June is always a busy month: I scramble to finish as much of my work as I can before my kids are done with school, amidst all their end-of-year activities. This year’s June included travel (followed by days of nasty sinus headache) and a teachers’ strike that meant my daughter had random days off and then got out of school two weeks early. So looking through my reading journal, I’m surprised to see how much I read and listened to, and with how much pleasure. This month’s reading successes and failures also have me thinking about how the “romance reader” label fits me now, and what place romance has in my reading life.
Romance (your mama’s kind?)
I really enjoyed the older romances I read and listened to this month: Joan Smith’s A Highwayman Came Riding, a selection of Heyer (Pistols for Two, Charity Girl and currently The Black Moth on audio), and Mary Burchell’s Take Me With You.
The Heyer novels really aren’t genre romance–certainly not in today’s sense. In Charity Girl, which is sort of a friends to lovers story, Desford and Hetta are apart for almost the whole book. Desford’s attempts to find a home for the runaway ingenue, Cherry, and the comic characters he meets along the way, are the main focus, and it’s through taking this responsibility that he grows up and realizes he loves Hetta. It’s a funny story (narrator Daniel Philpott is particularly good at rendering Cherry’s awful, self-centered father and her grandfather’s housekeeper-turned-wife) but not really romantic. And yet I found Des’s declaration of love to be more gut-punchingly moving than any romance ending I’ve read recently–maybe because Heyer dropped only subtle clues to his change of heart, giving his realization more impact.
I’m not very far into The Black Moth–which I think I was reading on my way to my first year of college but never finished–but it’s an ensemble piece, and the familial relationships are more central than any romantic ones so far.
I got the Mary Burchell book from Open Library, which I signed up for after Willaful’s great post on her reading from it. (I chose Burchell because readers whose taste I often share, especially Sunita, love her). If you told me about Take Me With You, I’d say “no thanks.” A Mills & Boon from the 40s with a naive 18-year-old heroine (raised in an orphanage, no less!) and a wealthy, sophisticated older hero? To top it off, Leoni and Lucas first meet when she’s 9 and he’s about 20, which has the potential to be icky (though they both remember this encounter, they don’t meet again for 9 years).
But Leoni is not a doormat, and Lucas isn’t an alphahole, and although the plot (which I won’t spoil, because the twists genuinely surprised me) has the makings of high melodrama, Burchell’s style is understated. Her characterization is psychologically astute; she made me believe that Lucas would respond to his Dark Secret as he does, that Leoni, growing up in an institution, might be observant and wise beyond her years, and that this would make her attractive to men other than Lucas. She could seem like a Mary Sue, but she doesn’t. The secondary characters like the orphanage matron, Leoni’s friend Julia, and the family she lives with in London, are interesting too; Leoni (whose point of view we see from, as is typical of older Mills & Boon books) is part of a world that feels real, and she’s not isolated from everyone but the hero.
The resolution to the conflict turns on a giant, deus ex machina coincidence, but I didn’t care because Leoni rescues Lucas both emotionally and practically and it was awesome and sweet. I loved this. The voice reminded me a bit of Betty Neels and a bit of mid-century British children’s books I loved like Noel Streatfeild’s or Ruby Ferguson’s; I think that comforting familiarity was part of my pleasure. And since I borrowed a collection of three Burchell novels, I’ll be going on a mini-glom.
I read more of Meljean Brook’s Kraken King serial; I’ve still got two parts to go. I do find the serial format makes it easy for me to get distracted. I’m enjoying the adventure and world-building. And the romance is fine, really it is–I like both Zenobia (a lot!) and Ariq, and I think they belong together. But I feel like every romance move, unlike the adventure ones, is predictable and telegraphed (she thinks about how she needs to be free; oh look, he lets her be free; they think/talk about how he lets her be free). I think this response has more to do with me than a weakness in the book, but this type of overt, insistent flagging of the emotional/romantic arc is a big part of why more recent romances aren’t working well for me right now. They feel so unsubtle. Smith, Heyer, and Burchell trust me to reach my own conclusions more of the time.
Still, I feel the pull back to reading more romance. I think that I’m just done with my romance-reading honeymoon phase. I always loved fiction with romantic elements, and when I first “allowed” myself to read genre romance and found the online community that helped me discover it, I wallowed. I loved it all. Finally, books that focused that element I loved! But then I developed/discovered my own taste–and honestly, part of that was taking the genre more seriously and reading it more carefully; I think I used to skim a lot and focus on the emotional high points and expected it to be “trashy.” Now, I expect it to be good, and if a book doesn’t meet those expectations, I’m disappointed. So now I’m pickier, and I’m often more engaged again by books where the romance is one element among many (and that includes genre romance that really develops a full world and gives its characters an arc besides the romantic one). I find a lot of currently popular books too over the top and unsubtle for my taste. Too many use sex as a short-hand for instead of a site of emotional development (I’m not alone in thinking that). But genre romance will remain part of my reading, and I’ll still be looking for romances that engage me. Even recent ones!
This is already more than long enough, so I’ll do a Part II with the other June reading/listening I haven’t yet discussed, including mystery, fantasy and non-fiction. I really liked both Molly Antopol’s short stories and Elizabeth Renzetti’s first novel. It was a diverse and satisfying month of reading.