Friday, February 22, 2019

Secrets and Narrative Manipulation in Jo Goodman's A TOUCH OF FLAME

Much of the romantic tension in Harlequin romances of the 1970s and 80s stems from the fact that readers are allowed access into the minds of only one of their books' two romantic leads. Authors show us what their female protagonists think, feel, and desire, but the thoughts, feelings, and desires of their male leads remain hidden, a mystery. Readers, like the heroine herself, are put into a state of suspense, looking for clues about the hero's goals and motivations but never really certain of them until the story's climax, when the hero declares his love. Only after the hero had given voice to previously private, secret feelings can readers, and the heroine, be certain they really know what is inside his head and heart.

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.

And then we come to Jo Goodman. Goodman's most recent American-set historical romances are narrated using dual point of view. But even while they give access to the inner workings of both romantic leads, they often do not tell the reader everything the character is thinking or feeling. Her narrative voice is not unreliable, precisely; instead, it feels canny, strategically laconic. Appropriate, no doubt, given that her setting is the 19th century American West, a setting known for the iconic figure of the strong, silent cowboy. As readers, we are being manipulated by Goodman's narrative reticence; assuming we have access to all the important thoughts and feelings of our main characters, Goodman can then later surprise us when one of them reveals something we assumed we would have or should have been told or shown earlier if it had been important to the story. But the manipulation never feels like a betrayal, at least not to me; instead, it makes me just want to stand back and laugh, admiring the skill with which Goodman has shown me some of her cards, while slyly keeping others back.

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)

But the joke is certainly on Ben when he goes to the train station to meet the new doctor that his friend, Dr. Dunlop, arranged to take over his practice before he moved back east. Because the new doctor, one E. Ridley Woodhouse, is not a white man, as everyone in Frost Falls, including Ben, assumed. She's a white woman.

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
Berkley, 2018

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Appeal (or not) of Compulsory Demisexuality

I've always had decidedly mixed feelings about the "fated mate" romance, but could never quite articulate why. Until this past week, when I came across the term "compulsory demisexuality." It's a fascinating concept, and one that helped me understand the sexist implications of the "I'm only sexually attracted to my one true love" ideology that's found in many single title and even more category romances.

Jodi McAlister, in her other guise as
YA author
Over the course of my years of reading about and studying gender and genre, I've often come across the term "compulsory heterosexuality." But this past week was the first time I'd heard the similar coinage, "compulsory demisexuality." The phrase appears in Lucy Neville's book Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys: Women and Gay Male Pornography and Erotica (about which I plan to write more in a future blog post), but the term was first coined by romance scholar Jodi McAlister. Wanting to find out more about this fascinating idea, I checked Neville's footnotes, and then tracked down the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture from 2014, in which McAlister's article, " 'That complete fusion of spirit as well as body': Heroines, Heroes, Desire, and Compulsory Demisexuality in the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance Novel," was first published.

Lesbian feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich used the phrase "compulsory heterosexuality" to describe the way that our society compels its members to believe that opposite-sex attraction is normal and natural, and to regard same-sex attraction as unnatural and deviant. The phrase is meant to call into question these so-called "natural" assumptions, to point out that they are not inherent to humanity, but are instead social constructions.*

McAlister's riff on Rich's term, "compulsory demisexuality," has a narrower scope and but a similar purpose. At the start of the majority of Harlequin Mills & Boon category romances, the female protagonist, or heroine, is demisexual: she can only feel sexual desire towards someone for whom she first feels an emotional attachment. But compulsory demisexuality takes demisexuality one step further. As McAlister explains, "someone who is actually demisexual is capable of experiencing attraction to a number of partners, as long as they have an emotional attachment to those partners" (300). But in the HM&B romance, "demisexuality intersects with the narrative of one true love" (300), so that a romance heroine can only feel sexual desire for one man, the man who is her soulmate. Women, according to the category romance, are (or at least should be, if they are proper heroine material), innately demisexual. A heroine will know the man she loves because it is only with him that she will share "that complete fusion of spirit as well as body" (in the words of Denise Robins, author of the 1933 Mills & Boon romance Shatter the Sky).

