Some thoughts on romance novels and female friendship

I read Tawny Weber’s A SEAL’s Salvation last week.  I liked a lot of things about the book, but I found its depiction of female friendship rather problematic.  I’m hoping it’s just me.

 Here’s the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Where navy SEAL “Bad Ass” Brody Lane goes, trouble follows. Being run out of his hometown years ago for misbehaving with Genna Reilly—the sheriff’s daughter—was one thing. Now Brody is about to step into real danger. Not the suggestive letters he’s been exchanging with Genna, but the kind of trouble that can send a soldier home injured and broken inside…

Genna’s entire life has been orchestrated by her family. The right job. The right friends. Enough! Brody’s return offers the promise of lust-filled pleasures. Of flesh teased and tasted. She’s not expecting to find a soldier with distant eyes who has secluded himself from the world. But this good girl knows exactly how to bring a bad boy back to life….

Some of you probably know already why I wanted to read this book.  It’s that injured hero trope, calling out to my soul and promising compelling and emotionally satisfying entertainment.  And the blurb also hinted at one of my favorite heroine tropes: the heroine who gets her shit together and embraces her true self.  It was a foregone conclusion that I’d enjoy the story, considering the elements it’s composed of, and I did.

I loved Genna’s penchant for baking, for example, and her moxie and entrepreneurship.  I loved Brody’s Grandma.  I loved Brody.  And those letters Genna and Brody exchanged before his injury were absolutely my favorite part of the book.

In fact, I liked pretty much every element of the story except one: Genna’s friends.  Maybe I’m just the luckiest damn person on the planet for having truly awesome women as friends (I totally am), and maybe that extreme good luck skews my perception of reality, but I really find it jarring when female friends in romance novels are depicted as crazy bitches or just as bad friends.

At the beginning of A SEAL’s Salvation, Genna’s best friend Macy is living with her while planning all the last-minute details before her epic, but ultimately rather sad, wedding.  Macy spends a lot of time trying to convince Genna to date this guy whom Genna doesn’t like, doesn’t find attractive, and who kind of creeped her out on their first and only date (he collects troll dolls.).  When Genna points out all the reasons that she doesn’t want to date troll-collecting Stewart, Macy suggests that maybe Genna should go out with Stewart anyway, because it would make Genna’s parents so happy.

Later on, Macy — who thinks Brody is a Very Bad Guy — threatens to tell Genna’s outrageously overprotective parents about their relationship because… ?? Genna is 27 years old.  And this is Genna’s best friend.  In every appearance in the book, Macy is critical of Genna and dismissive of Brody (and not even because she’s genuinely concerned for Genna).  In Genna’s darkest hour towards the end of the book (between conflict and resolution), her last wish is to call her friends.  She’d rather be alone, and that makes perfect sense. Her friends suck.

Now… I’m sorry, but that’s just not friendship, and it makes me feel ragey.  And, again, maybe I’m just the luckiest woman alive to have such super awesome lady friends (and a few dudes, as well) — none of my friends would ever try to push me into dating any dude who didn’t light my fire (it’s moot, but whatever) and none of them would ever EVAR so disrespect my judgment as to tattle on me, a grown woman!, to my parents.  Come the fuck on — but I doubt I’m the only woman with fantastic friends, and it drives me wonky when this real friendship, often the most important thing in a woman’s life, doesn’t show up in the romance novels I read.

So, last week I wrote on Book Bloggers International about romance novels as entertainment, catharsis, and activism, and I paid particular attention to Courtney Milan’s entire body of work (but I highlighted her most recent release, The Countess Conspiracy), Tessa Dare’s latest, Romancing the Duke, and Robin York’s New Adult release, Deeper.  Do you know what else those three books have in common?  Awesome depictions of friendship.

