Sunday, August 29, 2010

Realism and Romance

Yesterday, I gobbled up The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz.  It's not a romance; I guess I would call it a screwball mystery, although the more conventional mystery story embedded in it was pretty easy to figure out.  And there is a romance, although if -- like me -- you are able to guess who the hero is as soon as he appears, you quickly discover that the course of love does not run smooth in this book.

All the same, I loved it.  It's so much fun that even when the characters wander into a more realistic situation, no worries.  You just know they'll be back to their usual improbable hijinks before long.

 Cupid's bow & arrow in San Francisco -- Romantic Realism at its over-the-top best!

Here's a quick rundown of the Spellman family to whet your appetite for Lutz's books.  (There are four so far; you have to start with the first but if you only get the first, be prepared to buy #2 & #3 as soon as you finish it.  That's what I did.)  Albert Spellman is a retired San Francisco police detective turned private investigator.  His wife, Olivia, is petite & quite attractive for her age.  They have David, a perfect son turned lawyer (FYI: this family doesn't hate lawyers, as lawyers are prime clients; they do, however, hate dentists), Isabel, our heroine, and then the much younger sister Rae.  There's also Uncle Ray, who moves in with them.

Isabel is our narrator, and she's as flawed a heroine as you could possibly wish.  But Lutz does a great job of keeping our sympathies for Izzy without stretching our credulity.  We don't like Izzy's juvenile delinquency, but we reluctantly understand it and we see her mature.  She'll never stop breaking taillights on cars (it makes them easier to spot at night on surveillance) but she's no longer smoking weed.

Virtually nothing in this book seems realistic.  It's all frothy, fun, madcap adventures.  I laughed out loud more than I worried.  And there's virtually no angst.

But it got me thinking about realism in romance novels.  It's one of those clichés that romance novels aren't realistic.  Well, most of the romance novels I've read (barring the paranormals but including the urban fantasy books like Carolyn Crane's Mind Games) are more realistic than The Spellman Files.  That's not a slam on Lutz's work, mind you.  I think we want our books to be unrealistic.  Frankly, the t-shirt was right: We've given up on reality; we just want a good fantasy.

The Spellman Files reminded me that romance novels don't even come close to being the least realistic fiction out there.  At least characters in a romance novel eventually talk to each other and work out the conflicts between them.  And however novel the set-up and circumstances of their relationship, a romantic couple ends up with some very real emotions.  (As long as the book is well-written, of course.)

I think this is one of the more pernicious clichés about our genre out there. True, the bodices may get ripped more between the covers of romances than they ever did in real life, there are scores more dukes & marquesses in historical romances than any English monarch could have imagined, and I'm pretty sure (without gathering actual data) that the proportion of virginal orgasms is a lot higher in romance novel sex scenes.

Those things are less realistic, to be sure, but the emotional content of romances is, I think, right on.  To assail the emotional realism of romance novels, though, one would have to claim that the experience of falling in love is fantasy, and that people in real life are just deluding themselves that they're in love.  Because if you've read a well-written love scene, you know it can remind you quite powerfully of the pangs of love in your own life.  (At least it has for me.)

Which leads me to my one caveat about The Spellman Files:  You'll laugh, but you won't cry.  And the romance won't match up to even the dimmest offering in your TBR pile.

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