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The Bittered Heroine

As I was reading the latest Susan Elizabeth Phillips book, Call Me Irresistible, I was struck hard by how many of SEP's heroines suffer seemingly endless humiliation and degradation over the course of our acquaintance with them. And because of this, they have been bittered to a certain degree.

Rachel, in Dream A Little Dream, has endured a terrible marriage and public flogging, followed by myriad small and large cruelties when she returns to the town in which she once lived large with her televangelist ex (and now dead) husband. When we meet Blue Bailey in Natural Born Charmer, she is wearing a dirty, sweaty beaver suit, broke after her cheating boyfriend abandoned her and her do-gooder mother cleaned out her bank account. And yet one might think she had not yet known how low she could be brought until she meets Dean Robillard, who picks her up on the side of the road but promises to exact a high price for his assistance. In Ain't She Sweet, Sugar Beth Carey returns broke and humbled to her childhood home, an ex-spoiled brat who once selfishly and spitefully engineered the downfall of her high school English teacher. But does Sugar Beth catch a break once she's home? Hell no. Colin Byrne, the teacher in question, now lives in Sugar Beth's childhood home and neither he nor Sugar Beth's old friends from high school can see her suffer enough for her former misdeeds.

I could go on, but before I abandon this summary, I want to include Meg Koranda, whose wealthy parents have cut her off, and whose best friend flees the altar, for which the entire town of Wynette, Texas blames her, including and perhaps especially the ex-fiancé, golden boy Mayor Ted Beaudine. It doesn't matter that Meg is not responsible for Lucy running away from marrying Ted; it doesn't matter that Ted and Lucy would have been miserable. When Lucy's parents make Meg promise to stay in Wynette to see if Lucy returns to town – "It's the least you can do after causing this mess," Lucy's mother tells her – it presents a problem because Meg has no money or working credit card. Uncomfortable indignities Hilarity ensues.

Thus my title for this post, the bittered heroine. Not the embittered heroine or even the bitter heroine; this heroine is made bitter by the circumstances created for her. She is a character device and her bittering circumstances are often a central part of the book. There may be a certain hardness, even harshness to her veneer, and she is definitely not sweet. She's usually got a smart mouth and a bruised vulnerability that makes her ongoing suffering especially punitive, even, as in Sugar Beth's case, some of what she's dealt is payback. But more often the heroine's sins are pretty minor. Rachel married the wrong man and then let him be a crook and a creep. And for that she finds herself undressing her emaciated body for Gabe Bonner to prove to him that she will do anything for a job. "Where's your pride?," Gabe asks her before rejecting her offer. "I'm fresh out," Rachel admits, and as if to illustrate that, whatever fragile financial security Rachel secures with a job is eclipsed by too many other personal and emotional humiliations to count.

This pattern is not new to the genre, of course. Rachel Gibson's books sometimes feature a beaten-down-by-life heroine returning to her hometown, and Jennifer Crusie's heroines often endure a good deal of suffering and degradation, although she tends to give them a small circle of friends or at least the tentative support of a family member. Jo Goodman's The Price of Desire features a heroine whose desperation to save her brother makes the price of her body seem reasonable to her.

But the bittered heroine is wrought to high melodrama in SEP's books, the heroine type so vividly drawn, so painfully deprived of pride and dignity that they bring into relief the extent to which a heroine may have to suffer for love. And in some cases, she must suffer at the hands of the hero, whose own emotional torments can be exorcised through his somewhat tortured relationship with the heroine. But why? Why must the heroine be bittered in order to find love, especially when the punishment so far outweighs the sin of pride for which the heroine must apparently fall and suffer.

Could it be that the bittered heroine is the female equivalent of the rake hero? The way the rake is brought low by love seems to mirror that way the bittered heroine is brought low for love. And the extent to which the rake hero must reform his life for the heroine seems to echo the way the bittered heroine gains the right focus and purpose for her life with the hero. But where the rake hero's suffering is often manifested in the emotional self-revelation of his own depth, the heroine's happiness is often earned through her suffering, a skewed martyrdom in which she has to be almost completely dismantled and then reformed (in both senses of the word) by the hero's love. Take, for example, the way that Colin writes two books about Sugar Beth, one that covers her youthful cruelty to him – "I feel like I was raped," is her response to that one – and one that tells the story of their love that is intended as a wedding gift. There is a question throughout the novel as to who is telling the story of Sugar Beth, and Colin's renderings have a great deal of power over how Sugar Beth is seen by others, including, I'd argue, the reader. It's as if the agent of some of the heroine's greatest torture inevitably becomes the means by which she must be saved.

One could argue quite handily, I think, that the bittered heroine is a convenient character device by which she is isolated enough from financial, emotional, and physical security to be ripe for the hero's romantic attention. And in the case of a heroine like Meg, her gauntlet engenders a strong sense of self-preservation, self-reliance, and plain old gumption, not to mention giving her the career focus she previously lacked. And compared to a classic fictional heroine like Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, at least the bittered Romance heroine gets to live and gets a happily ever after ending.

Still, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with the Romance heroine who is relentlessly humiliated. That I can't seem to look away makes me feel complicit, even though I understand that part of the device's logic is to create a bond of empathy between her and me. Beyond that, though, I'm not completely certain why I find this device so problematic. I think some of it has to do with the idea that pride is a bad thing and that the heroine must be brought so low that the exultation of her ultimate happiness seems even more intense and cathartic. But in some cases it seems to me that the message here is that the heroine must literally be destroyed and re-made into a better version of herself for the hero – that she must be re-figured to be deserving of the hero's love and of her happily ever after. To some degree love re-makes everyone in Romance, but the bittered heroine's humiliations can be extreme and unreasonable. She seems to suffer more than the rake hero, despite the fact that she often seems in less need of reform.

Is it possible that the bittered heroine must be brought so low because her humbling makes us feel better in some way – creates sympathy, makes us root for her, wins our approval? And if that's the case, would the dynamic be the same if the genre was aimed at male readers?

What do you think? Do you like the bittered heroine, and if so, why? Any great examples you can recommend? And if, like me, you're uncomfortable with this device, any insights into why? Is this a gender issue, a genre issue, or is it just me who feels this way?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!


  1. RJones
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 04:42:48

    I am uncomfortable with the heroine who’s tortured on her way to HEA, though I think I read a different set of books than you. My first thought of heroine suffering to earn love is of the backstory abuse and rape that comes up in slightly darker erotic romances ALL THE TIME. I do think in both the social torture and the more extreme physical torture cases, it really just comes down to the torture. Social torture is just light enough it doesn’t have to be backstory. For me, I’ve always felt it was about the rather damaged concept of self-esteem in women.

    Asking a woman “What about you is worthy of amazing, book-worthy love?” can be a very uncomfortable experience. For some women, proudly saying nice things about themself, especially in the context of love, and especially if they’re someone who wants that kind of love but doesn’t have it yet, can be right up there with dancing around naked on tables for sheer horror and illogical shame.

    But everyone can suffer. If the hero comes along and needs a woman that describes herself (accurately) as awesome, hilarious, good-at-heart, smart, and unique, he’s SOL. If he needs someone who’s a bit funny, a bit good, and smart-enough, but who can suffer like crazy, that really opens things up. Somehow, suffering to earn love is easier than admitting you were worthy of it in the first place.

    While I really don’t buy the theory that the reader is walking in lockstep fantasy with the romance novel they’re reading, putting themself in the heroine’s spot or undressing the hero in our mind, I do feel like we’re connecting with something. It’s not “just” a story, completely unconnected, playing in the background like the History Channel. I think in a society where women can view suffering as “easier” or at least “more possible” than self-pride (which is very much a gender issue), the heroine who suffers to get the HEA can be oddly comforting.

  2. Merrian
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 05:13:27

    @RJones: I think this is a great response to the questions that Janet asks in her post. I had been thinking about this (not as clearly as you Janet :) ) in relation to Lora Leigh’s books where her heroines are physically and emotionally martyred before they can have an HEA.

    Is it is also about ‘action’? Who gets to take action and who doesn’t is still tied up in men having more agency then women, I think. Is it about female choices being contingent on a woman’s relationships and responsibilities which leaves female action as ‘reaction’ and so the bittering circumstances create a story out of the heroine’s reactions?

    Do we favour stories then that represent an extreme positioning of women in relation to possible action/reaction because this mirrors our lives and we want the hope that in the midst of the boundaries and bindings of circumstances we can find a happiness that overcomes this or at least takes it into account?

  3. FiaQ
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 06:17:23

    I’m not good at articulating so excuse me. I’ve never liked this type and still don’t, but it’s so common that I suppose I learnt to get used to it. In old romance novels, it was the hero who made the heroine suffer to test her love (ranging from slapping her around to dismissing her love declarations). These days, it’s the society within a story that makes her suffer to prove she’s, as you say, worthy of the hero’s love.

