Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"The First Man To Give Me One": The Assumptions About Female Orgasm in Romance

How do heterosexual women reach orgasm during sex? From reading many a romance novel, one could easily conclude that orgasm is not something a woman need actively strive for at all. Instead, orgasm is often described and portrayed, as something a romance heroine receives from her male lover.

In Old Skool romance, with its typically virginal protagonists, the usual sign that a hero was the right partner for a heroine was the fact that he could sexually excite her when no other man could or had. In the 1970s and 80s, good romance heroines did not ever get turned on, at least not until they met their one true love.

We assume that the sexual experiences of real women are far different today than they were in the 70s and 80s. But in fact, the average age of first sex has gone up a tad since its low of just below 17 in the mid 70s, to a bit closer to 18 in 1989, and then back down a bit to about 17 today (see info from the Guttmacher Institute). So perhaps it's just that social acceptance of premarital sex has finally caught up to social practice of same.



In romance novels, what does this social acceptance look like? Well, heterosexual romances in 2018 features far fewer virginal heroines than they did in the 70s and 80s (although they still do exist, and in both female and male types). But despite heterosexual romance novel heroines' increasing sexual experience, many a romance novel still links the discovery of a heroine's true love with the simultaneous discovery of a partner who can bring her to orgasm. Let's call it "The First Man to Give Me One" trope.

Take this example from the compulsively readable Harlequin author Maisey Yates. In Untamed Cowboy, book #2 in the Gold Valley series, Yates' veterinarian heroine, Kaylee, embarks on a sexual relationship with best friend Bennet. Kaylee's made herself orgasm before, but "She had never come with a man before. She just could never get herself all the way into it. Could never stop feeling self-conscious. About where to put her hands, about whether or not he was enjoying it. About whether or not she was enjoying it enough" (Kindle Loc 2067). For Kaylee, thinking about sex is a problem, one that interferes with her ability to relax enough to reach sexual climax.

But with Bennet, who is not only her business partner and closest friend, but also the man she's been nursing a secret crush on for years, it's far different:

Then he pressed it [his finger] between her slick folds, rubbing her slowly, methodically. Before pushing inside of her completely.
     She broke. And he swallowed her cry of pleasure as her internal muscles pulsed around his fingers as he gave in to the deepest, most intense orgasm she had ever had in her entire life. The only one she had ever had in front of another person.
     And it was Bennet. Bennet was the one who had seen it. Bennet was the one who had caused it." (2091).

The narrative here puts Bennet in the role of actor ("pushing inside her completely"), Kaylee as reactor ("She broke"). Kaylee's internal dialogue echoes this narrative positioning: "Bennet was the one who had caused it." A woman has an orgasm not because she strives for it, reaches for it, but because she responds to the actions of her male partner.

Kaylee echoes this same language around female orgasm later, in the midst of a fight with Bennet:

"Thank you. Thank you for the orgasm. It was awesome. I'm putting it in my diary. Because you are the first man to ever give me one."
     Well, crap.
     She hadn't meant to confess that. And right about now you wud be able to hear the tinest piec eof straw fall onto the concrete barn floor. Because Bennet had fallen utterly silent, his mouth dropped open in an expression of shock.
     "What?" he asked. . . .  "No man. None of them. None of those douchebags I watched you date."
     She crossed her arms and shook her head, defiant. "Nope."
     "Well, that's just . . . I'm torn between wanting to beat them up and wanting to take a damned victory lap."
     "This is not really more charming than any of the other crap you pulled earlier."
     "I'm the first one to give you an orgasm?" he asked as if he hand't heard her previous statement.
     "Yes," she said, "don't let it go to your head."
     "It's not my head it's going to."
     "Bennet!" . . . .
     "It's just hard for me to believe."
     "That there's something wrong with my body.
     He shook his head emphatically. "It's not you, Kaylee. Hell, no. It was them." (Kindle Loc 2433)

In Yates' construction, female orgasm is something a man "gives" to his partner. A bad male sexual partner will fail to give the gift ("Hell, no. It was them"), while the right male sexual partner will always bestow it. Responsibility for an orgasm thus lies completely with the male partner, not with the female ("It's not you"). Even though earlier Kaylee admitted to herself that her own self-consciousness stood in her way, Yates' novel tells its readers that self-consciousness will inevitably vanish in the face of the right male partner, clearing the way for the gift to be received. In such a construction, a woman plays no real role in achieving climax with a partner, beyond picking the right man; all responsibility for female orgasmic pleasure lies with her male partner.

Is male climax with a female partner portrayed in the same way? Yes, Bennet is just as blown away by his own climax (in a later scene) as Kaylee is by hers in this one. But the language Yates uses to describe orgasm from Bennet's point of view does not cast it as something that Kaylee does to him or gives to him; Bennet still remains the active party, even as he loses control:

     Pleasure gathered at the base of his spine, electric and undeniable. It was like fire building inside of him. One that was going to rage out of control at any moment. One that might consume him completely. That need again. That thing he had known would be a raging, destructive thing. And it was. It was. But he was ready to jump feetfirst into it.
     He lost his hold on his control, letting go completely, igniting and bringing Kaylee along with him.
     If they were going to burn, at least they were burning together.
     They clung to each other, his orgasm taking them over completely, a feral growl on his lips as he let it all go completely. (2803)

Bennet's orgasm is all about his choice to lose control. "He was ready to jump feetfirst into it"; even though he "lost his hold," he still is the one who is "letting go completely." It is not Kaylee who gives him the gift of orgasm; in fact, it is Bennet who "brings Kaylee along with him." Female orgasm is a gift from the right male to the right female, but male orgasm is an active male choice.

What's at stake when female heterosexual orgasms are constructed as a gift from a man to a woman, while male orgasms are portrayed as an active choice a man makes all by himself? Here are just a few downsides:

• It ignores the fact that many women never not reach orgasm during p in v sex at all, and that those women who do often need additional clitoral stimulation to achieve it. According to a 2017 study of 1478 women in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, 51%-60% of respondents reported reaching orgasm via intercourse plus clitoral stimulation, while only 21-30% reported reaching orgasm without such assistance. Needless to say, such "assistance" can come from either partner. But if a woman believes that she is the passive recipient of the gift of orgasm, she's far less likely to take matters into her own hands, or to ask her partner to take them into his.

• It plays into the linkage between the ideal male romantic partner and the ideal female sexual experience. Good sex usually takes time to develop; more women report reaching orgasm with a familiar partner than with a new or casual one, no matter how weak or strong their romantic feelings are for each other at the start of their relationship.

• It puts men in the drivers' seat when it comes to sex and female sexual pleasure. If you're waiting for a guy to give you an orgasm, you might be waiting a good long while.

• It suggests that women are not responsible for their own sexual pleasure, which can make women reluctant to ask for what they want, or suggest to their partners that they do something different than they are currently doing.

• Just because sex for men is the cycle from arousal to ejaculation doesn't mean that climax has to be the end goal for a woman. Multiple orgasms, or no orgasms, can be just as good an option for a woman than the one orgasm per sexual act common to the male.

• And as one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite web sex education web sites, Scarleteen, reminds us: "Don't forget: the vagina, all by itself, is an active muscle. It grips what is around it: it doesn't just hang out and whistle Dixie while things happen to it." Check out the rest of this post, which busts the myth that males are active, females are passive during sex.



