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?And once again my answer for Eric is an unqualified "Hell, yes!"
I've been thinking about this a lot more. Paranormal romances, evidence to the contrary, are not really my "thing." My "thing," for what it's worth, is romances with strong masculine perspective. Not necessarily the perspective of alpha males, but rather just lots and lots of the story told from the hero's point of view.
I know why this is and have actually published on it. My basic point in my article is that some women (I definitely include myself in this group) read romances in order to watch the hero fall in love, because we want to see that he's feeling the same emotions, the same pain and heartache and joy that we feel when we fall in love. We want to see ourselves (the feminine) and our emotions reflected in the alpha representative of patriarchy.(1) We also want to see the alpha male recognize, understand, and truly believe that he can't live without the heroine and without her love.(2) (This is why Susan Elizabeth Phillips' books are so powerful, in my opinion--the heroine comes to the realization that she can live without the hero, but the hero's big realization is that he absolutely can't live without the heroine--but that's another post. Or a future article.) And this need or desire doesn't have to be consciously recognized or understood by the reader by any means. But the sharp increase in the hero's perspective, especially during initial sex scenes and the final reconciliation scene, as well as the focus on masculine communities (brothers, SEALs, vampires, football players) in best-selling series are, I argue, not coincidences.
Some paranormal romances, I have figured out recently, don't need to mess around with alluding to these theoretical underpinnings of the romance. They can make them theoretical overalls that are immediately available for the critic's use and enjoyment without needing to search hard for them. They are metafictional to the nth degree and almost point neon signs to the reason for the reader's enjoyment of the romance.
Take, for example, Laura Kinsale's Uncertain Magic. The heroine is psychic and can read the mind of everyone around her. This is represented as a curse, not a blessing and the unhappy romantic fates of Roddy's female ancestors who also had the gift are explicitly described. When Roddy meets Faelan, an impoverished Irish Lord with a reputation as a madman and murderer, she cannot read his mind. She uses her incredibly large dowry to buy his proposal and marries him, convinced this is her only chance at happiness. The story is told entirely from Roddy's perspective, and because she cannot read Faelan's mind, neither can the reader. Kinsale herself says:
until the very end, the entire story is told solely from the heroine's point-of-view. Initially, I chose this technique to emphasize Roddy's inability to "read" Faelan's mind, but after I completed the manuscript, I realized what a powerful narrative technique it can be.When Roddy finally breaks through Faelan's mental walls in the last few pages, his thoughts are almost like crack for the reader (I tried to think of a more professional way to say that, but "crack" really conveys the addictive, high-inducing nature for the reader of finally reading Faelan's thoughts).
In her recent lightning review of Kinsale's novels, Candy, one of the Smart Bitches summarizes the issue of perspective in Uncertain Magic:
I missed having Faelan’s perspective, but because of the way the story is structured and because so much of the plot hinges on solving the enigma of why Faelan’s mind is closed off, it has to be told only from Roddy’s POV.This is where the X-Ray vision comes in. If romances are, fundamentally, about the reader's access to the hero's thoughts and emotions, Kinsale's use of the paranormal gift of mind-reading in Uncertain Magic makes this theme overt.
I've already discussed Nora Roberts' Midnight Bayou as meta-romance, but I think it's worth adding a snippet of what I said in the comments to that post:
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 [as a reincarnated woman] unveils that aspect of romance novels, but still gives us our HEA.Just as Faelan does.
