A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

The Rest of the Story: Jo Baker’s Longbourn

(Reprinted from “Heoes and Heartbreakers,” because I just recommend the book to my mother.)

Pride and Prejudice may have inspired more spin-offs, rewrites, imitations, and alternate versions than any other work of fiction—did the world really need another one? When it’s as compelling and enlightening as Longbourn, most certainly. Longbourn is not an attempt to imitate Austen’s style or plot; instead it jumps off from the well-known story to show us what else was happening in the world that Austen very consciously kept small and contained, that famous “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.”

The story is told through the other people in the Bennet household, the ones who merit only a mention or two in the original.  If we scour the book, we find them: there’s a Sarah and another unnamed housemaid, a Mrs. Hill, a footman, and a butler. In Longbourn, Sarah is a young woman struggling with the brutal fact that her entire life is spent taking care of other young women who have everything she naturally desires. The second housemaid Polly is very young and naive, still fairly happy as long as she can shirk her work and filch some sugar. The kindhearted housekeeper Mrs. Hill has suffered enough heartache to feel grateful for her relatively privileged position, though occasionally spares a thought about the unfairness of life, particularly when the security of the servant hall is threatened by Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins:

“What it is to be young and lovely and very well aware of it. What it is to know that you will only settle for the keenest love, the most perfect match.”

At first, Longbourn follows the basic structure of Pride and Prejudice, down to being broken into three volumes.  (And everything that happens in the story, the author notes, is based on the exact events in the original—every note brought by a footman, every dinner.) It begins with the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy at Netherfield, which is paralleled by the arrival of two new men in the lives of the Longbourn servants: a new footman named James Smith, and one of Mr. Bingley’s footmen, Ptolemy Bingley, a frequent deliverer of notes. The Netherfield footman is here revealed to be a former slave on the sugar plantation of Mr. Bingley’s father—and quite possibly Mr. Bingley’s half-brother. James also seems to have an unrevealed connection to the Bennet family.

For Sarah, the arrival of both men brings a potential for more than her current existence of endless drudgery, which keeps her “so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies.” Tol is ambitious and resourceful; she can tell that he’ll raise himself up to a better position someday. But though it’s not as sensible a choice, she’s more drawn to the quiet, hardworking, secretive James. When James’s secrets catch up with him, Sarah must decide how important love is compared to security, a far harder decision in her case than in Elizabeth’s. In the end, she must give up all hope of help from her “betters,” who can never recognize that she has needs and desires of her own, and make her own way towards happiness.

It’s fascinating to see the Bennets through the eyes of their servants. From their own perspectives their life is one of frugality and even deprivation; to Sarah, with her never-ending chilblains, it’s one of comfort and extravagance beyond imagining. Even when Elizabeth is miserable, Sarah envies her: “she would have loved to have the luxury of tears and headaches: the darkened parlour, a cool cloth for the forehead…”  And while Mrs. Bennet endlessly laments the unfairness of her daughters not being able to inherit their father’s estate, she never realizes that an even more blatant example of unfairness is right under her nose.

Longbourn gives importance and understanding not just to the servants, but to other neglected characters in the story. Sarah has some fellow feeling for the despised Mr. Collins: “He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him.” And Mary is seen as a pathetic girl full of dreams of being needed, not “just the plain, awkward, overlooked middle child.” The other characters are recognizably themselves, but have a darker side from this perspective. Jane is still sweet; Elizabeth is still charming, and even carelessly kind to Sarah. But she never considers how her choices affect Sarah—her carefree walks creating massive amounts of nasty work for those who must wash her muddied petticoats, her visits taking Sarah away from home.

In many ways, the story extends the characters to their logical extremes, showing what else might have happened to a Mr. Bennet who’s thoughtlessly susceptible to attractive women and a Wickham who would callously run off with a fifteen-year-old girl… and an Elizabeth who’s forced to check her natural vivacity. If you love the original, it can be painful to see the characters in this light—but it feels like an equal truth rather than a contradiction of the original text.

Longbourn brings history to a book in which it is notably absent. Austen felt no need to go into what exactly the militia was doing in Merryton, or anywhere else, but to a young man like James, it’s of tremendous importance. The third volume of the book breaks with the previous structure for an extended flashback about James’ horrific experiences in the army, making us hope even more for a happy ending for him and Sarah.  