    Since I see this in m/m romances as well (but not so much in f/f romances, interestingly), I’m unsure if it’s a character gender issue. Then again, there are some in m/m romances that are pretty much women with peens.

    Authors’ gender? I did wonder, but then I remembered the likes of Samuel Richardson and Thomas Hardy, who liked putting their female protagonists through a wringer.

    It’s a societal issue that exists all forms of literature. The only significant difference between romance novels and literary novels is how each group ends. Heroines in English-language romance novels get their reward in form of HEA with heroes while women in literary novels generally don’t.

    I do think that readers do generally want heroines to ‘suffer’ a bit. Either to prove she has the capability to stay with hero to her grave or to prove that she truly understands or appreciates what ‘love’ is. In fairness, I have seen this with heroes as well, even though the origins of their angst are as solid as a snowball.

    I think the difference between heroines and heroes is when their suffering took place. Hero’s suffering usually happened before the story opens while heroine’s suffering happens during the story.

    I’d better stop because I’m not sure if I’m making any sense here!

  4. Cris
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 06:37:52

    I’ve always read these types of books as the heroine suffers in order to be worthy of self love which then makes her worthy of hero’s love. In Meg’s case in “Call Me Irresistible,” she didn’t think much of herself because of comparing herself to her highly accomplished family. She needed to survive hardship to recognize her own strong core. I thinks that’s very true of many heroines and many readers, so I’ve always liked that kind of story.

    The kind I hate is when they do humiliating things to get someone’s attention, those make me cringe.

  5. Joanne
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 07:14:19

    It always depends on the author.

    Lora Leigh characters are ‘saved’ by sex (some call it love but it reads like just sex, to me) and I see those stories as being written in a way that, for the reader, it’s like being a voyeur to the submission or masochism of the female and the whole thing, including the HEAs, make me uncomfortable.

    SEP’s characters generally make me feel the the heroine is a phoenix who rises from the ashes of her life to new heights and a new ability to love and be loved. She shows the strength of women to overcome the worst circumstances in the same way that Jo Goodman characters always work through their miseries and finally see themselves as stronger human beings.

    Shrug. It’s Cinderella. I like those story lines sometimes as long as they’re written by authors who like women.

  6. JenD
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 08:05:47

    These types of stories can go one of two ways- I either love them or hate them.

    Character growth through adversity, pretty classic Hero/Heroine trope. Easiest way to grow a character is to beat the crap out of ’em either physically or emotionally.

    My disconnect comes when I feel the Heroine (or Hero) is being too weak or so passive as to make me wonder if they are in need of mental health counseling. (H/H’s with real mental health issues, when handled well, is another matter) Letting their parent call them worthless for thirty years without saying one word about it. Doing any type of hand to forehead ‘woe is me’ turns me off as well. I don’t mean that they can’t have a moment of feeling their own pain. I’m more talking about the chapter (sometimes half a book length) of ‘poor me’, ‘I guess I’ll just take it’ and ‘why me’; eventually it’s time to spit or get off the pot.

    I’ve met many people who have been handed some rough times by life and eventually almost all of them stand up and say ‘enough’ and they tend to do it lightyears before a romance Heroine will. It’s just not believable to me after a certain level. Perhaps in historicals there is more leeway, but in a contemp? She better shove his ass to the curb and stop living in the 1950’s.

  7. Brie
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 08:20:17

    I think the humiliation of the heroine sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't, SEP does it quite well, but in the last book everything that could go wrong went wrong, I don't know what's going on with her, but her latest books have been a disappointment, specially the last one.

    Call Me Irresistible was very similar to Ain't She Sweet, it even had the exact same scene (where Meg is forced to act as a server at a dinner party and is humilliated), but whereas Ain't She Sweet was a hit for me, Call Me Irresistible was an absolute miss, there's a fine line between creating good drama and making the reader uncomfortable, and in Call Me Irresistible SEP crossed it and left it behind, not only did the heroine didn't deserve the bad treatment, but you have previous beloved characters, that have themselves suffered through humiliation and hardship (hello Fancy Pants I'm talking to you), inflicting the punishments? That was plain wrong and it left me with a bad aftertaste.

  8. Patty H.
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 08:21:14

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable reading books where the heroine suffers humilitation. Feel the same way watching shows with pranks–I’m embarrassed for the subject. It brings up memories of high school. I think it resonates because when you are the one being humiliated, it is hard to go from blaming youself (nobody likes me) to standing up for yourself and making it stop. It takes strength. The strength comes from inside and once you stand up for yourself it is empowering. As someone above said, you have to like yourself first. Discomfort and all, that’s why I keep reading them.

  9. sarah mayberry
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 08:43:12

    I think the “bittered” heroine is often about creating reader sympathy for the heroine. I’m on a panel at the Romance Writers of Australia conference in Australia in August and we’re talking on the issue of creating a sympathetic heroine. Heroes, the theory goes, are easier for readers to fall in love with. But readers (predominantly female, I imagine) are much tougher on heroines. I need to give this some deep thought before appearing on the panel (!) but I do think that creating a heroine who is humiliated/down-on-her-luck is a classic way to try to drum up sympathy and empathy for the character. In film they call it “victim of undeserved misfortune.” We feel for them, therefore we root for them. But this device can definitely backfire. There comes a point where a much put upon character can sometimes seem just too spineless to live. I feel almost sacrilegious saying this because I wish I had a fraction of SEP’s talent, but I tried to reread Dream A Little Dream last month and had to stop because I couldn’t stand how much of a victim the heroine was. SEP just piles on the shit, and I got to a point where I couldn’t bear it. Sugar Beth, on the other hand, deserves much of her penance, yet she deals with it with her head high and a mouth full of sass. Probably why this is my all time fave SEP.
    Another take on this is the theory of a screenwriting consultant I did a course with a few years ago. She posited that viewers (readers) empathise with characters who are vulnerable. She used Tony Soprano as an example. On paper, the guy is a monster. Murderer, adulterer, bully. But because we see his weakness and vulnerability via his therapy sessions, we relate to him. He becomes human.
    Making a heroine a victim of undeserved misfortune instantly makes them vulnerable.

  10. Sunita
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 09:11:48

    Great post, Robin. Now I understand why I don’t read SEP. To me there’s a difference between humiliating the heroine and having her suffer. I can take the latter far more easily. I recently reviewed a Robyn Donald HP from the 1980s where the heroine keeps her dignity despite the hero’s abuse and eventually gets what she wants (unfortunately it’s the hero, but that’s Old Skool HP for you).

    I just finished Eileen Dreyer’s Never A Gentleman. The heroine was clearly humiliated both by society and the hero, but it wasn’t embarrassing to me because it was clear that they were wrong, and ultimately the heroine triumphs without changing everything about herself. I thought Dreyer actually handled the gawky, socially challenged, put-upon heroine very effectively. You felt for her, but she didn’t make you cringe.

  11. jmc
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 09:19:54

    Janet, what a great post. I ought to sit down and really think about the heroines/authors who work for me before I comment…but I won’t. Or maybe I’ll come back later and post a more thoughtful response. But my gut reaction is this: reading about a humiliated heroine doesn’t make me feel better as a reader, it makes me feel bad. The bittered heroine is why I stopped reading SEP: her downtrodden heroines are humiliated and debased to such a degree, often by the man who is supposed to be the hero, that I find it hard to believe the HEA.

    More generally, the bittering forces heroines into the victim role. I don’t like the victimization of the heroine before she can get her HEA as a narrative tool. What does that say about us as a culture that a woman must be humiliated, powerless, and/or poverty-stricken, before she can find True Love and an HEA?

  12. Julia Broadbooks
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 09:31:48

    I’ve been thinking all morning of how to say why the bittered heroine sometimes bothers me and I think Sunita summed it up. I’m okay if she suffers a bit, but I don’t want her to be so humiliated I’m cringing. I don’t think I’ve ever read SEP and now I’m not sure I want to.

    To go with some Crusie titles, Nell from Fast Women has never been my favorite character, although I did like the book and I think it’s because she’s edging into bittered for my taste. But then Crazy for You’s Quinn has plenty of crap things happen to her. There is no hand to forehead. She keeps trying and fighting for a better life. So, she’s got that vulnerability, but still has some self respect.

