Monday, July 5, 2010

The Wussy Heroine

Back before law school, someone at work said something about how confident I seemed.  I was stunned; inside I was a mass of trembling anxiety.  They weren't telling me was that I was confident, merely that I hid my uncertainties well.

So I am not unaware of the feelings heroines can have when they seem overwhelmed by their families, their lives, and yes, the hero.  I just wish they'd deal with those feelings differently.

First up in the Wussy Walk of Shame:

Annie Jameson, a nurse in an emergency room in Australia, and the heroine in Carol Martinelli's Billionaire Doctor, Ordinary Nurse (Harlequin Presents).  She falls in love with Iosef Kolovsky, an arrogant trauma doc from a very famous, very rich family in Melbourne.  But before she can fall in love with him, she has to put up with a lot of his crap.  Seriously, in one scene she returns to a cubicle where Dr. K has been suturing someone and discovers that it's a mess -- he hasn't even disposed of his sharps (medical lingo for hypodermic needles and the like).  She calls him out on this (one point for her side) but he's dismissive of her concerns.  Which left me thinking he was a jerk, a bad doctor, and sexist (female nurse to clean up after male doctor?) in one fell swoop.

Why's she attracted to him after that?  Because he looks good in his swimsuit?  He's either being rude to her or ignoring her and yet she can't resist him.  She's convinces he's out of her league.  When he gets them a hotel room after a colleague's wedding reception, she confesses that she's not very good at making love.  No problem; he'll do all the work.  The sex is great but still he dumps her, then comes back, saying no one must know that they're sleeping together.  She keeps her looks up (spray-on tan, frequent leg shaving, etc.) just in case he comes over.  She's convinced that she's not good enough for him, that he thinks she's not good enough for him, that he's stringing her along.  She does eventually dump him, but it's a preemptive strike; she actually knows (because he's told her so) that he always meant to dump her.

There is an explanation at the end for some of his bad behavior, but the rest Annie just sloughs off.  She actually says, at the end, "I love you because you're so horrible and rude but you still make me laugh."  I'm all for humor in a relationship, but does it really excuse rudeness?

To all of this, I found myself stuck back at the very beginning.  Why would a smart, competent, attractive woman even contemplate caring about such a schmuck?  Maybe he's redeemed at the end, but why did she start a relationship when it had such a low probability of future happiness?

Me, I don't think I could have forgiven the mess in the cubicle.

Next, we have a more sympathetic hero, and a more neurotic heroine.  The protagonists in Janice Kay Johnson's Match Made in Court (Harlequin SuperRomance) have their hands full dealing with the fallout when her brother allegedly kills his sister.  Brother is arrested, and the six-year-old daughter, Hanna, is taken in by our heroine, Linnea.  The deceased's brother, Matt, flies in from Kuwait where he'd been working as a civil engineer.  He's understandably outraged by what his brother-in-law is accused of doing; he wants custody of Hanna so that the Sorenson family is kept away from her.

There are so many wonderful things about this book -- the conflict is very real, the characters are appealing, their romance doesn't feel contrived.  But Linnea is a mess.  She's extremely passive and submissive to her overbearing mother and intimidating brother.  She rises to the occasion to protect Hanna, but she's so convinced that she herself isn't entitled to any happiness that she can't even begin to demand basic decency from the people around her, let alone respect.

I don't want to spoil this book -- which is very good -- but there is a complication in the relationship between Matt and Linnea.  She loves him, but is terrified to talk to him.  That's just not healthy.  And she knows that but she can't even have the meta conversation, meaning the conversation about why she's having trouble talking to him.  (You scoff, but sometimes the meta conversation is the really important one.)  Even when he asks, she sloughs it off.  (Now her behavior has ratcheted up to passive-avoidance; next will be passive-aggression, where she takes out on Matt all her resentments against her family of origin.)

Matt's not completely without responsibility in this situation, either.  He notices Linnea becoming quieter and quieter, but he doesn't do anything to stop it except have more sex with her, until finally it's too late.  He comes across, reasonably or not, as a guy who just doesn't care about her feelings.

Here's my question:  Matt and Linnea are smart people.  They knew they needed to get a counselor for Hanna, who was in the house when her mother died and who's not precisely comfortable with her dad.  So why can't they talk about needing some help themselves?  Linnea clearly needs to work on her issues of passivity and blind compliance; Matt could brush up his basic relationship skills, including how not to make major decisions by assuming your beloved's silence is enthusiastic agreement with your suggestions.

Is it a taboo for couples in romance novels to talk to someone about these issues?  Doesn't have to be Dr. Phil -- what about a pastor or Hanna's counselor?  What about -- radical concept coming up -- each other?

Neither Annie nor Linnea is a bad person, or even a bad candidate for an HEA.  But a happy ending doesn't solve their wussiness; Annie's still going to have anxiety and insecurity about being "good enough" for Iosef, and Linnea's still going to struggle to exert her own personality in her relationship with Matt.

Would it be so wrong for there to be a subtle suggestion at the end of the book that the heroine might also seek out some guidance so that her HEA is even H-ier?

A note on the photos.  The first is of a hospital in Melbourne; the second is the view from West Seattle of Puget Sound.


  1. Oh thank you, thank you. The number of books I have thrown across the room because the heroine was a wuss--sheesh! As a matter of fact, I could not even finish Match Made in Court--I was sitting there mentally screaming "therapy" at Linnea, I decided I didn't need the grief and sent it back to the library.
    See Streets of Fire, an oldie, by Judith Duncan, for a heroine with major problems, who does finally seek help and you can believe in the HEA even more because of that. But that is one of the few books I can remember where it is obvious to the reader that the heroine needs some counseling and she actually goes out and gets it!

  2. Yes! I liked the JKJ book and thought Linnea was a fairly believable character, but I find it hard to sympathize with such a passive woman, and even more, to believe that someone would fall in love with such a wuss (I'd be driven crazy by someone who couldn't express an opinion and could be steamrolled by a partner).

    Linnea did start to change, but I felt they both had a lot of work to do before an HEA was assured. Johnson has dealt realistically with the need for therapy in other books (e.g. hero in Snowbound) so it's interesting that was missing here.

  3. Oh boo you got a dud Carol Marinelli! :(
    Her one's with the heroines as the doctor, and the hero as the nurse are much better.

    I must admit I struggle with a lot of wuss heroines and their HEAs with completely domineering heroes. Sometimes it seems to me that they will just get completely swallowed up by the hero.. and divorce court not too far after the end of the book. But I am a cynic.


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