Friday, May 31, 2013

Romance after Childhood Sexual Trauma: Rebecca Rogers Maher's FAULT LINES

On Goodreads, amazon.com, and many other web sites where readers post book reviews, reviewers often justify giving a romance a low rating with the explanation, "I didn't like the heroine." Heroines who are too selfish, too tough, too distant, too unromantic, too (fill in the blank with your least favorite personal characteristic) make romance readers unhappy, often so much so that they reject the books in which they feature out of hand. When it comes to romance, most readers expect their female protagonists to be nice.

What, then, to do with a heroine whose life experiences have made her anything but? Wedding planner Sarah Murphy is very good at pretending—pretending that the color of the bridesmaids' dresses matter. Pretending that the order she creates out of the chaos of each wedding can extend to her own life. Pretending that the guarded face she shows the world—the nice girl face—is all there is to see.

But the real Sarah, the one behind the façade, knows the truth. Knows that the gleam in her eyes that brings men running, the one that "promised easy sex and plenty of it, the gleam that said she didn't give a fuck about anything," isn't natural, but forced. Knows that the ease with which her overripe body draw a man's eye is simultaneously a thrill and a source of self-disgust. Knows that no matter how much she's been turned on by any of the hundreds of guys she's slept with, at some point they all "trip the fuse that was always waiting to be tripped, and she would go cold inside, and wait for it to be over." Knows that she uses sex to gain a sense of control over her life, a control wrested away from her  childhood self by a man who was supposed to love her, supposed to keep her safe.

When a casual hook-up catches a glimpse of the real Sarah, the frightened Sarah, her nice-girl Sarah façade quickly gives way to angry, tough-girl Sarah, a woman who knows how to dish out cruelty with the best of them. Rudeness, insults, foul language followed by mind-blowing sex, then more rejection should put Joe in his place, show him who's in charge, keep him at a safe distance. But Joe, a photographer, doesn't just take pictures at weddings; documenting military men and women suffering from PTSD has become his passion, his attempt to understand and come to terms with his own distant soldier father. To Joe, who has served as witness to the damaging effects of trauma, Sarah's behavior isn't that of a cruel person, a crazy person, but simply that of one struggling to come to terms with the horrors she's endured, as best as she is able.

Because of its brevity, because it is told completely from Sarah's point of view, and because several other people, not only Joe, play a role in Sarah's gradual coming to terms with her victimization, Maher's novel works better as women's fiction than as a straight romance. As a romance reader, I wished Maher had given me more time with Joe, and with Joe and Sarah together, rather than just showing them during the intense turning-point moments that mark Sarah's emotional growth. But despite its shortcomings as romance, Fault Lines has taught me the valuable lesson of not writing off a heroine because she's too something to be immediately likable. And, in real life, to look for the bravery in those people who may not be living up to my ideals, but who are trying as hard as they can to struggle through the aftermaths of their own individual traumas.

What romances have you read that made you feel for an initially unsympathetic heroine?


Illustration credits:
PTSD word map: Anxiety.org






Fault Lines.
Carina Press, 2012.












Next time on RNFF:
Back to the usual Tuesday book review, 
Friday general topic rotation

9 comments:

  1. Recently, The Chocolate Kiss by Laura Florand. My childhood history is similar to the heroines, so I identified very strongly with her.

    The heroine is A Lady Awakened by Cecelia Grant is very unsympathetic -- prim and prickly and refuses to enjoy sex. But that turns into a win, because she insists on being accepted on her own terms and that is awesome.

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    1. Ah, Willaful, you mention two of my recent favs. Will be writing about Cecilia Grant's latest next week...

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  2. I'd like to second Willaful's choice of A LADY AWAKENED. She is one cold fish, that lady, but her predicament is totally sympathetic & understandable; her solution, genius in the foiling of what dictates women & property rights.

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  3. The Queen of the Unsympathetic Heroines is... (drum roll)... SCARLET O'HARA. She played one guy off another, wanted Ashley even tho he was engaged, married her sister's beau ( the guy with the business)On the other hand, she was strong enough to get them thru the Civil War and shoot the Union guy who came to the house. Sometimes "surviving" means doing nasty things. She really wasn't the shallow belle we see at the opening gathering. She was tough and didn't even know it.Her biggest mistake was not accepting Rhett's love until it was too late. In spite of all her flaws and being unsympathetic we still like her. BUT if it was written today, I can see the horrible reviews on Amazon.

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    1. Pat: Do you think Scarlett comes across as more sympathetic in the film than in the book? Or vice versa? I have to admit I've only seen parts of the film, never the entire thing in one sitting. I think we'll have to schedule a neighborhood movie night this summer to rectify this glaring omission in my romance history!

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  4. I just read Julie Anne Long's Like No Other Lover this weekend and really loved it. The heroine is pretty calculating and selfish because she's trying to land a rich husband. She's an orphan with no family and literally no money to her name. Her options are narrowing rapidly, and her best best is to get married ASAP in order to survive. I actually read a review that complained that the heroine was annoying because she should just settle for a poor husband, which I thought was a strange reason to dislike her. In general marriage was business, and for many women in the past it was their only way to "earn" any financial security. Wanting to make the best match possible doesn't seem like such an offense to me!

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    1. Jen:

      Mmmm, yes, LIKE NO OTHER LOVER's Cynthia is definitely one of those looking for a rich marriage prospect kind of girls. They can definitely turn off readers, especially ones who don't have a good sense of women's roles in the period. Just wrote about another one in this week's post, on Cecilia Grant's latest: http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com/2013/06/wanting-what-youre-not-supposed-to-want.html

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  5. I actually prefer anti-heroines to sympathetic heroines. Too bad there is a bunch of anti - heroes in romance but so few anti - heroines. It's always the good heroine who saves the antihero from his wicked self caused by some childhood trauma. Don't bad people ever fall in love? For once I would like to read about the female equivalent of someone like Walter White.

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    1. Yes, a few anti-heroines would be more than welcome. Most editors insist that romance authors create heroines that readers will both like and feel they can relate to, though, alas.

      Would you consider Walter White a romantic anti-hero? I'm not a fan, but from what I've heard about BREAKING BAD, I'm not sure I'd consider the show genre-wise even close to romance...

      How far can an anti-hero or heroine go before you lose sympathy/interest?

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