By the time I read a book off my TBR bench -- particularly if it's the only one by that author -- I've mostly forgotten why I bought it. In the case of The Wrong Wife by Carolyn McSparren, I got a clue tucked inside the book: a badly faded receipt from August 2000 showing that someone bought Deep in the Heart of Texas by Linda Warren and Renegade Heart from a B. Dalton bookstore in San Francisco. (And no, I can't tell you who the author is of the latter book -- two were published that month with the same title: a Harlequin Intrigue by Gayle Wilson and a Zebra Historical by Amy J. Fetzer.) (No, wait, I lie -- the receipt includes the ISBN-10, and the winner is . . . Gayle Wilson.)
So, I now know I got the McSparren book on my trip to Tiburon, visiting Janet W. Whether it's one of the books she gave me, or one of the many I bought at a used bookstore in Petaluma -- not sure.
The Wrong Wife -- an odd title, upon reflection -- is a Harlequin Superromance, which I think simply refers to the length, closer to 300 pages than 200. When I first picked it up, I was underwhelmed. Annabelle Langley, the heroine is having visual hallucinations. I'm no psychiatrist, but visual hallucinations -- barring a conventional explanation like extreme intoxication -- are the sort of symptom that makes me wish the heroine would get to a professional and not into a romantic relationship. The hero, Ben Jackson, is a local assistant district attorney in Memphis. His father was, in no particular order, an alcoholic, a womanizer, and a defense attorney (ooh, guess which is the real badge of shame in that trilogy). In fact, Ben's father got a guy (Elmer Bazemore -- do we even need more evidence to know he's guilty guilty guilty?) off for a lesser crime and then the guy stalks and kills Ben's high school sweetheart, Judy, just because he can.
Okay, so Ben's got daddy issues. But that's nothing compared to Annabelle's family saga. Annabelle's mother, Chantal, was Cajan, sexually promiscuous, and volatile. Someone shot her when Annabelle was four years old. Annabelle's dad, Ray, confessed to the murder, copped a plea, went to prison, served his term and his parole and then disappeared, leaving Annabelle to be raised by his mother, Victoria Langley, aka "Grandmere." Do I even have to tell you what a piece of work Grandmere is? No, I didn't think so.
Here's a family tree -- I had to guess at the great-grandparents, but I think I have the basic structure right. (Click on it if you can't read it.)
Now, here's my question: If you were either protagonist, would you pick the other one as an appropriate mate? Nah, me neither. But supposedly Ben falls for Annabelle in a Big Way the moment he sees her. He even climbs a tree. (No, don't ask.) She rebuffs him, rejects him, sleeps with him, refuses to date him, renounces him, then says yes. You get whiplash watching their romance unfold.
If the book had just been about their romance, it would have been a DNF or a TATW (Throw Against The Wall). But, it has a murder to solve! And before you know it, the Stupid Romance between two questionable characters is readable. Can I figure out whodunnit? (Yes.) Can I see the Huge Plot Twist? (No, to McSparren's credit.) Can I be happy that the Guilty Party or Parties is/are Brought To Justice? (Sort of.)
Here, then, is my statement of the obvious: Even a little bit of suspense can make a ludicrous romance interesting. Which I'm filing with a previous statement of the obvious: Making your characters paranormal renders them a lot easier to make interesting to the reader.
This may explain, just a little, why contemporary romances are currently out of favor. To make a contemporary romance fun to read, the author has to go that extra distance to make "normal" characters seem vibrant, exciting, intriguing, compelling, and a lot of other "can't wait to see what happens next" adjectives. Miss that mark, and your book will seem washed out compared to 7-foot-tall hawt vampires or whodunnits.
In the worst case scenario, your characters will seem obvious.