Pride and Prejudice is complete, even perfect, in its own right; it does everything it sets out to do. But this gritty yet very humane novel reveals that there was more to class issues in Austen’s time than just what was happening between the middle and ruling classes. It’s powerful reading for anyone who wants to truly understand the world our beloved characters inhabited. And ultimately, Longbourn upholds the basic premise of Pride and Prejudice — that some compromises cost too much, that it is better to choose love.

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Love in Disguise

(A Reprint from Heroes and Heartbreakers)

“In a life singular for its lack of attachments, to become obsessed with two women at once was lunacy.”
—Connie Brockway, All Through the Night

“There was no graceful way to collapse a bifurcated existence into a single, uncomplicated one.”
—Sherry Thomas, Beguiling the Beauty

Love triangles have become common in romantic fiction, though for some they’re exciting, while for others a reason to throw the book at a wall. But there’s one kind that’s fun without all the baggage: the love triangle which is really between only two people. Whether the story lies in the realm of masks and disguises, or the secrets and suspense are hidden behind the anonymity of a computer screen, these plots gleefully complicate falling in love— both for the characters uncomfortably having feelings for two people at the same time, and for the characters who know the bizarre truth.

For the person in disguise, jealousy is a common, albeit perverse, reaction. In Jacquie D’Alessandro’s The Bride Thief, the Earl of Wesley has a secret life rescuing women about to be forced into unwanted marriages. His dashing alter ego makes a strong impression on Samantha Briggeham, the woman his everyday self is trying to resist:

Needing to touch her, he reached out, took her hand, and entwined their fingers. Warmth eased up his arm at her touch, and it required a great deal of willpower not to simply yank her against him and consign his bloody conscience to the devil.

“Ever since my encounter with the Bride Thief,” she said softly, “I’ve been unable to suppress my need for adventure. It’s as if he burst a dam inside me.”

He froze. “The Bride Thief? What has he to do with this?”

“He made me feel… alive. Made me realize how very much I wanted… things.”

[…]

Color rushed into her cheeks, and he gritted his teeth. He hadn’t considered that she might be harboring… loverlike feelings for his alter personality.

“It is unlikely I shall ever see him again,” she said.

Damned unlikely. “And if you did?”

“He did not give me any indication that he… desired me.”

Bloody hell, what did she mean by that? Did she want to experience passion with the Bride Thief? The thought of her wanting another man, regardless of the fact that the other man was in reality him, edged his vision with a red haze.

[…]

Bloody hell, he was losing his mind. He was burning up with jealousy—over himself.

Sophie Beckett is similarly irrational in Julia Quinn‘s An Offer from a Gentleman. 

‘Oh, Sophie,’ he muttered, his voice husky against her lips. ‘I’ve never felt—’

Sophie stiffened, because she was fairly certain he’d intended to say he’d never felt that way before, and she had no idea how she felt about that. On the one hand, it was thrilling to be the one woman who could bring him to his knees, make him dizzy with desire and need.

On the other hand, he’d kissed her before. Hadn’t he felt the same exquisite torture them too?

Dear God, was she jealous of herself?

Benedict Bridgerton, meanwhile, has been painfully torn between his treasured memories of a beautiful stranger he once kissed, and the real woman he now knows:

Did she understand what she’d put him through? How many hours he’d lain awake, feeling that he was betraying the lady in silver — the woman he’d dreamed of marrying — all because he was falling in love with a housemaid?

Why are these heroes and heroines hiding in the first place? Some are fighting for social justice, like the Bride Thief or the Scarlet Pimpernel-ish hero of Truly by Mary Balogh. (Balogh has used the lover in disguise plot several times, including Daring MasqueradeGentle Conquest, and A Masked Deception—the latter two are faux-adultery plots.) The heroines of All Through the Night by Connie Brockway and The Devil to Pay by Liz Carlyle are Robin Hood types. In Cinderella-inspired stories like An Offer from a Gentleman, the truth can just seem too fraught and difficult; the Cinderella in Sherry Thomas’s Delicious saw no future with her prince to begin with, and the passage of time only made things more complicated. (It’s interesting that so many of these stories have their roots in other classic plots.)

Of course, a lover in disguise is the perfect set-up for a revenge story. In Beguiling the Beauty, also by Sherry Thomas, Venetia Easterbrook resolves to seduce and abandon the Duke of Lexington — a “rage-driven, slightly incoherent scheme” — after he publicly denounces her as an example of heartless, untrustworthy beauty. Naturally she’s caught in her own trap, while Christian is horrified at the way he is still susceptible to the incandescent beauty of Mrs. Easterbook, despite now having found a real love, “founded on substance,” with a woman whose face he’s never seen.

