Jilly: Romantic Gestures

Romantic GesturesHappy Valentine’s Day!

What’s the most romantic gesture, real or fictional, you can think of?

Credible, lasting, loving relationships are the sine qua non of the romance genre, and we romance writers spend a lot of mental energy trying to find moving ways to show what Michaeline described so perfectly yesterday: two people who find each other beautiful, and suitable, and who listen to each other and get each other. A meeting of both minds and hearts.

The three magic words are important, but they’re an empty promise unless they’re backed by concrete, specific actions.

In real life, the evidence suggests that many people believe throwing money at their beloved is the way to go – last year the estimated retail spending on Valentine’s day in the US alone was almost $19 billion – but in fiction, at least, the reader expects more.

When I set out to write this post, I was pretty sure I thought the perfect fictional romantic gesture would be a spontaneous action by one character (probably the hero) that proves he understands the other character (probably the heroine) deeply and provides something she really needs. I still like that idea, but when I started to put together a list of examples, I also chose a couple that are more of an expression of deep emotion, potentially wildly extravagant and/or impractical. Now I’m not sure which I prefer, or whether it depends on the story.

Here are some of my favorites (spoilers abound!):

Cotillion – Georgette Heyer

The denouement of Cotillion is one of Heyer’s best (and she wrote a lot of great ones). The heroine, Kitty, has encouraged Dolph, one of the likeable-but-not-too-smart secondary characters, to escape from his domineering mother by eloping with a practical, caring, but socially unsuitable bride. Unfortunately, Kitty forgets that the couple cannot be married without a special licence. The hero, Freddy, not only figures out what Kitty is plotting and where she has gone, but he anticipates her mistake, procures the licence, and turns up in the nick of time to save the day. Kitty swoons, and so do I, every time I read that scene.

Agnes and the Hit Man – Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayer

We talked about this a lot in class at McDaniel. Agnes is rehabbing an old house, it’s too darn hot, and her air-con isn’t powerful enough; Shane the Hit Man matter-of-factly buys her an extra air conditioning unit and installs it. He thinks it’s no big deal, but it’s perfectly what she needs. Later she needs a workable bridge over her river, and he makes that happen, too. He never makes a fuss, he just quietly makes sure Agnes gets what she wants and needs. And he’s a hottie. Sigh.

Harvard’s Education – Suzanne Brockmann

In this early category romantic suspense, Suzanne Brockmann matches Harvard, a big, tough, Navy SEAL, with PJ Rogers, a tiny, tough female Government agent. They’re forced to work together because Circumstances, and although Harvard respects her abilities and comes to love her, he can’t get past his default setting that a woman, any woman, is someone who must be protected. When things get really bad, Circumstances dictate that PJ is the one who could save the day, but she could die trying. Harvard has to choose between protecting her and supporting her as she decides to take the risk. Guess which way he jumps? Right. And as he says, “This is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Supporting your beloved’s right to risk her life? That’s as romantic as it gets.

The Last Hellion and Lord of Scoundrels – Loretta Chase

In The Last Hellion, the Duke of Ainswood has infuriated his new bride, the redoubtable Miss Lydia Grenville. He sneaks into town and goes on a shopping spree to make amends, and while fabulous jewelry is involved, most of his purchases are in support of her career as a journalist and author: notebooks, a pen case and inkwell, a traveling writing box, a silver inkstand, and a papier-mâché pencil box, filled with pencils. Nobody has ever given her the tools of her trade, and as an expression of support and a declaration of love, it’s genius.

I think (maybe) I love Ainswood’s shopathon even more than Lord Dain’s purchase of an engagement ring for Jessica Trent in Lord of Scoundrels – wild horses wouldn’t drag it out of him, but he chooses a spectacular cabochon ruby because she shot him and shed his blood (which he richly deserved).

Burn for Me – Ilona Andrews

This is the first book in a new paranormal romance series and it’s killing me that publication of the sequel has been deferred until 2017. Nevada Baylor is the head of her family’s Private Investigation business. She’s forced to work with brilliant, rich, powerful Conor ‘Mad’ Rogan because Circumstances. Mostly they solve the mystery while lots of things explode and burn, but their chemistry and the snarky dialogue is fabulous. While they’re fighting and arguing, they walk past a flower stall and Rogan realizes that tough girl Nevada loves carnations. After more snark, she tells him not to bring her flowers, and the next day she wakes up to find the entire parking lot outside her house filled with thousands of carnations in planters, with red tea lights between, arranged to make one gigantic, beautiful, fragrant flower. Rogan can easily afford it, and it’s a challenge and a power play as well as a statement; Nevada gives the flowers to the local children’s hospital, but she loves it all the same, and so do I.

