When the HEA Takes a Village: Community, Connection & Romance Dude Groups (part 1)

lovely new cover/sorta silly series about a club for tall, dark & duke-ly war veterans who need a “last bastion” against marriage and “matchmaking mamas”

The lone hero, the lonely spinster, and what happens when they end up in a dude group romance?

What is your favorite term for brotherhoods in romance? Romance series built around a group of badass heroes – a man tribe, a dude group, a wolf pack – are so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable these days. There are aspects of the trope which have, rightfully, been skewered for being OTT silly (secret societies, saving the planet – or England – from evil villains bent on world domination, saving each other from “matchmaking mamas” …. Stephanie Laurens/Black Cobra & Bastion Club series, I’m looking at you…).

But the “band of brothers” structure remains a mainstay, for numerous reasons, many of them quite sensibly and pragmatically publishing/marketing related. When it moves beyond structure, however, in series where brotherhood, or a sense of “all for one and one for all”  is a fully explored theme and trope, the dude group becomes more interesting. And here, I’m thinking of some of my most favorite histrom series – Jo Beverley’s legendary Company of Rogues, or Sarah MacLean’s newer Fallen Angels.

In the hands of a thoughtful and nuanced author, a series centered on a dude group explores a powerful and appealing kind of intimacy that is, yes, about entering the “unknown” world of male friendship (for female readers), but also about the bonds of community and clan that transcend both romance and bromance and offer a vision of collective and communal problem-solving, emotional support, and practical assistance.  For me, this vision, utopian and unlikely as it may be, is often as appealing and satisfying as the HEA. In connected books series as different as Kit Rocha’s dystopian O’Kane chronicles (the Beyond series) and the aforementioned Rogues series, for example, it may take a village to raise a happy couple.

The fate of the individual

I have been pondering my taste for “clannish” communities in romance for several weeks now in light of a recent twitter conversation and a thoughtful  post by Laura Vivanco exploring romance fiction’s preference for protagonists, of both genders, who demonstrate “inner strength” and overcome adversity without being “whiny.”  Laura’s focused here more on the question of whether the genre offers space for characters who complain, or fail, or rail against fate and ill-fortune, than on themes of community. But she notes the connection between romance conventions – valorization of  resilience in order to achieve the HEA – and social pressure, especially for men, to repress complaint and personal emotions, bear up under internal conflict or external woes, and prevail against all odds, without showing weakness or dependence.

It’s possible I’m reading too much in here, but I was quite struck by the idea that the genre expresses a revealed preference for protagonists who are (a) unusually uncomplaining and resourceful and (b) independent go-it-alone-ers.

I often feel as though society, and consequently romance novels, take a very individualised view of personal success and failure which discourages social and economic critique. (Laura Vivanco, “Being Admirable, Repressing Complaint” posted April 15, 2014)

This makes sense when you consider many favored hero and heroine archetypes, from the embittered but valiant ex-soldier to the indomitable impoverished spinster (both of these types can be found in both contemporary and historical incarnations). Yes, all romances must have conflict, and one or both protagonists usually faces, and overcomes, seemingly insurmountable external challenges of one kind or another — severe financial hardship, physical or emotional trauma, bereavement, imminent danger, blackmail, estrangement, or an imperiled reputation…this is the stuff of which heroes and heroines are made. It really doesn’t seem as if there is any space for whiners, but I do think the romance genre offers space for some of its stoic protagonists to suffer in community, and to receive support.

The power of community

I don’t know what percentage of romance novels involve the hero and/or heroine relying on help from a strong community, but I do know that this is a theme that appeals to me, so I read a lot of them. A lot of the books that do this are dude group series. Along about the time I came across Laura’s wonderful post, I was also happily enmeshed in Jo Beverley’s newest Rogues romance, A SHOCKING DELIGHT, which further fueled my musings. I’ll write more about this book, and how the village of Rogues helps the romance along, in a part 2 post.  For now, I just want to throw some ideas at the wall like spaghetti. In terms of the importance of community to the outcome – the HEA – I’m not just talking about the sidekick secondary characters who help with logistics or clearing up the Big Misunderstanding. I’m talking about books where the friendships are as interesting and important (even if not receiving as much of the page count) as the central romance, and/or series where the family tree or secret club are meaningful elements of the emotional arc of the story, not just superficial hooks.

