Monday, December 28, 2009

A Tiny Insight (in Three Parts)

I'm reading Forbidden by Jo Beverley, the fourth in the Rogue series.  Before I get to my tiny insight, may I take a moment to discuss how ugly this cover is?  (It's from the original 1994 publication; the reprint in 2004 was banal but not ugly.)  Both garish and monochromatic, it neither tells us anything about the heroine, Serena, nor about the plot (I haven't finished it, but I'm pretty sure no fans were abused in the making of her romance with Francis).  And it's ugly.  So -- sure, I hate the Fabio covers, and sure I hate the "bodice-ripper" covers, and sure I hate the bulging bosoms covers, and I'm not particularly fond of the bare back to almost-but-not-quite butt crack covers.  But I really hate ugly.

I discussed Beverley's Rogue series here, where I remarked that I'd really not liked An Arranged Marriage, the first book.  I haven't tried to reread it, so I'm drawing on pretty dated memories of its plot and characters.  While I make no claims of accuracy here, what I recall is that its hero, Nicholas Delaney, was pretty tortured by his competing loyalties to the Mission and to his Beloved.  (The Mission, as I recall, involved unpleasant sex with, or in the presence of, unpleasant people.)

In books 2 and 3 of the series, Nicholas is the happy husband and father: pretty standard fare for a character shown in subsequent books.  In Forbidden, though, I was struck by this line about Nicholas:
Serena [was] embarrassingly aware that he had pinpointed her unacknowledged intention.  She was heartily sick of all these astute observations.
And later on, this:
...Nicholas still made Serena very nervous.  There was something in his eyes -- a quickness, a perception -- that made her feel transparent.  There were a great many things that she did want him to know.
Here's our first hero -- previously tortured and torn by the disparate demands on his morality -- suddenly the calm & knowing patriarch, the man who Sees All and can Fix All.

That's when it hit me.  In An Arranged Marriage, we see past that supremely competent facade to the self-doubt and struggles inside the man, but no matter how many times Nicholas turns up in the other books, we'll never again see an inner struggle.  And even if I'm misremembering the details of An Arranged Marriage, this tiny insight applies to other series or sequels.  The characters whose agonies of love and conflict we gobbled up in their book show up again settled and serene.  And, to be honest, a bit boring.

This explains a few things.  First, why epilogues and reappearances in sequels can be emotionally unsatisfying.  We meet the characters again, but we see them as others see them.  In the quotes from Forbidden, we're seeing Nicholas Delaney from Serena's POV; her awareness of him fits what we know of him, but he's not very interesting to her, so he's not very interesting to us.  Which may bother us if we'd particularly liked that character or couple from the earlier book.  We may want to relive, just for a moment, the thrill when Nicholas and Eleanor finally overcame all their problems and earned their HEA.  Instead, we get "calm & knowing."

Second, I understand a bit better now why romances can be so compelling.  We meet the protagonists through each other's POV.  At the same time, we not only experience the action from a specific character's perspective through their POV, but we also learn how they see themselves.  This is a very intimate experience, one that novels can provide better than almost any other medium.  (In theory a memoir is even more intimate, but only when the author is insightful in a particular way.  Too much self-doubt can be as off-putting as too much self-preening.) 

In a romance novel, this means we're getting a ringside seat to the emotional upheaval of falling in love, or being in love without any hope of being loved back, or being loved but not able to see a way to be together -- or whatever the conflict is.  We can feel vicariously the depths of anxiety or fear of loss; we get also to experience the exultation when the couple come together freed from the conflict.  With some novels, these vicarious experiences are so delicious that we want to re-experience them.  Sure we can re-read the book, but having the characters show up in a later book holds out the promise of a quick taste of the original book's flavor.  Instead, we get "calm & knowing."

As an ancillary insight, I wonder if this isn't a factor in some people's disfavor for the first person narrative.  On the plus side, the first-person narrator may reveal him- or herself more fully than in books with third person narration and shifting points-of-view, but we may never see the other protagonist's inner thoughts and feelings.  In romances, that can provide an imbalance -- we want to meet both characters fully; the first-person narrator may be a barrier toward that goal.  (By contrast, I think it works beautifully in mysteries and thrillers, where we learn what the protagonist learns when he or she learns it.)

Finally, my tiny insight reminds me that we appear to others quite differently than we seem to ourselves.  I recall a compliment a colleague paid me almost 20 years ago; what was so memorable was not how nice the compliment was, but how startlingly divergent it was from my own sense of how I must appear to others.  My colleague thought I was self-confident; I thought I was a lump of insecurity with a thin shell of pretend-competence.  It wasn't even the "I'm a fraud" phenomenon because until he paid me that compliment I had thought that the whole world shared my view of my inadequacies. 

