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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Sex and the Single Girl: The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers

Do single people read romance stories differently?

I can hardly remember the last time I read a contemporary romance. So when I started seeing all the buzz on Twitter about The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers, I was mainly letting it flow around and by me.  But many bloggers and authors I really admire and respect just kept saying such amazing things about this novella.  Literally dozens of 5 star reviews on Goodreads. And then there was a giveaway (an easy one, that didn’t involve rafflecopter, thankfully!) … Well,  I was intrigued enough to toss my twitter handle in, and I won a copy — or more accurately,  a download. It’s a Loveswept e-release, currently available for only 99 cents, but still – free is pretty fun.

And it turns out, The Story Guy is … well, pretty damn fun, if you’re in the mood for a well-written quick read featuring “…a good guy with a bad story doing something stupid.”

The Guy: Brian Newburgh, bicyclist-thighed federal contracts attorney; lonely and looking for love but with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to a relationship, he begins a quirky (or bizarre, depending on how you feel about personal ads) series of semi-anonymous, semi-public, time-limited weekly encounters for “kissing only.”  In trying to decide whether to label Brian a badass or not, I’ve decided he’s kind of an alphabet soup hero — he shows both his alpha and his beta sides during the course of this unusual courtship. He’s a Story Guy — if you like his story, you may think he’s kind of a badass for loving so fiercely, and he’s got a protective kinda possessive streak that shows to great advantage when we see him act with ruthless tenderness in a big “reveal” scene near the end of the book.

The Gal: Carrie West, self-assured and accomplished librarian with goals and ambitions, at 35 she feels overly single watching her friends pair off and start thinking about babies. She’s an interesting combination of self-awareness and denial, and because the entire story is told in her voice, there’s an interesting play between her authenticity and unreliability as a narrator.

The Tropes: Angsty, Tortured Hero With Secret; Sexy Librarian; Epistolary Romance (IM’ing, texting, phone sex); Love At First Sight; Sexy Stranger.

Yes, there is a lot of Sexy in this powerful little book. The eroticism is a key element of this couple’s journey of mutual discovery; it feels authentic and integral, though I confess to a preference for the sexy conversations and encounters with perhaps fewer descriptions of sensory details (all five) involving gussets and moistness.

The Setting: A large Midwestern U.S. city with a federal building, nice parks with pergolas, and a great library system.

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads:

The Story Guy (Novella)

In this eBook original novella, Mary Ann Rivers introduces a soulful and sexy tale of courage, sacrifice, and love.

I will meet you on Wednesdays at noon in Celebration Park. Kissing only.

Carrie West is happy with her life . . . isn’t she? But when she sees this provocative online ad, the thirtysomething librarian can’t help but be tempted. After all, the photo of the anonymous poster is far too attractive to ignore. And when Wednesday finally arrives, it brings a first kiss that’s hotter than any she’s ever imagined. Brian Newburgh is an attorney, but there’s more to his life . . . that he won’t share with Carrie. Determined to have more than just Wednesdays, Carrie embarks on a quest to learn Brian’s story, certain that he will be worth the cost. But is she ready to gamble her heart on a man who just might be The One . . . even though she has no idea how their love story will end?

A story about the power of stories: Carrie is a children’s librarian, and there are numerous wonderful references to formative texts and the impact of fiction and childhood reading, from Where The Red Fern Grows to J.K. Rowling. Brian is a man with a “story” — when things get tough, GBF Justin exclaims, “When I said you should go for Story Boy I didn’t realize he was a Russian novel.” The idea, though, is that in taking this risky step with a stranger, Carrie is opening up her own book for Brian to become a chapter that has the potential to be written in boldface, or poetry, or, as Justin explains, a “life highlighter,” a “big ol’ paragraph of neon pink.”

Although it is admittedly almost too cute for words, I especially loved when Carrie finds out near the end of the book that Brian (for reasons that make sense, but are spoiler-ish) has actually been attending a read-aloud storytime at the city library. Rivers weaves together the several layers of this storytelling metaphor in ways that are compelling and clever.

I can’t say enough about how much I admire and appreciate a book that is itself in love with books, composed with the kind of careful prose that strongly divides readers — some will say it’s too effortful and consciously writerly while others will love it for this thoughtful attention to craft, like a deliciously artisanal wine …  I’m happy to have writers this creative and challenging working in romance.  Sometimes I like artisanal prose and sometimes I enjoy writing so fluid and lovely it just allows me to have the experience without deconstructing the sentences. For me, Rivers was able to strike the right balance, even with the first person narration.

Hero and/or Martyr? As I mentioned, many authors, reviewers and romancelandia thought-leaders have been buzzing about this book. There is a challenging and comprehensive discussion going on over at My Extensive Reading – if you’ve already read The Story Guy, or you don’t care about spoilers, don’t miss out on the amazing conversation Liz is hosting in the Comments. The truth is, I feel many of the important themes and issues raised by this unusual book have been eloquently and sufficiently articulated there, though the discussion covers the full story, including spoilers, so be warned.

