Thanks go to Magdalen for submitting the following guest post!
Many thanks to Sarah for letting me guest-blog here at Monkey Bear Reviews.
I’ve been thinking recently about how romances can play so many roles for their readers. Some readers like to see evidence of the transformative power of love, as when an unemotional hero responds to the heroine’s love and so embraces his own vulnerability. Other readers like the extra-romantic aspects of paranormals, where fangs, fur, or supernatural powers make it even more challenging to love another and thus that much more satisfying to the reader when it happens. Still others enjoy the itch of sexual tension between hero and heroine, and its satisfaction.
For me, though, my favorite romances are those with strong emotional arcs, preferably with the looming specter of unhappiness just before the HEA. “Tears before smiles,” I like to call it. But what makes a book emotionally satisfying to me but possibly too “angsty” for another person?
This question arose recently with the marvelous discussion at Dear Author on books with mistresses that followed DA’s review of His Lordship’s Mistress. I went to get my copy of His Lordship’s Mistress, and grabbed Wolf’s A Kind of Honor at the same time. When I’d re-read them both, I realized as much as I love His Lordship’s Mistress, I love A Kind of Honor even more. I suspect that’s because A Kind of Honor has a sharper, scarier risk of an unhappy ending. (I won’t spoil anything if you haven’t read it, but even re-reading it I wasn’t sure how the HEA was to be contrived by the characters.)
When I mentioned this to fellow Wolf-fan, Janet W., she allowed as how she’d read A Kind of Honor and then gotten rid of it. Not a keeper for her. When I asked why not (not challenging, just curious), she replied that it was “too angsty.” I really had to mull that over – the idea that a book I find deliciously poignant and just-sad-enough is for another reader a source of unpleasant anxiety. What’s up with that?
As readers, we know – with 100% certainty – that a romance novel will have an HEA. The characters don’t have the same assurances. That allows us the luxury of feeling the characters’ pangs of loneliness or fear that things won’t work out, the beloved won’t reciprocate, that Fate (or some nasty third party) is hell-bent on ruining their lives, etc. Some anxiety isn’t completely resolved by the end of the book, and that could result in a reader feeling a book was too angsty.
I think I experienced this “angsty effect” with Eva Ibbotson’s Madensky Square. I had read several Ibbotson’s romances (not sure why they’re classified as YA, but they are) and they all have very satisfactory “tears before smiles” endings. But Madenskey Square is different on several levels. It too was mentioned in the Mistresses post on Dear Author because the heroine, Susanna, is a single woman who runs her own business in 1911 Vienna and is the lover of the married Field Marshal Gernot von Lindenberg. As a romance, Madensky Square is perhaps flawed from the beginning because not everyone would consider it a satisfactory HEA that the couple have no realistic hope of ever marrying (or enjoying exclusivity). In fact, Susanna gets no more of Gernot’s heart at the end of the book than she has at the beginning, so the only HEA is that she is more sure of the part of his affections she does get.
Even if you accept her situation as “the other woman” as a happy ending, there’s one other big problem with the emotional satisfaction to be found in this book. Susanna gave birth to a daughter out of wedlock when she was 18, before she met Gernot. She agreed that the child should be given up for adoption, but then changed her mind – too late. The loss of her daughter haunts her throughout the book, and her feelings about this situation resonate through to the very last page. And, just as with the HEA in her relationship with Gernot, she has to accept something less than what her heart wants.
In other words, Susanna has to settle for half-a-loaf. And that, to me, seems angsty. I cried, yes, at various parts of the book. (I actually cried enough to worry my husband!) But when the book was finished, I still worried about Susanna. Her future seemed secure enough, and of course that’s a relief to the reader, but I would have liked more. I would have liked for Susanna to have the complete package, the whole loaf if you will.
In a recent post, Jessica at Racy Romance Reviews commented on the realism of Janice Kay Johnson’s 1995 novel “Her Sister’s Baby.”
I can read paranormals or romantic suspense in which there is enough mayhem and carnage to reduce the world’s population by a third without batting an eye. But give me an 11 year old girl who can’t make a single friend in her new school, or an 8 year old boy who can’t get his father to return his phone calls, and I am a puddle of tears.
That suggests to me that a fictional child’s pain – which isn’t necessarily resolved by the hero and heroine’s HEA – may be too angsty for some people, either because they identify with the child, or because their parental love isn’t so easily reassured by words on a page. A reader who doesn’t have kids might feel differently, and see Johnson’s characterization as appropriately realistic.
Alchemy occurs when any reader reads a specific novel. We bring the echoes of our own anxieties, issues, history and relationships with us into the quiet of reading. An emotionally satisfying book will reassure us, comfort us, make us believe in happy endings. An angsty book may remind us of our own unfinished business — not what we picked up a romance for!
Ultimately, I’m a relativist about romance novels. I agree some are better written than others, but if even two readers have an emotionally satisfying experience reading a romance, then that book is a qualified success. (If only one reader has that experience, then we can all gang up on her and demand to know where she got that chocolate…!) Each reader’s reaction to a book is valid. That’s not to say reviews aren’t tremendously valuable, particularly as a way of finding books that gave someone whose opinion we respect the happy reading experience we crave. Reviewers have helped me find some truly wonderful books, including Eva Ibbotson’s backlist. Ultimately, though, my opinions are based on my reactions to a book. And as my reactions are fueled by my unique backstory, I don’t expect anyone else to agree with me.
Which is why, ultimately, it’s for each reader to decide if a book is emotionally satisfying or “angsty.”