As a reader, I’m a sucker for romance. No, not romance novels. Romance. I want to fall in love with series protagonists and sigh with satisfaction when they find true love. In mysteries, my favorite books tend to be the ones where things work out. I was delighted when Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott got married to her buddy Dwight and finally figured out he’d been in love with her all along. My favorite Sharon McCone book from Marcia Muller is the one where her friend Rae and her country music star ex-brother-in-law fall in love. In other genres, I gravitate to Big Love: historical, Diana Gabaldon’s Claire and Jamie, Sara Donati’s Elizabeth and Nathaniel; fantasy and science fiction, all the angel/human couples in Sharon Shinn’s Samaria novels. So why don’t I write that way myself?
For one thing, the authors I’ve mentioned are all masters. Without sitting down to write a pure romance, they deftly blend attraction, conflict, and eventual resolution in perfect proportions, played out by characters who are rounded and complex and endearing. Also, the ones who write sex scenes are very good at it. I’m not crazy about sex scenes. In fact, I tend to start skimming when the clothes come off. I feel like Diana Gabaldon’s kids, or was it her husband, who she says complained, “Nipples again?” Maybe that’s why I have trouble writing them.
But the real reason is that, as both a mental health professional and a veteran of two marriages (the second still going strong), I believe the kind of Big Love I adore in novels requires as much suspension of disbelief as the mystery convention that an amateur sleuth can solve a murder when the cops are baffled.
So there’s Bruce, my recovering alcoholic protagonist. In his first appearance, Death Will Get You Sober, the poor guy had to give up drinking. That painful process—and solving several murders—took up all his attention. There’s a good reason that newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous are advised not to embark on any relationships in the first year. The chances of screwing up the relationship and losing hard-won sobriety in the process are high. So Bruce abstains, except for sleeping with his ex-wife Laura when he gets out of detox for 24 hours—and ex-wives, as he points out, hardly count.
In the new book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, he’s still sober, but the relationship stuff is starting to demand his attention. Laura is still around, now a major character who keeps him on a string as she pursues a new relationship with an abusive lover. And Bruce has what amounts to a crush with a nice woman whose abusive boyfriend has been killed, freeing her from his lies and manipulations but putting her in the frame for his murder. Laura, with her mood swings, easy sex, and middle-of-the-night suicide threats, offers a dysfunctional relationship that could lead him back to drinking. And Luz, the victim’s girlfriend, is still emotionally unavailable.
I’d be doing real-life couples a disservice if I used my therapist’s authority and writer’s plausibility to insist Big Love is the way things are if you get it right. In real life, you do have to say you’re sorry. In fact, owning your part in a quarrel is a key to emotional maturity. In real life, your partner doesn’t read your mind and say just the right thing every time. In real life, few women have mile-long legs and slender waists (and some of those who do are bulimics). In real life, few men past forty are sexual athletes with endless stamina (and some of those who are are sexual compulsives). Is true love possible, beyond the first burst of passion? Of course it is. But it takes work and honesty and a capacity for tolerating imperfections, both your own and your partner’s.