Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Feminist Moments in Georgette Heyer's VENETIA

This past weekend, I attended the New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America's annual conference. Meeting fellow writers, attending workshops about craft, and collecting money and paying bills (I'm the NEC Treasurer) proved both intellectually invigorating and physically exhausting. When I landed back home on Sunday afternoon, all this introvert wanted to do was to grab a tall glass of water and curl up in bed with a familiar favorite book. My choice: a Regency romance by the founder of the genre, Georgette Heyer.

The heroines of Heyer's romances tend to fall into one of two categories. In many of her earlier books, the heroines are young and silly; as readers, we're invited to laugh at them as their combination of high spirits and woeful ignorance of the world leads them into one scrape after another. In contrast, her later books tend to feature older, more intelligent heroines; rather than laughing at them, we laugh with them as they match wits with equally intelligent heroes. Needless to say, the majority of my favorite Heyer books fall in the latter category, including yesterday's comfort read: the 1958 novel Venetia.

Though only twenty-five years old, Venetia Lanyon has all the earmarks of the older, wiser Heyer heroine. The oldest of her three siblings, she's long served as lady of the manor in the absence of her mother, who died when she was ten. And since the death of her father three years earlier, she's been in charge of managing the Lanyon estate for brother/soldier Conway, who has been taking his own sweet time returning from the continent after the final defeat of Napoleon. Though naturally of an equanimous temperament, Venetia has a playful wit and habit of saying what she thinks, refusing to indulge in the white lies other women of her class deploy to hide the gaps between social ideals and prosaic realities. For example, she scandalizes her more conventional neighbor Lady Denny by asserting of her departed but not sorely missed papa: "In fact... we go on very much better without him." Financially independent, Venetia plans to set up her own establishment if and when Conway should return with a wife, unwilling to cede her authority within the home to another, only to fade slowly into the background as maiden aunt to a passel of Conway's children. But in the meantime, she takes pleasure in  making decisions about the estate, looking after self-absorbed but intelligent Aubrey, and politely but determinedly fending off two equally unsuitable neighborhood beaux, nineteen-year-old Byronic wannabe Oswald Denny, and authoritarian "worthy" Edward Yardley.

The relationship that develops between Venetia and newly arrived neighborhood pariah Lord Damerel, a reputed rake of the first order, is striking not for the sexual sparks that fly, but the "enjoyment of the absurd" both share. "I have always wished for a friend to laugh with," Venetia tells Damerel the second time they meet. "To share a sense of the ridiculous prohibits dislike—yes, that's true. And rare! My God, how rare!" Damerel acknowledges (65). Venetia may be beautiful, but it is her wit, and the sense that they share a "tug of sympathy between them," that keeps Damerel lingering in the neighborhood far longer than he'd planned. And it is the friendship that develops between them, a friendship not blind to his faults, that allows Venetia to develop a mature love for Damerel. "You have fallen in love for the first time in your life, Venetia, and in your eyes Damerel is some sort of hero out of a fairy-tale!" Uncle Hendred accuses (367). Venetia simply laughs, as does the reader, for far earlier in their relationship, Venetia has shown she has Damerel's number: "I allow you all the vices you choose to claim—indeed, I know you for a gamester, and a shocking rake, and a man of sadly unsteady character—but I'm not so green that I don't recognise in you one virtue at least, and one quality." When Damerel exclaims "What is that all? How disappointing? What are they?" Venetia demonstrates her ability to see beyond black and white, beyond the flat fairy-tale villain: "A well-informed mind, and a great deal of kindness"(104).

Damerel, like many a rake whose abandoned ways serve mainly as a cover for a wounded heart, sacrifices himself at the urging of Venetia's friends and uncle, pretending that the love he feels for her is only a passing fancy. Distraught, Venetia agrees to accompany her uncle to London, to put much-needed distance between herself and Damerel. But when she discovers Damerel's lie from her loquacious, indiscreet aunt, she actively works to ensure that it is she, not her brothers nor her uncle nor even her potential lover who decides what is best for her. It is not passive self-sacrifice, but cunning, wit, and above all, humor, that win the day.

Reading Venetia this time through, I was struck by a thread that many might point to as distinctly anti-feminist, and certainly against the conventions of the romance novel. Early in their relationship, Venetia worries not that Damerel has had many loves before her, but that "perhaps he had many friends, too, with minds more closely attuned to his than she believed her own to be" (69). Friends are more of a threat than loves, she believes, because "Men—witness all the histories!—were subject to sudden lusts and violences, affairs that seemed strangely divorced from heart or head, and often more strangely still from what were surely their true characters. For them chastity was not a prime virtue" (69). Venetia then remembers that even kindly Sir John Denny had not always been faithful to his lady, and then recalls Lady Denny's words on the occasion:

"Men, my love, are different from us... even the best of them! I tell you this because I hold it to be very wrong to rear girls in the belief that the face men show to the females they respect is their only one.... One ought rather to be thankful that any affairs they may have amongst what they call the muslin company don't change their true affection in the least. Indeed, I fancy affection plays no part in such adventures. So odd!—for we, you know, could scarcely indulge in them with no more effect on our lives than if we had been choosing a new hat. But so it is with men! Which is why it has been most truly said that while your husband continues to show you tenderness you hav no cause for complaint, and would be a zany to fall into despair only because of what to him was a mere peccadillo. 'Never seek to pry into what does not concern you, but rather look in the opposite direction!' was what my dear mother told me, and very good advice I have found it."  (69-70)

The narrative piles layer upon layer of conventional wisdom here—from "histories," to Lady Denny, to unnamed conventional wisdom, to Lady Denny's mother—to support the idea that men are by nature more sexual creatures than are women, and thus expecting chastity from them would not only be unwise, but unnatural. On the one hand, this abundance of expert wisdom adds authority to an assertion with which contemporary readers are likely to take issue, particularly given romance novels' insistence on the "one true love" faithful for all eternity model. But on the other, the extreme lengths to which it must be supported can be read as a shoring up of a belief that is questionable at best. And it simultaneously works to distance the belief from Venetia herself; it is not Venetia, but history, Lady Denny, Lady Denny's mother, who asserts this belief as truth. For women like Lady Denny must believe such things in order for their husband's behavior not to "blight her marriage" (69).

