Friday, January 8, 2010

Don't Buck the Hypo

I'll explain the title in a moment, but first some backstory.

I was chatting on the phone recently with a friend who works for Simon & Schuster.  I asked what she was currently working on, and she said it was Forget You, Jennifer Echols' latest YA book, due out this summer.

"Oh," I said, "I've read about her.  People love her books!"

I then had to go find where I'd seen reviews of Going Too Far.  KatieBabs loved it, and gave it an honorable mention in her Best of 2009 post.  But Monkey Bear didn't like it nearly as much, and gave it a C+ in her November mini-review.

I haven't read Going Too Far, so I'm not challenging these reviews, good or bad.  But something Sarah at Monkey Bear wrote has dovetailed with a reaction I'm having to the book I'm reading.  She based her grade on two "WTF?" moments she had when she read Echols' book.  One is a spoiler, so she doesn't discuss it.  But the other is the notion that a police uniform is so much of a disguise, in effect, that a 17-year-old could get arrested and assume the arresting officer was a 40-year-old man when in fact it's a 19-year-old she actually went to high school with.

As I say, I haven't read the book.  But I dunno -- the set-up sounds plausible to me, particularly when I think how notoriously unreliable eyewitness testimony can be.  We see what we think we're supposed to see.  Maybe a teenager would just assume all police officers are middle-aged men and not look to see whether this one actually was.  But again -- haven't read the book.

(Incidentally, I just assumed half the Evidence professors in the country ran one of those experiments where someone crashes into the class unexpectedly, does something, then leaves just as quickly.  Afterwards, the professor asks the students what they actually saw.  Inevitably, when the interrupter reenters the room, all the students' observations are proven to be inaccurate.  But I couldn't find any proof that Evidence professors actually run this experiment -- I know mine didn't -- and instead, found this chilling story of how close to incarceration someone was, based on manufactured or mistaken eyewitness testimony.)

There's a larger question here: Are we obligated to believe (within reason) what the author says happened?  I'm not talking about Sarah's opinion that it was implausible that Meg didn't recognize John in his uniform -- that's how Sarah saw it and as such her reaction is valid.  But where does our "voluntary suspension of disbelief" as readers end and the author's obligation to make things plausible begin?

I'm stubbing my toe on this problem in Rising Tides, the second book in Nora Roberts' four-book Chesapeake Bay trilogy (not exactly Douglas Adams-level renumbering; it's just that she wrote a fourth book a few years later).  For the handful of people who, like me, didn't read this series when it came out in the late 90s, the trilogy features three brothers, each of whom was abused, exploited or neglected as a child until he was fostered and then adopted by Ray & Stella Quinn, the saintly college professor and physician who found themselves caring for these damaged boys.  (We know they're saintly both by their actions and by the fact that Ray, who dies in the opening pages of the first book, "visits" each of the brothers periodically during that man's turn as hero.)

Now, you might think it's Ray's ghostly appearances that I'm squinting at, but you'd be wrong.  If Nora says her heroes see and talk with their dead father, I'm along for the ride.  Regardless, incidentally, of whether I believe in ghosts.  I think we owe the author that much suspension of disbelief.  But the abuse those three heroes suffered?  It's a lot.  In Ethan's case (he's the hero in Rising Tides, Book 2), it's about as bad as it could get: he was prostituted out to men by his biological mother.  (It's not the money changing hands that makes that so horrible from the kid's point of view.  It's that his mother is not merely failing to protect and care for him, she's the agent of his abuse.  It's the betrayal of trust and comfort that destroys little kids more than the pedophilia.)

I may not know about ghosts, but I know about child abuse.  Frankly, I find the ghost more plausible than the fairy tale notion that Ethan could survive what he survived and then -- with no therapy or counseling, just the love of his adoptive parents -- be a wonderful and sensitive lover.  Oh, sure, Roberts throws in some out-of-control moments at the beginning of Ethan & Grace's relationship, but they're never scary out-of-control moments (from Grace's POV) and once she realizes that he's as into her as she is into him, she seduces him without a hitch.

Look, I know that no romance novel could be explicit about what adult survivors of child abuse have to go through to get on with a happy life.  (Among other things, it's hard to have a romance novel-worthy love story with one character in therapy all the time!)  I'm not asking for Roberts -- or any author -- to go all dark & twisty just to be realistic in this context.  But she had another option:  she could have made Ethan's history bad enough, but not horrifically bad.  That's just not the Ethan she envisioned.  In her mind, Ray & Stella Quinn's hands-on love, discipline and guidance were enough.  (And maybe she figures all three boys got lots of counseling in that twilight between rebellious adolescents and full-blown hawt hawt hawt alpha males, but once "done" they never thought about it or referred to it again.  Maybe that's it...)

So -- am I being fair to Nora Roberts and authors the world over, or should I just accept that in Nora's World, real men get over it faster and don't need no stinking headshrinking?  I'm enjoying the entire series, and there have even been some laugh-out-loud moments, but then I start thinking about Ethan's childhood and I wonder -- am I bucking the hypo?