Then there's a new paranormal romance anthology out called Over the Moon. Angela Knight's contribution, "Moon Dance," is about a female werewolf whose father insists she marry an abusive werewolf to preserve her aristocratic werewolf line. She refuses and runs away to seek protection from a "bitten" rather than "born" werewolf who is a cop and obviously alpha. After they first have sex, she muses in the morning:
All her life, she'd dreamed of a man like him. Then again, she supposed every red-blooded woman in America had dreamed of a man like Lucas Rollings--body by God, face of an archangel, a protective streak a mile wide. Who wouldn't want somebody like that by her side?First of all, werewolf stories make overt the fact that the heroes of romances are alpha males. And while Elena desperately needs the literal protection of Lucas' alpha status, she is also looking for a vulnerability in her hero that she (and the reader) recognizes because she feels it as well. Elena literally seeks Lucas out to solve her problems, a trait of male-male dialogue practices, but just as important to the success of their relationship is the fact that he can also empathize with her, a trait of female-female dialogue practices.(3)
But there was more to him than great abs and an Alpha male growl. She remembered the vulnerability in his eyes when he'd described his abusive childhood. He'd gone out of his way to assuage her guilt and convince her he admired her for her battle against Stephen and her father.
When she thought about it, that little confession of his was pretty unusual all by itself. Most Alphas would rather eat glass than admit they'd ever been anyone's victim. It ran against the whole persona. (67-68)
Later, Lucas and Elena "spirit link." As they both change to were-form, their spirits mingle and link forever, to the extent that if one of a spirit-linked pair dies, so does the other. This process is told from Lucas' perspective:
Touching her mind was like laying naked in warm sunlight after a cold winter. His spirit unfurled with a hungry desperation, enfolding her and bringing her close.The alpha male, in his pure form, is desperate for connection to the female, desperate to be enfolded within her, and this is what he has been looking for all along. The male is not complete without the intimate connection to the female, and this is a powerful concept for the reader.
Just as she enfolded him. Together...
Finally, a voice said deep inside him. This is what I was looking for all along.
Virginia Kantra's contribution to Over the Moon is "Between the Mountain and the Moon." (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!) Unbeknownst to the heroine, she is the child of a father who spent fourteen years in the Fey kingdom in the Appalachian Mountains along the Appalachian Trail until he was saved by the heroine's mother. The fey Queen who was defeated by the heroine's mother is looking for revenge and chooses to enact it against the heroine. The Queen uses her own son, Rhys, who is himself half-human, although his father "left" when Rhys was eight by abandoning his human emotions and becoming full fey.
When Rhys and the heroine, Caitlin, have sex (she's a virgin and doesn't have an orgasm!), rather than Caitlin being enchanted and therefore destroyed by the sex as was Rhys' intention, Rhys' finds himself reeling from the emotional energy of their coupling:
Instead, she had destroyed him. Challenged him. Not merely sexually--he might have coped with that--but emotionally.The hero--that representation of inscrutable patriarchy--finds himself stunned by the emotional importance of what he meant to be not only a one-time, casual sexual encounter, but one that was meant to devastate the heroine instead, while the heroine remains relatively untouched.
He could barely forgive her for that.
Or himself. (133)
Later, Caitlin casually touches Rhys' arm:
Rhys tensed. He couldn't help himself. The sidhe did not touch except in the formal figures of the dance or the equally deliberate moves of sex. Every time Cait touched him, she breached the walls he'd learned to construct to protect the sniveling, abandoned, eight-year-old child within. (144)Rhys' traditionally masculine defenses of emotionlessness and casual sex are systematically threatened by his heroine. He finds himself helpless in the face of the artless acceptance of the heroine.
And in the end, it is Caitlin's love for Rhys that literally saves him from being torn apart by the Wild Hunt. She confronts the Hunter King who was once Rhys' human father, finally begging him, "Please . . . You were alive once. You were in love once. Please. Let him go" (182). It is the King's memory of the human love he felt for a woman that eventually saves his son, Rhys, from Rhys' mother's vengeance.
All because of the love of a good woman.
Paranormal romances bring to the forefront the theoretical foundations of the appeal of the romance. While these foundations are present in most "mundane" romances, paranormal romances make them overt, make them--in fact--the major plot point on which the salvation of the hero depends.
(1). This summary is the quick and dirty version, without the discussion of Foucault's theory of confession. See my article, "'Expressing' Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power," in Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36.
(2). This last argument actually comes from my article, "'If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more': Direct Dialogue and Education in the Proposal Scenes," in Talk in Jane Austen. Eds. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos-Gregg. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002. 167-182.
(3). See Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation).