I've been on a romantic kick lately which is somewhat out of character. Except for my yearly reading of Pride and Prejudice and a fondness for Depression-era romantic comedy movies, I've always disdained romance as a genre. So much more interesting the travel adventure, the action adventure, pure fantasy, mystery... well, just about anything but romance. Modern romantic stories seem to hinge on the totally implausible situation with unbelievable characters or bog down in the everyday ordinariness of relationships. Yuck.
But recently I started being more picky about my reading and I noticed a troubling new trend; I was looking for the "good parts". You know, the bits in the sub-plot where he snubs her from across the room and about 150 pages later they're in a lip-lock embrace, like the way Lois Lane ignores Clark Kent while making sexy remarks about Superman. And the more I craved it, the harder it was to find, not only because the best of it is nestled between the lines of larger plots but also because many fine writers simply don't put romance into their stories.
I picked up a couple of romances in complete desperation and they were completely unsatisfying. How could I empathize with the naivete of Charlize who so stupidly got herself caught by the pirate (who was supposed to be dashing but I found him rather smarmy) or the embittered weakness of Anne, whose no-good husband left her two years ago? Bleah. This is what they call romance? What happened to strong women, like Elizabeth Bennett, who spurns the handsome but disdainful Darcy? What was missing from these stories, why didn't they feel romantic to me?
So I began a quest to define romance. What is in those "good parts" that I read and watch over and over with the addiction of a pornographer? If I could define it, maybe I could write it, and besides, it was an excuse to indulge. I began re-reading all of my favorite stories with romance in them, classics, sci-fi, space opera, fantasy, TV and movies to see what they had in common. After too many rerun episodes of Lois and Clark, it came to me: Romance is about loosing your cool.
Pared down like that it doesn't sound too appealing. Where, you wonder, are the candlelit dinners, the sexy clothes, dancing by moonlight and all the rest of the clichéd scenery? Out the window with the bathwater, because it isn't the trappings that matter but the chemistry between the characters, and the best romantic stories all contain a moment when some self-imposed restraint is overcome.
The most devastatingly romantic moment in Pride and Prejudice is when Darcy proposes to Elizabeth and she refuses him. In a state of complete mortification he asks her to explain her refusal. The Scarlet Pimpernel is shrewd and cooly calculating, but deeply hurt by the rumored betrayal of his young wife. Poor Zorro hasn't got one decent romantic scene in any of his stories, but he remains a romantic figure with his dashing ways and weakness for his alter-ego's intended bride. The author Emma Bull gets top marks for "getting it"; in her novel Freedom and Necessity with Steven Brust she pulled out the stops for full scale erotica when the heroine, bold competent Susan walks into a room where James is shirtless and they both come undone.
The trick is that the hero has to have a cool to lose. Many a columnist, author or film has addressed the question of why women claim to like the ponytail guy but always dump him for the casanova. Various theories are given: women like assholes, they prefer to be mistreated, they want what they can't have, etc. But this answer seems so much more obvious, because a person who wears their heart on their sleeve doesn't have any cool to lose. A conquest will always be more satisfying if it involves a challenge.
So now that I know what I want from a romance maybe I'll have better luck finding it. Or maybe I'll get over it and return to adventure for excitement?
"She grabbed his arm and flipped him over on his back, winding him. He scrabbled to his knees and looked up at her as she stood poised for his next attack. His gaze traveled from her steel-toed boots up her leather clad legs and muscled torso to her pale face, brown hair pulled away to reveal delicate features. She caught his gaze and her lips quirked. 'Seen enough, flyboy? Or do you want to lose more than your wind?'"
Columns by Buttercup