Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Paying it Forward: Heidi Cullinan's LOVE LESSONS series

"Pay it forward": to repay a good deed that someone has done for you not by reimbursing that original benefactor, but by doing a good deed to someone else entirely. According to Wikipedia, the concept is as old as the ancient Greeks, and endorsed by a panoply of past luminaries from Ben Franklin to Ralph Waldo Emerson, from Lily Hardy Hammond to Robert Heinlein. Sometimes, the philosophy focuses on random acts of kindness to strangers: paying the toll for the car behind you; buying the cup of coffee for the person standing in the Starbucks line beside you. Other times, though, paying it forward is more specific: volunteering at one homeless shelter after you've been helped by a different one; helping unpublished writers learn more about their craft when you're an already-published author. Some of the most powerful acts of paying it forward, I think, take place among groups of people who miss out on the benefits others of us take for granted. Such as adolescents who find themselves estranged from their friends, families, and networks of support because of their sexual or gender identities.

This concept of paying it forward serves as a unifying thread through each of the three New Adult romances that Heidi Cullinan has published as the Love Lessons series. In book one, Walter Lucas had planned to spend his senior year living off campus. But when his planned roommate graduates early and moves away, Hope's Dean denies Walter's request, insisting that he live in the dorms. Thus Walter, big gay man about campus, finds himself stuck rooming with geeky, Disney-loving, allergy-suffering freshman Kelly Davidson. Kelly, who grew up in a close-knit, accepting family but who is just coming out in public for the first time, is looking for romance with a capital "R." To cynical flirt Walter, wanting romance is to want a false, Disney-fied version of life:

"What the hell do I do on a date that I don't do any other time? Talk? Hell, you and I are talking right now. Go out to eat? That's on the agenda too. Doesn't mean we're sleeping together, not necessarily. Sometimes sex happens with people I hang out with, sometimes it just happens. It's like a game. Why would I want to fuck it up with some heterosexual mating dance?" (Kindle Loc 408)

With such an attitude, Walter's completely up for casual sex with his younger roomie. But Kelly wants his first time to be special, to matter. And so, despite his attraction to Hope College's very own homosexual Casanova, Kelly keeps his hands to himself.

Is Kelly at fault for wanting perfection, the ideal, a fantasy relationship that never can exist in reality? Or is Walter, for not being willing to even consider, never mind believe in, the ideal at all? Cullinan does an amazing job balancing the need to stick a pin in the false promises offered by the papering over, or Disney-fication, of real-life injustice, while simultaneously acknowledging the power of our fantasies and dreams to inspire.

This is a lesson that both Kelly and Walter take with them into the second book in the series, where they act not just as cameo guest stars from a past book, but play an active role in supporting the protagonists of Fever Pitch, both of whom are dealing with situations where their sexuality is far less accepted than was Kelly and Walter's. For Giles Mulder, high school has been a "slog through hell" (181). His family accepts and loves him for who he is, but since Giles doesn't not want, and isn't at all able, to pretend he's anything but gay, his male peers have taken their homophobia out both verbally and physically, on Giles' body. Especially those peers who've indulged sexually with Giles but who fear having anyone find out about it.

Parties are usually not Giles' scene—being the ball in a drunken game of "Kick the Fag" is hardly his idea of fun—but he promised best friend Mina he'd tag along to the end-of-senior-year shindig. No way had he expected the night to end in a lakeside tryst with Aaron Seavers, the popular transfer student whom he'd been crushing on all year. Or that he'd arrive at St. Timothy College in September to discover Aaron, who'd left him without a word, a fellow first-year.

Quiet, gentle Aaron has bee browbeaten for years by his overbearing father. But after he meets Walter during his summer job at his father's law office, and finally begins to talk openly about his sexual identity, he begins to find the courage to make a life decision: he'll follow Giles to St. Timothy. Aaron hopes being away from his family will help him figure out what he wants—out of life, out of love, and especially out of himself. Dealing with a deeply strange roommate, as well as Giles' unexpected animosity, leaves Aaron wondering if coming to St. T's was a huge mistake. But when Aaron's singing talent lands him in the midst of the college's chorus, as well as in its elite male singing group, the Ambassadors, he finds a built-in support group he never even realized he was missing.

