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The Isolated Romance Heroine

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Romance and life philosophies, and during the vibrant ensuing discussion, Liz Mc2 made a great point about how the more Romance novels narrow their focus to just the couple, the less we see of their interaction and engagement with the outside world. As she put it:

Of course there are exceptions, but when the larger community context is a vestigial part of someone’s life as represented in fiction, so many things that matter to people in real life get dropped out.

On Saturday, Miss Bates’s review of a Ruthie Knox novel prompted a long and winding discussion about, well, all sorts of things, but among the topics discussed was the social and familial isolation of Romance protagonists, especially heroines.

The isolated heroine has long been one of my Romance soapbox topics, because as useful as it often is in a genre where you want individuals to forge an intense, possibly unbreakable romantic bond, it can also make the heroine more vulnerable and disempowered.

We more often see the isolated heroine in historical Romance, whether she be the orphaned governess or powerless daughter forced to marry The Wrong Man (or The Right Man who initially appears to be The Wrong Man). And there seems to be a strong perception that women were more isolated in the past, although I think this may have more to do with the ways in which we conceptualize connectedness and independence and social power in a contemporary context. In any case, historical Romance more often seems to rely on the trope of the isolated heroine to place the heroine in a position where she can meet, fall in love with, and ultimately marry a man she might otherwise never have access to. Whereas authors of contemporary Romance — like Shannon Stacey, Julie James, Erin McCarthy, Kit Rocha, Jessica Clare and others — are more inclined to feature female friendships, if not necessarily close family relationships.

Still, the trope of the isolated heroine is hardly obsolete, as Truly Yours, the book that initially gave rise to the epic Twitter conversation demonstrates. The novel apparently makes use of the ‘innocent girl alone in the big bad city’ trope, with the hero set up as her protector. And I was talking with Jane about Linda Howard’s books, where you see some of her lighter books, like Mr. Perfect, Open Season, and To Die For (the Blair Mallory series), featuring better connected heroines, with darker books, like Dream Man, Diamond Bay, and Shadow Woman, isolating the heroine from family, friends, and even society.  Harlequin Presents often makes use of this trope, as well.

There are many reasons that the isolation of the heroine can be useful. I encourage you to read through the Twitter discussion for some of them, including word/page count limits, the creation of conflict, the need for hero and heroine to ‘forsake all others’ for the romantic bond to form, and creating vulnerability in the heroine’s circumstances that hasten her romantic attachment to the hero, who may or may not appear in protector mode. Some authors, like Courtney Milan, often present the heroine as somewhat self-isolating or socially marginalized as a way to illustrate her strength and necessary independence. There are myriad reasons for a heroine’s isolation, and not all of them end of diminishing her relative to a male partner.

Still, the trope’s popularity in genre Romance is interesting. For one thing, it can be characterized as pretty WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) in orientation. Which is ironic, since in so much Western thought, the nuclear family is perceived to be the political, economic, and social core of society, which means that even when the unit is strong from the inside, it must be a meaningful element of the larger society, and for that to be the case, there must be connectedness to outsiders, from extended family to neighbors to childhood friends or those encountered through social institutions (church, organizations, the workplace, etc.). This also goes back to the way in which certain sub genres — historical Romance, Romantic Suspense — seem to make more extensive use of the isolated heroine and why.

How often in the genre do we come across the heroine who has been cut off from family and friends for whatever reason, who is adrift in some fundamental way, and who, in her isolation, becomes the perfect candidate for the ‘found family’ of romantic bonding with the hero. Eve Dallas comes to mind immediately, as the found family is a consistent theme for her relationship with Roarke, as well as all the friends she begins to accumulate after she falls in love with him. Lisa Kleypas’s Travis family series came up during the Twitter convo as an example of a series of books in which family is a very complex notion. But even though there is a strong family ethic at the center of the series – patriarch Churchill Travis is very present in the books – Haven, in Blue-Eyed Devil, is isolated from her friends and family when she is abused by her first husband, and Smooth Talking Stranger’s Ella’s mother and sister abandon her so she will have to take care of her newborn nephew, Luke. Even Ella’s boyfriend refuses to have any part of the baby, although Kleypas does give Ella a strong network of female friends who provide a good deal of support, advice, and interaction, all of which keep Ella from being completely vulnerable and disempowered relative to the wealthy and well-connected Jack Travis. Eloisa James has also written historical Romances with strong female friendships, and I am convinced that one of the reasons Kristen Ashley’s books are so popular is that more often than not her heroines have a) a strong supportive family (that often provides comic relief), b) a wide, outspoken, and diverse group of friends, or c) both a and b.