How often do the romance novels you read portray female orgasms as a gift from a male to a female? How often do they portray sex as an active experience for both partners?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Romancing Female Ambition: Claire Legrand's FURYBORN

The danger of ambition is a theme at the heart of many a high fantasy novel. Even if one's ambition stems from the desire to do good, fantasy novels generally warn that political ambition often engenders a far more dangerous desire, a desire for power itself. And as French politician and philosopher deLemartine argued, "absolute power corrupts the best natures"; or, as English Lord Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great me are almost always bad men."

And if the striver in question happens to be of the female persuasion? Well, then the warnings grow even more pointed. As Robin Romm notes in the Introduction to her essay collection Double Bind: Women on Ambition, "striving and achieving [have] to be approached delicately or you risk the negative judgment of others." Twenty-first century American women are socialized to be soft, feminine, but are simultaneously urged to "go for it," a paradox Romm describes as "the double bind of the gender, success paired eternally with scrutiny and retreat."

That is what intrigued me about the first volume in Claire Legrande's YA fantasy novel, Furyborn: its portrayal of not one, but two deeply ambitious women. After an opening scene in which a queen gives birth and then gives up her baby to prevent her from falling into the hands of a malevolent angel, Furyborn forks into two separate strands, one set in the near past, the other a thousand years into the future. The first tells how the queen of the first scene, Rielle, came to be "allied with angels and helped them kill thousands of humans. This queen who had murdered her husband" (Kindle Loc 91). The second tells of a the rise of an assassin who is asked to become a rebel against the oppressive Empire, a woman whose questionable morals make her seem just as unfit for the role of savior as was/is Rielle.

Eighteen-year-old Rielle, only daughter of  Lord Commander Dardenne, chief of the king's guards, chafes against the restricted life her father condemns her to after the uncontrolled power of her magic lead to the death of her mother. As she protests to her teacher, Tal, the Grand Magister of the Pyre, the head of those who bend fire to their magical will, "If Father had his way, I'd stay locked up for the rest of my life with my nose buried in a book or on my knees in prayer, whipping myself every time I had a stray angry thought" (Kindle Loc 380). Rielle wants more than a life stuck in a cloister: she wants to participate in the Boon Chase; she wants her childhood friend Audric, now Prince Audric the Lightbringer, the mot powerful sunspinner in centuries, to love her and not their friend Ludivine; most of all, she wants to show everyone just how powerful her magic is. For unlike every other elemental who had ever lived, Rielle needs no physical object to access her power, and her magic is not limited to one element. No, Rielle can control them all.

During an assassination attempt on Prince Audric, Rielle uses her powers to save her friend, despite her father's warnings never to reveal them. And Audric becomes convinced that his old friend is one of the Light Queen of prophecy, a human woman who will rescue them all from the angels who once oppressed humankind and who threaten again:

The Gate will fall. The angels will return and bring ruin to the world. You will know this time by the rise of two human Queens—one of blood, and one of light. One with power to save the world. One with the power to destroy it. Two Queens will rise. They will carry the power of the Seven. They will carry your fate in their hands. Two Queens will rise. (1649)

Rielle is not your usual fantasy heroine, not an empty placeholder for the reader nor a troubled, misunderstood, but deeply good at heart girl. No, as Prince Audric's mother recognizes, Rielle is "Cunning. Willful, and lovely. It's a volatile combination. It unnerves me" (3400). Rielle, with her naked ambition, is meant to unnerve the reader, too. Indeed, she unnerves herself: "Even while my mother burned, I was glad to feel the power simmering at my fingers... Even though you belong to Ludivine... I want you for my own. I want... I want. I crave. I hunger" (4285). Is she the Sun Queen, the one who will save humankind? Or is she the Blood Queen, who will destroy all?

If Rielle seems a questionable savior, what are we to make of the other heroine of Furyborn? We first meet assassin Eliana Ferracora as she helps round up a group of rebels, fighting against the Empire that rose in the ashes of Rielle's betrayal of humankind. Eighteen-year-old Eliana is tempted to let the rebel children of  group go, but resists: "children couldn't keep their mouths shut. And if anyone ever found out that the Dread of Orline, Lord Arkelion's pet huntress, had let traitors run free..." (648). Instead, Eliana watches as the eldest boy is beheaded.

Eliana's partner and lover Harkan wishes she were different: "Harkan paused, that sad, tired look on his face that made her hackles rise because she  knew he hoped it would change her, one of these days. Make her better. Make her good again. She lifted an eyebrow. Sorry, Harkan. Good girls don't live long" (643). Calculating, skilled, and deadly, Eliana focuses on the here and now, on keeping her mother and brother safe, and herself alive. Her ambition may be narrower than Rielle's, but it still burns bright. Though people in Eliana's time call Rielle the evil Blood Queen, it's difficult to believe that Eliana is more suited to the role of Sun Queen than is/was Rielle.

Eliana knows that any day now, she'll be recruited as a member of Invictus, a company of assassins that travels the world and carries out the Emperor's bidding. For she's not just skilled; she also seemed to have an ability no one else in her world has:

The problem was, she liked showing off. If she was going to be a freak with a miraculous body that no fall could kill, then she might as well ave fun with it. If she was busy having fun, then she didn't have time to wonder why her body could do what it did. And what it meant. (552)

But after her mother mysteriously disappears, The Wolf, a famed captain of the Red Crown rebels, bargains for Eliana's help in infiltrating the palace in exchange for his help in finding her missing parent. Coldly weighing both the costs and the benefits, Eliana agrees, looking out all the while for how to shimmy free of any acts, or any personal connections, not promoting her own safety or that of her mother and brother. She even accepts poor Harkan's self-sacrifice, leaving him behind in order to save herself and her brother.

One of the other rebel leaders tries to convince Eliana that "Revolutions mean nothing if their soldiers forget to care for the people they're fighting to save," but Eliana has more than her share of doubts (2609). Somehow familiar with the trajectory of the typical fantasy romance, she knows that she's supposed to be transformed by her time with the rebels, especially by her admiration for The Wolf, known to her now as Simon, a man who has endured much during his battles against the oppressive Empire. "People like us don't fight for our own hope... We fight for everyone else's," Simon nobly avers, but wily Eliana uses his own hope in her redemption to deceive him (2964).

At the end of this first installment, both Rielle's and Eliana's worlds are on the verge of war: Rielle's against the resurgent angels, Eliana's against the invading Undying Empire. Can either war be prevented? Will either young woman be Sun Queen? Or will both fall into the temptations of blood?

Or might the stark binaries of the prophecy be pushed aside, the opposition between sun and blood,  self-focused ambition and other-directed empathy, shown to be equally necessary in order to defeat true evil?

I'm gnawing on my fingernails, waiting to see what the next two volumes in the trilogy have to say about women and ambition and power.


Art credits:
Elemental magic symbols: Zenkora Wiki
Ambition: Girltalkhq






Furyborn: The Empirium Triology, Book 1
Sourcebooks, 2018

Friday, June 15, 2018

Popular Romance in the Classroom: Guest Post by Jennifer Wofford



Please join me in welcoming to RNFF Dr. Jennifer Wofford, a professor as well as a romance author, as she describes her recent experience of teaching first year college students through the "Category Romance Project."




