Much contemporary romance fiction takes a different tack. Dual (or occasionally multiple) point of view is far more common now than single point of view. The two (or occasionally more) protagonists in a romance novel may not know what the other is really thinking or feeling, but the narrative puts the reader in a more privileged position. Authors allow us to see inside the heads of all parties who are falling in love. The pleasure now is less about the suspense of whether one romantic lead really has feelings for the other, but instead in knowing more than each of the protagonists do, being privy to the reasons why they belong together, even if they themselves do not yet see them.
Goodman's narrative style struck me especially delicious in her latest, A Touch of Flame, in large part because the male romantic lead, twenty-nine-year-old Ben Madison, does not at all resemble the iconic laconic cowboy of western novel and film. Although Ben has just been elected to the position of Sheriff in 1898 Frost Falls, Colorado, he's hardly the strong, silent gunslinger type. We're introduced to him as he's trying to take a nap on the boardwalk in front of the jail:
He tugged on the brim of his pearl gray Stetson and pulled it forward to cover his eyes and the bridge of his lightly freckled nose. Positioning the hat in such a way meant uncovering more of the back of his head and exposing his carrot-colored hair to passersby who'd known him all their lives and still seemed to think they were the first to comment on it.
Nothing about being the newly elected sheriff of Frost Falls changed that. (1)
Ben's a friendly, steady presence in Frost Falls, always ready to engage its citizens with a funny story, cheerful word, or kind compliment. And always ready to be teased, or to position himself as butt of his own self-deprecating jokes:
"Did I insult you?"
"Insult me? No. I don't even know if that's possible."
"Dull-witted. I don't know an insult even when it's poking me in the chest." (18)
Ben promised Dunlop that he'd offer his support for the new doctor during the transition, a transition that has become far more fraught, given Dunlop's keeping the sex of his replacement a secret. And that the women of Frost Falls are even more opposed to a female physician than are its men. Dr. E. Ridley Woodhouse is mannerly, but private, "willing to listen, not willing to share" (120), which makes it hard for the people of Frost Falls to put their trust in her. And she's prickly, too, quick to take umbrage with those who question her skills, or her independence, even if they do so inadvertently.
In order to keep his promise to Dr. Dunlop, Ben chooses to work behind the scenes, deciding when and if to reveal things he knows, and things he is doing, to Ridley and to his fellow townsfolk. Not that this is something that Goodman tells her reader directly; instead, she shows us Ben choosing not to tell the new doctor that he's the sheriff, or to tell the townsfolk they encounter that she's the new doctor, the first day she's in town. And Goodman has Ben think only in passing about the "spies" he relies upon to keep track of the new arrival during the weeks that follow, without giving us any details of who they are, or even if they are aware that Ben is using them for his own secret purposes.
And though a reader certainly assumes that since Ben and Ridley are the two characters from whose points of view Goodman tells her story, the two are headed for future romance, she rarely shows either thinking lascivious, or even romantic, thoughts about the other, at least not until the two are practically in bed together. And while they snip and snipe at one another, their banter is never mean-spirited; Goodman, like Ben, wants to make us laugh, and includes plenty of dry, wry humor as she slowly builds the romance between her amusing lawman and her serious doctor.
If she's going to keep secrets from the reader, why should Goodman choose dual point of view, rather than tell this story entirely through Ridley's eyes? Perhaps to reassure the reader that the secrets that Ben is hiding behind his oh-so-cheerful facade are not secrets that will be damaging or harmful to Ridley if she places her trust in him. Early in the story, Ridley thinks "It was difficult to argue with [Ben]... but it did not keep her from trying. He simply grinned at her in that maddening way of his and rolled over her objections by never addressing them at all. He never really argued so he never lost an argument. It was frustrating and just a little unnerving" (127). If we didn't have any access to Ben's interior thoughts and feelings, such behavior could be read as demeaning to Ridley, a sign of a man hiding a dangerously controlling streak behind a false front of good cheer.
Instead, showing us some of the thoughts inside Ben's head, Goodman shows us a man worthy of our admiration and trust. And thus we cheer him on as he and Ridley gradually being to join forces to help the residents of Frost Falls. They work together to rescue a family overcome by poisonous gas from by a faulty stove; to foil a robbery at the town bank; to figure out why the town's most influential woman, a woman who actively worked to promote women's suffrage, is trying to undermine Ridley's reputation. And most importantly, to come up with a way to help a family whose male head is becoming increasingly prone to drinking and physically abusing his wife, when said wife will not tell the truth about what has been happening to her.
As they work together trying to address the town's problems, Ben and Ridley also make the conscious decision, mid-book, to become lovers. They aren't moved by torrid passion, or uncontrollable desire, but by wry humor, by affection and appreciation, and by deep respect for the strengths and needs of the other. Though on the surface, they appear to be opposites—Ben amusing, Ridley serious; Ben open, Ridley self-contained—at heart, they are quite similar, and quite suited:
"Sometimes I take things too seriously, myself included."
"Sometimes." He paused, bent his head to catch her eye. "And sometimes I fail to see when things are serious."
She shook her head. "No, you don't. I never think that. You merely wear a different suit of armor than I do."
Ben said nothing. She had captured it exactly. (263)
Ben's preferred method of dealing with problems is to deploy his particular suit of armor, what might best be described as "soft power": influencing others so that they see what he wants them to see, wants what he wants them to think. Rather than taking the more traditionally masculine path of force, physical or verbal, Ben uses methods more commonly associated with feminine persuasion: he works behind the scenes, placing this bit of information in that person's ear, another bit in someone else's. Which is perhaps why many of the problems he and Ridley tackle—the inequality of traditional gender norms, domestic violence—have clear feminist implications.
And why in the end, their story asserts, some secrets are better kept than revealed.
As least, as long as they're not kept from the reader...
A Touch of Flame
Cowboys of Colorado #2