Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part V: the Hero Isn't Real

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

My perception of the central romance in The Windflower is very different this time around, mainly because my perception of Devon is far less favorable.  It isn't only that he is more abusive than I remember. I suspect I originally measured him against the common romance heroes of the 1980s, many of whom were far more brutal. I found myself hoping that he would grovel sufficiently to make up for his bad behavior. Although he does, briefly, humble himself and express sincere regret for his past actions, he bullies Merry into marrying him on the same day, so it sort of undermines the new leaf he has supposedly turned over. Although Merry delivers a satisfying punch to his jaw, I kept wishing she would chain Devon up and whip him before she finally gave in and agreed to marry him (and I don't even care for BDSM; I just think he really had it coming to him).

I also noticed this time around that Devon is not portrayed as a believable person.  He is a composite of at least three romance hero archetypes: the pirate, the duke and the spy. He is also described as a genius (although we never witness him having any brilliant ideas or using his supposedly-clever brain to figure out who Merry really is). His motivations are told to the reader rather than shown. That was a common approach in classic romance novels. However, The Windflower is full of brilliantly fleshed-out characters, which is what makes it odd that Devon is such an artificial construct.

He is a placeholder for the man of Merry's dreams. He is her unicorn, and also the MacGuffin that sets Merry's adventures in motion. Her trip to England was engineered by Devon's relatives, who viewed her as a potential bride for him. She was kidnapped off the ship by the inept burglars whom Devon hired to steal incriminating papers from his old enemy. Her disastrous escape attempts were motivated by her fear of both his hostility toward her and her growing attraction for him.

When their union is finally consummated, his passion is taken for granted, contrary to the available evidence. The sex is described in a style that was common to many classic romance novels. There are many flowery metaphors for the feelings the pair experience. Devon manages to touch Merry slowly and gently in all the right places, without producing any frightening grunts or messy bodily fluids. It's like a spa visit with a happy ending.  He performed not like a human male but more like a sexbot from a regency-themed sci-fi brothel (imagine Austenland if it were written by Michael Crichton, author of Westworld).

Again, this was a common convention in classic romance novels. The hero exists in a constant state of desire for the heroine, so that he is always ready when she finally is, and somehow this all-consuming passion is expressed by catering only to her desires. When I was a young woman with limited sexual experience, I found that fantasy very appealing.  Now that I am a mature woman of more experience, I find it rather quaint but not terribly satisfying.

However, The Windflower still works for me as women's fiction.  It's really about Merry's journey from shy, lonely introvert to spy, pirate and duchess. I'm still hoping for sequels about Cat, Raven and Rand Morgan.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part IV: the Squid Jumps the Shark

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

The term "Jumping the Shark" has become shorthand for that moment when a television series, movie or book fundamentally changes in character and tone, altering the audience's expectations.

It is often a pejorative, meaning the show has become ridiculous and/or unwatchable, but that is not always the case.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer jumped several sharks over the course of its seven-year run (the sudden appearance of a previously-unseen younger sister; the musical episode; Buffy's affair with Spike; the sudden deaths of multiple beloved characters), and those changes kept the series fresh and exciting.

There is a distinct moment in The Windflower when everything changes, and it coincidentally involves a sea creature and a jump.  A squid leaps into a small fishing craft and is brought back to the Black Joke for the amusement of the captive Merry. She has become something of a mascot to the crew, rather like the ship's pet pig, Dennis.  Until now, however, we believe that the crew are really cutthroats who would not hesitate to slaughter Dennis if food supplies were low or brutalize Merry if circumstances were slightly different.

The squid sets in motion a chain of events that lead to Merry's escape from the Joke with a defecting crew member during a battle with a rival pirate ship. The defector tells Merry that the rival was known for his particular cruelty toward captive women. He also believes that the crew voted to attack the ship because they spotted a terrified woman with children on the deck of a schooner recently captured by the rival pirate.  So now we are lead to believe that the crew of the Joke are not completely without conscience. I am unsure whether we are meant to think that spending time with Merry has restored their humanity or if they merely put on a tougher façade to frighten their captive into cooperating.

In any case, Merry's relationships with the crew of the Joke are forever changed after her disastrous (and temporary) escape.  Most importantly, Devon (and the reader) begins to realize that he has genuine feelings for her.  He does not yet apologize for his past behavior or grovel in the traditional sense, but he volunteers himself as a human guinea pig for an untested and potentially dangerous malaria treatment that could save Merry's life.

