Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

As most of you probably already know, January takes its name 'from Latin Januarius mensis "month of Janus" (the Roman god who presided over doors and beginnings)', and like the two-headed (sometimes even four-headed) god, people often look both backwards and forwards at this time of year, remembering what's happened over the past year and thinking about how they'd like things to improve in the coming one.

Looking back, I notice that among those who have have arrived here via a search engine, quite a lot would seem to be looking for someone to teach them about sex. They could probably do a lot worse than to read some romances because, as I mentioned in August, some romances can be read as sex education. I would, however, like to point out that romances can also contain inaccuracies. As Kalen Hughes has observed,
Contrary to what appears to be popular mythology (at least among the writers of romance and erotica) the hymen is not a “barrier” (except in RARE cases that require surgery; 1 in 2000 per Blaustein's Pathology of the Female Genital Tract) nor is it up inside the vaginal canal as it is commonly represented to be in fiction.
In addition, the exceptional stamina and physical endurance of many romance heroes and heroines are precisely that - exceptional. If anyone's looking for a more factual approach to sex education, then I'd suggest they look at a site like Scarlateen, where there are detailed articles about safer sex, first-time sex, emotional readiness for sex and a lot more.

We also get quite a lot of hits from people wanting to be taught what's romantic. I doubt they're looking for the distinction between romance novels and romantic novels (though if they are, we've got a post on that here). If these people are looking for advice on what their partner might find romantic, Germaine Greer thinks that they might do well to read some romance novels:
The hero of romance knows how to treat women. Flowers, little gifts, love-letters, maybe poems to her eyes and hair, candlelit meals on moonlit terraces and muted strings. Nothing hasty, physical. Some heavy breathing. Searing lips pressed against the thin stuff of her bodice. Endearments muttered into her luxuriant hair. ‘Little things mean a lot.’ Her favourite chocolates, his pet names for her, remembering her birthday, anniversaries, silly games. And then the foolish things that remind him of her, her perfume, her scarf, her frilly underthings and absurd lace hankies, kittens in her lap. Mystery, magic, champagne, ceremony, tenderness, excitement, adoration, reverence – women never have enough of it. (1993: 194)
That was written in 1970, though, and both society and romance novels have changed a lot since then. Although some people may find such objects and proceedings romantic, others may well see them as clichéd and lacking in thought.

Still looking back, but thinking about how the past can inform the present, in a recent post at Romancing the Blog, Kassia discussed some old publishers' guidelines for romance novels that she'll be adding to the Romance Wiki:
Her figure is always perfectly in proportion, usually petite, and slight of build. He is usually dark, though we have seen some great Nordic types, and recently, we have been introduced to a stunning redhead. [The Other Woman is] usually mean, over-sophisticated, well groomed. She NEVER gets our hero. [Other Characters are] stock, easily recognized, cameos. (Silhouette Books, Character guidelines, excerpts)
and in the comments she added that 'as I read them [the guidelines], I could also see how so many current day perceptions of the genre developed. I mean, the guidelines out-and-out state that secondary characters should be stock'.

If this is the perception of the genre that's still held by many non-romance-readers, however, that's troubling, because it means that attitudes towards the genre may have been shaped by works written decades ago. One of the genre's biggest image problems is tied to a lack of knowledge about its history: it is precisely because people don't know about romance's long history and its various sub-genres that they can talk of the genre being written to an unchanging formula.* As Pamela Regis has said:
Most critics writing about "the romance" pay, at most, lip service to the forebears of contemporary works. This practice robs the genre of its most distinguished representatives, marooning it in the present, and reducing it to the few works that a given critic has chosen to analyze. (2003: 53)
Over the coming year I'd like to discuss a few of the less well-known ancestors of the modern romance novel. I may well not get very far with this, and, like so many other New Year's resolutions it may be quickly abandoned, but I have got at least a couple of blog posts lined up on the topic so far.
  • Greer, Germaine, 1993. The Female Eunuch (London: Flamingo).
  • Regis, Pamela, 2003. A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press).
* Re the romance 'formula', romance author Deborah Hale suggests that perhaps it's (H + h x A) ÷ C + HEA = R and what she has to say is very positive about the genre. Usually, however, the words 'formula' and 'formulaic', when applied to romance, have rather more negative connotations. The online Compact Oxford English Dictionary even mentions the genre in its definition of the word 'formulaic':
adjective 1 constituting or containing a set form of words. 2 produced in accordance with a slavishly followed rule or style: much romantic fiction is formulaic.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Happy Holidays!