The Countess Conspiracy is the latest in Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series, and it tackles some pretty hefty subjects, most of which are best discovered while reading the book.  (As an aside, one of my favorite things about Milan’s writing is that she respects her characters’ privacy and allows them to reveal themselves to readers over the course of the book.)  This book so beautifully depicts female friendship.  Between Jane, Minnie, and Violet, there develops a true friendship based on mutual appreciation and respect (Jane and Minnie are the heroines of the first two full novels in this series.).  Between Violet and Alice there develops a friendship between equals and colleagues that is a wonder to behold because of its resemblance to friendship among male colleagues, and yet it is uniquely feminine and the more powerful because of that femininity.  I wish we got to see more of it (but I understand that it’s sort of beside the point, as far as the narrative is concerned.)

Kim (from Reflections of a Book Addict) and I wrote another of our dueling reviews (this one with an actual disagreement in it!) about Romancing the Duke, Tessa Dare’s latest, that discusses the important role friendship plays in the book.  I’m not going to bother reiterating our arguments here… so go check it out!  It’s pretty great, I think.

Finally, there’s Robin York’s Deeper, wherein heroine Caroline (I just had to put those three words together. Sorry.) finds herself the victim of revenge porn attacks started by her slimeball of an ex-boyfriend and picked up by a cadre of trolls who use images of her naked body to shame and dehumanize her.  In the wake of all these revenge porn attacks — that occur not just once and done but again and again and again — Caroline and West forge a cautious not-quite-friendship that is the focus of this book told in shifting-perspective, first-person-present narration.  But it is through Caroline’s friendships with her roommate, the members of the rugby team she joins, and, to an extent, with West’s roommate (Sorry — I’m awful with remembering character names, and I don’t have my copy of the book with me) that Caroline discovers her strength and begins to heal.

So, there you go.  If you find yourself interested in any of these books, just click on their cover images to be transported to their page on Goodreads.  A SEAL’s Salvation was released on January 21, 2014 by Harlequin.  For more information about Tawny Weber, check out her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of A SEAL’s Salvation from Harlequin via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I purchased the other books.*

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Review – Rumors that Ruined a Lady by Marguerite Kaye

I’ve been looking forward to this book for months, and I clapped my hands and did a little dance when I saw it listed on NetGalley.  Honestly, Rumors that Ruined a Lady had me at opium.

Cover image, Rumors that Ruined a Lady by Marguerite Kaye

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

SPOTTED: LONDON’S FAVORITE FALLEN HEIRESS, TAKING UP WITH THE ROGUE MARQUIS!

Amongst the gossip-hungry ton, no name has become more synonymous with sin than that of Lady Caroline Rider, cast out by her husband and disowned by her family. Rumour has it that the infamous Caro is now seeking oblivion in the opium dens of London!

There’s only one man who can save her: notorious rake Sebastian Conway, Marquis of Ardhallow. Soon Caro is installed in his country home, warming his bed, but their passion may not be enough to protect them once news of their scandalous arrangement breaks out.

I flat out loved this book, and I have a lot of reasons.

  1. Some of my favorite books end up being the ones where a happy ending doesn’t even seem possible, where I end up a frazzled mass of nerves suddenly doubting that a romance novel will end happily.  For those of you who aren’t clear on what a romance novel is, the happily ever after is part of the genre.  If it doesn’t have an HEA, it ain’t a romance.  It’s always fun for me when authors can believably sell me on the notion that the forces stacked against the characters are too dire for love to triumph; I like it even better when authors perform that magical “Ha, but love triumphs after all!” reversal of fortunes while remaining true to the characters and — to a certain extent — to history and science.  This book did both.
  2. The storytelling format is a bit complicated (the first third of the book features some back and forth between the present day and the characters’ encounters years before), but I liked how the flashback sequences were edited in to the present day scenes and helped create a little mystery about the characters that was unfurled bit by bit as I got to know them.
  3. The character development of Caro is nothing short of divine (and Sebastian is not half bad either.).

What I loved best, though, is that this book deals with some pretty heavy subject matter (spousal abuse), but it doesn’t sensationalize it in any way.  The references to Caro’s abuse are sufficient to carry the point that her marriage is awful, but the story remains focused on Caro and Sebastian and what they will do moving forward.

