Jilly: Resisting Holiday Romances

Are you a Happy Holidayer? I suspect I’m the token Grinch among the Ladies. While my fellow bloggesses are decorating their homes with emotionally significant ornaments, baking seasonal treats, and recommending feelgood stories, I’m counting the days till it’s all over.

This week we’ve been chatting among ourselves about the Hallmark Channel’s holiday programming, aided and abetted by this article from slate.com, and this review of A Princess for Christmas (Sam Heughan!) on smartbitchestrashybooks.com. I have to confess that even reading these intelligent and amusing pieces sent me screaming in search of Dorothy Parker, or Saki, or EF Benson.

Our discussion did, however, make me examine why Christmas stories make me froth at the mouth. It’s not intellectual snobbery or political correctness. I love genre romance. I adore fantasy and fairy tales. I seek out happy endings, and I’m a sucker for community. I prefer tales told with intelligence and wit, but while that might rule out some of the more saccharine offerings, it should still leave me open to classics like Michaeline’s suggestion, Christmas in Conneticut. Nope, not even that.

I always thought I read romance for the kindness, the community and the hit of happy. This week I realized there’s another huge reason: many romances (and all the ones I love best) involve defying expectations and resisting peer pressure.

Contemporary romance? Bet Me, Jenny Crusie’s best-loved book, has a heroine whose mother browbeats her relentlessly about her voluptuous figure and enjoyment of food, and a hero whose family shame him as a failure because he refused to become a lawyer and join the family firm. Crazy For You stars a small-town heroine who decides to break up with the local football coach/community good guy, and most of the town conspires to hamper her efforts to free herself.

Historical romance? Pride and Prejudice, of course: Darcy and Lizzy confound the expectations of society and their families to find true happiness and inspire thousands of society-defying Dukes and Governesses, Earls and ServingMaids, or Marquesses and Courtesans. Not to mention Highlanders and noble English lasses.

Paranormal romance? Usually it’s an inter-species problem, or a wholly unacceptable immortal-and-human relationship. Facing down community disapproval is as powerful as overcoming cultural misunderstanding. Twilight. Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series. Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate. Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunters.

Romantic suspense? Undercover cop and Mafia princess. Marine and kid sister of his best friend.

These kind of storylines are my catnip. I couldn’t tell you whether it’s nature, nurture, or both, but in my personal life I strongly dislike being told what to do and I loathe the idea that I should do anything simply because people expect it. I’ll give to charity all year round on my own terms, but please don’t instruct me to put on a silly costume for a national once-a-year telethon because everyone’s doing it. Turkey and carols on Christmas Day? No, thank you. Cards and gifts on Valentine’s Day? Not a chance. White dress and a veil for my wedding? What do you think?

So I’m thinking that my problem with these harmless holiday hits of happy is that they reward characters for conforming to expectation. You might call it celebrating tradition. I’m not convinced. The characters discover that the conventional choice is the route to true happiness, which is the opposite of the romance storylines I love.

It’s not about one lifestyle being better than another. I’m thrilled if the career girl decides to give up her highly paid job in favor of growing roses as long as that’s what she truly wants to do. If she’s under severe pressure from her boss and co-workers to stay in the city and keep the company afloat but she dreams of mulch and dead-heading, then going home would be the convention-defying choice. I’ll be right beside her when she sells her fancy apartment and takes the bus back to the farm.

What do you think? Am I on to something, or just being a Holiday Humbug?

And if you have any suggestions for excellent nonconformist romance, I’d love to hear ‘em. I’ll need a new book or ten to get me through the rest of this year 😉

12 thoughts on “Jilly: Resisting Holiday Romances

  1. I hear you on the Grinch aspect of Christmas. The holiday is beyond over the top, and as someone who goes back to Wisconsin when the temperature expects to dip below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, I can speak with energy if not enthusiasm about family expectations or obligations during what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year.

    But I tend to see holiday romances a little differently. Many people seek out books that tie into their personal events. So, for example, if they are planning a vacation in New Orleans or New York, they might read romances or mysteries or travelogues or whatever that are written by authors from those cities or who situate their stories in those cities. Or if they are grieving someone, or perhaps a pet, readers might seek out novels or nonfiction that deal with that. And Christmas romances can fill a need when people want to read about whole families.