McAlister goes on to make two additional important points about compulsory demisexuality in the category romance. First, that while the male protagonist in such books is rarely demisexual at the start of the romance, by its end, he, like the heroine, is decidedly demisexual. Think of those passages in your romances when, after being attracted to the heroine, the hero suddenly discovers that the pleasure he once took in looking at, or sexually interacting with, other women has suddenly disappeared. He's just not that into looking at other women, at playing the field, anymore; he only has eyes (and a hard-on) for her. Converting the hero to demisexuality signals the triumph of the heroine; she has brought him into her world, a world in which "sex and love are tied together." As McAlister pungently puts it, "she gives him love as a sexually transmitted disease" (307).

Cover of a 1961 edition
Second, the "way in which compulsory demisexuality has been realized within category romances has... changed over time." In Shatter the Sky, published all the way back in 1933, "the happy ending of the novel is less a victory for the heroine and more a victory for loving demisexual relationships in general... a victory for [heroine] and [hero], rather than a victory of [heroine] over [hero]" (308, emphasis added). But the demisexual paradigm becomes more, rather than less, associated with the feminine over the course of the twentieth century, especially in the period after World War II:

Although the idea that sex and love should be linked has been a consistent hallmark of the Mills & Boon novel, there seems to be a growing emphasis on the idea that this is a uniquely feminine viewpoint, and it is this viewpoint—her viewpoint—that triumphs at the end of the romance novel. (309)

McAlister describes the pattern of compulsory demisexuality in her article, but she doesn't speculate about its implications, or its potential effects on romance readers. Is it a problem that category romances demand compulsory demisexuality of their protagonists? And that many many single title-length romances do as well?

Sexier cover, same compulsory
demisexual message: 2009's
Desert Prince, Bride of Innocence
I think it is. First, by demanding compulsory demisexuality of female protagonists, category romances suggest that female sexual desire cannot and should not exist without first being activated by a man. And not just any man, but only by the "one true love" a heterosexual woman is destined to be romantically linked to for the rest of her life. If a reader identifies with the heroine of such romances, or sees said heroine as a role model, she may passively accept such beliefs without even realizing she is doing so. What's even worse, those beliefs implicit shame any girl or woman who experiences sexual desire before she meets her "one true love." Compulsory demisexuality functions to control female sexuality, to contain it within the safety of a patriarchal relationship. Hardly the sex-positive attitude a feminist would wish for her in her romance reading.

And compulsory demisexuality also works to instill the idea that there is and must always be a "one true love" for each and every woman in the world, a belief that can lead to the idealization of romantic relationships and unrealistic expectations of a romantic partner. It can also lead to the belief that life is not complete if one has not found "one true love," and/or to a justification for looking down on those who haven't yet found (or have no desire to find) a "soulmate."

Are there any upsides to compulsory demisexuality that I'm overlooking? Or when we come across messages of compulsory demisexuality in our romances, should we set them aside and look for romance options that don't promulgate the compulsory demisexuality message?

* Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5.4 (Summer 1980): 631-660.

Photo credits:
Jodi McAlister: Goodreads

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Navigating the Line Between Stalking and Devotion: Katie Ruggle's HOLD YOUR BREATH and CD Reiss's BODYGUARD

I've never been much of a fan of romantic suspense, especially those stories that feature a villain who stalks the a female heterosexual heroine. They often seem to ask a reader to share in the feeling of said protagonist, the feeling of fear and terror that knowing that there is someone out there, usually a male someone, who has crossed to the wrong side of the line between selfless devotion and dangerous obsession. For some readers, being invited to share such feelings proves cathartic, because by the end of a work of each romantic suspense novel, the love interest who is dangerously, often violently obsessed is always banished or defeated, dis/replaced by a love interest who understands what it really means to love, honor, and protect his heroine. But for me, there is no thrill in the fear; being invited to share in someone else's fears when my own are already sometimes too strong to stomach is not something to which I'm inclined to issue a "yes" RSVP.

