Jilly: Love Is Not Enough. Or Is It?

Love Is Not EnoughDo you read contemporary romance? I’m playing catch-up here and I’d appreciate some help. Is the frothy, fluffy, funny love-story-only romantic comedy a popular Thing, and if so, do you enjoy it?

This month I’ve been on a contemporary romance reading mini-binge. Normally if I have time to read a new book I turn to recommendations from this blog, my bookworm friends, and other sources like the NPR Top 100 Romances list, pick the title that fits my mood, download (thanks, Amazon!), pour wine, make tea or run bath as appropriate, and dive in 🙂 .

The snag with that approach is that I’m usually looking for a change from the sub-genre I’m writing, so the title that fits my mood is rarely contemporary romance. I decided I was missing a trick, so I went on a buying spree (thanks, Amazon!), engaged kettle/corkscrew and dove in. I tried a couple of books by a successful but new-to-me author, and I’m not going to name names here because although the writing was excellent, the story was not quite what I’m used to and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t get the expected hit of emotional satisfaction when I reached the end.

I’ve been chewing it over, and I think my issue was that the significant connection between the hero and heroine and the meat of the story was the development of their love for each other. They didn’t do anything together except explore their mutual attraction, overcome their differences, and fall in love, amusingly and with lots of fabulous dialogue. As I said, the writing was of a very high standard, the story was fun, the world-building was excellent and I loved the characters. There’s no way it was an accident.

I couldn’t imagine writing this kind of romance. I’m so keyed in to the notion of goal, motivation and conflict that I felt as though I’d fallen down a rabbit-hole. It ran completely counter to the most recent craft workshop I attended – Michael Hauge’s From Identity to Essence (at RWA National). My notes from that workshop say:

chemistry alone is not enough; the hero and heroine must be forced together by something other than the love story; they must either work together or be in competition with each other.

This makes sense to me, because the characters’ behavior in a make-or-break situation (saving their puppy, their ancestral home or the world, it doesn’t matter) is what helps them to know each other deeply and gives the reader assurance that they are truly the perfect match for each other.

Now I’m wondering if the book was fine and I am the problem. Perhaps I was expecting it to be a tasty meal, when it was only ever supposed to be a frothy, delicious soufflé.

Do you read contemporary romance? Have you read any good ones lately, or do you have any favorite authors?

Do your favorite contemporary romances have a strong storyline (main plot or sub-plot, I don’t care) that supports and feeds the romance, or is the book completely focused on the love story?

16 thoughts on “Jilly: Love Is Not Enough. Or Is It?

  1. I’ve been reading some contemporaries lately. The H/H had their own goals and issues to go after, but the resolution always seemed to rely on one of them being a (reformed) jerk and the other a doormat. Once the jerk was ready to reform, no matter how badly he or she had treated the doormat throughout the book, the doormat was happy to forgive and forget, no questions asked. Not even, “How do I know this is real this time? Because you’ve yanked me around before.” I would set down the book thinking, “there’s a good predictor of their future together.” Not satisfying.

    I prefer battles of two strong-willed people with valid reason for the choices they make. I want that Joss Whedon feeling of “Holy crap, how in the world are they ever going to get out of this mess?”

    BTW–speaking of your Amazon addiction :-), I just found a boxed set of stories by Golden Heart finalists for 99 cents. There are 10 in the set, making each 9.9 cents–the true dime novel! It will be interesting to see what the ladies have come up with.

    • Hm. Doormat/jerk (even reformed jerk) wouldn’t work for me either. Like you, I’d be expecting that pattern to repeat itself in their future life, and where’s the HEA in that? The books I read, both parties were cute and smart but they had no life together in the book, so I had no mental image of their future as a couple. I love smart and funny, but yes! to battles of two strong-willed people with valid reasons for the choices they make. If anyone has any recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

      A boxed set of GH finalists for 99 cents?? That sounds like a must-buy. Off to investigate/feed my habit right now 😉

  2. I don’t bond with the love-story-only plot, either, precisely because I don’t see how the relationship works if nothing tests the relationship or helps it grow. The books where they just feel their hearts pound leave me cold. I’ve wondered if this is because I can’t write that kind of book—I’m not talented enough to write 70K, 80K, 90K words of love-is-all-there-is without a really strong subplot.

