GUEST POST: Emotionally Satisfying or “Angsty”? – The Reader Makes the Call

by Sarah on November 11, 2009 · 14 comments


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.”


pattepoilue November 11, 2009 at 14:14

Great post! I love reading romances and i’m okay with the Tears before Smile concept i just want to be sure that the characters will have the HEA they deserve. If i have to go peak at the last page to make sure of it i will. lol If i know it ends well i don’t mind the ‘angst’ throughout the book, but i’m a sensitive girl ;) and i won’t accept a sad ending

Magdalen November 11, 2009 at 14:27

@Patte — I’m with you: I’ll peek at the ending if I have to, but I don’t like to. That’s one reason why I don’t like books with two plausible heroes. I need to know *now* who I’m rooting for!

Janet W November 11, 2009 at 15:38

It’s odd isn’t it, how the act of peeking at the ending is a dead giveaway to heightened angst. Just finished two books, old old skool Regencies, A Noble Mistress by Janis Laden and Bath Intrigue by Sheila Walsh. With the first I was petrified the heroine’s reputation was going to be shattered and exposed publically and in the second (I must have been awfully tired because this isn’t like me) I was worried she wouldn’t end up with the right man. I sort of peeked but not really — this was on the cover: “A young beauty is caught between a wickedly winning duke and his devilishly attractive son.” Hmmm.

Total tearbath angst for me is Balogh’s Precious Jewel mostly because of the love Gerald felt for Priss (and proved) before he knew why she left him. Also, Carla Kelly has me running for tissues — mostly because of simple scenes — where a daughter is slapped by a mother and knows herself to be hated, or a young widow is terrified by a brother-in-law. Same with Wolf’s AKOH: her fears for her future also involved her family and that was just a tipping point for me. But I look forward to re-reading it!

I don’t that a glass half-empty HEA or a HFN could ever make it to my keeper shelf.

pattepoilue November 11, 2009 at 15:51

Lol that is exactly it! I want to know who i’m rooting for too! A bit anticlimatic though. ;)

Magdalen November 11, 2009 at 16:20

@Janet W
I’ll have to read Balogh’s “Precious Jewel.” I think read one of her old skool Regencies a bazillion years ago (because, you know, I’m old), didn’t like it and never read anything else by her. I’d like to think that I am now a better person and can appreciate her work!

Are there romances that intentionally have a HFN ending? (You may treat that as a rhetorical question if you wish…) I suspect authors always think theirs is an HEA, but maybe the reader can see some potential dark clouds on the horizon.

I had a spirited (and fun!) Twitter exchange with Maili recently about why there weren’t more historical romances set in the Edwardian Era (1904-1910). She makes an excellent point — it’s got a lot to recommend it: the nascency of Women’s Suffrage, the advantages of the Industrial Revolution (yeah, indoor plumbing!), and great clothes — but I suggested one possible reason that it’s not more favored is that the reader knows what the characters don’t, namely that WWI is right around the corner. Whereas for the Regency Era, once Waterloo is won, the British aristocracy was pretty much out of the war business for 100 years. (To be historically accurate, I believe career army types fought in Crimea and later on, in South Africa for the Zulu and Boer Wars. But the earls & marquises we read about were most likely not on those front lines…)

And while there wasn’t a call-up (as the draft is known in the UK) for WWI, there was a massive response by all classes. The way I, as a reader, think about it is: even if the protagonists didn’t fight, they knew someone who did, and the men who came home were shell-shocked or worse. So that’s a bit of HFN for me. Still, to be fair, I loved Jane Feather’s Matchmaker trilogy, and they’re all set in the Edwardian Era, so . . .

katiebabs November 11, 2009 at 18:17

One romance that kicked me in the gut to this day was The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. There is no HEA and it is so, so heart beaking but this romance was so satisfying because of the undying love and devotion the hero and heroine have for one another.

Sarah November 12, 2009 at 13:20

Great post, Magdalen!

I think readers see a book as “angsty” when it touches upon issues which are too close to home. Many readers don’t want to read about crappy childhoods, rape, abuse, infidelity, miscarriage and grief when they pick up a romance book. They’re looking for an escapist fantasy, not a story which will depress them.

This is one of the criticisms I’ve read of Sarah Mayberry’s latest Blaze title, She’s Got It Bad. The heroine is infertile. There’s no miracle pregnancy at the end of the book, nor hope of adoption. This is a woman who will never have a child and that’s made clear in the story. Her HEA is with a hero who will help her lead a happy, fulfilling life without experiencing motherhood. Apparently, some readers found this outcome depressing. Personally, I thought it was very well done.