The most self-centered reason for a double life is probably found in Judith Ivory’s Beast. Charles is playing a petty game of seduction with his own fiancé, after he discovers she’s aghast to have been betrothed to a much older, ugly “beast” of a man. But he’s also hoist upon his own petard:

He was halted by an odd feeling, that of somehow cuckolding himself. He realized that, if there was tender communion, a once-in-a-lifetime act, he wanted it for himself, his real self. He wanted something for them to share in memory, not something he could never speak aloud.

With its fondness for masks, veils, and blindfolds, noble thieves and highwaymen, this trope is most often found in historical romance, but it’s workable in contemporaries as well. The young adult novel Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley is a classic “Shop Around the Corner” story, although sans pen pals: antagonistic teenagers Ed and Lucy have an all-night adventure searching for the graffiti artist Lucy feels sure is her soulmate — Ed himself.

The “Shop Around the Corner” plot is now especially workable for contemporary romance because of online relationships — and it offers the interesting twist that sometimes neither character is immediately aware of the connection. Mary Ann River’s novella Snowfall is narrated by Jenny, who’s been having hot online chats with “C” using the pseudonym “Lincoln.” C is very open to meeting Lincoln face-to-face, but Jenny is also going through a major life crisis, as she gradually loses her vision. “I’m not ready for real,” she thinks. As she discovers her capacity to adapt to her new situation, she becomes open to both the attraction she feels for her formerly despised physical therapist Evan and to the possibility of forming something offline with C.

C, of course, is also Evan, and not knowing the incredibly serendipity of the situation — does that make it a love quadrangle? — he’s been struggling with feelings of disloyalty and ambivalence:

You were real as soon as you walked into my office, so intelligent and angry. More and more, you made Lincoln less real, and that worried me. I had a relationship with her that had started to mean something to me. It’s why I wanted to meet her. Needed to meet Lincoln. I had been working through my feelings with you for longer, trying to be honest with myself, then I met Lincoln online. It was confusing. Absolutely everything I was feeling. Meeting Lincoln was important to understand how I felt about both of you.

Snowfall is one of the most carefully constructed uses of this plot, with meticulous attention paid to how both characters would feel and what the emotional possibilities of the situation are.

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The Almack’s Scene in Pam Rosenthals’s Almost a Gentleman

(A reblog from Heroes and Heartbreakers)

It’s a strange alchemy that makes a trope that’s tiresome in one writer’s hands a winner in another’s. “Chicks in pants” is high on my list of instant turn-off tropes, but Almost a Gentleman has joined my (very) short list—The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer, The Lady’s Secret by Joanna Chambers—of favorites.

Widower David, Lord Linseley, is on the watch for a suitable wife at Almack’s. It’s quite a shock to him to be hit with lust—or even perhaps love—at first sight:

He roused himself from his reverie to watch a particularly graceful couple glide by. Yes, that’s how it should be done, he thought. There was a purity, a concentration to the young man’s swift steps, a perfection to the set of his hips and shoulders, joy of movement elevated to art through intense control and mastery. The lady held herself very upright, but one could feel a tiny shudder of surrender in her posture, a willingness to be led. One could see it in the arch at the small of her back, the confidence with which she entrusted her balance to her partner’s gloved hand at her waist.

Of course that’s how it’s done, Linseley thought. It was how all the important things in life were done—from the body’s center. It was how you guided a horse over a gate, heaved a forkful of hay onto a wagon, took a woman to bed. This new dance led one’s thought to lovemaking: no wonder there had been such consternation in fashionable circles when the waltz was introduced. The couple whirled back into the crowd; losing sight of them, Lord Linseley stared at the space they’d occupied, astonished and rather shaken by the feelings that had seized him.

He’s even more shaken when he meets the young man’s—really, of course, a young woman’s—eyes.

Ridiculous, Linseley thought helplessly. Impossible. He wasn’t the sort of man for an exotic passion. But there was no denying that he’d felt something—a bolt of strange cold lightning had flashed through him when he’d returned the young man’s gaze.

What’s gorgeous about this scene is the attraction isn’t based on mere physical allure. David recognizes in the stranger, Phizz Marston, a form of exquisite excellence—someone who is utterly committed and simply smashing at what they do. When that’s combined with beautiful, forceful eyes staring into yours… who could help but fall in love?

