February 18, 2011
High school sweethearts become successful writers in the twenty years after their breakup - he of horror thrillers, she of celebrity profiles. When her editor learns of their steamy past, she sends our Keri back home to seek an exclusive interview, which Joe (still smoldering - it was a very hot past, and he has a vast smolder capacity) grants on the condition that she spend two weeks with his, well, vivid family on their annual camping trip. The heroine is a barely fleshed out cipher, all designer clothes and delicate city ways, whose family barely merits a mention, but this doesn't dampen my annoyance with the fact that she ends up [spoiler alert, unless you are familiar with the structures of a certain type of romance, in which case you saw this coming] giving up her whole life and career to be with him. His "equivalent" sacrifice is ... trusting her again after she broke his heart two decades earlier. The novel's last line - in which she celebrates giving up her old identity to become known solely as his wife, a fate which horrified her earlier in the book, is particularly galling. Hrmph.
[Sidebar: why is it that many romance novels can only cope with one eccentric family at a time (the hero's or the heroine's), when most relationships are about the fundamental difficulty of grappling with two?]
There's a lot that's well done about the gripping, warm writing of this novel, and my complaints are largely about the blandness (or rather blankness) of the heroine and the way the resolution rubs away what little we know about her that's distinctive. I wanted to see more of their high school years (which were described with all the urgent heat of nostalgia), to understand better why she left him while so madly in love, and to get a sense of why he (a fascinating, compellingly drawn man) would even be interested in her.
This is a pitfall I often stumble into with romances. I wouldn't ever say it is characteristic of the whole varied genre, just of a certain type of characterization problem: the hero, as the object of our erotic focus, is detailed, vivid, charming. The heroine, with whom we are supposed to identify, perhaps, is vaguer, more abstract. Scott McCloud talks about this in Understanding Comics, if I remember correctly, when he deals with why comics artists render characters as either realistic ("Other") or iconic (abstract, and thus ripe for identification - "I"). The problem is this: a character who is sufficiently iconic, vague, or abstract that ANY reader could step into her skin is also a non-character. Someone with features so universal as to be an everywoman. And then what is there for the hero to latch onto and love, apart from the yawn-inducing idea of arbitrary fatedness.
Here my alienation from poor Keri is compounded by the fact that a stunningly beautiful and dazzlingly fashionable heroine needs some humanizing specifics to counteract my knee-jerk, Episcopalian-girls-school-trained dislike for those whom the gods and Neimans have blessed with a polished surface. A beautiful heroine is routinely less interesting to me than one who is simply ... human. Normal. Lovely in moments, and plain in others. If a heroine simply has to be beautiful, I'd like her to be deep as well. Filled with shadows and fears, flaws and self-knowledge. (See the heroine of Kristen Cashore's Fire.)
One last note: it's been some years since I've been camping. But, as I remember it, there's nothing sexy about a campground's public bathhouse. This is not the realm of romance, but of black widows and fungal growth. I'm just sayin': all I could think, every time a couple slipped off to the bathhouse, was, "Did they take shower shoes?". Eww.
Exclusively Yours (2010)