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Damaged Survivors: Thoughts on Two Memorable Heroines

If my friend Elle hadn't mentioned, when she read Tabitha King's novel One on One earlier this year, that Deanie Gauthier, the heroine of the book, reminded her a bit of Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I might not have paid as much attention to the similarities between the two characters, since there are also great differences.

But since Deanie is one of the most memorable characters I've encountered, the comment stuck in my mind and when I got around to reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I compared the two heroines and realized that though the two books are quite different — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish mystery and One on One the story of two Maine high schoolers falling in love — there are some interesting similarities between the two heroines and their situations that make both of them memorable.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is such a bestseller that it needs no introduction, but my review, which includes a description of Lisbeth, can be found here.

Tabitha King One on OneAs for One on One, published in 1993 by an author who deserves to be better known (though you might have heard of her husband), it is a book about teenagers written for an adult audience. It's a gritty novel that doesn't shy away from painful realities, and contains explicit sex scenes. Though not part of the romance genre, it's nonetheless very romantic.

The two protagonists of the story are seventeen year old Sam Styles and sixteen year old Deanie Gauthier, both point guards for their respective basketball teams at Greenspark High School in Nodd's Ridge, Maine, where several of Ms. King's books take place.

Though his parents are divorced, Sam has a loving dad and stepmom, and he is popular. His life is far from perfect: the family isn't rich, and Sam has to work hard after school, helping his mechanic father; he also struggles with dyslexia and with doing the right thing, to the point of remaining a virgin.

The latter is something Deanie is determined to change. If Sam is popular, Deanie is an outsider whose only “friends” are a few school druggies, one of whom she sleeps with in exchange for marijuana and birth control pills. Sex isn't pleasurable to Deanie, but a simple exchange of commodities. It's hard to fault her for this outlook on it, though, since the boyfriend of her neglectful, abusive mother is molesting her and has been for several years.

If Deanie were a different kind of character, her situation might be unbearable to read about, but she is such a scrappy survivor that instead, I end up feeling that she is courageous and heroic.

From her outward appearance, which includes tattoos, piercings, a shaved head and skin “the fragile, easily bruised white of a narcissus petal,” to her inner life, Deanie is a study in contradictions – fierce and prickly yet also vulnerable. She embraces her outsider status rather than tormenting herself over it, projecting unconcern about whether or not she repels others, while secretly feeling she is ugly.

Where Sam is often thoughtful and generous to others, though he still possesses a teenager's insecurities and hormones, Deanie's first instinct is one of survival, and for her, survival includes putting up emotional defenses. “Fuck you very much,” is how she thanks Sam for some of his unasked-for kindnesses, and his response to one of her F bombs is “You wish.”

This isn't just a story of opposites attracting, but of opposites colliding. Sam keeps a highlighted Bible in his glove compartment, while Deanie often carries pot in her bookbag. What brings them together is their shared love of basketball. Sam, whose boys' team won the state championship the previous year, is determined that not only his team, but also the girls', will win the following year. To that end, he needs Deanie to stop her drugging and concentrate on her game.

Deanie wants her team to win the state championship too, but she also has another goal: to deflower the popular Sam, who is so determined to keep himself and her to the straight and narrow. At first this compulsion stems from a desire for power, a way to – in her mind – equalize things between them. But later it develops into something more complex, more seductive and also dangerous, because if Deanie's mother's boyfriend learns what is brewing between Deanie and Sam, everything could blow up in her face.

Sam is a wonderful character-‘strong yet vulnerable; caring, decent, and concerned with doing the right thing and not taking advantage of Deanie, whom he is finally unable to resist. He is one of my favorite romantic characters, but Deanie is perhaps even more memorable.

Though her clothes are inadequate, she doesn't get enough to eat, and her mother even stubs out a cigarette on her arm, Deanie holds on to her prickly pride with unflagging determination. She won't let anyone pity her, even if it means pissing off anyone who might try on a regular basis. She has a spirit and a resilience that make her indelibly memorable.

I won't go into a lengthy description of Lisbeth Salander or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because a lot more people have read that book and I recently reviewed it, but Lisbeth reminded me of Deanie because they both share an outsider status (in Lisbeth's case, Asperger's Syndrome is partly the reason for this) which they honor with tattoos and piercings. Both are survivors of childhood sexual abuse but both refuse to be defined by this, both are in the care of horrible guardians at one point in their stories, both are the sexual aggressors in their relationships, both smoke pot and break other laws as well (Deanie shoplifts, Lisbeth is a hacker), and both have vengeful impulses, although Lisbeth takes these a lot further in one satisfying scene.

Lisbeth is the more empowered of the two characters – not only does she rescue herself, she also rescues Blomkvist – but since Deanie is only sixteen, it may not be entirely fair to compare these situations. I recognize that Salander's vigilante-like action is one of the reasons her character has struck a chord with so many readers, but for me her appeal as well as Deanie's lie in their non-conformity, their possession of some traits that some might not consider “feminine,” and their unwillingness to accept victimhood despite having suffered considerable abuse.

When Jane suggested that I write an opinion piece about Deanie and Lisbeth, she suggested “the damaged heroine” as a topic. But to me, these two characters aren't just damaged. They are also heroic in their resilience. Yes, they are not unmarked by what they've suffered. How could they be? But their determination, whether to survive or to get even, is heroic.

Do you have a favorite “damaged survivor” heroine? What about a heroine who embraces her outsider, non-conformist status? Could such a non-conformist, outsider heroine work in the romance genre? Why or why not? If you've read One on One or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, did the heroines of those books appeal to your? And if they did, was it despite or because of their “unfeminine” qualities? Can you think of any other heroines like these two?

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

63 Comments

  1. Katrina
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 04:33:46

    I haven’t read either of these novels, but I’m always drawn to a book where one of the characters is struggling with a difficult past. I think you hit the point exactly – it’s about their resilience. I don’t want to read stories about victims, but about survivors.

    Perhaps they don’t deal with their experiences in the most honorable or healthiest ways at first, but throughout a well-written novel they face opportunities to grow and change. This is a perfect theme for romance, even though lots of people shy away from damaged heroines (in my opinion, because a lot of heroines were mistreated for the sake of a plot until recently).

    I hope this is a story line that works, because the heroine of my work in progress is struggling to deal with brutal past experiences. I’ll be interested to see what others say.

  2. Isabel C.
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 06:30:13

    I really like non-conformist and “unfeminine” heroines, but I tend to get put off by the damaged survivor thing, especially when it’s related to the non-conformity or unfeminine traits. It often feels too much like the Red Sonja deal, like the default setting for women is “delicate, sexually reticent, non-action-girl” and an individual woman can only not be that if they’re somehow damaged.

