Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou

In my post on the definition of paranormal romances, Eric asked:
I wonder whether paranormal romance lends itself to allegorical reading, or at least metafictional reading. That is, does the "paranormal" part of the world correspond in some way to the world of romance experienced by the reader while reading the book itself--and, by extension, to the worlds of desire and love?

My quick answer to him was,
Eric, yes, absolutely. I'm reading Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou and it's doing exactly that in ways I think I'm going to blog about when I've finished it.

So here I am to fulfill my promise. Rethinking my ideas, I don't think Eric and I are talking about exactly the same thing, but here we go anyway.

Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou.

I'm not very good at summarizing plot. The above link takes you to the Barnes & Noble site for the book, with its plot summaries. Suffice it to say that Declan, a rich Boston lawyer, quits everything and buys a house in New Orleans, Manet Hall, that he has always been drawn to. There he falls for Lena, a bar owner and descendent of a previous inhabitant of the Hall. Interwoven in Declan and Lena's story is the turn-of-the-century story of Abby, the bayou servant who marries Lucian, the heir of Manet Hall, and bears him a child (Lena's ancestor), but whose rape and murder by Julian, her husband's twin, is covered up by her husband's mother. Ghosts haunt the house, although it's never 100% defined whose ghosts (Abby, Lucian, Lucian's mother, certainly; Abby and Lucian's daughter as a baby, maybe; potentially Julian, Lucian's brother, the one who rapes and murders Abby). The ghosts want the house to remain abandoned and/or filled with unhappiness, and try to get their way by slamming doors and producing cold spots and apparitions of rooms as they once were. When the ghosts get particularly mad, they can throw crockery. But Declan and Lena, of course, refuse to be driven away.

It's definitely a paranormal by my definition. The hero and heroine, each with their own baggage, are attempting to establish (or desperately trying to avoid establishing, in Lena's case) an intimate, sexual relationship. It is explicitly stated, however, that in order to achieve their HEA, they have to resolve the hauntings in the house. So the final tension of the novel is firmly grounded in the paranormal, even if neither of the characters is particularly paranormal themselves.

The crux of the hauntings is the fact that Abby's rape and murder are unknown and unacknowledged. Julian rapes and murders her in the nursery, in front of her child, in a jealous, drunken rage. His mother walks in just as the deeds are done and becomes the brains behind the cover-up. When Abby's husband Lucian comes home the next day, rather than trusting Abby's fidelity, he eventually believes his mother's claim that Abby left him to run off with her lover, leaving him with her bastard child. He never knows what happens to her and finally commits suicide by walking into the bayou, already dead inside of a broken heart.

In a move that Kirkus Reviews (from the B&N website) calls "an unconvincing twist of gender and reincarnation" (more about those awful reviews in a bit), it is Declan, not Lena, who is the reincarnation of Abby. While he works to refurbish the house, he dreams that he is Abby, living through the experiences of falling in love with Lucian, pregnancy, child birth, and finally not only the rape and murder, but also the cover-up and the hauntings. Declan's connection to Abby, the fact that Declan IS Abby, if firmly grounded in the corporeal. He is much more Abby than Lena is Lucian because he relives the female bodily traumas of childbirth and rape. Although it is Lena who suggests that he is Abby, rather than Lucian, Declan accepts the reincarnation much more easily because he is forced to because of the experiences of his body.

While one can speculate that Roberts probably "meant" the reincarnation twist to be merely a way to perk up the tired reincarnation plot, or, as Publisher's Weekly puts it, merely a way to "giv[e] her faithful readers a little extra thrill," I'm interested in the literary and theoretical repercussions of that choice, especially as they relate to gender and the reader's experience, whether or not they were consciously "meant."

The house is haunted because the ultimate violence against a woman has been erased from history. The secret died with her murderer and his collaborator. No one else has ever had knowledge of it. Justice has not been served and the house is therefore haunted until it is. But the justice is not that of a courtroom and a murder conviction. Rather, the justice Abby's ghost demands is the trust of her beloved. Lucian did not believe in her love, in her fidelity, or in their relationship. Neither did he love and protect their child after her disappearance as he had promised when she was born. Rather, he took her back to Abby's bayou relatives (where she had a contented, fulfilled life). It is Lucian's distrust, his emotional abandonment of Abby and their child, that Abby's ghost cannot forgive. For Declan and Lena, reincarnations of Abby and Lucian to achieve their happy ending, the star-crossed lovers must resolve the issue that kept them apart in a past life in order to come together in this life.