Thankfully, the masquerade is not spun out for very long: this isn’t a story about David’s fears and then his relief. Indeed, there’s a lot of other plot going on—secrets, mysteries, past anguish, hidden villains. But the heart of the story is love strengthened with admiration and respect, because David continues to appreciate Phizz—Phoebe—for her courage and competence, even after her metaphorical mask comes off. His ability to recognize her special qualities in a man, and then continue to value them in a woman, make him a hero worthy of her.

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You Belong to Me: Lovers as Property in the Medieval Romance of Madeline Hunter

When authors began leaving the Medieval romance for other  genres, one of the saddest losses was Madeline Hunter. (Though that loss was certainly to the Regency/Victorian novel’s gain.) I don’t know precisely why the Medieval fell into disfavor, but I suspect it may have to do with readers becoming uncomfortable with the extreme power imbalances between class and sex that are inherent in the setting. And that’s exactly why I miss Hunter in the subgenre.

Hunter never went full-on bodice ripper as, for example, Brenda Joyce did in The Conqueror. (A very entertaining book, if you’re not sensitive to the disturbing elements.) Nor did she try to write as if power imbalances didn’t really matter. Instead she used the tension caused by those imbalances to create stories that aren’t only satisfying romance, but thematically fascinating. Two of my favorites explore the effect on love when one person is literally the property of another.

In By Possession, Moira is the illegitimate child of a lord and a serf; her father granted her freedom before his death, but she’s unable to prove it. She’s now the legal possession of Lord Addis de Valance, and to make things more complicated, she’s loved him most of her life. But Moira has no intention of following in her mother’s lonely, shameful footsteps, no matter how strong the temptation.

“Can you say that these hands misuse you, Moira, and that you are not willing?”

She sorrowfully extricated herself from his hold and stepped back. She hitched the blanket back on her shoulders and grasped it closed. “I am weak to the pleasure, but what you offer me will someday bring misery and I will not endure it. I swore when just a girl that I would not be any man’s whore, least of all one to a knight or a lord.”

Gold fires flamed. Dangerous fires, that spoke of more than thwarted desire.

“You say that often, and insult me with it. ‘Tis you who misunderstand, and think the worst of me without cause. Those garments are not meant as a bribe to buy a bedmate for a few nights. I do not seek to make a whore of you.”

She had suspected as much when she saw him at the doorway. Better if he did only want her for brief pleasure. “What you call it will not matter. All others know such women for what they are.”

The story is of two intense personal journeys, as Moira fights constantly against her own feelings in order to gain the secure, respectable life she wants, and Addis tries to convince her that she belongs to him in every way, while also trying to suppress the emotional hold she has over him. As a man born to ultimate privilege, it’s almost impossible for him to appreciate her point of view—until she is ordered to sing to entertain his betrothed, and he begins to see how much her love for him is destroying her.

Tell him that I cannot do it.

Nay, she could not, any more than he could. If someone said that he must watch her daily with another man, he could not do it. Not even if she needed him nearby. Not even in friendship and definitely not in love. Perhaps even while he demanded that she admit the love they shared, he had been counting on her never accepting it. He could ignore the hurt he planned to give her if she kept denying it.

Admitting that left him raw.

Moira fights for her freedom and wins, but Addis’s redemptive realization allows for a true happy ending between them, one based on free choices.

The class aspects are turned around in By Arrangement: Lady Christiana is of noble birth, while David de Abyndon is a wealthy merchant. Neither has any choice when the king orders them to marry,  however… and once David’s wife, Christiana is completely in his power.

David is an intriguingly problematic hero. Unlike the typical Alpha, he’s gentle and considerate, but he controls people by being extremely manipulative. The young and naive Christiana doesn’t have much chance against his ploys initially, and he not only frequently deceives her, but plays her like a violin. However, their class differences give Christiana some weapons of her own. In a powerful and disturbing scene, the usually imperturbable and subtle David gets nasty, believing his wife unfaithful with a lord:

“I feared that you might repulse me, knowing where you had been and what you had been doing the first time I left the city,” he said as his hands moved over her body. He smiled faintly, but she could tell that his anger hadn’t abated at all. “It would be ironic, wouldn’t it? To have paid all that silver for property and then found that I no longer wanted the use of it.”
Her mind clouded with horror at hearing him speak so coldly of their marriage. There had certainly been evidence that he thought of her thus and had even seduced her to lay claim to what was his, but to hear the words bluntly spoken and to have the confirmation thrown into the face of her love sickened her.

