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An Ode to Grand, Lust-Warped Miscalculation

I haven’t had the sort of life anyone would want to write a book about. I have been, by and large, a rule follower and a Good Girl. Yet I’ve made a handful of fairly horrible, interesting mistakes, and all of them involved men.

I tell you this not because I think it’s unusual but because I think it’s ordinary. Name nearly any error on the list of romantic bad ideas, and I’ll either raise my hand to admit my sheepish culpability or introduce you to a close friend who’s crossed that particular line.

Ever been the Other Woman? Slept with a coworker when you knew it was way beyond foolish? Stayed with an emotionally abusive jerk? Hung on in a relationship well past its expiration date? Gotten pregnant from having unprotected sex?

I haven’t done all those things, but I’m looking around the room and seeing a lot of hands in the air right now.

We people, we do stupid things. And when it comes to love and sex, relationships and romance and lust, oh, lust — well, they do have a way of ramping up the stupidity by a factor of ten.

I love this about humanity. I am fascinated by this precise sort of error, which is why I’m enthralled with the literature of romantic stupidity. Nothing makes me happier than spending a few hours in the company of characters who make truly awful mistakes.

This makes romance a reader’s paradise for me, because boy howdy, do the characters in romance make mistakes. I think my affinity for the psychology of error is the main reason I prefer my own little corner of romance — straight-up contemporary, rather than historical or paranormal or romantic suspense or any of the other equally wonderful subgenres. In a straight-up contemporary, in order to create enough dramatic tension to keep the reader flipping pages, the characters almost have to make horrible mistakes. Either that, or overcome past traumas in a touching, mutually supportive way that leads them to deepen their love and mutual understanding and–

*yawns* *stretches*

Sorry, I was putting myself to sleep there. Not my kind of book. I like my romance sexy and conflicted, and I like my characters to do really bone-headed things in the name of lust or love or, ideally, some difficult-to-parse combination of the two.

This brings me to Meg Maguire / Cara McKenna, one person who writes erotic romance and (usually-)romantic erotica under two names.

What, you hadn’t guessed this post was going to end up being a mash note to Meg-Cara? Do you not know me yet at all?

So. Meg Maguire has a new book out with Samhain called Trespass, and early reviews suggest that it’s doing to romance readers what her work tends to do to romance readers, which is to say, thrilling and fascinating and irritating and baffling them and making their heads explode.

Let me tell you why I loved it.

First, I should mention I’m not a book reviewer. I don’t usually even read book reviews, because I like to come at books with fresh eyes, and it’s usually only if a book baffles or infuriates me that I’ll go off in search of other people’s opinions about it. So this isn’t a review, exactly, and there may be spoilers. If you don’t like spoilers, stop now. Go buy the book, read it, and come back. This post isn’t going anywhere.

Trespass is the story of Sarah, a girl on the run from something terrible she’s done, and Russ, the kind, comfortably sexy Montana vet who takes her into his home and treats her wounds when she shows up buckshot in his front yard in the middle of the night. It’s a book about a runaway — a woman with a shady past and a good person who takes her in — so it’s no big surprise when Sarah robs Russ and runs away. Since it’s a romance, it’s also no big surprise that he goes after her. There are numerous conventions of plot-type and genre to be satisfied here: the sex, the betrayal, the rebuilding of trust, the reckoning with the past, the falling in love, the happy ending. All of this happens, but very little of it happens in exactly the way one might expect. That, for me, is what makes the book such fun.

Unexpectedness is built into Trespass because of the way Maguire wrote the characters. Russ is a rural Montana guy. He owns horses and a straw cowboy hat. He’s a kindly widower. But if you expect him to be and behave like the average laconic cowboy of category romance, you’re going to be, shall we say, unsettled and surprised?

Mandi’s review at Smexybooks calls Russ “very desperate, [and] almost creepy.” Sophia at Fiction Vixen calls him “needy, lonely, sad, and maybe even desperate.” Notice the repetition of “desperate”? Yes. That. He’s no stoic man with a lasso, our Russ. He’s a mess. A very attractive, very interesting, very horny mess. And all of his actions in the book come from this starting place — from his flawed humanness, his deep need for connection, and his lust-addled stupidity.