  13. Patricia
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 09:42:07

    I am with Joanne on SEP. Mostly I see her heroines as women who overcome adversity and emerge as strong women who, by the way, don’t need the men to be complete. Rachel is one of my favorite characters since she is strong, is not bitter about the bad treatment and kicks the hero metaphorically in the butt to get over himself. The hero is “bittered” in that book too since he lost his wife and children in an accident, and is totally lost. It is a decided contrast to Rachel who has had even worse happen to her but she does not give up on life. By the way, that book has one of my favorite scenes in a book where four adults are having a serious conversation during which they keep passing around a baby and Rachel almost leaves with the baby since she was the last one to hold it; my sisters and I have passed a baby around a lot during conversations so it struck me as something real and funny.
    I don’t see the SEP heroines as people who need to remake themselve to be entitled to love, but as women who are learning about themselves and are strong enough to take what life throws them.

    That said, I also did not like SEP’s most recent book since I could not reconcile all of the nastiness from the main characters, including the formerly beloved Ted, with a true HEA. It was all distasteful.

  14. hapax
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 09:43:23

    Great post. It really articulated to me why I am so uncomfortable with the most recent SEP books (although I’ll probably keep going back to them).

    In Call Me Irresistible, it really struck me how Meg had noone — NO ONE — getting her back. It’s one thing to receive outsized blame for an actual crime, like Sugar Beth. There is some relationship between cause and effect, even if it’s overblown and unfair.

    It’s another thing to be victimized by a economic and patriarchal stratification of society, like Rachel and Blue and Francesca in Fancy Pants. That’s hard, and it sucks, but its not *personal*.

    But Meg… Heck, I could even stand Ted’s behavior — he was hurt and had no one else to lash out at. But that Whole Damn Town was vindictive and spiteful and, in a very literal sense, *criminally* cruel to her; and for a “crime” that had nothing to do with her OR them. And at the end we’re just supposed to accept it and say, “Haha, look at that quaint small town and their quirky endearing ways of showing love and protecting their own”?

    Well, f*ck that sh*t, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity. The end of the book reminded me uncomfortably of a captive in an abusive marriage. I kept wanting to scream at Meg, “Get the heck out of town NOW, before those vampires drain you and warp any children you might have!”

    But for Meg — the cruelties of the

  15. Dana
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 10:00:47

    Janet thank you so much for bringing this up! The bitter and/or humiliated heroine is a big reason for me to not finish a book, or not pick up another book by a particular author. Over the first few books I liked SEP and didn’t even mind the too-alpha alpha male hero. My problems began when I realized that EVERY book was going to be like that. The heroine was going to be ‘shown the error of her ways’ or be the victim of unbelievably crappy circumstance – and then have a jerk male around on top of it. Ultimately the HEA became completely unrealistic to me because how could any of her heroines want to end up in a relationship with the person who’s spent 80% of the book tormenting her? I just couldn’t take it.

    It’s the same reason I don’t read any more HP books – they’re the land of the jerk hero as well IMO – and why I have to be careful with Diana Palmer books even. I don’t have a problem (mostly) if an author is sticking to a theme with her books but when over and over again I see an older male ‘hero’ berating and putting down the heroine, often done for ‘her own good’? I can’t take it. I wanna throw my book at the wall.

  16. Lisa W.
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 10:17:17

    I love most of SEP’s books. And this ‘bittered heroine’ is part of the reason. I love seeing characters (especially heroines) overcome the bad things happening to them – it makes me love the character all the more. It shows how strong the character really is, and what they’ll do for what they believe is the right thing.

    I read books as an escape – to get lost in a scenario that I know will have a HEA. So seeing a heroine rise above what other people think and do to her makes me emotionally attached to the character.

  17. DS
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 10:22:01

    This sort of reminds me of what I like to call Depressing British Police Procedurals. Linda LaPlante is a good example but not the only one by any means. Whether on screen or in books her main characters are thoroughly beat down by bad luck, circumstances, villains– but triumph and solve the case in the end. I can accept this much more than the heroine in a romance being humiliated as you described. I’m not sure why the difference.

    I mentioned LaPlante whose Jane Tennison is probably her best known character in the US, but male characters are just as likely to get the same treatment in the average Depressing British Police Procedural. And even while I call them DBPP I really like them and read/watch everyone I get my hands on.

  18. Lynne Connolly
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 10:36:13

    I’m here as a writer, for a change. I just thought you might like the writer’s input.
    We write modern romances, genre romances. Therefore the HEA or HFN is a must.
    Getting to that end, you need conflkict and trials for your characters to go through. Otherwise it would be a very short book. And I think that the most powerful conflicts, and the ones that readers seem to love (by looking at sales) are internal. It’s not about what happens outside, it’s how those events affect the characters, and how they develop so that they deserve their HEA. The journey, if you will.
    So making your characters suffer is a good way of doing it. Give them a trial to work through. The skill comes in convincing the reader that they deserve their happy ending, not that they fall into it almost by accident..
    It’s why I like a good Harlequin. The length of these books means that everything is stripped down to the relationship and the feelings of the two characters involved. I love it when it really works, when everything is in balance at the end.
    So the bittered heroine is usually still likeable, still encourages the reader to root for her, and gives her a journey, internally and usually externally too. The hero can have more unlikeable characteristics, so we can have a rake hero, as long as he reforms, but not a slutty heroine, because that would put off too many readers.

  19. Jill Sorenson
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 10:44:07

    I’ve often said that Dream a Little Dream is my favorite romance novel ever. The scene in which Rachel strips for Gabe is so moving and memorable. This is what I said about it on my Favorites page:

    “As a last-ditch effort, Rachel offers Gabe her body. She's bone-thin and worn-out, but he almost agrees, so disturbed by her indefatigable spirit that he's struck by the perverse longing to break her. It is an intense, pivotal moment for both characters. Rachel knows she no longer can afford the luxury of pride, and Gabe has hit rock bottom in his quest for self-destruction. They both have nowhere to go but up.”

    Rachel might be bittered but she’s not broken. Gabe is the one who’s given up. That is an important distinction for me–she is the stronger character who teaches him how to live again.

    On the flipside, I had a violent negative reaction to Blue Bailey in the beaver suit. It felt forced, like SEP was putting the character through the wringer for laughs. Rachel’s situation seemed totally real to me. I can’t say that I don’t like humor mixed with angst, but I’m not a fan of haha humiliation, ala Bridget Jones 2.

  20. Moriah Jovan
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 10:47:12

    Caveat: I haven’t read these books in years, so my remembery may be a bit fuzzy.

    A. I thought Sugar Beth deserved what she got. What she did to Colin (regardless of age) was evil. That she went back knowing what kind of reception she’d probably get, that she stayed, and that she took it was, to me, her mark of character. She had already been burnt to ashes and had already risen as a phoenix, which was the only reason she could go back at all. Yes, I know she had a financial interest, but she was smart enough to find workaround solutions to her problem.

    B. Alex, in To Kiss an Angel is, IMO, as much a victim of Daisy’s father’s plotting as she is, and his whole raison d’etre is to be the furnace that fires her. But he’s still pissed off about it. My adoration for that book is that while Daisy is being burnt to cinders in preparation for her rise from the ashes, Alex is undergoing a different, but, IMO, far more painful transformation. Daisy was forced upon Alex as much as Alex was forced upon Daisy.

    C. SEP stopped doing it for me several books back. (I have not read Glitter Baby or Call Me Irresistible.) The last three before CMI were re-runs with different sets and character names. She’s been phoning it in for a while now. The idea that previously loved characters would turn randomly and unjustifiably vicious, though…that’s new. Not in a good way.

  21. sula
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 10:56:44

    Fascinating … now I know why I didn’t make it more than 1/4 of the way through a single SEP novel and will never make the mistake of picking up another. I can deal with authors giving the heroine some adversity to overcome, that’s part of the conflict of the story. But I despise the piling on, over-kill humiliation and emotional torture that I read in my single foray into SEP’s work. It’s not empowering in the least.

  22. Jane
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 11:06:48

    I love SEP, (Ain’t She Sweet is the only one of her books I’ve skipped because I just never could work up any enthusiasm for the story.) and many of her books are on my keeper shelf. But this Bittered Heroine category as you call it usually fails to make the grade for me. While I didn’t hate this book, it’s not one of my favorites which is too bad because I really wanted Ted to have a great story.

    I’ve got to agree with Brie about Francesca’s behavior and add my own disappointments about Lady Emma from Lady Be Good and Lucy’s mother from First Lady. It was clear that Emma was uncomfortable with the way everyone was piling on Meg and it really contradicted her character that she didn’t reach out to Meg at all. Lucy’s mother (her name escapes me) is no doubt struggling with the idea that her daughter bolted that way, but come on, she’s supposed to be a former president?!?! The maturity not to blame Lucy’s only supporter in this tough time would be expected.

    Add to that Ted’s rather perfunctory tough time at the end which should have balanced Meg’s struggles but didn’t because he was perfect except for one of those flaws really isn’t a flaw at all and he always had food to eat and a place to sleep while figuring out he was really just too giving. His character deserved better and so did Meg’s.

