Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Two approaches to romancing the curvy girl: Kilby Blades' THE SECRET INGREDIENT and Sierra Simone's MISADVENTURES OF A CURVY GIRL

While attending the conference of the New England Chapter of RWA last month, I overheard a writer complaining about the rise of "curvy girl" romances. Oh, this writer had no problem with romances that feature girls whose bodies do not fit the rail thin catwalk model profile; rather, she was sick of such romances that spent pages and pages focusing on the female protagonist's issues, problems, and phobias about her body size. "There are lots of women out there who are curvy and proud of it; why can't we see more of them in romance?"

I was thinking about this comment while I read two recent novels self-labeled "curvy girl" romances: Sierra Simone's Misadventures of a Curvy Girl and Kilby Blades' The Secret Ingredient (with the marketing-savvy subtitle A Curvy Girl Small Town Culinary Romance). Both novels feature heterosexual women who do not fit into the size 4-6 clothing made for a typical runway model. One book acknowledges that and then moves on without further comment; the other puts its protagonist's struggles to embrace body positivity in the face of a past history of fat policing and shaming front and center.

These two romances may take the exact opposite approach to depicting the curvy girl, but each does so for distinctly feminist reasons.

In Kilby Blades' The Secret Ingredient, celebrity chef Marcella Dawes has fled the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles for the east coast, renting a cottage on the North Carolina shore to work on her latest cookbook between seasons of taping her television show, "Cooking with Marcella." Her neighbor Max Picarelli is even more peripatetic; as a plastic surgeon, he travels the world on the dime of a nonprofit, doing reconstructive surgery for children with cosmetic birth defects. But in his downtime, Max, who has Italian roots just like his new neighbor, loves to cook, and is a secret fan of everything Marcella, whom he thinks of as "chef extraordinaire and goddess of the kitchen" (Kindle Loc 80). As Max describes her, "Marcella was everything a woman should be: all confidence and curves, and a true classic beauty to boot. He had often admired her generous proportions and everything that perfected them—those vibrant eyes, that gentle voice, and her mane of thick, dark hair" (73).

Marcella is a "curvy girl" only if one defines "curvy" as the norm, a point Blades is clear to make early in the story. As Cella thinks when comparing Max to the typical LA man, "Half the men Cella had dated had skin that was softer than hers. They were usually prettier and skinnier, too. At a size twelve, Cella was an average American women. LA was running as short on those was it was on strapping American men" (206). Advertising and media might make women believe that their curves are abnormal, too much, but Cella knows perfectly well that her size is nothing out of the ordinary. (In fact, Cella may be below the current U.S. norm: see this 2016 study).

Cella has no issues with her weight, with her body image, or with feeling desire for, or feeling desirable to, another person. The conflicts her stem from job satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, for both Cella and Max, not from any issues Cella has with her size or weight. Despite the novel's subtitle, the slow-build romance that builds between Max and Cella has nothing to do with Cella's "curviness." The subtitle is a bait-and-switch in the most positive sense, serving up a story of a woman with absolutely no problem with her size to readers using the search term "curvy girl" to find a romance.

Unlike Blades' Cella, Sierra Simone's Ireland Mills, who is white, has struggled with how to think, and feel, about her body for most of her life. Ireland isn't as skinny as a model; nor is she an "average" size twelve. Ireland's 5' 2", and wears a size 18 (Kindle Loc 102). But at the start of Misadventures of a Curvy Girl, Ireland has determined to break free from the negative thoughts about weight that her sister and her ex-boyfriend have spent years instilling in her (A girl of your size really should have shorter hair. Don't you think that's more of a "goal" outfit? But those dance classes aren't designed for people to lose weight... [65]). Fat-shaming framed as benevolence, Ireland has finally realized, is still fat shaming. And Ireland is so over it: "I was over the diets that didn't work. I was over the grueling gym schedule that left no time for fun. I was over hiding behind my friends whenever we took pictures. I was over shopping for print tunics at Blouse Barn" (Loc 81). Ireland's going to dress the way she wants, have fun the way she wants, and eat the way she wants, other people's judgments be damned. And if that means not having a boyfriend, then so be it: "I'd rather be alone than be with someone who will only love me if I'm skinny" (94).

Simone rewards her protagonist for taking this major step towards body positivity with not just one, but two handsome men who find her curves just to their liking. At a photography shoot on a Kansas farm  (Ireland prefers to be behind, rather than in front of, the camera), Ireland meets hunky farmer Caleb, who is immediately smitten: "She better get used to being pampered and taken care of, because I want to make it my life's work. And that's after only an hour together. Christ, I have it bad" (361). But Caleb is a package deal with best friend, bar owner Ben; the two, who have been besties since kindergarten, have discovered they're happiest when they love (and make love with) the same woman, together. Ireland hasn't ever really considered polyamory, but with two such kind, gorgeous, and sexy men, and her own awakened curiosity, she's quickly on board with the kink.