But let me be clear: Russ isn’t an extraordinary idiot. He’s the ordinary sort of idiot, the kind who knows exactly what sort of idiocy he’s engaging in while he engages in it. (Isn’t this how you make your mistakes? It’s how I make mine.) When he declares his love to Sarah, he prefaces it by telling her, “I’m gonna say something real stupid now.”

This is, hands down, my favorite line in the book.

Sarah is equally imperfect. It’s not every day one encounters a heroine who drugs the hero’s dogs, steals his money and his grandfather’s gold watch, and runs off into the night. But on the days when one does encounter such a heroine, one might expect the novel to spend several chapters in her point of view in advance, rationalizing the decision, agonizing, standing over Russ’s sleeping form and weeping about what she’s about to do. Or, failing that, one might expect her to commit the robbery before she’s engaged in various and sundry sexual acts with the hero, so as to keep those moments of passion unsullied by her misbehavior.

Trespass gives those expectations the boot. Yes, Sarah does agonize over her deception in advance, but for the most part the first half of the book belongs to Russ, and it is through his eyes that we experience her betrayal and his reaction to it. It’s not until the latter half that we begin to understand Sarah — what she’s trying to escape and why she’s behaved the way she has. We get to know her and Russ better as both of them flail their way through the middle of the story, full of hurt and regret and yearning and a variety of other feelings they don’t know what to do with.

Have I made Russ and Sarah sound a bit difficult to love? They are and they aren’t. I think it might be fair to say that they’re difficult to identify with, not on an abstract level but on that deeper, falling-into-the-heroine’s-point-of-view level that is often understood to be essential to romantic literature (and to women’s literature more broadly). I really enjoyed reading about Russ and Sarah. Sometimes I identified with them, other times not so much. I was deeply invested in the outcome of their story, but not tied up in it personally. It remained their book, their story, their outcome.

I’m having trouble expressing what I mean here, and that’s frustrating, because I think it may be important. Romance writers are often told there are no Rules in writing in the genre, and I suppose this is true, but I’d stipulate that there are many, many conventions. If you enter romance writing contests, you find out what those conventions are soon enough. Some of the most important have to do with the reader’s ability to identify with the heroine and fall in love with the hero. The heroine shouldn’t be drunk and throwing up in a bar toilet in the first scene of the book, because the reader will think she’s an idiot and dislike her. The hero shouldn’t tell the hero she’s being a bitch — even if she is — because the reader will think he’s a jerk and dislike him. Romance readers are supposed to love characters who misbehave, but not too much. The bad girl is a tough sell. The good girl is a tough sell. Down on her luck is okay, but not too far down. Ambitious, but not excessively ambitious. Uptight, but not unlikeable with it. Fun-loving but not slutty. Into shoes, but not frivolous about them.

There’s an elaborate calculus to writing a likable heroine, is my point, and a whole separate problem set for heroes.

Meg-Cara often screws with the math. I like to think she does it gleefully, but even if she does it by accident, I don’t care. I think it’s wonderful. It makes her books so goddamn interesting.

I don’t know of any other contemporary romance writer whose novels make me so frantically flip pages as I indulge my compulsion to know what these two characters (or these three, or twelve, as the case may be) will do next. I can’t think of another person writing erotic romance who makes me think so much. Not always good thinking, mind you. I don’t love every scene in every book she’s ever written. That would be kind of silly. But I always end up enjoying the ride, even if I feel it took a wrong turn or two along the way. I enjoy the head-scratching afterward almost as much as I enjoy the reading experience itself.

Meg-Cara does small things particularly well. Her characters don’t tend to make grand gestures or give overblown speeches, but there are these perfect moments — Russ and Sarah rolling around in the grass together, or Patrick in Ruin Me telling Robin she needs to decide what kind of crazy she wants, or Pike and Mac handcuffed together, beat up and hungry and falling for each other in Skin Game — that hit me so much harder, and end up being so much more memorable. There is beauty in the stupidity of love, and she knows how to find it and offer it up. She knows how to write bravery that is small and craven and real, and she knows how to write sex that is dirty and human and individually perfect for the characters who are having it.

