Recent Reading: Romance

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.




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15 Responses to Recent Reading: Romance

  1. sonomalass says:

    I love the Iron Seas books, as much for the adventure and world building as for the romance. I really like the set-up, and I was thrilled for Zenobia to get a book of her own (which really HAD to be a serial, didn’t it). It scratched my itch for a not traditionally beautiful heroine, too.

    I don’t really see the style difference as a matter of trusting the reader, though. I think the “telegraphing” is a result of getting deep POV from both main characters, which as you note, is not as common in older romance. Certainly it’s not Heyer’s style. I can appreciate both approaches, done well.

    I signed up for Open Library; when I get back from the UK, I will have to peruse their catalog more seriously. We all owe Willaful a big thanks for calling it to our attention!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      You’re right, “trust the reader” isn’t a good way to put it–although sometimes I feel that way reading, that’s attributing motives that I don’t think exists. And often my feeling that things are too heavily telegraphed/explicitly stated has more to do with the author’s voice than with what’s actually said (were we discussing this on Twitter?).

      Because I like omniscient narration, and some of my favorites–George Eliot, for instance–are big on exposition and just telling you all over the place what characters are feeling, what their motivations are. In that case, I enjoy this because what she’s telling me is interesting to me. So maybe the times I feel like there’s too much heavy-handed telegraphing are things like tons of insta-lust early in a book, or moments when emotional navel-gazing goes on too long. The books I’ve been reading are often much less emotional, that is, they don’t go into a lot of detail about the characters’ emotions, but sketch them and leave readers to fill in the blanks of how the character must feel, and for me, when that’s done skillfully (and I can’t even put my finger on what makes it work, maybe it’s just having an emotional situation that pushes some button for me) it is more moving. I feel more immersed when I have to work at imagining the feelings more for myself. Or something? It can be hard to explain why we respond to books as we do.

      Anyway, I found the insta-lust too heavy-handed for my taste at the start of Kraken King, but I got more engaged by the romance as it developed (also, I haven’t read the earlier books and that can make a difference in how you respond to characters). I think part of my problem with not really being drawn into the romance there is just that I’m reading it in a stop-start way and am not fully immersed in it. I lose track of where we are in the emotional arc between installments.

  2. Ros says:

    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!

    This is exactly my experience! I remember explaining to someone that romance novels were like other novels but without the boring bits. If you’re used to reading for the romance, romances do seem like a wonderful, luxurious treat. But you’re right about needing to form your own taste within the genre too. I’m much pickier than I used to be about who and what I’ll enjoy reading.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      My feeling lately is more that I am bored by romance where there is not enough of “the other bits” included. Sometimes that focus is what I want. But I think maybe it’s this: one of the things I loved about discovering romance discussions was the assertion that love and romantic relationships matter and are worth writing and reading about, and I agree with that–it’s something I love about the genre. But when it took over all of my reading I ended up feeling like “but that’s not ALL that matters,” like it had a disproportionate part in the characters’ lives as well as my reading. I’ve been enjoying books that put romance more in the background, or don’t deal with it at all (or even, gasp, where the relationship doesn’t end up happily), a more varied picture of life and the place of romantic relationships within it. And the romances I’ve been enjoying most are those that also develop other arcs and relationships. I think making room for that other reading again will allow me to enjoy “pure” romance when I’m in the mood for it.

      • willaful says:

        I go through periods when I want “novels with strong romantic elements” more than genre romance. I can never find enough good ones.

      • Juhi says:

        This. EXACTLY what I have been feeling for the past couple of months.

        I’ve been bored to death by the romances I’ve picked up (even from authors who are really good like Sarah Morgan and Tessa Dare etc.) and now that I think about it, it’s because my taste seems to have tilted towards a more balanced development of all parts of the elements that make up a good story.

        It’s exactly how you put it: And the romances I’ve been enjoying most are those that also develop other arcs and relationships.

  3. lawless says:

    I’m … more engaged … 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….