Strength in sisterhood: the Rarest Blooms series

Sometimes, it’s a band of sisters, not brothers, and the community is powerful in less obvious ways.  I’m grateful to tweeps @JanetNorCal and @_Marijana_ for helping me remember the Rarest Blooms series by Madeline Hunter.  The Blooms are female Rogues, in a sense, banding together to support one another through difficult times, and to serve as resource, rescuers and refuge. In the context of a historical romance, any such effort by women is necessarily going to be subversive inasmuch as it may involve challenges to the existing social order. Hunter’s protagonists live communally in a remote country village, supporting themselves with a nursery/floral business, and if I am remembering this right, they are each, for one reason or another, basically in hiding from the patriarchy in one guise or another (lack of financial stability/legal rights, an abusive male family member, or a trauma history). Here’s Dabney’s DIK review of DANGEROUS IN DIAMONDS for AAR, which reminded me that the Blooms series also touched on themes of class conflict and economic critique by exploring businesswoman Daphne’s and ducal libertine Tristan’s reactions to being swept up in labor riots.

Over on twitter, I linked to Laura’s post and a brief discussion ensued in which Donna Thorland proposed that story=suffering and referenced classical drama and the narrative hero arc.  This exchange with Laura and Donna raised all kinds of interesting questions for me about how characters suffer, whether certain modes of suffering “earn” the HEA, and whether the hero/ine must always “go it alone” in order to prevail. (I tried Storify for the first time in hopes of getting the tweets in coherent order, but I have no idea how to embed it so it’ll just have to be a link.)

Historical romance is certainly full of lonely protagonists who suffer their woes stoically, and also flawed heroes/heroines who must tread an individual path to redemption. I’m struck, though, by how many series are structured around communities that, I think, do act in small yet meaningful ways to challenge the status quo, whatever that may be given the setting of the narrative. I need to think more about this, and look more closely at some examples to figure out how these clannish (some are literally family clans, as in Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series, or JoBev’s epic Mallorens) communities become more than window dressing or a series framing device.

I’d love to hear about other favorite dude group series, and especially some contemporary/fantasy ones. The Black Dagger Brotherhood has been in the back of my mind since J.R. Ward so clearly set out to write a community of brothers and the books are as much about the friendships as about the individual couples nominally at the center of each one. Where else do you find this? Do you think HEAs that get embraced by a strong community are (more?) satisfying in some way? Or is this whole dude group thing just overused?

 

 

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22 thoughts on “When the HEA Takes a Village: Community, Connection & Romance Dude Groups (part 1)

  1. Laura Vivanco says:

    The mention of a “strong community” and the “it takes a village” title suddenly reminded me of Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna (1619). The whole plot’s outlined here but basically there’s an aristocrat who arrives in the village of Fuenteovejuna and is prone to raping village girls. He threatens the central lovers by lusting after the female half of the couple. Eventually the villagers kill him and when the forces of law and order come to investigate the crime, the whole village sticks to the line that Fuenteovejuna killed him. So the village has taken collective revenge and the King and Queen pardon the village.

