February 1, 2012

Brown Wrapper Reading

Psst: Here's a secret. Women read a lot of pornography. It's called romance novels, and while there's lots of talk of "good stories" it's really all about the sex.

But still: It's hard to enjoy the sex if the story is in the way. And, more than any other genre, romance is hard to judge by the cover. Serious reviewers almost never review romance (one exception: the excellent Michael Dirda), and romance-specific websites are unreliable.

Here's the recipe: witty dialogue, an intriguing plot, and a delicately developing relationship between the principals. This last point is the most difficult. There has to be an obstacle to their relationship, but you don't want them overly antagonistic. Nothing is more of a turnoff than a romantic hero who constantly puts down or expresses anger toward the heroine. Another turnoff: estrangement based on some silly misunderstanding; frankly this is the worst aspect of Wuthering Heights, the fact that Heathcliff's dark descent into devilry stems from him hearing only one half of a misleading conversation.

The best plots throw the principals together and have their relationship develop in a way that feels realistic and affectionate. Reading a really good romance, I'll have flashes of my own romantic plot, little moments that remind me of what it was like to fall in love: the magic, the understanding, the trust that develops.

So herewith some of my favorite romance novels, in hopes that you will give it a go. Many of these have a strong heroine, and sometimes a specifically vulnerable hero. But not every heroine has to be a superhero. As one romance writer noted, making the heroine "strong" has its own pitfalls, as it turns the women into caretakers. So some of these novels have a very damaged female protagonist who finds a protector in the hero; but being damaged doesn't mean that you're weak---that's a subtle form of blaming the victim. Finding healing and refuge in a romantic relationship is a story that, hopefully, we can all relate to.

These are mostly historical romances, set in 19th-century England. But for fantastic modern romances, pick up any book by Jennifer Crusie.

One Forbidden Evening, by Jo Goodman:  A young widow is courted by a bachelor after anonymous sex at a masquerade ball.

The Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas: A woman turns to a notorious viscount for marriage when her guardians threaten her life.

Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale: A Quaker woman (and math prodigy) helps a young duke who has had a stroke escape from the family members and rivals who are attempting to commit him.

The Spymaster's Lady, by Joanna Bourne: A French spy and two English spies are imprisoned in France and decide to help each other escape.

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