    That said, there are exceptions. Two of my favorites are Robin McKinley’s Lissar and, particularly, Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey Tillerman. I like Dicey particularly because she’s not what I would describe as Trauma Girl: she deals with things *by* dealing with things, she’s very action-oriented, and she’s extremely self-possessed, especially for being thirteen at the start of the series.

  3. Llamalu
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 07:11:29

    Eve Dallas.

  4. cead
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 07:14:23

    Damaged heroines are my favourites if they’re done well. This is partly because damaged heroes are so common, and I have a very hard time buying into a pairing of a damaged hero with an undamaged heroine (or vice versa). Not for a long-term relationship, anyway.

    Victim heroines don’t necessarily put me off unless they’re martyrs; martyrs I can’t stand. I hate it when abused heroines end up meekly and joyfully accepting their horrible family’s too-little too-late apologies at the end, all in the name of “we’re family”. But I do enjoy heroines who start off in apparently the same situation as a classic martyr heroine, but have the sense to be angry about it and, when offered an opportunity to get out of the situation, take it and run.

  5. Helen
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 08:07:50

    A young adult book I read way back when and thought was excellent with a damaged heroine was Cages of Glass, Flowers of Time by Charolotte Culin.

  6. Diane V
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 09:01:24

    Second the Eve Dallas.

    Also Elena from Singh’s Archangel series.

  7. Tracey
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 09:05:16

    I had avoided The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo for some time, figuring it was overhyped. Then I read it. Lisbeth just reaches out form the pages and yanks you into her world.
    She is a survivor, refusing to be “victimized”, using her angst to manage her world. It is that element that makes her so appealing. As a reader, I wanted her to succeed.

    Eve Dallas is also a heroine I see in that light. But not as acutely as Lisbeth but that might be due to the familiarity with the Eve Dallas character now and seeing her growth over the series.

  8. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 09:59:08

    @Katrina:

    I haven't read either of these novels, but I'm always drawn to a book where one of the characters is struggling with a difficult past. I think you hit the point exactly – it's about their resilience. I don't want to read stories about victims, but about survivors.

    Perhaps they don't deal with their experiences in the most honorable or healthiest ways at first, but throughout a well-written novel they face opportunities to grow and change.

    That is exactly how I feel about it too. I really love it when characters like these don’t want to be pitied, and the point of the story isn’t to feel sorry for them.

    This is a perfect theme for romance, even though lots of people shy away from damaged heroines (in my opinion, because a lot of heroines were mistreated for the sake of a plot until recently).

    That could be true. And although I think there are some readers who prefer to avoid books in which the heroines have been abused, IMO many make exceptions for a well-written book.

  9. Edie
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:02:39

    I am a big fan of the outsider/non-conformist heroine. But can’t say I come across too many in the romance genre. They may start out a little bit non-conformist, but they are generally ‘cleaned’ up well before the end of the book.
    The closest I guess, is Shelly Laurenston’s heroines, while not overly ‘damaged’ they are certainly non-conformist, completely OTT, but oh how I adore.
    Actually I think my top three rom heroines are all from Shelly Laurenston.

  10. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:07:03

    I was thinking when I wrote this op-ed piece that I have seen heroines in romance who are damaged, and heroines who are survivors, and even heroines who are damaged survivors, or damaged and grow into survivors.

    But what I haven’t seen much of is a nonconformist heroine who embraces her outsider status. In historicals we may see a rare suffragette, who is nonconformist for her time period, but in contemporary romance I can’t think of such an example (though there may be one out there somewhere). On rare occasion I have seen a heroine who is an outsider, but never one who embraces that status and doesn’t want to fit in.

    Usually the character who doesn’t want to conform is the hero, and the heroine’s role in that kind of story is to bring the hero into the fold.

    That’s why I was curious as to whether readers thought that type of character (whether damaged or not, but in books they often seem to be damaged) would work in a romance.

  11. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:19:47

    @Isabel C.:

    I really like non-conformist and “unfeminine” heroines, but I tend to get put off by the damaged survivor thing, especially when it's related to the non-conformity or unfeminine traits. It often feels too much like the Red Sonja deal, like the default setting for women is “delicate, sexually reticent, non-action-girl” and an individual woman can only not be that if they're somehow damaged.

    That’s a really good point re. the non-conformist heroine, and I agree, although many of the nonconformist male characters I see in book have been through traumas too.

    One of the many things I loved about One on One was that at the end of the book, though Deanie has won more acceptance than she had in the beginning, she doesn’t stop shaving her head. She is still a rebel and a nonconformist at heart, and having found a measure of healing doesn’t make that go away.

    To get back to your earlier point, I think trauma is sometimes used to garner reader sympathy for a character and that this is the reason it is often linked with nonconformist, outsider characters.

    The success of that technique on me depends though on whether it feels like the trauma is only in the character’s past to make them sympathetic (in which case it doesn’t work for me), or whether it’s a part of the way the character is thoughtfully constructed and one of the things that formed that character on a deeper level than just ass-kicking.

    That said, there are exceptions. Two of my favorites are Robin McKinley's Lissar and, particularly, Cynthia Voigt's Dicey Tillerman. I like Dicey particularly because she's not what I would describe as Trauma Girl: she deals with things *by* dealing with things, she's very action-oriented, and she's extremely self-possessed, especially for being thirteen at the start of the series.

    I have not read either book but they sound interesting.

  12. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:21:23

    @Llamalu:

    I’ve only read the first Eve Dallas book but I would agree that Eve fits the “damaged survivor” description. She is one strong and resilient character and I think that’s a big part of her appeal to readers.

  13. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:26:37

    @cead:

    Damaged heroines are my favourites if they're done well. This is partly because damaged heroes are so common, and I have a very hard time buying into a pairing of a damaged hero with an undamaged heroine (or vice versa). Not for a long-term relationship, anyway.

    Victim heroines don't necessarily put me off unless they're martyrs; martyrs I can't stand. I hate it when abused heroines end up meekly and joyfully accepting their horrible family's too-little too-late apologies at the end, all in the name of “we're family”. But I do enjoy heroines who start off in apparently the same situation as a classic martyr heroine, but have the sense to be angry about it and, when offered an opportunity to get out of the situation, take it and run.

    That’s an excellent description of both Lisabeth and Deanie, so I think you might enjoy these books.

    I wonder if you would love or hate Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold, which is my favorite book in this genre. This is a book where the hero starts out abusive to the heroine, and then turns around and becomes her biggest ally. She does get angry at him, but it takes her a good chunk of the book and some readers don’t feel that that’s enough. OTOH, the characterizations are so brilliant that I loved both hero and heroine in this book, and really believed in the hero’s redemption and the heroine’s healing, despite the unlikelihood of such a thing in real life.

  14. Sunita
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:32:32

    @Janine: THaTH was the first book I thought of, and I was surprised you didn’t mention it earlier.