But does Venetia share this belief? Toward the end of the novel, an unexpected voice from Venetia's past, one who's very identity calls into question the same assertion held up as absolute truth earlier in the story, puts the question to her bluntly: "You and Damerel!... Do you imagine he would be faithful to you?" Venetia's reply is bluntly honest, a touch wistful, perhaps, but above all, imbued with trust in Damerel's feelings for her: "I don't know. I think he will always love me. You see, we are such dear friends" (330). For Venetia, it would seem, love and friendship matter more in a husband than a promise of sexual fidelity.

But she is well aware that if she does not find a way back to Yorkshire, Damerel's rakish habits are all too likely to lead him to solace his loss in arms of other women, something she obviously wishes to prevent. And Venetia isn't one to just "look in the opposite direction," as Lady Denny and her mother advise. Her uncle's euphemistic warnings during the novel's climactic scene—"Damerel may have the intention of reforming his way of  life, but habits of long standing—the trend of a man's character—are not so easily altered!"—allow Venetia, through irony and humor, to bring out into the open the issue
Lady Denny would rather ignore:

"You mean to warn me that he may continue to have mistresses, and orgies, and—and so-on, don't you, sir?"
     "Particularly so-on!" interpolated Damerel.
     "Well, how should I know all the shocking things you do? The thing is, uncle, that I don't think I ever should know."
     "You'd know about my orgies!" objected Damerel.
     "Yes, but I shouldn't care about them, once in a while. After all, it would be quite unreasonable to wish you to change all your habits, and I can always retire to bed, can't I?"
     "Oh, won't you preside over them?" he said, much disappointed.
     "Yes, love, if you wish me to," she replied, smiling at him. "Should I enjoy them?"
     He stretched out his hand, and when she laid her own on it, held it very tightly. "You shall have a splendid orgy, my dear delight, and you will enjoy it very much indeed!" (367-68).

Haranguing Damerel over his immoral behavior, or extracting from him a promise to be faithful, are not the methods Venetia chooses to let Damerel know her feelings on the issue of marital fidelity. Instead, she teases him, laughs at him, shows him the absurdity of engaging in such behavior when a friend who has "retired to bed" awaits. That Damerel immediately takes up her joke and builds upon it demonstrates the effectiveness of speaking openly, and of expecting the same honesty from one's spouse. Rather than taking pleasure in the respectable face a spouse shows to genteel women, and ignoring the other roles a husband shows to the world, Venetia expects her future husband to show her all his faces, and to show him hers in return.

Which Heyer novels do you think contain the most feminist moments?

Georgette Heyer, Venetia.
Reprinted by Sourcebooks.

Next time on RNFF
Wicked Women in Romance

Friday, April 26, 2013

A need for submission guidelines?

I didn't notice when I began this post how the phrase "submission guidelines" could have an entirely different meaning, given the contents of some of the novels I've reviewed on the site. But no, I'm not writing today about rules of BDSM romance, but about whether RNFF needs to develop a submission policy for authors and publishers who wish the site to consider reviewing their works. My apologies to anyone unintentionally mislead by today's blog title...

I began this blog back in August of last year in the hopes of fostering a dialogue between readers, writers, and scholars of romance about the feminist possibilities of the genre. During feminism's early days, the debate between feminism and romance was often oppositional, but both the scholarship and the novels had become more nuanced, and far less at odds, in the decades that followed. The world at large, however, didn't seem aware of either shift, content to accept the conventional wisdom forged back in the 1970s and 80s that all romance novels were BAD for women. Through this blog, I hoped to get the word out, at least to a few more potential readers, that romance and feminism can and are often are found together between the covers of a book.

When I first started writing, I imagined a few friends, a handful of colleagues, and perhaps a stray romance writer or two, those with a slightly analytical bent, might join in the conversations. Five or ten people a week, maybe, a few more on days when particularly hot topics or contentious books were featured, a few less on days when I reviewed an offbeat book only a strange bird like myself could love. But much to my surprise, RNFF has developed a dedicated following, with not just tens, but several hundreds, of readers stopping by twice a week to check out what's happening in the world of feminist romance.

Having such a sizable readership feels both deeply gratifying and more than a little daunting, especially given that I'm a one-woman show here at RNFF. Given the vast number of romance novels published each year, a number that is only likely to continue to grow with the current expansion both of the e-book market and of self-publishing, how can one person hear about, never mind read, all the potentially feminist works in the genre? Will the fact that my local library doesn't choose to purchase books in some subgenres mean I'll overlook innovative work? Will my own liking for certain authors mean I'll not give enough time to works by new or unfamiliar writers? Will RNFF's readers feel frustrated if I fail to review a book that other bloggers or review sites have praised for its feminist sympathies?

I'm not sure I can come up with any satisfying answers to the above questions. But the questions themselves have been making me think about a decision I made when I first began blogging: to find books on my own, rather than accepting advanced review copies from publishers or authors. I wanted the independence and freedom such a choice would grant me, as well as the ability to write about older books, as well as the recently, or just-about-to-be, published. I also didn't want to alienate or even anger writers I know by failing to review their books; if I chose never to accept advance copies, then I could avoid said problem.

But the blog's broader than expected readership is making me question the wisdom of such a policy, as is my own increasingly common urge to bend the rules when an author whose past work I've enjoyed asks if I'd be interested in taking a look at her latest. So I've been wondering about experimenting with an open submission policy, in the hopes of broadening the scope of the blog.

Before I make any decisions, I thought I'd consult my readers. What do you think the advantages of RNFF accepting review copies would be, to you as readers of the blog? Are there potential downsides?

Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

Photo credits: Accidental Superwoman

Next time on RNFF:
Not sure yet, but something in the historical romance line seems probable, given the books at top of the TBR pile...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Feminism and Male Aggression: Cara McKenna's AFTER HOURS

Feminists have struggled long and hard to persuade the public that violence against women is the inevitable end result of the unequal power relations between men and women that have historically characterized the world's societies. Since the 19th century, feminist activists have worked to overturn laws that encourage and perpetuate male on female violence, such as those allowing a husband to physically "chastise an errant wife," or an intimate partner to engage in sexual relations with a woman without her consent. In the twentieth century, they've worked to support studies about violence, and to publicize the results, statistics that demonstrate the continuing prevalence of such abuse. And feminist activists have played key roles in crafting the United Nations' Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993, and the United States Congress's Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

No one could argue that increasing the awareness of the prevalence of violence against women is a bad thing. A 2012 Special Report from U.S. Department of Justice cites a 64% drop in non-fatal intimate partner violence in the United States between 1993 and 2010, due in large part to increased legal services for victims and increased public awareness of a problem that was once just swept under the rug.