    What’s interesting about this is that the central lovers and their community are commoners. They really don’t have a lot of power and they face a lot of danger by taking action. Individually, they’re maybe not very heroic in the “larger than life” sense and it’s probably only their solidarity in standing together as a community which saves them. That makes them rather different from the romance novel aristocratic secret societies/families you mention in this post.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Wow – that is a great story! I love the theme of solidarity, and I do think this is one reason I gravitate to romances which involve ties of kinship and/or friendship. I think you’re right to note the difference between a group that supports the romance couple and fights the villains, and a group that stands together *against the status quo* and this is one of the distinctions I’m trying to puzzle out by casting around for different examples. It may be that the series with female “villages” do more to explore and/or advance a (limited) social or economic critique, partly to satisfy modern readers within the constraints of the historical setting. And the issue of class cuts across in ways that are important to unpack — in Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series, for example, the village acts collectively, but I would need to reread in order to tease out the dynamics between the village women and the aristocratic ladies who seek refuge there.

      Thank you so much for your thought-provoking post! As you can see, these musings and conversations have been stuck in my head for quite a while as a result, and I so enjoy the opportunity to discuss!

      • Laura Vivanco says:

        “a group that stands together *against the status quo* ”

        I’ve been thinking about this too and the examples I could think of were Beverley Jenkins’ Belle when a slave-catcher is himself captured, by a crowd. I think the group had gathered on the border of the US and Canada and he manages to get himself onto the Canadian side so he’s legally in the wrong and can be dragged off for punishment. Another example is Emilie Richards’ Dragonslayer where the heroine, hero and many others work together to try to stop gang violence and turn a community around.

        What appealed to me about these was the relative powerlessness of the protagonists, and the way in which it’s only collective action (not necessarily led exclusively/primarily by the main couple) which can change things. They’re also much larger groups than the groups composed of past-and-future heroines/heroes.

      • pamela1740 says:

        Yes, it narrows the field considerably if we look for romance novels where the collective action/community support is broader than a group of friends or family, eg. an entire village. So I guess I’m really talking about/interested in two different (sometimes intersecting) modes of community expression.

  2. This is a terrific and thought-provoking post that gives me all kinds of plot bunnies I am going to ignore completely. for now.

    The series it made me think about immediately is Amy Lane’s contemporary m/m romance Promise Rock series. I’m going to mess this up because I haven’t had any caffeine yet, but I’ll try to make my thoughts coherent. 🙂

    In Amy Lane’s series, Promise Rock (a physical rock, where many wedding, both gay and straight, end up being performed) anchors a family built around a ranch, that is also isolated within the larger community. The family is comprised of friends, lovers, spouses, men and women, who come together both emotionally and physically (many people end up living on the ranch at one point or another) for support. Although there is definitely that “I am stoic and will suffer silently and alone” attitude in many of the heroes at first, they are nearly *always* forced to confront the fact, usually by their friends/lovers sitting them down and making it clear, that they cannot go it alone. Frequently this happens after they’ve been laid low by their own inability to go on without support (e.g. one becomes an alcoholic, more than one gets shot on the police/military job, etc.). Many of her heroes also have an emotional breakdown at some point. My thoughts aren’t clear yet on how much of this is more easily written about in gay romance because the range of choices allowed your characters is greater. Maybe it’s easier to write a hero who loses it in the hospital and weeps over not being strong enough to keep going, if his lover doesn’t get make it through surgery, if you’re not confined by typical hetero gender roles.

    The other interesting facet to the series is that this really tight, supportive community is set in rural California, so they are surrounded by a larger community that is generally NOT supportive of them. There are occasional bright lights, but the Promise Rock clan more frequently encounter people like the school official who doesn’t want to honor one particular returning Iraq War vet at the Homecoming football game because the veteran is gay, or police more likely to harass than protect. But Amy Lane uses that dynamic to portray Promise Rock as a sort of lighthouse for the community, a safe place for those who feel othered and they draw in family new members throughout the series from wildly different walks of life. Runaways, siblings, friends, many of whom aren’t comfortable with the gay at first, but are drawn so strongly to the sense of family that they learn to see open their hearts and minds.