My name is Jennifer Wofford. I teach writing and popular romance at Ithaca College in Ithaca NY. I also write historical romance under the name Giulia Torre. Along with Catherine Roach, I self-identify as an Aca-Fan, an academic who is also a fan of what she studies. I study romance while wholly immersed in it—reading, writing, teaching, and advocating for its importance and complexity on all fronts.

In the fall of 2017, in my first-year college writing seminar Reading Popular Romance, I piloted the "Category Romance Project," a classroom-based, large-group student research project that explored "vintage" category romances (20 years or older) from a social science perspective.

I proposed Reading Popular Romance as a social science course with the sponsorship of IC's Writing Department. Ever since the publication of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance (1984), scholars have been using social science to analyze the genre. Social science was the most exciting thing to happen to my relationship to text since I read my first Bantam Loveswept romance in 1984.

I was introduced to social science methods by Brian Street through the field of New Literacy Studies. NLS takes an "ideological approach" to the study of literacy—to reading, to writing, and to text in all its forms and contexts. Through language we create, acknowledge, and most often presume mythologies and master narratives that in turn guide and make sense of our actions.

Community of Inquiry model
Because of what I learned from NLS, my approach to teaching is a theoretical framework called "Community of Inquiry," or CoI. Learning is social, and therefore relies on participation in a community. The CoI model turns the classroom into a site of literacy research. I've found that this approach gives students the skills for recognizing their own identity filters, for designing research questions that in turn create strong claims, for creating compelling arguments and finding something to say, and ultimately for developing their own authentic voices. Simply, students write better papers when they use the CoI approach.


STEP ONE: FIND A SHARED LANGUAGE

My first step in creating a community of inquiry around a classroom research project is shaking out students' funds of knowledge, getting everyone's cards on the table. During sessions designed to focus on students' transition-to-college issues, we discussed issues related to race, gender, sexuality, and mental health. Student panels and speakers trained in conducting such conversations came to the classroom to tell us their stories, so students had a way of talking about real world issues and their own identities without having to use themselves as examples.

Also during these sessions, I asked students to bring in examples of popular love songs as well as  their favorite romantic movies. Songs and movies are an easy way to get students talking about romance. They can also serve as good ice breakers: students feel a teacher is a bit more approachable after seeing her dance to Tina Turner during the first week of class.

These initial conversations about romance and about identity served as points of reference throughout the remainder of the course. For example, in one section of my course, 9 out of 16 students self-identified to the group as having been diagnosed with anxiety or depression or as having suicidal thoughts. Reading Alexis Hall's Glitterland in the context of these students' experiences was far different than in sections where students did not identify so closely with the mental health challenges of Ash Winters, Glitterland's protagonist.



STEP TWO: INTRODUCE CONCEPTS IN POPULAR ROMANCE

While students recognized and shared their own knowledge about romance, I also introduced new concepts that weren't already a part of their own systems. Students learned the difference between romantic and popular romance and romanticism, as well as the definition of "trope" (and key examples from genre romance). Weekly lectures gave students the language of Romancelandia, as well as some of the tools by which they could analyze individual romances and the romance genre as a whole. In addition, we discussed theoretical concepts, such as Lyotard's notion of "master narrative," a story that explains society and cultural norms while at the same time legitimizing the status quo. Master narratives make it difficult to understand reality in any other way than the "dominant" narrative. Popular culture often uses counter-narratives to make make alternative narratives visible. One of the more well-known master narratives in the United States if the history of Columbus "discovering" America. The word "discovery—and the master narrative it implies—wasn't challenged until relatively recently. We discuss the ways that the HEA (Happily Ever After) of romance is a master narrative.




STEP THREE: INTRODUCE THE CATEGORY ROMANCE

Quite simply, I tried to explain the category romance to this generation of students. My students had a hard time conceptualizing the category romance, even when faced with a large pile of examples. I explained that category lines represent subgenres in mainstream romance publishing, and that these sub-genres have rules about authors' use of tropes, archetypes, and plot lines, rules that readers come to expect and use to guide their reading choices.

There seemed to be nothing like the category romance in their world.

Showing students covers of books with the same trope helped.





STEP FOUR: INTRODUCE SOCIAL SCIENCE METHODS

As an entrance into the analysis of texts by way of social science methodology, we read Lily King's Euphoria (2014), a work of fiction inspired by the story of anthropologist Margaret Mead. Set in 1930s New Guinea, Euphoria tells of a love triangle between three anthropologists in the field, each of whom is struggling with varying degrees of failure to "see" beyond their own limited perspectives. The novel represents the social life of text in various forms. The female protagonist writes field ethnographies. All three scientists hunker down over a colleague's monologue draft mailed to them from back home. The antagonist searches for an artifact that will prove a primitive culture had a written language.

After students finished reading Euphoria, I learned that they originally thought the book was a romance. But this book has one of the most heartbreaking and haunting endings in my memory. As un unanticipated teaching moment, students got to experience the phenomenon of reader expectation (and the dashing of same) in commercial romance.

In addition to reading Euphoria, students read brief, introductory articles in the fields of New Literary Studies and social linguistics. Social science is a valuable process of alienation, or de-familiarization. One activity proved particularly effective in demonstrating this process of alienation. I asked students to draw a sentence from an NLS article, and we browsed the results, looking for patterns. They realized that we're ruled by rectangles—paper (everyone drew on lined paper), tablets, screens, desk tops, even the very room that we were in. Standardization is a master narrative. It's invisible, and we think it's valuable (cost-efficient, replicable, consistent) without even questioning what gets lost when we sit, write, and think inside boxes.

By reading about anthropologists at work, a fiction focused on a central love story, through the lens of social science, students become attuned to looking at rather than through the water in which we swim.



STEP FIVE:  DEFINE THE DATA SET

So what exactly was our data set? We started with three category lines:

• Harlequin Presents
• Harlequin Romance
• Bantam Loveswept


Perilous stack of vintage category romances
(buttressed with a Heyer and a Woodiwiss)
Why these lines? For me, they are my everyday. I own them in the hundreds. I'm familiar with the plot structure, archetypes, and authors. And I love the covers. Not only because cover illustration is a lost art, but because covers are a clear visual representation of how the mainstream West allowed love, intimacy, sex, and gender to be represented over time. Covers were indeed a favorite topic for students.

We restricted our reading to books at least 20 years or older.

Were there problems with this data set? You betcha.

Vintage category romances are white, there are no two ways about it. But the utter absence of characters of color is, in and of itself, a wake-up call. It's a way to understand the full scope and impact of whitewashing, as well as the privilege of reading while white.

This data set is also unarguably heternormative. These books tell the story of heterosexual romance. In the very first book in the Loveswept line—Heaven's Price by Sandra Brown—the heroine's first long-term romantic partner was gay, which provided the logical reason for her still being a virgin. But that's as queer as these books get.

After butting up against these limits, we decided to expand the data set. I assigned questions that charged students to research on diversity and diverse voices in popular romance. They returned with blog posts on the closure of the Kimani line and segregation in romance publishing, as well as information on Bold Strokes Publishing and women writing romance with queer male characters. This diversity research provided some of the most interesting discussions in the course, and many students ended up choosing final paper topics on issues related to their diversity explorations. Each student expanded their own data set, but the limitations of the larger set remained intact. To a significant degree, it was the limitations of the set that taught students the most, both about research and about master narratives in romance. That said, when I teach this class next year, the data set will at the very least include early books from Harlequin's Kimani and Arabesque lines, as well as a canon-busting assignment to expand the classroom library.