Yet the publicity meant to educate and to advocate on behalf of women can have the unfortunate side effect of engendering distrust, even fear, in women, not only of violent men, but of men in general. Reading the statistics gathered by the Office on Violence Against Women and the the Minnesota Center Against Violence & Abuse at the University of Minnesota, statistics reporting that 1.5 million American women are raped or physically assaulted by a man they know every year, 22.1% of American women report having been physically assaulted by a current or former partner, and that one in three female murder victims are killed each year by an intimate partner, it's hardly surprising if women fear that violent men are lurking not only around that shadowy, empty street corner, but behind the face of every male community member, every male colleague, every male relative. How can women balance the need to be aware of male violence against their sex with the reality that the majority of men will never raise a hand to harm?

The male protagonist of Cara McKenna's AFTER HOURS is hardly a wolf hiding in sheep's clothing, a violent man hiding behind a pleasant demeanor. No, Kelly Robak appears to be all wolf. When Erin Coffey, newly beginning her job at as an LPN in a hospital ward designed for men who suffer from persistent, disruptive psychotic episodes, sees him standing in the patient lounge, her brain instantly flashes "inmate," not "patient." "His head was shaved to brown stubble, and even from twenty feet away I could make out the scar running from beneath his ear down his neck," Erin notices as she watches him, his "large arms crossed over his equally large chest." When Erin finds out that he's not a patient, but an orderly, one large enough to wrestle down a patient in the midst of a psychotic episode (it usually takes three), she's somewhat reassured. "After all, this was a man who'd keep me from bodily harm," Erin tells herself.

But when bossy, likes-to-be-in-control, "thug of a man" Kelly begins to push Erin to extend their relationship to after hours, Erin's doubts comes roaring back. In her family, Erin's always been the rescuer, nursing her dying grandmother, protecting her younger sister Amber from their mother's indifferent parenting, defending Amber and Amber's young son Jack from her verbally abusive boyfriend. What would she do with a man like Kelly, who orders for her in a restaurant without asking what she likes, who won't let her pay for drinks, who tells her straight out he's "real my-way-or-the-highway"? Understandable that such a man, at the beck and call of others all day long on the job, would want "what I want, the way I want it," but such a man is hardly likely to appeal to even "the most middling feminist," Erin thinks.

And Erin does consider herself a feminist. "My sister and mom were welcome to his type, and all the pleasurable mistakes those men offered. As for me, no thank you. All set. If you want me, I'll be at the coffee shop, looking for a nice boy of manageable proportions with no scars and a basic grasp of feminism," she tells herself when her attraction to Kelly threatens her good intentions.

Yet the more Erin sees of Kelly, the more she begins to realize that there is more to him than just aggression. Kelly has a calming influence on the patients, and cares about their welfare. He can be mischievous, or a controlling hothead, "in the neon intimacy of the bar," but cool and civil on the job. His crass assertions can be read as sexist, or merely as searingly honest. "We've got a little something between us, don't we?" he asks Erin early in their relationship, recognizing what she can't bring herself to acknowledge. When she simply says, "If you say so," he finds her lack of honestly disappointing: "He winced like I'd just tried to knee him in the balls. 'Okay, we can be like that.' " His honesty forces Erin to be honest in her turn, honest both about her attraction to him and about her doubts about the wisdom of acting on it.

Erin soon realizes that Kelly "wasn't quite like the men who'd turned my mom and sister's lives inside out. He was hardworking and seemed honest, and unless he made a pass when he dropped me off, his intentions were harmless enough, But he'd painted himself as a cousin of those men—aggressive and admittedly selfish, admittedly a bit of a bully. I'd always been so determined never to fall for one of those types." To the self-sufficient Erin, falling for an aggressive man seems to be a worrisomely anti-feminist act.

But there is a difference between an aggressive man and a violent one, McKenna's novel insists. And it's a feminist act to be able to differentiate between the two. AFTER HOURS shows Erin, and through Erin, the reader, how to tell the difference. First, by setting up sister Amber's boyfriend Marco as a negative foil to Kelly. After Erin and Marco have a verbal altercation that leads to shoving and injury to Erin, another colleague at the hospital notes,"Bullies tend to prey on weak people, people they perceive as worthless." Marco's behavior fits this description to a T, but Kelly's doesn't, Erin thinks: "It was Kelly... I'd always seen as a bit of a bully. But he didn't want an easy target. If he was after anything, it was a challenge." Later, talking with Kelly about the incident, she realizes,"You... you're kind of an ass, but you know it. He's just a big, spoiled toddler with a loud truck and a drinking problem. And absolutely no self-awareness. No respect for anyone else's needs or feelings. I don't think it registers, that other people even have feelings." When Amber's son is hospitalized, it's not Marco, but Kelly, who shows up to be emotionally supportive, despite his deep discomfort with situations beyond his control.

Second, by showing that Kelly not only recognizes that other people have feelings, but is invested in learning the signals, both verbal and non-verbal, that Erin uses to convey her emotions. "Where'd you go?" Kelly asks her after she grows still and stiff during their first sexual encounter, wanting him and fearing him and worried that he won't stop at the line she's verbally drawn. "He kissed my ear, and when I spoke it was like he'd stepped inside my mind," she thinks when he doesn't take her false reassurance as permission to keep going. Here, and at other points in the story, Kelly works to understand Erin's feelings, urging her to express them, and to help her deal with them when they become overwhelming.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, Kelly understands that no means no: "I can't go all the way tonight," Erin tells him, even though part of her wants to, wants to break away from her good-girl role and have hot, unprotected sex, even knowing that in the morning "it'd feel awful" having ignored her own responsibilities to herself, her own self-respect. In older romances, the fact that the heroine feels desire was often enough to justify the hero's "taking" her, even over her verbal protestations. Erin recognizes the prevalence of this cultural assumption, not just in romance, but in society in general: obvious arousal has "been permission enough for too many pushy men." "But a lust-heavy sigh in my hair erased" her worries, as Kelly stops. "I want you... But not tonight. Not that far," she reminds Kelly, just to be sure. "I heard you the first time," he responds, with "not a jot of irritation in his tone—just a fact." Rather than upbraid her for being a tease, or pushing her to give in, or shaming her into backing down, Kelly takes care to follow the letter of Erin's law, aware that she is the ultimate arbiter of what happens to her own body.