A group he certainly needs after his father kicks him out of the house at Christmas after he hears that Aaron was kissing a boy (Giles) at the Winter Concert. But Aaron needs Walter's friendship even more, a need which Walter is determined to meet:

"I knew when I first saw you that you were lonely too. When I saw you in your corner all curled up, though, it got to me because you looked like I still feel inside most of the time. It was like I had to get you out of there,  had to take you to lunch, had to keep in touch with you, because everything about you felt like this big chance to take care of someone the way nobody ever did me, not until Kelly. I think if Kelly weren't so awesome, didn't know where this all came from, he'd be jealous. He does know, though, and he gets how taking care of you is like taking care of the little brother I never had or an alternate version of me. . . . Sometimes we need a place to be completely safe, somewhere boring that isn't about sex or adventure or wild hairs. I am that place for you." (Loc 3750).

Romance is important, yes but so is having friends who make you feel protected, feel safe. Especially when the world—or more painfully, one's family—is not a welcoming place.

I had originally started reading with book three in the series, Lonely Hearts, which was published this year, but I had to go back and start over with book one, because there were so many characters, with so many relevant stories, from the previous two books in the series that I felt I was missing out by not understanding all the romantic and friend connections Cullinan had established earlier in the series. And while each of these three books can stand alone, the experience is far richer if they are read in order.

Lonely Hearts, in fact, opens with Walter and Kelly's summer wedding, a Disney-themed extravaganza that has bitter, nasty Elijah (Aaron's difficult former roommate) nearly gagging. Elijah, whose gayness was anathema to his strictly religious parents, has nearly lost himself pretending to be the repentant Christian boy his mother and father demanded of him after he limped home after a painful year on the streets. He understands why St. Timothy's music clique has adopted "orphaned" Aaron—Aaron's sweet, and kind, and handsome, and good. But prickly, caustic, unlovable Elijah knows he's another story. He alternately rejects with loathing and feels weak at accepting Aaron and Giles' intrusion into his solitary life. And drowns himself in liquor and drugs to dull his feelings.

Elijah's not the only one who needs drink and drugs to help him pack away the pain from a life that's been "a lot more Grimm brothers and much less Walt Disney" (310). Baz Acker, the senior member of the Ambassadors, works hard to present a hip, carefree face to the St. Timothy community, even while his dark glasses and bum hip speak to Baz's own share of Grimm brothers in his past. Baz rarely tells anyone about being gay-bashed outside of a Chicago Boystown bar on his sixteenth birthday ("I lived. My boyfriend didn't" [460]), but finds himself confiding in Elijah at the wedding. Baz's graduating friends warn Elijah away from the volatile Baz, but Elijah knows Baz doesn't always cut and run—he's saved Elijah's life, not once, but twice.

Yet as the new school year unwinds, and Baz vacillates between wooing Elijah and giving him the cold shoulder, Elijah isn't sure he can cope—with college, with romance, or with his increasingly frequent anxiety attacks. And especially not with the publicity of having a relationship with a guy who has become the center of a maelstrom of media interest after said guy's mother announces her candidacy for a U. S. senate seat. Only the wholehearted support of Giles, Aaron, Walter, Kelly, and the music gang can help Elijah and Baz find the sheer courage to care about another, and, more difficultly, about themselves.

And to find their own unique ways of paying it forward.

Love Lessons
     Book #1 Love Lessons 
     Book #2 Fever Pitch
     Book #3 Lonely Hearts

Samhain, 2013, 2014, 2015

Friday, September 25, 2015

What Makes for a Strong Woman in Romance?

Last weekend, I visited the Maine Chapter of New England Romance Writers, to give a workshop on using the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator to construct character and conflict in romance novels. The Maine chapter spends the first hour of their meeting on business, and the third on guest speakers, but the second hour is devoted to a brown bag luncheon, where members (and the guest speaker) get to chat. During that time, I was really struck by a comment one author made after I mentioned that I also reviewed and wrote about romance from a feminist perspective on this blog. I explained that I had started RNFF in part because I thought that the romance genre had changed so much since most of the major academic theoretical work had been done on it, and that conventional wisdom about romance had not caught up with these changes. "Oh, yes," the writer said. "Women in romance are so different now. Almost every book I read has a strong woman in it."

