I remember my sister laughing and sighing as she read a Harlequin romance at night in the bedroom we shared as children. At 10 I was not particularly interested in romance, but it made me fume that she was having fun that I wasn’t privy to. She always got to do things first, since she was two whole years older. I insisted she tell me what was funny, but she just said, “Go read one yourself.”
I did, and that began my romance with romances.
Back then, Harlequins were essentially reprints of books already published by Mills and Boon, a British publishing company. The authors were mostly British and Australian, so the heroes and heroines were too. It was then I fell in love with the Outback, Ayers Rock, quaint English villages and the occasional Dutch doctor, always a fixture in romances by Betty Neels. A kiss at the end of the book was sufficient for a preteen to sigh over longingly, and then it seemed fully plausible that a 38 year old man would fall in love with an 18 year old girl because of her courage and insight into life. I have, in my life, read literally thousands of romances, and I still get breathless over a hunky Aussie rancher. But times have changed, and that rancher is lot more likely to peel out of his clothes now than he was 30 years ago – in print, anyway.
The biggest changes in romances in the last few decades are in the amount and extent of description of intimate encounters, and the independence of the women. Even the genres with settings in pre-20th century times feature women who have more in common with their 21st century counterparts than the women of their own times. The best authors in those genres make a point of noting that their heroines are “not in the common way”, which helps smooth over the anomaly. The sex itself gets quite anatomical, having wended its way over the years from a simple closed-mouth kiss, through intercourse described using the euphemistic “manhood” and “womanhood” for the pertinent parts, and finally in recent years using virtually any language you’d find in anything from sex manuals to street cant. Men who’ve never cracked open a romance novel might learn a few things if they brought themselves to do so.
My reading tastes became more discerning as I grew older, and coupled with the boom in romance publishing that allowed in a lot of lesser authors, I have found in the past couple of decades that not many authors can keep my interest through an entire book. I’m notorious for doing a “good parts” read – first chapter, pertinent mid-points (i.e. hot ‘n steamy scenes) and last chapter – on most romances I get my hands on. Mostly I avoid the ones that I suspect will be that way, because I resent the money and time I spend on them. That makes it especially exciting when I find authors I enjoy enough to read all the way through. This article will deal with two who publish in the Regency or historical romance genre; I’ve recently discovered some I like in the fantasy/time travel category, so I’ll get to them soon.
Stephanie Laurens – an Australian romance author, amusing considering my early experiences – is my favorite in the more spicy “big book” Regency genre. She began publishing in the 1990s with the series romance publishers – Signet, primarily – then came into her own as a “name” author with Captain Jack’s Woman. She’s best known for the Bar Cynster series, where the men of one aristocratic family fall in love one at a time. The last two of the series are women Cynsters, the twins Amanda (On A Wild Night) and Amelia (On A Wicked Dawn). Those two are not nearly as good as her earlier books; I’ve spent a little time trying to figure out why, and decided it was because the primary tension between the main characters is resolved too early in the book. The primary story line in the Laurens books is the avowed rake (a man known for his prowess in sexual and other arenas) who is at heart a good, honorable man, finding a woman he can’t get out of his mind. The women aren’t much happy to be the focus of their attentions, so of course in each book the rake seduces the attracted-in-spite-of-herself woman into his arms while at the same time realizing that his promiscuous days are over. Laurens’ talent lies in creating a story that makes you care about the characters and lose yourself in the story. The Laurens heroes are very intense, protective and very traditionally male without being unreasonably so. The sex scenes are an integral part of the story line, rather than a drop-in as they feel in some books. She’s written a few books and anthologies that aren’t a part of the Bar Cynster series, and has started a new series; a list and discussion of all of her books can be found on her website.
My favorite Laurens book is A Secret Love. Alathea is the daughter of an earl who is warm and engaging but completely at a loss financially. She has given up her own hopes of a marriage and children to oversee the family’s finances, but her father puts them in jeopardy again by buying into a dicey money-making scheme without Alathea’s knowledge. Realizing she can’t fix it herself, she turns to her childhood friend Rupert Cynster, known by the sobriquet Gabriel. The two were best of friends until their early teens, when they began to be increasingly uncomfortable in each other’s presence without quite knowing why. Now that Alathea is in her late 20s and Gabriel in his 30s, every encounter brings sharp words. But Alathea knows that only Gabriel can help her, so she approaches him disguised as a closely veiled widow seeking his help anonymously. Gabriel is as intrigued by the mystery of the woman as he is the puzzle of solving the financial problems. Their encounters become increasingly sexual as Gabriel tries to convince the “widow” to trust him, and Alathea falls in love with a man she knows would never love her for who she really is.
Laurens writes excellent, sensuous sex scenes in all her books, but the very best is in her short story, Melting Ice, in the romance anthology Rough Around the Edges. In this story, the hero has been out of the country for 10 years, having left for India thinking his childhood sweetheart married his friend. When he returns he finds that she has in fact never married, and he rescues her from unwitting involvement in a weekend orgy only to engage her in a version for only two.
My second favorite romance author is Julia Quinn, who mixes good stories with a lot of wit and humor. You like her hero and heroine; you want to hang out with them. You’ll find yourself laughing out loud, clapping for the heroine, and feeling reluctant, amused commiseration for the hero. She also writes in the “big book” Regency genre, but like Laurens she keeps your attention through the entire book. The romance is intense, the sex gets pretty hot (and detailed), and the stories are different enough so you don’t feel that you’ve read all her books after reading just one (unlike, say, Danielle Steele, who has written the same book over and over for 20 years). Most romances are charming stories, and the best authors are very talented – I don’t disparage their work – but it’s not Great Dramatic Fiction, which unfortunately some writers don’t understand, to the detriment of their work. Quinn realizes it, but her own intelligence – she’s a graduate of an Ivy League school who was in medical school when she finally decided her destiny was romance writing – translates into intelligent heroines who feel like real people dealing with real struggles, without being maudlin or gothic. I suspect that Quinn and Laurens will be read and loved as authors decades from now, as the originator of modern Regencies, Georgette Heyer, is today. And I don’t think it’s an accident that smart, fascinating stories come from smart, fascinating women – Laurens herself has a PhD in biochemistry, and was a cancer researcher when her first books were published.
Quinn has written as much out of series as in it. Her series involves the Bridgerton family, with eight children – she’s written several of them, but there are more to go. I don’t have a favorite amongst Quinn’s books, but they’re good enough that I keep all of them and am in my third reading of some. I just finished rereading Splendid, and am in the middle of To Catch An Heiress now. One recurring theme is Lady Whistledown, a society gossip columnist who is the bane of the Bridgertons in a couple of books, until the mystery is solved in Quinn’s latest book, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (a very sweet ugly-duckling-to-sort-of-swan story). Quinn has also written in anthologies, and I can recommend Scottish Brides highly. It’s actually the book where I discovered both Quinn and Laurens, and therefore itself one of my all time favorites.
As the weather warms and you contemplate long summer evenings in the porch hammock or hot summer afternoons on the beach, you can’t go wrong picking a romance by Laurens or Quinn to take along. And your husband may thank you for it too – after all, a woman has to do a little research about whether all those positions are physically possible, doesn’t she?Powered by Sidelines