While in a malarial fever, Merry has another double-entendre-filled unicorn dream, filled with metaphors that are so unsubtle that the dream almost hints at bestiality. Some of the imagery in the dream (particularly the shower of white petals) also reminded me of the Tom Cruise film Legend (which came out a year after The Windflower was first published).

In this section of the book, I was also reminded of a phenomenon in classic romance novels that I call "Calgon, Take Me Away!" (in honor of the 1970s TV ads for powdered Epsom salts that could magically create a bubble of quiet relaxation around a woman's bathtub, allowing her to tune out ringing phones and screaming children). The sex scenes in classic romance novels often transport the heroine to an altered state of consciousness, where she is seemingly unable to remember the reality around her while she experiences magical sensations that go beyond the neural impulses caused by the stimulation of erogenous zones.  The scenes advance the plot but exist slightly outside reality, rather like a song-and-dance number in a Bollywood film.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part III: the Forgotten Conflict

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

The novel opens in 1813 Virginia and rather quickly references the ongoing war against the British (which naïve patriot Merry calls The Second War for American Independence). The heroine's brother and father are directly involved in the war effort and her brother occasionally involves her in a bit of espionage on behalf of her country.

The Windflower can be classified as a Regency-set historical romance (since it takes place during the Regency and its hero is a British aristocrat). I did not realize in 1984 how unusual it was for such a book to deal with the War of 1812 in a substantial way. It is usually seen as a sideshow of the Napoleonic Wars (which, from the British point of view, it rather was).

Very few Americans know much about it; most believe that it was an aggressive attempt by the British to re-take her former American colonies, and that the British lost (as documented in Johnny Horton's classic pop tune "the Battle of New Orleans").  In reality, it was part trade war, part labor dispute (over the shortage of able-bodied seamen) and part land war between the U.S. and Canada.  Both sides sustained a great deal of damage, and in the end everyone agreed to return to the status quo antebellum.

There are many reasons why the average American school textbook presents such an oversimplified (to the point of being misleading) version of the War of 1812, and they all have to do with cultural propaganda. As a nation, we are uncomfortable talking about the wars that did not end in glory for the American military and new territory for the United States. Also, during the first half of the 20th century, Britain was an important ally during both world wars, helping to strengthen the "special relationship" between our two nations. We did not care to dwell on the spats early in that relationship.

In the 1990s, I read a book by Donald R. Hickey called The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.  I found it to be fascinating.  When I started re-reading The Windflower, I wondered if the war would be portrayed superficially and/or inaccurately.  Much to my surprise, the historical references seem pretty accurate (given that 20 years has elapsed since I read that scholarly tome about the war).  Characters hear news about actual battles.  Merry's brother eagerly declares that, if the coming campaign in Canada is successful, the British will soon be driven out of North America (taking Canada from the British was a major motivation for the American war hawks to pursue the war in the first place). The New York merchants grumble about the ruinously expensive war disrupting trade. Devon muses about the poor decisions by the Madison administration.

I have read a great many historical romances that really skimped on the historical research.  The Windflower isn't one of them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part II: The Hero Is a Villain

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

In the Sizzling Book Club chat about The Windflower back in May, some readers remarked that they could not like Devon because he was abusive toward Merry, and his only redeeming quality seemed to be that he did not actually rape her.

In the early 1980s, a lot of classic romance novels featured villainous heroes, some of whom actually did rape the heroine. Even at the time, I found most of those books to be distasteful (although some provided unintentional comedy entertainment because they were so ridiculous).  I wondered if I only liked Devon because I was too young to know better when I first read the book, or if I was willing to cut him some slack because I liked the book so much for other reasons.

Reading it this time, in the scene where Merry first encounters Devon, I realized that he reminded me of James Bond. He was competent, ruthless, and utterly convinced of his ability to charm any woman out of her secrets and her virtue simultaneously. In that first encounter, he has good reason to believe that Merry is engaged in some sort of intrigue that could endanger all of his colleagues. I did not feel that his behavior was beyond the pale.

In their second encounter, aboard ship, his behavior is worse. I do not recall if he does genuinely grovel and apologize later on in the book. I know that he will come to genuinely love Merry and treat her with tenderness and affection.  I will have to see if the redemption arc works by modern standards (the hero is expected to grovel in proportion to his earlier bad behavior).

