Rosina Lippi has decided to label her latest novel, The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square, and a previous contemporary novel, Tied to the Tracks, "romantic comedies."
Over the past few weeks there's been quite a bit of discussion here and elsewhere about genres, how to define them and how to distinguish them from each other. At the 2008 PCA conference An Goris observed that "Genre is [...] inherently dynamic and ever-changing; it may seem stable, but only 'stable for now'." But if they're "stable for now", are there any definitions we can agree on for now? And what purpose(s) do they serve?
At Romancing the Blog Barbara Samuel was wondering why although "Most romance writers who branched into women’s fiction are still delivering a pretty solid romantic story along with the great characters we’ve come to require in romance, [...] romance readers are quite wary" and don't seem to follow the romance authors who decide to write women's fiction.
So what is "women's fiction"? Barbara Samuel added that "women’s fiction is–by its very nature–about women, while romance is about the relationship, and the man, often even more than about the woman." So while romance guarantees "a central love story," women's fiction doesn't. And, as Katie pointed out, "a romance novel promises a happy ending, a women’s fiction novel may, but doesn’t have to provide it. Btw. that’s also one reason for me why I rarely read chick lit, having been burned once too often."
Rosina was asking about the differences between chick lit and romance, because she wanted to "get a sense of [...] how these two novels of mine are perceived. If they fit neatly into one category or another, or not." Beth responded by describing chick lit as books
in which the main protagonist is female, and the plot generally revolves around problems that she is dealing with on a personal level. Usually the heroine in young-ish (20’s or 30’s), has a job in the entertainment/PR/marketing/journalism/media field, and generally she is single. She often has issues with her family. In order to achieve her happy ending, she has to work through her problems and grow into a better person, and she usually finds love in the process.So, having got a rough idea of how one might define "women's fiction," "chick lit" and "romance," and rather intrigued by the idea of trying to answer Rosina's challenge about how to label her contemporary novels, I set out to read them. (I should probably mention that I bought Tied to the Tracks, but Rosina sent me a copy of The Pajama Girls). The first thing I saw was, of course, the covers.
The cover of the hardback of Tied to the Tracks is on the left, the cover of the paperback's on the right. Neither says "romance" to me, though the one of the right looks to me like it could possibly be non-urban chick lit. They don't say "romantic comedy" either, though the paperback cover is possibly more headed in that direction than the rather dark picture on the hardback's cover. I'm sure this is rather subjective. What do you think? And the cover of The Pajama Girls, with its cushions, didn't say much to me at all about the book's genre, though I did think that I wouldn't want to lean back on them because they look too expensive. In Australia Tied to the Tracks appeared under Lippi's Sara Donati pseudonym and with a different cover. This one seems to me to convey an impression of history (which is appropriate, since the story is about a group of documentary makers) but at first glance it looked as though it might actually be set in the past, at a seaside resort (rather than in present-day, albeit fictional, Ogilvie, Georgia).
Covers do matter because as Sheldrick Ross and Chelton found in their study of readers
Once the reader starts to browse within a range of books, then the cover and the clues provided on the book itself become important. Titles are also important - readers said they were drawn both to an unusual, catchy title (in the case of an unfamiliar book) and to a familiar title that struck a chord. (53)How do you react to the covers of Rosina's novels? Do you find a title like The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square appealing? Does it sound unusual or familiar to you? And does it have a different feel to Tied to the Tracks? For me, a title which refers to clothing and "girls" is more likely to make me think of women's fiction and/or chick lit.
Having finally dragged myself away from the cover art and titles and back to the contents of the novels, I asked myself how I'd describe Rosina's contempory novels. They don't feel like "romantic comedy" to me because that makes me think I should be laughing out loud. Mind you, I don't laugh at Jenny Crusie's novels either. So perhaps it's that I don't associate "romantic comedy" with occasional glimpses of wry humour. If I had to choose a label for these novels, I'd make up a new one. I think they're contemporary romantic emotional-mystery fiction. You can read an excerpt of The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square for yourself and see what you think.
What reading these novels made me realise was how much I take it for granted when reading romance that I'll have access to what at least one of the main characters (and usually both of them) are thinking. I expect to know what they're feeling and, pretty early on, why they're thinking and feeling that way. It's not that a romance can't keep any secrets in reserve till the end, or that they all break the "rule" about "show don't tell" but generally, while the main characters in a romance may not understand what they're feeling (and they certainly don't know they're heading for a happy ending), the author makes sure that the reader does.
