Wednesday, September 21, 2011

TBR Challenge: Caught Up In Mary Balogh's Webs

The TBR challenge for September is to get caught up in a series I'm behind in.  I'll admit it: my TBR collection has a lot of options for this month's challenge, but because the fabulous Megan Mulry read Mary Balogh's The Devil's Web last week (and loved it), I thought I would both get caught up with the Web series and actually finish it!

I think of the Web books -- The Gilded Web, The Web of Love, and now The Devil's Web -- as the slow-cooked books.  Each one has a large cast of characters, some sizable issues, and takes a long, long time to get everyone sorted out.  That's much closer to real life, but as a romance reader, I've been conditioned to think we should get right to the action.  Still, there's a lot of pleasure in these books, if you have the time and patience to enjoy them.  (Like Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Chicago Stars series, the Webs might be a good choice for a recuperative stay in hospital.)

Unfortunately, I didn't like the characters in The Devil's Web enough to really enjoy the book.  We met them both in the first book, The Gilded Web, when the Earl of Amberley (our heroine's brother) and Alexandra Purnell (our hero's sister) made a match of it under non-ideal circumstances.  James Purnell is taciturn, but underneath his gruffness we know him to be awkward and tongue-tied, particularly around Lady Madeline Raine.  She's a bit of a social butterfly, imagining herself in love with the nearest attractive suitor, but underneath her fluttering we know her to be desperately afraid that her feelings for Mr. Purnell are real, but not in a good way.

"Not in a good way" is an excellent catch phrase for The Devil's Web.  James and Madeline love each other, but not in a good way.  What they feel doesn't make them happy, or even allow them to take pleasure in each other's company.  They're intensely aware of one another but then avoid each other.  Or they seek each other out, but they quarrel.  For the first half of the book, it's not fun being with either one of them.  I'll admit it, I skimmed a lot of the first half.

Then, precisely halfway in, James's father dies.  Lord Beckworth was a bit of a religious zealot/nutter.  It's a relief when he dies because he truly was toxic; he was almost certainly the real reason James has spent the last four years in Canada in the fur trade.  With Lord Beckworth's death, James should feel free, but if anything, he signs up for a new sense of imprisonment.  He's ascended to the title, of course, and now owns the estates in Yorkshire.  Why not get married to the woman he loves but can't bring himself to like?  A perfect plan, but not in a good way.

Marriage of inconvenience plots aren't my favorites.  Why should I read a book that requires me to voluntarily spend time with people who don't behave well toward each other?  And for virtually all of the second half, Madeline and James behave badly.  He thinks, "Oh, I love her.  I should smile at her, call her by her name, something," and yet he's grim and unyielding.  She thinks, "Oh, I love him.  I should tell him, trust him, let him know how much pleasure he gives me," and yet she's shrewish and nasty.  And not in a good way.

This might have made for a delightfully angsty book if either character made sense or was enjoyable.  James comes closer to making sense -- his was a particularly grim childhood and his father hardly displayed any skills useful to the conducting of human relationships -- but then he's just dim about it all.  Why not tell his wife about his childhood?  Madeline comes closer to being enjoyable -- she's good company in normal circumstances -- but she makes no sense.  Her upbringing was pleasant enough and she's had ample opportunity to see how couples can love each other.  So what's stopping her from telling James that she loves him?

The happy ending similarly makes no sense.  Why wait until page 425 to do and say what they could have (and should have) done and said on page 225?  Either there was a good reason, in which case why is it no longer in effect, or it was all a big misunderstanding, in which case they're both TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).

Sorry I can't enthuse more about a Mary Balogh.  I'm glad I finished with the Webs, though.  Just not in a good way.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why Have an Antagonist?

I understand why romantic suspense and thrillers need a bad guy, but I prefer the idea of one to the reality.  And for less scary romances, I can do without a specific third party as an antagonist.

As a reader, I skip all sections written  from the villain's POV.  (I love when those sections are in italics so it's even easier to see when they end.)  I've got my reasons.

First, I don't trust them.  The whole point of being in a character's POV is learn what they're thinking.  But villains are, usually, plot devices.  They need to be thwarted or vanquished by the end of the story, so the reader isn't supposed to be invested in them the way we come to care about the protagonists.  But they're still supposed to be internally consistent.  One romantic suspense I read recently had a psychopathic pedophile poet as the baddie.  Halfway through the book we started to get sections in his POV.  But because we weren't supposed to know who it was, all mention of his poetry was excised from his scenes.  Which made no sense: wouldn't a psychopathic pedophile poet be thinking, "Oh, and when I get done with you, girlie, I'll let you be my muse...?"

Of course on paper, the psychopathic pedophile poet can reveal the psychopathy but not the poetry lest we figure out whodunnit.  But what's fun about being in a psychopath's head?  So the POV scenes are hokey and unbelievable.  Why read them?

Second, it's a bad way to build suspense.  Bad guys are planning bad things.  We get that part.  In a movie, you frequently get a camera angle that suggests there's a baddie lurking in the shadows -- that builds a lot of tension. But books work differently.  Better (I think) to stay in the protagonist's POV in a scary situation.  We like that person, we're concerned for that person, we may even identify with that person.  If they're looking at shadows, hearing strange noises, driving on a deserted road -- we're right there, scared for (and possibly with) them.