When a heroine has a strong personal support system, we may get the signal that she doesn’t need the hero, but that the romance is more additive to an already full life than compensatory. Especially when a heroine is portrayed as being professionally successful, I think it’s important to see how those different relationships in her life work to support and sustain her. In both historical and contemporary Romance, I love to see the large, eccentric, perhaps even somewhat overbearing family, not only for comic relief, but also because families are themselves micro-societies, and they have their own cultures and ecologies, which shape children in all sorts of positive and negative ways. Pride and Prejudice, for example, presents a family in the Bennets that is hardly unproblematic, but still very much there and essential to the structure of the novel and the lives of the Bennet sisters. Families may also help catalyze romantic conflict, as in the feuding families trope.

This goes to what I would call the difference between cultivating dependence between protagonists and interdependence. Interdependence has an element of equality, because individuals are dependent on each other to some degree, but they can still be very independent and highly functioning in general. I do think the genre has made a lot of good strides toward equity between romantic protagonists, especially male and female, but I also worry a little that by routinely isolating heroines from friend and family support structures, we may inadvertently reinforce the social agency of men over women.

Of course, there are circumstances where the lack of family – or of a highly dysfunctional family – is essential and even desirable in the genre. The heroine who must marry the man she thinks is all wrong for her because she will be destitute if she does not can give rise to a great deal of emotional conflict and character development carried out in close quarters. Romantic suspense and PNR often utilize the isolated heroine, perhaps because her vulnerability sets up the suspense portion of the story, or her independence gives rise to her power. Thinking about it, I realize that one of the reasons I love Shelly Laurenston’s paranormals so much is because the really strong and complex relationships the heroines have, both with other women and men, including family members, make me believe more strongly in the romantic coupling between two really independent and volatile characters. That they can sustain long-lasting, complicated relationships in other parts of their lives gives me hope that they can do the same in their romantic bonding.

I wonder, though, if there is also a certain lingering fear in the genre that a really strong and dynamic friendship or family relationship will compete with the romantic relationship in a way that would diminish the romance. For example, if a friendship seems more engaging to the reader than the romance, it may undermine the success of the genre imperative of romantic love. And I also have to wonder how many Romance relationships would provoke caring friends and family to warn the heroine away in the strongest terms. All the rakes and super spies and bikers, etc. do not exactly have the best romance resumes, which is part of what makes them so appetizing to so many readers, but also problematic from a real-world perspective.

And in their own way, friends and family can provide a somewhat real-world perspective in Romance. They may be the proverbial Greek Chorus, vocalizing thoughts the reader is likely to entertain. They add layers to the protagonists, and they reveal the network of associations that people routinely have to navigate in their daily lives. But does the well-connected heroine also rub subtly against the persistent notion that somehow women need romantic love for completion, something that I think still drives some aspects of the genre? Or is the isolated heroine merely a trope that helps build emotional suspense and romantic conflict?

REVIEW:  Romancing the Holiday anthology by Helen Kay Dimon, Christi Barth, & Jaci Burton

REVIEW: Romancing the Holiday anthology by Helen Kay Dimon, Christi...

Dear Ms. Dimon, Ms. Barth, and Ms. Burton:

Carina Press’s holiday anthologies are fast becoming autobuys for me. I was sorry there was no m/m anthology this year, but this entry in another favorite subgenre of mine, contemporary romance, made up for it. As is often the case, especially with two out of three new-to-me authors, I had varying reactions to the different stories. Two are small-town romances featuring installments of family series, while the other is set in a major city and uses it to very good effect.

Romancing the Holidays

The first story is HelenKay Dimon’s We’ll Be Home for Christmas. Spencer Thomas is the never-married, never-planning-to-marry brother in the trio that runs Thomas Nursery. But when he discovers that his partner in a seriously hot, memorable three-night stand, Lila Payne, is in Holliday and planning to stay, his ironclad rule is in danger. Lila can’t believe that the gorgeous dude who lied to her is an upstanding, generous citizen of her new home town, and her ex-husband hasn’t offered her much reason to give the male sex the benefit of the doubt. But Spencer really IS a decent guy, and both he and Lila have to start reevaluating their respective assumptions.