Which is why I was surprised to find myself enjoying two recent works of romantic suspense, one that takes the conventional formula and pushes it to the edge of its feminist possibilities, another which shifts the focus away from the more traditional formula to think more deliberately about just where the line is between stalking and devotion.

Katie Ruggle's Hold Your Breath (the first book in her Search and Rescue) series, is told mostly from the point of view of twenty-six-year-old Lou (Louise) Sparks, who has recently relocated from the comfort of her white privileged New England upbringing for a life in the Rockies. Though she pays the bills for her small cabin by working as a barista in the local coffee shop, Lou has decided to put her expensive diving lessons to good use by joining the local volunteer rescue ice diving team. Current-day Lou is a quick-talking ball of fire, messy and impulsive, who immediately catches the attention of her polar opposite, strong and silent Nordic-looking Callum Cook, the head of the diving squad. Methodical and controlled, Callum also has the typical alpha hero's protective streak, and quietly but immediately beings to help Lou when it looks like she's being stalked by her ex.

Lou both resents and appreciates said protectiveness. She resents it, because her goal in moving away from home and family was to reinvent herself as a stronger, more self-sufficient woman, and Callum's insistence on helping not only plays into sexist stereotypes ("I am fully stocked with tools, despite being in possession of a vagina" Lou wisecracks [116]), but makes her feel far too tempted to just "dump everything" in Callum's lap, "and lie on a fainting couch while you fan me with palm fronds and feed me grapes" (251). Lou doesn't want "to go back to that helpless, weak person I was before," back when she did whatever her parents, and her controlling boyfriend, ask/demanded her to do (251). But the book's message is that everyone, not just women, need to rely on others, even in the self-sufficient wilds of the Colorado Rockies. As Callum explains, "It's okay to have help. When we go on dive-team calls, we are never alone. We're stronger together, safer together" (252).

Ruggle still relies on putting her heroine in danger, over and over again—slashed tires, dive safety line cut, house set on fire, and body attacked directly, not just once but twice, by Mr. Stalker. And while we aren't privy to Callum's inner thoughts or feelings, we are given the occasional glimpse inside the mind of Lou's stalker. While I understand that this is a standard move in the romantic suspense formula, used to simultaneously heighten suspense by give the reader advanced notice that something really bad is about to happen, and also to reassure the reader, by giving her more knowledge that the protagonists don't yet have, I always end up feeling squicky when I have to read those scenes, because they force me to identify even for a few moments with a villain who hates the female heroine in large part because of her gender.

Though Callum helps Lou escape several times from the dangers of her stalker throughout the course of the novel, he also states quite directly that he doesn't admire Lou because he thinks she's weak and thereby makes him feel strong by comparison. Quite the opposite: "You are smart, and you might not know how to do something, but you figure it out. You're tough and brave, and I respect you" (282). And Ruggle constructs the final confrontation not one in which Callum rescues Lou, but one in which she rescues him, and herself. An event which allows her to accept the book's overall message that it is not weak to rely on others:

"In the hospital I had a lot of time to think, and I realized that loving you doesn't make me weaker. To save you, I dove into a frozen reservoir, killed a guy, and almost died."
     He flinched, and she gave him an apologetic grimace. "Loving you actually made me into a kind of badass." (366)

It's about as feminist as you can expect a romantic suspense novel to be if it still also hews to the key tropes of the formula. So if you don't mind the parts of RS that squick me out, you might want to give Ruggle's book a try.

If you're looking for something that interrogates the romantic suspense formula, rather than pushes its boundaries, then CD Reiss's Bodyguard might be more up your alley. The second book in her Hollywood A-List series, Bodyguard features the classic trope of a heroine in danger and the bodyguard hired to protect her falling for one another. But the basic set-up is just about all that is familiar here in Reiss' unconventional imagining of the classic trope.

