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Harlequin Romances for the Unitiated

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We came back to the States by ship as usual. Carnival Lines, which fills its rooms with promotional giveaways like razors, toothpaste and shampoo, added a new touch.

This trip there was a slim paperback of first chapters of new Harlequin Romances by different authors. They listed a website&#8212Tell Harlequin&#8212and a notice that there is now a new series, Harlequin Super-Romance, “with six new stories each month”. Golly, but that is good news.

Never again will you be forced to relax from preparing cold cereal and milk for the family and washing the clothes, without a romantic and simple read waiting for you. With the country failing in its duties to its own citizens and to the world, the economy in danger, and the schools so bad as to rival Africa’s systems, your day can be filled with happy endings. Even in the evacuation traffic jams (remember Jean Luc Godard’s Weekend), you can drift off into never-never land where all is handsome cops and forgiving victims and the stuff of chintz dreams.

Am I panning this series of novels? A little; but nowhere near as much as I planned when I decided to read the promo volume rather than tossing it. I found, instead, that the novels are really no worse than most pop fiction. People love instead of committing serial murders. They speak in clichès, but so does Tom Clancy, whom I have been known to read (often, I am sad to relate). Clancy writes of war and heroes (Jack Ryan alias Harrison Ford, for example) and is far more exciting; but cannot be finished in a week by a busy housewife who is not interested in techno thrillers and would be appalled by the gore of a good Patricia Cornwell or the fright of a Dean Koontz.

This little tome touted His Case, Her Child by Linda Style, Stranger in Town by Brenda Novak, Montana Standoff by Nadia Nichols, Almost a Family by Roxanne Rustard and With Child by Janice Kay Johnson.

My first test of novels started in a college course with Robert Coover, who began with first sentences (it was an “Introduction to the Novel” course at Bard). I have always been interested in the start of a work and the relationship of the rest to that start. The quintessential first sentence is “Call me Ishmael.” Perfect, short, and an indicator of the rest of a long and complex masterpiece. At the other end of the spectrum is Snoopy on his doghouse roof, pencil in hand, writing, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

In these five novels we have:

“They found the boy scavenging through trash cans at the bus station.” This seems to be a story of a charming, handsome, rugged, down-to-earth, sensitive cop (met any of those lately?) and an ice-queen lawyer of children’s rights. He looks for one lost child and she grieves for another, and there may be enough plot twists to entertain before they are together, and the child turns out to be the one they seek or even hers stolen from a shelter for unwed mothers. Would I bother to read the rest of it? Surprisingly, I might, on some day when I couldn’t concentrate enough for Dickens or a meatier current work. I would probably have forgotten it the next day, but why clutter up the heads of housewives with the residue of a lifetime of Moby Dick?

In the Brenda Novak novel the line is “The road was covered with black ice.” OK. Now you know a lot about the story. She is chasing her ex-husband who has stolen her kids and is off with his survivalist buddies. She tries to pass a truck on an icy highway and then… we meet a charming, handsome, rugged, down-to-earth, sensitive ex-football player headed for the Super Bowl who is depressed about being crippled by an auto accident. I bet you are waiting with bated breath for what comes next and who meets whom. Read it on your own.

Montana Standoff starts with the line, “Molly Ferguson’s afternoon at the law firm of Tuintor, Skelton and Goldstein had been relatively uneventful until Tom Miller tapped on the door to her office, leaned his upper body against the frame and gave her a long and meaningful stare.” The guy who will undoubtedly win her “…had a deep voice and… was dressed to kill… His hair was the glossy black of a raven’s wing and he had calm, dark eyes…”

In Almost a Family “Erin Lang had expected challenges when she moved to Blackberry Hill.” The guy we meet quickly is “Tall, broad-shouldered and self-assured… now his dark hair was longer, the lean planes and angles of his face far stronger…”

With Child starts with “Brendan Joseph Quinn was off duty when he found out his best friend was dead.” Quinn, we find without being totally surprised, has “…straight dark hair, vivid blue eyes, stark cheekbones … he would never go unnoticed…”

I would say that there might be a formula to these stories but, of course, these leading men are much as I was when I was young, so that is total realism. The women are wives or lawyers but are ready to throw off the trappings of liberation for a dark, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered, glossy-haired, rugged, down-to-earth guy.

Am I running out to buy myself a bunch of Harlequin Romances? Perhaps not. Might they be readable, even fun, and fill a niche in the needs of women who want escapism without much violence, fear, excitement, or big words?