    Christmas romances, I agree with you, tend to celebrate the traditional, and that can be a bit tiresome for those of us who do not live a conventional, romance-novel lifestyle. But I think that some holiday romance readers are not looking to reaffirm traditional values as much as they are looking for stories of family resolution and togetherness at a time when their own families might be fractured, as many families are these days. It’s the same reason people read romance all year round—they want that hit of happy—but during the holidays, some readers might have an especially sharp desire to feel that families can be made whole again, precisely because the holiday marketing celebrates that so much.

    I’ve been trying to think of an unconventional holiday romance, but when challenged to think of titles, I tend to pull my head back into my shell. I’m coming up blank. Perhaps I’ll visit my friend Google and see if I come up with any ideas.

    ETA: I don’t remember the title, but years ago I read this great romance in which a bunch of people, some of whom I believe were hookers, got stuck in a train station in a small town during a snow storm when the trains stopped running. They made a party out of it. I think a couple was involved. I remember the hookers. I believe there were sequins.

    • ETA: how about these? I haven’t read them, but they might suit you.

      Holiday in Death by JD Robb. Holiday in Death revolves around a serial killer and his use of the “12 Days of Christmas” imagery. Eve Dallas goes after the bad guy while grumping about holiday shopping for too many friends.

      The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig. Turnip (!!) Fitzhugh shares little in terms of looks or intelligence with the average romance hero, but you root for him anyway. Turnip’s love interest, Arabella, is strong and spirited without overwhelming him.

      • Thanks for this. I’m not sure about Holiday in Death–I read the first couple of In Death books and while I enjoyed Eve and Roarke, I found the mysteries a little violent for my taste.

        I’ll definitely check out The Mischief of the Mistletoe. I met Lauren Willig at the RWA book signing a couple of years ago–she was lovely–and I enjoyed the first book in her Pink Carnation series (recommended by Rachel Beecroft, who’s a huge Lauren Willig fan). An atypical hero! Called Turnip! This, I have to read. Thank you again!

      • So I read The Mischief of the Mistetoe yesterday and really enjoyed it. A historical romp/caper, very witty, and fun, and kind. I think you’d like it a lot, Kay. The story is set at Christmas, but that just provides seasonally-themed plot opportunities (101 uses of a Christmas pudding!) and the characters are nicely society-defying. Recommended!

    • Thanks for these kind and wise comments–now I feel glad for Christmas romances! There are a gazillion romantic sub-genres because readers seek out the story elements that speak to them. I’m clearly not the audience for these stories, but if they give pleasure and comfort to other readers or watchers, that can only be a good thing.

      Having said that, I’d be all over a hookers-and-sequins-in-the-snow story. That sounds fun! I’m a little scared to google for that book, but if you happen to remember the title or author, please share!

      • I googled but could not find. Smart Bitches has that feature where people who can’t remember a book from long ago submit what they recall and ask if anyone remembers it. Maybe I should submit this!

        • Please do–I imagine there are a lot of us who are up for a hookers and sequins Christmas.

          And now I want to see Jilly’s wedding pictures.

        • Fingers crossed that they publish your request, and that the Bitchery knows the answer, Kay!

          Re. my wedding–that was long, long ago and in a galaxy far, far away. The location was grittily urban, the ceremony short and sweet. The bride wore a knee-length blue-and-gray striped silk dress and a natty blue hat. Getting married was good, but our adventures together over the following 30-something years have been even better 🙂

  2. I think what I like about Christmas stories is the whole Christmas-ex-machina aspect. A lot of mysterious things happen just because it’s Christmas. There’s extra pressure, there are people running around in costumes pretending to be elves or reindeer, people must get out of the house (sometimes even when they really shouldn’t), and there are also a ton of family pressures. Plus, there’s a very strong tradition of the supernatural — ghosts come back to haunt us, stars show up in the sky, mysterious guests drop by, gifts and powers just appear, and people don’t tend to bat an eye.

    I guess what I don’t like about Christmas stories are when they deliberately tug my heart strings without really giving me a reason for loving the characters. Also, I don’t like it when everything just drops into the characters’ laps without some hard work. I may be missing some shorthand for hard work, though, which means some Christmas stories just pass me by, but stick in others’ hearts.

    I guess the biggest thing is that Solstice is such a dark and cold time of year for us up here. I want something warm and fuzzy and just a bit over the top. I’m kind of lucky that I avoid the worst of Christmas pressures. Actually, I go to work on Christmas Day, so we won’t even have a turkey and all that to worry about.

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