Ah, mid-February. That time of year in which Romance authors are hounded by the media for sound bites and wink-wink, nudge-nudge style “advice” for hackneyed articles about Valentine’s Day, most of which will appear under headlines made awkward by ham-handed double-entendres*. I’m all for Romance writers getting some press, but the box-checking, paper-thin nature of this sort of coverage can be a little repetitive. Not to mention tedious.
So this seems like a good time to explore another of the aspects of Romance that make it so perennial popular. I’ve written about story and character archetypes. I’ve also written about success. All of those broad categories apply to the Romance genre in general. This time I want to be a little more specific, and examine one particular route writers take to get there.
This time, I want to talk about longing.
Longing, that earnest and persistent desire, is the core muscle group of the Romance Genre. Everyone has felt it; some of us exercise it more than others. We’ve all experienced longing in our everyday lives. New parents long for six hours of uninterrupted sleep (though they’d settle for three). Workers long for recognition, or for respite. And all of us at one point or another have longed to stretch out times of splendour… or to obliterate times of sorrow.
Longing, you’ll note, is often linked with denial. We only long for things we cannot have. Which makes it an excellent choice to drive fiction: the emotional conflict is built right in. While longing as a flavour is splashed all over the Romance genre, as a plot device it generally appears as unrequited love. Here are just a few examples of stories that use unrequited love as a way in… and usually as a way out again.
A Matter Of Class, Mary Balogh
Reginald Mason is the well-bred son of a fabulously wealthy but notably lower-class businessman. Lady Annabelle Ashton is the daughter of the Earl of Havercroft. They come from and inhabit very different worlds. Until Annabelle is embroiled in a serious scandal, and Reggie’s father offers up both his son and a sizeable fortune to soothe the waters.
It sounds like a classic marriage of convenience. But readers discover that events are not being steered by the desire for social advancement or the desire to avoid scandal. Instead, things unfold because two people decide that the ‘unrequited’ part of unrequited love is for the birds, and decide to do something about it. A truly charming novella.
As You Desire, Constance Brockway
Desdemona Carlisle has outgrown her infatuation with Harry Braxton, which makes it deucedly awkward when he rescues her, again. For his part, Harry has successfully hidden his abiding and very real attachment to Des. But new arrivals to their small ex-pat community disturb the tenor of they days, and Harry and Desdemona will each have to choose what, and who, is most important to them.
Adventurous, funny, and at times very serious, this is the book that made me a fan of Brockway’s writing. It’s also deals with questions of disability and price we make ourselves and others pay for them.
Don’t Tempt Me, Loretta Chase
Lucien de Grey, the Duke of Marchmont, is charming, lazy, and cares for almost nothing. Almost: he is both fond of and beholden to his former guardian, Lord Lexham. So when a young woman appears claiming to be Lexham’s long-lost daughter, Marchmont is determined to expose her as a fraud.
Instead, at first sight, he recognizes that she is, in fact, Zoe Lexham ,the young girl he once knew. Knew, and… cared about. So he decides to aid the family by bringing Zoe into fashion. But Zoe is a true original. Due to her years abroad she is unlike any other woman in London. Which is possibly why she’s the only person able to penetrate the formidable walls around Marchmont’s heart. A wonderful read.
Sarah’s Child, Linda Howard
This is unrequited love amped to the max. Sarah Harper has loved with Rome Matthews for years, but could never tell him. First, because he was married to her best friend. Then because Rome was a raging mess — justifiably so, after the death of his wife and their two children. Grief makes him a volcanic companion for a while. But as he gradually comes out of the worst of it, he begins to come back to life. And Sarah is there when he does.
It’s not an easy story. Rome is so wounded that he acts in ways that alternately make me want to hug him and/or punt him out a high window. But it’s also solid affirmation of the rewards that await if you can move past the fear of loss into love.
Dirty Sexy Knitting, Christie Ridgway
Cassandra Riley seeks out connections wherever she can. She owns a knitting shop which acts as a community hub. She has traced down her two half sisters in order to learn about family. And she has a truly tender soft spot for her neighbour Gabe Kincaid. Which is a problem, because Gabe has a bit of a death wish.
One of the things I liked best in this book is the moment in which Cassandra begins to set limits. It’s empowering to see someone not only realize that she deserves more than she has been given, but also to require it. Sometimes, setting a high standard is the only way to make someone realize he wants to live up to it.
Tempting the Bride, Sherry Thomas
Helena Fitzhugh is having an affair with a married man. About to be caught, she grudgingly accepts the help of David, Lord Hastings, and they elope to save her reputation. Helena has despised David since adolescence. For his part, David has loved Helena since they met. But determined to have her attention if not her love, he has spent the intervening years taunting and teasing her. Yes, that’s totally juvenile behaviour. Even David knows it. So when a freak accident erases Helena’s memories of David, he takes the opportunity to be the loving, caring man he has always wanted to be.
I loved this book. For the many minor characters, including Hasting’s daughter. For the way Thomas demonstrates that art and literature can be both an escape and a voice. For the turtle. And for the way David and Helena come to the realization that the only person who can keep one from acting like a complete idiot is one’s own self. A basic lesson, but hard to learn nonetheless. Well done, as both an individual story and as the conclusion to the Fitzhugh family trilogy.
* I once attended a panel discussion during which the writers were asked how they coped with the arch “So…does your husband help you with your… hrr hrr… research?” question. One of my favourite responses came from (I think) Donna Kauffman, who said she always replied that her husband, a SWAT officer, had taught her several ways to kill someone with her bare hands.
My absolute favourite response, though, came from Anne Stuart, who smiled beautifully and said “I just say ‘Fuck off'”.
Chris Szego doesn’t think her feelings for Jeremy Renner can be classified as unrequited love, but they’re definitely unrequited.