The Harlequin/Mills & Boon Medical Romance Line
Recently Harlequin USA put out a call seeking novels for their Medical Romance line. Jessica at RRR noted this in a links roundup post and wondered who the audience for them was, because she didn’t know anyone who read them. Commenters, myself included, quickly replied that she did indeed know some readers, but her post reminded me that very few blogs and review sites talk about them, especially those written by readers based in the US. But anyone who regularly reads the Harlequin Presents line has probably read books from the Medical line, because several Presents authors write for both and occasionally their Mills & Boon Medicals are distributed as HP Extras. And, of course, the Queen of Dutch Doctors, Betty Neels, wrote dozens of doctor-nurse romances, complete with confusing medical jargon and status/occupation rankings that are baffling to American readers.
I have loved doctor-nurse romances ever since I found Cherry Ames, Student Nurse in my junior high school library. I don’t know why, because I’ve never wanted to be either a doctor or a nurse. My doctor relatives and friends are good at their jobs but we rarely talk about them, and until I was middle-aged I spent almost no time in hospitals. It must be because I like worldbuilding, and hospitals really are their own unique, almost self-contained worlds. In the olden days, medical romances featured handsome, brilliant, and usually rich doctors who fell in love with either beautiful, feisty, yet competent nurses or jolie-laide, shy, yet competent nurses over the course of 192 pages. But while that still happens, we now have the greater likelihood in real life of male nurses and female doctors. Have Medicals changed along with real life? What kind of lives and romances do these books portray now?
Like every other Harlequin line, Medicals have a set of distinguishing characteristics. First, the hero and heroine have to be medics. Women can be doctors, although men are not yet allowed to be nurses (if someone has a contradictory example, please comment!). They can have related medical occupations, like EMT, and they can work in hospitals or in private practice. The majority of Medicals are set in either Australia or the UK, probably because that is where their authors live, but there are a handful of writers who set their stories in the US, such as Dianne Drake, Janice Lynn, and Laura Iding.
There are Billionaire Docs, Posh Docs, Royal Docs, and even Sheikh Docs. But there are also Ordinary Docs. A current release by Alison Roberts, Wishing for a Miracle, features a decidedly middle-class EMT hero. An appealing feature of heroes and heroines in Medicals is that even when they have HP-like attributes, there is a maturity and sense of purpose to them that makes them grounded (Lynn Spencer pointed this out in a comment to Jessica’s post). Being a Billionaire, Royal, or Sheikh (or for that matter Spanish or Italian) isn’t going to matter when you’re in an operating room engaged in a high-risk operation, or sitting in an office telling a patient he or she has a brain tumor. The hero has to be convincing as a professional, and since many readers have much more experience with illness and disease than they do with high finance or running multinational companies, the authors have relatively demanding standards of authenticity to live up to. Similarly, while there are still a few young, ingenuous heroines (Carol Marinelli has a recent release, A Knight on the Children’s Ward, with a student nurse heroine), most heroines are at the very least highly competent and often quite experienced. The hero is usually the more powerful of the couple, which can be especially acute in a medical setting, but many authors are careful to stress the importance of the subordinate occupation. An excellent book by Amy Andrews, Top-Notch Surgeon, Pregnant Nurse, has a brilliant surgeon hero, but the heroine is the head of the Surgical nursing unit, and her staff is integral to the success of a high-risk operation on conjoined twins.
Ah, those conjoined twins. There aren’t very many of those, but there are plenty of standard-issue twins in Medicals, and even more singletons. There are just babies all over the place. Either the babies are patients in the children’s ward and the heroes and heroines are OB/Gyns, Pediatricians, Childrens’ Surgeons, or Children’s nurses, or the hero or heroine has a child when the story begins. Or, of course, the heroine becomes pregnant during the course of the story, usually accidentally or because of the hero’s Miracle Penis (Caroline Anderson has a recent release,The Surgeon’s Miracle, which features a Miracle Vagina for a change). If condoms actually failed at the rate they do in Medicals, the companies that make them would have been sued out of business by now. The authors do their best to make these accidental and miraculous pregnancies believable, and the best books are pretty successful, but it is definitely a trope. I don’t mind babies in my category romances, but even I get burned out after a while.
The prevalence of miscarriage plots exemplifies the greater level of angst found in Medicals. Perhaps it’s because so much of the drama comes from serious illness/disease or unexpected pregnancy, or perhaps the seriousness of the setting and the occupations feeds it. But while the stories can have plenty of lighthearted elements, several authors write intense books (Marion Lennox is a master at these). It’s difficult to pack complicated backgrounds and foregrounds into the category format, and sometimes the complications go over the top, but when the authors pull it off, the books can be really memorable.
Despite the abundance of babies, Medicals are well worth reading for the relationships and the contexts, especially if you like UK and Oz/NZ settings. For those who like US settings, the ones I’ve read have ranged from the Deep South to rural Utah, and I hope the variety will be maintained as the US list expands. The sex is less explicit and frequent than in the HP or Blaze lines, but usually more steamy than the Harlequin Romance line. All those babies have to start somewhere! And there are some absolutely terrific authors. Among my favorites are Sarah Morgan, Kate Hardy,Marion Lennox, Amy Andrews, and Fiona Lowe, and I’m always looking for new authors.
I’ll be doing monthly mini-review roundups of a number of the Harlequin and Mills & Boon releases. The timing of releases is a bit complicated, because Harlequin doesn’t release Medicals a month early the way it does the other lines, and there is a lag between US and UK releases. Moreover, not all the M&B are released as US Harlequins, so the books may not always be reviewed in the month they’re available in the US. But I’ll try mostly to review those that I know will be released in the US, and if there is reader interest, I’d be happy to do reviews of backlist books that are still available in e-form.
If you’ve read this far and want to try out a Medical, There are several available as free online reads at the Harlequin and Mills & Boon website. Harlequin has a new one by Fiona Lowe, Return to Love, and and Mills & Boon’s online read library has stories by Melanie Milburne, Laura Iding, Dianne Drake, and Alison Roberts.
If you have authors and books to recommend, either in the Medical line or elsewhere, I’d love to hear about them.
[CONFLICT OF INTEREST DISCLOSURE: I get some free Medicals each month from Harlequin through DA, but in addition to the DA books I also read and buy M&B and print releases on my own dime. I proposed writing this post because I like the line and think it deserves more attention, and Jessica’s post (as well as this one at SBTB) made me realize that there may be quite a few of us out there who think the same way.]