What I love about all these gestures, the pragmatic and the dramatic, is that in the story they are all delivered with the minimum of showboating and the maximum of dead-pan delivery. The romance is all in the action and the subtext.

So…which works for you as a romantic gesture, the air-conditioning unit or a parking lot full of flowers? Would it be greedy to say both? And do you have any favorite examples to share?

12 thoughts on “Jilly: Romantic Gestures

  1. I wasn’t the kind of girl who got flowers or chocolates. But then I met my future husband, who must have read a book somewhere about “how to woo a young American” and he came up with giant cookies and, yes, flowers. That touched me. But what really struck me in the heart was when he made a traditional craft for me with his own hands. Gosh, he was really good at crafting, and I thought he was showing me his feminine side (not really) and that he was so good with his hands (which he is!). What really, really got me going is that he’d run 40 blocks across town to spend a couple of hours with me, and then run back to his homestay. What a crazy romantic! He used both his mind and his heart (not to mention his legs and lungs!).

  2. Air conditioning or a parking lot full of flowers. Hmmm. Remember how in Faking It, there’s a constant conversation about whether men are muffins or doughnuts? Doughnuts are the guys you can’t resist at the time but who don’t look that good the next morning. Muffins are sturdier, built for the long haul. For me, the flowers in the parking lot, while yummy, are doughnut material. If I lived in Louisiana, the air conditioning unit would make me swoon, in a good way.

    In one of the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris, Sookie’s boyfriend Eric has her driveway regraveled when she can’t afford to do it herself. A handsome guy who does home improvements—-gotta love that. (I guess, see air conditioner above! 🙂 )

    • How could I have forgotten the muffin/doughnut conversation? Muffin all the way, no question. But having slept on it since I wrote the post, here’s what I’m thinking. Maybe there are times in a heroine’s life when what she needs most is a little doughnut treatment, and the perfect muffin would know that. Perhaps when she’s stood shoulder to shoulder with him, had no sleep for a week, zapped the monsters, got covered in goo, battered and bruised, and then she limps home, puts a steak on her black eye and has to chop her hair off because the goo won’t come out. Tomorrow the hero will have her back and she’ll do it all again but right at that moment maybe what she really needs is a parking lot full of flowers.

      I think a doughnut is always a doughnut, but I wonder if the ideal muffin would very occasionally, at exactly the right time, do something doughnut-worthy?

      • Ideal muffins have doughnut-like qualities. But sometimes real muffins . . . oh, boy. You try and have them do a doughnut thing, and they act like you are asking them to put on an Atom-Boy costume and do a live-action roleplay in the middle of the town square. Can you see Mr. Darcy getting all doughnutty and doing the flattery-smiley-oozy-thing like Mr. Wickham? I think Elizabeth would laugh to see it. His few minutes of earnestness are worth two hours of Wickham’s idle flirtations.

        Although Davey was certainly half-doughnut, half-muffin, and reveled in it. I think Sir Lucas from P&P was also in the half-doughnut, half-muffin (and topped with nuts) camp, too.

  3. The air-conditioner is the first thing that came to mind when I started this post. I had forgotten about the Duke of Ainswood’s shopping spree – that one is even better because not only does he give Lydia things in support of her career (which she hadn’t gotten before), but he is vulnerable in the process.

    • Very good point about the vulnerability. I think Loretta Chase is particularly good at finding the perfect romantic gesture for her characters and the story. One of the many reasons I love her writing so much.

  4. One that really sticks with me from TV is an episode of Friends, back when Monica was dating Tom Sellars. She comes home from a long shift was a waitress on Valentine’s Day to find him posing, in a tux (okay, that’s a swoon right there) on her bed, which he has strewn with rose petals.

    Another one, from real life: a friend of mine went to visit her boyfriend. When he opened the door, he was dressed in a trenchcoat and what appeared to be trousers. But when he opened his coat, he’d cut the legs off his suit pants and taped them to his calves and was otherwise nude. That’s hilarious, but also showed how much time and thought he’d put into doing something funny and off-the-wall sexy.

    • Love both those, Jeanne, but especially the real-life one. That’s fun and funny and clever and hellish sexy. He sounds like the kind of guy I’d like to write. I hope she kept him 🙂 .

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