STEP SIX: SOLICIT RESEARCH QUESTIONS

When presented with hundreds of gorgeous, but designed-to-be-ephemeral books, students were mesmerized and astounded, sometimes even shocked. They started reading the back covers and inside blurbs, and then began to reach them aloud to one another. It was a very natural process for them to start to ask questions about what they were reading.



All questions were shared among students and between sections. An important element of the course is to share questions so that students can also share findings. But it has the added benefit of giving students an understanding of what makes a good question.

Through the simple act of considering what they would have to do to answer their question, students learned an important lesson: some questions are unanswerable, given the constraints of both our data set and of the time allotted to the project.


STEP SEVEN: DEFINE CODES

In anthropology, coding is used to chunk and classify concepts in the social scientist's ethnography: the field notes and rich description of her subject. Coding feels a lot like textual analysis. When coding is applied to literary texts, it functions to highlight the text's cultural dimensions. I created a starter list of codes—single words or short phrases to signal a theme or topic or question—and shared them with the class. These codes directly represented their specific questions. As new questions emerged, students were charged with creating and sharing new codes.

Students were then assigned code cards. Each student had to produce 10 cards to satisfy the larger category romance project assignment. I gave them time in class to read and search for codes in our data set books, and they also were allowed to use my books outside of class. Students also drew on the massive online library at the Romancewiki, as well as other online sources, such as Goodreads, AbeBooks, Amazon, and publishers' web sites.

As students turned in completed code cards, I scanned them front and back, and uploaded them to our online course site, saving them with titles that reflected the codes. As more cards were submitted, I continued to scan and upload. Students then had access to all other students' research on the codes or associated codes that provided responses to their chosen research question.

#metoo was very much in the headlines during the time we were working on this project, so students were encouraged by world events and by events happening on college campuses to ask questions about rape culture and consent, and their connection to romance reading.


CONCLUSIONS

In their final projects, students wrote on virginity, consent, race and ethnicity, sexism, and cover art. Some of the essays were outstanding; others were standard first-year fare. But students all walked away having grappled with important and complicated issues. Old school category romances are an on-ramp to complicated discussions of power: segregation in publishing; what it means for readers of color to be forced to read only of white characters; the prevalence of rape culture and "forced seduction," and the ways that popular romance reflects and reproduces that culture.

Happily Ever After is a master narrative, and I see this as one of the grand takeaways of this course. What happens to our personal narratives if partnership at the end of a story is removed? If it's not a (or the only) desired ending at all?

One of my students said during class one day, "Sometimes I think you hate these books, and sometimes I think you love them." YES. Her comment raises an important question: how can we acknowledge the historical moment in which these stories were written and respect their authors, while at the same time use them as examples of what not to do today?

The romance plot forces us to navigate ambiguity and complexity, to articulate this feeling of bothatonce (or many things at once). One thing is not ambiguous: popular romance is definitely female and almost universally denigrated. By studying popular romance in the college classroom, both scholars and students have the opportunity to develop language that acknowledges criticism but allows for imperfection, for our own sometimes conflicted ideas about the genre and ourselves as readers of it. Such study unambiguously asserts the importance of genre romance both as a body of writing and as one example of a communal representation of the female imagination.


Readers, if you had the chance to take a class on popular romance, would you? What research questions would you want to explore?


Note: This post is based on a talk given by Dr. Wofford at Bowling Green State University's Browne Popular Culture Library, at the Researching the Romance conference.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Prima Donna romance: Lynn Turner's PAS DE DEUX and Katherine Locke's DISTRICT BALLET COMPANY series

prima donna:

• (1745) the leading female singer in an opera company; a female opera singer of great skill and renown
• (1834) a person who has the highest standing or who takes a leading role in a particular community or field; ALSO
• a self-important or temperamental person



When I looked up the phrase prima donna in the Oxford English dictionary, I wasn't surprised by the first definition I found. The words are, after all, a pretty literal translation from the Italian: prima = first; donna = lady. And I've spent quite a few hours accompanying my spouse on many trips to the opera, listening to prima donnas from Teresa Stradas to Elina Garanca on both stage and screen.

What did surprise me was the way the gendered nature of the term disappeared as it shifted from the world of opera to take on a more figurative connotation, pointing to a person with excellence in any field. And especially as the figurative connotation narrows to encompass not a person's standing, but the negative judgments with which successful people, especially successful women in the arts, are often labeled. There's more than a hint of sexism in label prima donna, I think. It functions to contain and control female success by labeling it as problematic, as too much: too self-important, too emotional, too erratic, too neurotic, too difficult. Diva, princess drama queen, prima donna: these and similar labels seem aimed at undercutting female power, or the power of a man who behaves in a stereotypically female manner. It reassure the world that while a particular woman (or feminized man) may be great, her/his greatness is not untainted, as a cisgendered man's would be.

Given the general romance reader's preference for nice heroines, the prima donna figure is not all that common in the genre. Which was why I took such pleasure in reading not one, but two hetero romances that featured strong-willed, deeply emotional artists, both of them world-renowned ballet dancers. And rather than insist that the prima donna stereotype was wrong—that these women were not self-important, not temperamental—both books instead celebrate, rather than denigrate their female heroines, precisely for the characteristics for which the prima donna label tells us we should condemn them. Both Mina Allende of Lynn Turner's Pas de Deux (2018) and Katherine Locke's three District Ballet series books (Turning Pointe, Second Position, and Finding Center, all 2015) have talent, ambition, drive, and the emotions (and emotional baggage) that often goes hand in hand with an artistic temperament. And both authors make readers love them, precisely for these qualities.

For the past ten years, since the age of seventeen, French-Tunisian-American Mina Allende has been dancing with the Paris Opera Ballet company. But the recent death of her best friend and fellow ballet dancer Étienne has left her wanting something different, something more. Mina is tired of the all-white world of the ballet, especially being continually turned down for her dream role:  Odette in Swan Lake. "Désolé," she's always told, "You're just not the right fit" (Kindle Loc 3593). Not because she's not good enough to dance the part, but because even today, the ballet world cannot imagine a black woman dancing the part of Swan Queen.

Ashley Murphy, photographed by Nathan Sayers
So when brash American choreographer Zach Cohen invites her to co-star with him in his new Broadway musical Lady in Red, a decidedly modern take on the classic story La Dame aux Camélias, Mina jumps at the chance. So many ballet choreographers are "obsessed with this antiquated notion of uniformity," a uniformity which her skin color breaks. But on her first rehearsal of Zach's New York show, Mina is surrounded by "an array of skin tones and body types in the room, something she hardly ever saw in her world." The embrace of variety, rather than insistence on uniformity, gives her back a bit of the feeling of being alive she lost after losing Étienne (493).

Mina just might be able to make something new, something special, in New York—if only she and Zach Cohen can stop butting heads. For Zach, like Mina, needs to be in control. Even though he was adopted by a working-class, loving Latinx family as a teen, and has left much of his anger and fears of abandonment behind, he can't quite ever erase the impact of his years living as a "nomad" in the foster care system. And he deals with his emotions by exercising authority over not only himself, but also his show. The show of which Mina is the star.

