Book Reviews





Mab on Romance - to love or not to love?

Stop the press! I have pre-ordered what can only be defined as a "romance novel" for my Kindle.

What's come over me? Perhaps I should visit a doctor... but I have to admit that I have been wholly swayed by reviews in order to make my decision. The book is The Bronze Horseman, the first part of a trilogy by Russian-born author Paullina Simons. I was initially attracted to the title as it is set in the second world war, amid Soviet and German unrest. I've previously read a lot of war novels - The Separation by Christopher Priest, The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks to name a few - and I make no secret of the fact I consider The Bridges Of Madison County to be the most moving (and possibly the only) romance book I have ever read and enjoyed.
If what I have read about The Bronze Horseman is to be believed, the book should encompass the best points of all of these books in one tome.

So how can I be so hypocritical of myself? What happened to my cold heart and apathy? Let's just say this... I am cynical. I have defeatist views on most things. I am feminist. I have "dark" tastes. I love ghosts. But I am not devoid of love. Most "romance" novels simply have the complete opposite ideals to those I uphold.

I can happily read Jane Austen's heroines fall in love, because their love is not easy, and often comes at a price. In that respect it feels real. Anne in Persuasion breaks her heart in order to please her family, only to wisen to the importance of her own happiness above others when it is almost too late. Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth has to change her entire perspective on a man in order to love him while her sister Kitty's insta-love ends in family shame close to ruin.

I can fall through the pages of The Bridges of Madison County because although the situation is something of a bad erotica (man stops to ask for directions only to bed the woman in furious and animalistic fashion) the story is real, based on the findings of the lead characters own children. The book is written as a character study of forbidden, all encompassing desire, and not as the chick-lit quick-fix it's plot may fool you to believe. The ending is heart-wrenchingly painful for being so real in it's portrayal.

I can lavish in the love-triangle worlds of teen fiction because, let's face it, when were your teenage fantasies ever restricted to one object of attraction?! When youth presents you with so many options, and a "lasting" relationship probably isn't at the forefront of your mind, of course emotions may overlap. Of course, the dangerous option is attractive, and the boy/girl-next-door has welcoming familiarity. These things, I can read without an eye-roll because they are based in the real world.

What I can't abide is the following:
  • Instalove that is unquestioningly reciprocated
  • The "perfect" male/female
  • Mary Sues / Gary Stus
  • Weak female leads with no integrity ("oh of course Ill move in 2 weeks into our relationship! Coz it's, like, love!... what do you mean Ill have to sell my cat of 15 years? Oh ok, coz its LOVE!")
  • Pre-packed female stereotypes, for example: geek to goddess, blonde but brainy, quiet and lonely to in-love and successful, recently-lost-weight-but-still-insecure etc etc etc.
  • The sarcastic best friend cliche
  • "loves fixes everything" << probably the most infuriating.

Unfortunately, it's rare to find a romance book that does not include any of the above.

When, however, a romance novel strays into my established areas of interest (Second Glance and Her Fearful Symmetry being prime examples) I will of course give it a go. Ghostly romance? Yes please. Revengeful lovers from beyond the grave? Oh, go on then. Sparkly vampires who fall in love with high school chicks only to be threatened by werewolves? Ashamed to say, I even gave that one a go.
I am anything but exclusive!

So while I wouldn't place myself farther from being a romantic reader, I am not adverse to the entire genre. I simply find my beliefs on gender roles, equality and love tend not to match up with the vast majority of popular examples. (Ahem, 50 Shades... I'm glaring at you.)

I am looking forward to reading The Bronze Horseman. I hope to find it something akin to Atonement or The Visible World. I'll let you know in due course!

How do you feel about stereotypes and recurring themes in romantic novels? Do you feel empowered or diminished by them? Leave your comments below!

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