  3. Okay, I have to admit that I’m struggling here without concrete examples. I would have said that to get to 80-100K length contemporary romance, you would normally have some sort of sub-plot – or, if not as strong as a sub-plot away from the romance, then generally either H or h have some sort of life issues that need to be sorted out before they can get to the HEA.

    It’s not that I disagree with what you’re saying (any of you) – in fact, I completely agree. It’s just that I can’t think of a full-length romance that is like that – I thought that was the difference between category and non-category, to tell you the truth.

    If anyone has any examples of romances where NOTHING happens apart from the romance, I’d love to have some titles, so that I can go and check them out.

    • I think the life issues challenge is a valid alternative – something like Shopaholic? I could try to make an argument for Bet Me (love, love love that book) though Jenny said in class that the antagonist is Fate, and Min has a strong and important character arc.

      Thinking about Shopaholic took me to Bridget Jones, and that took me to Chick Lit. I think of that as a dated (?) term for fun, flirty, sex, shoes and shopping stories, but Book Bub has a whole category devoted to it and there are all kinds of stories in there. I think that’s maybe where the books I read belonged. Going to do a little more investigating 😉

  4. I am okay if the central love story is the only plot. To me, those stories feel very life-like and relate-able. Having to solve a crime or save the world or whatever can make a story exciting, but sometimes a two-people-falling-in-love story is just the thing for me. I’ll have to scour the bookshelves and see if I can come up with some concrete examples – I am drawing a blank right now.

  5. It’s been a few years since I read Harlequins. They just aren’t available here, and I don’t think to buy them when I’m looking at books. But when I did binge on them, the “love story” was really what I was reading for. I only remember one subplot about a German candy-maker who needed a translator/interpreter for some reason — something about his candy-wrapping machine. But the subplot was there to show off the heroine as a Suitable Love Interest — smart, speaks his language, etc.

    I kind of wonder, too, in a straight romance, maybe that IS the main purpose of the subplots — to show off the characters as Suitable Love Interests. They can be kind, they can be generous, they can be good with children (at least in some stories). If a writer goes too far off into the subplot area, the reader can feel that the romance part was cheated. Each romantic connection causes more sparks until they realize (through the subplots?) that they were made for each other.

    In my own writing, I get a big whiz-bang out of wonder and magic. And the puzzle finally falling in place. I think I may be more suited to writing mysteries (except I can’t plot a mystery to save my life, and I don’t like death and dying and stuff). (And by stuff, I mean blood and guts.)

    I think in another sort of romance, the real point of reading them is to see the woman win. I know that’s sexist and probably ten kinds of wrong. But, if I think about it . . . spending days at work being dismissed by the new guy because one is woman-shaped, and then coming home to teenagers who dismiss one because one is mom-shaped . . . . It seems like watching the woman win her journey with a nice trophy husband/boyfriend could be satisfying. It’s fun seeing the bathmat change her man with passive aggressive moves, and having it be The Happy Ending.

    A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer was very much in that vein. (I did enjoy it immensely, and I do recommend it.) The heroine was a bathmat. But, because she was always there and could make the perfect cup of tea, the hero finally came to see that he much preferred a married life full of comfort, instead of a married life with a dashing girl who makes everything into a drama. (And btw, he was no jerk, either.) The book seemed to imply she wasn’t a bathmat, she was bedrock. That book also had complicated subplots involving inheritance and jealousy and a love triangle, though. But the big thing was how two people connected and decided that this was how they wanted to spend their lives after all.

    • In a straight romance, I’d say the purpose of the subplots is to put the H/H under severe pressure, forcing them to make tough choices that reveal their essential selves, and demonstrating that when all the trappings are stripped away they match so well that they are The One for each other.