I suspect that readers who find James Bond appealing are more likely to enjoy this book than those who are not Bond fans.

Something else I noticed this time around is that my perception of Rand Morgan (the pirate captain who is also Devon's half-brother) when I read the book 30 years ago was based less upon his actual description than upon my preconceived idea that he should look like Blackbeard. I actually pictured him as Brian Blessed might have portrayed Blackbeard, which was a completely mistaken impression. He is not described as having a beard, and he is presumably rather fit (and probably at least a few years younger than I am now).

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part I: Unicorns and Phallic Vegetables

In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower by Sharon and Tom Curtis (originally published under their pen name of Laura London). It has been 30 years since I first read it (and close to 20 years since the last time I read it), and the genre has changed quite a bit.

I just started it today, and so far, I've only read the opening scene. Freud would have a field day, but I believe that was intentional. Historical romances in the early 1980s were filled with lush descriptions and euphemisms that made a thesaurus a necessary tool for any successful romance writer. The Curtises show a mastery of description and euphemism that rises to the level of affectionate satire. In the opening scene, 18-year-old sheltered virgin Merry Wilding is sketching vegetables in the kitchen garden. The authors slyly use phallic euphemisms to describe the vegetables without even mentioning cucumbers. Merry is apparently too innocent to notice the phallic symbolism (or wonder why the garden contains no eggplants or tomatoes). Then we are treated to descriptions of Merry's dreams about unicorns and how those dreams have suddenly changed in nature. Again, the Freudian symbolism is obvious to the reader but not to Merry.

One of the many things that delights me about this book is that it was obviously written by educated people who assumed that their readers were reasonably well-informed as well.  While the story works even if you know nothing about Freudian symbolism or the conventions of the romance genre, there is a whole extra layer of humor for those who do. In that way, it's a lot like watching episodes of The Muppet Show from the same era.

There were fewer entertainment choices in those days, and as a culture we participated more broadly in the mainstream. For that reason, some of the biggest hits in many entertainment media were able to appeal to people from diverse subcultures and educational levels (and not necessarily by dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator). I think we've lost that in this day of niche markets and nearly infinite entertainment choices.

Re-reading this book has also reminded me, to my embarrassment, that I had a collection of porcelain unicorns on my dresser when I was 18.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Persistence, Inspired by J.K. Rowling

It can be rather demoralizing when agents and editors are uninterested in your manuscript. I knew from the start that rejection is the rule rather than the exception. However, knowing something intellectually is very different from accepting it emotionally.

I'm working on developing the emotional callouses that a writer needs to endure the occupational hazard of repeated rejections. I remember reading somewhere that J. K. Rowling received many rejections for her first Harry Potter manuscript. Doing some checking shows that the number may not have been vast. Still, a dozen publishers rejected Harry Potter.

Self-publishing was not such an attractive option when J. K. Rowling was pitching her first novel. Nowadays it is far less expensive to reach readers yourself (although you have to compete with a great many other self-published, as well as traditionally-published, authors). Some very successful and critically-acclaimed books have been self-published in recent years (and one of them even won a Rita Award this year).

So, it's not the end of the world if an author runs out of agents and publishers to pitch.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Celebrating Romance, Which Enabled Me to Discuss Emotions

August is Read-a-Romance month, and I am celebrating by thinking back on the many ways that reading romances has enriched my life over the past thirtysome years. Two of the authors with books on my to-be-read pile -- Katharine Ashe and Lauren Dane -- have already posted in celebration of Read-a-Romance month, as has my fellow WisRWA member PJ Fiala. To see if your favorite authors are participating, visit http://www.readaromancemonth.com/.

I started reading at an early age. I was a shy introvert, and I spent a great deal of time by myself, reading DC comic books and Nancy Drew mysteries (which gave me the impression that it was a good thing to be embarrassed by praise).

In my early teens, I started reading my mother's romance novels on the sly. Like many adolescents, I was drawn by prurient curiosity, which was more than satisfied by Judith Krantz (Scruples is the first romance novel that I remember reading).

My grandmother was also a reader of romance novels. She and my aunt would trade paper grocery bags full of paperbacks that they bought at garage sales.  My grandmother was more permissive than my parents, and by the time I was 15 or 16, she included me in the circulation of the paperback paper bags.

I was not popular in high school, and my social life (and social skills) were negligible. I also come from a subculture (Upper Midwest Scandinavian-American) which is very stoic and discourages the discussion of feelings. Romance novels gave me a vicarious way to feel connected to other people. They also gave me a vocabulary for expressing emotions.