    Sheila Simonson has a non-conformist heroine in Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. She falls into that group of lady scientists in historicals, although I’m not sure if that’s what you meant.

    And of course Anne Stuart has a number of damaged heroines (I think my favorite is the heroine in Banish Misfortune).

  15. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:32:52

    @Helen: I haven’t heard of that book, but thank you for recommending it.

    @Diane V: Yes, Elena (as well as Eve) is an excellent example of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I find it interesting that both these heroines, although written by romance genre authors, are from book series published with one foot outside the genre.

  16. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:36:09

    @Tracey: Agree on both heroines. I especially like your insight into Lisbeth (and to a lesser degree, Eve) that they use their angst to manage the world. That’s a good way to put it, and I think it’s true of Deanie too.

  17. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:39:21

    @Edie:

    I am a big fan of the outsider/non-conformist heroine. But can't say I come across too many in the romance genre. They may start out a little bit non-conformist, but they are generally ‘cleaned' up well before the end of the book.

    Yes! I so agree with this. And that was why I wanted to know whether readers felt that such a heroine could work in the genre. I can’t imagine a heroine who shaves her head in a contemporary romance, for example, although given how much I enjoyed the romantic storyline in One on One, I am certainly open to such a heroine.

    The closest I guess, is Shelly Laurenston's heroines, while not overly ‘damaged' they are certainly non-conformist, completely OTT, but oh how I adore.
    Actually I think my top three rom heroines are all from Shelly Laurenston.

    You’ve just made me a lot more interested in Laruenston’s books.

  18. Sunita
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:41:26

    I can’t believe I forgot this one: A Soldier’s Heart by Kathleen Korbel.

  19. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:52:50

    @Sunita:

    THaTH was the first book I thought of, and I was surprised you didn't mention it earlier.

    I probably didn’t mention it earlier because my piece sprang from a comparison of Lisbeth and Deanie, and Rachel in THATH, while certainly someone who finds a way to survive a lot of trauma and injustice, is pretty different from them.

    She is an outsider, but she doesn’t want to be one. And anger is not her defense mechanism, but erasing herself (as Sebastian puts it) is. still, she’s a hugely compelling character and I love her to bits.

    Sheila Simonson has a non-conformist heroine in Lady Elizabeth's Comet. She falls into that group of lady scientists in historicals, although I'm not sure if that's what you meant.

    I haven’t read the book but I do think it’s easier to write a non-conformist heroine in a historical because if the reason they don’t conform is that they are scientists or want the right to vote, those are things contemporary readers can easily relate to.

    Whereas a contemporary heroine who has tattoos and facial piercings isn’t something I’ve seen in a romance yet.

    And of course Anne Stuart has a number of damaged heroines (I think my favorite is the heroine in Banish Misfortune).

    I haven’t read that particular book, but I usually prefer Stuart’s heroes to her heroines, precisely because it’s the heroes who are the non-conformists in her books.

    I just thought of another interesting book with this theme, Dirty by Megan Hart. Elle is both damaged and a survivor, and while I don’t know if she exactly embraces or celebrates it, she definitely does choose an outsider status. It’s Dan who brings her into the fold, rather than the other way around. Though again, this book is not published as a romance.

    Bryony from my crit partner Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband may also qualify, although the suffering in her past isn’t the typical trauma, and again while she is an outsider, and even chooses to be one, it’s not something I feel she celebrates or embraces.

  20. Isabel C.
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 10:59:18

    @janine: <blockquote cite="The success of that technique on me depends though on whether it feels like the trauma is only in the character's past to make them sympathetic (in which case it doesn't work for me), or whether it's a part of the way the character is thoughtfully constructed and one of the things that formed that character on a deeper level than just ass-kicking."

    Yes, and also what you said about the character being a non-conformist at heart even without the trauma. If the trauma makes them tough and kickass and rebellious, I’m very wary about it; if being tough and kickass and rebellious gets them through the trauma, I’m much more likely to enjoy the character.

    I’m also far more likely to enjoy characters whose damage doesn’t come from sexual and/or domestic abuse: I’ve seen that particular issue done to often and too badly in fiction.

  21. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:14:48

    If the trauma makes them tough and kickass and rebellious, I'm very wary about it; if being tough and kickass and rebellious gets them through the trauma, I'm much more likely to enjoy the character.

    Agreed. Too often non-conformity, esp. in female characters, is portrayed as a sign that there is something deeply wrong in that character’s psyche that needs to be fixed. I myself don’t hold that view.

    I'm also far more likely to enjoy characters whose damage doesn't come from sexual and/or domestic abuse: I've seen that particular issue done to often and too badly in fiction.

    Yes, it has been done a lot in fiction, and as with anything that has been done a lot, we’ve seen many poor executions of that storyline. For that reason I’m not immediately compelled when I see another one.

    However, my feeling is that the reason sexual and domestic abuse are written about so frequently is that they are tragically common in our society, and that makes the fantasy of escaping such circumstances potent. I haven’t closed the door on that particular plot because when it’s written really well, it can be so satisfying.

  22. Elyssa Papa
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:20:23

    I wonder if Sugar Beth in AIN’T SHE SWEET and Rachel in DREAM A LITTLE DREAM would fit in these categories. Both are damaged: Sugar was, at one time, the Queen Bee but lost her status and when she returns she is lower than low; and everyone hates Rachel b/c of dead husband’s conning ways. But I’m not sure if they ever embrace their outside status, although both heroes do get the heroines welcomed back into the fold to some degree. I believe in many contemp romances it’s all about community and belonging to one but I digress….

    I do love reading about damaged heroines, and also non-conformist ones (though the latter seems to be hard to find). And you’ve made me want to hunt down the Tabitha King novel.

  23. SylviaSybil
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:22:25

    Anna Latham from Patricia Briggs’ Alpha and Omega series (starts with “Alpha and Omega” in On the Prowl). When the series opens, she’s trapped in a horrifying situation that’s been deliberately engineered to keep her meek and oppressed. But she’s learned how to survive, how to stay unnoticed and unprovocative. At one point she even takes herself hostage by calmly promising to commit suicide if she’s ever raped again. Since the villains need her alive, this works.
    .
    But once she’s out of that situation, moved to a new pack and living with her new mate, her life actually gets harder. She has to learn how to live again, and all the reactions that kept her alive before now just confuse the situation and make it worse.

  24. Jill Sorenson
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:24:33

    I can totally relate to outsider heroines because I’ve always felt like an outsider. I remember a year of jr. high that I had no friends, not even someone to eat lunch with. *sad face* Now I really want to read King’s book.

    Jennifer Echols Going Too Far has an outsider heroine. The Cynthia Voight book referenced above, Homecoming? I loved that as a kid.

