So, first the most exciting news I had all week: Lois McMaster Bujold’s new Penric novella, Mira’s Last Dance came out this week (February 27th and 28th) on all the usual e-outlets! And it was fantastic! If you were left hanging a little bit by Penric’s Mission, then you’ll be pleased to hear that the story picks up from that point, and we get one lovely episode of courtship via political intrigue, escape and a brothel. That Penric is a delightful travelling companion, and I recommend the journey.
I’m not going to spoil you, though – Bujold reports that the novella is 28,000 words, which is perfect for a large pot of tea and an afternoon on the sofa. Spoil yourself.
What I am going to talk about is something that Mira said in the book. She’s the . . . well, the ghost/image of an Adrian courtesan who is part and parcel of the past lives that make up Desdemona. (Desdemona is the demon in Penric’s head.) She has a very clear and pragmatic view of sex and love, and mentions at one point,:
“The darling men used to imagine they’d fallen in love with me all the time. Most of them were actually in love with their own cocks.”
Ah, yes. And thus, genitalia doth betray us all.
Unless we are spectacularly lucky, and the good sex is accompanied by someone who has compatible interests, similar life goals, and a certain willingness to be flexible when time (the bastard) brings changes to all our plans. In addition, that someone will be unwilling to abandon a good investment. And of course, as heroes in our own love stories, we better bring matching qualifications.
A lot of the romance that I like struggles with this problem. In Jennifer Crusie’s Faking It, the heroine and hero have sexual problems until the air is cleared and they know that they respect each other’s worst aspects/darkest secrets.
On the other hand, I’ve read (and forgotten the titles of) countless romances where the guy is impossible, or the girl is impossible, but they wind up with a happily-ever-after because of spine-tingling kisses that sweep them over the edge of desire (yes, this kind of romance often wafts in on a cloud of purple prose). Oh, I remembered one such story: Pillow Talk. It was a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie, and while it was a lot of fun, the character Rock Hudson played was a real jerk. Mr. Right-Now, because I’m sure after a few years, the “hero” would be cheating, and the heroine would either be drinking, divorcing or both.
As David Bowie* sang, “She’s uncertain if she likes him, but she really, really loves him.” Bleh, lord help us. Not the kind of guy you want to buy a house with.
The very lovely His Girl Friday with Cary Grant (playing Walter Burns) and Rosalind Russell (as Hildy Johnson) is another romance along this model. It’s got great, snappy dialog, a sizzling chemistry, and a powerhouse plot that drives the two lovers into each other’s arms. I’m not quite sure, though, if Walter is following his cock, or his keen editor’s sense of who is going to deliver great news for his newspaper. Probably both, which is one reason why the story works. In a romance, we want to think there’s something else there besides physical attraction, and these two seem to match up nicely.
Unfortunately, I think they are going to wind up divorced in a few years, too. They are both lovely people, but even though Walter appreciates The Best Sex Ever as well as his honey’s intelligence and smarts, he doesn’t appreciate her homey side – the part where Hildy yearns for a little peace and quiet and a white picket fence. Hildy herself is overwhelmed by The Best Sex Ever, as well as having a conversational partner who can keep up with her. She seems willing to settle, for now, for a guy with no domestic side to him at all. The things that broke them up in the first place are still in place. It’d take major brain trauma to change Walter into the kind of guy Hildy can build a family with – and major brain trauma is also a major minus in the husband lottery. There’s a lot of tragedy underlying this comedy.
I don’t know how Penric’s love story is going to wind up, but he isn’t a jerk, and neither is his love antagonist, Nikys. The demon Desdemona has great potential for being a huge, world-altering sort of jerk, but she, too, has a practical side, and also seems so very, very fond of Pen. Her actions, like any good sidekick in a romance, are under control, so she adds spice to mixture, not plot-crumbling agitation.
As you can see, I’m still wrestling with the whole idea of Best Sex Ever and what it means in a romance. Mira’s right – a lot of people listen to their genitals when it comes to romance, those biological barometers of love and lust. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but a good romance is going to pay attention to a lot of different sliding scales, not just the ones played in the bedroom scenes.
*David Bowie sang that phrase in “Drive-In Saturday” where kids of the future don’t know how to have sex, so try to learn it from old movies. “His name was always Buddy.” From YouTube — a live version from the Harty interview, if I’m not mistaken. Those of you who have met Mira — note the raw red hair, not a lovely henna’d auburn (of the Low period, I naughtily add. My DB obsession continues only slightly abated).