“Property…” she gasped.

“Aye. Bought and paid for.”

His blunt words repeated themselves in her head. She grabbed his wrist and stayed his hand. Love or not, she could not delude herself about what was about to happen and why he did it and what it meant to him.

“So, we are down to base reality at last,” she said narrowing her eyes. “How tedious it must have been to have to pretend otherwise with the child whom you married.”

He stared at her. His lack of response and denial turned her anguish to hateful spite. ‘The merchant has need of his property, much as he rides his horse when it suits him? Well, go ahead, husband. Reclaim your rights. Show that you are equal to any baron by using one of their daughters against her will. Will you hurt me, too? To make sure the lesson of your ownership is well learned?“

Still he did not react. Her heart broke with a suffocating pain and she threw out what she could to hurt him, in turn. ”Do not bother with seduction and pleasure, mercer. Soil feels nothing when it is tilled, nor wool when it is cut. I will think about who I am and who you are and feeling nothing, too. But be quick about it so that I can go cleanse myself.“ And then she looked at him and through him…

Both David and Christiana know how to “point the daggers expertly and draw blood from each other’s weaknesses.“ The assault doesn’t end in rape, but it’s a close call. But though the horrified and ashamed David redeems himself somewhat by giving her space and freedom in which to recover, Christiana doesn’t find it easy to forgive or forget his emotional violence against her:

”Even now, as you ask me to come back to you, I know that you just find that you have need of your property and resent being denied it. It may be the way these things always are, but I do not think many women have to hear it as frankly stated and then live with the truth in such a naked way. Perhaps that is the reason for dowries. To give women some value in marriages so that their dignity is preserved.“

This was Hunter’s debut, and it doesn’t have quite the structural perfection of By Possession. In the end, they find a balance and equality between them, helped by Christiana’s insight and her ability to see and bring out the best in David.

”I think you should choose the life that you were born to live, whichever you think it was.“

To the heart of things. Life with her would be fascinating.

”And what about you, Christiana? What about the life that you were born to live?“

She smiled and rested her face against his chest. ”I was born to marry a nobleman, David. And you have always been one of the noblest men I have ever known.”

Hunter wrote six Medievals in all, plus a novella in the anthology Tapestry.  (The novels are linked; they can certainly be read as standalones, but it makes the most sense to read them as two trilogies in this order: By PossessionBy DesignStealing Heaven and By ArrangementThe ProtectorLord of a Thousand Nights.) Although the stories are all quite different, the books share high stakes plots based on true historical events, vivid and immersive settings, wit, meaningful conflicts, and strong characters who are realistically constrained by their roles in life, yet who always find ways to fight for their independence. They give readers a chance to enjoy a rich Medieval setting, while still finding the emotional justice and requited love they want from romance. I wish we had more.

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Anne Stuart’s Winning Recipe in Nightfall

(My very first Heroes and Heartbreakers piece, IIRC.)

 

Choosing an Anne Stuart book is like ordering pizza at a new restaurant: you know basically what you’re going to get and that you’re probably going to like it, but will it be your everyday tasty slice or something sublimely spicy and melting? 

Originally published in 1995, and now available digitally, Nightfall is authentic New York pizza with Neapolitan crust. It’s everything you expect from Stuart, at her most compelling:

The Hero. He’ll be dark, dangerous…and deadly? Unlike some of Stuart’s outright assassins, Richard Tiernan is even more chillingly ambiguous. He was convicted of murdering his wife, his young children are missing… and all we know for sure about him is that he has a plan, one which involves Cassidy Roarke. “He was going to use her. Sacrifice her, if need be, for his own needs.”  

The Heroine. She’s relatable, dependable, and vulnerable—though she may not realize it. “Five feet nine and well-rounded [Cassidy] had never considered herself shy, nervy or little in her entire life.” Although she might be surprised to learn how Richard sees her: “Everything about Cassidy Roarke was profoundly sensual, from her blaze of flyaway hair to her ripe luscious body, to her innocent face.” The mere sight of her long, narrow, bare feet makes him crazy with lust.

The daughter of a charismatic, severely narcissistic writer, Cassidy is sick of being manipulated in the name of love; she deliberately gives herself “a life of safe routine, where no one needs her or makes impossible demands.” Until she meets the even more charismatic Richard and despite her suspicions, finds herself unable to stop thinking about his haunted eyes, and “the elegant, tortured grace of his body.” Soon, her life because one big impossible demand.