  25. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:36:42

    @Elyssa Papa:

    One on One is totally worth hunting down! Since this piece was focused on heroines, I didn’t get to discuss Sam much, but he is such a wonderful, heroic character to me.

    Re. the SEP books, I never finished Dream a Little Dream (couldn’t get past the basic premise that a whole town would be so publicly rude to the heroine), but I loved Ain’t She Sweet.

    I agree Sugar Beth is something of an outsider, as well as a bit damaged, and definitely a survivor. I loved her. And good point about Colin being the one to return her to the fold.

    I also agree that romance, and especially contemporaries, are all about community, but I also think it is possible to find community and still be a nonconformist.

    I’m not sure if that makes sense, but in real life I often see outsiders make their own little family with each other. There are little communities of geeks, for example, who have stopped trying to fit in. And the online romance community is a great place to start being proud of one’s romance reading rather than accept the shame that some in society try to attach to it.

    Francesca Lia Block’s YA book Weetzie Bat, in which the main character and her gay best friend make a little community for themselves, is a great example of that.

    I’m not sure why we don’t seem to see much of that in contemporary romances. Sometimes it seems to me that many contemporary romances aren’t just about community but also about the mainstream. The characters are so mainstream at times that I have difficulty relating them and prefer some contemporary erotica, chick lit or urban fantasy where I can find contemporary characters that are a little bit more quirky.

    I could be wrong, but I believe that there are other readers who hunger for that, and it’s only rarely to be found in the contemporary romance.

  26. helen
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:43:50

    Oh, oh I totally forgot a series I just finished reading. Stacia Kane’s Chess Putnam books. Talk about a damaged heroine (and hero for that matter). It was an interesting series primarily BECAUSE of the totally messed up situations both the hero and heroine found themselves in.

    Also one more, Francine Rivers historical romance Redeeming Love had a very damaged heroine.

  27. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:44:04

    @Jill Sorenson: I felt like an outsider as a kid too. My family moved around a lot so I didn’t have much opportunity to make friends, plus I was viewed as foreign by other kids.

    But as an adult, I feel much less that way, even though I haven’t made a strong attempt to conform (or at least, I don’t perceive that I have). It’s one of the reasons I think there is room for outsider heroines in romance, and they don’t necessarily have to have all their nonconformity ironed out of them.

    I’ve been wanting to read that Echols book, so thanks for the rec.

    I think you could really enjoy One on One. I see cheap used copies on addall.com but it was published in hardcover as well as paperback, so you may be able to find it in a library as well.

  28. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:46:23

    @SylviaSybil: Oh, I adore Anna in that Briggs series. Briggs gives her so much humanity. Charles is an outsider too, so it’s an interesting pairing.

  29. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 11:47:57

    @helen: Haven’t read the Stacia Kane series but I appreciate the rec.

    I read Redeeming Love many years ago (the original version). That was one tough-to-read book.

  30. Diane V
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 12:33:42

    @helen

    I, too, thought about Chess in Stacia Kane’s Ghost series, but didn’t know if a choice to be a drug addict qualified as a damaged survivor. But after seeing your post, guess there probably isn’t a better recent depiction of a heroine who is so screwed up that she almost loses everything through her poor choices – she is the reason that she is damaged (unlike Eve Dallas or Elena who were damaged as children by others.)

    BTW, what did you think of the 2nd book “Unholy Magic”? I disliked Chess so much in that book that I almost didn’t read “City of Ghosts” which was just fabulous.

  31. Jane
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 13:00:36

    I guess I disagree with the idea that the heroines in mainstream con temps are all insiders. I think the whole chick lit genre is premised on the girl who doesn’t fit in quite right whether it is due to ineptitude, shyness, weight, looks, etc.

  32. Elyssa Papa
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 13:01:10

    Janine, DALD is my fave SEP book–the author does some wonderful things, writing wise, in that book. But I know that SEP’s books can have opposite reactions in readers.

    I was also an outsider in high school; at lunch, I would go to the library and do work. I wasn’t uncomfortable but I was aware I didn’t belong to a set group. As a result, I think I’m more interested in reading heroines or heroes who aren’t in the community and have an underdog-like status (meaning, I always want to root for the heroine).

    I know this goes way back and is not a romance by any means but I think Hester Prynne fits the mode. At the end she and Pearl are living by themselves, presumably in a community, but it’s very clear they are not part of that community.

    I also think you’re right about forming your own community within a community. I think some authors do this. Like with Sugar Beth, she has formed that community with the other women (I forget what they call themselves) and Rachel’s community centers on Gabe and her son. But they do seem to be more integrated into the fold.

    I had a discussion about this, to some degree, with a friend when we were discussing my writing. And she pointed out to me–it was as, Oprah would say a, “Aha” moment–that even if you were accepted by community you could still feel like an outsider, as if you truly didn’t belong.

    And, perhaps, hopefully, in contemp romances to come we will see more of this–where there is an overhaul community but within that the heroine finds her own niche for herself.

    Oh, and I totally agree with you about Byrony in NQAH. Another example could be Jenny in Courtney Milan’s PROOF BY SEDUCTION: no family, her career as a fortune teller, and virtually no money to her name…she has no one but finds a community with Gareth and Ned.

  33. Elyssa Papa
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 13:05:43

    Sigh. Overall community not overhaul. *hangs head in shame*

  34. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 13:32:37

    @Elyssa Papa: Yes, Proof by Seduction is an excellent example too. Esp. since Gareth, even though he’s a marquess (IIRC) feels like an outsider too.

    And your fortune teller heroine mention makes me think of the heroine from Lydia Joyce’s Wicked Intentions. Both characters in that book were outsiders in some ways, and they made their own little community.

    Re. DALD, I didn’t get far in it, but maybe I should give it another chance sometimes. When SEP is at her best (like in Ain’t She Sweet) I love many things about her writing, but I sometimes find her premises really far fetched. At times they can require more suspension of disbelief than I can always muster.

    I agree sometimes even the most popular people can feel isolated, and that can be an interesting contrast in a character — the person who is the toast of their community but feels they don’t belong.

  35. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 13:46:22

    @Jane: Missed your post. Yes, there are plenty of heroines who feel geeky, shy, etc., esp. in chick lit (which in my mind is a distinct genre from contemporary romance) but what I meant is that there aren’t many heroines who are proud of their nonconformity and who reject the idea of trying to fit in.

  36. Barbara
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 14:48:46

    It’s not a classical romance in that the heroine has zero romance in her body and is only loved from afar by a few people, but Carol O’Connell’s to die for series of books about the character Mallory (she doesn’t even have a last name) are incredible. I forget even the order, but some of the books are Mallory’s Oracle, Killing Critics, Winter House, Crime School and Find Me.

