I read a book last weekend that was passed to me by a friend of a friend. It was a romance, by an author I hadn’t read before, in a subgenre I don’t normally read. I’ve been on a fantasy/urban fantasy/steampunk kick for the last few years, with excursions into historical, paranormal and suspense. This was a contemporary romance with dashes of suspense and adventure.
My friend has high standards, so I was confident the book would be well-written. It was, but I found it enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure. The heroine and the hero were engaging, complex characters. They both had strong personalities, interesting careers, strong goals and challenging backstories. The setting was exotic and spectacular. The conflict was a little iffy, but both characters faced tough external obstacles and had to overcome some level of internal conflict in order to earn their Happy Ever After.
Sounds good, right?
What drove me nuts was that all that great stuff—careers, goals, obstacles, setting, deep backstory—was treated like wallpaper. It seemed to be there for decoration, to provide a beautiful and meaningful backdrop for the H&H’s interactions. It didn’t drive the action in any way. The author threw the H&H together and then focused almost exclusively on their relationship in the now. They discovered personal chemistry, spent a lot of time together, grew intimate, fell in love, broke up because Circumstances, got back together and lived happily ever after. The end.
I felt cheated and cranky, because the book could have been so much more. I was happy that the romance was the spine of the story, but I wanted to see the main characters grow together as they pursued their careers, came to terms with their backstories and overcame their obstacles, external and internal. I wanted them (or at least the heroine) to grow and change. By the end of the book I wanted to be able to picture every aspect of their future life together, not just their intimate one-on-ones.
I spent a while thinking about this after I’d finished feeling grumpy. The book was a full-length single title romance, but it read like a super-long category story (a Harlequin, or equivalent, typically around 50-60k words, where the focus is very tightly on the main couple). It was technically well-written and the author was clearly no dummy, so I assume she made a deliberate choice to structure the book that way. Which means that particular blend is what she personally likes, or that she believes there are readers out there who prefer this recipe.
I haven’t read a story like this in years, and I don’t feel minded to seek out more of the same, but I’m curious. Have you read anything with this kind of structure? Is it a Thing? Do you think there are readers out there who just want to see the H&H on the page together and want the bare minimum of other story elements?
As a reader and a writer I look for a more complete picture. I want to know about every important aspect of these characters’ lives. How about you?