There's a bit of a suspense plot toward novel's end here, but the main pleasure of Pas de Deux is the "let's put on a show" storyline: the ups and downs that Mina and Zach experience, first as dance partners, then as lovers as they gradually allow themselves to slip free of their self-imposed restraints and give into the attraction they've felt for one another almost since the moment they met. Channelling their emotions into sex, and gradually, into love, doesn't dilute their chemistry onstage. Nor does sharing the vulnerabilities of their pasts, or the complex steps each has danced between privilege and disadvantage, between opportunity and prejudice, as they've forged their way to fame in their respective careers. Emotions run high for both Mina and Zach, but it is those very emotions that allow them to create art that moves audiences to leap to their feet in joy.


I picked Katherine Locke's Second Position, the first full-length novel in her District Ballet Company three-story series, back in January, after reading a tweet from the author saying that the book fit the bill for those looking for a demisexual romance with a non-alpha male protagonist. But the book isn't really focused on demisexuality; it's more about the long, arduous process of accepting loss and recovering from trauma. The second-chance love story between Alyona Miller and Zedekiah Harrow actually takes place over the course of two full-length novels—Second Position and Finding Center—with the story of their initial friendship and falling in love in the prequel novella, Turning Pointe. I didn't know this at the time, though, so I began with Second Position, which begins four years after the events of Turning Pointe. Since this is a second-chance romance, and references many of the events covered in Aly and Zed's earlier time together, I don't think it's vital that you begin with the novella.

Too much emotion has always been a problem for prima ballerina Aly. In particular, anxiety has been her nemesis. As her best friend Zed describes it, "Without tea and without ballet shoes on, [Aly] is restless and anxious and something just short of a disaster waiting to happen" (Kindle Loc 336). During her teen years, her friendship with Zed helped keep her balanced, helped keep her anxiety at bay. But after a devastating car accident costs Zed a leg and them both the baby their new-fledged sexual relationship has inadvertently created, Aly flees. And Zed does not have the wherewithal to chase after her.

Now, four years later, Aly might just be the poster girl for temperamental prima donna-hood. The youngest principle dancer in the Philadelphia Ballet, she's been forced to take a leave of absence after having a major melt-down during rehearsal, brought on by stress, anxiety, and the weight of unresolved trauma. And that one public incident is only the tip of the iceberg: Panic attacks. Fainting. Rages.

Aly hardly expects to run into Zed in a coffee shop in D.C., where she's been living with her mom and spending intense hours working with a therapist to help get a handle on both her anxiety and her disordered eating. While Aly's on a downward spiral, Zed is finally clawing his way up. The years since he last saw Aly were just as difficult as hers: debilitating depression, alcoholism, and suicidal thoughts. He's got a job now, teaching high school drama, attends AA meetings, and calls his AA sponsor when times are tough. But he, too, is still mourning.

In romance novels, love is supposed to conquer all. But neither Aly nor Zed had the ability to cope with the multiple traumas life dealt them during their teen years, something they try to come to terms with when they meet four years later:

     "You squeezed my hand. I thought we'd be okay.".....
     I whisper, "So why weren't we?"
     "I—" she begins and swallows. Her eyes fill with tears. She looks like she can't breathe either. "I know. I couldn't—I just—I wanted everything to go away. I couldn't do it. I'm a coward. I'm so sorry."
     I want to reach over the table and cradle her face in my hands. Those goddamn eyes. I need to look away.... I shift in the booth, my feet  moving and bumping against Aly's. I can only feel one of them, a reminder that some things lost that day were tangible.
     She lost, too. I wanted to share that grief with her, for something that we never wanted but had been ready to handle. But the car rolled, and hit a fence,, crushing my leg and shaking her so badly she started to bleed.... I mourned my leg, my career, our kid, and her. She mourned a life—and me, maybe—alone. I can't undo that and I don't want to try. I need to say something.
     "I'm sorry, Aly. I should have—everything just felt so—it got bad." (352)

Many a writer would take such a scenario and make melodramatic hay of it. But Locke crafts a story that relies on character development rather than sensational plot for its draw, delving deeply into the psyches of two damaged people who only gradually come to terms with all they've lost. Neither heals the other; each needs other people, people with far more experience in coming out the other side of trauma than either of them has. Locke spends time depicting these often painful emotional interactions—between Aly and her therapist, Aly and her mother, Zed and his friends, Zed and his AA compatriots—showing how their own work in coming to understand both their self-destructive patterns and the things that bring them joy help them bring far stronger selves to the task of rebuilding a relationship they had thought long lost.



Photo credits:
Ashley Murphy: Pointe magazine
Prima donna t-shirt: Zazzle






Pas de Deux
indie published
2018










Second Position
District Ballet Company #1
Carina 2015

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Promise and Limitations of Hope: Courtney Milan's AFTER THE WEDDING



Where there's life, there's hope.
The darkest hours are just before the dawn.
Look on the bright side.
Every cloud has a silver lining.



I'm a person who tends to bristle rather than take comfort when someone offers an time-worn aphorism as a way to deal with a difficult or painful situation. A cup half-empty, rather than a cup half-fill kind of girl, that's me. Be realistic, don't hope for the impossible, and you'll be far better off than deluding yourself with overly easy platitudes.

I would have thought, then, that a romance about two people with irrepressible hope as the cornerstone of their characters would not have held much appeal. Yet such is the skill of Courtney Milan that she makes such characters not just understandable, but immensely sympathetic and appealing, even to one prone to undervaluing the Hufflepuffs of the world.

Readers of Once Upon a Marquess, the first book in Milan's Victorian Worth Saga series (2015), might recall Camilla Worth, the heroine of After the Wedding, as the missing sister of the Worth family, siblings whose fortunes and prospects dwindled after their father, an earl, was declared a traitor. At twelve, Camilla accepted the offer of a uncle to come and live with him, leaving her family behind in poverty for the chance to return to a life of privilege, complete with "gowns, lemon tarts, and a come out" (Kindle Loc 636). But the kindly uncle proved not to be so kindly, shunting the overly talkative girl off to some cousins, who shunted her off in turn to another relative, and then on to someone whom she barely even knew. Now, at twenty, Camilla feels herself fortunate to be employed as a maidservant for a rector, who only offered to take her in because he feared for her mortal soul after she dismissed from another household for kissing a footman. That the godly rector gets a full-day's work from Camilla but only pays her half-wages of course has nothing to do with his offer to help her reform her soul.

In spite of eight years of rejection, though, Camilla can't keep herself from hoping for something better, something more: someone to choose her, to love her. Rector Miles wants Camilla to feel her sinfulness, to feel debased and downtrodden; then she'd be easier to control. But somehow, in spite of everything, Camilla knows "she was the kind of person who, when dragged into hell, would hatch a plan to win the devil over with a well-cultivated garden of flame and sulfur. It wouldn't matter if it was impossible. She would still try. She just would" (1199).