    She basically lived in foster care and on the streets as a pickpocket until a cop literally just brought her home. The running joke that isn’t such a joke is that she remains a cold, feral person. She’s icy, amazing at computers, gadgetry and guns and wouldn’t have a clue what to do on a date. Probably shoot the poor guy.

    In the final book (Find Me), she ends up sort of losing her shell and becoming more human. Amazing, amazing series, one that I adore and went crazy waiting for new books. I think O’Connell retired the series now.

  37. FD
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 15:16:55

    I too like a nonconforming heroine, but it is sadly rare in romanceland.
    I think maybe the ‘subversive’ heroines in historicals, what with their education and emancipation are actually retrospectively respectable, because no matter how strongly period set the book is, we as readers bring our mindset of ‘what is acceptable’ today to it, and those things are entirely mainstream now. (If not as solidly rooted as I’d like) From that pov, the only subversive heroines in historicals are the unabashedly sexual ones, which is still an area we struggle with today.
    As with commenters above, I’m deeply wary of trauma led rebellion, although slightly sympathetic to the idea that social norms are so strongly set that it takes literally having nothing to lose to jolt people out of them. However only slightly sympathetic, because I find that notion deeply depressing.

    @Jane:
    I don’t think failure to conform to social norms and being an outsider are the same things.

    @Diane V: I thought Chess’s drug abuse came from exactly the same place as the two heroines in this thread – she’s a survivor of horrific childhood sexual abuse; in attempting to cope with that, uses the drugs to self medicate and becomes addicted to them. IMO, she’s a survivor to be celebrated too.

    In terms of book recs, I’d second the above, and maybe suggest Kate Shugak from Dana Stabenow’s Alaskan mystery series. Unconventional, strong-minded survivor in a well written series, and an incredible and unique setting.

  38. An
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 15:58:11

    I’m surprised no one’s brought up Lilith Saintcrow’s books. All of her heroines are strong women with difficult pasts (so far that I’ve found) but who cope and survive and keep moving. I especially love her YA (published as Lili St. Crow). It’s a little less dark but still really wonderful characters.

  39. Jane
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 16:13:16

    @Janine I guess I still have to disagree with you. There are several nonconformists in contemporary romance although I would say that it is harder to be a nonconformist in contemporaries because there is a greater tolerance (particularly, I would argue, by the reader). I think Jayne Ann Krentz has a number of quiet non conformists (if we are referring to individuals who embrace being outside the social normas). Min from Bet Me would be another non conformist (not have children! be okay with being heavier!). The Bellini Bride is about a woman who poses nude and thus is viewed as someone as more of a curiosity but when offered an opportunity to “clear her name” she refuses.

    I don’t disagree that Deannie embraces her outsider/non conformist status but she does so from a place of deep pain having been sexually and physically abused. Her tattooes and piercings don’t reflect a cheerful and totally willing embrace of being viewed as “other”.

    I guess it depends on the degree of non conformity that you are seeking. If it is to the extent of Lisbeth Salander who is antisocial (and possibly clinically a sociapath), then yes, we probably don’t see many of those within the romance genre but there are quieter signs of non conformity all over the place. Victoria Dahl’s heroines in contemporary romance such as Molly, the unabashed sexual creature, is certainly one of those. (and Dahl herself takes a lot of flack for her so called slutty heroines).

  40. Jane
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 16:15:54

    @FD I’m not sure to what you are referring but I think that there are heroines within the genre who are both resisting social norms and feel as if they don’t belong.

  41. Carin
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 16:22:25

    Eve Dallas comes to mind as many have mentioned, and I agree with Patricia Briggs’ Anna and pretty much all of Shelly Laurenston’s heroines, too. I first thought of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy, though. Definitely an outsider, though she’s slowly being welcomed into Adam’s pack.

    Spider’s Bite by Jennifer Estep has Gin. While she has family now, she has a past and doesn’t really fit in with regular people – she can fake it for a job, but she’s not really part of it.

    I think what I admire in these heroines is their self confidence and ability to get things done, but mostly how someone else’s opinion is not important. That’s something to admire, something I strive for myself.

  42. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 17:53:07

    @ Barbara: That series sounds really good.

    @FD:

    I think maybe the ‘subversive' heroines in historicals, what with their education and emancipation are actually retrospectively respectable, because no matter how strongly period set the book is, we as readers bring our mindset of ‘what is acceptable' today to it, and those things are entirely mainstream now. (If not as solidly rooted as I'd like)

    That’s what I was trying to get at in my comment to Sunita above (#19). I think it’s rare to find a heroine who is nonconformist by the social standards of today’s society.

    Thanks for the Stabenow rec. I’ve heard good things about those books before.

    @An: Thanks for recommending Lili Saintcrow.

  43. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 17:56:00

    @Jane: It’s been ages since I read Krentz. Her heroines were a little quirky, IIRC, often artistic and vegetarian, and that is something I appreciated in her books. Still, I didn’t see them as particularly defiant.

    Maybe what we’re talking about is a matter of degree. I don’t need a character to be a borderline sociopath for me to describe them as nonconformist, but I do need them to behave as if they don’t give a damn what other people think of them. And that if someone disapproves of their choices, it’s that other person’s problem and not theirs.

    I don’t really see Min from Bet Me in that light because if memory serves it takes some help from Cal for her to learn to ignore her mother. I don’t fault her for that, but to my mind she’s not the “I don’t give a crap” type.

    I do think Min and Cal’s decision that they didn’t want children was pretty revolutionary in the genre, but I don’t see it as equally revolutionary in real life. Yes, people face a lot of social pressure to have children, but it’s such a deeply personal choice that it’s not that remarkable to see people defying that particular social convention in the real world, whereas in the romance genre it is much more rare.

    I haven’t read the Dahl books (though I have one or two TBR) or The Bellini Bride, so can’t comment on those. But what you say about Dahl facing criticism for “slutty” heroines may get at why there are so few unconventional heroines in books.

    My real life friends who have varied sexual histories, who don’t plan on having children, and who have lived with a man they didn’t marry are accepted in society, so the fact that we don’t see a lot of heroines like that in romances is interesting to me.

    I don't disagree that Deannie embraces her outsider/non conformist status but she does so from a place of deep pain having been sexually and physically abused. Her tattooes and piercings don't reflect a cheerful and totally willing embrace of being viewed as “other”.

    Yes, that is true but I suspect that even if Deanie had never been abused she would still be a rebel. It seems like an integral aspect of her personality to me.

    there are quieter signs of non conformity all over the place.

    So maybe a better way for me to phrase my question is this: Do you feel that heroine nonconformity always has to be quiet in this genre? Would a heroine who dyes hair blue and spikes it be acceptable? Could we see a flower child heroine who smokes pot in a book set in the 1960s? What about a heroine who is openly bisexual — outside of erotica?

    Can those types of heroines work in the romance genre?