I'll be taking a break from blogging until after the New Year. I'm not sure whether some of the others will pop in or not; I do know that some of them have huge piles of marking to wade through before the end of term.

When I was looking for an online Christmas romance, I found one by Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin. Her The Romance of a Christmas Card was published in 1916 and demonstrates the miracles that can be worked by three pious women and two Christmas cards. Wiggin's A Cathedral Courtship is an earlier work, an epistolary short story, and with lines like the following, I'm really not sure how seriously one is supposed to take it:
'I witnessed the somewhat unusual spectacle of my nut-brown mayde hopping on one foot, like a divine stork'
They certainly don't write heroines like this one anymore, who can say in what appears to be all seriousness that
It is certainly very queer that the stupidest man that breathes, one that barely escapes idiocy, can disentangle a railway guide, when the brightest woman fails. [...] I do affirm that there is hardly any juncture in life where one isn't better off for having a man about.
She describes the hero thus: 'Mr. Copley has accomplished something, young as he is. He has built three picturesque suburban churches suitable for weddings, and a state lunatic asylum.' Our heroine, according to Mr Copley, is
the concentrated essence of feminine witchery. Intuition strong, logic weak, and the two qualities so balanced as to produce an indefinable charm; will-power large, but docility equal, if a man is clever enough to know how to manage her; knowledge of facts absolutely nil, but she is exquisitely intelligent in spite of it. She has a way of evading, escaping, eluding, and then gives you an intoxicating hint of sudden and complete surrender. She is divinely innocent, but roguishness saves her from insipidity.
Hope you're all saved from insipidity during the holidays too, but hopefully not because you've lost all sense of logic, knowledge of facts and the ability to read a train timetable.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Suspend Disbelief All Ye Who Enter Here

Continuing with the theme of belief/lack of belief I'd like to take a look at a couple of free online works by Holly Lisle. The second is a short re-working of a fairytale and the first is a longer novel, Sympathy for the Devil, which, as I observed regarding many paranormal romances, can be read as an inspirational (but non-Christian) romance. Although it draws heavily on Christian theology and is monotheistic, there is no endorsement for any particular world religion.

The reason I'm paraphrasing from Dante's Divine Comedy in the title of this post is that it seems entirely appropriate in the context of Lisle's Sympathy for the Devil. The original phrase, from the third Canto of the Inferno (the first part of the Comedy, which is followed by Purgatorio and then Paradiso) is written above the gate to Hell and is often rendered as 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here'. Hope is one of the three theological virtues, along with Faith and Charity (Love) and the heroine of Sympathy for the Devil has all three in abundance. This being a romance (or, at least, I read it that way, because it has both 'a central love story' and 'an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending') it seems appropriate that one is forcefully reminded of the words of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13: 13) concerning love: 'And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity'.

Sympathy for the Devil is by turns humorous, emotionally powerful and psychologically insightful, much like C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. Lisle acknowledges her debt to both 'Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis, who introduced me to this territory when I was nine'. Lewis' theology is considerably more orthodox than Lisle's, however, and his work is composed of a series of letter from Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter. Through the letters (a sample letter is available here) one learns about the faith journey of Wormwood's 'patient', the human whose soul he is trying to gain. The Screwtape Letters contains a significant romantic thread but unlike Lisle's Sympathy for the Devil it is not a romance.

There are a number of reviews available of Sympathy for the Devil, for example here and here. Holly Lisle has also written about the theologial and personal background to the novel here. I'd recommend, however, that you read them only after reading the novel itself. So, if you're ready to start, here's the first page. I'll be interested to know how people feel about this. Did you think of it as a romance? Did you enjoy the humour? How did you feel about the theology?

The second online work of Lisle's I want to look at is Armor-ella, a reworking of the Cinderella story. As in the previous novel, an important issue is belief in paranormal beings. This time, however, they're ones more often discussed in fairytales than by theologians.