Erin gradually realizes that Kelly's aggression is only one facet of his complex character, a character with many nuances. It's not that he's really different, deep down underneath, that the aggression is just a mask to cover vulnerability, as so many romances of the past have asserted in order to excuse their heroes' aggressive behavior. Instead, Erin learns that that Kelly is both bossy and kind, domineering and thoughtful, calming and provoking. He wants Erin to allow him to be in charge during sex because he enjoys taking on that role—"It's the illusion of control I want, not actually forcing anyone to do something they're not into"—not because being controlling is the only way he can be. Once Erin recognizes that she, too, can play different roles (submissive sex partner, dominating sex partner, competent nurse, strong sister, vulnerable aunt) she can give over the fear that her desire for the bossy Kelly is inherently odds with feminism:

Where in the tenets of feminism did it say it was liberating to stubbornly deny yourself pleasurable sexual experiences just to spite a bossy man? No place. Feminism isn't a zero-sum game. Choosing not to sleep with Kelly, and our scoring zippo additional orgasms off each other? That was zero-sum. Banging each other's brains out for one memorable weekend? Win-win.

But accepting Kelly as a lover, even engaging in BDSM, does not mean she must cede her identity to him; as she prepares for their tryst, she thinks:

Cute but comfortable underwear, freshly shaved legs but my downstairs left to its own devicesbecause I was no man's personal porn star. I was Kelly's sex slave but also a feminist, and the crooked line had to be drawn someplace. And that place was in the perfectly lovely, feminine, God-given soft curls between my legs, I decided.

Erin and Kelly have to get beyond a few more assumptions about what it means to be a feminist, and what it means to be a man, in order to walk that "crooked line" of feminism and reach their "happily for now." Because while feminism promises that love can and should exist without violence, it never promised that love can be completely without fear. But a woman who looks like a bunny but has the sharp claws of a raccoon might just be the perfect person to  truly see, and to love, a wolf with a bit of soft wool and the occasional gentle "baa" mixed in with the scary, snapping teeth.

Photo credits:
Violence Against Women statistics: YWCA
Don't be a Bully: zazzle
Sex-Positive Feminism: Boston University Take Back the Night

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

Penguin/Intermix, 2013.

Next time on RNFF:
Setting up submission guidelines

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sympathy for the Rapist

I have such a strong, visceral memory of when I first read Oscar Hijuelos' 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. In particular, I remember how blown away I was by the sympathy Hijuelos was able to make me feel for a rapist. Cesar Castillo is a man of the 1950s, a womanizer, a misogynist, a man steeped in the machismo of his Cuban roots. His brother dead, his chance at musical fame just a distant memory, he begins a relationship with a devoutly Christian woman, one who will engage in sex with him as long as it does not involve actual penetration. Cesar initially agrees to her terms, but after one too many refusals, Cesar takes what he assumes he as a man has a right to—his girlfriend's vagina. In no way does Hijuelos' text suggest that Cesar's act is justified; the pain and shame it causes his girlfriend is made utterly clear, and Cesar's betrayal brings the relationship to an abrupt and shattering end. But at the same time, Hijuelos' book-long re-creation of the milieu of privileged masculinity in which Cesar was raised and lived, a masculinity which Cesar constantly needs to assert in order to push back against the indignities and degradations of a Hispanic immigrant's life, made me as a reader understand why such a man could commit such a heinous act. Mambo Kings made me feel a deep sympathy for Cesar, even while I condemned what he had done.

The memory of this reading experience came rushing back to me after I finished Patricia Gaffney's first Wyckerly novel, To Love and To Cherish. A reader of this blog had recommended the book to me, although by the time I got around to reading it, I couldn't quite remember why. At first I thought it had been in response to my post about virgin heroes; To Love's hero, Christy Morrell, is a small-town vicar who had obviously remained chaste, at least since taking his vows. But as I came to the novel's shocking climax, I realized that the recommendation had come from a discussion of historical romance novels in which venereal disease, and rape, played a role.

To Love's heroine, Anne Verlaine, is married to a clearly abusive man. For most of the novel, her husband, Geoffrey, is away at war, and Anne actually believes him dead when she begins an impassioned sexual relationship with Christy. As Anne gradually comes to reveal the secrets of her broken marriage, we learn that Geoffrey's recurrent bouts of illness are not in fact caused by malaria, as he has told everyone, including Anne, but rather syphilis, which he contracted during his first military stint abroad after marrying Anne. Her husband's doctor kindly warned Anne of the dangers of engaging in sexual relations with her husband, and Anne refuses to do so, always without admitting to Geoffrey that she knows the real reason he falls regularly ill.

As a romance reader, I wasn't at all surprised when the presumed-dead Geoffrey rises from the grave, just as Anne and Christy are about to announce their engagement to his congregation. Nor was I surprised that Geoffrey's discovery of their relationship leads straight to a violent physical and sexual assault on Anne. But I was surprised by my initial sympathetic reaction to Geoffrey's act. Or rather, I was surprised by how much I just took it for granted that I should feel sympathy for Geoffrey. Only after I had finished reading the novel, and the memory of my response to the similar scene in Mambo Kings flashed into my head, did I realize that there was something upsetting about being made to feel what I was feeling for Geoffrey. Comparing the two scenes helped me to understand just what was at stake in my readerly response.

Unlike many romance novelists, who create heroes and heroines with few flaws and villains without any redeeming characteristics, Gaffney does great work in this novel in presenting multi-faceted, nuanced characters. Her heroine, Anne, is hardly without flaw; often angry, feeling both attraction to and frustration with, her clerical suitor, Anne's caustic tongue and complex feelings make for a prickly heroine. And husband Geoffrey isn't simply a cardboard cut-out villain, twirling his mustache as he abuses his wife without care. The bitterness both Geoffrey and Anne feel, towards themselves and each other, is deeply rooted in the disappointments a marriage made in haste can often bring, as well as in their own weaknesses and strengths. Before a reader finds out the cause of Geoffrey's illness, we almost feel sorry for him when he reaches out to Anne, hoping for a rapprochement, or perhaps just a kind touch at the beginning of the novel.