    THIS, especially that first point about giving characters an arc besides the romantic one. That’s one of the reasons I find so few contemporaries engaging. They focus on a certain slice of the population in terms of resources and career as main characters (billionaires! business owners!) and are often only about the central relationship and its travails. Unlike you, though, I’ve never had a honeymoon period with het genre romance. I had one with m/m romance, but it took awhile for me to find the right books and authors there, too.

    However, books with a lot of sexual content can work for me if they’re written as erotic romances, but I can only read so many of them before I want to read something with less emphasis on sexytimes, whereas I can read any number of less explicit books in a row without regard to genre, provided they’re books I enjoy. That’s also true of erotica, but I can’t read as many of those in a row before needing to read something else.

    IDK why that is, exactly, but it may be that after awhile all the sex becomes too much and too much like titillation. As for the overuse of sex in romance, while sex is an important part of life and romantic relationships, the huge emphasis on it ultimately provides an unbalanced view of life and relationships and its overinclusion comes at the expense of more relevant (and possibly harder to write) character development. Also, it’s often repetitive and boring and saps a book of sexual tension, which is more engaging, and gets me to turn the pages with more eagerness, than a lot of boinking.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t think it’s the sexual content per se (although you’re right that it can come to seem repetetive, because there’s really only so many ways to do it) as the fact that too often the sex doesn’t do much to move the relationship forward or reveal the characters’ feelings to themselves or each other. It’s there because people like to read about sex.

      There’s so much talk about sex scenes in the online romance world that I think it becomes this mutually reinforcing thing that’s it’s like The Most Important part of the genre–readers are talking about it so authors are talking about it so readers are so authors are so it must be The Thing that people are reading for. And I do think the opportunity to explore and discuss fantasies through fiction is important for a lot of people, I don’t mean to diminish that. It’s just less and less interesting and important to me, the more I read the genre. But even I fall into the trap of talking about it a lot, if only to say I’m tired of it.

      I’m not big on billionaires (or dukes, or rock stars) or books that focus almost entirely on the relationship, especially if it’s a drama-llama one–but luckily, there ARE other books out there, even if they aren’t the ones being talked about the most. I need to spend more time finding and reading them and less complaining!

      • lawless says:

        It’s there because people like to read about sex.

        Absolutely. And that’s why we’re saturated with it to the point where reading Mary Stewart or Victoria Holt or really anything with no on-page sexual content becomes such a joy for me. OMG, there are more things in life than sex, and sometimes implied/offpage sex is more fun to read than on-page sex. For example, I don’t think on-page sex would have improved Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon (or even Gaudy Night) one iota.

        but luckily, there ARE other books out there, even if they aren’t the ones being talked about the most.

        It’s that sense that anything that doesn’t have sex (and a lot of it) is commercially non-viable and that everything (or to be fair, almost everything) that is buzzworthy in the genre is not something I like and that what I like is not buzzworthy that is disheartening. At least there are people out there in the blogosphere like you and others whose preferences are more similar to mine.

  4. Sunita says:

    Oh wow, I don’t remember this Burchell! I’m sure I have it and have read it, but it must be one of the ones I’ve only read once or twice. I’ll have to dig it out again.

    I don’t think it’s just deep POV that leads to the lack of emotional subtlety. There’s plenty of deep POV in other genres as well as lots and lots of introspection, and it is frequently NOT unsubtle. It describes all kinds of emotions and thoughts. The problem in romance is when it is disproportionately focused on sexual attraction. It’s the equivalent of lots of sex scenes. You basically start feeling that the book is drenched in sex, which is as bad as being drenched in ideology, or physical description, or anything that takes over a narrative.

