Ladyparts be good! (Part 1.)
At a party this past weekend, the man my friend is dating was discussing romance novels with me. I had admitted — as I have only recently begun admitting in person — that I read the dreaded things. He expressed the usual surprise (with the usual soupçon of consternation) and asked, “So– are there good romance novels?”
I’ve gotten this question quite a few times before. I’ve thought of so many answers, ranging from the obtuse to the snide. In the moment, though, my answers always desert me. “Oh, sure,” I said, “there’s lots! There are even English professors who write romance novels.” My cunning answers deserted me, in other words, and I was left with eager-to-please-itude. Oh, please like my girly novels, despite their icky girliness! THEY’RE BETTER THAN THE SUM OF THEIR (LADY)PARTS!
If I’d had any grasp on my brain or my tongue, I would have discussed what makes something good. As with any genre, whether or not there are good romance novels really does depend on what you mean by ‘good.’ There are romance novels that I would recommend to anyone with an easy heart and a clear conscience, because they feature interesting plots, evocative writing, and funny bits. (Funny bits are very much required, in my thinking.) Even if we agree on these characteristics, though, there will be debate about whether or not the book actually fulfills the requirements, because someone won’t like it. That’s really the whole phenomenon of popular aesthetics, right there: “I love this shit therefore it is SUBLIME and sublime is GOOD and therefore this shit I love is GOOD.”
More often than not, the romance novels I read are in a murky area of ‘good’ness. A book might be nicely structured, well-written, funny, well-researched, fascinating, but because the plot is constructed out of High Dramatics, I can’t quite recommend it to your casual man-acquaintance. Sometimes the book doesn’t have a damn thing to recommend it beyond its High Dramatics, and I hide the cover when I read it on the train. Yet I find both kinds of books ‘good.’ What these kinds of romance novels have, what makes them good, is indulgence.
These kinds of books exist in every genre. My Other of Some Significance is currently reading a novel in the fantasy genre that is indulgent to the extreme: the hero is a poor orphan who turns out to be a prodigy in magic. The prodigy undergoes intense trials, of course, but he emerges victorious with a snappy comeback on his lips. MOSS is loving this book. These books might be embarrassing, after all, and you might not recommend them to your friends, but you can churn through them like a box of Ding Dongs.
I’ve read two highly indulgent romances recently. The first is Anna Campbell’s Untouched, which I took out from the local library, and which I will cover in this post. The second is Georgina Gentry’s Diablo, which will have its own post. If you continue below the fold, be prepared for spoilers! Millions of spoilers! DUDE THEY TOTALLY HAVE SEX AND MAKE BABIES– oh, sorry, forgot to put in the break.
Untouched is the story of Grace Paget, a recent widow who is seriously down on her luck. Grace is trying to meet up with a member of her extended family. He doesn’t show up. Instead, Grace is abducted by a pair of unsavory dudes, who assume she does sex work. They dope her up and take her away.
Grace wakes up strapped to a table. She’s a mite confused, as one might be, until she finds out that she’s meant to be the sexual plaything of the (hot) dude who has woken her up. Said dude lives in a house with a small acreage. It’s a really nice house, except for the part where it’s guarded by armed guys and surrounded by unclimbable walls.
The dude is Matthew Lansdowne, Lord Sheene. When he was young, Matthew had some sort of brain fever — handwave, handwave, whatever — and his uncle had him locked up for his own good. Because Matthew was mad, his uncle was able to take over the title. The uncle is now used to having wealth and status and power, weirdly enough, so he keeps having Matthew re-declared insane. Matthew is understandably peeved by this. As of the opening of the novel, the uncle has decided to bring in a sex worker as a palliative. Hence Grace’s presence!
This set-up is perhaps the most amazing thing I have ever read, and I used to read really terrible Buffy fanfiction.
Matthew doesn’t believe that Grace isn’t some stunning sex worker, even though she’s a) dressed in mourning, b) really shabby mourning, c) is really convincingly scared of him, d) doesn’t try to have sex with him. Even after he believes her story, he MANFULLY RESISTS the temptation to make pudding-sweet creamy delicious love to her. Sexing her hot bod would be giving in to his uncle! For her part, Grace is reticent about sexing him, because she thinks he doesn’t really desire her, and because her dud of a husband has only been dead for a short while.
Flimsiness of this premise aside, the first half of the book is the best. I am biased: I love, love, love pining and thwarted sexual desire, and the first half of the book is replete with same. If you are anything like me, you must go read at least the first half of this book. There’s utterly ludicrous and inexcusable amounts of thwarted sexual tension, thinly excused as resistance to his uncle’s plans. He sleeps on the couch! He stands in the doorway at night, desiring her! Stilted conversations! Raging erections and stalwart nipples! How am I not writing this whole entry in caps?!
The sexual tension is resolved by the uncle threatening to kill Grace if they don’t make the beast with two backs. I’m sorry, that bears clarification: SEX OR DEATH. Love it! They do the nasty, of course, and Grace admits her sullied past (her husband was a revolutionary, and she fell in love with his ideals, and her family threw her out, and she has never gotten a Good Boning). Matthew admits his sullied past (everyone thinks he’s crazy, he lives in a box, he has never known the touch of a woman). More boning ensues.
The second half is way less fun. There is a seriously frightening near-rape, by one of the servants who guards Matthew’s prison1; Matthew and Grace plot and effect a hilariously obvious escape plan; Grace makes Matthew promise not to kill himself for at least a little bit, although it means he has to deal with being beaten with a cane; Grace is revealed to be a CLOSET ARISTOCRAT (gasp!) who is able to save her loverdude; there’s a big scene, the uncle dies, one of the henchmen dies; Grace is like, “I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN” “Oh you’ve never been with another woman, we must part, you must experience the world,” and Matthew’s like, “One year apart, and then you better be ready to marry me”; fast forward to a year later, when they bang like crazed weasels in semi-public without actually talking about their problems, superficially discuss their problems, and finally agree to get married.
Epilogue: The usual babymaking.
The pacing is the problem here, as you can tell. One half of the novel was deeply satisfying, and the other half was a breakneck scramble to resolve the plot. As a result, a lot of plot holes were only haphazardly covered over. Someone could twist their ankle!
Could I mention this in public as a good novel? Ho ho, it is to laugh. But is it a good novel? If you mean “did you roll around in bed giggling and biting your lip while reading it, and occasionally ignore very real social obligations to read a little bit more,” then YES. YES it was amazing and should be studied by the FINEST SCHOLARS OF BONERDOM.2 And yet I could not suggest it as one of the ‘good romance novels.’
That’s a damn shame. Woe betide a society that does not value its novels of thwarted yearning! Down that path lies vice, destruction, and students thinking the Scarlet Letter is boring.
So yeah, dude who I was talking to at a party, there are good romance novels. I just can’t tell you about the really good ones.
More to come in Good Part 2: Guilty Pleasure Boogaloo.
1 – I wish that there were trigger warnings on romance novels, sometimes. This is a post for another day.
2 – Dr. Spoiler A. Baby, Professor of Boners. Office Hours: Whenever it’s hardest for you to make it. Ha! Hardest!