Adrian Hunter's life hasn't been a bed of roses, either, although his family and financial situations are far more secure than Camilla's. His mother was the daughter of a duke, but was disowned when she married an abolitionist of African descent and moved to the United States. Adrian lost three of his four elder brothers to the American Civil War; as the youngest, he was sent to England to stay with an uncle, to keep him far from the conflict. Though that uncle was his mother's favorite sibling, he's also an English cleric; while Bishop Denmore is unerringly kind to his nephew in private, he will not acknowledge him as a relative in public, fearing for his reputation. Instead, Adrian must pretend to be his page, and then, when he grows older, his part-time amanuensis. Even goodhearted Adrian chafes at the pretense, but his promise to his mother that he'd do all in his power to change his uncle's mind, and "bring him round to the cause" leads him to swallow his pride and bear it (333). As does his uncle's continued promises that one day, some day, when the time is right, he'll openly acknowledge Adrian as his nephew. Adrian's brother warns him and warns him against placing too much hope in Denmore, but for Adrian, hope is intrinsic to his very essence.

At the start of the novel, Camilla finds herself foisted upon Adrian, yet another person in a long string of people who don't want her. Bishop Denmore has promised Adrian that if he does him one more favor—hiring himself on valet to Denmore's rival bishop, in order to ferret out proof of some mysterious malfeasance Denmore suspects the man has been up to—he'll publicly acknowledge him as his nephew. It's a promise that the ever-hopeful Adrian cannot refuse.

But the rival bishop, fearing discovery, manipulates maidservant Camilla and Adrian-as-valet into an apparently compromising position, then insists they marry—at pistol-point. Adrian knows enough about English law to realize that a marriage between two non-consenting adults is not valid, and would rather say "I do" now and ask for an annulment later. For her part, Camilla almost wishes the marriage would stick; Mr. Hunter is kind, and handsome, and defended her when everyone was hurling false accusations against her. And she likes him. In fact, it would take very little more to make affectionate, susceptible Camilla tumble into love with her putative husband.

Milan confronts issues not just of racial privilege, but also of gender privilege, as Adrian, as a confident male, treats Camilla with almost as much oblivious condescension as his white uncle treated him as a biracial man. That Adrian is, at least initially, oblivious of the parallels between his male privilege and Bishop Denmore's racial privilege suggests the ways in which being oppressed for one aspect of one's identity does not necessarily translate to understanding when you are unconscious of the privileges a different aspect of your identity grants you.

Hope is what keeps both Camilla and Adrian going in the face of multiple adversities, multiple oppressions, and what draws others to them. But over the course of the novel, both Camilla and Adrian gradually learn not just the promise, but the limitations, of hope. Sometimes, your hopes aren't ever going to be realized; sometimes your trust in others will not be warranted. And at some point, if you are to maintain your dignity, your self-respect, even your sanity, you need to insist upon your own worth, and stop listening to the siren song of "one day." Because those offering it truly believe their own promises, as Adrian finally realizes about his uncle:

He sincerely believed he had done everything for Adrian, because in his mind, Adrian deserved nothing and anything more than that exceeded his allotment. Likewise, he didn't notice anything Adrian had done for him. He expected everything, and anything less than that was too little. (4300)


Ironically, though, refusing to hope in vain may be the most difficult, yet most liberating, act of hope one can imagine:

"She deserved more. He deserved more. And just because the thing she wanted was impossible... That didn't mean she needed to give up hope." (3839)


Photo credits:
Platitudes: Prototypr
Anti-Slavery Act: Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 tumbl
I Promise: I promise one day tumblr





After the Wedding (the Worth Saga #2)
Indie published, 2018

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

FemDom with a Twist: Tanya Chris' MINE

I'll be the first to admit that I'm no expert when it comes to FemDom romance. But the books in the genre that I have read tend to depict submissive masculinity as heroic, largely in keeping with traditional masculinity: the submissive male demonstrates his strength and power by standing up courageously to the pain his dominant lady love so enjoys dishing out. It's far more rare, at least in my reading experience, for a submissive male hero to be portrayed as enjoying the emotional aspects of submission, of enjoying caring for and serving another, as opposed to glorying in the physical triumph of enduring pain. Which is why I so enjoyed Tanya Chris's latest erotic romance, Mine, a companion volume to My Guys (reviewed last year on RNFF). For its hero, handsome, unassuming, slightly goofy Derek, is someone who yearns for a girlfriend who will tell him what she wants, and who will demand that he give it to her.

Readers of My Guys will remember Derek as the unassuming bi-racial (Norwegian father, Asian mother) rock-climber who was drawn into an affair with an older woman, a woman who was already sleeping with his friend. At the start of Mine, Derek is once again unattached, but is nursing a crush on tall, muscular, white, assertive redhead Amanda, who has recently moved to the area and has become a fixture at Derek's rock-climbing gym. After noticing how turned on Derek gets after she orders him to tie her climbing shoe, Amanda invites herself over to Derek's for dinner. But Amanda's expectations for some fun BDSM times go awry when Derek greets her demand that he kneel in front of her with a innocently humorous "Neil who?"

Amanda's been clear about her own sexual preferences since her teens:

There'd been a girl, a worshipful, adoring girl, who'd followed her from class to class, jumping to fill her every need. One day Amanda had looked at this girl and thought, If she was a guy, I'd fuck her, and her sexuality had clicked into place with a single, solid thunk. (Kindle Loc 356)

And Amanda has also "lived in her own body long enough to know that the media overestimated the uniformity and blandness of the American male's taste. They weren't all looking for women who were fragile or stupid, not even most of them" (319). But even as an experienced Dom, she doesn't quite know what to do with Derek, who appears to enjoy being submissive, but who also doesn't seem to have a clue that being a submissive might be an sexual proclivity, rather than just a response to a particular woman to whom he is attracted. And Derek, nice guy that he is, isn't after a one-night stand; he's longing for someone to call him "Mine" for the long term. Amanda may be experienced when it comes to kink, but not when it comes to romance. She hasn't ever had a romantic relationship, and isn't sure she wants to start one, especially with a guy who is far more comfortable identifying as "submissive to you" rather than "submissive" full stop.

But as Amanda spends more time with Derek at the gym, she's increasingly drawn to the "sweet-faced, pretty-mannered, submissive boy" (579). Which to her mind is a major problem: "The problem was... that she liked Derek. The problem was that she did want to be what Derek wanted. And that was definitely a problem. Because she didn't think she could be what Derek wanted and who she was all at the same time" (839). Amanda assumes that Derek wants a vanilla girl—a bossy vanilla girl, yes, but a vanilla girl all the same.

Derek's so gone on Amanda, though, that he'll try anything, even a little BDSM. But can Amanda truly enjoy herself if her "puppy" isn't taking pleasure in receiving pain, only pleasure in serving her?  Especially after Lissie, Derek's former lover and current friend, insists that she's trampling on Derek's feelings, and pushing him to do something he really doesn't want:

     "He's only doing it because you want him to."
     "Yeah, duh. That's the game, Lissie. That's how we play it." She looked around for Derek.
     "It's not a game to him, Amanda. He's crazy about you, obsessed. He'd do any fucked-up thinking you asked him to, but that doesn't mean he wants to. I see how he looks at you. If you care about him, you won't take advantage of him this way." (2066)

If Derek is only agreeing to submit to her to please here, is it submission at all, Amanda wonders. "What did yes mean if he wasn't capable of telling her no?" (2396). Even if he promises "I won't ever let you do something to me I'll hate you for," can she trust him to tell her when she needs to stop?