While I have read many contemporary romances over the years, I have always preferred historical romances, because they provide me with more of an escapist fantasy, without reminders of the stresses of real life (traffic, housework, job responsibilities).

If you are looking for recommended reads this month, consider starting with two of my current favorites, Miranda Neville (her Burgundy Club series is about Regency-era book collectors) and Courtney Milan (I have read only a couple by her so far, and I'm delighted that there are so many of her books still to read). A newer author with only a few novels already published (and a fourth coming in February) is Jennifer McQuiston. Her debut effort, What Happens in Scotland, has a delightful premise that drew me immediately.

If you enjoy heroes who are damaged and vulnerable (but oh-so-redeemable), get thee to a Laura Kinsale novel. My personal favorites are Flowers from the Storm and Seize the Fire. If you like your romance novels with an over-the-top premise and a dose of crazysauce, you may prefer The Shadow and the Star. Its hero is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who was rescued, raised in Hawaii and trained to be a ninja. Yes, he is a white Hawaiian ninja who ends up in Victorian London (having accompanied the Merrie Monarch, King David Kalakaua, to Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebration). I love that Laura Kinsale took an obscure bit of historical trivia (King Kalakaua and his sister, the future last Queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, really did go to London for the Jubilee) and used it to bring her hero and heroine together.

This year's Read-a-Romance Month format asks participating authors to answer the same three questions. Here are my responses:

1. Describe the most daring, adventurous, or inspiring thing you ever did.  It's hard to choose just one adventure, but I think the most inspiring was exploring the ruins of ancient Ephesus with my husband several years ago. We both love history and share an interest in ancient civilization. My husband once dreamed of being an archaeologist. We both come from blue-collar backgrounds, and we did not have the opportunity to study abroad in our youth. During the recession that followed the tech crash of 2000, even domestic vacations were beyond our means. One of the ways we got through the lean years was by telling each other that, someday, we would cruise the Mediterranean and explore ancient ruins. We finally had the opportunity to keep that promise we made to each other, and it was a wonderful experience.

2. Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer. (How did you decide to get started? Did you always know or was there a specific moment when you knew?)  It is perhaps unsurprising that I started writing my first romance novel while in my late teens. It was an Arthurian romance, set in the late 5th century. I had fallen in love with the Matter of Britain after reading Idylls of the King in 9th grade English class. I never finished that novel, and I burned the manuscript (handwritten in a spiral notebook) before I moved out of my parents' house. I started a medieval romance novel in the 1990s, which I still have saved somewhere on a 5-1/4 inch floppy disk. I have finally taken the bull by the horns and finished a manuscript (set in the early 19th century) and allowed other people to see it. We'll see where it takes me.

3. Tell us about The (or A) Book That Changed Your Life. (Why?)  When I was 18, one of the paper bags from my grandmother contained The Windflower by Laura London (the pen name of Sharon & Tom Curtis). I cannot express how much I enjoyed that book without employing paragraphs of purple prose (which I will spare you). When I was 10, my family visited Disneyworld. My favorite part of the park by far was Adventureland, and my absolute favorite attraction was Pirates of the Caribbean. The Windflower is a classic romance that is basically set aboard a ship full of Disney pirates, with a heroine who reminds me of Princess Gisele from Enchanted. It is the best escapist fantasy ever. When I passed the paper bag of books along to my aunt, it no longer contained The Windflower. I saved it to read again and again, the first romance novel (but not the last) that I read more than once. There are many books (in many genres) that have had an impact on my life, but probably none greater than that one.  I'll be re-reading it this month (for the first time a couple of decades) and seeing how different the experience is now that I know so much more about the structure and elements of romance novels (and have so much more life experience). I'll share my impressions on this blog throughout August.

About Me: I grew up in Southern Wisconsin and attended UW-Madison in the 1980s. I have been working in the non-profit sector for more than twenty years, which is important work but rather frustrating at times. I never attended my prom, but I did once crash a genuine debutante ball (in perhaps the unlikeliest city in America for such an event), so I have long been fascinated with observing the social rituals of high society.

While I would love to be a full-time author, I will be content if I can someday earn enough from writing to finance my travel habit. At the very least, I can justify spending money on UK travel by telling myself it is research that will make my future novels better (even if it isn't a tax-deductible business expense).