Gaffney makes Geoffrey's weak character painfully clear upon his "miraculous" return; he reveals to Christy that after experiencing the horrors of the Crimean War, he faked amnesia to avoid being sent back to the front. Yet when he discovers that his wife and his best friend have become lovers in his absence, Geoffrey's anguish is painfully clear: the double valence of his cry, "I'll make you like me" (I'll make you care for me? Or I'll infect you with disease?) signaling both Geoffrey's villainy and his human longing for meaningful connection (298). He cries as he rapes her, apologizing all the while, then tries to comfort her after he finally stops, unable to ejaculate. Even rereading the scene while writing this post, I find myself empathizing with Geoffrey's suffering, his fear of dying, his frustration at not being loved.

And perhaps what I am upset about, after all, is not the sympathy Gaffney makes me feel for Geoffrey. For I felt a similar sympathy for Hijuelos' Cesar, too, one that didn't strike me as nearly so problematic. Perhaps what is truly upsetting me about this scene is how Anne responds to it, a response far different from that of Cesar's girlfriend. Even while Geoffrey "mashed her breasts with his hands," Anne stops fighting after he cries "I'll make you love me" (298). She "let him press her thighs apart," almost consenting to her own violation. After he stops, unable to climax, I come to see why: "At least Christy's God would be satisfied now," Anne thinks, "for she'd gotten what she deserved. After all the years of coldness and rejection, Geoffrey's disease and his defilement were to be her punishment. Her just deserts. Everything was gone now, her last hope finished" (299). Though the novel, through Geoffrey, immediately reassures me that Anne cannot catch the pox from him ("I'm not contagious any longer, I've gone— I've gone— beyond that stage"[299]), Anne's self-abnegating response to his sexual violation still makes me feel rather sick. Even while I admire Anne's ability to forgive Geoffrey, to sympathize with his pain, I find myself refusing to agree with Anne that she in any way deserved to be raped.

Does the novel want its readers to agree with Anne? Or does it push us to reject her conclusion? I think it wants us to do the latter; by novel's end, Anne comes to accept "Christy's God," a benevolent, rather than a vengeful, deity. Yet the narrative still forces her to experience rape, and to feel that she deserved it. And it forces us as readers to experience the rape, and her feelings, along with her, before offering her, and us, a happy ending. For me, this feels like too high a price to pay.

What romance novels have made you feel things that seem at odds with your own personal beliefs? And what did you do once you realized it?

Photo credits:
"I need feminism": ThinkBannedThoughts blog

Next time on RNFF
Working Class Feminism: Cara McKenna's After Hours

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pre-Romance for YA's: Erica Lorraine Scheidt's USES FOR BOYS

"In the happy times, in the tell-me-again times," Anna's mother tells Anna a story, a story told with the brevity and directness of a fairy tale: "She had no mother... she had no father. All she wanted was a little girl and that little girl is me."

In those happy times, when Anna was a child, and Anna and her mother were on their own, Anna took the end of her mother's story—"And now I have everything"—and held it close, a secret spell, a talisman against the distance and dangers of the world beyond her family. And even though the boyfriends and stepfathers and stepbrothers that begin to revolve through her life show Anna that she's no longer "everything" to her mother, Anna holds even tighter to the story's happy ending as she struggles from childhood to early adolescence: all you need is one special person, and you'll be safe, you'll be loved, you'll be happy ever after.

Such is the message of not only of fairy tales, but also of many a romance novel. And it's lovely to live within that space, to feel safe and loved for the time it takes to read a fairy tale, to read a romance. But if a young girl hears the same story over and over, without realizing that the story doesn't tell the whole story, she can be in danger of spending her whole life looking for that one person who can fulfill all her needs. If not a parent, then a boyfriend, or a boy—or, more likely, a series of boys, mistaking their interest in her body for an interest in her self.

Which is why I decided to feature Erica Lorraine Scheidt's young adult novel, Uses for Boys, on the blog today, despite the fact that it isn't strictly a romance novel. Because it's a book I'd want to give to every girl who, like me, becomes a compulsive romance reader as an adolescent, looking for answers to questions about love and romance between the pages of a novel. For though the story Anna's mother's tells her is personal, biographical, its underlying theme is the same one girls in our culture are spoon-fed from the earliest of ages: find the right "one," and you'll find perpetual happiness. And Anna's story points out the damage that holding tight to such a fairy tale can cause.

Anna turns from her mother toward boys as the object for her search when she is an unpopular thirteen, when Desmond Dreyfus sits down and gropes her on the bus. "I can picture what it's going to be like for me now, what it's going to be like, how he'll introduce me to his friends and how he'll invite me to parties at Lisa Jenner's house and how I'll invite Nancy along and when they ask who invited her, I'll say I did," Anna thinks when the boy sits down beside her again (32). Yet after he uses her to jerk off, in front of two other boys, Desmond stops sitting next to her, stops talking to her. She'd tell her friend Nancy about it, about "how it felt, his hand under my shirt. The exploding warmth," but Nancy has stopped talking to her, too, stopped sitting next to her, stopped looking at her.

And since Nancy won't speak to Anna anymore, Anna decides to turn her attentions to another boy, one as outcast as herself. Bringing him home to her empty house, taking off her shirt, offering herself as a gift in return for the physical pleasure he can give, as well as the emotional connection she imagines he offers: "Joey's here every day after school. He's my family now. Anything's worth this" (38). Yet Joey moves back to Seattle. And another boy sexually assaults her, abuse that shines from her eyes but that her mother cannot see. And so Anna moves on, to another boy, to another apartment, another story: "Josh is a story I tell myself.... A story that's true. I'm telling myself the story of Josh and I look at his profile against the clouded sky. 'I was alone,' I say aloud. 'And then I found you.'" (92).

The lives of adolescent girls, unlike those of fairy tale princesses, rarely end with a "happily ever after," with a prince riding to the rescue to save a girl from sadness and pain. But every girl could use a fairy godmother, one who, like the mother of one of Anna's boyfriends, tells her a different kind of story: "When she says I can do anything, she doesn't mean a boy, a boyfriend, a husband. She means me. Me. I could do anything" (190).