In a couple's own romance, the conflict often involves these discrepancies between how they see themselves and how their beloved sees them.  We long to have them see each other as we (the readers) see them.  We know the misunderstandings and misconceptions need to be cleared up.  In a well-written book, those confusions can even seem reasonable, or at least understandable.  (In a poorly-written book, they merely seem evidence that the characters are too stupid to live, or at least too stupid to work their way out of a damp paper bag.)  But all those muddles and misunderstandings have to be worked out by the HEA.  And nothing that bad can arise between them again; part of the contract between the author and the reader is that the characters have learned their lesson by the end of the book: no more secrets, no more doubts.  Love, trust, intelligence & loyalty are all necessary conditions of the HEA.

Because Nicholas and Eleanor Delaney have had their HEA, we'll never again meet their inner fears and worries.  They will always come to us through the eyes of others: the other Rogues who know them well, or characters like Serena who meet them for the first time.  Nicholas and Eleanor are now more two-dimensional, and if we'd thrilled to their roller-coaster romance, we're now stuck with the boring side of life post-HEA.  They'll still have adventures when they join in the Rogues' idea of rough justice, but they'll not reveal themselves as thoroughly in the later stories.  They may now permanently be "calm & knowing."

Sometimes, an HEA means life will never again be quite so "interesting," as in the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.


  1. You know, it may just be a function of word count requirements. Readers want to see their old favorites, but too much A) upstages the current drama and B) costs too much space to deal with effectively.

    My proofer wanted more of this, that, or some other thing and I finally said, "If I'd done that, the book would've been three times longer."

    I think that's common. I can't imagine any writer has characters that don't evolve in her mind, that her characters just...stop. Or maybe they do. I don't know.

  2. I fear you may have to bite your words when it comes to Beth and Lucien -- there are still sparks and flurries and flare ups when it comes to them in Forbidden ... that continue, albeit less stormily in Devil's Heiress.



    ... and one of the reasons Suz Brockmann is almost reviled by some is that she tampered with a couple's HEA in her loooooooooong series!

  3. Moriah -- I agree that characters don't stop, but post-HEA their lives become more mundane and less, well, romantic. They marry (Sidebar -- does anyone know of a m/f romance where the HEA explicitly doesn't include marriage?), have kids, settle down. Chances are they fight and make up, face problems and resolve them, even have issues with outside forces. All suitable for a women's fiction book, or general fiction, but not the stuff of romances.

    So we meet them again, and that's nice, it's just not so romantic.

    Although, I did finish Forbidden after posting this and it is true that the couple from Book 2 (An Unwilling Bride) can still get pretty frisky! So sexy, yes, but not romantic the way their book was.

  4. P.S. I actually liked the cover -- it was different, it was overwhelming and the woman behind the eyes: she had power!

  5. Janet -- I feel like doing a full Johnny Mac rant-at-Wimbledon here: You Cannot Be Serious!

    I will grant you: it was overwhelming. As in, her eyes seemed to follow me about the room. But did it have to be printed entirely in Pepto-Bismol? And seriously -- why is 2/3 of it a fan? There are no fans in this book. Did the design team at Zebra not read the memo telling them what the book was about? There was also no intrigue, no Spanish ladies, no inappropriate flirting with other men to make the hero jealous (and certainly none involving a fan), and lacemakers rescued from poverty by the largesse of the new viscountess. So why a fan? And why such a whopping huge fan?

    (I actually really like fans, and have two antique lace ones I really should get framed. But I still don't like this cover.)

  6. "We meet the characters again, but we see them as others see them."

    This sometimes bothers me, too. While we may not get to go so deeply into someone's head when he or she is appearing as a secondary character in someone else's book, there's something kind of sad about seeing them do a total personality change when they make that cameo appearance in a sequel. Their marriage and HEA may make them happy, but they shouldn't all become bland and perfect. I may not see my closest friends and family better than they see themselves, but I do see them as having a little more character than the couple flouncing through a sequel too often does.

  7. Lynn -- Does removing the bland require a bit more drama or conflict? I really don't know. Sometimes some snazzy dialogue can make all the difference, particularly where the cameo is being used more for plot exposition than because the earlier couple really wants or needs to be there.

    I agree with Janet that Jo Beverley does a better than average job of allowing the earlier couples retain their quirks and foibles, but Nicholas & Eleanor are the exception to that. He's really bucking for a Deus Ex Machina of the Year Award!


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