  44. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 18:02:13

    @Carin:

    I think what I admire in these heroines is their self confidence and ability to get things done, but mostly how someone else's opinion is not important. That's something to admire, something I strive for myself.

    Yes, I agree. I care what other people think more than I want to, which is why it can be freeing to read about characters who don’t.

  45. orannia
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 19:38:22

    But once she's out of that situation, moved to a new pack and living with her new mate, her life actually gets harder. She has to learn how to live again, and all the reactions that kept her alive before now just confuse the situation and make it worse.

    @SylviaSybil – that’s the bit I’m so drawn to! The trying to unlearn those behaviours that kept you alive/safe…it’s not easy and it takes time, and it’s so frustrating when authors have character miraculously overcome everything. It’s so not RL. That’s why I’m so enjoying the Alpha & Omega series…

  46. Jane
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 19:38:39

    @Janine Yes, I don’t think we see many people rebelling in romance. Would Deannie still be a rebel? Probably but isn’t that a function of a teenager? I mean, how many people adults can live without truly giving a damn? Like I would have liked to have worn pant suits when I first started practicing but that was considered verboten so I wore skirts because I didn’t want to prejudice the judge against my clients. Probably someone who would totally not give a damn would have worn pant suits. In fiction that often veers into selfish behavior, something I don’t find very attractive. IN fact, Deannie’s “I don’t give a damn” attitude led to some pretty tragic results toward the end of One on One.

    I think I probably am not quite understanding the argument you are making because I guess in real life I see a lot more quiet non conformity than out right rebellion but then I am a lawyer surrounded by other lawyers and we aren’t a very rebellious group of people.

    I actually think that in some areas of category fiction, you see more non conformity. Amy Knupp, in the Harlequin Superromances, writes about very free spirited women who are not like other heroines in the genre. I think Lauren Dane’s heroine in the first of her Brown series is a punk rocker chick.

    I don’t know about a heroine who is bisexual. I think that there are some in the erotic romance genre. Are those excluded?

  47. Janine
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 20:09:19

    @Jane: The reason I excluded erotic romances is that I think the sex in those books almost demands characters who have a wild side. But if you take the desire to read about wild and crazy sex out of the equation, is there room for a heroine who happens to be openly bisexual? One who would kiss another woman in public, for example?

    I mean, how many people adults can live without truly giving a damn? Like I would have liked to have worn pant suits when I first started practicing but that was considered verboten so I wore skirts because I didn't want to prejudice the judge against my clients. Probably someone who would totally not give a damn would have worn pant suits.

    I don’t disagree that there aren’t many people who can live an “I don’t give a damn” lifestyle. And yet, I think we all have a need for freedom, and fiction is one place to explore that.

    I think if I had been in your shoes, I would also have worn skirts rather than pant suits, yet that very lack of freedom might have made me more eager to read about a character with blue hair.

    What I’m interested in exploring with my question is whether, as Elyssa Papa suggested above, romance is so closely tied with community (and perhaps, I would add, the social order and social acceptance) that rebellion becomes more difficult to pull off in this genre than in other genres.

    Because I do think I see heroines who reflect a greater variety of social freedoms in some other genres, and IMO Lisbeth Salander’s popularity shows that that kind of character can resonate with many readers.

  48. helen
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 21:08:20

    @Diane V:
    I have to admit I loved them all. I think book 2 was necessary to show us that the addiction was a real, hardcore part of her life. Her choices were piss poor because they all revolved around her addiction, how to get more drugs, when she could take her next hit etc. I think this series was amazing and I’d give it 5 stars (A+) because it was so different with a totally different kind of ending. I hope she gives us more in the series and in that particular world. She did a great job with the world-building.

  49. Suze
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 22:02:51

    I agree with the Shelly Laurenston mentions. In addition to being hot and damned funny stories, she writes some very “outsider” heroines–her hybrid shifters, some of the humans who are dating the shifters, and her new Norse mythology series all feature women who are strong, sexual, and not quite normal. And they’re all pretty okay with that. I’m just now rereading all of her books that I have, and I’m loving them all over again.

    I love Briggs as well, including her older stuff. The Hurog books have a male POV protag, but his beloved is VERY outside. (Hurog means dragon. I love that line. Don’t know why.)

    It’s been awhile since I read them, but all three of Jill Sorenson’s books (all THREE! Write more, darn you!) strike me as having damaged, other heroines. I don’t reread them often because they wring the heart right out of me. (And I want MOAR!)

  50. Elle
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 23:14:12

    I would put Eve Dallas in the same bucket as Deanie and Lisbeth since she has the same mental toughness, survivor spirit, and “damn your eyes” attitude toward the world in general, but Min from Crusie’s “Bet Me” doesn’t strike me as the same type at all. IIRC, Min spent most of the book (unsuccessfully) attempting to stick to a diet, and did not embrace her own pleasantly plump self until Cal convinced her that he thought that she was sexy just the way that she was. She is an unusual romance heroine due to the fact that she was slightly overweight and did not undergo a magical transformation into a perfect size 6 by the end of the story, but she did not seem like a non-conformist to me.

    Elle from Megan Hart’s “Dirty” is another very damaged heroine and is an interesting counterpoint to Deanie and Lisbeth. IIRC, Elle’s protective “disguise” is an exterior appearance of ultra-conformity and blandness, in contrast to Deanie and Lisbeth’s choice of tattoos and multiple body piercings which the latter use to repel and hold others at arm’s length as much as to indicate their own feelings of separateness from the masses.

  51. SylviaSybil
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 00:49:29

    @orannia:

    That’s what draws me to Anna’s story too. She had this tiny world where she only had one safe choice. Then suddenly all these options open up and she doesn’t know what to do. The people around her don’t react like they’re supposed to. I think that conflict is really exemplified in the restaurant scene where she tells Charles that if he’s going to change all the rules on her, he can damn well tell her what the new rules are.
    .
    But at the same time I really admired how even in her abusive pack, Anna found tiny ways to defy them, little pricks that helped keep her sane. Muttering Latin proverbs under her breath, buying silver weaponry without permission. And of course, calling the cops when she saw the child who’d been kidnapped.
    .
    One thing I really love about Patricia Briggs’ writing is that everything isn’t miraculously made better, and the characters have to struggle with the memories of their abuse. After Anna’s been taken away from her tormentors, she has to relearn her own emotions, not sure what she’s feeling or why. She doesn’t know which of her instincts can be trusted (touch the Moor to soothe his mind) and which can’t (show submission to Charles to dispel his anger).
    .
    And Charles really has to work with Anna to avoid triggering those memories. This wasn’t as much in the first book, he’s mostly trying not to scare her away then, but by the second book we really see the sacrifices he has to make for that relationship to work. He can’t sleep in the nude, as he prefers. He must always put Anna on top during sex and never ever pin her down. He can’t catch her by the wrist or the shoulder to get her attention, not even for a second. And he has to keep all of this in mind every minute of the day, even if it’s at a subconscious level.
    .
    Charles has his own damage of course, and Anna has to work with him to get around it. To me that’s a huge part of what makes this relationship great. At its core, it’s a story of two people helping each other to live and find joy in life, something neither would be able to do nearly as well without the other.

