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–
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.
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.