Genre romance is rife with familiar and oft-beloved tropes. The marriage of convenience. The secret baby. Lovers torn apart to later reunite, or potential lovers stranded together all by themselves. One of my least-favorite, from a feminist standpoint, is the "one-night-stand leads to pregnancy leads to 'we must marry'." Given the latest statistics on unmarried mothers (in the United States in 2012, 40.7% of all births were to unwed mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control), few Americans still believe marriage should and must follow any pregnancy, whether planned or not. But its not the lack of historical accuracy that gets in the way of my taking pleasure in this trope, but rather the patriarchal assumptions that often accompany it when it makes its appearance in a romance novel.
|No baby mamas here: an example of|
the "we will get married" trope
It's a true delight, then, when an author can take a trope with such sexist underpinnings and recast it in feminist garb. That's just what Molly O'Keefe does in her latest contemporary, Indecent Proposal, the fourth title in her Boys of Bishop series. Our heroine, white working-class Ryan Kaminski, might be the evil villainess in a less thoughtful writer's book; a girl who for years allowed her striking good looks to be her identity, who, selfishly, believed her looks entitled her to more than other people, even her own sister. A girl who not only stole her sister's boyfriend, but married him. A girl who's been estranged from her family for years. But Ryan's done a lot of growing up in the years since her modeling career stalled, since her husband turned out to be far less a prize worth winning than she'd originally thought, since she realized how much her selfishness and entitlement had not only hurt others, but also made her a person she doesn't even like. At thirty-two, working as a part-time bartender and modeling when she gets a rare job, Ryan may not be on top of the world, but she finally knows who she is: someone secure enough to offer an ear and a kind word to the people who come to her bar.
And the man she and her fellow bartender christen "Sad Ken Doll," the man who has haunted her New York City bar for the past three nights, surely could use a kind word. His sister's in trouble (see book #2, Never Been Kissed), and he doesn't think he's going to be able to help her. Ryan knows that a bartender should never cross the invisible barrier down the middle of the bar, knows that the employee handbook says "no fraternizing with the drinkers." But still, Ken Doll, aka Harry, is so sad, so floundering, that Ryan consciously chooses to "shove her first right through that barrier and put her hand over his" (10). And she gifts him with of a night of human connection, of truth-telling and of sexual passion, taking him just as he is, and giving of herself the same. Though she finds herself, as she is all too wont to do, falling a little bit in love with Harry, and with the "rare illusion of care" their night together creates, she's not surprised to find him gone when she wakes up the next morning. She's not expecting to see him again; she doesn't even know his last name.
Not surprisingly, given his own father's philandering past and the hard-ball politics he's grown up around, Harrison had real doubts about the truth of Wes's claims. And when he confronts Ryan, he's ruder than an arrogant Mr. Darcy proposing to Elizabeth Bennet. But "Ryan had been pushed into plenty of corners, so she knew when to come out swinging" (77). And swing she does, even after Harrison proposes to rescue his sure-to-be-floundering-in-the-wake-of-a-sex-scandal campaign by asking Ryan to marry him: "Listen, Harrison, you broke into my apartment. Called me stupid. All but accused me of being a gold-digging whore. I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man on earth" (84).
Harrison acts far differently than other "you're carrying my baby" heroes I've read. He takes little to no interest in the idea of the baby, or in the responsibility of impending fatherhood. All he wants is to not be like his scandal-ridden father, and to have the chance to do some political good in Washington. Thus his proposal is just that—a business proposal, not a claim on Ryan's body or on the baby. They'll marry, and, if he wins the election, they'll stay married, for at least two years. If she wants a divorce after those two years, he'll grant it, buy her a house, send alimony and child support, and step out of her life. In public, they'll pretend they're in love, but in private, they can be who they really are.
Harrison tells Wallace, his campaign manager, "she doesn't have a choice.... Neither of us do." And after her neighbors and her estranged family are besieged by the press, Ryan comes to the same conclusion: "There wasn't any other option but to agree to Harrison's proposal" (91, 98). This is the one point where the trope seems to fall back into its old patriarchal norms, taking away the woman's sense of being able to choose. To prevent the reader from thinking Ryan a gold-digger? Or simply to make the trope/plot possible?
Ryan may feel as small and alone as one of those historical romance heroines, but she refuses to act as if she is. And as long as she insists on her own value, insists that she's worthy of respect not because she's the mother of a future Montgomery child, but because she's intelligent, funny, a natural on the campaign trail, and a kind, caring human being, Ryan will be nobody's pawn. Not her mother-in-law's, not any reporter's, not any of the campaign's staffers'. And especially not Harrison's. For, as the balance of O'Keefe's novel delightfully and sexily demonstrates, Ryan has far more to offer Harrison than anything his contract could ever grant her.
Have you read other "one-night-stand leads to pregnancy leads to 'we must marry'" romances out there that move beyond the patriarchal trappings of the original trope?
Condom failure: HIV-info.net
Gold Digger: Anti-Jokes