I had to move on to get ready for my presentation, so I didn't have a chance to get into a longer discussion about this assertion. But it's been hanging out in my head for days now, making me wonder: are all female characters in romance strong now? What does it mean for a heroine of a romance to be labeled "strong"? Does what it means to be "strong" vary, depending on the subgenre of romance in which a heroine appears? How does being strong carry relate to a character's arc, which is often all about confronting and/or overcoming a weakness?

I have some initial thoughts about all of the above questions, but I'm curious to hear yours. When someone says "strong romance heroine," what comes to your mind?

Illustration credits:
Raised by a strong black woman: Feed Art Network
Girl Power (Wonder Woman): Aaronlopresti, Deviant Art
Pamper me: Radical Latina

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No More Miss Mean Girl? Julianna Keyes' IN HER DEFENSE

It strikes me as funny that, in my review last week of Kristan Higgins' If You Only Knew, my commentary focused on the perils of women being too nice, and this week, I'm writing about the opposite issue: the problems faced by women who are perceived by others as being too mean...

As soon as I read Dear Author's review of Julianna Keyes latest contemporary, In Her Defense, I knew I had to read this contemporary romance. Jayne, the reviewer, opened her commentary with her fears that the novel's narrator and protagonist, Kaitlyn Dufresne, would not be welcomed with open arms by romance readers, given the decided preference said readers often express for heroines who are nice. And Kaitlyn, the top-billing lawyer at her Chicago law firm, is as about as far from nice as Pluto is from the sun. Intelligent, competitive, and hard-working, excelling at anything she sets her hand to, Kaitlyn loves being the first one into the office every morning, and the last one to leave every night. If she were a man, people might call her driven, or arrogant, but since she's a woman, she's known about the office by the charming nicknames "coldhearted bitch," "she-devil," "hell-on-heels." But Kaitlyn, who is from an economically privileged background (and is presumably white, too) doesn't give a shit about what others think; she knows she's "better than good. I'm the best," and isn't afraid to say so, to anyone, anywhere, anytime (Kindle Loc 256).

A feminist romance reader's heart tends to sink at this point in such stories; brash, self-confident, workaholic women far too often get "schooled" during the course of their romance story arcs, learning to dial down their outspokenness, to give up their workaholic ways, to above all, learn how to be nice, what every good woman should and must be (at least in romancelandia). That such schooling often takes the form of subjecting ambitious protagonists to embarrassment, shame, or out and out abjection, however, conveys not only the importance of connection and kindness, but also sends the gender-policing message that any woman who doesn't fit comfortably into the nice girl role needs to be humiliated, so she'll learn her proper place.

And cue the plot convention. Kaitlyn's just been given the prize position of head lawyer at the firm's soon-to-open new Los Angeles office. But at the opening of chapter 2, Kaitlyn wakes after falling asleep at her desk on a Saturday night to the news that she forgot to attach a promised document to a time-sensitive e-mail the night before. And gets called onto the carpet by the firm's three senior partners, not just for this lapse, but for a few other minor mistakes that have been cropping up in her work of late. Ugh, I thought, here we go again, yet another book set on punishing the ambitious career woman by making her look like an incompetent fool.

But Kaitlyn doesn't end up losing her job; she's not out on the street with no money and no friends, as happens in so many other romance novels bent on "nicening" powerful women I've read. Instead, the law firm partners (all male) tell her they worry that that she's overworking herself, something they know the office culture does little to discourage. Billing twenty-three hours a day on average is a little extreme, though, no matter the sex of the lawyer doing the billing. "We understand your position. We've all been there. That's why we know the signs," one tells her (301), and it doesn't seem like sexist placating, or bullshitting. Kaitlyn doesn't lose her job, nor her promotion; she's only forced to take a vacation, and, during her last weeks in Chicago before she moves to LA, while she'll be prepping lawyers to take over her cases, she'll only be allowed to work "holiday hours" (i.e., 7am to 7pm, Monday through Friday). The partners also encourage her to work on her leadership skills, particularly on team-building, skills which she's never much seen the use for, especially since they haven't been exactly encouraged in the cut-throat atmosphere of the law firm.

