Thursday, March 6, 2008

Reading for Romance

Elizabeth Zelvin

I don’t write romance, but I read for it. No, I’m not confessing to a secret taste for bodice rippers. I read mostly mystery and some carefully chosen fantasy, SF, and historical novels. But what most of my favorites have in common, regardless of genre, is fully realized, endearing characters and meaningful relationships, especially though not exclusively romantic ones.

Looking first at my favorite mystery series, let’s take Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone books. I love Sharon, but I’ve never fully bought her relationship, now marriage, with Hy Ripinsky. My pick among those books is Broken Promise Land, when Sharon’s assistant, Rae Kelleher, falls in love with Sharon’s brother-in-law, country star Ricky Savage. Some of it is told from Rae’s point of view, and for me it evokes that achingly emotional phenomenon, falling in love. Now let’s take Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott series. Like Sharon, Deborah makes a series of wrong choices before she finds a keeper. In her case, it’s a guy she’s known her whole life, Deputy Sheriff Dwight Bryant. And what a delicious twist it is that she lets her inner pragmatist insist she’s settling for a marriage of convenience, while Dwight conceals the fact that he’s been in love with her for years.

Sometimes an author fails to allow romance to triumph or draws the suspense out to my increasing frustration. I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven P.D. James for not letting Adam Dalgliesh get together with Cordelia Gray. And I wanted to shake Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, or perhaps her protagonist, Detective Inspector Bill Slider, for several books in a row as he shirked breaking with his irritating wife and committing to his delightful girlfriend.

Several years on the mystery lovers’ e-list DorothyL have taught me that I share my tastes across genres with quite a few other mystery readers. Even the ever-vigilant list moderators will allow members to post about Dorothy Dunnett and Diana Gabaldon. Both write mysteries, but it’s their more popular series, in both cases historicals with just a touch of woo-woo, that are so darn good. Dunnett’s Francis Crawford of Lymond and Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser both figured prominently in a hugely enjoyable discussion on the list of which fictional characters DLers would happily go to bed with.

Tellingly, the list included Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, who’s a terrific character and as much of a superhero as Lymond and Jamie, but not sexy and gorgeous like them. Miles is only four feet tall with a big head and a condition something like brittle bone disease—but he’s such a great guy that readers were ready to jump his bones. Virtually, of course. And it probably helps that we know how good he is in bed. The Vorkosigan books are science fiction by genre, though they often contain a mystery. My favorite, A Civil Campaign, does not. It doesn’t need one to carry the story: it’s the perfect cross between space opera and comedy of manners. And the romance between Miles and Ekaterin is very satisfying indeed. Bujold dedicates the book to Jane (Austen), Charlotte (Bronte), Dorothy (Sayers), and Georgette (Heyer), and I think she does her sources of inspiration proud.

Considering my tastes, you’d think I’d have a romance in my mystery, Death Will Get You Sober. But I don’t. My protagonist Bruce is too busy getting sober to fall in love, though he goes to bed once each with his ex-wife (whom readers will learn more about in a future book) and a witness. And if he did, both his sponsor and his best friend Jimmy would remind him that AA wisdom suggests no new relationships in the first year of sobriety. Bruce is one of those characters whose perch on the author’s shoulder is the driver’s seat. He won’t be hurried, and I can’t force him. In the second book, he has a romantic interlude, but it’s transitional for both partners. In the third, he’s attracted to a suspect, but it doesn’t work out. In book four, he meets someone who might become a girlfriend and a recurring character. But I don’t know for sure. He hasn’t told me yet.

So for now, I read for romance, but I don’t write it—yet.


Sheila Connolly said...

It's a difficult balance when you write mystery. You don't want characters with no adult relationships, but you don't want to give too much weight to the whole "does he/doesn't he" issue while trying to unravel a crime.

I had to laugh--in one of my first fan letters (in fact, an email) the writer said first that she was interested to see how the relationships developed in future books. Nothing about the plot. But that's okay, because it means I created human characters, and the hints about the mostly unrealized relationships worked.

Sandra Parshall said...

When I read a crime novel, I want to read about the crime and the impact it has had on the characters' lives. A little romance going on is fine -- as long as it contributes to the main plot in some way. But if the romance overwhelms the crime plot, I probably won't bother reading that author again.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Aw Sandy--and when you go to conferences, do you go for the information you'll get from the workshops? I confess I measure my satisfaction with 'em by the hugs and the schmoozing. But seriously: I think all the writers I've mentioned are so good they integrate the relationship and plot elements pretty seamlessly. And it's not just any romance, but one between complex characters whose relationship has depth and texture, that pulls me in.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, I know a lot of people who loved the Elizabeth George novels because of the relationship between Tommy and Helen, but I always found it tedious and skimmed those sections. Now those who adored the pair feel betrayed because they've lost Helen, while I'm glad she's gone. Tommy might be a shade more interesting to read about without mopey Helen around. Yes, I'm hard-hearted.

Kim Smith said...

I agree with Sheila. It is a fine line that you have to intimate there is "something" going on but keep the reader in the dark :) so far as the relationships turning romantic.

Thanks Liz!