If this were a book review, I’d stop now, but since it’s turning out to be more of a philosophical ramble, I’ll carry on. Because I have questions.

Here’s the thing. Romance is escapist genre. So where is the line between just enough reality and too much, in this genre? How much humanness can readers of romantic fiction handle?

And here’s where I come back to the “rules” of romance. How perfect must the hero and heroine be (while still retaining a certain level of flawed-ness) in order for us to escape into their story? How good must they be, and for how much of the book? Can they only make certain approved sorts of mistakes at designated points along the path to love, or does anything go so long as the mistakes are redeemed in the end one way or another? If the heroine does something objectively wrong (as if there is such a thing), is it sufficient that she regret it, or must she also learn from it? What must she learn, and what does it take to redeem her? Must the hero wait to love her until she’s been redeemed?

I guess what I’m asking is, Must our characters be better than we are?

I think not. I think love makes most of us stupid at one time or another, and in fiction, nothing is more satisfying than a tale of grand, lust-warped miscalculation that ends well.

Gives me hope for humanity, really.

21 thoughts on “An Ode to Grand, Lust-Warped Miscalculation

  1. “He’s the ordinary sort of idiot, the kind who knows exactly what sort of idiocy he’s engaging in while he engages in it.”

    Yes, you totally nailed it. Once I got past my expectations of what a romance hero should be I was able to totally appreciate Russ and his “normal idiocy”. I love Meg’s/Cara’s books because they always offer up something different and unexpected.

  2. I really, really want to intelligently comment on this post (which I loved btw), but now my brain hurts. So this is what you’re going to get instead…

    I like Meg-Cara’s thinking-type books too. I haz some. She writes good.

    1. Sorry I hurt your brain, Gina. I get carried away. You should’ve seen me when I was a philosophical knitter. No, actually, never mind. I don’t imagine that would be your bag of chips.

  3. I’m on my phone and I want to quote but that’s not going to happen;) But when u say Maguire does small things well and her characters don’t give overblown speeches- YES THIS. Among many other things but I love the subtle way she writes.

    And when you explain Russ the way you do..well darn it..I need to think about what bothered me again…I still say there is a point after she tried to escape that Russ did weird me out a tiny bit when he doesn’t want her to leave again..but maybe I need to sat characters are allowed to make mistakes and not be an “idiot”

    Very well said!!

    1. Thanks! I’m enjoying the dialogue over this book, as well as the discussion about Reluctant Nude going on at Dear Author. I love a novel that makes me think — and spew romance-writing philosophy at the Internet.

  4. I haven’t read Trespass yet, but out of the Cara/Meg books I have read, my least favorite character was Max from Reluctant Nude… because he was too damn perfect. Irony, no?

    Here’s the real irony. We want to be loved for who we are, flaws and all. But if a heroine steps out of line (*ahem* one-night stands, etc) then suddenly she is no longer deserving of her happily-ever-after. We’re like gay men in the closet, publicly condemning homosexuality and secretly hoping no one finds us out.

    Real people, no matter their mistakes or their insecurities or their messed up pasts, are LOVABLE. They are capable of love and deserving of love. And sex, don’t forget sex! Everyone deserves a good orgasm now and again, surely we can all get behind that platform.

    There is a writerly saying that goes like this: everyone is a hero in their own story. The janitor in the office building, the guy whose cock pics made TV, that girl with the dirty jokes on Twitter, the man and woman begging on the street corner – they all have stories. Interesting stories. And, most of all, they deserve their happy ending.

    1. I agree, absolutely. And I think most people would. The question is kind of one of genre expectations, isn’t it? And the potential disconnect between the purpose of escapist fiction (read: escapism) and “reality” as portrayed in fiction. How much real do romance readers want? I want lots. But then, I’ve never been accused of being normal.

      As for Max — what, his obsession with giant, disfiguring scars wasn’t enough for you? ;)

      1. Yeah, and it does come back to readers’ preferences. I’m with you, though, on preferring more realism, not less. Reading a book is only half what the writer put down on paper, the other half is what the reader brings to table: her experiences and perspective and mood, etc.

