There are all sorts of sub-genres that with within the romance genre. I primarily stick to historical romances, but even among that sub-genre, there are different varieties according to time period (regency, Georgian, Victorian, medieval, etc.). There are also different levels of ‘sensuality,’ and I’m not entirely certain that I understand the differences between a historical romance, a sensual historical romance, and an erotic historical romance. There are also inspirational historical romances, and normally I would give these a wide berth (religion and romance seeming, to me, to be an odd combination), but I’ve discovered that, as with anything, with the right author, they can be wonderful.
In any book, isn’t it sometimes a lot of fun to read about a character who has a lot of growing to do? (Assuming that the character doesn’t piss you off so much that you can’t get through the book, of course…) Authors really take a risk when they commit to the page a character who is so much like the rest of us–bratty, flawed, snarky, arrogant, selfish, etc.–because we readers (as humans) often want to forget that we possess all those qualities, and it’s always incredibly annoying to encounter one’s hated bad qualities in another person. It’s like a judgment. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like feeling judgment when I’m reading for pleasure. But when it’s done well, it can be magical to witness a character’s journey from spoiled jerk to sympathetic wonderfulness. The heroine of The Maid of Fairbourne Hall goes on just that sort of journey, and it’s just one of the many things that I liked about the novel.
As the title would suggest, The Maid of Fairbourne Hall involves an upstairs/downstairs storyline. I don’t actually know why I didn’t get annoyed by all the descriptions of Margaret’s duties as a downstairs maid–I mean, (over)description is often the death of a novel–but I suspect that it’s due entirely to Julie Klassen’s superior storytelling. She never once lost her focus: even when she was describing all of Margaret’s daily chores, the focus remained on Margaret’s response to the work, on her discovery of the life of a maid, of her own insignificance (as Mr. Bennet would say), and of the hero’s worthiness. In the end, this story really is all about discovery and realization. Margaret discovers herself and her true feelings for Nathaniel. Nathaniel similarly discovers Margaret (in a few ways) and recovers himself. And the theme also connects some of the secondary characters in the story. The end result is a lovely, deeply romantic story that is emotionally satisfying and (dare I say it) nourishing.
All right… I want to talk about romance for a bit. I know that word doesn’t mean anything concrete… after all, Walter Scott wrote romances that satisfy the requirements of the term (as far as the heroic romance or medieval romance are concerned) but manage to be remarkably unsatisfying (Bride of Lammermoor, I’m looking right at you with angry eyes). So when we talk about romance in the modern age, what do we mean? Are we still telling heroic romance stories about knights imbued with all the good qualities the world has to offer who go out on quests of some sort and end up winning the favors of their various ladies? In our post-ERA age, do we really want to read stories where all the action and adventure are given to the hero while the heroine (always a Rowena) passively waits to be claimed? Or do we even think about the origins of romance when we sit down to read? Has romance as a type of story become merely a vehicle for sex? Don’t get me wrong–sex is a-OK in my book (ha ha), but it isn’t exactly a substitute for romance.
I don’t really know what romance means to the general population, but I know what it means to me. I want an emotional story about the connection or relationship between the main characters. Other elements from romance are welcome (action/adventure/quest/magic/etc.), but I’m in it for emotional catharsis. Sex scenes are not required for good romance, and sometimes they get in the way. The Maid of Fairbourne Hall is a romance in all the best ways–its focus is on the emotional development of the two main characters as individuals and on the emotional development of their relationship–and it’s fantastic. And there’s no sex at all, and I didn’t miss it. I can’t wait to read more books by Julie Klassen.