    It’s a terrific series, and now I want to go reread all the books! Also, maybe, start plotting something. Your post is just inspiring! Thanks for writing it. 🙂

    • pamela1740 says:

      You are raising a very important point about differing masculinities and whether the queering of the romance hero permits him more space to express a full range of emotions/response to adversity.I am very intrigued, and thrilled to have the Promise Rock rec, which seems to also point to a sense of community which is expressed as a group of close friends, but also, because they are, as you say, othered, they’re standing against the status quo in their larger community just by being who/what they are. Thanks for the wonderful comment, and glad you are having a spate of productive plotting.

  3. Full disclosure: there is a dude group in my PNR series and I’ve written a historical in which I’m told family love plays as large a role as romantic love, so obviously I enjoy these elements, but I am clearly biased.

    My feeling is that male and female groups and families and communities enhance the story when they serve the story–and if you are working with the classical definition of drama, then to serve the story they have to serve the conflict, because story=conflict. Madeline Hunter’s blooms are a great example because the other women in the group act as heralds, threshold guardians, and mentors to the heroines. That’s what gives the community the blooms have formed emotional resonance and power.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I love the idea of the threshold guardians. And I agree, these series only work for me when the kith/kin relationships are fully fleshed out with emotional resonance. Thanks again for the tweets which in part inspired me to muse on these clannish themes, and how they draw me in.

  4. A community helps the h/h be unconventional and/or thumb their nose at society. The hero who marries the actress still has a welcoming social circle and family despite the sticklers turning their backs. The embittered, PTSD war heroes bond over the shared experience no one else knows or understands, particularly when those on the “Home Front” who think they can get over the war now that it’s over.

    • pamela1740 says:

      That’s a great point, about the challenge of being unconventional, and how a community of acceptance creates its own kind of HEA which can be pretty powerful.

  5. colorlessblue says:

    I’m drawn towards these series built around a group of people too, but I never took time to analyse why. I just tend to binge on an author once I decide to like them, and series are a nice way to do that.
    Now that I’m thinking, though, I’m thinking it’s not just the dudegroup aspect of it. Even in the Rogues books you mention, I remember one of my favorite parts was the female friendships. The books were built around the dudes, but every new woman who came into the group was developed bonds with the others. I especially liked how one wife became best friends with her husband’s ex-mistress.
    Also, the old society dragon. I always love that character, who’s old and badass and says whatever she wants, scaring the younglings, but always ends up helping with advice or using her influence to kill a scandal.
    Lauren Dane wrote some of my favorite group-series, both in fantasy (Witches’ Knot series, more than one series of werewolves/shifters packs) and contemporary (Brown Siblings/Delicious, Chase Brothers/Petal Georgia). I also love Victoria Dahl’s small town stories (the Donovan Brothers, Tumble Creek and Jackson series.)

    • pamela1740 says:

      It’s so true that the female friendships formed among the heroines in a dude group series can be equally compelling – as long as it’s not too heavy-handed and forced. It does strain credulity a bit sometimes when the womenfolk are all instant best friends just by virtue of being the mates of the dudes. This can work very well when it’s organic, and enough time is devoted to showing small moments and interactions upon which intimacy depends — and I agree the Rogues series is a great example.

      Many thanks for the great comment, and for the tantalizing array of contemporary and fantasy recommendations!!

  6. As as reader, I’m not generally a fan of series. They too often feel like an author has just taken the easies way to getting the next book out and that generating sequel revenues is the order of the day. I guess most readers love them, so I can understand why they are popular with authors. Dude groups in historical romance particularly annoy me, because creating and sustaining them will usually put the author in great, and as the series goes on, increasing, risk of violating historical fact and cultural norms of the time and place, and thus breaking the readers ability to suspend disbelief and stay in the story. That said, I think that one modern dude group, Rachel Gibson’s Chinooks hockey books, has a lot to offer. The modern setting reduces the burden of history on the story line’s plausibility, and there is a real feeling and continuous band and bond at the center.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Yay! I was hoping/wondering if anyone would chime in with an opposite view of the dude group. It’s true that the sequential-hero structure may drive the whole thing. I think it can work in the historical setting if done carefully but it’s certainly true it’s more difficult to show collective action that challenges patriarchal norms without running the risk of anachronism.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and for the Gibson recommendation! I could learn to follow hockey, I suppose, if the books are good… 🙂