There's so much to enjoy in this funny, heartfelt romance: Amanda's brusque self-confidence, and her frustrations with the lingering male privilege of even the most submissive of men; Derek's growing realization about, and acceptance of, his own sexual likes and dislikes ("He'd never wanted to own up to who he was, and so he'd settled for women who were bossy rather than dominating" [2611]); a scene in which Amanda teaches a younger girl how to physically stand up to her pushy older brother at the climbing gym; another when Amanda brings Derek home with her to her "normal" family for Thanksgiving; and the hilarious discussion between Amanda and Derek's mom when she realizes that the small Asian woman may be even kinkier than she is ("Although, you know, your Mom and I were talking about voluntary restraints, and it got me thinking..." [3087]).

And especially the way that Amanda finally figures out how to be sure that Derek's devotion to her is given with full consent, rather than coerced from him by her. A way deliciously reminiscent of the the black moments of many a classic romance.

Another romance for the feminist keeper shelf.


Photo credits:
Redheaded climber: 123RF
Combination lock choker: Le coq sportiv







Mine
indie-published, 2018

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Love and Sexism in Scandinavia: Simona Ahrnstedt's HIGH RISK

Whenever I get too depressed about the state of political discourse in America, I start fantasizing. Not about sexy alpha men, but about moving to a different country, one more socially and politically progressive than the one in which I live now. Especially one where sexism is far less prevalent than it is in the good old U. S. of A.

To, say, Canada. Or perhaps one of the Nordic countries, which, according to the 2017 Global Gender Gap report (published by the World Economic Forum) score in the top 10 of countries that have come the closest to closing the gender gap (as measured by Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment):

#1: Iceland, 87% of the gender gap closed
#2: Norway, 83%
#3: Finland, 82%
#5: Sweden, 81%
#16: Canada, 76.9%

The United States? All the way down at number 49, with 71.8% of the gender gap closed.

So I was thrilled when an RNFF reader sent me an email recommending a romance novel by Simona Ahrnstedt, a best-selling author in her native Sweden whose books have recently begun to be translated into English and published in the States. What would a romance that took place in a country with far more gender equality look like?

Turns out, there's still a lot of room for sexism in that 19% gap in the opportunities and achievements between women and men in Sweden. Especially in the age of gender-based cyber harassment.

Reporter Ambra Vinter's career has been on the downslide for the past few years, ever since Aftonbladet, the popular news tabloid where she works, has hired a new editor-in-chief with whom Ambra doesn't click at all (maybe because she told him the paper had taken a step back when it came to feminism, perhaps?). The constant flood of hate mail her woman-focused articles often inspire is another downside of the job:

Twenty emails in ten minutes. Nineteen of the messages were hate mail on an article she'd written about sexual harassment at a gym, published the day before. She scrolled through them and knew that she should forward the worst to the security department, but she didn't have the energy. She had been working for too long now to care about anonymous misogyny. (7)

But Ambra's always wanted to work for Aftonblat, and doesn't want to risk losing her job. So she agrees to agrees to travel north to Kiruna, even though the small town is where she lives for a year as a foster child with an abusive family. Interviewing a tipster about a possible long-ago sex scandal might be worth the trip, especially if she can get the story and get back to Stockholm without running into any unpleasant memories.

But it's not just elderly Elsa and her stories of the secret sex retreat she and her lover ran during the 1960s that end up fascinating Ambra; it's a grumpy fellow in the hotel coffee shop, Tom Lexington, who has his own hidden reasons for coming to Kiruna: to try and convince his long-time girlfriend, who moved on after he was declared dead after a security job in Africa went terribly wrong, that she really should come back to him.

But Tom isn't the same easy, competent guy who left an already dissatisfied Ellinor to immerse himself in his high-risk overseas security work. Four months being held by terrorists have left him a shell of his former self. He can't eat; he can't function at his job as CEO of Lodestar, a private security firm; and he certainly can't avoid the panic attacks that overtake him without warning, turning him into a weak failure rather than the in-charge professional he's used to being. And he can't bear to medicate or talk his trauma away, far preferring to dull his fears in the numbing warmth of liquor. When Ambra gets stranded in Kiruna on the eve of Christmas, the two spend a surprisingly companionable holiday evening drinking together in the hotel bar. But when Ambra offers Tom a one-night stand, he ends up turning her down. Largely because he's convinced himself that "If he could just get Ellinor back, everything would be fine. He was sure of it" (30).

Readers are far less sure, and so aren't surprised when fate keeps throwing Ambra and Tom together. Even while Tom is up front with Ambra about his desire to reunite with his reluctant ex, he and Ambra find themselves drawn to one another, recognizing on some intuitive level that they're struggling in their different ways to deal with the very different traumas they've experienced. Tom gradually begins to emerge from his trauma-induced depression, with the help of an old friend, a new dog, and a woman whose directness is the exact opposite of his former girlfriend's tiptoeing around difficult subjects. A woman who makes him feel like "a normal man," not "a weakened freak or a violence machine, just a person" (277). But Ambra's only in Kiruna for a short time, and Tom's still too invested in the idea of being saved by Ellinor to leave.

Or is he?


There's not one, but two scenes in the book in which Tom ends up physically rescuing intrepid Ambra (although her endangerment in one of them was inadvertently caused by Tom). There's also a (male? female?) wish-fulfillment subplot in which Tom and his ex-military friend Mattias search out all the misogynists who have been cyberstalking Ambra and her foster sister Jill, a famous pop singer, and use their secret agent skills to scare the bullies into stopping and even apologizing. None of this comes across as all that empowering for Ambra (although thumbs up for the idea of making men be responsible for dealing with anti-feminist members of their own gender). But even despite these drawbacks, Ambra is not portrayed as a damsel in distress, but as a powerful, outspoken woman who takes it for granted that she and everyone else who shares her gender have just as much right to a seat at the power table as does any man. One of my favorite moments is this bit between Ambra and her (male) nemesis at the paper, entitled, arrogant Oliver, who once used a "I'm protecting you, vulnerable woman" manipulation to steal a story from Ambra:

     "Half my team's sick, but we have Oliver doing a series on murders of women out jogging. The unprovoked woman killer."
     "What does that mean? That some killings of women are provoked?" Ambra couldn't stop herself from asking. "And why say woman killer? You would never say man killer."
     Oliver groaned. "It's a good headline. Don't start with that crap again."
     "We'll take another look at the headline," Grace [their boss] said firmly.
     "Of course," Oliver said smoothly, but he exchanged a sardonic glance with his direct manager. (323).

Ambra's great at sticking up for women in the workplace. But the trauma she experienced, losing her parents as a child, being moved from foster home to foster home, and suffering an abusive placement, have her deeply confused about how to make personal connections, especially ones across the lines of gender. Another favorite scene is one in which Ambra tries to puzzle out with Elsa, the nonagenarian former sex retreat counselor, just what it is that men are looking for from a woman:

     "Men fall for a certain kind of woman, I think," Ambra continued. Elsa was almost one hundred. She had to know things.       But Elsa slowly shook her head. "Men aren't a uniform species. They fall for different types, just like we do."
     "What do you think men want, then? Really?"
     Elsa gave her a slight smile. "I lived most of my life with a woman, so I may not be an expert on the subject. But I don't think you can generalize like that. Men are different. Just like women . . . . There are plenty of crazy men out there, so there must also be plenty of crazy women for them."
     Ambra smiled. "That doesn't sound much like solidarity."
     "You shouldn't feel solidarity with someone just because they're the same gender. And stupidity has nothing to do with gender, it's everywhere."
     "So why do you think some women find it so easy to meet someone?" she asked, which was what she really wanted to know, after all.
     "I think, honestly, that a lot of them simply settle." (135-37).