The Suspense. Did Richard kill his wife? Is he going to kill Cassidy? Will she care if he does? The plot grows ever more taut as the harrowing truth about Richard’s past and motives gradually reveals itself; meanwhile Cassidy is torn between her deepening attraction and fear, desperately trying to hold onto sane behavior while feeling as if “her brain and all her self-protective instincts short-circuited.” To make it all even more disturbing, we know that everything that happens between them is startlingly deliberate, orchestrated by Richard:

Events had turned him into a conscienceless sociopath, and he accepted that truth with a certain grim satisfaction. He could trust no one, nothing. Not noble resolve, not friendship, not justice. He could only work with what he had. And the only thing he trusted was obsession.

The Sex. It’s always the most powerful weapon in a Stuart’s hero’s arsenal, and one Richard uses ruthlessly:

Now all he had to do was bind her to him, and that was relatively simple.

He needed to get her on the bed, where she wanted to be. He needed to get between her long, wonderful legs and make her feel things she’d never felt before. He needed to make her come, again and again, until she couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything but what he wanted her to do.

‘So what’s your answer, sweet Cassidy?’ he murmured, moving closer to her. Her bra fastened in front. Thoughtful of her. He brushed his fingertips against the clasp. ‘Or if you prefer me to be more exact. Now? Or later?’

All of this inexorably leads to:

The Surrender. A Stuart hero is trouble, and a Stuart heroine is always smart enough to know it. The peak of their romance will be the heroine’s surrender to overpowering feeling despite her better judgement.  Cass’s surrender doesn’t come easily — her ability to fight is part of what Richard needs in her. But it come it does, and with it, the inevitable discovery that the surrender is mutual:

He closed his eyes, his strong teeth bared in a grimace, and she watched him. And she knew she owned him, as much as he owned her.”

It’s crazy, it’s unhealthy, and thank God it’s fiction, but that shared passion between them is thrilling.

Nightfall is a breathtaking trip into psychologically murky waters. But though much that happens is horrific, and our hero is manipulative, ruthless, and at best morally ambivalent, it’s not a nihilistic or amoral story. Just perfectly burnt around the edges.

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Introduced by a Bellwether: Romance in the Novels of Connie Willis

(This may be my favorite piece from “Heroes and Heartbreakers,” though Willis herself might not appreciate it.)

“I think that it’s a good sign that we not only want happy endings for ourselves, but for the people we love, both real and fictional: for Connor and Abby on Primeval, and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, and Kate and Petrucio, and Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane,” Connie Willis wrote in an undelivered speech printed in The Best of Connie Willis.

Willis is a speculative fiction writer who, like Lois McMaster Bujold, loves story in all genres; within the basic science fiction framework, her work encompass westerns, young adult, detective stories, Christmas stories, absurdist humor and perhaps most of all, romance.  You won’t find steamy scenes in her books, and you can’t always rely on happy ever afters—one of her most heartbreaking recurring themes is of women fulfilling an important dream or destiny, leaving behind grieving men who love them. But Willis is also a fan of romantic comedy, and those just have to end well.

Romances generally happen in a low-key fashion in Willis stories, in the background of other events, most often while the main character and a likable member of the opposite sex are trying to solve some kind of puzzle. The usual signifiers of romance like obvious physical attraction tend to get short shrift, because they’re too busy working together—while battling bureaucracy and red tape and obnoxious authority figures—yet the bits of their more tender emotions that sneak through are perfectly satisfying in context. Here’s a scene from the end of “All Seated on the Ground,” in which a journalist who’s inadvertently wound up in charge of a group of recalcitrant space aliens gets help from a choir director:


I picked up Calvin’s baton and handed it to him. “What do you think we should sing first?” he asked me.

“All I want for Christmas is you,” I said.

“Really? I was thinking maybe we should start with ‘Angels We have Heard on High,’ or —”

“That wasn’t a song title,” I said.


For Willis, that’s positively straightforward. Subtext is often key to the formation of a Willis romance and perhaps never more than in the clever short story “Miracle,” which is pretty much all subtext. Lauren is simply trying to get her Christmas chores dealt with so she can focus on getting the attention of the cute guy she works with, when a “Spirit of Christmas Present” shows up, magically changing all the gifts she bought into exactly the wrong things, making a tree grow out of her kitchen floor, and generally spreading chaos.