The spare, stark prose in which Scheidt shows us how Anna gradually learns to recognize what's missing from her mother's story, from the stories she's been telling herself, from the stories others have been telling about her, turns what could have been a heavy-handed hand-wringing into a deeply moving rebuttal of the myth that a boy can fill the emptiness girls feel. Only after Anna begins to recognize her own strength, her own power, is she ready to engage in a mutually satisfying, respectful, and loving relationship with another boy, rather than one based not only on how he can use her, but also on how she can use him. Here's hoping that the majority of young romance readers learn the same, lest they become fooled by the message of far too many romance novels: "some day my prince will come. And away to his castle we'll go, To be happy forever, I know."

Illustration credits:

Uses for Boys.
St. Martin's, 2013.

Next time on RNFF:
Sympathy for the romance rapist?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kids in Romance Novels

For the past several weeks, I've been researching and prepping to teach an online course about the history of children and childhood during the Regency period, for an audience of historical romance writers. I'm a research wonk, so digging into all this information about what kids wore, what they ate, where (and with whom) they slept has me in my element. But it's also been making me wonder about the uses of the child figure in romance fiction. As a romance typically focuses tightly around the two (or sometimes more) adults who are falling in love with one another, how, and perhaps more importantly, why does romance make room for secondary characters from the younger generation? And does the inclusion of a child character tend to push a romance toward feminist, or anti-feminist ideologies?

Here are some reasons I can think of to include a child or children in a romance, some neutral, some with feminist leanings, still others that work to contain or constrain female needs and desires:

• Because many of us idealize children and childhood, and regard children as innocent, including a child character can more easily allow an author to mobilize readers' emotions, pulling on those old heartstrings.

• Showing a hero or heroine acting kindly to a child can demonstrate said character's nature, and suitability for a romantic partnership, without having to have the narrator resort to telling us "s/he is a kind person."

• Likewise, because we often think of children (like animals/pets) as having an instinctual "feel" for other people. If a child warms to an unfamiliar adult, said child's instincts can help persuade the other half of the romantic couple that the potential mate is worthy.

• Children can bring lovers in conflict, or lovers who are estranged, back together: witness the ever-popular secret baby plot.

• Or children can foster conflict—a mother at odds with her son's coach; a father who disagrees with his daughter's governess—bringing people with heightened emotions together so that the romantic sparks can flash. When potential romantic partners do not share similar child-rearing philosophies, tensions can mount quickly...

• Kids can play the role of matchmakers, working to push a reluctant parent or relative into a romantic relationship.

• A kid continually interrupting before things get too steamy helps build up the sexual tension...

• Because kids are associated with the inability to suppress emotions, showing a hero interacting with a child can allow said hero to access and show emotions that otherwise would not be allowed under contemporary codes of masculinity.

• Because kids are often believed to be unable to lie socially (or at least, to keep quiet about things adults can more easily suppress), kids can point out how one protagonist is feeling towards the other.

• Interacting with a kid can force that ever-immature hero (or, far more rarely, heroine) to realize that he is ready to "grow up" and start taking on the adult responsibilities of caring for, and financially supporting, a family. For heroines, the trope seems to function more often as a curb upon work, rather than a push towards adulthood; seeing other women's babies or children can persuade a heroine to think that she, too, wants to abandon the working grind to have a child of her own.

Interesting side note: while looking for book covers to accompany this post, I discovered that stand-alone romances rarely seem to feature covers with babies or kids on them. In contrast, category romances seem to have little problem drawing on the "ah, how cute" factor. Why do you think this is?

What are your favorite romances that include babies and/or children? And to what ideological uses do the authors of said romances put their young secondary characters?

Next time on RNFF:
A pre-romance for teen readers: Erica Lorraine Scheidt's Uses for Boys

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Feminism and Social Class in Kristan Higgins' MY ONE AND ONLY

Because many of its early and most vocal proponents were white and middle-class, feminism has often been accused of being tone-deaf when it comes to the concerns of working-class women. Is the same true of romance novels?

I can think of many romances that feature working-class heroes (or at least, heroes with working-class jobs, such as construction workers, mechanics, and the like, even if they don't speak or think in a different social register than their middle-class heroines). But when was the last time I read a romance with a maidservant, a factory worker, or a shopkeeper as the female lead? Unless, that is, the romance is version of the Cinderella story, with said working-class heroine swept away from her life of drudgery by means of her love for a far more economically-privileged hero.

She's got both dresses; now she just needs the prince...
Perhaps, since romance is often viewed as an escape from everyday drudgery, it is unrealistic to expect blue-collar heroines and working-class concerns to take up much shelf space in the romance section at the library or bookstore. Yet even in romances with clearly middle- or upper-class heroines, denigration of working class women can seep into the background. Sometimes done deliberately (the crass woman providing comic relief), other times simply part of the assumptions of the narrator of heroine, such belittling portrayals can undermine the more positive messages in an otherwise feminist romance.

One of the reasons I admire Kristan Higgins' My One and Only is the way it forces its readers to recognize the prevalence of negative depictions of working class women, by forcing its protagonist, divorce lawyer Harper James, to confront her own anti-feminist classism. Harper comes from working-class stock (her grandfather a fisherman, her dad working construction), and lives in the one working-class neighborhood on pricey Martha's Vineyard. But Harper attended Amherst College, "receiving a stellar education at an extremely feminist-slanted college," which instilled the confidence "that the world held no boundaries," she and her classmates "planning to Do Important Things" (63). The novel thus suggests that Harper's desire to become an environmental lawyer stems not only from her commitment to preserving nature, but from her education at that high-falutin' bastion of feminism, Amherst.

But another potential reason lies in the story's depiction of Harper's stepmother. Only a year after her real mother left her thirteen-year-old daughter, never to return, Harper's taciturn father came home from a Las Vegas conference (one, ironically, focused on green building materials) with thrice-married BeverLee, a walking, talking "Trailer Park Barbie" whose most "intellectually simulating literature" consisted of Us Weekly (33, 35). From Harper's first mention of "BeverLee of the Big Blond Hair," readers know that this is a woman the educated lawyer has little desire to emulate. Though Harper never comes out and condemns BeverLee for her class position, the class-based markers Harper uses to describe her tell us that BeverLee is different from Harper, different in a way that invites Harper's (and readers') laughter, perhaps even scorn. From the spelling of her name to her Texas twang, from her love for weddings "whether in the family, the tabloids, or on one of the three soap operas she watched religiously" to her constant refrain of cheery platitudes, from the cigarette she holds in one hand to the can of Jhirmack extra hold hairspray in the other, BeverLee serves as the anti-Harper, the embodiment of educated feminists' fears of being labelled as lacking "class," in the multiple senses of the word.