I'm looking forward to reading your opinions on these two.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Jennifer Crusie - Hot Toy

As Eric and I are working on the novels of Jennifer Crusie we've inevitably mentioned her rather a lot on the blog, to the extent that one blogger described Teach Me Tonight like this: 'If you think of witty, insightful romance writer and academic Jennifer Crusie as the site's spiritual patron saint and foremother, you'll have an idea of its feel'. I'll take that as a compliment! And, as it's Christmas and our 'patron saint' has a newly released Christmas short story, it seemed like the right time to post about Hot Toy. There's a long excerpt available here, and reviews here and here. As usual, this isn't a review, and I will be including spoilers (though I try not to reveal too much).

First of all, Jenny is well known for giving advice and support to other writers. She's written essays on writing and publishing, set up a site where writers can support each other and compare their experiences of the writing life (though there are also some areas for readers) and in the New Year she and Bob Mayer will begin an online 'year-long workshop, updated twice weekly, on the craft of writing a novel'. So it maybe shouldn't come as a surprise that Hot Toy teaches us about one method of creating a plot, namely the use of the 'MacGuffin':
A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story.

The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term "MacGuffin" and the technique. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Hitchcock explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: "[W]e have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers." [...]

The element that distinguishes a MacGuffin from other types of plot devices is that it is not important what object the MacGuffin specifically is. Anything that serves as a motivation will do. A true MacGuffin is essentially interchangeable. Its importance will generally be accepted completely by the story's characters, with minimal explanation. From the audience's perspective, the MacGuffin is not the point of the story. (Wikipedia)
The explict reference to a MacGuffin was a source of great amusement to many of those who commented on this review of the novella. However, although this MacGuffin may begin the story like any other MacGuffin, it ends up rather differently.

At the heart of the novella is the theme of belief, particularly a woman's almost lost belief in the possibility of a happy ending for romantic relationships and a child's belief in Santa. Trudy is determined that her nephew, Leroy, is still 'going to believe in Santa, since he can't believe in men or nannies' (2006: 62). For me the fact that the child's belief was so important invited comparisons with other texts about and for children. Because of what happens to it the MacGuffin, despite being a 'homicidal doll that spit toxic waste' (2006: 8), reminds me of Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit, which begins 'On Christmas morning'. Here's the part where one toy talks to another:
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
As the Horse admits, love is about pain, as well as pleasure, but for those who love you unconditionally 'you can't be ugly'. Love and the process of becoming worn, faded and shapeless make the Velveteen Rabbit real*, and the object which begins the story as a MacGuffin (in fact it's a 'Major MacGuffin' both literally (it's a military toy) and in terms of the storyline) ends up becoming more real: 'He looked nicer now, she thought, all ripped up and eviscerated and dirty. More vulnerable' (2006: 108). Another character in The Velveteen Rabbit is a fairy, and the central theme of Hot Toy, namely faith/belief in something which all the evidence suggests is not true, reminds me of the scene 'When Peter Pan asks audiences to affirm their belief in fairies in order to revive Tinker Bell, this can be interpreted as an affirmation of the willing suspension of disbelief thought to be an essential condition of theatrical spectating' (Davis 2005). Incidentally, for those who'd like some proof of the existence of fairies, there's a website all about the urban fairies of Ann Arbor, Michigan who create tiny doors in the most unexpected locations, including Ann Arbor District Library.

Another children's story that came to mind when reading Hot Toy was that of Hansel and Gretel, and not just because of the gingerbread houses which Trudy's sister is constructing.** In a reversal of the fairytale it's Leroy's father (Trudy's brother-in-law) who has run off to Cancún with Leroy's nanny, leaving behind Leroy and Courtney, whereas in the fairytale it's usually a stepmother who convinces the father to abandon his family responsibilities by removing the children from the family home (in some versions she's simply called 'the mother', and the extent of the father's guilt and weakness also varies, depending on which version one reads). Of course, Courtney's not a child, but Trudy's planning to buy her 'the doll my little sister never got' (2006: 19) . A further story of fatherly betrayal is that of The Little Match Girl, to which Trudy alludes after she's emerged from the toyshop,
her feet aching as the cold from the concrete permeated the thin soles of her boots [...].
It started to snow.
If I had some matches, I could strike them all and bask in the glow, Trudy thought. (2006: 39)
Just before she dies of hypothermia the match girl 'struck the whole bundle of matches [...]. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight'. The little match girl's father is far worse than Trudy's, who is only guilty of absent-minded neglect, and would not, as in the fairytale 'surely beat her' for failing to sell some matches, but clearly his shortcomings as a father have deeply hurt Trudy and negatively affected her relationships with men.

