Monday, September 19, 2016

On A Magic Jukebox and Other Romance Novels

I am constantly disappointed by romance novels. I want to love the genre, and I really love a few -- Georgette Heyer's Cotillion, PG Wodehouse's Jill the Reckless (don't tell me that's not a romance, it totally is) -- but most make me want to throw it across the room (which is a problem, because I read on a Kindle).

This one had so many things wrong with it:

a) The hand of fate: a magic jukebox that plays what someone needs to hear and changes lives. Here's the thing: I like having control over my life. It's the thing I've fought hardest for: the right to make my own decisions, even if they are stupid. And falling in love with someone because a magic jukebox made me: that's the stuff of nightmares, not dreams.

b) Conflating love and lust. Just because he's a good kisser -- yeah yeah, it's the best kiss you've ever had -- doesn't mean it's *true love*. You can lust after someone and not want to marry them. There's nothing wrong with enjoying sex with someone you don't want to spend all your life with.

c) Moving fast: a few days is all it takes to fall in love? Who are these people? I bet they spend the rest of their lives convincing themselves they are in love, after all magic jukebox matched them. (If they don't split up in a few weeks, which the author wouldn't allow.)

d) Why can't a woman break up with her boyfriend/fiance just because she's bored of him or had fallen out of love with him or doesn't want to spend all her life with him? Why does the author need to stack on evidence for why she's awful -- he's a snob, he's domineering, he's boring, he doesn't listen to her, he doesn't kiss well... And then, finally, he is violent towards her. His only positives: looks, wealth, success. Is our heroine that shallow or that lacking in self esteem? Seems like the latter, but then it seems a poor decision to jump headlong into another relationship, especially with a man she barely knows.

d) Where are their friends? Why does she have no one to call but her fiance when she's had a success at work? Or anyone but her sister - who she doesn't seem close to - who she feels safe telling about her decision to dump her fiance? If they don't have any (or more than one between them), maybe that's something to fix first instead of diving out of one engagement and into another. (Did someone say rebound?)

e) Given that the characters don't value friendships, it's maybe less of a surprise that they don't try to make friends with each other. And this really annoys me. When you decide to be with someone, it's both the really little things and the really big things that matter. Big things like - does she want kids? Does he believe in equal rights for everyone? Is she homophobic/racist/transphobic? Is he a saver or a spender? And little things like, is he a morning person? Will he understand her need for alone time? Will she expect him to accompanying her on runs? Is he tidy or messy? Will he do the chores? Does she like going out or staying home? Who will cook breakfast? What kind of food does he like? What kind of music does she like? All the things which seem unimportant at first but are essential to peace in the home.

f) How do things get resolved magically? One conversation, that too instigated by and in the presence of an outsider - isn't enough to change a parent-child relationship that's been screwed up for decades.

g) This is almost like asking why the sky is blue, but why do romance protagonists have to be good-looking? Less good-looking people deserve -- and find -- love too.

But here are a few things I loved about this book, though it's hardly enough, given the other problems:
a) the hero is working class and works with kids, trying to give them the support and opportunities he lacked
b) both have really flawed, even horrible parents

I get that fiction isn't always supposed to reflect reality. That this is escapism. Or maybe I don't really.

Because you know what, many of us do draw lessons from fiction into real life. The best literature - whether it's fantasy or romance or some other genre fiction or highbrow literary fiction -- helps you learn more about life. And romance books like this - and I'm talking about books that are supposed to be well written, and read by intelligent, feminist women (since those are the only ones whose romance recommendations I heed) -- can teach all the wrong things. That lust and love are synonymous. That you don't need to know someone to fall in love for them and change your entire life to fit around theirs. That you need a man to change your life and make yourself happy. That adult children should always make peace with their parents, even if the parents don't care for them or were abusive.

In contrast, the very few romances I have read that I've truly loved, have featured protagonists I respect and who get to know each other before they decide they are in love. Yes, decide. Because however swiftly you're swept off your feet or however overpowering your lust for the other person, deciding to share your life with someone (even if it's not for forever) is always a decision. And it's most romantic when you make it willingly, wholeheartedly, with your eyes open.

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