Kaitlyn's less than pleased with the partners, but she knows "when to play my cards and when to fold," so she seemingly accepts their terms. Because she's certain she can find a work-around on her ban on company network computer use outside of "holiday hours" by intimidating the head of IT. But after hearing Kaitlyn ream out the accountant who ratted her out to the boss about her excessive billing ("Let me spell it out for you. You're support staff. I pay for the house, you clean it. You say thank you, Caitlin. I say shut the fuck up. Is that clear?" [483]), said IT head does not shudder in fear. He just turns her down with a calm, straightforward "No."

Of course, said computer guy, one Eli Grant, turns out to be Kaitlyn's love interest. Not because he's tough enough to stand up to her (although he is), and not because he teaches her something about the effectiveness of kindness in building a team (although he does), but because they happen to end up in the same bar drowning their sorrows (his girlfriend cheated on him with his best friend), and their drunken flirting results in a hotter-than-hot car tryst. But more importantly, because he models for her the value of being just one thing, and being passionate about just one thing. Kaitlyn's family life (workaholic father lawyer; stay-at-home mom; older, workaholic doctor sister) and the atmosphere at her office tell Kaitlyn to be only one thing: a take-no-prisoners lawyer. The beauty of Keyes' romance is that Kaitlyn isn't forced to give up that aspect of her personality, by her bosses, by her lover, or especially by what she learns over her character arc.

Eli is immediately attracted to the brash, outspoken aspect of Kaitlyn ("I thought, Holy shit. She's the hottest, meanest woman I've ever seen," he recounts his first sight of her [672]). But he also wants her to value the other parts of herself, too, parts that he sees but that she doesn't seem to recognize, or value:

"I like the hell-on-heels lawyer that storms into the place very day like she's going to take it over. I like the woman who sits next to me to watch a baseball game, and the one who hangs out on the bleachers when I'm coaching softball. I like the woman who carried my groceries and sanded the crown molding, and the one who wore that gorgeous fucking dress and turned every head when we walked into Mache 42." (2973)

In Keyes' story, it's not just Kaitlyn, but also Eli, who makes mistakes in negotiating their tentative romance. And it's both Kaitlyn and Eli who have to cop to their shortcomings, as well as celebrate their strengths, in order for their relationship to flourish. Most importantly, Eli never insists that Kaitlyn be less, to be weak or incompetent so he can save or protect her, as so many romance novels tacitly suggest. Kaitlyn doesn't have to be nice and only nice in order for Eli to love her. Instead, Eli encourages Kaitlyn to be more.

A challenge at which Kaitlyn, overachiever that she is, can't help but excel.

Photo credits:
Overworked lawyer: Global Legal Post
Multiple passions (hearts in grass): Gare & Kitty, via I'm Not the Nanny

In Her Defense
A Time Served Novel
Carina, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

A story of pride and prejudice: Laurie Kahn's LOVE BETWEEN THE COVERS

Last December, I wrote about having the opportunity to meet with filmmaker Laurie Kahn and film editor Bill Anderson and view a rough cut of their documentary-in-progress about romance writers, Love Between the Covers. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of watching the final version, when it was screened via a special Tugg screening at the Kendall Square Cinema here in Massachusetts. Back in December, Laurie asked me not to report on any of the film's details, but now, with the film "in the can," as it were, I'd like to share some thoughts about the film.

Kahn opens the film with a clever invocation of one of the ur-texts of romance. But she does it with an unexpected twist. A screen card appears with the words

We then see a shot of romance author Jane Porter, who, in an somewhat agitated voice, tells the interviewer, "I'm so proud of what I do, and what I do is so important. And it means so much to me, I don't care what critics say. I don't care."

Porter's words are immediately followed by another screen card:

After which we see romance blogger Sarah Wendell, who tells the camera, "I will have people standing above me [imitating riding on the subway], going 'You read that?'"

Though twentieth and twenty-first-century romance writers have long been plagued by derogatory stereotypes both of themselves and of the books they write, Kahn's opening statements insist that, unlike Mr. Darcy, authors of romance have no "improper pride" they must give up in order to achieve their happy endings. Instead, Love Between the Covers shows us a community of romance writers, justly proud of their many amazing achievements, especially in light of the many prejudices they face from other writers, from society, and sometimes even from their own friends and families. Many of those prejudices are confronted and challenged by the authors in the film, while others remain tantalizingly open or unaddressed.