The modern hero and heroine, then, cannot attain their happy ending until the enormity of the crime against Abby--the ultimate crime of violence and power possible against a woman--has been uncovered, lived through, and acknowledged by a man. It would not be enough for Declan to be a reincarnation of Lucian, because the whole point is that Lucian was not present during the rape and murder and could not save Abby. Rather, a man must experience the devastating results of a woman's rape and murder. And although Abby-through-Declan receives Lucian-through-Lena's apologies and remorse and in turn forgives him, freeing the house of its ghosts, this occurs only after the alpha male hero has literally become a woman by experiencing that which only a woman could experience (childbirth and rape), and has acknowledged their power.

Midnight Bayou, then, demonstrates an alpha male recognizing and acknowledging that a woman's experience is necessary for full truth in and full understanding of any situation. It is not enough that the hero merely know this intellectually; he must experience and acknowledge the primacy, the necessity of a woman's experience.

While that is my "official" analysis of the novel, there are a couple of other things I'd like to cover. Both reviews (PW and Kirkus) mention the "predictable" nature of this romance, but one can almost imagine them calling every romance predictable.

The implications of these statements is that the narrative closure should NOT be predictable, that the reader must be reading for something other than the happy ending, so the reviewer will try to figure out what elusive quality the reader enjoys other than the happy ending. Kirkus comes up with "Agreeably credible lovers and a neat piece of home-restoration compensate some for the hokey hauntings on the bayou," as if this were a written version of "This Old House," rather than a romance where Declan's renovations of Manet Hall are certainly interesting, but rather get in the way of what I'm really looking for, which is, of course, exploration of his relationship with his heroine.

I've long been interested in establishing a blog rather like the Smart Bitches, but for Chick Flicks. I'd love to be able to read reviews of romantic comedies that review the movies on the basis of their status AS romantic comedies, rather than on the basis of their status as NOT being Schindler's List. I want to know if a film is a good or bad romantic comedy, not whether it is an Important or Ground-Breaking Film.

In fact, reader reviews of Midnight Bayou on the B&N site express disappointment that the happy ending is not extended further. Declan finds a ring for Lena in an antique store in New Orleans, but is never given the opportunity to give it to her. While she asks him "We getting married or what?" on the last page and he responds enthusiastically, "You better believe it," and while she gives him the necklace and charm that represent the "key to her heart," the issue of the engagement ring is not resolved, and readers noticed. Not only do they count on the happy ending, but they are disappointed when they do not get ENOUGH of it.

Why do "predictable" happy endings automatically make books less worthy of being read? Why is "boy and girl live HEA" the predictable part, but the actual unpredictable achievement of that HEA (Declan becoming a woman) mentioned with even more scorn by the reviewers than the HEA itself?

Questions for the ages, I guess, but this is why romance reader websites are so common on the web and why they're such strong communities. We've had to fight back against "official" brush-offs from reviewers and we review the romances AS romances, coming from the axiomatic stance that romances are worth reading because of their HEA, and exploding from there. And I think that's a Very Good Thing (TM).


  1. "the hero [...] must experience and acknowledge the primacy, the necessity of a woman's experience"

    But it's not simply that he has to acknowledge this as an external fact, it's that he has to comes to terms with the fact that he is the reincarnation of a woman, just as Lena is the reincarnation of a man. That reminds me of some of the essays in Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women where there's discussion of how the reader has both masculine and feminine aspects to her personality, and so she is, in a sense 'haunted' by both the heroine and the hero. I wonder if that ties in at all with what Eric was saying about the reading experience, too. It begins to break down binary concepts of gender as male v female, and suggests that each one of us is a mixture of 'masculine' and 'feminine' traits.

    I haven't actually read Virginia Wolf's Orlando but I wonder if one could find parallels with the reincarnation and gender-change aspects?

  2. Yeah, that kinda got left out a bit. That's where the meta-criticism comes in that Eric was talking about. Because all romance heroes, are, of course, created by women. They're "reincarnations" of women in the image of what we wish men could be. And Declan's unique status unveils that aspect of romance novels, but still gives us our HEA.

    Damn, THAT'S what I meant to say in the post! Blogging is a fascinating genre I'm still trying to connect with and control.

  3. Hmmm... Maybe if I keep that in mind, I'll end up liking this one if I ever re-read it again? I've already blogged about why I didn't connect with Midnight Bayou, but it's not because it was a predictable romance, or that the HEA wasn't detailed enough. Midnight Bayou as meta-romance, though, maybe that'll work.