    I would say though that for me Natural Born Charmer isn’t in the same category as the other Bittered Heroines discussed here. Blue had made a lousy boyfriend choice and was dealt a tough hand regarding her mother but the entire town and Dean’s family didn’t pile on her throughout the book. She was already resourceful and just had to realize her emotional worth despite her past. This situation really gave her a safe place to do that.

    I wouldn’t want people to think from these examples that all SEP books are about this kind of piling on and humilitation based plots. In all of her books the hero or heroine has some people who don’t like them but in most cases that just reads very true to life for me. Often one or both of the H/H is at a really low ebb in their life which makes for conflict and interesting stories. I think It Had to Be You, This Heart of Mine, Lady Be Good, Heaven Texas and Breathing Room are among my favorite romances and I often reread them. So she is worth the effort to me.

  23. Leslie
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 11:40:25

    I am right there with Jane and Bella on SEP – her heroines suffer but there is usually something that offers moments of relief in the midst of it all (a child, art, new friends, family, etc) and Meg doesn’t have that. I was looking forward to CMI because I wanted to revisit some favorite characters and get “golden boy’s” story but much of it felt out of whack – I kept waiting for one of the women whose stories I had enjoyed to jump in and tell the freaks in town to freaking grow up and live their own damn lives. I also thought a “golden boy” should have a scintilla of awareness of what was going on around him and recognize the bullpucky for what it was. I do think Meg is due much bigger apologies from everyone than she got at the end of the book and Ted better spend the rest of his life making sure her feet don’t touch the ground (unless she wants them to). I really hope the next SEP (however long we have to wait for it) will pull back a little

  24. Elyssa Papa
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 11:44:20

    I love the bittered heroine because so often I can relate to her on a personal level. I was bullied as a kid and in college, I was extremely overweight and judged by my appearance. I know how it feels to feel that no one sees you for who you are, but I think–I hope–that the hardships I’ve experienced in my life have made me a stronger, more emphatic person.

    Dream a Little Dream is my favorite SEP and definitely in my top five romances. I was uncomfortable in things that happened to Meg and Blue and Sugar Beth and Rachel but people can be real shitheads. I know it can put the reader on edge (and there’s the danger of losing said reader if the author crosses the line) and SEP does bring her heroines low, to the point where everything about their old way of living is gone and there seems to be no hope for them, and she turns it around to the victorious heroine. I don’t know how the heroines could forgive the people who wronged them; it’s more realistic to me if the heroine said to shithead character, hey, you were a real alphahole to me and I don’t know if I can forgive you quite yet.

    But I’m digressing.

    The thing I’m trying to say is that even though the bittered heroine can be uncomfortable, the reason I think this character type is popular is because it happens in real life and most readers can identify with being seen as the underdog, so to speak.

  25. MB
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 11:58:34

    Having read all of SEP’s books, knowing her common themes, and having read reviews of ‘Call Me Irresistable’ before I got it, I went in knowing that it was going to be problematic for me due to the way the whole town–including the ‘hero’–piled on to torturing the heroine.

    And guess what? I enjoyed the experience, but I didn’t like it very much. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth, I guess. I just don’t buy the HEA. And the whole over-the-top torture thing just doesn’t work for me. IRL it wouldn’t fly–the reason for it was silly and improbable. So, I told myself to think of it as a fairy tale. (Yes, it IS like Cinderella.) Except the prince is not the one instrumental in torturing the heroine. And the villains are not an entire town.

    So, not my favorite of hers, although still better than the previous.

    Bittered heroines? Not a fan, although this seems to be a common theme. I will read some authors of the calibre of SEP, and the old-skool ones of Linda Howard, but there’s always that distaste and discomfort while reading, of seeing a female author ‘put-down’ their female character. It bothers me. If the ‘hero’ is doing it, well…it’s a too close to abusiveness for me and I really feel uncomfortable with the happy ending.

    Also, I am old enough to remember when most romances involved an imbalance of power where the heroine was punished or tortured by the hero as a prequel to true love. (I.e. he humiliates her, then forces her to a kiss…whereupon, Eureka! It’s true love, and then he forces her to loose her virginity–borderline rape, and she enjoys it.) I don’t think this is necessarily a good basis for romance and I would hate to have any young readers with little life experience think this type of ‘romance’ is something to wish for. Maybe I’m weird.

  26. Janet W
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 12:00:29

    Marvelous thought provoking piece: thank you. Of course, I don’t agree w/much of your SEP analysis — I mean I do, it’s Cinderella dragged around the block time, over and over. But most of her books are forever keeper and re-readers for me. I didn’t think there was much to choose between the abject misery and sadness of Rachel and Gabe and their dazzling return to life was so sweet.

    I guess there’s something about making your character wear a beaver costume that spoils a book for me. Didn’t enjoy. And as for last book, I felt the characters from the other books weren’t, for the most part, true to themselves. As for what the heroine had to put up with, good grief. Let’s have some balance here. When people say it was amusing or just good-ole Texas over-the-top fun, I wasn’t feeling it.

    But SEP is a mostly (in her fabulous stretch of books) guaranteed wonderful curl up and re-read and I really have enjoyed her altho lately, not so much.

    Jill, great point about Bridget Jones II: I couldn’t be paid to watch it and yet I adore and frequently watch #1.

  27. Jaclyn
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 13:51:31

    Great post! Thank you so much for starting this conversation.

    Bittered heroines are often tough, adaptable, and strong, and I often find their stories incredibly powerful and moving.

    What bothers me are those bittered heroines who are humiliated throughout the course of a book (not one or two scenes in the story, but sustained humiliation); and my bother isn’t about the heroine herself–it’s what it says about the character of those who are humiliating her.

    Revenge, hatefulness, scorn and spite as motivators for action doesn’t earn my respect, and it *especially* troubles me when those emotions are acted out on heroines who don’t deserve it. It’s one thing to confront one’s tormentor; it’s something very different to torment them, or those connected to them, in return. I have a tough time with these stories.

  28. Miranda Neville
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 14:09:47

    I don't know how the heroines could forgive the people who wronged them

    This. Much as I love SEP, I’d like to see some groveling on the part of the bullies. Instead they all end up BFFs. Ain’t She Sweet, which I adore for the central relationship, makes me crazy this way. Colin at least had something to forgive. But Winnie ended up with all the money and power and those pathetic women were all whiny because Sugar Beth went off to college and didn’t like them any more. I thought Sugar Beth and Colin should have left the small town and gone off to New York to be fabulous together.

  29. DM
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 14:17:45

    @Sarah Mayberry & Lynne Connolly

    In film they call it “victim of undeserved misfortune.”

    Getting to that end, you need conflkict and trials for your characters to go through. Otherwise it would be a very short book.

    The problem Janet identifies goes beyond this. We’ve all seen the “kill the cat” technique used to connect the audience to the heroine. Think Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. She thinks Warner will propose. Instead, he dumps her. Our sympathy is instantly engaged. And we all expect our characters to meet and overcome obstacles. Recall Elle’s humiliation in the classroom, when she meets Warner’s fiance, and at the “costume” party. And how she fights back to gain entrance to Harvard, to succeed in the classroom, and in the workplace.

    Now imagine that at the end of this story, Elle marries Warner.

  30. Elyssa Papa
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 14:24:41

    @MirandaNeville 100% agree with you. I always wondered the same thing about Sugar Beth and Colin.

  31. Janet W
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 14:36:04

    You and Elyssa may have the right of it but unless my recall is totally off, didn’t Winnie have something to forgive too? I’m thinking nekkid during that time of the month in front of a crowd … that seems worthy of some serious grudge keeping on Winnie’s part. OK, Sugar Beth caused Colin to be fired. Serious. Check. But didn’t Sugar Beth know full well how insecure Winnie was during high school?

    Maybe it’s a fantasy but seeing some revenge to a quite mean girl, mean spirited act doesn’t seem that untoward.

  32. Kristi
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 14:53:52

    I had to come comment that I really enjoyed this post. I read a few of the comments but not all!

    I love SEP although yes, her latest few books haven’t been my favorites. The Cinderella, or rising above and finding your strength is a great read for me. I loved Rachel and Gabe. I adored Nobody’s Baby But Mine, and many of her other ones. Maybe it does get to be a little old.

    I do love SEP though, she is in my ‘special’ bookcase and is an auto-buy.

  33. infinitieh
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 16:07:15

    I knew there was a reason that I still haven’t read CALL ME IRRESISTIBLE even though I absolutely love Ted Beaudine in the previous books.

