Friday, July 26, 2013

Rediscovering the Romance in the Best Years of Our Lives: Laura Florand's TURNING UP THE HEAT and Ruthie Knox's MAKING IT LAST

In one of the most moving scenes in the 1946 Academy Award-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives, an account of three World War II veterans adjusting to civilian life, young Peggy Stephenson tries to explain to her parents why she's going to break up the marriage of the man with whom she's fallen in love. When father Al questions her decision, Penny exclaims,

You've forgotten what it's like to be in love.... It's just that everything has always been so perfect for you.You loved each other, and you got married in a big church, and you had a honeymoon in the south of France, and you never had any trouble of any kind. So how can you possibly understand how it is with Fred and me?

The camera, which had been shooting over the shoulders of of the Stephenson parents to Peggy sitting on the bed in their bedroom, cuts to a half-shot of Al and Milly, wife seated, husband standing by her side. The two look into each other's eyes, wry, pained, yet loving expressions on their faces. Finally Milly, squeezing tight to her husband's hand, responds:

Frederic March, Myrna Loy, and Teresa Wright
in The Best Years of Our Lives
We never had any trouble? How many times have I told you I hated you, and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you're sick and tired of me? That we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?

This central truth of marriage—that "I do" is not the end, but just the beginning, the verbal symbol of a commitment to keep fighting to rediscover the person you will fall in and out of love with many times over the course of your life—is one rarely addressed by contemporary media, especially contemporary romance. Married couples rarely serve as the protagonists in love stories; once mutual declarations of "I love you" (or, more rarely these days, wedding rings) have been exchanged, the romance novel comes to an end, implying that the relationship built within its pages, and the love upon which said love relies, will inevitably last into the future.

That's why I was so excited to discover not just one, but two novellas published this year that focus on married lovers who have grown estranged and who have to find their way back to one another through the minefields of their own misbeliefs, resentments, and deep vulnerabilities. Neither Daniel and Léa Laurier (of Laura Florand's Turning Up the Heat) nor Amber and Tony Mazzaro (of Ruthie Knox's Making It Last) are officially estranged; each couple is still married, still living together. Neither relationship has floundered under the weight of major disagreements or bitterly opposed goals. And neither husband nor wives have stopped loving each other—they think. Or hope. Yet each has lost the other in some way, has lost the connection—emotional as well as sexual—that initially led them to utter those life-changing words, "I do."

Tahiti, where you can see the fish right beneath your floor
Both authors use the device of a vacation—an escape from the mind-dulling everyday routine—to jolt their married lovers out of their passive acceptance of the unfulfilling state of their marriages. Daniel returns home from yet another consulting gig to find Léa gone, fled to Tahiti, while Tony urges Amber to remain behind, free of both him and their three demanding children, at the end of their less-than-relaxing Jamaican family holiday. Both women have spent years catering to the needs of their families (Amber to said children and to her extended family, Léa to her younger siblings, orphaned when she was only eighteen), but suddenly find themselves at a crossroads when the children move on to school or their own adult lives. With the constant press of fulfilling others' demands no longer distracting them from their own selves, each wonders if she has any self left, any desire of her own—even a desire for her own husband. "Back when she'd met Tony, [Amber]'d been so inexperienced that his cock had seemed like this miraculous thing, but lately she just wanted every penis in the house put away," Amber reflects when Tony unexpectedly returns to Jamaica, realizing that leaving her alone is not enough to ensure she comes back.

What, no kids?
Tony has long recognized that Amber has been slipping away, and that his long work hours are partially to blame. But with the poor economy endangering his business, their very home, he can see no way to fix their problems. Workaholic Daniel is more clueless than Tony, too caught up in his own insecurities to see Léa's. But he's just as afraid as Tony is that his wife's abrupt departure means she's going to leave him. Both men pray that reigniting their sexual chemistry will solve their marital woes, but both husbands and wives need to recognize that a bout of sex, no matter how mind-blowing, cannot change the fundamental patterns of the lives they've chosen, patterns that have made them all deeply unhappy.

Each couple works to overcome their estrangement in different ways. Yet both solutions involve finding meaningful pursuits separate from their families for the two wives; discovering the strength to speak about shameful, embarrassing, guilty emotions; and choosing to recommit to each other, just as they did when they first uttered their wedding vows. In other words, each couple has to fall in love all over again, not only with each other, but with their best selves.

Knox and Florand wrote novellas, not novels, about the already-married. In Knox's case, at least, few people expressed enthusiasm about a full-length romance about a married couple. I hope RNFF readers will go out and support these two works, and their authors, and send a message to publishers and other romance writers that such stories are not only needed, but truly welcome.

This post is dedicated to my cousin Nicole, who will be saying her own "I do" for the first time this weekend.

Photo credits:
Tahiti: Romance Travel Concierge
Jamaica: Travel By Darcy

AOS Publishing 2012. 


  1. I haven't read Laura Florand's novella yet, but I loved Making It Last. Knox is such a smart, honest writer, I'll read anything by her. Making It Last is a lovely showcase for everything I love about her writing.

  2. As someone who has been happily married to the same man for 41 years I can solidly attest to the 'Ups and downs' cycle of a successful marriage.

    I can recall a Harlequin (probably) American romance from early in that series where she decides to take off on her own after he totally forgot her 40th birthday(proverbial final straw). She had a program of study she wanted to follow (interior design??) and he (university prof) kept blowing her off. The bulk of the book involved them working their way back together.

    I haven't read the book in years, but I still remember it.

  3. Making It Last is wonderful. I'll have to pick up the Florand now. I think I have some old keeper romances on this theme but I'll have to dig about in my memory for them... It really is a shame there aren't more of them!

  4. Jackie, I love the quote from The Best Years of Our Lives. That is perfect. Thank you for the thoughtful analysis. I love comparing two texts that treat the same trope (although maybe there aren't enough books on this concept for it to be a proper trope) and seeing what comes through the same (the way work consumes people or that sacrifice of self and the need to balance that) and what authors do differently. I grabbed Making It Last as soon as it came out, because I was so looking forward to seeing someone else dive into this idea. I really love Ruthie's honesty in her story, that kind of down-to-earth-I-know-these-people detail she is so good at seizing. You really feel for both Amber and Tony and want them to work it out so much. I love Tony. :)

    I would love to hear recommendations for more stories along these lines!

  5. I'll have to pick up Making it Last. I'd love to read more stories with married couples.

  6. I for one love romances about estranged couples! They are some of my favorites!

    To Barb, married 41 years, congrats, that's no little work!