Another strand of the story is about consumerism and its relationship (or lack of one) to the real meaning of Christmas:
Above her, Madonna cooed “Santa Baby,” the ancient store speakers making the carol to sex and greed sound a little tinny. Whatever had happened to “The Little Drummer Boy”? That had been annoying, too, but in a traditional way, like fruitcake. She’d be happy to hear a “rumpa-pa-pum” again, anything that didn’t make Christmas sound like it was about getting stuff.
Especially since she was desperate to get some stuff. (2006: 8)
Later, while 'Gimme, gimme, gimme' (2006: 55) plays in the background we're very briefly, and in a very quirky way, reminded that Christmas is about Jesus' birthday (2006: 54). And then, with a drumroll as the action really begins to get underway, Trudy gets her wish and 'There was a radio somewhere blaring "The Little Drummer Boy." '"Rum-pa-pum-pum," Trudy said, not at all reassured' (2006: 57).

In the context of the rather worrying traces of the radioactive substance polonium-210 discovered at various locations in London, Hamburg and Moscow and the death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, plots based on international espionage leave me less than reassured too. Fortunately, none of the characters in Hot Toy end up either dead or radioactive.

So, should we adopt Trudy's New Year's resolution: 'My resolution for 2007 is to start believing in people again' (2006: 64)? Or are we wiser, and safer, if we remain on our guard? Do we have to have faith in something in order to be happy, or does that just set us up for disappointment? And do you believe in Santa, fairies or romantic relationships?
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2006. 'Hot Toy', in Santa Baby (New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks), pp. 1-111.
  • Davis, Tracy, 2005. 'Do You Believe in Fairies?: The Hiss of Dramatic License', Theatre Journal, 57.1: 57-81. [My quotation was from the abstract.]
* 'the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful'.
** Gingerbread houses/Lebkuchenhäuschen are not common in the UK, and I've never seen one, but I assume they're part of the Christmas traditions in many German and American families.

And one final note: we had a chicken in the Elizabeth Bevarly novel I've looked at, chooks in Marion Lennox's Christmas novella and here there's a toy cow lobbying for the rest of us to eat more poultry: ' "It says, 'Eat chicken,' when you pull its string."' (2006: 46). I'm sure this has absolutely no significance at all.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Analysing Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels

No, not here. Kate Moore's leading a discussion about this novel over at Dishing with the Divas. Loretta Chase herself has promised to drop in on the conversation.

Kate's already thought of a few questions and ideas to get people started, and they're here and here.

Of Pigs and Paupers

Yesterday I learned that Max, George Clooney's pet pig, had died. Then I came across Debra Salonen's The Laws of Love in Harlequin's free Online Reads Library. One of the main characters is a pig, and as I liked the story and the coincidence, and because I'm not sure how long this story will stay in the Library, I thought I'd post about it.

It's a story of contrasts and similarities, of appearances and social disapproval. Our heroine, Gwyneth Jacobi, is a lawyer known for being a 'barracuda'. Arley McNamara is a rich philanthropist with a short attention span. Cuddles, the pig, is large and at risk. The neighbours object to Cuddles' continued presence in their neigbourhood. Arley's parents object to Gwyneth (she's Jewish). Cuddles knows exactly who she is and what she wants: Arley and Gwyneth need to do a bit more work on deciding what really matters to them.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Romance, Pleasure, and Poetics

Hello, everyone. I've been gone so long, this blog feels unfamiliar: a bit like visiting home for the holidays after one has actually moved out of the house, out of state, into adulthood. Not that what I'm up to elsewhere has been particularly adult; in my other (so-called) professional lives I've been teaching glum undergraduates, grading exams, and working my way through a two-foot stack of poetry by Latina/o American poets, looking for a lead for my next piece. This weekend, though, a discussion of pleasure and poetry got me thinking and writing about romance again, and I thought I'd continue those musings, and that conversation, here. I hope that you all can bring some fresh perspectives to the debate!