Invoking (and poking fun at) the vilification of romance
covers by incorporating them into the film credits
Kahn's interviewees also tackle some of the major issues that scholars and readers of romance have been grappling with for decades: What is the continuing appeal of romance as a genre? Who writes romance? Who reads it? Why is romance so looked down upon, far more than are other popular (popular as in mass market) genres? What is different about romance readers than readers of other popular fiction? And what's up with those lurid, clinch-filled covers?

While the film includes interview snippets from dozens of romance writers, romance scholars, romance industry insiders (editors, book designers, publishers, etc.), and, of course, romance readers, Kahn focuses in more tightly on five representative authors—European historical romance writer Eloisa James (otherwise known as literary scholar Mary Bly, daughter of the poet Robert Bly); African-American historical romance writer Beverly Jenkins; contemporary romance writing partners Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan; and lesbian romance writer and publisher Radclyffe (Len Barot). The diversity of the featured authors, as well as the extra camera time given to each, encourages viewers to identify and/or empathize with these authors as people, rather than holding them as objects of derision or scorn. These authors show up again at later in the film, when other, broader questions about the genre come to the fore, preventing viewers from getting lost in a sea of talking heads.

One of those questions is "what is the continuing appeal of romance?" Kahn's interviewees provide many possible, but no definitive answers. Writer Jayne Ann Krentz argues that romance invokes archetypes that go back thousands of years, and that we learn core values from popular fiction. Blogger Sarah Wendell argues that romance is the "one place where you will consistently find women's sexuality treated fairly and positively." Author Jennifer Crusie points to the sexism underlying much of high literature, contrasting the fates of women in books she studied in college with those she reads in romance:

You know, just those toxic stories, no matter how great literature they are, they're toxic to women. If you're free and sexual and you go after what you want, you're going to die horribly. Or end up with a scarlet letter on your chest celibate for the rest of your life because boy did you screw up. But in romance fiction, it's not there. You get rewarded for going after what you want. And you can have sex without dying horribly, which I thought was a plus.

Nora Roberts and Beverly Jenkins both point to the inevitable happy ending (the H.E.A, or happily ever after that is one of the defining characteristics of the genre) as the genre's major draw. But neither the writers, nor the several scholars who appear in the film, mention issues of gender—whether romance reinforces patriarchal gender roles, as many early scholars of the genre often posited—as another potential contributor to the genre's appeal. Romance is far more popular in the west and in the south of the U.S., in red states more than in blue ones; but the film is not interested in such issues of politics and gender.

Gender is decidedly brought up when authors comment about why their genre has been the target of so much popular and scholarly criticism. Jenkins observes, "It's a fantasy, yes. But so are Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Arnold's never killed at the end of his movies? So why beat up women, because they're reading an HEA? And guys have the same kind of HEA. Sylvester Stallone never dies."  "Why is romance sneered at?" scholar and now romance editor Sarah Frantz Lyons asks. "I'm going to give the same answer everyone else has given. It's sneered at because it's written by women, for women, and it's written about women." Kahn, though, isn't interested in digging into the content of romance novels; there is little in the film about whether the genre as a whole, particular sub-genres, or even individual books promote or undercut the "empowered woman" message that the "by women, for women, about women" line that has become so ubiquitous in the romance community in the past decade asserts.

Romance readers who met online share stories in person at the RWA
That sense of community—among writers, among readers, between authors and their fans, between established writers and aspiring ones—that is where Kahn's real fascination lies. "Romance has been so dismissed. So people who read it really bonded. Had to conglomerate for safety, almost. To say it's okay to read these things," author and reader Nicole Peeler notes, adding "Romance reading isn't solitary, like other reading." Romance communities are empowering for women, no matter what the books may have to say about gender relations, Kahn's film quietly but consistently asserts. The fan girl culture of romance; the pay-it-forward attitude of the majority of romance authors; the friendships and rivalries and lifetime bonds that form, primarily between women, because of their love of romance books—this is what interests Kahn, what she most wishes to convey about romance. And convey it she does, with artistry, humor, and above all, respect.