Erotic bliss, however, doesn't preclude emotional difficulties. Especially when Ireland discovers that her commitment to body positivity can't always withstand self-doubts and the voices of shame from her past. It takes some arguing, a break-up or two, and some honest talk by an acquaintance who doesn't buy into the "accept your body and everything will be OK" hype for Ireland to understand that body positivity isn't just about how you feel, but about what you do:

Body positivity doesn't mean you flip a switch and walk around feeling great for the rest of your life. It's not even really about feelings at all. Body positivity is about what you do. It's about daring to live your life as you are—not fifty pounds from now, not six dress sizes from now. And there are going to be days when ever bad feeling comes back for you again. When you feel all the messy, hopeless things you thought you were past feeling. Those are the days you do it anyway" (2456)

Acknowledge a character's "curviness" and move on; highlight a character's curviness and focus on her challenges and triumphs as she works to accept and enjoy her body—both methods work to convey the feminist message that while fat oppression is real, people who understand its methods can challenge the negative biases it demands far too many of us embrace.

Photo sources:
Average size comparisons: Into the Wild
Stop negative talk: Safecity

The Secret Ingredient
Luxe Publishing, 2019

Misadventures of a Curvy Girl
Waterhouse Press, 2019

A thought-provoking excerpt from Misadventures of a Curvy Girl:

     A couple of years ago, I was watching a movie with a handful of girlfriends as we traded gossip and passed around popcorn and bottles of wine. And we got to the part of the movie where the hero makes his grand gesture, chasing after the heroine and declaring his love for her. Declaring that sh was his.
     The room gave a collective groan at this, popcorn flying at the screen, and someone pronounced how utterly backward and chauvinistic is was and how she'd never be caught dead with a man who looked at her and said mine. A man who looked at her like she was a prize in the machine simply waiting to be claimed. I stayed silent. Because I wasn't going to argue that on a structural level men should act proprietary with women, and I never would. But on a personal level, well...
     It was hard to look at my friend, who was slender and sleek and would no doubt have men wanting her everywhere she went and not think easy for you to say. Her body was the kind of body that people wanted to claim, wanted to stake some kind of sexual ownership of, and mine was not—never had been, and as years of pointless diet torture had taught me, never would be.
     So it was hard not to wish I had the luxury of scoffing at male desire. It was hard to watch those movies and know that, according to them, people like me didn't have heroes chasing after them. People like me are the best friends, the comic relief, maybe even the villain.
     And in real life? In real life, the kind of male attention I received was dangerous and demeaning. Aggressive frat boys who told me I should feel "lucky" to have them fuck me and then got belligerent and nasty when I refused them. Mean men at bars who grabbed and groped and assumed I'd be grateful for the assault since clearly nobody else would ever want to touch my body.
     Girls like me, we didn't get chased, we didn't get claimed, we didn't get the happily ever after. Not in movies. Not in real life.
     And was it such a crime to want those things? (1624)

Friday, May 3, 2019

Imagining the Joys of a Progressive Political Future: Casey McQuiston's RED, WHITE, & ROYAL BLUE

Several of the workshops featured at this past weekend's "Let Your Imagination Take Flight" conference, hosted by my home chapter of Romance Writers of America, focused on "getting unstuck" and fighting writers' block. And I shared many conversations with fellow writers talking about the feeling that something is missing when we sit down to write these days, suggesting that this is an issue for many American romance authors at this particular point in history. Several colleagues pointed not to the prevalence of unpleasant weather currently plaguing America's northeast, but instead to the country's current political situation as the most likely reason why they are experiencing stress, lack of inspiration, and just plain burnout at the thought of writing about happily ever afters. It can be hard to imagine a more progressive future when you feel mired in an ever-expanding swamp of lies, constantly having to justify and defend the values, and the people, you hold dear.

Which was why it was such a joy to sit down post-conference and read Casey McQuiston's joyful but politically pointed romance comedy debut, Red, White, & Royal Blue. McQuiston originally came up with the hook-y premise for this book—the son of the American president falls for the youngest of England's royal princes—in early 2016, before the surprise of that fall's Presidential election. After said election, McQuiston herself felt blocked: "Suddenly what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek parallel universe needed to be escapist, trauma-soothing, alternate-but-realistic reality. Not a perfect world—one still believably fucked up, just a little better, a little more optimistic. I wasn't sure I was up to the task" (Acknowledgements).

I for one am amazingly grateful that McQuiston managed not to give up on this story. For rather than reading as a "tongue-in-cheek parallel universe," the love story of presidential son Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry of Wales served for me as a glorious vision of a more hopeful, progressive, and utterly achievable political future.