A graduate-student blogger named Josh Corey kicked things off with an introspective post about the disparate pleasures he takes in fiction and poetry; or, to be more precise, in certain kinds of fiction and certain kinds of poetry. As my old friend Mark explains,
Josh contrasts the “absorptive” or “immersive” pleasure of your average well-written novel (the “vivid continuous dream” evoked by John Gardner) with the more thorny pleasures offered by “anti-absorptive” poetry – writing in which the language does not “disappear” from the page, to be replaced by an evoked or described world – writing, in short, that foregrounds its own materiality as language, that won’t let us forget that we’re after all reading.
Like many essayists and theorists, alas, Josh doesn't just distinguish between these pleasures; he ranks them. Unlike many others, however, Josh quickly checks himself, refusing to let the hierarchy he sets up pass unchallenged:
Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state [offered by "immersive" fiction], and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both. But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens. I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry [my link: ES] because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.
Now, on my Say Something Wonderful blog I took issue with Josh over a lot of this. I find his description of "immersive" fiction rather sloppy; it can't account, for example, for my vivid sense, this past weekend, of snuggling up with two entirely different authorial "voices" as I read Eloisa James's Pleasure for Pleasure and Pam Rosenthal's The Slightest Provocation. His sexual and culinary metaphors are both somewhat casual, and likewise won't hold up on close inspection. How, though, shall we talk about the different pleasures of reading different sorts of literature? Are there other discourses available?

In search of them, I'm heading off to read an essay from Sally Goade's forthcoming collection on romance fiction, Empowerment vs. Oppression (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007): "Forms of Pleasure in the Reading of Popular Romance: Psychic and Cultural Dimensions," by Eva Y. I. Chen. I'll let you know what she says, and how it helps. In the mean time, I notice that the theorists and philosophers who get cited in these debates are all men, all modern, and all European: Freud, Lacan, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, Theodore Adorno. Who are the women I should read? Who are the non-European thinkers? Who are the ancients, the medieval rhetoricians, the neo-classicists, the Romantics? Who thinks about pleasure outside the literary sphere, in disciplines from psychology to, I don't know, marketing?

I'd love your suggestions, and promise to make use of them!

Marion Lennox - A Bride for Christmas

This is a novella, the third in the anthology Christmas Proposals. I've not been able to find a review of it anywhere, but the synopsis, from the back cover, is as follows: 'When wealthy Guy Carver arrives in Australia, to take over Jenny Westmere’s wedding salon, he finds he wants nothing more than to make Jenny and her little boy his family – by Christmas!' Before I go any further, I'd better issue my usual spoiler warning. This isn't a review, and because I want to look at some of the themes in the novella, I sometimes have to reveal spoilers.

This interview with Marion Lennox, from The Age gives a hint of what her books are like: they're romances which combine intense emotion and down-to-earth practicality. She's won the Rita twice - in 2004, for Her Royal Baby in the Best Traditional Romance category and again, in the same category, in 2006, for Princess of Convenience. As one might expect from her down-to-earth side, Lennox has a habit of giving the princess story a bit of a twist. Jenny, the heroine of this novella compares herself to Cinderella and the hero to Prince Charming and then observes:
'I have a feeling that marriage for Cinders had its downside.'
'I've never heard of any fairytale where they divorce,' he said, startled, but she refused to smile.
'No,' she said thoughtfully. 'But being all alone in his castle, with everyone knowing she'd come from rags to riches ... she'd have to be grateful for ever.' (2006: 346)
In her two Rita-winning romances featuring commoners who marry a prince the balance of power isn't always in the Prince's favour and the Princess-to-be is extremely talented and skilled at her job.