    I'd love to see a blog dedicated to reviewing romantic comedy movies AS romantic comedies. It always amazes me when a movie (or a book, or anything else) is criticized for not being what it didn't intend to be in the first place. It's like saying that all the discussion about romance novels here is fine, but the in-depth analysis of current politics is really lacking.

  4. Sarah, how does this book conform to your more general definition of Paranormal Romance? I know you addressed this issue of the couple interacting with paranormal phenomena, but are you still defining PR specifically in terms of the couple's relationship?

    Also, where does the child fit in? As a reader of Roberts's In Death series, the child survivor seems to be a preoccupation of Roberts's books, as well. As, of course, does the gender switching you talk about here, which is one of the things that drew me to the In Death books to begin with (the fact that Roarke is really the wife so often). Surely you are talking about a much more radical gender switch, but it's interesting to see the themes reverberate through the books Roberts writes under her own name (which I don't read).

    Also, have you read Erin Grady's Echoes? Lots and lots of similarities based on your blog post here.

  5. On the topic of gender-bending reincarnation, be sure to check out the tongue-in-cheek film noir "Dead Again" (1991), starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. It's exceedingly entertaining. I haven't read La Nora's book, but I'd be surprised if she hadn't lifted a few ideas from the film.

    I'm laughing at your characterization of some books as not having a "happy enough" ending. It's true, sometimes you leave a book feeling like you want more happiness at the end. Especially if it's one of those stories where the lovers fight up until the second-to-last page when the hero finally says "I love you." THE END. It's sort of like a sex scene with no orgasm, if you take my meaning.

  6. Darla, I liked your comments about the book and I mostly agree with you about the issues of no conflict, Lena's commitment-phobia, and head-hopping. But reading it as a meta-romance made all the difference. It certainly helps with your issue about the consequenceless ghosts and Lena and Declan's choice in the relationship. But then, I did like Declan and his house! ;)

    Robin, I think it fits my definition of paranormal. I like Darla's comments for this, actually: "We don't find out until over halfway through the book that the whole point of it is for Declan to figure out what happened to Lucian and Abigail, which is kind of pointless, since we readers have known since the beginning, and there are no consequences if he doesn't--the ghosts are annoying, but not threatening." The threat is to the relationship. And although Declan and Lena have to work together to battle the paranormal, it still defines their relationship. And Declan accepts it a lot more easily than Lena--after all, he's the one actually experiencing it. The child was actually a non-issue. She was abandoned by Lucian, her father, but not in a bad way. She's taken back to her maternal relatives and has a happy, contented life. She's Lena's grandmother's grandmother. And I love figuring out themes across a writer's corpus. We can do it for "Great Literature" and be called "Literary Critics" and be applauded and get and retain jobs. Why not for romances, too? I haven't read "Echoes"--my TBR pile is growing by leaps and bounds and threatening to take over my house, with all my recent blogging. But I'll look into it!

    Kimber, I like your imagery! ;) I'll add that film to my (hypothetical) NetFlix list! Thanks.

  7. And although Declan and Lena have to work together to battle the paranormal, it still defines their relationship.

    Thanks, Sarah; this is helpful. I have been struggling with that part of your PR definition where you talk about the dynamics between the lovers and getting tangled up in what I see to be some notable exceptions (i.e. Kresley Cole's Valkyrie series). But if I think of it more in these terms, I can reconcile my own belief that the paranormal must merely frame the hero and heroine's relationship to be a PR with your stronger concept of "defining" the relationship.

    We can do it for "Great Literature" and be called "Literary Critics" and be applauded and get and retain jobs. Why not for romances, too?

    It wouldn't occur to me NOT to do it for Romance, too, and as an academic, I have found to most resistance to this idea coming from non-academic readers who don't want their beloved books messed with in that analytical way. I have always believed, though, that much of the intense fan discussion of variious Romance novels and authors is just as analytical as any of the academic work, just with much different vocabulary.

    In any case, back to your original premise, it reminded me of a Salon article on Stephen King and his attempt -- with Lisey's Story -- to engage lit fic, and how, in the opinion of Laura Miller, the lack of metaphor in his work makes it impossible for him to cross the divide from horror to lit fic. If you haven't read the piece already, it's provocative and related to your points here: http://www.salon.com/books/review/2006/10/24/king/index.html