Lippi makes both her characters and the reader do some hard work trying to understand what's going on, and that seems to create a degree of emotional distance between the reader and the characters. I think it's because it's more difficult for me as a reader to get caught up emotionally in a scene if I'm having to work really hard to decipher what the characters are feeling. Candy at the Smart Bitches, in her review of Tied to the Tracks, explained this better than I can:
The best books allow me to lose myself in the characters’ heads and inhabit their skins, and this book came close in a couple of spots, because Lippi is very skilled at building characters who are interesting and real, people you can imagine meeting and liking in real life, but I still felt oddly disengaged emotionally from Angie and John as lovers.I think Candy's right about this being a feature of the best romances (or, at least, the ones I enjoy the most), but I'm not sure that it's necessarily a feature of "The best books" in all genres. In any case, I wouldn't describe Lippi's novels as romances.
It's because the reader is almost put in the role of a detective, trying to work out the truth from the clues given in the text, that I added the "emotional-mystery" element to my (very cumbersome) label of "contemporary romantic emotional-mystery fiction". That sense of having to do detective work is underlined by both the form of the novels and the occupations of some of the characters. In Tied to the Tracks the heroine is a documentary film-maker, invited to a small town in Georgia to make a documentary about Miss Zula. As Lippi has said,
Miss Zula is a mystery to most people, even those who have known her all their lives. Even to me. There's a very complex backstory about this woman who has forged her way at considerable personal cost, but that information dribbles out because she won't have it any other way.Through the inclusion of excerpts from websites, books, the town's newspaper, notes that inhabitants of the town leave for the documentary-makers, and other material, the text of the novel also invites the reader to interpret and assess a mass of different texts in a way which parallels the work that the documentary makers must undertake in order to understand the many mysteries to be uncovered in Ogilvie.
The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square is also written using this technique, since parts of the story are told through messages left on John Dodge's answering machine, with the occasional letter or newspaper article included too. The mysteries in this novel are not so difficult to uncover as Miss Zula's, but they're much more obviously emotional mysteries, and that's underlined by the fact that the novel includes a number of characters who are psychotherapists.
Julia Darrow, one of the pajama girls of Lambert Square, and owner of the shop which sells fine linens (and, presumably, the rather fine pillows/cushions depicted on the cover of the novel) might seem to have an occupation which has little or nothing to do with detective work, but it too provides metaphors for the work the reader must do. When we first encounter her she soon turns
her attention to the three large cartons on the worktable. All from her buyer in Italy, six months' worth of her best finds. There was a pleasant shiver of anticipation when a box arrived from Rosa, the thrill that was usually reserved for children on Christmas morning. She adjusted the blade on her penknife and began the delicate business of separating fragile goods from the box they came in. [...] Julia peeled away layers of plastic, linen, and archival tissue paper to reveal a bedsheet with a five-inch border of elaborate silk embroidery, white on white. She reached for a fresh pair of white cotton gloves. (25)While Julia carefully handles and assesses the fine linens, she herself may perhaps be thought of as "fragile goods" living inside a box: "maybe she was living inside a box, but it was a very large, very nice box" (219).