    I’m reading a historical romance by an author whose work I have liked a lot, and while I’m enjoying the characterizations quite a bit, I’m struck by the number of words that are devoted to describing the country house, the clothes, and the food. We laugh about it in Neels’ books (the jersey dresses, the teas, the dinners), but it’s really prevalent in historical romance too. Do I really need to know what kind of columns adorn the ducal mansion? That the dress is not just muslin but figured muslin? Etc. etc. I suppose it’s a hangover from Heyer, but I wish there was less of it (I’m sure I’m a minority on this issue and most readers probably love the details). I think I noticed it here because I do find the characters and the relationship really fun, and the descriptions distract more than they enhance for me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Sometimes it’s an internal life that’s dominated by sexual attraction, yes, and of a quite explicit kind, where in my experience physical attraction is more varied and not always straight to thinking about “doing it.” Sometimes (and I’m not talking about Brook here but more generally) it’s an unsubtle psychologizing, where characters have one or two traits/needs and they are way too aware of them–like, do any of us understand ourselves that well? Maybe, but it can feel unrealistic, like the author decided “the emotional conflict is this” and then the characters spell it out endlessly and explicitly instead of being muddled and uncertain and conflicted like normal people.

      It’s interesting about description. I find teaching older books (whether 19th century novels or Anne of Green Gables) that my students are often overwhelmed by the amount of description, particularly of setting. So we talk about what work it’s doing in the novel and what you might miss by skimming it–it’s often used to establish a particular mood, for foreshadowing, etc. I think description can be important to building a world, obviously, but it’s best if it focuses on things the characters would actually notice and think about (columns, yes, but would they know what kind?). I never mind the Betty Neels dresses and food because I think her heroines absolutely WOULD be concerned about their clothes in those ways, and they often reveal character. Like the one I read where the heroine’s evening dress was very modest and feminine and the Other Woman was wearing glamorous silver satin evening pyjamas. The descriptive detail feels overwhelming when it’s not serving a purpose, and I think that’s probably what I mean by the emotional signposting: I got it already! You don’t have to keep telling me they’re hot for each other, etc.

      I am now on to the next Burchell and was noticing a scene where the heroine thinks how happy she is just to have the hero around and talks about things like the crinkles at the corner of his eyes when he smiles, and how she likes just seeing his large figure in the hall as he flips through the mail, or seeing him lounge in his chair after dinner. That’s about physical attraction, and of course part of why she doesn’t spell it out is that it’s written in the 40s, but it’s also the kind of thing people in love notice (or I do) and it implies sexual attraction just fine to me while also being specific to these people and not just generic “oh her curves/his ridged abdoment.”

      • kaetrin says:

        I like those other indicators of attraction too. Where I feel it is all physical or all about sex, I’m less likely to believe the HEA. (It reminds me of a thing my high school BFF’s mother told her – “sex is all well and good but what are you going to do together for the other 23 hours 45 minutes of the day?”)

        On the other hand, I am a reader who isn’t fond of ambiguity. I don’t mind thinking when I read – I like to do that, but I don’t like to be uncertain. Sometimes that is deliberate obfuscation for plot purposes and that’s fine, but where I don’t think the attraction is made explicit enough, I’m more likely to impute that it doesn’t exist sufficiently rather than that it is there but I have to imagine it. For me, if I have to add to the text to make it happen, then it hasn’t happened. But I’m not sure you and I are talking about the same thing exactly?

        I don’t like someone banging on about something all the time either. And I have read and enjoyed romances which are deeply intimate but subtle in terms of explicitness (and I don’t just mean sex here). On the other hand, if one character has a set up where a particular thing is a dealbreaker, then I need to see that worked out on the page to believe in the HEA.

      • Juhi says:

        that’s exactly the sort of thing I love too. I wonder if it’s because those are exactly the sort of details that I notice and love about my husband.

        Now I need to go check out Burchell!

        Your exposition, has also, for some reason reminded me of Helen Simonson’s Major Pwttigrew’s Last Stand which is one of the loveliest books I’ve read, featuring a “hero” and a “heroine” who’re in their 50s. . . . And now that puts in mind the question–why doesn’t the romance genre produce such works?

    • willaful says:

      I was so amused recently when reading an old Harlequin in which the heroine “throws on whatever was handy,” which is then carefully described. 🙂

  5. Lucy Warriner says:

    Welcome back to enjoying romance! I just finished my first Burchell–Except My Love–and like you, I’m enjoying her subtle indications of physical and emotional attraction. But what really pleased and surprised me was the sharp-tongued secondary character who is a good support for the long-suffering heroine in her time of need. She gets a romance of her own, and it’s with a man who appreciates her asperity.

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