        And, hah! Yeah, that was a little creepy. But if he would’ve… never mind, that was going nowhere good :)

  5. I’m already a jittery release week spaz, and you’ve only spazzened me more deeply! But thank you so much for yet more kind words. Kind, smarty smart-people words. If it weren’t for your wildly superior vocabulary, I’d worry people thought I invented you to pimp my wackadoo stories.

    I like that you seem to think I’m clever enough to intentionally write characters that challenge genre norms. You do meta far better than I! The truth is, I’m always surprised by reader reactions to the people I invent.

    I want to be a successful commercial writer, so I always aim to write relatable characters, real ones, likable ones…but I’m simply not very good at it, it seems. Over and over again, I get told that people liked (or hated) my characters in spite of (or because of, see: hated) how flawed they are. What I see as quirky occasionally reads as borderline personality disorder. I always scratch my head, reread their analysis, and go, “Ohhhh…” as comprehension dawns on me. I mean some are intentionally wrong-in-the-head (Ian, Gabriel, Max) but for the majority of my characters, that’s not my aim. Wah waaaahhh.

    Russ was definitely an idiot, of the lust-stoned (or perhaps more kindly, hope-stoned) variety. When the first couple of reviews came in, I panicked. Had I just launched a new romance faux-pas, the Too Stupid to Live Hero? I hope not. But Sarah’s bad decision-making did wind up being contagious, it would seem. I’m realizing desperation is probably my favorite flavor of angst, and I find myself exploring it again and again.

    As to the larger question of “Must our characters be better than we are?” I’d say, depends on your standards. That definitely holds true for many readers. I personally like pretty badly flawed characters in the books I read, and indeed the shows and movies I watch. I’m hooked on the trainwreck-type reality shows, like Addicted and Intervention and Obsessed, the super-voyeuristic kind that shed light on real people’s struggles. I love hearing about folks with interesting, often heartbreaking challenges, and rooting for them, all the while not knowing if they’re really going to get it together.

    So I’m definitely of the pro-flawed-character camp, but I can appreciate when readers aren’t—some may have had it up-to-here with flawed individuals in their real life, and they want to read about people who’ve got it together when they’re enjoying a spot of fiction. Especially, perhaps, in romance. Or perhaps they just hold people to higher standards than I do, fictional or otherwise. Different strokes.

    I wanted to close by saying, “Very interesting topic, Ruthie!” but that sounds like I’m talking about myself…but you know what I mean. Release weeks always drive home the reality of just how diverse reader experiences and reactions can be, to a single book. A truly terrifying, mystifying, fascinating aspect of fiction writing.

    Right. Off to drown my jitters in a cold beer.

    1. Sorry to spaz you. Go have a beer, it’ll die down. :)
      I do like finding out about different reader experiences and expectations. It’s fascinating. Though it also scares the bejezus out of me, and makes me want to yank back that ms. I sent out for editing yesterday and say, “For the love of God, don’t anybody read this!” Note to self: grow carapace.

  6. Fascinating. I really was disappointed with Trespass. I felt that if it was the author’s goal to get us to believe that stupid, selfish, immature people needed love to then she succeeded. What I didn’t feel she succeeded on was creating any characters that grew. And there were unconscious messages that made me very uncomfortable. Both of the characters were very aware of how “attractive” the others were. I think the heroine in Trespass mentioned at least four times that Russ was handsome (although she would always qualify it). And Russ felt proud to show up in the bar with the best looking woman around. There was that very strange reference to Russ putting his nose where a heavier woman would have cleavage. I really disliked these image conscious passages.

    I also disliked the running down of Russ’ previous wife. Why couldn’t have he had a passionate relationship with his deceased wife? His 7 years of marriage and a lack of passion in the bedroom was as much his fault as it was hers? I was put off by the idea that rubbing his cock between some strange girl’s thighs was the best sex he had ever had.

    After 7 years of celibacy I think that Russ would have fallen in love with a goat who gave good head.

    I agree that the book had two halves, but I thought the second half was weak and boring. I was bogged down with the minutiae of their time on Russ’ farm. I had a hard time believing that Russ was actually a veterinarian. I kept wondering what all these little things (like Sarah deciding she liked to sew and putting on Russ’ wedding dress) were supposed to mean, how they advanced the story. Why should I care?