Lauren seeks help from a less conventionally attractive coworker — generally known as Fat Fred—with no idea that he has a Christmas wish of his own, one he never expects to receive. Amid trying to repair the damage done by the spirit and discussing the relative merits of It’s a Wonderful Lifevs. Miracle on 34th Street” with Fred, Lauren makes discoveries about the meaning of Christmas, the nature of attraction, and what her heart truly desires.

There are no obviously romantic declarations in this story; everything that happens builds on all the previous events and conversations, framed by the plots of the movies. Even Lauren and Fred’s most intimate moment happens via one of the movies, our pretty much dependable familiarity with it bringing intensity to a simple scene:


“Can you help me with this ribbon?” Fred said.

“Sure,” Lauren said. She scooted close to him and put her finger on the crossed ribbon to hold it taut.

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed were standing very close together, listening to the telephone. The voice on the phone was saying something about soybeans.

Fred still hadn’t tied the knot. Lauren glanced up at him. He was looking at the TV too.

Jimmy Stewart was looking at Donna Reed, his face nearly touching her hair. Donna Reed looked at him and then away. The voice from the phone was saying something about the chance of a lifetime, but it was obvious neither of them was hearing a word. Donna Reed looked up at him. His lips almost touched her forehead. They didn’t seem to be breathing.

Lauren realized she wasn’t either. She looked at Fred. He was holding the two ends of ribbon, one in each hand, and looking down at her.

“The knot,” she said. “You haven’t tied it.”

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”

Jimmy Stewart dropped the phone with a clatter and grabbed Donna Reed by both arms. He began shaking her, yelling at her, and then suddenly she was wrapped in his arms, and he was smothering her with kisses.

“The knot,” Fred said. “You have to pull your finger out.”

She looked uncomprehendingly at him and then down at the package. He had tied the knot over her finger, which was still pressing against the wrapping paper.

“Oh. Sorry,” she said, and pulled her finger free. “You were right. It does have its moments.”


Willis uses literary allusions rather then movies in the hilarious time travel adventure To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which she brings the romance with the science fiction equivalent of a drunk scene. The normally cool and collected Verity’s defenses are down because of too many time travel trips in a short time:

“How does oo stan’ your mistwess talking ootsy-cutesy baby talk to o?” Verity said. “Oo ought to swat her when her does it.”

“Verity,” I said. “Are you all right?”

“I’m perfectly all right,” she said, still playing with the cat’s paws. “Where’s Terence?” she said, starting toward the lawn. “I need to tell him he can’t be in love with Tossie because the fate of the free world is at stake. Also,” her voice dropped to a stage whisper, “she cheats at croquet.”

“How many drops have you had?” I demanded.

She frowned. “Sixteen. No, eight. Twelve.” She peered at me. “It isn’t fair, you know.”

“What isn’t?” I said warily.

“Your boater. It makes you look just like Lord Peter Wimsey, especially when you tilt it forward like that.” She started for the lawn.

I took Princess Arjumand away from Verity, dumped her on the ground, and grabbed Verity’s arm.

“I need to find Tossie,” she said. “I have a thing or two to tell her.”

“Not a good idea,” I said. “Let’s sit down a minute. In the gazebo.” I led her toward it.

She came docilely. “The first time I ever saw you, I thought, he looks just like Lord Peter Wimsey. You were wearing that boater and—no, that wasn’t the first time,” she said accusingly. “The first time was in Mr. Dunworthy’s office, and you were all covered in soot. You were still adorable, though, even if your mouth was hanging open.” She looked at me quizzically. “Did you have a mustache?”

“No,” I said, leading her up the gazebo steps.

[some text deleted]

“Verity,” I said firmly and took the ribbon away from her. “I want you to lie down and rest now.”

“I can’t,” she said. “I have to go steal Tossie’s diary and find out who Mr. C is and then I have to go tell Mr. Dunworthy. I have to repair the incongruity.”

“There’s plenty of time for that,” I said. “First you need to sleep.” I pulled a slightly mildewed cushion out from under the prow and placed it on the seat.
“You lie down right here.”

She lay down obediently and put her head on the pillow. “Lord Peter took a nap,” she said. “Harriet watched him sleep, and that’s when she knew she was in love with him.”

She sat up again. “Of course I knew it from the second page of Strong Poison, but it took two more books for Harriet to figure it out. She kept telling herself it was all just detecting and deciphering codes and solving mysteries together, but I knew she was in love with him. He proposed in Latin. Under a bridge. After they solved the mystery. You can’t propose till after you’ve solved the mystery. That’s a law in detective novels.”