Here's where I explain the title of this post.  In law school, a professor, using the Socratic Method (as in "Socrates was a Sadist") to teach a point of law, might pepper a hapless student with hypothetical examples.  If the student challenged the premise of a question rather than answering the question, that was "bucking the hypo."  I'd be bucking the hypo if I said the Chesapeake Bay trilogy is flawed because there are no ghosts.  Maybe not in real life, but there are in St. Chris, Maryland, a fictional town.  And that's where I need to allow Roberts to create the world she wants to create.

But we wouldn't allow her to violate the laws of physics.  Is she allowed to present something as serious as Ethan's childhood abuse and "fix" it through parental love?  Could that happen in real life?  I would say not, and if someone walked up to me and said, "Oh, but all that happened to me and look at me, I'm fine now," my radar for self-deception would go off.

And yet I swallow Ethan whole.  If I were to review Rising Tides I would have the option to give it a lower grade because of this element.  But I don't review books, I just think and write about them.  And here, I suspect I owe Nora Roberts the option to have a hero who should be severely damaged but magically just isn't.  How he got "undamaged" isn't the point.  He is as he is.

I shouldn't buck the hypo.


  1. Some things have to plausible, not too outside the realm of believability. With Meg thinking John was 40, it didn't bother me, because I felt she was so selfish about herself, she didn't care to see what was in front of her. In her mind she thought John was 40 because of the way he acted and then when she got her head out of her butt, her views changed.
    I am dying for a sequel with John and Meg because I think they have a few unresolved issue to work out. It really was an excellent book.

  2. I think it's comforting for some readers to see happy endings for characters who endured abusive childhoods. There are a lot of depressing real-life and fictional stories with such characters, but in romance you get that (slightly rosy) happy ending that says ANYONE can be happy if they have the right romantic relationship.

    Mileage really varies among readers about the level of reality they want in such cases. I know of some readers who don't want to read about it at all, others who complain that there wasn't enough detail. Some readers think there should be more therapy, more angst, more difficulty involved in overcoming such trauma, while others would hate how that affected the tone of the book. And, of course, you'll see the same discussions/disagreements about rape, PTSD, substance abuse, or any other trauma that a character has to overcome in order to be able to experience true love.

    One of my favorite authors, Jo Goodman, has a couple of books where I felt that (by my personal standards) victims recovered too easily (no therapy available in most historical romances) or abusers weren't sufficiently punished. But I'm a big believer in suspended disbelief and the right of the author to make those choices for her characters and her world (comes from reading SO much fantasy, I think), so in most cases I don't need to "buck the hypo" either.

    With some books I can tell from the blurb or an excerpt that I won't like the way certain hot-button (for me) issues are handled; I just don't read those.

  3. As others have said, we all have our different levels of reality expectations, in RL too, LOL
    IMO The authors job is to write an engaging story and make us believe it.

    I struggle with the reality in a lot of romance novels, as it is fairly foreign to me in many ways. Which is probably why I read paranormals, where I don't really need to base it in any familiar reality.

    I hope that ramble makes some vague sense, just got home from work, it is boiling hot, and brain has retired for the day.


  4. Katiebabs -- I really need to read Echols book now! But I'm not sure we'll get the sequel, as the YA market isn't so big on adults dealing with adult issues. I can remember being young enough to think 30 was "old." I'm sure my 17-year-old self would have been horrified to learn that I wouldn't marry until I was 42, and wondered if I'd needed a walker to get down the aisle!

  5. SonomaLass -- there's a debate going on about m/m books where gay men complain the protagonists of m/m books are just Ken dolls with working genitals. I guess if you're in a group and you read a book with a wildly unrealistic depiction of a fictional member of your group, it can be upsetting.

    As a member of the "horrific childhood" group, I'm qualified to say that the entire Chesapeake Bay trilogy seems wildly unrealistic in that same way. But I read them all, and even enjoyed the stories, because I just shrugged off the disconnect between what was supposedly done to these boys and how easily they ended up relatively healthy guys.

    Part of it is that Roberts doesn't oversell that part of each story. Oh, sure, the references to each hero's childhood was grim enough, but not in any of the three books does she claim that all that was needed was their adoptive parents' love. Maybe she thinks that therapy/counseling is implied. (The way condoms are implied!)

    And part of it is that I find Roberts -- not the most intricate of writers -- very easy to read. An interesting story (believable or not) + an easy read = just fine for me.

  6. Edie -- Of course, you being Australian means all of Nora Roberts' books are outside your ken! Do you ever have a problem with the level of realism contemporaries set in Australia, whether by Margaret Way or Sarah Mayberry?

  7. If there are too many implausibilities in a story, I find myself unwilling to suspend disbelief. Obviously, what one reader deems incredible, another may be willing to accept.

    I'm more critical about a story which is set in a time period about which I know a lot, or a setting with which I'm particularly familiar. For example: the only reason I'm able to distance myself from the inaccuracies in Karen Marie Moning's Fever series is because its set in an alternate reality Dublin, not the Dublin I grew up in. If the series was contemporary romance, I'd have hurled the first volume against the nearest wall. As it is, I've enjoyed the books and my focus has been the story and not whether or not it accurately depicts Ireland and the Irish.


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