(Tangent: One of the awesome Vegas conversations — that I participated in only slightly, but it got me thinking — was about rape in literature, that there seems to be a (disturbing) trend of authors forcing their lady characters to endure some pretty harrowing shit in order to have appeal as “serious” characters.  I’m not sure whether authors are doing it on purpose or if it’s just a consequence of our culture (?), but it’s troubling on so many levels.  Those types of experiences as recounted in literature are simultaneously trivialized (because we — the collective audience — are consuming them for entertainment) and sensationalized (because these fictional experiences have to be powerful enough to register with readers), and the result is simply too disturbing for me to get into right now.  Let me know in the comments if you’re interested in my expanding on this tangent in a future post. /tangent)

To go back pre-tangent, I also loved that Caro was never a damsel in distress (except at the opium den, I suppose) and that she helped Sebastian just as much as he helped her.  (Also, isn’t it seriously ballsy for a romance novel to have a heroine who’s married to someone else?)

I’ve been trying to tread carefully in this review to avoid spoiling the story for anyone.  The fact is that I want everyone to read Rumors that Ruined a Lady and then talk about it with me (and anyone, really).  I want to know if there are other readers, like me, who want books that deal with some of life’s darker elements but still recognize that a happy ending (and love) is a valid one.

Stay tuned tomorrow, because I’ll be hosting Marguerite Kaye on the blog to talk about the difficult path to happily ever after.

Rumors that Ruined a Lady was released on October 22, 2013 as an e-book and mass-market paperback by Harlequin.  For more information about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads.  For more information about Marguerite Kaye, please visit her website or check her out on Twitter.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Harlequin via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Review – Driving Her Wild by Meg Maguire

Last month, just a few days after I finished reading Driving Her Wild, I saw this post on Romance Novels for Feminists about cross-class romances, and it encouraged me to delve a little deeper in my thinking about this book.  (As an aside, that blog is fantastic; you should check it out.)  While the characters in Maguire’s book are actually from the same working-class background, the book is chock full of conversations about socioeconomic and cultural issues, and it seemed to me that it contained a narrative about class, despite the characters’ similar backgrounds.

Cover image, Driving Her Wild by Meg Maguire

First off, the publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Winning is good. Succumbing is even better…

Evasion

Recently retired pro MMA fighter Steph Healy is through having rough-and-tumble romps with sexy blue-collar dudes. Unfortunately, Wilinski’s Fight Academy has hired an electrician with a body built to make a gal weep. And avoiding some full-body contact is taking all of Steph’s self-control.

Grapple

Carpenter-turned-electrician Patrick Doherty is damn good with his hands. Sure, he’s not what Steph is looking for—yet. But he’s about to prove that she has seriously underestimated her opponent…

Submission

The moment Patrick has her deliciously pinned, Steph knows she’s in deep, deep trouble. Because this seemingly mild carpenter has the mastery to give her exactly what she needs…and this is one takedown she’s willing to take lying down!

Your eyes did not deceive you: the heroine is a retired pro mixed martial art (MMA) fighter, and the hero is, at first glance, a bumbling electrician with a poor sense of vocation.  It turns out, though, that he’s actually an amazingly talented custom carpenter who, thanks to the economy, has to take lower-paying electrician work that he kind of sucks at, but he’ll do anything to keep from foreclosing on his house.

It would be easy to read this book and pay attention only to surface things — and still enjoy the heck out of it.  The chemistry between Patrick and Steph is incredible; the romance is upbeat and fun; the characters are great, an excellent blend of soft and sharp.  But Driving Her Wild, like all my favorite romance novels, has more to offer the world.

After years of relationships with blue-collar guys like her brothers — the guys from back home — or with other fighters — professional nomads — Steph starts the novel resolved to find a guy with whom she can settle down and maybe start a family, and she wants to find someone who is financially steady.  Having grown up in scarcity and want, she wants a future free from that gnawing worry about money that is the constant companion of those who have not quite enough.

But Steph meets Patrick, a divorcee struggling to manage a mortgage that is slightly bigger than he can handle on his own, a man who appears to be an amalgam of all the guys she’s already dated — kind, well-meaning, a little clumsy — and who seems to offer a future she’s already rejected, a future of struggle and want not quite balanced by companionship and amazing sex.