They are not Dickens. They are far better than functional illiteracy.
Edited: PC

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  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Just as there are writers of techno-thrillers who don’t reach the heights of literature (as you mention, Melville vs. Clancy), there are authors of romance novels who produce far above the cookie-cutter stuff that is published by Harlequin.

    The pre-established characters you mention are really not much different from novel series that take off from popular TV shows. No real visualization is necessary — we all know what the dangerous-but-sexy guy is like, just as we already know the inner motivations of Captain Kirk and Spock. Or, by now, Jack Ryan.

    It’s just as easy for the writer as it is for the reader.

  • http://lagunasite.blogspot.com alpha

    Dr. Pat. You are right, of course, but the other romance writers who might well be much better (it really is not my genre) were not sitting on the table in my cabin while the ship had “a day at sea”.

    I was intrigued by so many heroes almost as handsome as I; especially in a society now being hit by an “epidemic” of obesity. It was nice to know that we are still appreciated.

    Do we know what these guys are like? Only in cookie cutter romances. Otherwise there have been handsome serial killers — Bundy, here in Florida, for example.

    Captain Kirk is lasting as the dashing space cowboy. Dr. Spock has always been an enigma. That was his lasting charm. Even alien Vulcans have their secrets.

    Given your taste for books I am complimented you read a review of Harlequin Romances that may not have been my most serious effort to date.

  • http://indianenglish.blogspot.com/ Ashok K. Banker

    A taste for reviews is not always the same as a taste for books. Or, to put it slightly more ingenuously, some of us read books, but all of us read book reviews! Dr Pat has good taste in reviews as well as books.

    It’s a very nicely written appreciation for Harlequin romances, and I particularly like the cross-refs with literary works. So much more refreshing than the typical ‘guilty pleasures’ approach to most genre fiction reviews. I haven’t read a straight Harlequin romance in a while, but what I read, I liked, and as Pat points out, a lot of non-category romances are really no different than mainstream literary fiction now, with many writers crossing over quite successfully. I would applaud any genre that gives a writer that much space to grow and change. On the other hand, where would Tom Clancy go (or grow) from techno-thrillers? To franchise spy serials, that’s where! Give me an honest romance anyday. Call me Harlequin!

  • Sandra Marton

    Says “Alpha:”
    “Might they be readable, even fun, and fill a niche in the needs of women who want escapism without much violence, fear, excitement, or big words?
    They are not Dickens. They are far better than functional illiteracy.”

    I’m still trying to decide it the above is a slap on the hand or applause.

    I’m a writer. In fact, I write for a Harlequin imprint called Harlequin Presents. Books published by Harlequin Presents tend to feature somewhat more sophisticated settings and characters than those in Harlequin Romance but the basic premise–one man, one woman–is the same.

    Romance novels are, as Alpha says, novels that provide escape from the reality of everyday life but I’d suggest she read more of our books–yes, perhaps mine in particular–before determining our readers don’t want to read “big words.” I’ve never written down to my readers and they’ve responded by giving me a worldwide audience. (Harlequin publishes in 20 plus languages.)

    As for romance novels being preferable to functional illiteracy… the attorneys, CEOs, accountants, teachers, etc. who are among my readers, and who write to tell me how much they enjoy my books, would be just a little upset by that remark.

    The discerning reader in any genre takes the time to read a variety of authors, avoid the ones who are not to her taste and stay with the ones who are.

  • http://homepage.mac.com/donfrancisco864/iblog/index.html alpha

    Sandra. Your points are well taken and I apologize for not knowing your work.

    Was it a slap on the hand or applause. It was both as I thought I made clear. My preconceived notions of Harlequin novels were not correct; they are far more readable than the reputation that precedes them.

    They do present a formula and amazingly similar characters. The language is direct and effective but hardly original and complex.

    My major objection to your comment is that you didn’t read it any better than I have read the romance novel genre. I am, as my post and my blogs make clear: not a “she”. Never was. Never will be. I did not spell it out (or perhaps I did) but this is the post of a male view of the Romance novel.

  • sandra marton

    Alpha, it’s my turn to apologize. I didn’t check your blog and I should have.

    You’re right. HQs always present an Alpha male (sorry, that’s what we call them)but the type of heroine, storyline, theme, etc. vary by imprint and author.

    As for formula: if you want to call the necessary happy ending formulaic, so be it.

    I suppose I was a little quick to take umbrage, Alpha. It’s probably because most romance writers suffer from the old Rodney Dangerfield syndrome: we don’t get no respect!

    On the other hand, we make lots of readers happy.

    Last thought: my compliments to you for reading that HQ giveaway of the SuperRomance imprint. Takes courage for a guy to make the attempt, and I think it’s laudable.