I was going to end this post with a series of memorable quotes from the film. But it's not just quite the same, reading such quotes rather than hearing them and seeing them on film. So instead, I'm going to encourage you to go out and see the film for yourself. The producers of Love Between the Covers have hooked up with Tugg, a company that brings "on demand films to local theaters," and are in the midst of planning a series of 50-100 screenings of Love across the globe this coming fall and winter. They have been working to team up scholars, readers, and librarians with local romance writers to host such screenings.

If you are interested in bringing the film to a movie theater near you, here is the relevant contact information:

or fill in the form at lovebetweenthecovers.com/screenings.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

No More Mrs. Nice Girl? Kristan Higgins' IF YOU ONLY KNEW

In the romance community, Kristan Higgins has the reputation of being really, really nice. Always ready with a smile, a joke, or a friendly comment is Kristan, to fans and fellow authors alike. The first time I met her in person, at the very first romance writer's conference I ever attended, she complimented me on the dress I was wearing and asked where I got it, making me, rather than her, big name author, feel like the center of attention. Higgins is clearly in possession of what my grandmother would have called "a kind soul."

Laverne & Shirley's disastrous turn attempting to run
"The Diner."
But sometimes niceness can shade uncomfortably into self-abnegation. I've long been a fan of Higgins' early books; The Next Best Thing is one of my all-time favorite romances, and I wrote about My One and Only in a previous RNFF post. But I haven't enjoyed her recent work (the Blue Heron series) nearly as much, in large part because I've been finding her heroines too abject to identify with or admire. The Perfect Match's Honor Holland is not just nursing a crush for her high school friend for years, but is secretly sleeping with him, in a friends-with-benefits situation that falls apart after Honor finally screws up the courage to ask her crush about his long-range intentions. Waiting On You's Colleen O'Rourke hasn't had a romantic relationship in ten years, ever since her boyfriend of four years abruptly told her he was marrying another woman, with no other explanation. In Your Dreams's Emmaline Neal, a tough-on-the-outside-only cop, is dumped by her once-fat boyfriend after he loses the excess poundage, rejecting her in favor of his fitness-mad trainer. Higgins has always been known for her humor, but in these books, I often felt that I was being asked to laugh at these women in their painfully ridiculous situations, as much as I was being asked to identify with them. I know a lot of people like this sort of humor, laughing at ridiculously inept women—witness the popularity of television shows like I Love Lucy and Laverne and Shirley (I'm sure those of you who are more pop-culturally literate could name a slew of more contemporary examples). But for me, being asked to adopt such a readerly position does not make me laugh; it makes me squirm with discomfort and shame on behalf of the women being made fun of.

Interestingly, the Blue Heron books were the first in which Higgins adopted a dual point of view, half of her story told from the POV of the heroine, half from the hero. To me, it almost felt as if to make room for her heroes' voices, to make them seem heroic even when we were seeing inside their more vulnerable, human selves, she unconsciously found herself diminishing her heroines. To make them so nice, so silly, that they almost disappeared as people.

The card Jenny should have sent to her ex's baby shower?
It struck me as significant, then, that while Higgins' latest book, If You Only Knew (which is not part of the Blue Heron series) contains two different points of view, they are not those of the heterosexual romantic pair. Instead, they are those of two (presumably white) sisters, both of whom are negotiating major difficulties in their married lives. Or, in the case of younger sister Jenny Tate, negotiating her relationship with her ex-husband. And the woman he married only a few short months after his and Jenny's divorce. And the baby her ex and his new wife are about to have, the baby that her husband always told Jenny "he wasn't sure the time was right, and he loved our life the way it was" (Kindle Loc 56).

Of course, since Jenny is the ultimate nice girl, she's stayed friends with Owen, has become friends with Ana-Sofia, and, when the novel opens, is attending their baby shower. Even Jenny herself terms such behavior "pathetic" (49). But still, she can't seem to stop herself; "I want so much to hate her—to hate them both—but they're just too fucking nice" (909). And so Jenny, in turn, continues to feel compelled to be nice in return—so nice that she ends up helping to deliver Ana-Sofia's child when the baby arrives unexpectedly early.

