confessions of a Shopaholic but for some reason was willing to try Twenties Girl (I think some kind person on Twitter suggested it, actually) and enjoyed it — I think I’ll look up Remember Me now. It’s funny how fast technology dates things. Maddie and I have been watching the original Beverly Hills 90210 on Netflix and the ‘laptop’ computers and car phones look too funny now, though when the show first ran they were all the coolest gadgets (and what else would they be, in Beverly HIlls!).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wondered as I wrote this whether authors avoid references to cell phones, texting, etc. because they might make the books seem dated in a few years. But the result is that I often read new books that feel dated NOW, or just as if they are set out of time. I’d rather read a book that seemed of it’s time.

      My husband and I watched some of the first season of Miami Vice recently, and OMG dated! But part of the fun was that it was so much of its time. We also talked a lot about what kinds of mystery/thriller plots are and are not possible now that “everyone” has a phone on them all the time, among other things.

      • Rohan Maitzen says:

        Think of You’ve Got Mail! Though I find it mostly charming despite the overly saccharine ending, it’s a good example of how trying to be very current can rapidly make you just the opposite. 19th-century novels that mention gas lights or the railway or the telegraph are early examples of trying to keep the technology up to date, and ultimately they last because, as you say, they are clearly of their own time.

  6. LVLMLeah says:

    I remember really enjoying and and even pointing out in a review the use of email in Homecoming by Elizabeth Jennings published in 2006. I noticed it because like you’ve mentioned, it’s rare to read these things in romance. It didn’t play a role in the romance itself but was used to show how stressed the heroine was by modern day corporate non stop contact with clients.

    However, I stopped reading Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone mysteries because she wouldn’t bring Kinsey into the 21st century; keeping her using an old Corona typewriter instead growing and using a cell phone and computer. Of course she’s only aging her 1 year every few books so she’s still in the early 90’s I think even though books are still currently coming out. But still the books started to fee really dated and it bothered me. In that case the use and constant mention of older technology as a focal point in the story turned me off.

    Maybe like you say above, authors try to avoid being too specific for fear of dating? Technology is changing so quickly now that even mention of AOL or MySpace or something like that would make readers laugh maybe.

    At what point does a technology mentioned in a book become cool retro vs. loser dated? Hard to say. For me Anything written pre 70’s is cool retro like the mention of an 8 track tape, whereas if a cassette tape is mentioned I feel uncomfortable and it feels boring dated.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Grafton’s an interesting example. It’s hard to keep a long-running series realistic if your character ages along with your readers: how old would Kinsey be now, if she’s been kept up to date? So there’s a way in which keeping the books back in time allows her to keep Kinsey believable. (Ian Rankin did his Rebus books in real time, right? which is why Rebus eventually had to retire.) Your last paragraph maybe hints at how this will ultimately play out: once the 80s are far enough back, Kinsey’s world will be cool again!

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Back in time is one thing, but In the late 80s I started college with a typewriter and ended with a computer. I’m thinking of Reginald Hill whose series started in the 60s, I think, and who somehow dodged this problem by updating the characters and setting without worrying about what exact year it was or whether their time was moving at a realistic rate. Though being not very tech-heavy was one way to manage that.

  7. My experience has been that there are an awful lot of authors who have very very little knowledge of technology and appear to be resistant to obtaining it too. I say that as an author, but I’m just observing. I’ve never done a survey. My day job is in tech so in general I am surrounded by people who get tech. It’s hard for me to judge whether, in general, authors are more or less tech-ignorant as a group. I suspect they are, though.

    Again, observationally only, I have seen author say some stunningly wrong things in regard to their daily use and interpretation of technology. Further, they speculate on technology in ways that bear no relation to how computer systems actually work. Here’s an example: some authors were speculating about the receipt of payments from Amazon. The assumption was that invoices must be generated alphabetically and when it became apparent that the receipt of invoices appeared to be random there were suggestions that Amazon was somehow deliberately interfering.

    In my day job, I design and maintain production database systems for the enterprise. Although I don’t work for Amazon and have never seen their exact set up, there’s basically a vanishingly small chance that invoices would be generated alphabetically. I can think of several ways this would happen, and alphabetical is not on the list for this data. Further, there are several outside factors, over which Amazon would have zero control, that would affect receipt of an email.

    I was surprised by the number of people who persisted in the conspiracy theory and refused to accept another possibility. There’s a bigger issue, which is 1) theory = Amazon sends out invoices in alphabetical order. 2) Objective evidence = receipt of invoices is not alphabetical. The proper conclusion is not that Amazon is conspiring. The proper conclusion is that Amazon does not generate invoices alphabetically (or that if they do, some other process interferes with alphabetical receipt).

    Obviously, there was surely a silent group of authors who understood the absurdity of the conspiracy theory of complex computing systems, but quite plainly there are authors who are not on solid ground in their ability to process facts. No wonder there are books that make readers say “WTF?”

    Writing, in my opinion, requires an understanding of theory and supporting evidence. How can you build a believable world if you don’t understand theory, hypothesis and evidence?

    There is a base level of understanding that an author needs and if she does not have it, RESEARCH. Yet time and again I read contemporary stories where computers are misused in ways that are fundamentally wrong. Half an hour on Google would solve that.

    As to the use of technology, good heavens, yes. I communicate by text with my son and even a lot with my friends. I have, as I think most parents have, sat in my room and texted my son who is in the next room.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      They sound just like some of my colleagues who would rather ban tech from the classroom than figure out how to make it work there. I count myself as pretty tech-ignorant, but like almost everyone of every age I know, I am now smartphone dependent. And if tech is in your book, you should research that as much as anything else.

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