Yet the roots of Harper's classism lie deeper than the obvious villain of college-instilled feminism. The narrative holds off on telling us about these roots until fairly close to the end of the book, at the point in the story when Harper begins to understand the reasons why her first marriage failed so spectacularly. Not only because Harper feared to commit herself wholeheartedly to said marriage, as her ex-husband believes, and not just because he refused to acknowledge her needs, as she believes. But because Harper has spent so much time being afraid of being abandoned again that she's too scared to tell her ex what she needs and desires, especially when said needs and desires might hurt him.

But BeverLee knows what Harper needs, and has been there for her throughout her growing up, despite Harper's constant rejection. Only after Harper acknowledges this, acknowledges how much she's been blinded by her class-based judgments of "Trailer Park Barbie" BeverLee, can Harper move on and repair the other relationships in her life that she's damaged by her refusal to see them in all their multifaceted sides—especially the one with her "one and only" love, ex-husband Nick.

Interestingly, while the novel insists that mother-daughter relationships can transcend class boundaries, it simultaneously suggests that romantic relationships cannot. At least not when class is constructed in terms of education and level of intellectual engagement. Harper's current boyfriend, "young Dennis," is all that a girl could want—easygoing, good-looking, a hard worker, a heroic firefighter. Yet it is not his rattail, his junky car, or his continually calling her "Dude," that signals to readers that Dennis is far from Harper's perfect match. Instead, it is the lack of intellectual exchange in which the two are able to engage. Dennis's interests do not include much beyond the Red Sox and playing on his X-box, interests that can hardly keep the attention of keenly intelligent Harper for more than a few minutes at a time. Condescendingly directing Dennis's life as if she were his mother rather than his lover, Harper demonstrates to readers far earlier than she recognizes herself that she is no match for the kind but decidedly dim Dennis.

A contradiction in class-based messages? Or an accurate assessment of the differences between parental and romantic love? Would love to hear your thoughts...

And would love to hear of any other romances with working class heroes AND heroines, or cross-class romances in which class-based assumptions cause difficulties in the relationship, rather than being simply glossed over in a Cinderella-imposed romantic haze.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Cinderella costume: Wild Nights Fancy Dress Company
Trailer Park Barbie: Trish-the-stalker, Deviant Art

HQN, 2011

Next time on RNFF:
Children in romance

Friday, April 5, 2013

Printzs and RITAs and boys, oh my! part 2

"The Michael L. Printz Award annually honors the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit." — Young Adult Library Services web site

"The purpose of the RITA contest is to promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding romance novels." — Romance Writers of America web site

In a post I wrote back in February, I discussed the conference proposal I had submitted to this year's Children's Literature Association conference, a proposal focusing on constructions of masculinity in young adult novels honored by the American Library Association and by the Romance Writers of America. The proposal has since been accepted, and with last week's announcement of the RITA award finalists, I finally have a complete list of books to read and analyze.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the RWA's RITA list and ALA's Printz/Best of the Best list do not share a single title. Comparing how the books that each association deems its "best" depict romantic heroes should reveal interesting differences.

This year's YA RITA finalist list contained only four titles: 

Bound, Erica O'Rourke (Kensington/KTeen)
The Farm, Emily Mckay (Penguin/Berkely)
Grave Mercy, Robin LaFevers (Houghton)
Pushing the Limits, Katie McGary (Harlequin Teen)

Huntley Fitzpatrick's My Life Next Door (Penguin/Dial) made the "Best First Book" list, so I may add it to the mix.

I haven't read any of these books yet; anyone out there have thoughts about the type(s) of masculinity they depict/construct?

I've read through a few of the Printz/Best Books titles that could be construed as romances, or at least as "novels with strong romantic elements": Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Boys, David Levithan's Every Day, and Terry Pratchett's Dodger. Still on the TBR pile: Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of Universe and Alethea Kontis' Enchanted.

What the ALA/Printz/Best Books titles I've read so far seem to have in common is their insistence that there is not just one romantic masculinity; instead, each book insists upon the existence of multiple masculinities. Raven Boys includes a clear romantic female lead, but with its cast of four boys, all of them very different one from the other, we're not sure which will turn out to be the romantic lead (RB is the first book in a series). The situation in Levithan's Every Day is even more complex; A, the book's narrator, wakes up in a different body each morning, and neither readers nor narrator know what sex A is. Levithan toys with what a genderless identity might be like, even while depicting many different types of young men in the bodies that A temporarily inhabits over the course of several months. Pratchett's Dodger discovers, as Pratchett heroes and heroines are wont to do, that the most successful person, male or female, is the one who can shape his or her own identity by constructing the most persuasive stories, instead of allowing others, or society, to tell one what one's identity should be.

Will the RITA books be as expansive in their visions of masculinity? Or will their romantic heroes have more in common with each other than the Printz/Best Books titles do? I'm looking forward to finding out...

In other news, yours truly was interviewed for an article that appeared on the Atlantic's "Sexes" blog, "Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism," and also for a brief radio piece on KIRO Radio, "Glistening Abs with a Feminist Twist: Introducing Feminist Romance Novels." The resulting conversations have been fascinating, especially this one on author Cecilia Grant's blog. Hope you can join in...

Next time on RNFF:
Confronting the intersections of sexism and social class in Kristan Higgins' My One and Only

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Little Feminisms: Louisa Edwards' TOO HOT TO TOUCH

Some romances demonstrate their feminist appeal in big, obvious ways. A lawyer heroine talks about, and fights against, the hidden sexism that keeps women from advancing in her firm. A Victorian hero writes a chastity manual, arguing that the sexual double standard oppresses women. A steampunk couple work together to protect her hidden lesbian society from the homosexual-hating larger culture that surrounds it.