[some text deleted]

I watched Verity sleep.

It was almost as restful as sleeping myself. The boat rocked gently, and the sun through the leaves flickered softly in patterns of light and shade. She slept peacefully, quietly, her face still and untroubled in repose.

And I was going to have to face it. No matter how much sleep I got or she didn’t, she was always going to look like a naiad to me. Even lying there with her greenish-brown eyes closed and her mouth half-open, drooling gently onto a mildewed boat cushion, she was still the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.

The partners in detection pattern breaks in the more serious duology Blackout and All Clear, set in the same world as To Say Nothing of the Dog, which has an exceptionally quiet (even for Willis) portrait of unswerving devotion — a promise kept by a sleeping beauty’s prince who “fought battles and spells and brambles and time.” (The last in more ways than one.)

Willis gets closer to genre romance than usual with the very funny and delightful look at individuality and inspiration, Bellwether. (Although there is also Promised Land, in which an alien planet’s inheritance law means a woman winds up being married without even knowing it…) Sandra Foster is a social scientist who studies fads for the corporation to end all corporations, the ultimate home for buzzwords, team-building exercises, and promoted incompetence; her bête noire is Flip, an office assistant who invariably leaves utter confusion in her wake. (Another common Willis theme.) A wrongly delivered package takes Sandra to the lab of chaos theorist Bennet O’Reilly, where she’s fascinated to meet someone who’s seemingly immune to fads:

When you spend as much time as I do analyzing fads and fashions, you get so you can spot them at first sight: eco-hippie, jogger, Wall Street M.B.A., urban terrorist. Dr. O’Reilly wasn’t any of them. He was about my age and about my height. He was wearing a lab coat and corduroy pants that had been washed so often the wale was completely worn off on the knees. They’d shrunk, too, halfway up his ankles, and there was a pale line where they’d been let down.

The effect, especially with the Coke-bottle glasses, should have been science geek, but it wasn’t… And there was something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on, that made it impossible for me to categorize him.


Like many other Willis couples, Sandra and Ben bond over being the seemingly only sane people in a world gone mad, as well as over their struggles with their current projects; finding some overlap in their research allows Sandra to help him when Flip screws up his funding—and to keep trying to investigate his immunity to fads. Then Sandra realizes that she’s interested in far more than Ben’s research and unusual clothing choices:


“Secondly,” Management said, “I’ve some excellent news to share with you regarding the Neibnitz Grant. Dr. Alicia Turnbll has been working with us on a game plan that we’re going to implement today. But first I want all of you to choose a partner —”

Ben grabbed my hand.

“—and stand facing each other.”

We stood and I put my hands up, palms facing out. ”If we have to say three things we like about sheep, I’m quitting.”

“All right, HiTekkers,” Management said, “now I want you to give your partners a big hug.”

“The next big trend at HiTek will be sexual harassment,” I said lightly, and Ben took me in his arms.

“Come on now,” Management said. “Not everybody’s participating. Big hug.”
Ben’s arms in the faded plaid sleeves pulled me close, enfolded me. My hands, caught up in that palms out silliness, went around his neck. My heart began to pound.

“A hug says, ‘Thank you for working with me,’” Management said. “A hug says, ‘I appreciate your personness.’”

My cheek was against Ben’s ear. He smelled faintly of sheep. I could feel his heart pounding, the warmth of his breath on my neck. My breath caught, like a hiccuping engine, and stalled.


There is much to love about Willis’s work—the ingenuity, the surprises, the tenderness and humanity, the humor, the way she points out nonsense we’ve been buying without even realizing it. (See the biting commentary on prejudice against smokers as a fad in Bellwether.) How wonderful to have all those things, and romance too.

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JackJackJackJackJackJackJack

I wrote about my dreams for the upcoming Miss Fisher movie over at “Heroes and Heartbreakers.” I’m sure you can’t imagine what they are.

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Ta da!

A piece I wrote on romances that were inspired by movies has been published, so now I can reveal the easter egg in To Dream Again: It’s a Victorian rewrite of “The Goodbye Girl”!

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When You Love It, But…

I’m over at Heroes and Heartbreakers with a post about The General and the Horse-Lord, a Problematic Fav.

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TBR Update

My thoughts on Carved in Stone are now up at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

A 30 year old book about romances and racism… that couldn’t still be relevant, right?!

 

 

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