In fact, Carter Kincaid isn't choreographer Emily Barrett's bodyguard at all, at least not at the start of the novel. He's been hired to join the security team for Emily's best friend, pop singing sensation Darlene McKenna. Even though they came from quite different socioeconomic backgrounds, white Emily and black Darlene bonded over gymnastics camp, then over dancing and singing, and left Chicago together as high school grads to chase their dreams of fame in LA. But once there, the two women's dreams took off in opposite directions: Darlene's towards stardom, Emily's to obscurity due to a bum knee and a boyfriend who disliked sharing his woman with the spotlight. Darlene had enough experience with abusive relationships to recognize that Vince was not a good influence on Emily, it wasn't until Vince moved from verbal to physical abuse that Emily was able to listen to her friend's advice and dump him. Darlene proves a staunch friend, not only helping Emily gain a restraining order against Vince, but also hiring her to choreograph her shows and videos.

All this has happened before the start of the novel. The trouble now is that the restraining order against Vince is about to expire, and Darlene is convinced that he'll be back. In real life, breaking free from one's stalker isn't just a matter of physical confrontation; there's the law, the legal system, and the prejudices of individual judges who administer them to deal with, too. As Emily explains to Carter when he observes that a one-year restraining order is pretty mild,

"The judge was unusually hostile to women. Said Vince only hit me once so he'd probably forget about me in a week. No need to inconvenience him further... And he insinuated I was going back to him anyways. Judge Croner, and I'll never forget his name, didn't want to 'remove incentive for Ms. Barrett to work on the relationship as opposed to lean on the courts when things get rough.' Which was another way of saying I was crazy enough to deserve it."

And so Darlene ups her security by adding Carter (who is presumably white) to her team. And after Emily is the victim of a not-so-funny anonymous prank, one that no one on the team prevented, Carter is given the specific assignment of watching out for Emily.

Which, interestingly, turns out to be only a temporary gig, as both Carter and Emily find themselves physically drawn to each other. Carter does the "I shouldn't/I must/I shouldn't dance for a few chapters, but fairly early on in the book asks to be reassigned, knowing that his growing feelings for Emily will only get in the way if he is assigned to protect her. In most bodyguard/target love stories, the two sides of the pair are forced to remain together throughout, the threats (and attempts to implement said threats) to one used to heighten the romantic feelings of each for the other. But in Carter's case, there is no need for such external heightening; his feelings for Emily skyrocket in intensity all on their own. And we know this because the narrative is a dual viewpoint one: we get inside both Emily's head and Carter's (but not, significantly, inside Vince's):

"I didn't have any control around Emily. I knew plenty of beautiful women and plenty of smart ones. She had real talent, but in Hollywood, talent is cheap. My reaction to her came from the gut. My body overrode my common sense. I had to have her. I'd never been addicted to anything, so I was unprepared for what an addiction did to a guy. I didn't know if I liked it, but I knew I couldn't do anything about it. Like an addict, I felt powerless in the face of my addiction" (112)

Romantic? Or stalkerish? If one didn't know any better, the intensity of the above might suggest that these are the thoughts of Emily's ex, Vince, rather than Carter, her supposedly more sane new love interest. Even Carter himself realizes this, and asks himself, "Where was the line between stalking and devotion? When could a woman be convinced? How could I show her I wanted her without scaring her?" (170). Given that Carter's family is also haunted by the aftereffects of obsession gone frighteningly awry, it's not a question that he, or the narrative, takes lightly.

And thus Reiss's romance is not about Carter's strength in the face of Emily's weakness, or Emily's endangerment. Or the push-pull thrill of protagonists in repeated danger. It is instead about the need for privacy and trust, the damage done when privacy and trust are violently violated, and how far one can and should go to protect oneself, and the people one loves, in the face of such violation.

I like the conclusion that Reiss comes to (in Emily words): "Nothing was guaranteed. Life wasn't sure, protected, or secure. But [Carter] made love feel as if it wasn't a risk. Love was the good part. The joy. The reason. Love was the one thing worth protecting." (316)

Photo credits
Ice rescue training: Daily Camera Bolder News
Stalking Awareness: Centers for Disease Control
Two women singing: ©Blend Images
1 in 4/1 in 13: Women with a Vision

Hold Your Breath
Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue #1
Sourcebooks/Casablanca, 2016

Hollywood A-List #2

Montlake Romance, 2017