Many of the darker romances published these days tend to be in the guise of paranormals and urban fantasies. While dreadful things can and do occur to the characters in these books, the world in which they’re set is not our reality. I think readers looking for romantic escapism with an edge are more likely to gravitate towards these books than ones which deal with subjects which are too realistic.

Magdalen November 12, 2009 at 14:15

I think you’re right about paranormals — because that world is so other-worldly, we can slough off some of the more disturbing realities. I wonder if that effect wasn’t going on in Anne Stuart’s Black Ice — there was something of a heightened quality to the Syndicate (Consortium?) in Paris that made a lot of the rest of the book easier to swallow.

Sarah November 12, 2009 at 14:28

@Magdalen I would still count romantic suspenses, mysteries and thrillers as escapism. However gruesome, the stories are usually over the top and highly unlikely to happen in real life. Plus justice is almost always served.

I just finished Ava Gray’s Skin Game which has a light paranormal element but is ultimately a romantic suspense. It features a hit man hero and a con woman heroine. The body count is high, no one is truly good, but I still believed in the HEA.

Magdalen November 13, 2009 at 00:38

Are you going to review “Skin Game”? (Stupid question; I see from the top of your blog that you will be!)

I was in a big box store (Barnes & Noble) today and other than Nora Roberts, I really didn’t recognize many of the authors’ names in the Romance section. That may well be because my memory is rather sieve-like, but it could also be a factor of a) how many books are published (did someone say 400/month? I didn’t think that was possible until I was looking at shelf after shelf of new-to-me authors) and (b) how relatively inattentive I am to most reviews. I’m starting to think one needs a hand-held device (such as a miniature spiral-bound notebook — it doesn’t have to be electronica) to keep straight which reviews we’ve read, what books are on the shelves, and the intersection thereof!

All of which has nothing to do with this post, btw, and I apologize for hijacking the discussion, but your mention of “Skin Game” made me think of it. That book could have been staring me in the face at B&N and I’d have looked right over it.

Sarah November 13, 2009 at 07:38

@Magdalen Yes! My review of Skin Game will be up in a few hours.

As I shop almost exclusively online, your description of your bookstore experience is one that I never experience anymore. Fitting with my anal personality, I keep spreadsheets of books I’ve read, ones I own but haven’t yet read, and ones which are on my radar for the future. I had a few incidences of buying the same book twice, hence the list.

Magdalen November 13, 2009 at 15:59

And in keeping with my oral personality, I just consume books non-stop! LOL

Lynn Spencer November 16, 2009 at 21:07

“tears before smiles” – I love that description, and I love these kinds of books! I think that’s one reason I tend to eat up war romances, old school Regency trads and the like. There’s something about the angstiness of a story that makes the HEA (or at least the emotional fulfillment) at the end feel even sweeter. If it’s all fluff and cotton candy for 300+ pages, the HEA can get a little lost in all the sweetness if the author isn’t good and careful.

JeanneTops November 17, 2009 at 04:15

While I agree with you that a reader’s backstory fuels their reactions to and perceptions of what makes a good romance, I also find that I go through wildly varying phases of what I like to read. One week it’s paranormal creatures then overnight it’s funny lawyers followed within days by Dukes and bluestockings. For me, that’s fun of the Romance genre. So many different times and places to go visit for an evening or a week.

What ties them together is the HEA. I read the same recommendations for Madensky Square and I knew I could trust the reviewers but it took me several weeks before I could finally start it. And even then, I read the ending first just to see how much of a non-HEA it really was. As it turns out, I am glad it didn’t have an HEA and really only had the thinnest of an HFN. (And WWI was just around the corner for them as well.)

I would say that Megan Chance’s books are intentional HFNs. The Portrait, for example, ostensibly ends in an HEA but the hero is an artist suffering from bi-polar disease in the 1850s. He’s not going to get well and neither of them are independently wealthy so you can see poverty, alcoholism and marriage breakdown on the horizon. Megan Chance virtually warns you that it’s going to happen. Still, it’s a book about the hope that love can generate even against all odds and is there anything more romantic than that?

Sometimes really good angst should only end in an HFN. Anything more such as marriage, babies and acceptance by the ton belittles the reader’s emotional investment in the characters and story.

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