In comparison to her gregarious younger sister, shy Rachel seems to have reaped the rewards, rather than the pains, of being a nice girl. She's got a loving husband with a lucrative job, a beautiful home in the New York suburbs, and, after months of fertility treatments, triplet girls whom she loves almost more than she can bear. But Rachel's niceness does not allow her to see, never mind acknowledge, the fissures in her perfect life. Being a stay-at-home mom is all that she's ever wanted; admitting that taking care of triplets on her own might just have brought her one inch away from the "moms who look fifteen years older than they are. Who have inches of gray roots showing, who wear their husbands' clothes and smell like stale milk and spit-up, who are weepy and exhausted" is terrifying (209).

Confronting her husband when she suspects he's having an affair is the last thing that always-make-peace Rachel wants to do. Taking him back after such a transgression would have once seemed impossible. But now that she's so enmeshed in her suburban life, Rachel finds herself reconsidering her former unconciliating stance towards adultery. Wouldn't a nice wife forgive?

While If You Only Knew creates not one, but two female protagonists who are as ridiculously nice as Higgins' Blue Heron heroines, this book doesn't just feature overly nice women; it takes on the issue of female niceness itself, calling attention to its self-erasing tendencies in the lives of too many women. Though Jenny does find romance by book's end, If You Only Knew is more women's fiction than romance; both Jenny and Rachel coming to understand where the line between being nice and being too nice lies. While that line may be different for each sister, both ultimately negotiate a way to retain their self-identities as nice women, but women who simultaneously do not allow their very niceness to allow others to take undue advantage.

It made me smile to see that Higgins' recent Publishers Weekly apologia for the romance genre was entitled "Never Read a Romance Novel? Grow Up." Because there's no phrase "Mrs. Nice Woman," is there? It's only ever "nice girl." Girls (especially in America, white girls) who are only all too often taught to be nice to the point of erasing their own needs, never do grow up, do they?

So happy to report that Higgins's fiction is back to hanging out with the grownups, too.

Photo credits:
Laverne & Shirley: DVDtalk
Baby Shower no-show: Alpha Mom

If Only You Knew
HQN Books

Friday, September 11, 2015

When Someone Hates a Book You Love

Welcome back to RNFF! I hope you all had a happy end of summer (or, for those readers in the southern hemisphere, a happy end to winter), and are looking forward to a productive end to 2015.

I had intended to kick off this fourth year of blogging at
RNFF by writing a review of one of the not strictly romances I ready over my summer break—Naomi Novik's spring 2015 fantasy Uprooted. But before I began typing away, I had the urge to check out some other reviews on Goodreads, to see what other folks might have already written about the book's feminist aspects. And there, right at the top of my "Reviews From People You Follow" list, was a long, review of Uprooted, written by a reviewer whose views I respect and typically find myself agreeing with. And the review was filled with reasons why this reviewer didn't like the book. And not just any reasons—specifically feminist reasons.

Reading this review, and thinking about my responses to the experience, made me wonder—what do you think, and what do you feel, when someone whom you like and respect disagrees with your assessment of a book?

For me, it depends both on who is doing the disagreeing, and how strong my own feelings about the book are. If it's a casual acquaintance, and/or a book in which I don't have much of an emotional investment, I can easily shrug off the disagreement. If it's someone closer, especially someone whose opinions are thoughtful and worth listening to, it's a bit harder, although I can usually get back the initial "What? This person I respect doesn't agree with me?? Waaah!" burst of inner dismay to allow my thinking brain to hear and weigh the reasons put forth.

The most difficult is when it's one of those books—Pride and Prejudice; The Witch of Blackbird PondThe Queen of Attolia—that I hold near and dear to my heart, that says something vitally important to me, and about me. When that happens, I end up wondering "Can this person who doesn't appreciate my most cherished books really understand me? Appreciate me? Are we even really friends?"

So many people say "Oh, you'll love this book" when they truly mean "I loved this book, and since I like you, you should love it too," without really thinking about whether what the recommender and recommend-ee have in common, what they like and enjoy about each other, is present at all in the book being recommended.

Obviously, not everyone has the same taste in books, even if they share a love of reading. But still, it can throw you for a major loop when a cherished friend and a cherished book just don't get along. . .

While I'm off writing a response on Goodreads to the Novik book, I have a question for you to consider: What makes you feel comfortable enough to recommend a book you love to someone else? And how do you respond when cherish a book, but someone you like hates it?