    I actually skimmed the latter sex scenes because I found the two characters so uncompelling.

    Yes, they were different but of all the books i’ve read of hers, I found the writing in this the weakest. There was a lot of needless repetition. The internal monologues seemed to be endless. And the second half felt like a whole wind down after Russ’ confrontation with Sarah.

    1. I saw your tweets, Jane, so I knew of your disappointment already. It was one of the things that got me thinking. :)

      I didn’t feel his previous wife was run down. She was compared, and his relationship with her was less passionate. But people are in less-passionate relationships all the time, and I never read him as thinking he’d settled or regretted her. To turn your question around, must all comparison to the deceased spouse be favorable?

      “After 7 years of celibacy I think that Russ would have fallen in love with a goat who gave good head.” Entirely possible. But I bought into his slower acceptance in the second half of the story that his feelings for Sarah weren’t altogether motivated by lust.

      I suspect what our different readings may boil down to, though, is a very different level of interest in character growth. It’s not high on the list of things that matter to me, and I can tell from your reviews that it’s a priority for you as a reader. Different strokes, eh?

      1. I think what frustrated me about the wife thing (and a few others) were that they didn’t seem to fit. Ie. if the author is really about pushing the boundaries (and I think that most people believe that she is) then why would she go *there* which is so commonplace?

        But, yes, I do think a lot of differences have to do with reader priorities. I know that I have no excuse for enjoying Caris Roane but I do. Thanks for letting me participate.

        1. I hear what you’re saying on the wife thing being commonplace.
          Thanks for participating! I appreciate everything you do on behalf of romance writing and reading.

      2. I should probably clarify — it’s not that I think characters ought to be allowed to remain stupid and still get the spoils, exactly. It’s just that I’ll accept stories where people do stupid things, realize it, apologize, and move forward on a different footing. I’m okay with quiet hints at growth, rather than growth as a major story arc.

  7. I’ve got to say, I find it so, so heartening to see such a positive response to an unsual hero! I haven’t read it myself yet, so I can’t say quite how unusual he is – but I bought it based on the fact that people are suggesting he’s different to the norm. I love different to the norm heroes – I write them myself – so to know that not everyone is wanting the typical hero and heroine is very encouraging, not only as a reader with a taste for unusual heroes, but as a writer too.

    Thanks for posting this, Ruthie. Love Meg/Cara, and she deserves every word!

    1. You’re welcome, Charlotte! I wouldn’t expect Russ to be super-unusual. I think that’s what I like about him, and so many of Meg/Cara’s creations — they’re unusual in their extra-humanness, rather than in their weirdness. If that even makes sense.

  8. Wow, late to the party or what! Your posts always cook up a storm, Ruthie dear. It’s because you’re so thinky. Most of us are, like, wow, sexy hero, would like to screw the brains out of him, but you’re all “what’s his inspiration” and “let’s analyse his motivation.” Wayyyy more intelligent than the rest of us. But that’s what makes you you.

    Mistakes are the essence of a romance, aren’t they? It would be a very dull story to have two virgins meet, fall in love, and get married, IMHO. It’s the angst and the internal scrutinizing after the cock-ups (pardon the pun for those of us who write erotic romance) that make the meat of the story. But a good conflict is so hard to write. I just want to have the H&H kissing all the time, but I know a good snog does not a romance book make.

    I admire Meg/Cara for writing unusual, less-than-perfect heroes. The square-jawed, perfect guys on aftershave ads do nothing for me – it’s always the naughty, flawed men who make serious screw ups and are hopeless at doing the right thing who are the ones I fall in love with. Who wants to read perfect? I think you’re right – I don’t want to read about someone who leads a more perfect life than me. I want to read about people who make stupid mistakes and still manage to claw love and romance out of the pit of misery. It definitely does give us all hope.

    1. Is it possible to die of flattery? You and Gina, yeesh! (Though, come to think of it, better check if Meg-Cara is still kicking.)
      Glad you agree — clawing love and romance out of the pit of misery is what it’s all about. :)

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