Okay, that's suspense/thriller/dark paranormal territory, where the baddies break the law.  What about more domestic romances?  Even there, I'm not fond of antagonists.  But before I go there, allow me to give credit where credit is due:

The best antagonist ever in a romance novel?  I'd give that award to an unnamed person in Mary Balogh's Slightly Dangerous.  If you've read the book, you know who I'm talking about.  If you haven't read the book, read it -- if only to see how cleverly it's done.

Back to the rest of the genre.  Antagonists are the characters who make it hard for the protagonist(s) to achieve the stated goal -- road blocks, if you will.  Well, if the goal is to get someone to fall in love with you, various nasty-minded people can try their darnedest to make trouble.  Again, though, why are they doing it and why should the reader care?  If it's revenge, jealousy, competition, etc., then we don't like the antagonist.  And if we don't like him/her, that character is flattened into a plot device.

Better would be the well-intended, even lovable, close friend, family member, or confident whose love and concern for one of the protagonists endears the antagonist to us even as he/she is working hard to prevent the happy ending we're waiting for.

The trouble with that scenario is that the protagonists themselves have a lot to do with such a situation.  If Mom/Sis/Uncle Harry is interfering in the heroine's love life, who's given them permission to do that?  The heroine, presumably.  Well, that's pretty dumb on her part.  Wake up and smell the toast, babe.  Which is precisely what she may need to do in the course of her character arc: grow a pair, get out from her family's shadow, find her own feet, etc.

All good goals, but not entirely consistent with a romantic happy ending.  I prefer my romantic protagonists to have done that work already, lest the romance be more about getting away from the family and less about the beloved.  Yes, family members can and will meddle, but protagonists should have established boundaries that prevent the relatives from being true antagonists.

That leaves the jealous ex, the "other woman," or the plain old troublemaker.   This is right up there with the Misunderstanding for stupid conflicts.  Unless it's "Sleeping With the Enemy" territory (in which case we're back to thrillers), I have to wonder what a protagonist is doing listening to venomous tripe about the beloved?  Tell the rat bastard (or evil crone) to crawl back into their lair and leave the romance alone.

My bottom line is this: in romances, as in real life, I believe that people do a far better job getting in their own way than what others can do for them.  So I'm not a big fan of the external antagonist.  I don't see any reason why the hero can't be both the goal and the antagonist for the heroine, and vice versa.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

I Read to Cry

I've been thinking a lot about "I Read," a song from Stephen Sondheim's musical Passion.  As I recall, it comes two-thirds of the way through the show -- Fosca and Giorgio get a bit closer after he loans her a book he particularly loves.  She reads it, but when he suggests she keep it longer to meditate on the characters, she demurs.  She tells she doesn't read to think, she reads to dream.  Here are the lyricsAnd here's a video of Donna Murphy, the original Fosca, singing it.

When I saw Passion in 1994 with Eric Besner (a fellow law student at the time -- and a Sondheim scholar: here's his article for The Sondheim Review on the revisions to Passion during the previews), I was blown away.  (I actually liked it better in the raw state before Sondheim's changes -- but that might just be the result of how it affected me emotionally at the time.)

Fosca is the ultimate producer of Magical Thinking Romance Theater.  That's my term for the sort of imaginary romantic relationship where one person doesn't know the relationship even exists.  I wish I could find it now, but I saw a T-shirt in law school that said, in effect,
Before he can wine and dine you,
Before he can fall in love with you,
Before he can propose marriage,
Before he can father your babies...
He has to call you!

Leap-frogging over inconvenient truths, assuming that there's more than casual friendship in someone's smile, envisioning a rosy future when the other person has other plans -- that's all evidence of staging a Magical Thinking Romance Theater production.

I used to be a lot more active in Magical Thinking Romance Theater myself, a long time ago, so I know the signs.  But by the time I saw Passion, I lived less in my head.  Seeing Fosca -- this plain, awkward woman in mid-19th century Italy who imagines herself madly in love with a gorgeous army officer -- wear her heart so blatantly on her sleeve gave me a frisson of recognition.

Then she sings about why she reads:
I do not read to search for truth
I know the truth, the truth is hardly what I need.
I read to dream.

I read to live. In other people's lives.
I read about the joys, the world
Dispenses to the fortunate,
And listen for the echoes.
...

I read to fly, to skim -
I do not read to swim.

I really know what she's talking about.  It's not just the preference for happy endings over variations of a misery the reader knows too well.  It's the way reading can take us out of our own lives, waft us over the the ugliness of reality and give us a few hours in a prettier, easier place.

But there's one aspect of reading that Fosca didn't touch on: the cathartic read.  Some of my favorite comfort reads are ones that make me cry.

I don't think that's inconsistent with Fosca's reading style.  We want relief from our own unhappiness, and we can get that both from reading about other people's happiness, but also from discharging a little of our own pain while reading about their fear of loss.

Of course, this only works for me if there's a happy ending.  I don't want to close a book and still feel bad about the characters.  It also doesn't work for me if the book is emotionally uninvolving, perhaps because the protagonists are annoying or the prose doesn't prompt that cathartic response.  I would imagine that this is very reader-specific.  The books that reliably make me cry might well leave other people dry-eyed, and vice-versa.

Plus, I like to cry.  I expect a lot of people don't enjoy it as much, rather in the way that some people don't enjoy being scared on roller-coasters.

Just more proof that what we read, why we read it and why we praise it, can be so personal.