What does said future look like? It looks like a country willing to elect not only a female President, but a female amicably divorced from her first husband and happily married to her second. It looks like a country with two biracial first children (Mexican-American senator father, white President mother), who, with the "vaguely bisexual" granddaughter of the Vice President, serve as the country's most talked-about, and admired, twenty-somethings. It looks like a world in which the younger generation, comfortable both working and socializing in a multiracial, international, global world, serves as a model for their more cautious elders.

It also happens to look a lot like a classic enemies-to-lovers romance.

Staffers new to the White House are informed early on of three important things about FSOTUS Alex Claremont-Diaz: he lives at the White House, even though he's still in college (Georgetown is so close!); he often calls for coffee in the middle of the night while working on his college essays or his mother's reelection strategy; and he has a long-standing grudge against the youngest of Britain's royal princes.

A few years older than Alex, Prince Henry has always struck Alex as a dull stick-in-the-mud, undeserving of all the adulation and attention focused on him:

The tabloids—the world—decided to cast Alex as the American equivalent of Prince Henry from day one, since the White House Trio is the closest thing America has to royalty. It has never seemed fair. Alex's image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen; Henry's is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas. Henry's role, Alex thinks, is much easier to play.
     Maybe it is technically a rivalry. Whatever. (Loc 149)

Which is why attending the wedding of Henry's older brother is filling Alex not with delight, but with snark. As he tells elder sister June, "You can't just call him my 'arch nemesis'... 'Arch nemesis' implies he's actually a rival to me on any level and not, you know, a stuck-up product of inbreeding who probably jerks off to photos of himself" (93). And so, to the surprise of no-one, Alex can't restrain himself from taunting his "arch nemesis" during the very proper wedding reception:

The most annoying thing of all is Alex knows Henry hates him too—he must, they're naturally mutual antagonists—but he refuses outright to act like it. Alex is intimately aware politics involves a lot of making nice with people you loathe, but he wishes that once, just once, Henry would act like an actual human and not some polished little wind-up toy sold in a palace gift shop. He's too perfect. Alex wants to poke it. (229)

Poking polite Henry, however, quickly escalates into "Cakegate" (you have to read it to appreciate it), an international breach of etiquette so dire that requires major diplomatic efforts (and major acting) to patch up. As his mother's aide sternly informs Alex,

"Both sides need to come out of this looking good, and the only way to do that is to make it look like your little slap-fight at the wedding was some homoerotic frat bro mishap, okay? So, you can hate the heir to the throne all you want, write mean poems about him in your diary, but the minute you see a camera, you act like the sun shines out of his dick, and you make it convincing" (311).

All Alex is convinced of is that a person who lists his hobbies as "polo" and "competitive yachting" has about as much personality as a cabbage. But with his mother facing a challenger criticizing her for her chilly relationship with her British counterpart, Alex gives in and heads to London for a whirlwind weekend visit with his "close personal friend" Prince Henry.

Alex prides himself on his ability to read others, and is convinced that he knows all he needs to about the stuffy, dull prince before he even gets off the plane. But during their tour through charity events, television interviews, and a false-alarm assassination attempt, "he keeps getting these little glimpses into things he never thought Henry was. A bit of a fighter, for one. Intelligent, interested in other people. It's honestly disconcerting" (623).

Even more disconcerting is the friendship the two develop via text message, and occasional in-person meetings, in the ensuing months. Because while Alex prides himself on his ability to read others, his ability to understand himself could use a bit more work. Especially when it comes to his own latent attraction to a not-quite-so-proper prince.

But can the son of the American president date a British prince in the middle of a re-election campaign? Especially if mom needs to win their home state of Texas in order to guarantee a repeat?

I've quoted so often from Red, White, & Royal Blue in the above review because so much of the pleasure in this rom com comes from McQuiston's distinctive, laugh-out-loud voice, told entirely from the point of view of its hyper intelligent but emotionally clueless main character. Though the story is told in the third person, it's also told in the present tense, which gives the narration both immediacy and a certain wry distance, both of which are perfectly suited to conveying Alex's character and charm. For example, after Alex sees a picture of Henry with a "mysterious blonde," the narrator tells us "Faintly, under it all, it occurs to him: This is all a very not-straight way to react to seeing your male frenemy kissing someone else in a magazine" (1655). Or the scene where Alex is trying to figure out whether he might not be as straight as he's always assumed by calling his former (male) best friend and asking, "This might sound weird. But, um. Back in high school, did we have, like, a thing? Did I miss that?" (5485).

No romance reader will want to miss McQuiston's glorious celebration of snark, sentiment, and the progressive political possibilities of a not quite straight royal romance.

And no writer could find a better cure for political-despair-induced writers' block than McQuiston's sparkling, effervescent romance.

Photo credits:
British/US flag pin: Athletic awards
Royal wedding cake: Getty Images
Hate to Love trope sticker: RedBubble 

Casey McQuiston
St. Martins, 2019