Marion Lennox's novels not infrequently feature widowed heroines, as does 'A Bride for Christmas', and characters who've suffered other bereavements (this is the case in Princess of Convenience, as discussed here), but as they're romances, there are happy endings. As touched on in 'A Bride for Christmas', though, Christmas can be a bitter-sweet (or even just a bitter) time for those whose bereavement is recent and even not so recent (Guy, for example, says that 'The first Christmas was the worst, but it's still bad' (2006: 293) after fifteen years), but in time the celebration can bring comfort to some:
The Christmas after Ben had been killed, when Henry's life had hung by a precarious thread, Lorna had decreed Christmas was off. 'It doesn't mean anything,' she'd declared. 'I'm tossing all my decorations.'
Twelve months later she'd rather shamefacedly hauled out her non-tossed decorations. Jack and Jenny had been desultorily watching television, with Henry on the sofa nearby. They'd been miserable, but they'd fallen on the decorations like long-lost friends. That night had been the first night when ghosts and fear and sadness hadn't hung over the house, and this year Henry had demanded his grandparents start sorting the decorations on the first day of November (2006: 277)
Both Guy and Henry (Jenny's six-year-old son) have been involved in car accidents which have left them emotionally and physically scarred: Guy 'worked hard. He kept to himself. He made money and he carefully didn't know people. His life decisions would never hurt anyone again' (2006: 259) and 'Normally when visitors came Henry was seen but not heard. Henry had been a happy, cheerful four-year-old [...] Now Henry's world was limited to hospital visits, physiotherapy clinics and his grandparents' farm' (2006: 279). Henry's physical scars are the more visible, and Guy comforts him by showing him his own, 'He'd learned not to hate his scars, but until now he'd never been grateful' (2006: 326), and telling Henry that
Most people start out as babies with no marks on them, but as interesting things happen they get marked. We all get marked from life. Somewhere I read that the native people in Australia deliberately make scars on their chests to show they're grown up. I think the more marks you have on you, the more interesting you become. ' He smiled at the little boy [...] 'So you and me, Henry ... we're really interesting [...]'. (2006: 327)
The theme of scars, life experience and how it making someone more interesting also turns up, though in a rather different way, in Jennifer Crusie's Christmas novella, 'Hot Toy', but I'll blog about that another day.

There's a second theme, also related to outward appearances, which is about style and different tastes in decoration, particularly kitsch (2006: 308). Kitsch is:
a German term that has been used to categorize art that is considered an inferior copy of an existing style. The term is also used more loosely in referring to any art that is pretentious or in bad taste [...] most closely associated with art that is sentimental; however, it can be used to refer to any type of art that is deficient for similar reasons—whether it tries to appear sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative, kitsch is said to be a gesture imitative of the superficial appearances of art. It is often said that kitsch relies on merely repeating convention and formula, lacking the sense of creativity and originality displayed in genuine art. (Wikipedia)
I may be wrong, but I see parallels here between different styles of wedding (the kitsch 'pink tulle' wedding versus the elegant, minimalist celebration) and different types of fiction (romance versus some types of modern literary fiction). Jenny's extremely pink wedding salon was founded by Lorna, who reads 'romance novels' (2006: 358). Romance, like Jenny's salon, is often described as 'fluff' and, like kitsch, is often described as formulaic and overly sentimental. As Guy observes, however, kitsch can be 'fun when you're not forced into it' (2006: 309). Of course, there are only a few romances which are kitsch, but even those can have a certain charm, even if some romance readers think of them as 'guilty pleasures'.

Guy's 'Carver Salons are sleek and minimalist' (2006: 254), whereas Jenny's shop is called 'Bridal Fluff', and it certainly doesn't fit in with the image of the other Carver bridal salons:
what he saw made him blanch. Bridal Fluff was indeed ... fluff. The shopfront was pastel pink. The curtains in the windows looked like billowing white clouds, held back with pink and silver tassels. A Christmas tree stood in the window, festooned with pink and silver baubles, and a white fluffy angel smiling seraphically down on passers-by. The name of the shop was picked out in deeper pink, gold and silver. (2006: 238-9)
Kylie, the first bride Guy meets, is having her fitting in the shop and is being dressed to meet her mother's idea of 'what a bride should look like - which was a vision in every decorative piece of lacework she could think of. The veil even had tiny cupid motifs hand-sewn onto the netting. Seeing the veil turned into a train, Jenny estimated Guy was looking at approximately eight hundred cupids' (2006: 247-8). The second bride-to-be is a celebrity, Anna Price, who 'had been pilloried in the press for her bad taste. Of course she'd want pink tulle' (2006: 264). I suspect that Anna's tastes in wedding dresses matches those of Jordan, with whom she shares a surname. Jordan/Katie Price was married in 2005 in a dress which 'was pink with a tightfitting bodice made out of Swarovski crystals and a large wide Cinderella style skirt, adorned in 1000's of crystals. She had a large tiara with rose and clear coloured crystals in the shape of interlocking hearts' (from this website, where pictures are available if you scroll down a little).*