It’s a romance novel, so you can probably assume that she eventually realizes that a future with Patrick is worth it, and all those concerns about money are superficial and a little bit awful.  The beauty of this novel, however, is that Meg Maguire doesn’t force Steph to choose love over security, and she doesn’t introduce some windfall to render the choice moot (they don’t, for instance, win the lottery or receive an unexpected inheritance that solves all their problems).  Instead, Maguire allows Steph to see Patrick clearly and to ruminate a bit on the idea of a relationship as a partnership.

Now, maybe you need to take me with a grain of salt, because I just read one of those billionaire/ingenue stories (shudder), but it seems to me that a story like Driving Her Wild with its portrayal of the economic realities shared by so many of us is important and helpful.  I, personally, found it reassuring in a way that no fantasy tale of a bajillionaire lover could ever be.  Instead of encouraging me to hide from the realities of life, this book encourages me to look at them from a different, more positive perspective, to find the love and beauty in everyday life.

I honestly can’t recommend this book enough…

Driving Her Wild was released on October 22, 2013 as an e-book and paperback by Harlequin Blaze.  To learn more about the book, click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads.  For more information about Meg Maguire, check out her website or Twitter.

Review – The Greatest of Sins by Christine Merrill

Cover image, The Greatest of Sins by Christine Merrill

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Giving in to temptation would be the ruin of them all!  Having spent years believing a lie about his birth, Dr. Samuel Hastings has been condemned to a personal hell of his desire’s making—his sinful thoughts of the one woman he can never touch would damn his soul for eternity.

Lady Evelyn Thorne is engaged to the very suitable Duke of St. Aldric when a shocking truth is revealed—and now Sam will play every bit of the devil to seduce the woman he thought would always be denied him!

Ah, forbidden love… it’s such a romantic theme.  This book actually explores both forbidden and unrequited love themes – Sam feels that his love for Evie is forbidden; Evie feels that her love for Sam is unrequited – against an interesting backdrop of various social themes from the era (illegitimacy, class issues, women’s roles, the developing medical practice, etc.).  As many of you know, I have a soft spot for romance novels that explore such themes, so I enjoyed this book.

Sam spends most of the book’s first half smoldering in misinformed self-denial while Evie gets to cast aside the typical gender roles of the romance genre (and that era) and chase after what she wants.  And what she wants is Sam.  Actually, the first half of the book is a lot like this:

Guess which one of these two cuties is Evie and which is Sam.  As much as Sam tugged on my heart strings, it was Evie whom I really loved in this book, even when her waffling got annoying (she loves Sam, but she’s going to marry the duke, because… well, just because.).  Evie is fearless, morbid, smart, funny, manipulative (but in a fun way), confident, and self-aware.  She knows her own value, even in a society that marginalizes and devalues her sex.

I loved that Evie has an interest in medicine — which, though it springs from her love of Sam and inclination to be of use to him as his wife, is wholly her own interest — particularly women’s medicine, and practices midwifery and country medicine at her home.  In one memorable conversation with Sam, she isn’t afraid to argue her better knowledge of reproductive medicine, for want of a better term, to a licensed physician who, though male and officially trained, has less experience with women patients.  That scene was lovely, both because Evie embraces her own competence and because Sam treats her with respect.

I mentioned earlier that Evie’s waffling annoyed me… once Sam’s impediment to their relationship is removed, the only impediment is Evie.  She loves Sam, wants to marry him, realizes she’ll be unhappy and a bit stifled with the duke, yet she refuses to break her betrothal to the duke because she doesn’t want to be a promise breaker and because Sam missed the boat, so to speak, and that’s just his loss, isn’t it?  Those types of plot devices always annoy me — conflict by way of stubbornness and poor communication — and this one was certainly no exception.  Ultimately, I think this book is well worth the read, but I was pretty dang annoyed for about sixty pages….

The Greatest of Sins was released on April 23, 2013 as a mass market and e-book by Harlequin Historical.  If you’re interested in finding out more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Christine Merrill, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received and e-galley of this book from Harlequin Historical via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*