    Personally, I don’t get why any heroine (or hero, for that matter) would want to return to the town that humiliated them in their youth. I didn’t like the premise in Lori Wilde’s “The First Love Cookie Club” nor in Connie Brockway’s “Hot Dish” and not even in Susan Mallery’s “Sweet Trouble” even though it had the best reason at least (the secret baby wants to meet his father). Thus, the book is tainted for me because I just don’t buy the heroine’s return in the first place, let alone whatever realization they may have later (the townspeople aren’t so bad, etc.).

  34. sarah mayberry
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 16:59:23

    Am laughing at “kill the cat”. We have a term in our house (my man is also a writer) where we talk about “pat the dog” scenes where the writer is trying to make the hero/heroine likeable by seeing them being kind to someone/thing.

    I agree with you that a whole book of sustained heaping-on is different from an initial set up to establish the character’s vulnerability. I do think that some of the same emotions are *supposed* to come into play, however – that we are supposed to feel outraged and saddened by Rachel’s situation, that we are supposed to find Sugar Beth brave and kind of noble in her defiance/endurance. As I mentioned above, I was uncomfortable reading Rachel’s story again, but I loved, loved, loved it the first time. Not sure what has changed for me in the intervening 5 or so years. Although I can remember also being a little frustrated by exactly how low Rachel had sunk and how resourceless she was the second time around – I am not American, but in Australia there are lots and lots of charity organisations that would have helped her without her being handed over to social services for being a bad mother. I’m sure US is the same. I can remember thinking that the author wanted to push Rachel into this desperate corner and isolate her and strip her down to her bare essence. I think one of SEP’s strengths is that when she goes somewhere, she really goes there. Doesn’t hold back at all. But clearly that doesn’t work for some people in some situations. I also think that seeing the hero pick on the heroine because he’s unable to articulate his own feelings/deal with them is a a very common romantic element. It’s like the boy who pulls the little girl’s pigtails because he likes her and doesn’t know how else to express it. Sometimes this works for me but other times I am screaming in my head for the heroine to walk away. In my teens, I read a lot of Mills and Boons where the hero was suspicious of the heroine, called her a gold digger and a tramp, etc, etc, and generally wiped his boots all over her while she hung around falling in love with him. I can’t read them now. They make me sad and angry.
    It seems to me that those books were/are all about male vs female power. ie The male’s power is overt and sanctioned, and female power is sexual and emotional. The male tries to overwhelm the female with his power but she stubbornly resists and eventually “love” weakens him and tames him and brings him to his knees. I think that’s a powerful female fantasy. (but not necessarily relevant to either this discussion or SEP books!!! Sorry!!)

  35. Jen X
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 19:22:59

    @sarah mayberry:

    So true, Sarah and spot on about Sugar Beth. While she will never be my favorite romantic heroine what made me love Ain’t She Sweet? was that this ‘Queen Bee’ got her due but took her lumps with spirit and humility (even if it was her own brand). Plus, I really didn’t think the town folks treated her all that bad…it was realistic. Haven’t ya’ll watched Dynasty/Melrose/Desperate Housewives?! LOL. :-)

  36. DM
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 20:01:56

    @ Sarah Mayberry

    I wish I could take credit for the phrase, but that belongs to the late Blake Snyder. His “Save the Cat” books (the same idea as “pat the dog”) do a great job of breaking down this device.

    Re: SEP and not holding back. Yes, I agree. That is her strength, and I respect her writing for it. But like some of the Mills & Boon titles with disturbing power dynamics, I feel like sometime this leads to stories I can’t get behind. The ones in which it’s basically Elle marrying Warner. I want better for her.

  37. Lynn S.
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 21:03:30

    Janet/Robin of the awesome avatar and the posts that make me think, it's been awhile since I've read S.E. Phillips so I'm not able to speak to the bittered heroine (I'll have to read her again sometime soon to get a better feel for the concept). But I tend to think of Phillips as a hybrid writer, existing in that strange land between traditional romance and women's fiction. If you go into reading her with the normal romance expectations, I can see how readers would find her problematic. I've been glomming on Mary Balogh's backlist lately and I have much the same feelings about her on the historical romance front. Great authors both, but not fitting inside the box construct. I'm beginning to see this as a major reason that Balogh, to me, often has trouble with the denouement in her works. She's going along, building her characters and her story and then there is this train wreck about three-quarters of the way through the book when the publishing prerequisite happy ending has her tacking on some strange fairytale ending that doesn't jibe with the rest of the story. I loved No Man's Mistress until the end when it fell apart and I started to feel like I was reading Julia Quinn instead.

    I enjoy all types of stories but I don't seek out excessive suffering on the part of heroines on a regular basis; growth yes, suffering no. Of course, a gifted author makes all the difference. It’s amazing to me that some women would want this type of characterization in order to feel connected to or sympathetic towards the heroine and yet will let the hero off the hook with barely a slap on the wrist. Complicated doesn't begin to cover what we women are. Next time I'm reading a book with a bittered heroine, I'll definitely remember what you've said here.

    Also, to Sarah Mayberry and Lynne Connolly; I really enjoy it when authors chime in wearing their writer’s hat. It gives readers a different perspective that is much appreciated.

  38. Robin/Janet
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 21:19:58

    I have been hanging back today, just reading the great comments and thoroughly enjoying the conversation.

    Re. the heroine who overcomes a lot v. the heroine who’s unjustly and systematically humiliated, I think for every reader there is a line across which a book will go (the reader consent theory, again). For some readers, the SEP books I mentioned will be perfectly okay, while for others they will cross a line. I chose SEP for my main example because in my opinion she takes this type of heroine to a great extreme and makes the suffering and humiliation really overt.

    That’s not to say I don’t love a number of her books, including DALD and ASS, which are probably my favorites. Still, I have begun feeling uncomfortable reading some of her heroines, including Meg, whose torture at the hands of Ted, especially, really seemed like overkill to me, like a breaking down of her character when Ted was a total a-hole for so much of the book. Grovel or not, I never felt the balance was completely righted at the end. For other readers, it won’t be an issue. I feel that way about many of Jo Goodman’s books, which heap quite a bit of horribleness on the heroine, but maybe because the hero is usually a really decent guy, I don’t feel so uncomfortable with it. Most of the time it works for me in her books, although I did feel that Ethan gave Michael a pretty hard time in Wild, Sweet, Ecstasy.

    For me the line coalesces around a feeling that the authorial voice is manipulating things, either in the sense that it feels like a device or that the heroine is literally being victimized by the book, not just by other characters. Obviously this is a subjective judgment and one I make book to book, but there it is. The way I see it, *everything* is ultimately a writing device, and for me the most successful books are those in which I am carried beyond the artifice of it all. And for that to happen, I have to make an emotional connection to the book, which is obviously partly about me and partly about the words on the page.

    Also, I believe that not all devices, tropes, types, etc. are created equal, so to speak. That is, they are all freighted with different measures and types of significance, and sometimes that significance echoes dominant values and judgments in society at large. When we’re fully conditioned to those norms we may not always see them in fiction, but when we do, I find it valuable to take a closer look at how they’re playing out in different books.

    @Miranda Neville: OMG I hated Winnie. HATED her. Yes, I know Sugar Beth was awful to her in high school, but beyond not being a big fan of payback, Sugar Beth was so beaten down in comparison to Winnie that I really couldn’t get behind Winnie and the Sea Willow’s cruelty to Sugar Beth. And I also felt a distinct lack of disapproval for Winnie’s cruelty IN the book, reflected partly in the ease with which her own marital issues seemed to resolve themselves (with Sugar Beth’s help).

    @DM: The Elle – Warner example is fantastic! We don’t think a lot about how in Romance a heroine can fall in love with and marry her tormenter outside, at least, of an overt rape or more direct abuse scenario. How many Romance heroes are Warner? Now there’s a question to ponder.

  39. Moriah Jovan
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 21:54:11

    @Lynn S.:

    It's amazing to me that some women would want this type of characterization in order to feel connected to or sympathetic towards the heroine and yet will let the hero off the hook with barely a slap on the wrist.

    I think it was CS Lewis who said, “We read to know we are not alone.” Or something. Anyway, for those who like to identify with a heroine, it could feel like vicarious justice when the hero finally grovels or, as in Sugar Beth’s case, the Queen Bee gets her comeuppance.

    The hero and his issues aren’t necessarily relevant in this situation, as long as his grovel is apropos.


    With regard to another aspect of Sugar Beth is that I, at least, can remember being, on occasion, the Mean Girl, and I cringe. And perhaps, if it’s vicarious justice for the Mean Girl to get her comeuppance, perhaps it’s also vicarious purging. We’re not all always one or the other.

  40. Brie
    Apr 05, 2011 @ 22:30:35

    In the case of Sugar Beth and Winnie, we should remember that Winnie was Sugar Beth's half-sister and that while their father neglected SB, he was a doting father to Winnie, and SB saw that, and I believe that was the beginning of the end for her. So even though SB was really mean towards Winnie, I never felt sorry for her or even liked her, because she knew this, and she was holding a grudge knowing that SB had suffered too, and anyone with the minimal amount of maturity would know that SB antics where a desperate cry for attention.