In some ways, romance novels are like 'Bridal Fluff': they're stereotyped as being pink and fluffy, but they appeal to a range of customers and, in fact, not all are 'fluffy', just as not all the wedding's Jenny's run are 'fluffy' 'pink tulle' weddings: when Guy flicks through the catalogue of past weddings she's organised he sees 'Fluff, fluff ... But every now and then something different' (2006: 259). In fact the 'pink tulle' style is more to Lorna's taste. She was the one who founded Bridal Fluff, and her taste in Christmas decorations is equally over-the-top but 'there was a reason why the [Christmas] decorations were just ever so slightly over the top' (2006: 277) at Lorna, Jack, Jenny and Henry's home. For them the over the top decorations are a way of showing they're going to make the very most of life. Similarly, even the fluffiest, pinkest wedding has a special meaning for the bride who chooses it. Of course, it isn't a style that suits everyone, as Lennox acknowledges. Despite appearances to the contrary, Kylie longs to have a special day which reflects her own tastes, not her mother's:
'that dress ... Mum had you make it for me when I was sixteen. She chose it. Not me. Every week since then Mum gets it out and pats it. Do you know how much I hate it? [...] when Mum rang and said I could have a Carver Wedding I thought suddenly, A Carver Wedding! I could maybe have it like I want. Elegant. Sleek. Sophisticated. Something so when our kids grow up they'll look at our wedding photos and think, Wow, just for a bit our parents weren't assistants in a butcher's shop. If you knew how much I hate pink tulle...' (2006: 306)
Deep down, Guy isn't really a minimalist and he comes up with an inventive solution which gives every bride the wedding that suits her, whether that be pink tulle or something a little different. In this way Guy rediscovers what had first made him take up wedding planning. The first wedding he organised was run on a tiny budget, and 'The bride had been ecstatic' (2006: 256), but Guy faced a lot of prejudice, including from his now-deceased fiancée who had declared:
'If you loved me you'd keep doing law. Your father's expecting you to take over the family firm. Your mother's scared you're gay. Guy, you play with paints. Paints! And me ... How do you think I feel being engaged to a wedding planner?'
She'd said the words with such scorn. (2006: 258)
I may be wrong, but I wonder if there are parallels here with the way in which male romance novelists face even more prejudice than female ones. The big problem with Guy's retreat from emotional weddings is that some of his staff don't just scorn 'pink tulle' weddings, they also scorn women whom they assume would want that sort of wedding, perhaps in the same way that some people mistakenly assume that romance readers have lower educational levels than those who read other genres. When Jenny visited the Carver salon in Paris:
I could have been there to talk about my wedding. I could have been there to make enquiries about anything at all. But I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and carrying a small backpack Lorna had given me. [...] The backpack was pink. Anyway, they obviously sorted me as a type they didn't want. They asked me to leave, and suddenly there was a security guard propelling me onto the pavement (2006: 255)
Jane Austen's novels are romances which get past the literary security guards, but other romances, particularly those with pink, sparkles, clinches, or the Mills & Boon rose logo on the cover probably won't. At their core, romances, like Bridal Fluff's business model, are about emotion. Some romances may not be as stylish as others but deep down, there's a sincerity, joy and hopefulness in romance which is likely to be lacking in sleek, minimalist works.
  • Lennox, Marion, 2006. 'A Bride for Christmas', in Christmas Proposals (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon), pp. 235-377.
* Incidentally, apparently Jordan's 'princess-style fantasy wedding has helped send sales of Barbie dolls soaring' (Louise Barnett, The Daily Record, 26 September 2005).

Coincidentally, the last book I analysed was by a 'Squawker' and included a pet chicken. Marion Lennox keeps chooks, and some appear in this novel. They're described as 'Feathery things that lay eggs' (2006: 294) and if you look at some of the photos of chooks on Ally Blake's blog (e.g. here and here), you'll see that that's really a very accurate description. Ally Blake, like Marion Lennox, is a romance writer who keeps chooks. Seems that where romance writers are concerned, feather boas are out, and feathered friends are in ;-)