It's a bit difficult to give more explanation of the kind of detective work the reader has to do without either giving spoilers or quoting vast chunks of text, but there are hints throughout these novels that the characters (and by implication the readers) have to work at understanding what's truly going on. Here's an example from the excerpt of The Pajama Girls:
"When it comes to Exa Stabley," Mayme said, "here's what you've got to do. Listen to her like you would to a radio station. Sometimes you listen real close, and sometimes you let your mind wander off to more important things. The radio won't take offense, and neither will Exa."As with Exa, there are parts of the book to which you might need to "listen real close," whereas others might be interesting but less important to working out the central mysteries. And the fact that Julia needed to learn "how things worked in Lamb's Corner" is an indication of the complexity of the community in which she, Dodge, and the reader find themselves. Luckily for Dodge, the previous owner of the shop he's just bought sent him a list of descriptions of some of the main personalities, which helps him understand them and he is easily able to observe more for himself since "it was reading people that was his true talent" (7). He spends his first morning in Lambert Square sitting, doing this kind of "reading" while the reader of the novel literally reads along with him:
Between Exa, Mayme and the rest of her female employees providing insight and direction, Julia had eventually learned how things worked in Lamb's Corner with a minimum of missteps. (23)
The plan was to stay right there for as long as he could manage to get away with it. [...] Sunglasses gave him the freedom to watch the crowd without causing alarm. He meant to look like just another stranger in a place where strangers were welcome. (15)Some aspects of the detective work the reader has to perform are easier than others. Lippi drops some easy to spot clues with some of the names she chooses, for example. John Dodge, known as Dodge, has a habit of fixing up failing businesses and then dodging away, on to the next one. Another character, a child whose parents went through a bitter divorce, is known as Bean Hurt. But at other times the clues are more difficult to spot and interpret. In fact, while reading Tied to the Tracks the only occasion on which I felt I had a good grip on the subtext (see the illustration below) of what was really going on was when John and Angie, who were lovers years ago, meet again at a family party:
Angie saw the youngest of the grandsons, a little boy with a round potbelly, a head of streaky blond curls, and a fat strawberry of a mouth. He stood on a chair aiming an arrow at a bull's-eye set up on an easel at the other end of the veranda, all his concentration on the target. [...] As Angie stood up to get a better look, John Grant came around the corner. [...] John's face, familiar and strange and beautiful. How could she have forgotten that face? The answer was, of course, that she had not. She had forgotten nothing at all. In that split second when he met her eye, Angie saw that same flash of recognition [...].I wonder if part of the reason I can't understand the sub-texts in the conversation is that, as is mentioned not infrequently, many of the characters are Southerners, who express themselves via "southern circumlocution" (Tied 52). Mind you, John Grant in Tied to the Tracks doesn't seem to be very quick at working things out either. As he says, "I've never been good at reading the signs" (264) and "I'm missing something obvious. I know I am, for the simple reason that I always do, as you have pointed out to me before" (270) and we're told that "John was clueless" (270). I'm reminded of my reaction to Dorothy Dunnett's novels. While I could just about keep up with what was happening in the Lymond Chronicles and The Pyjama Girls, I felt almost literally clueless when it came to the Dunnett's Niccolo series and Lippi's Tied to the Tracks. As it happens, Lippi's "all time favorite historical novelist is Dorothy Dunnett."
Somebody screamed. John, who looked down at the blossom of blood on his neatly creased trousers, made no sound that Angie heard. He touched the arrow embedded in his upper left thigh, not quite center, tilted his head as if trying to make out a whispering voice, and then fell over. (57)
Since I started studying the romance genre, I've read very little fiction outside this genre. Reading these two novels reminded me that, as Angela Toscano wrote in a comment at Romancing the Blog,
Reading is a risky endeavor. It can engage our feelings and our perceptions in ways we’d rather it didn’t; often it does this unexpectedly. There’s no guarantee that you won’t be dissatisfied. But then there’s no guarantee that you will. I think a good story is always worth that particular risk.Sheldrick Ross and Chelton found that "Readers adopted various strategies to establish the right balance, between safety/certainty and novelty/risk" (52) and "After choosing by author, the second most popular strategy was to use genre" (53). Genre labels, then, can help to lower the risks that a reader takes. I'm beginning to think that the differences between genres don't depend solely on the subject matter of the books; different genres (and this may vary from sub-genre to sub-genre, or from one category romance "line" to another) seem to offer different emotional and/or intellectual rewards to the reader.
I'm fairly certain John Dodge in The Pajama Girls would recognise the importance of genre labels to many book buyers, although at the time of the novel he's "had enough of bookstores for a while" (7) and has turned his attention to pens and paper, the very materials with which books are (or have been) created. He's someone who
had been studying the body language of shoppers for years. It was all about figuring out what people thought they wanted, and if you approached it just right, actually selling them something they wouldn't feel bad about the next day, and at a profit. (7)
- Lippi, Rosina. The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2008.
- Lippi, Rosina. Tied to the Tracks. 2006. New York: Berkley, 2007.
- Sheldrick Ross, Catherine and Mary K. Chelton. "Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material." Library Journal (February 1, 2001): 52-55.