  41. SonomaLass
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 00:07:41

    I finally got over here to read this post — what a great discussion!

    I’ve only read two SEPs, but they are the two earlier ones you mention. Both of them came right up to my line, but neither crossed it, although Dream A Little Dream came closer than Ain’t She Sweet. I think that’s because Rachel was a victim already in her marriage, so having her suffer more really did seem like piling it on. I got the feeling that Sugar Beth herself needed at least some of what she got, because she knew she’d done awful things. Yes, she was a teenager, but she knew what she was doing. And while I didn’t really like Winnie as a character, and I could wish she was able to be the better woman and understand Sugar Beth’s feelings about her dad and all that, it’s completely believable to me that she had trouble forgiving.

    To me that flashback scene of Winnie in the locker room, naked in front of the guy she has a crush on, with her tampon string showing, was MUCH more excruciating than anything (or even everything) that Sugar Beth goes through in the book. IMO, there are too many movies and TV shows featuring that kind of scene as humor; anyone who has ever actually been humiliated like that can tell you that the scars run deep. Getting over it for yourself is one thing; getting over it to the point that you don’t hate the person responsible is another.

    What that says to me in the larger picture is that my line as a reader is based to some extent on my personal experience. I tend to have a pretty low tolerance for the repeated bashing of the heroine, whether by life, by the villain, by the community or by the hero — that last is the worst for me, because I have a hard time accepting the romantic HEA when the hero is abusive or cruel. But when the heroine herself has been cruel, I can handle a degree of payback. Just to reference some other books mentioned here, Jo Goodman has never gone too far for me, but Wild Sweet Ecstasy came close. And Tess of the d’Urbervilles went too far for me, and not just because of the lack of an HEA.

  42. Jenica
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 09:45:45

    What an interesting discussion! When you describe the bittered heroine, I have to wonder why anyone would read these…but of course, I adore SEP. I really agree with the comments that describe the heroine’s transformation as a phoenix rising from the ashes. In each of the worst offenders (Kiss an Angel, Ain’t She Sweet?, Dream a Little Dream, Call Me Irresistible), the heroine had never really been challenged before, had a career, or been self-supporting. None of them really had any self-respect until they came under fire and survived it. Maybe this is only a convenient plot device to give the heroine lots of character in 250 pages. However, I think it also presents a hope to the reader – even if we have never been put to the test or shown ourselves to be “heros,” any one of us can have an inexhaustible core of inner strength if we need it. I think these stories are really about that inner realization. I remember Daisy telling Alex that no one else could humiliate her, that she controlled her own pride/dignity. That’s a powerful message to readers from each of these heroines who’ve survived antagonists (or sometimes protagonists) who’ve tried to make them give up and go away. Each of these heroines had very little in terms of parental support or previous character growth/strength, but they still refused to give up and found an inner strength to endure.

  43. Janine
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 12:18:40

    Ain’t She Sweet is my favorite book by SEP, as well as a keeper for me, largely because Sugar Beth is such a gutsy, wisecracking survivor. And how many heroines do we see in this genre who have been married three times before their romance with the hero? I was blown away by 90% of Sugar Beth’s characterization.

    But I agree that Winnie, the Sea Willows, and their relationship to Sugar Beth were among the book’s weaker aspects. As far as Winnie goes, I don’t deny that she had suffered at Sugar Beth’s hands, but they were high school kids at the time. I was picked on as a kid myself, and yeah, it still hurts when I think about it, but I take the view that living well is the best revenge. The adult Winnie should have been mature enough, IMO, to understand that. It’d be one thing if she tried to avoid or disengage from Sugar Beth out of wariness, but to seek a payback?

    As for the Sea Willows, I never fully understood their reasons for the pile on and I agree that it made no sense for Sugar Beth to forgive them. I can understand Sugar Beth continuing to interact with Winnie, who is after all, her sister, but why put up with the Sea Willows? The chumminess here seemed forced.

    With regard to Dream a Little Dream, I didn’t finish the book because it felt contrived to me, esp. in the way an entire town snubbed Rachel including in public places. And it was hard to read about that when Rachel had done so little to deserve that treatment.

    As for bittered heroines in general, it all depends on the execution. I love a cynical heroine, maybe because it’s a trait that’s often reserved for heroes. I also love characters with some suffering in their past, because it shows that they have some life experience under their belt. I think I may be fond of such heroines because in the 1990s I read so many books with heroines who were wide-eyed innocents, and even the 29 year old heroines were often virgins in those days. It’s not that I don’t enjoy good coming-of-age stories as well, but rather that heroines with some cynicism still feel like a change of pace to me.

    However, I separate humiliation and public embarrassment from other types of suffering because it often makes me uncomfortable to read about a character being humiliated or embarrassed. I cringe in empathy for that character, but it’s not an emotion I enjoy, even when it’s done for laughs.

  44. Robin/Janet
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 12:33:00

    @SonomaLass: I don’t begrudge Winnie the desire to get some of her own back with Sugar Beth or for enjoying Sugar Beth’s downturn. What bothers me, though, is the idea that these women are now adults and now high school kids. The idea that adult women are acting this way with what feels to me like an approving narrative rendering bothers me. And as @Brie said, Sugar Beth and Winnie are not only half-sisters but also shared a father who basically ignored SB and publicly adored Winnie. The idea that Winnie is morally superior to SB somehow — which I think the novel itself may be entertaining — seems incredibly unfair to me and makes me dislike Winnie even more, even as I hated the humiliation she suffered at the hands of the teenage SB.

    @Lynn S.: I have to admit that I don’t really understand the distinction between women’s fic and Romance that is made about books like SEP’s. That is, I understand that there is a difference between the genres and I understand some of the hallmarks of that difference, but for me, at least, good Romance featuring heroines who are not ingenues *should* have some of those elements we often associate with WF in them. That is, the heroine’s journey is, for me, at least, as important in these Romances as the actual romantic relationship, because a woman past, say, her mid-20s, really should be living a full life, one that balances several strands of experience and aspiration.

    I’m not really sure where I’m going with that, except to say that I tend to gravitate toward those Romances where the older (and by older I mean heading into her 30s and beyond) heroine leads a fuller and more complex life (or at least aspires to). When done well, it makes the romantic happiness more satisfying for me as a reader.

    @Jenica: I’ve really enjoyed reading the comments from people who enjoy this device, because I do worry that one of the reasons this type is so popular is because somehow the heroine has to “earn” the hero in the eyes of the reader, and that one way to do that is to suffer, suffer, suffer until she’s deemed worthy by the reader (especially since women seem to be so much harder on each other).

    I can totally see how this device can also be read within the mythology of the phoenix, which is how I tend to read the books of Jo Goodman, for example, and how the line is so different for different readers.

  45. Robin/Janet
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 12:46:23

    @Janine: My comment crossed with yours, but I think you did a better job of explaining why the Winnie/Sea Willows elements of the books rankled me.

    I think you point about cynicism is interesting, because I see cynicism differently than suffering/humiliation. If SB, for example, had come home to a truckload less torture, she’d still be a cynical heroine. But the pile on (beyond, maybe, Colin’s early offer of a housekeeping job and a promise to ‘make each day as difficult as possible,’ which seems pretty understandable, IMO) becomes something else, IMO, something difficult for me to accept as necessary or even desirable. And the way that suffering somehow pushes her beyond the cynicism is problematic to me, even though I haven’t worked out for myself all the implications/reasons.

    It’s also funny how different books hit different readers, because DALD — except for the afterword, which is another aspect of her work I’d love to have a discussion about, that is, the fact that SEP books have so many freaking baby epilogues in them — has yet to be dethroned as my fave SEP book. Although I confess a strong affection for Fancy Pants, and ASS is way up there, in large part because Sugar Beth is probably my favorite SEP heroine. Although I really loved it when Rachel gave that idiot Cal Bonner a bit of his own back in DALD. Still, as I’ve said many times, no author’s books engender both my appreciation and my frustration when I’m reading them as acutely as SEP’s.

  46. RStewie
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 12:49:36

    I am coming in late, I guess, but I have to say that it occurs to me that this falls in line with the popular mantra concerning how women readers are harder on female characters than male characters. I think this is true…if these women were on top of it, smart, funny, able to handle the situation AND got the hero’s love, wouldn’t that be a Mary Sue in many people’s eyes?