It's no surprise, then, that Ambra refuses to settle, especially when Tom appears to choose a suddenly nostalgic Ellinor over her at an important social event. A man with a hero complex, a man who needs to rescue the damsel in distress in order to make himself feel whole—that's not the man for Ambra.

But can Tom redefine for himself what it means to be a hero? A man who doesn't just act, but who also feels?

After reading High Risk, I can understand why Ahrnstedt's been dubbed "The Scandinavian Queen of Romance." I'm really looking forward to reading more of her work.




Photo credits:
Why people don't report harassment: Dunya News
50/50: Mind Manager blog






High Risk
(High Stakes #3)
published in 2016 as en ende risk
Kensington, 2018

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Crossing the Color Line in New Adult Romance: Jacinta Howard's HAPPINESS IN JERSEY

I've read a lot of New Adult romances since the birth of the subgenre in 2009. But it didn't register with me how most of the NA books I read featured primarily white protagonists until I picked up a copy of Jacinta Howard's Happiness in Jersey, on the recommendation of Women of Color in Romance. Howard's 2014 romance, set at historically black Texas College in Tyler, Texas, opens with the strong first-person narrative voice and focus on sex common to the NA genre: "I wasn't having an orgasm. And that realization was a little disappointing, given that he was still on top of me pumping like there was no tomorrow. Or like . . . well, I was about to have an orgasm" (5). But the narrator here is not the typical white girl New Adult protagonist with which I was most familiar. The nineteen-year-old telling this story is Jersey Kincaid, a Georgia-born African American who rocks out on the bass in her band, The Prototype. And her story is less about the melodrama typical of NA romance, and more about the painful story of coming to terms with trauma, both her own and that of the young man who becomes immediately entranced by her after watching her play.

Texas College students
As the opening paragraph of Happiness in Jersey illustrates, Jersey's narration is direct, honest, and unflinching. She openly enjoys sex, but isn't one for boyfriends or relationships: "I just never wanted to do all of the emotional bullshit I guess. Too much drama and work with hardly any return" (114). In Jersey's experience, boys expect subservience and idolization from the women they date, things that she's not at all inclined to give. With her band and rehearsals, her job at a local coffee shop, and her grades in business management to keep up, there's no time for anything as complicated as a relationship that blurs the lines between friendship and sex.

Jersey's toughness, and her wariness about letting down her guard, stem not just from her personality, but also from trauma in her past: the suicide of her mother when Jersey was only nine weeks old, and the verbally abusive behavior of her Pops, who takes out his resentment of her dead mother on her, and who, when he drinks too much, tends to berate Jersey for being the cause of her mother's death. Jersey's best friend and bandmate Devin worries that Jersey's penchant for one night stands is a defense mechanism, one that allows Jersey to distract herself from her pain: "messing with these dudes isn't anything but you being emotional about other shit and trying to compensate for it with them. I guarantee you talked to your Pops today, huh?" (13). But even if Devin's "psychobabble bullshit" contains a grain of truth, Jersey has no desire to delve into it, not with Devin, and certainly not with herself. She's just fine the way she is, thank you very much. And cut it with the slut-shaming already, right?

But even Jersey can't help but admit that her attraction to the cousin of one of her bandmates isn't quite like anything she's experienced before. Zay, "short for Isaiah" Broussard, who has recently transferred to Texas College from his home in New Orleans, is one handsome dude: "His hair was grown out but cut low, not a fro like Devin's. It too was unkempt, but it was curly. His skin was dark caramel. But those eyes. They were piercing—and beautiful" (22). It's not just Zay's looks, though, but the look in those eyes, that draws Jersey: "He looked about our age, but like he'd seen some things in his life. I knew the look well" (23). In all likelihood because it's a look that Jersey wears herself.

Despite her attraction, Jersey insists on giving the flirtatious Zay the brush-off. But Zay, who has experienced painful losses of his own, recognizes a kindred spirit in Jersey, and keeps after her, clear that he'll back off if she wants him to, but equally clear that he really wants to get to know her better:

"I'm not a stalker, Kitten. Just interested, that's all."
 .....
My heart was thudding in my chest now and I struggled to breath normally. His words were simple, flirtatious, harmless. But it somehow felt like he was declaring something.
     "I don't know if it's even possible anyway." I shrugged, looking down into my cup before meeting his eyes. The sun was lighting his face again and this time his eyes looked even lighter, almost blue.
     "What?" he asked curiously.
     "Knowing someone. I mean really knowing someone. People tend to surprise you with the things they don't let you see about themselves."
     His eyes turned thoughtful and his signature smirk was gone. He looked at me like he was seeing through  me and I shifted in m chair, biting the inside of my cheek. I didn't know why the hellI even said all of that. I must need more caffeine.
     "That's true. But sometimes finding out, digging beneath the facade is the fun part." He smiled and it seemed more genuine than the others he'd flashed at me. (37)

Esperanza Spaulding: a model for Jersey?
I'm usually not a fan of romances in which the heroine gives in a little to a potential romantic partner's desires for closeness (physical and emotional), only to immediately back off, then move closer, then back off yet again. But Howard shows us why Jersey is so cautious, so wary, so that her moments of desiring closeness, then then backing off in fear at her "weakness" in giving in to her desire, make all too painful sense. How she feels that her Pops is her only family, and so can't stop answering the phone when he calls, even though she ends up feeling like crap after they talk. How she worries that if Devin starts seriously dating a girl, he'll have no more time for her or their friendship. How she fears that she herself might fall into the same kind of depression that killed her mother if she spends too much time being introspective rather than pushing forward towards her goals.

What's so unusual in this push-pull romance is how well Zay understands Jersey's reluctance to reveal herself, her fear of getting involved and then being abandoned, and how both patient and yet persistent he is in offering her friendship, even though he knows (and lets her know) he wants far more. When the two do end up crossing the line into sex, Zay knows that Jersey's motivation is less about love and more about escape from bad feelings. "Maybe I was wrong, maybe I shouldn't have let you escape that way, when I knew what you were doing . . . [But] I wanted to be your escape, Jersey, I wanted to be that for you, I want to be that for you" (179). But the fear of loss is too much for Jersey, and once again she retreats, brutally burning bridges behind her.

The narrative is only from Jersey's point of view, so at times Zay feels almost too good to be true, a projection of what Jersey most needs rather than a character with his own personality and needs. But it is only when Jersey finally realizes that Zay could use help himself in dealing with the aftermath of his own trauma that she is able to begin to move past her own fears of abandonment and recognize that she can both help and be helped, love and be loved, be tough and be open—with the right person.

Howard's log line—"love is beautiful. people are messy. I write about the space in between"—feels like far more than a catching slogan. With her strong ear for dialogue, her gift for crafting nuanced characters, and her focus on protagonists whose voices are not often heard in New Adult romance, Howard is definitely a romance author worth following. I'm excited to pick up the second book in The Prototype series, and to dip into her adult contemporary romance series, Love Always.


Photo credits:
Texas College Students: Texas College Photo Gallery
Esperanza Spaulding: Wikipedia








Happiness in Jersey
The Prototype, Book 1
Indie published, 2014