"Angels Fall," by Nora Roberts. It's billed as a novel of romantic suspense. Number two is "12 Sharp," by Janet Evanovich. About a sassy female bounty hunter. Chick lit rules the lists, you could say. But bookstore worker and commentator Moira Manion is a bit worried about what women are reading these days.So why is Moira worried? Because she’s been reading the titles of books in the Harlequin Presents series:
I noticed a theme in the "Harlequin Presents" series. Titles like "Mistress Bought and Paid For," "Bought By a Billionaire," "Bought By Her Husband," and "Traded to the Sheik."First of all, lets have a look at the guidelines for the Harlequin Presents series:
When and why did women start fantasizing about being bought and sold? Women have fought against being property. Some sacrificed their lives. I can't believe women would pay to read a story of a woman so desperate for money that she sells herself to a Greek billionaire or a Zanzibar sheik.
But it makes sense. We live in a time when everything is for sale. Why work yourself to death for little pay when you can become the property of a rich man?
these fast-paced stories are essentially escapist romantic fantasies that take the reader on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Written in the third person, they can be from the male or female point of view, or seen through the eyes of both protagonists. All are set in sophisticated, glamorous, international locations.So yes, the hero is likely to be a ‘rich man’, and that’s part of the ‘escapist’ element. And he’s going to be ‘strong’. But the other side of the equation in this line are the ‘spirited, independent heroines’. These are not books about women who find a wealthy man and immediately latch onto him in order to get his money. They are, however, often about women who are mistaken for ‘gold-diggers’, but, and this is a point that Moira seems to have missed, because she doesn't appear to have read further than the titles, they are not mercenary or materialistic women. For example, one Harlequin Presents novel that I read recently is Kathryn Ross’s Mistress to a Rich Man. The title is exactly the sort that Marion’s talking about. And the hero early on decides that the heroine is ‘a cold-blooded gold-digger and a damn good actress’ (2005:23). Is the heroine a gold-digger? No, of course she’s not, she just wants to meet the father she hasn’t seen for twenty years, and he happens to be a rich and famous movie-star. She doesn’t even become the hero’s mistress, though they do start a sexual relationship before they declare their love for each other.
With its focus on strong, wealthy, breathtakingly charismatic alpha-heroes who are tamed by spirited, independent heroines, the central relationship in a Presents novel is a provocatively passionate, highly charged affair, driven by conflict, emotional intensity and overwhelming physical attraction
The misunderstandings about the heroine’s motivation, and/or the nature of the circumstances in which the heroine is forced into close proximity to a hero that she often initially dislikes (but is attracted to) are not, I think, written so that women can indulge in ‘fantasizing about being bought and sold’. It seems to me to have a lot more to do with ensuring that each story is ‘a provocatively passionate, highly charged affair, driven by conflict’. And clearly the readers enjoy both the conflict, which serves to raise the sexual tension, and what is often a Cinderella-like fantasy of a poor, virtuous woman becoming the wife of a rich, handsome hero.
Some of the stories I’ve read do involve the hero and heroine entering into an arranged marriage, perhaps because the heroine is being ‘sold’ by her father or other relative, or perhaps because she needs to marry in order to save her family, or pay for medical treatment for a sick child. But the heroine generally struggles against her fate and she certainly doesn’t marry a rich man just because she wants an easy life of luxury. Furthermore, the heroine is never a ‘mistress’ according to the dictionary definition of ‘a woman (other than a wife) having a sexual relationship with a married man’, though she may occasionally be a ‘kept’ woman if she’s living in accommodation he provides. Very often, as in Mistress to a Rich Man, the word ‘mistress’ just seems to mean that the heroine is the hero’s lover.
The moral of this particular story, it seems to me, is that it’s not wise to judge a book by its title, and it’s even less sensible to judge an entire series (or genre) on the basis of their titles.
Personally I prefer less ‘glamorous’ settings and non-alpha heroes, so maybe I’m misjudging the appeal of this line to other romance readers. But if there are any of you out there who love the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern Romance line, what is it about these books that appeals to you? Is Marion right that you’re just ‘fantasizing about being bought and sold’?
Ross, Kathryn, 2005. Mistress to a Rich Man (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).