  52. DianeN
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 09:33:37

    What a great discussion, and it looks like my apartment-eating TBR mountain is going to get even bigger with all the recs! One point I’d like to make is that damaged heroines and nonconformist heroines can be radically different creatures, making comparisons almost impossible. Damaged heroines often tend to be outsiders and/or nonconformists, but there are many nonconformist heroines who are not damaged at all but have simply made the choice to be different. I’ve always been an outsider. At times it has felt like someone or something has pushed me in that direction, but as I’ve gotten older and more introspective I’ve come to realize that it has been my own choices that have separated me from what passes as “normal” behavior–and I came from middle class America, with no trauma or damage to speak of unless you count the cheating ex-husband! But, honestly, the fact that I even got married to begin with was an unsuccessful effort to abandon my outsider status, so I think that damage was to a certain extent self-inflicted.

  53. Janine
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 12:23:03

    @Suze: Thanks for all the recommendations.

    @Elle: Agree on Eve and Min. Re. Elle from Hart’s Dirty, I agree she certainly does conform, but at the same time, she too keeps people at arms’ length and feels separate from the world, so it’s an interesting comparison.

    @SylviaSybil & orannia — I’m loving your discussion of the Briggs series, since those are some of my favorite books.

    @DianeN: I completely agree that one can be non-conformist without being damaged. They are separate traits and don’t always go together.

    It’s just that they do go together in Lisbeth and Deanie, and when Jane asked me to do a piece on these two heroines, I had to give a lot of thought to what their appeal to me was and what they had in common, and their non-conformity was part of that equation, as was their ability to survive a lot.

  54. Jill Sorenson
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 14:05:50

    @Suze: Thanks Suze! Two more books with damaged heroines, coming right up. :) Next year.

    I was thinking that we see more outsider heroes in romance. Lone wolf types. For me personally, I like to start with characters who are lonely. They might not know it or admit it to themselves, but they long for companionship.

    Because romance is about connecting with another person, self-isolation just isn’t sustainable. Maybe the heroine doesn’t have to embrace conformity or community, but she has to embrace love and companionship.

    I’ve thought about why I’m an outsider and agree with another commenter that it is a natural inclination, not necessarily a reaction to my life experiences. I have frequently pushed people away, but the ones I let in I cherish with all my heart. So I appreciate Janine’s take on this topic as a character trait that doesn’t necessarily need to be “fixed.” Even though I believe that romantic heroes and heroines must let go of the outsider status, to some extent, in order to be part of a couple.

  55. Robin
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 14:37:30

    Fascinating post and comments!

    My first thought as I’m reading through is that there are several issues here that I see as related but not identical.

    First I see the issue of outsider v. insider. I agree with Elyssa Papa that Romance is largely about community, and specifically about a romantic union of two people in a way that’s an idealized social microcosm. I tend to see Romance as substantially derived from Classical Comedy, where an older social order is replaced by a new (progressive) social order, symbolized by a young couple overcoming obstacles to marriage (and the story ending with a wedding to celebrate the toppling of the old society and the fertility of the new, etc.). So IMO there is always a tension between the insider and the outsider in the genre.

    As for outsider heroines, my experience as a reader is that contemp Romance is full of them, from SEP’s Blue Bailey in Natural Born Charmer, to Min Dobbs in Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, to Eve Dallas in the JD Robb series, to all of Shelly Laurenston’s heroines, to a boatload of Harlequin Presents heroines, to Jane in Victoria Dahl’s Lead Me On, etc. As for whether they remain outsiders, or to what extent they are outsiders, is obviously debatable.

    Then I see the issue of confidence as it relates to the quality of being a non-conformist. Here things get more complicated for me, because I rarely see these particularly rebellious characters as super-confident, especially if they are significantly damaged. They may have a lot of bravado, but I see that as mostly a defense mechanism, an f-you to a society that they perceive as having said f-you first.

    While I haven’t read the King book (although I ordered it — there are quite a few used-for-a-penny copies on Amazon), I’ve read the Larsson, and IMO Lisbeth has a great deal of bravado, an incredible survivor’s psyche, but not true self-confidence in the sense of real self-acceptance and authentic contentedness. I adore her as a character, but I don’t find her particularly well-suited as a character to romantic heroism, at least not the way Larsson has created her.

    That said, I agree that Romance has not really embraced the heroine who wears certain obvious badges of non-conformity, while the genre seems to have a higher tolerance for those badges in heroes. I wonder if, in part, this has to do with fear of creating the unlikeable heroine. On the flip side, I wouldn’t like to see a bunch of heroines with body piercings and shaved heads who went from brash rebellion to pliant submission (i.e. superficial non-conformity only), which, I fear, might be a too common trajectory.

    Because we see something similar with heroes who are not merely non-conformists but who are even damaged in serious ways. Bastian from Anne Stuart’s Black Ice, comes to mind, as does the “hero” from Debra Webb’s Striking Distance, who was brainwashed since a young age to become a heartless assassin and so f-ed up that the heroine constantly asks herself what a smart woman like her — with a master’s degree in psychology! — would be doing with a guy like him (and it was a GOOD question!). This guy was nowhere near ready for any functional relationship, but he’s made into a romantic “hero,” despite very few heroic traits, IMO (AAR has an interesting review of the book: http://www.likesbooks.com/cgi-bin/bookReview.pl?BookReviewId=274). Then there’s Bastian, who goes from heartless, soulless assassin to loving, well-adjusted house husband and father within the space of a couple of books.

    Is the journey of a damaged, emotionally and possibly physically scarred woman toward healing and love appealing to me? Definitely. But I think there’s a fine line to walk between a romantic journey for a character like that and romanticizing damaged characters. In fact, I think those damaged characters are the ones who most need the acceptance of society, because so often their damage has been caused by the lack of a supportive social network. Which is, I guess, where I see another divergence between the rebellious character who is proud of her non-conformity and a damaged character who has a great deal of bravado as a coping mechanism for being rejected, neglected, and abused by various people or parts of society.