It’s actually difficult to review this book or even tell you much about the discussion without getting into spoiler territory.  Although it’s Carrie’s first-person present-tense POV throughout, the conflict and plot hinge on Brian’s familial and emotional history, and the way in which he has managed and compartmentalized his life. His back story is raw and sad and authentic, and readers seem to be divided about whether his restraint is an act of heroism and sacrifice, or a dysfunctional case of misplaced martyrdom. He’s beautifully written, because we mainly hear from him directly, in the form of dialogue, or through Carrie’s eyes. The best parts of the book are the conversations, and Carrie’s minute observations of Brian’s emotions and physical presence.

“It’s what I want. This man and his faraway gaze and rare dimples and gripping hands and voice so sad it called out over all the other sad men’s voices in the city’s most desperate corner. I think I’m wrong to want him, as if I am taking him away from where he knows he should be. I feel as though I’ve picked him out for myself, and with the tenacity and willfulness of a child, I’ve decided nothing else will do.”

Single White Female I’m having a more complicated response to Carrie herself.  I think it’s because from the first pages of this book I had to suspend SO MUCH disbelief about this 30-something woman’s willingness to answer the personal ad. Has anyone been talking about Craigslist in connection with this book?? Because to me this is the part that seems the most fantastical.  The Wednesday-only, kissing-only thing is clearly kind of a fun fantasy, but the mechanism of a faux Craigslist site — ‘the city’s most desperate corner’ — kept bothering me.

I’m wondering if it’s being single that makes this element more problematic for me. It’s true that I am always slower than a turtle in terms of adopting new technologies, and I have resisted Match.com and eHarmony and PlentyofFish in spite of the many many friends who have encouraged me in that direction, even offering to “do all the work”  (eg. write and post a profile) for me. Let me just say firstly that, like Carrie, I don’t have many single friends — I’m surrounded by the happily (or unhappily, in a couple of cases) paired. But of my single friends who, also like Carrie, venture into the online dating world, are well-educated, professional, smart, sexy, in their 30s and 40s and read a lot of books, I don’t think any of them would consider following up on a Craigslist personal.

Single White Female

Bridget Fonda and Steven Weber in Single White Female (1992)
via allmovie.com

I stumbled over this – it only works as a plot device because it’s precisely NOT a matchmaking site and Brian’s only posted his cryptic ad, not a profile. There is a pretty detailed description of the site that makes it clear it’s based on Craigslist. But there’s a vulnerability in being middle aged and single (frankly, at my age, Carrie and Brian both actually seem young, but they’re not immature). Maybe I am just a risk averse wuss, but I kept thinking Whaaat?? I had to keep telling myself that she was just at a low ebb, goofing around reading the ads, clicked on his photo and fell in love with his looks. But. Still. Craigslist criminals can look fetching too, people! And frankly, it’s not just Carrie’s safety I was tripping up on — she becomes at times uncomfortably pushy in her pursuit of Brian and is clearly partly attracted to his sadness and vulnerability. The book skirts around the edges of the creepy, unsafe, stalker-y territory it has relied on for this central plot device, and this is something I’m still wrestling with.

So. Carrie speaks of having few epiphanies, but when she does, it’s internalized to become part of her identity.  It turns out reading this wonderful novella has prompted an epiphany of sorts for me as a reader of romance.

I’m still puzzling this out, but I am beginning to wonder if my general avoidance of contemporary romance is connected to my being single. And (very) middle-aged. I haven’t done any research (yet) and I don’t know how the romance readership demographics are organized relative to various subgenres. But I realized that even though I was at times completely immersed in The Story Guy, and at other times I was pausing to admire the writing, something about it just didn’t take me where I want to go as a romance reader. And that this has nothing to do with this particular novella, and everything to do with its contemporary setting.

Juggling, Leaning In, and Work/Life Balance Aren’t Romantic The Story Guy, like all contemporary romance, is simultaneously too real-world and mundane (eg. “contemporary” with my own harried lived experience) and too fantastical for me. Reading about Carrie whiling away her evening waiting for a new message to pop up, or thinking about how thinly Brian is stretched to manage his work and the other demands on his time — that’s all too close to home for me. So the real-world contemporariness gets me into a place that’s very familiar, which means I have too much trouble going along with the various unlikely coincidences and circumstances through which our H/h meet, resolve their conflicts, surmount all obstacles, and reach their HEA.

It’s not that I’m not rooting for them, it’s just harder for me to enter into the fantasy. In a historical romance, or paranormal, or even an occasional 50 Shades clone erotic billionaire story, if it’s done well I’m already immersed in an alternate reality, and while I do care about historical authenticity, I can more easily let go of rigid adherence to questions of plausibility, plotting, and coincidence.

Miss Lonely Hearts? Shame of a Single Romance Reader? I don’t have time/space now to take this up fully, but my response to Carrie and her Craigslist gamble — which tapped some ambivalence about being single and the online complexities of contemporary courtship activities — got me thinking about the issue of reader shame again.  I talked about this in a different context last month. Is there more/different stigma attached to reading romance for women who are single? We may be reading for many of the same reasons (pleasure, fantasy, escape, immersion, imagination, emotional satisfaction, id vortex,  HEA guarantee, etc) as people who are at other points on the relationship spectrum (dating, divorced, married, living together, hooking up, you name it…) but do we feel that our reading habits may be judged differently? How do I feel about the baggage that comes with friends who I know are thinking that I read romance so much of the time as some kind of “poor substitute” for a relationship?

To be continued…. and I would love to hear your thoughts on this as I ponder a future post.