I just finished Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic; earlier in the summer I read Airs Above the Ground. I enjoyed both very much. (My favorite thing about This Rough Magic was the dolphin. One of my favorite books is Madeleine L’Engle’s Ring of Endless Light, so give me a dolphin and a bit of romance and I’m yours!)
I liked the romantic elements in both books (you could call Airs Above the Ground a marriage in trouble novel, or at least a marriage the heroine briefly fears is in trouble novel). And I know many romance readers love Stewart and cite her as one of the authors who led them to romance. But I’m wondering why that’s the case, because the romances in these books are very much romantic elements and fairly minor, under-developed elements at that. (There are certainly Stewart books where romance is a bigger focus). I’m not sure I found them romantic, but paradoxically, perhaps, I enjoyed the romance despite that. Anyway, I have some random thoughts about why, and since I know a lot of my readers have read Stewart, I hope you’ll jump in with your perspective in the comments.
The romance in This Rough Magic happens really fast and appears pretty unmotivated. At the book’s start there are at least two possible romantic leads (this is one thing I enjoyed about it, and it contributes to the suspenseful effect that we remain uncertain which, if any, of these guys is going to be a love interest). But when Lucy eventually fell for the hero, I had no idea why, except that he was the hero–and by that I mean simply that hero is his role in the book; she made her choice before the action makes clear which is the good guy. So . . . she knew by instinct?
When I read genre romance, I’m often looking for an in-depth, psychologically realistic portrayal of falling in love. This is not that. The romance feels as much about genre as about character. Lots of classic mysteries (30s-60s) have a vestigial romantic subplot, and mostly they feel like just another way justice is done and everything made tidy at the end. Lucy’s romance felt similar.
Or not. Because maybe it is psychologically realistic after all. Lucy herself says that she doesn’t know how it happened. When the hero (I’m trying to be not-spoilery) asks her if she means something she said–something she didn’t mean him to hear, but that suggests how much she cares for him, she replies:
“If you’d asked me a thing like that three hours ago, I think I’d have said I didn’t even like you, and I . . . I think I’d have believed it . . . I think . . . And now there you sit looking at me, and all you do is look–like that–and my damned bones turn to water, and it isn’t fair, it’s never happened to me before, and I’d do anything in the world for you. . . .”
Those ellipses (except for the last) are Lucy’s, as she struggles to understand the feelings that she’s suddenly immersed in. And you know, I remember first realizing I was in love. It did happen suddenly, and it did seem unmotivated. Why this person, exactly? Now I can think of lots of reasons I love my husband, but I didn’t know the half of them when I first fell for him. I’ve also fallen for people who didn’t turn out to give me reasons to stay in love. Since this is fiction, well, I’ll trust Lucy got it right first shot.
The other thing about those ellipses–Stewart isn’t graphic. There’s some hot kissing going on, but it isn’t described in any detail. The ellipses and elisions in the text leave space for readers to fill in whatever they like, whatever actions and feelings and words make the romance plausible to them.
On the other hand, the text is also pretty frank about desire. It’s there in this passage: “you turn my damn bones to water, and it isn’t fair.” It’s there when Lucy suggests to the villain, who also kisses her, that maybe he isn’t getting any good sex because of his “caveman technique.” It’s there when Vanessa in Airs Above the Ground has a most satisfactory reunion with her husband (she too comments on “technique”).
I think the other thing I like is that Stewart doesn’t try to sell me on her heroes as “swooniest dude evah.” Her heroines are decidedly not placeholders, and I don’t think she cares whether I fall for her heroes or not. They’re kind of old school men (partly because of when the books are published) but the books are overt about that–in the post I linked above, I talked about Vanessa’s comments on how she finds her husband’s suddenly-revealed capacity for violence attractive. This Rough Magic’s hero is perfectly happy to torture the villain in order to save Lucy (though luckily he doesn’t have to). There are some gender-traditional things going on here (and some less so), but because they are often commented on, I don’t feel like they’re being sold to me as desirable or necessary, the way I sometimes do when I’m reading genre romance.
So that’s why Stewart’s romantic elements work for me, even though they’re full of elements I’d usually find unsatisfactory. How about you?