    I personally prefer heroines that are Mary Sue-ish–the “ish” coming from the fact that people are people, and every character should have flaws–because I have a hard time dealing with heroines that are beat-down or humiliated or whatever so they can “grow” as a character. In my experience, these types of situations rarely result in a lot of positive personal growth…although maybe that is the point. Maybe these women are SO freaking fabulous that what WOULD be a serious hit to a normal woman’s self-confidence actually makes them STRONGER! I don’t buy into that very often–generally traumatic events leave scars, they don’t heal them.
    I love a strong, capable heroine, who doesn’t take sh!t but also isn’t a b!tch. I know it’s realistic because I see them around me all the time, and those women, who are self confident enough to know what they want and know they deserve it AND are willing to fight for it, are the heroines that I relate to. Because when they end up happy, that tells me I can end up happy, too.

  47. GrowlyCub
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 13:55:01

    I knew there was a reason I stopped reading SEP (before Sugar Beth and Winnie). Thanks for articulating it so well, Robin.

    I’m also disturbed by the underlying idea that women only deserve a HEA after being completely destroyed and with their tormentors. That’s really an insane idea, if one looks at it closely and if any of my friends were in this situation I’d recommend counseling because it’s not healthy to stay with a guy who humiliates you for whatever supposedly understandable reason.

    The Legally Blonde example is perfect! Thanks DM!

    I cannot stand to read/watch people embarrassing themselves or being embarrassed/humiliated by others, which is the reason I don’t watch ‘comedy’ on TV and I think why I hardly ever read contemporaries these days. I don’t like having to cringe on behalf of others. That’s not entertaining to me.

    There’s a difference between heroines who suffer adversity and books where the author is seemingly maliciously out to punish the heroine. It makes me wonder a bit about the authors’ sense of self-worth as women that they can see the only path to happiness in total destruction and a man. Not a very emancipated view, is it?

  48. Janine
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 14:54:01


    You’re right, suffering and cynicism are different and they operate separately in Ain’t She Sweet. Your post got me thinking about one of my own writing projects, in which some of what the heroine suffers early on is a factor in her later cynicism. Obviously that kind of progression appeals to me.

    Re. Ain’t She Sweet

    But the pile on (beyond, maybe, Colin's early offer of a housekeeping job and a promise to ‘make each day as difficult as possible,' which seems pretty understandable, IMO) becomes something else, IMO, something difficult for me to accept as necessary or even desirable. And the way that suffering somehow pushes her beyond the cynicism is problematic to me, even though I haven't worked out for myself all the implications/reasons.

    Is it because in real life suffering doesn’t necessarily make people less cynical?

    For some reason the subject of cynicism is bringing to mind Kinsale’s Seize the Fire, where the characters also suffer a lot (even more, I would say, than Sugar Beth does). Reading that book was a revelation for me because I think it was the first (and perhaps only) romance I read which showed that idealism and excessive trust could be as dysfunctional as cynicism.

    I think there’s a tendency in romance to portray cynicism as something from which characters (usually the heroes) have to be healed from, and idealism, naivete and trust (usually on the part of the heroines) as the means by which the heroes are healed. I’ve enjoyed many a book that fit that description, yet it’s a pattern I find problematic. I think I would rather both characters arrived at a combination of realism and hope, rather than a heroine’s naivete/idealism be the agency through which the hero’s cynicism is transformed, especially if her attitude isn’t as affected by his cynicism nearly as much.

    I’m not sure how that pertains to Ain’t She Sweet or SEP’s other novels, but I think the process by which characters overcome cynicism in the genre is worth examining. Cynicism and bitterness, are, of course, obstacles to trust and happiness, so they have to be at least partially overcome for the characters to arrive at a HEA, but sometimes the ways in which that comes about strike me as contrived.

    Re. DALD, I didn’t get that far in the book, and I think that may have had to do with a cumulative feeling of frustration that followed my reading of two earlier SEP novels, Nobody’s Baby But Mine and Heaven, Texas, both of which struck me as having extremely unlikely premises. I was unable to suspend disbelief with those books and it bothered me throughout them, despite the general excellence of SEP’s way with words, so when I picked up DALD and found that it, too, was based in a premise I had difficulty buying into, I decided not to read further. I’ve wondered since then if I made the right decision. I’m so glad that a friend convinced me to give Ain’t She Sweet a try, because I loved Sugar Beth so much.

  49. Lynn S.
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 15:57:07

    @Robin/Janet: I think of women’s fiction as more about the general concerns and relationships of women: the parents, the children, the siblings, the work, the health/emotional issues, the spouse/significant other and romantic love is rarely of central importance as it would be in a traditional romance. Not a fan of the genre; there is usually so much going on that it all gets lost in the shuffle, sometimes to the point that the heroine goes missing as well. The ground in between the two is fertile and I wish more authors would go there and maybe do a bit of redefining of the HEA ideal; it’s definitely a good place for the heroine’s journey to shine.

    The more mature heroine would be my first choice also; seems like the perfect time of life to find a solid rewarding partnership be it with a man or another woman, but then I went straight from 15 to 30 myself, and that was more than a few years ago, so the whole dramatic turmoil of the late teens and early twenties is a mystery to me.

  50. Robin/Janet
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 19:00:55

    @RStewie: While I often love the bitch heroine, I think sometimes she reflects anxiety about the idea that a woman can be incredibly capable and strong and still “soft.” I dislike this hard v. soft thing that often happens with women in fiction and in RL, and I love it when we see complex women rendered in fiction who do not reflect that stereotype.

    @GrowlyCub: Your comment reminds me of a complaint I had against many sitcoms of a few years ago, wherein the women (wives, usually) were particularly shrewish and the husbands these poor “henpecked” guys. I’m thinking particularly of Everybody Loves Raymond, which is the one that originally had me noticing the pattern, IIRC. I always felt that there was a profound anti-feminism in those shows, and that no matter how “independent” the woman character was, it was always being undermined by this perversely expressed hostility both from her and toward her.

    @Janine: Don’t even get me started on Nobody’s Baby But Mine – it’s probably my most hated of her books and represents vividly the issues I try to ignore in some of her other books (women who seem smart but act stupidly, a-hole men who don’t have to suffer or grovel nearly enough, feminism viewed through a glass, darkly, etc.). And in that novel most of Jane’s torture comes from Cal, I think, which related to Growly Cub’s comment.

    Re. cynicism, it’s not just that suffering doesn’t necessarily reverse cynicism, because what I’m talking about is a level of suffering heaped so high on the heroine that it seems an external contrivance to prepare her, somehow, to properly receive the hero’s love. I think what I find problematic about the suffering to idealism trajectory of these heroines is that in suffering they are brought so low that they are emotionally stripped to the skin until Love somehow makes them whole and healed, at which point birds sing, babies are miraculously conceived, etc. For me, there’s a point across which the suffering goes beyond building a bond of sympathy between the heroine and me, and beyond rooting for the underdog heroine who learns to stand on her own and builds her life back from nothing. Although I try not to think too hard about those books Colin writes featuring Sugar Beth (I like that book too much to ruin it, lol), I think the fact that he’s writing her story — twice — and the circumstances under which he leaves town and then dictates to her the conditions of his return reflect how dependent the heroine is on the hero for healing, even though we’re made to feel that it’s all about the heroine bringing her own self up and out of the ashes. And it’s that narrative double-back that troubles me, I think.

  51. Anne
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 20:20:06

    You know, I like heroines who overcome adversity. I do. But the constantly-humiliated heroine, like those mentioned by SEP and other ‘modern’ romances, is something that I hate. I hate it in movies and tv shows, too. It makes me cringe. It’s part of why I refuse to watch so-called ‘chick-movies’ and ‘romantic comedies’ in the cinema. At least if it’s on my tv, I can turn it off or change the channel, or if’s a book I don’t have to finish reading.

    To me, an author heaping humiliation on a character != that character overcoming adversity.

    I did force my way through Natural Born Charmer, because despite all the indignities heaped upon her I *liked* Blue. I think I would have liked her even more if the author hadn’t heaped so much humiliation upon her.

    And don’t get me started on Nobody’s Baby… I HATED that book. I have a few more SEP that I inherited from my mother-in-law and haven’t read yet, and was rather hoping that Charmer and Nobody’s Baby were oddities… from what I hear in this thread, though, I won’t be reading any more of them.

  52. Robin/Janet
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 21:35:31

    @Anne: I definitely have a love/hate relationship with SEP’s books, but I do think she’s an incredibly skilled author, and I’ve enjoyed a number of her books, despite the regressive sexual politics that tend to rile me up.

    If you liked Blue, you might like Sugar Beth in Ain’t She Sweet. Sugar Beth is IMO SEP’s most memorable heroine, although I have not yet read all her books. I also found Francesca from Fancy Pants quite fascinating, and I recently read Glitter Baby for the first time and found it really interesting. Her earlier books were longer, more epic in scope, and quite melodramatic, but sometimes quite fun, IMO. If you don’t want to take on any of those (my least favorites are It Had To Be You, Nobody’s Baby But Mine, Breathing Room, and This Heart of Mine, which has what is arguably a scene in which the heroine rapes the hero), I’d go for Ain’t She Sweet before you decide to abandon SEP altogether.