  7. Susan says:

    Aha! Who knew I would find something to say about Debbie Macomber’s community of Cedar Cove! Not a badass in sight, but there is a strong, closely knit community with shared values that is responsible for the HEA. On two occasions the family court judge issues unconventional rulings that bring a divorcing couple back together. Heterosexual, reproductive married love is the highest form of expression and every relationship (in books with perhaps six couples making their way) has an “interfering” member of the community to give them a nudge. For those past childbearing years, there are many relationships providing “second chance at love”, but the community provides a context for relationships to spark and develop. This all sounds very straight and conventional, but clearly there is something that is compelling me through this series.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Aha! that’s so interesting…so are you thinking it’s the sense of community that is keeping you going, even though you might otherwise find the books individually less compelling?

  8. […] When the HEA Takes a Village: Community, Connection & Romance Dude Groups (part 1) – Pamela wrote about guy groups in romance and how they create a sense of community. Good stuff as usual. […]

  9. Good post!
    My favorites are Jo Goodman’s Compass Club, Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels (love Waterloo heroes) and the three friends in Nora Robert’s Key trilogy. In all of these stories the men have known each other since childhood where they formed bonds of friendship and family. A sort of “whatever needs to be done” attitude that is pervasive throughout their lives, they’re very loyal to each other. Often for me the romance with the heroine is incidental. I love reading about the friendships and how they support each other to the end goal re “getting the girl” and solving the conflict. The “man club” trope is my catnip, though some have been disappointing to say the least. Jo Beverley’s Rogue’s are hit and miss (that Nicholas, head rogue is a superior dude), but I’ve enjoyed the rogues very much. Laurens’ Cynsters clan (Devil Cynster is a hoot), Bastions (loved the first book) and the truly awful Cobras were less satisfying. Often TSTL.
    Loosely connected, but I think they also bring in a sense of community are series like Mary Balogh’s Bedwyns and Beverley’s Mallorens. Strong male bonds within a large family and what I really like is the total acceptance of their sisters who go against society’s idea of what is appropriate as young debutantes. So much of the historical romance line is “conforming to the male idea of femininity”, I like it when eccentric females are supported unconditionally by their menfolk.
    I know I’m going to be thinking about this all day.
    Thanks again for another great post.

    • pamela1740 says:

      “I like it when eccentric females are supported unconditionally by their menfolk.” So well said! I love that aspect of a good dude group series.

  10. melmalcolmburns says:

    I hate wordpress!!! I commented and when I had to effing log in….poof…there went my comment!

    • pamela1740 says:

      Really sorry that happened to you – comment fail is the WORST. I found your comment in moderation though, I think, so you should be able to see it. Thanks so much for the reminders about Jo Goodman and Mary Jo Putney – I would love to look at those groups again.

  11. Nicola O. says:

    I’m sure I could be proven wrong, but I feel like Putney popularized the Dude Group with the Fallen Angels series. That was right around the turning point in romance where the hero started to become 3-dimensional, and was allowed to have a point of view and internal narration.

    I like the Dude Groups and the series myself, up to a point. I somewhat prefer a well-done series with a series arc, rather than just a collection of loosely connected characters, like Laurens’ Cynsters. But the series arcs can run the risk of feeling manipulative or anticlimactic, so it’s a fine line to walk. I feel like series in general work better in UF with more continuity of character, but there are always exceptions.

    Say what you will about JR Ward, but she manages the series arcs pretty well, IMO. Her BDB books remind me of soap operas, where there are always at least three arcs in different stages of anticipation/resolution. I think it’s a smart marketing strategy to avoid the where-do-we-go-from-here effect.

    Great post. I love the conversations here.

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