In romances where the plot's quest, or the characters' personal goals, are not directly tied to overtly feminist themes, however, a book's feminism may not be so easy to see. But even romances that do not wear their feminism on their sleeve can turn out to have feminist appeal. A series of small choices made by an author about primary and secondary characters, about what it means to be masculine and feminine, about who gets to make which decisions about a relationship and why, can all add up over the course of a novel, giving a book a feminist "atmosphere," if you will, an environment which seems to welcome and foster feminist choices and ideas. The accretion of little feminisms, gradually building over the course of a story, might be a potent way to convey core feminist ideas to readers wary of engaging with more overtly feminist romances, readers who live in environments where feminism-bashing is the more acceptable cultural norm.

My reading last week uncovered a great example of the romance of "little feminisms" in the first book in Louisa Edwards' "Rising Star Chef" series, Too Hot to Touch. I'd read Edwards' previous "Recipe for Love" foodie romances, and enjoyed her deft character constructions and gift for writing dialogue, but found her plotting skills a bit wanting. But with this first book her latest series, which has the structure of a cooking competition between New York City restaurants giving its plot a clear backbone, Edwards' talents sizzle.

The book's cover doesn't really hint at the feminisms inside (beefy, topless chef with most of his face cut off—better hope none of the oil from that hot pan he's holding jumps out and burns those bare abs!).  I found myself pleasantly surprised to discover them all the same. Max Lunden, tired of the blandness of tradition at his family's restaurant, a New York City institution for several generations, has spent the past seven years satisfying his urge to explore the new and unique by traveling the world, learning from the best chefs his charm and persistence can persuade to teach him. Unlike Max, Juliet (Jules) Cavanaugh has never been bitten by wanderlust; having been kicked out by a selfish mother at seventeen, Jules glories in the second home she found at Lunden's Tavern, the restaurant owned by the family of her best friend Danny. When Max's mom demands he return home to help the team in the Rising Star Chef competition in which his father has entered the restaurant, Max finds himself in the midst of not only family tensions, but sexual ones—the attraction between Jules and Max proves as intense as the darkest, richest chocolate.

Canonical American literature is rife with stories of men fleeing the domestic taming of women; American romance is filled with stories of men learning to embrace the life domestic to win the love of a woman. Battle of the sexes stories often hinge on this opposition, with heroes pushing to escape domesticity, heroines reeling them back in. The boundaries of genre get muddy, though, when you bring men into the kitchen. Despite cooking's stereotypical connection to the feminine, most actual restaurant kitchens are staffed by, and run by, men. Jules is the only female cook at Lunden's, but Edwards plays with tradition by making her second in command in the kitchen. Though Jules' friend Danny is the son of the owner, he occupies (and embraces) the lower-ranking, more typically "feminine" job of pastry chef. The atmosphere at Lunden's isn't sexist; the other male cooks all clearly respect Jules's skills and leadership. In fact, as readers are told in retrospect, when a chef with whom Jules became romantically involved began to ignore her instructions, the owners quickly fired him.

Women with knives can be sexy...
With Max's return, readers might expect a typical battle of the sexes, kitchen-style, to ensue. Yet Edwards doesn't take refuge in the obvious; instead, she crafts characters who rarely do the expected. Easygoing, silver-tongued Max has little interest in taking charge of the kitchen, or the team. When they first meet, Jules bluntly tells him, "You may be the best chef in Europe, or wherever, but just so we're clear, you're not the top dog around here." Max's response is simultaneously flirtatious and a signal of his willingness to play roles other than the "top dog" one might expect of the heir to an landmark restaurant: "Hey, no worries. I don't need to be on top." Pausing, he quirked one brow outrageously before continuing smoothly, "I like to be on the bottom every now and again." (35). Even after his father, the leader of the cooking challenge team, ends up in the hospital, Max respects Jules's leadership: "Max didn't hesitate. 'Jules Cavanaugh is my father's right hand. We take our cues from her.'" (266).

During the first phase of the chef competition, it becomes clear that Max's ceding of power to Jules is not simply a way to appease someone he hopes to entice into bed. Max isn't threatened by Jules's strengths; in fact, he finds her intelligence and skill a key component of her appeal:

     Jules was unstoppable, on fire, and Max could only watch her with a mixture of pride, admiration, and nearly uncontrollable lust.
     Smart chicks are hot. Damn. (157)

For many romance readers, the thrill of genre lies in having a powerful hero irrevocably drawn to protect the heroine. But the thrill of Jules' romance lies in being attractive to a parter not because of feminine weakness, but because of female strength. As Jules muses after Max asserts with complete confidence that she'll ace the last question in the food trivia contest, "Is there anything more seductive than a man who believes in you?" (152). For a feminist, the answer is likely "no."

Max's admiration for Jules' power is not, however, confined only to the kitchen. During an early sexual encounter, Jules realizes that Max "didn't kiss like other guys, who all seemed to want to take charge and establish dominance immediately, as if taking control of the kiss would mean they were weak." In contrast, with Max, "it felt like genuine hunger—not a battle for supremacy. And when Jules melted into him, he backed off, his lips going soft and searching, trading control back and forth between them as easily as tossing a softball" (173). Because her mother's boyfriends revolved in and out of their lives so quickly, few staying longer than a handful of months, and left her mother emotionally devastated every time, a part of Jules has "always associated sex with danger, fear, and struggle" (173). But when Max doesn't resist after Jules pins his wrist above his head against the wall, then tells her, "This is your show. Your house, your rules," his acceptance of her power in the bedroom proves not only lust-inducing, but "indescribably empowering," "a whole new way to think about sex" (174), not only for Jules, but for readers who've never imagined sexual relations as an interplay between equals. Women need not be the victims, the subordinates, in sexual or romantic relationships, Edwards' story asserts; power between lovers can be shared, tossed back and forth with ease and joy.

When Jules is forced to make a difficult decision about the competition, choosing between her beloved father figure Gus Lunden, and her new lover Max, she's torn. But ultimately she makes her choice based not on her feelings for either man, but on what she thinks is right. At novel's end, Max, too, makes a choice, not just about the competition, but about the direction of his future life, a decision based entirely on his feelings. This inversion of the typical gendered decision-making is just one more little feminism in a book that makes its feminist claims with quiet, but undeniable, power.

Can you think of other romances in which small authorial choices create a welcoming feminist environment?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Grenada Dark Chocolate Truffles: Moonstruck Chocolate
Top chef t-shirt: Shop by Bravo
Smart chicks hat: Cafepress

St. Martin's, 2011.

Next time on RNFF:
Printzs and RITAS and boys, part 2