I liked the previous story in this trilogy so much that I was a little apprehensive when I started this one. But I was in good hands. Spencer was kind of a jerk in Lean on Me, but here his character is deepened and enriched without turning him into a whole different person. Lila made a good match for him, too. She’s down to earth and a bit gunshy from her bad marriage, but she doesn’t immediately endow Spencer with all the bad traits of her husband. I only realized when I was writing up this review that in the second and third stories, the women are substantially helped out by the men. Usually, that rescue scenario doesn’t work for me in anything but a pure fairytale format. I think it worked here because I never thought that the heroines couldn’t rescue themselves, but rather that they allowed the heroes to help. There’s a reciprocal element that is absolutely key in establishing a relationship that is mutually beneficial, and I saw that in their behavior. Oh yeah, It’s HK Dimon. The sex is steamy. The repartee is witty. There are some things in life you can just depend on, thank goodness. Grade: B+

Christi Barth’s Ask Her at Christmas is the second and shortest story in the anthology. It is set in Chicago, just before Christmas, and it’s a friends to lovers story. This is one of my favorite setups, but it didn’t work for me here. Caitlin and Kyle have known each other since their college days at Northwestern and are each others’ best friends, and Caitlin has been in love (unrequitedly) for most of that time. Kyle has recently decided to marry Monica, whom he does not love, because it will cement a merger between their respective family firms. Christi throws herself into helping Kyle create a romantic setting for his proposal, even though she thinks Kyle should marry for love.

Kyle is an incredibly gorgeous computer geek, and Caitlin is a sexy art history graduate student with great hair and eyes and a hot body. They’ve apparently managed a Harry-met-Sally relationship despite the fact that each finds the other extremely attractive. I suspended disbelief and continued, but then it turns out that Kyle’s future wife is nasty, manipulative, and selfish, and his father cares only about the business. Caitlin, meanwhile, continues to enable Kyle’s bad choices until Kyle finally comes to his senses. The Chicago setting was beautifully done and made me wish I were there, and the ending was romantic. But I really wanted to tell both Kyle and Caitlin to snap out of it, à la Cher in Moonstruck. Grade: C

The final story is Jaci Burton’s The Best Thing. This is my first story by Burton, and it is part of a series featuring the Kent Brothers. Brody Kent is the last unmarried brother, and it looks as if he’ll stay that way. Brody doesn’t date any woman for long, and even his loving mother calls him a womanizer and manwhore. Tori Lewis, Kent Construction Company’s office manager, has been in love with him for years, but she kept her feelings under wraps until a year ago, when Brody kissed her at the company Christmas party. For the last year she has barely been able to talk to him, and her demeanor at the office has changed. When Brody finally confronts her and insists on talking about what happened, their uncomfortable conversation turns into a steamy, sexy encounter that lasts all weekend. But what happens when they have to return to work and everyday life? Can Brody change? Can Tori take the chance that he will, all the while fearing that if he doesn’t, she loses both Brody and the Kent family?

Tori and Brody are both appealing, relatable characters. Brody knows exactly what he is and is happy about it, but he tries to do the decent thing and be honest with the women he sleeps with. Tori knows that her fear of getting involved with Brody isn’t just about his reputation but about her fear of losing her job and her surrogate family. When they find themselves enjoying their developing relationship, they don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing their feelings, and while the crisis that separates them in the end is a bit predictable, the story is so well executed that it doesn’t feel like the umpteenth retelling of the tale.

Although I haven’t read the other stories, I didn’t have any trouble keeping track of what was going on. The relationships among Wyatt, Ethan, and Brody are nicely drawn, and while there are a lot of Kents running around, these types of family settings seem appropriate to Christmas stories. The small town atmosphere is neither idealized nor disparaged, and the closeness and nosiness of small-town life adds a convincing dimension to the conflict between Brody and Tori. It also provides a Big Moment at the end that could really only happen in this setting, and that is saved from being irretrievably over the top because Brody really does need to grovel and Tori deserves the gesture. Grade: B

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