      A Civil Contract is really the hero’s character arc (to Rachel’s point above that sometimes the H/H have to get over their life issues in order to find happiness). I really like A Civil Contract and I don’t think the heroine was a bathmat – she had the opportunity to to get something she really wanted, took it for the best of reasons, and was prepared to live with the consequences. The fun thing about that book is that Adam, who appears to be the essence of a romantic hero, is really a solid, uncomplicated, pragmatic guy and Jenny, who appears to be a pragmatic bathmat, is deeply romantic. I love this particular combination and I think Heyer does it brilliantly (Devil’s Cub is a variation on the same theme).

        • (-: Thank goodness for the recent reprints, eh? I think Heyer wrote 40-some books, and I think I’ve only got about 15. Not sure they are all back in print.

          You know another weird one? Dorothy Sayers. I think I have all the Lord Peter Wimseys, but there’s one about advertising that sounds really good, but wasn’t in print the last few times I checked. I’m not a super-fan, so it only bothers me once every few months when I think of the books.

        • I can’t wait to hear what you make of it, Kay. It’s an outlier in many ways, but I like it a lot. I had a binge on the recent reprints and I have 30 historicals (I don’t read the mysteries). There must be 10 or 15 that I re-read frequently, and others not so much.

          Had a very random thought this morning – Jenny may be the only Heyer heroine who gets to have sex with her hero and there’s not the slightest, most oblique reference it to it in the book until she announces that she’s pregnant. Nowadays those scenes would be crucial, at least one turning point, and perhaps rightly so. I have to think physical intimacy must have played a big part in their becoming comfortable with one another. So I was sipping my coffee and wondering how I’d write it – probably Adam being gentlemanly and careful and Jenny telling him to stop making such a fuss and get on with it 🙂 .

        • What an interesting perspective! I don’t think I’d want to read their first sex scene. I’m pretty sure it happened on their honeymoon, and perhaps it was as matter-of-fact as the beginning of their relationship was. A little bit of mess and fuss graduating to fun and skinship over the course of the honeymoon. I think Heyer accomplished that whole thing just fine with the carriage conversation. A sex scene would be a little repetitive if Heyer kept the conversation, and ten times more awkward if she didn’t have them have that little conversation.

          Which gets back into the stakes thing, again. Having that convo in the bedroom would have amped up the tension and interest. But . . . would having “higher stakes” be a better book? I’m not sure.

          I’m not quite comfortable with using sex to be a revelation and a tool for communication. I mean, it is. But I think it’s better as a bit of fun bouncy-bouncy (in real life, anyway), and the real revelation and communication takes place at the kitchen table before the sex act. Sex is so fraught in novels these days . . . .

        • Fun bouncy-bouncy? 🙂 🙂 🙂 Maybe that’s an area where real life trumps fiction. I don’t think a FBB scene where the earth moved but the story didn’t would pass the McKee test 😉

        • Yeah. I don’t think a lot of realistic sex passes the McKee test. Or maybe I’m just doing it wrong . . . . Maybe I’ll suggest that to my husband sometime. “Honey, let’s move a plotline tonight.” I’m sure he would be game even for a failed experiment along those lines.

          I’m going to think a lot about this this week. Sex and making love have generally sealed the deal in my life, not initiated a new round of negotiations. But in a less structured sort of relationship, maybe the sex does happen first and maybe it does complicate things.

          (-: Not really something to discuss here, I suppose. Well, anyway, I’ll be thinking about the ramifications of that all week.

      • Poor Jenny (of A Civil Contract) just doesn’t have any agency. She does what she’s told, which seems like classic bathmat material. But Heyer is very good at showing that she does have limits. Our POV on Jenny is just distant enough that I can entertain thoughts of her plotting to steal this guy from her friend (which is what the friend thinks at times, too). She’s a deep one, Jenny is, and I think there is bedrock beneath her. Adam, the hero, is smart enough to see that, too.

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