  53. Moriah Jovan
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 21:54:52

    Nobody’s Baby But Mine was a miss for me, too, except for the SEP-trademarked secondary older-couple romance. Loved that.

    Kiss an Angel is the only book of hers that is on my DIK shelf of exactly 9 books. I think my interest waned with First Lady, picked up with Ain’t She Sweet, waned again, was on life support with the blue beaver suit. It died with the Jennifer Aniston/Angelina Jolie one.

  54. SonomaLass
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 22:06:40

    It’s funny, because I don’t see Winnie being morally superior at all. On the contrary, it’s her actions toward Sugar Beth that put them on a more equal footing so that they can maybe go forward as some version of friends/sisters. I think the structure of the book requires Winnie to treat Sugar Beth badly enough that they are “even.” Otherwise she *would* always be the morally superior one, if that makes any sense. SEP didn’t just want to make them able to tolerate each other, she wanted to forge a relationship there, and I think that’s why Winnie can’t be too forgiving or adult about it. I don’t extend that feeling to the other women; that’s where the sense of piling on comes in for me.

    I agree with GrowlyCub — watching people being humiliated is awful, and a lot of what passes for humor just isn’t funny to me for that reason. I often leave the room when something on TV is supposed to be funny, because all my empathy is with the character being humiliated. And if there are repeated incidents in a novel, it’s not just the heroine who gets bitter — it’s ME.

  55. Fiona Lowe
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 22:56:18

    This has been a fantasic discussion and I’ve come at it wearing two hats…1 as a reader 2 as an author. I’ll start with author hat first. The device of stripping the heroine emotionally and physically and taking her way out of her comfort zone gives the author a lot of scope and although people have said it is one-sided and the hero still has a bed and hot meals, he is often the one undergoing the biggest emotional arc in the book. That emotional growth lies squarely at the feet of the heroine who, despite her tough time has an emotional strength the hero does not have at the start of the book. His ‘recovery’ is due entirely to her. Her recovery is often at the her own hand. In all the books mentioned, I think I can fairly confidentally say (well in the SEP ones) it is the heroine who falls in love first. She is more emotionally together than the hero. That is a huge part of her strength.

    As a reader, I am always amazed at what I love with a passion is not reciprocated by fellow readers. I adored Blue from NBC. That book is my most fave SEP ever followed by DALD. But NCB seems to engender such ‘love it ‘ or ‘hate it’ repsonses and it’s always made me wonder why. For some reason I related to Blue and there lies to the key to an enjoyable read.
    Many thanks for a great discussion…my head is zipping with all your thoughts!

  56. DM
    Apr 06, 2011 @ 23:54:56

    In all the books mentioned, I think I can fairly confidentally say (well in the SEP ones) it is the heroine who falls in love first. She is more emotionally together than the hero. That is a huge part of her strength.

    This is at the root of my problem with these heroines. Yes. They fall in love first. With a man who puts them through an emotional wringer. Clearly this is a taste issue. One woman’s amazon is another woman’s doormat. That’s why I loved Elle. Her strength was demonstrated when Warner saw her worth, and she saw that she deserved better than him.

  57. Fiona Lowe
    Apr 07, 2011 @ 02:20:09

    One woman's amazon is another woman's doormat.

    That is very true because I haven’t seen any of the woman in any of the books we’ve discussed as doormats and I would say they have put the hero through an equal emotional ringer.

    Re Warner and Elle, Warner was never portrayed as a hero. He had no heroic qualities at all. If the hero is well drawn and well motivated and we see his heroic qualities then we are cheering for the H & H to be together. For Elle, Warner was the catalyst for her to see herself in a different light and for her to grow as a person and fall in love with someone who deserved her.

  58. Robin/Janet
    Apr 07, 2011 @ 15:34:15

    @Fiona Lowe and @DM:

    In all the books mentioned, I think I can fairly confidentally say (well in the SEP ones) it is the heroine who falls in love first. She is more emotionally together than the hero. That is a huge part of her strength.

    This is at the root of my problem with these heroines. Yes. They fall in love first. With a man who puts them through an emotional wringer.

    Exactly. There is something perverse to me about the heroine falling in love first and then healing the guy who tormented her. We’re all familiar with the ‘heroine healing the tortured hero’ device in Romance, and even that can play problematically for me when she heals him through her unremitting faith and devotion and “natural” feminine taming serum (located conveniently in the ovaries and magical sparking hoo haw). But when the heroine must suffer torment from the hero and STILL fall in love first and heal him, I have a more difficult time not feeling that the heroine’s autonomy and identity are being undermined for the sake of the hero’s character, which for me, at least, is not incredibly romantic.


    It's funny, because I don't see Winnie being morally superior at all. On the contrary, it's her actions toward Sugar Beth that put them on a more equal footing so that they can maybe go forward as some version of friends/sisters.

    I intellectually understand that this is what the novel is attempting to convey, but it just doesn’t sell through for me. I do not see the situation as equitable, in large part because of the adult v. high school distinction. Maybe if Winnie had simply refused to have anything to do with Sugar Beth, if she had ignored her when she was in need or did something that both reflected the injury SB dealt her but also recognized that if we are to expect more from the adult SB, so should we be able to expect more from the adult Winnie, I’d have bought the relationship and Winnie’s characterization.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the scene in the book where things really start to turn around between Colin and SB, the dinner scene in which SB gets wine on her blouse and Colin feels protective of her against the other women. OTOH, I think it was incredibly smart to get the reader to sympathize with SB through Colin, who himself has been so hurt by her (i.e. if he’s ready to forgive, we should be, too). But OTOH, I’m bothered by the idea that the reader is invited to sympathize with SB through Colin, in collusion with his own approving feelings. I realize, of course, that the reader is autonomous and can choose to let Colin dictate our sympathies or not, but the fact that I feel the novel is inviting me to do that through Colin is indicative of my difficulties with the bittering process. And it goes back, in an indirect way, to the way in which these heroines undergo this process to be deserving somehow, as if they would not otherwise be. But then I’m one of those readers who is never fond of the “need to earn love” device in Romance, so I’m probably more sensitive to this variation.

  59. Sofia Harper
    Apr 07, 2011 @ 16:10:25

    I think there's a tendency in romance to portray cynicism as something from which characters (usually the heroes) have to be healed from, and idealism, naivete and trust (usually on the part of the heroines) as the means by which the heroes are healed.

    This idea is the bigger issue, love healing all wounds. The mechanisms we use matter because it brings up the question could *insert whatever here* be an effective device to learn how to love?

    The way I see this trope is more along the lines of all of these characters are too scared or too broken or too whatever to sustain their HEA during the course of the book. So, it’s not about going through tribulations to deserve one, but can the h/h keep that HEA after the book is closed. It’s the reason why I either buy into or I don’t. If I’m thinking the first time he leaves the toilet seat up she’s going to be a puddle of angst and insecurity and hemustnotloveme, the story just ain’t happening. It’s probably why the humilation device is used. If the heroine can overcome this and still find love/happiness than nothing will stand in the way. But with all things it’s about the execution. It’s also about your particular hot buttons.

    As for ASS (lol), I really don’t remember anything but Sugar Beth and Colin’s storyline. Loved this romance because I felt that even though Colin was rightfully pissed he still found Sugar Beth nothing short of amazing. She kept him on his toes. And at the end of the story I bought into their HEA.

    Edited to Add: This opinion comes from someone who likes the proverb: In order to gain anything you must first lose everything. (Or something like that.)

  60. Julia Broadbooks
    Apr 07, 2011 @ 16:57:54

    @Robin/Janet: I don’t much enjoy the hero torturing the heroine story line. And if the heroine falls in love with the man doing this to her I’m always left wondering why.

    I don’t mean that the hero can never be an idiot for a while. I can even work with a heroine who falls in love first with a hero who is still angry. But if the hero is actively seeking to make the heroine unhappy I have a hard time buying their HEA.

  61. Faye
    Apr 07, 2011 @ 17:08:17

    @DM: Yes! DM, that nails it for me. It’s not as much about the heroine’s struggles, as it is about her relationship with the people humiliating her. It seems like in order to have a happy ending, she has to be nice and both accept and forgive, even implicitly endorse, her mistreatment.

  62. You Don’t Seem Like the Type | Raspberry Lime Ricki
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 08:49:07

    […] which is not really my thing. Her heroines are sometimes completely insane and, as pointed out here, sometimes kind of beaten down in a way that’s uncomfortable. I find her notions of what men […]

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