    For a while now, Jane has been urging me to read Anne Calhoun’s Liberating Lacey, and when I finally read the book I was struck by how confident Lacey was. And it’s very interesting, because she is a social insider in the most stereotypical ways — trust fund baby, private schools, highly educated, successful commercial mortgage broker, etc. But her confidence does not seem to come from those things. She likes nice things but does not use them as camouflage for an empty emotional life. She has a large trust fund but she works hard for her money and she’s proud of her earned accomplishments. Her failed marriage has made her wary, but it has not made her a quivering mass of insecurity and self-doubt. And when she meets a younger, blue collar guy, he’s the one who’s far more bothered by the money difference. The way an emotional bond grows between these two characters is very multi-layered, in part because while both characters have insecurities, they also both have areas of competence in their lives that they can reasonably appreciate and measure. And in that, I found Lacey to be one of the more *unusual* heroines in the genre, because the author doesn’t cut her off at the knees (figuratively, of course) to make her “humble” enough to “deserve” emotional satisfaction in a romantic relationship. And she gets that satisfaction in a pretty non-conforming way, which is IMO an interesting twist on the insider/outsider dynamic.

  56. Janine
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 16:18:16

    @Jill Sorenson:

    Because romance is about connecting with another person, self-isolation just isn't sustainable. Maybe the heroine doesn't have to embrace conformity or community, but she has to embrace love and companionship.

    I think that is pretty much undeniable. I can’t see a romance working if the heroine never embraces love and companionship.

  57. Janine
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 16:49:55

    @Robin: Wow, so much in your post it will be hard to respond to everything.

    First I completely agree that the outsider (especially in the sense of feeling like she is on the outside looking in) heroine is pretty common in romance. But I do see that as distinct from the heroine who, as Elle put it in comment #50, has a “damn your eyes” attitude toward the world and society.

    I rarely see these particularly rebellious characters as super-confident, especially if they are significantly damaged. They may have a lot of bravado, but I see that as mostly a defense mechanism, an f-you to a society that they perceive as having said f-you first.

    Oh yes, I couldn’t agree more with this. I was actually saying the same thing to my husband last night when I told him about this post. I’m not actually sure where the idea that I see these heroines as confident originated, since I don’t think I said so in my post. I see strength in that type of bravado, and something to admire in that kind of defense mechanism, but I never said, nor did I mean to imply, that I saw these characters as confident and well-adjusted.

    That said, I agree that Romance has not really embraced the heroine who wears certain obvious badges of non-conformity, while the genre seems to have a higher tolerance for those badges in heroes.

    Yes. That is what I was trying to get at in my posts to Jane.

    I wonder if, in part, this has to do with fear of creating the unlikeable heroine.

    I think that may very well be part of it (and in that light I found Jane’s comment that she views some rebellious behaviors in fiction as selfish and unattractive interesting), but I wonder if another part of it has to do with the way the HEA is often tied to social success and acceptance.

    Of course, there are plenty of romances about ordinary people, but given the popularity of aristocrats and millionaires in this genre, I wonder how important being on top of the social heap is when it comes to the happy endings.

    On the flip side, I wouldn't like to see a bunch of heroines with body piercings and shaved heads who went from brash rebellion to pliant submission (i.e. superficial non-conformity only), which, I fear, might be a too common trajectory.

    Ugh. That’s not something I want to see either. And I agree that damaged heroes are frequently domesticated too easily. Debra Webb’s hero in Striking Distance (I read that book on your recommendation a while back) is a great example of that.

    For a while now, Jane has been urging me to read Anne Calhoun's Liberating Lacey, and when I finally read the book I was struck by how confident Lacey was. And it's very interesting, because she is a social insider in the most stereotypical ways -‘ trust fund baby, private schools, highly educated, successful commercial mortgage broker, etc. But her confidence does not seem to come from those things.

    Have you read Nalini Singh’s Branded by Fire? This is kind of off-topic here but my impressions of Mercy in that book where somewhat similar to what you describe with Lacey — I thought she was a confident and healthy character, and I loved her. She’s my favorite of all of Singh’s heroines.

    I don’t think of either Deanie or Lisbeth as confident heroines, but I do see them, to use your words, as wearing a badge of nonconformity. I think it’s interesting to ponder whether a heroine like that could work in a romance.

  58. orannia
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 18:28:09

    @SylviaSybil – WOW! All the thoughts in my head about that series you’ve expressed beautifully! And that restaurant scene…that so resonated. Because if you know the rules then you can keep yourself safe. But if the rules change…or keep changing, then you’re not only in limbo but in a constant state of tension.

    And yes, Anna did defy them. It wasn’t overt, but it was there. I’ve read so many books in which the heroine’s defiance is overt…Anna knew the consequences of overt defiance so she internalized most of it (to keep her safe), but it was still there.

    And I so agree with you about the ‘no miracles’ with Patricia Briggs’ writing. I hate the miraculously better. I read a book earlier this year that had me all but throwing it against the wall. The heroine was so damaged, but the love of a good man had it all fine. Anna (and Mercy) struggle each and every day…struggling to relearn emotions (and then articulate them) is so hard. And their partners struggle too (as you pointed out :)

    At its core, it's a story of two people helping each other to live and find joy in life, something neither would be able to do nearly as well without the other.

    *nods* That’s it in a nutshell. And it’s an ongoing process. *SIGH* I need to re-read these books – pick up and re-discover all the nuances. Thank you!

  59. Suze
    Sep 09, 2010 @ 20:04:55

    Because romance is about connecting with another person, self-isolation just isn't sustainable. Maybe the heroine doesn't have to embrace conformity or community, but she has to embrace love and companionship.

    That, right there, is what I love about reading romance novels. That embracing of love, or giving up self-isolation and risking heartache (winner takes ALL!), by the heroine AND the hero, is what makes the story. How they get there, how long, hard, easy, or funny the story is can all vary, but in the end, there needs to be that embracing.

    Wow, I hope that makes more sense than I think it does. Low blood sugar.

  60. SylviaSybil
    Sep 10, 2010 @ 12:54:58

    @orannia:

    “*SIGH* I need to re-read these books – pick up and re-discover all the nuances.”

    Hee, that’s what I did night before last. Picked up Cry Wolf and skimmed through to my favorite parts. I absolutely love the dynamic between Anna and Charles. It’s not static, they both lose their tempers with each other at times, but they both try so hard…*happy sigh*

  61. cate
    Sep 11, 2010 @ 21:17:57

    To everyone who said Eve Dallas, here’s another resounding YES.
    Andra (by Louise Lawrence) is a book I read 25yrs ago .Now it would be classified as YA, then, it was generic childrens/teen fiction.
    It still resonates with me,even after all these years, and as for the ending – Well, let’s just say that there was sniffling involved

  62. K
    Sep 19, 2010 @ 19:08:53

    This comment is showing up quite a while later, Janine, but thanks for the recommendation. Having just finished One on One, now I’m going to need some processing time! I’m not sure what I think of the ending, but the book’s going to stay with me for a while.

  63. Janine
    Sep 19, 2010 @ 21:44:53

    @K: Oh, you’re very welcome, K. It’s a book I’ve reread many times and has stuck with me as well.

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