So, what happened to the big, grand, sprawling epic romance novel? What happened to those big, passionate stories that played out against the backdrop of history, sometimes for generations?
When and how did romance shift predominantly into these tight, compact, speeded-up plot formulas? Is there not room for anything else anymore?
Does it only count if it’s sad? If one of them dies?
Did they all move into the realm of fantasy or dystopia?
Moving this summer meant that I had a whole lot of sorting and packing to do, including several boxes of books that I’d brought overseas with me. I had a stash of non-academic reading, the paperback books that I’ll re-read for a break (or in the bath)… big, fat paperbacks with missing covers from years, even decades, of being read over and over.
Maybe it’s that I’ve been immersed too much genre theory, but as I packed things away, grouping books by genre and author and size (as any normal person does), I noticed similarities between my preferred romances that hadn’t been as clear before: my favorites, whether they are historical or contemporary, classic or best-seller, are usually lengthy, often multi-generational epics.
The romance(s) in the books take place over years, sometimes over decades, or even two or three generations, following intertwined families, or mothers and daughters over time, or a trajectory of historical events. Jane Eyre or Romola or Outlander, it matters not, I’m in it for the long haul.
This is why, even before you get to the severely unhealthy and unrealistic angles, I find many of the “they meet and fall in love and get married in three weeks!” plots so generally unsatisfying. As a reader, I don’t feel as invested in an insta-romance, to be honest. I want to get to know the characters and their world. I want to see them really grow, and grow with them. I want to see how they respond over time. I love seeing characters go from youth all the way to twilight years, or at least into full adulthood. I love seeing them really have to work over time in order to be together.
Call me a size queen, but sometimes I want a big, long, girthy, epic saga.
My favorites included stories about old Hollywood actresses who had to deal with the push-pull of a lifetime career that kept them from the men they loved and were forced to give up… historical lovers who struggle during World War II or across a continent in a covered wagon to find each other again… tough, savvy businesswomen who go through several failed relationships and find themselves through career or travel or trauma before they connect with their true loves…. The stakes are high and the pain sometimes long-lasting before the lovers finally sort everything out, but the payoff is as epic as the story.
Now, all of this shit is supposed to happen in, what, a month?
Anyway, I dug out a few of my (perhaps somewhat random) favorites, and it was clear how much these books have shaped me as a reader and a writer. The average contemporary reader may not remember Jacqueline Briskin, and all of those Bertrice Small plots do tend to run together. Nevertheless, it’s all combined in a weird sort of epic bouillabaisse upon which I feast and am nourished.
Here are a few of those old favorites:
VC Andrews’ Dollanganger series
Like many adolescent readers, Virginia Andrews and Flowers in the Attic was my transition from YA to “adult” books. And how! Flowers in the Attic was like all of my creepy Barbie-playing narratives in one, beauty and ballet, ritzy mansions, abusive family members and evil old ladies, gothic horror elements like attics and starvation and rape. Thanks to VC, I now had more language to express it all, too, including “flaxen blond hair” and “sensual lips” and “golly lolly.” (I promise, I never used the expression “golly lolly.”) But when I started writing my own fiction around the same time, there was a lot of “sensual” things, and people with cerulean eyes and flaxen blond hair.
Andrews’s purple prose had a profound effect on me as a writer and as a reader. It was around this time that I started keeping lists in my journal of favorite adjectives, and could not cram enough of them into my own stuff. And, oh, the descriptions! I loved every description of party tablecloths, swan beds, Christmas gowns with emerald jewelry…. What was the point of having a heroine if you did not spend several paragraphs describing her hair color, her eyes, her beauty, and what dresses matched her eyes or showcased her hair?
The Mary Sue-ish appeal of Cathy meant that I overlooked a lot of her really fucked up behavior when I was a teen. I mean, she HAD to seduce her stepfather as an act of revenge, CLEARLY, right? Sure, she could decide retroactively that she really loved that abusive shitstain, Julian. Even if… huh… that action didn’t seem quite… well, healthy or even believable, what mattered was that she was the heroine, the teller of the tale, and therefore I trusted her and didn’t question her.
That was a skill that I had to develop, and in some ways, Cathy was where those seeds (*ba dum tss*) were sown.
Judith Krantz’s Princess Daisy
I was about 13 or 14 that summer, and had already read all of my Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams paperbacks countless times when I discovered several boxes stacked in the garage, cast-offs from a friend or neighbor, no doubt, that my mom had brought home and dumped. I was bored, and, picking through them, one of the titles that caught my eye was Princess Daisy.
From the first sentence, the first second, I was hooked:
“She was born Princess Marguerite Alexandrovna Valensky, but everyone called her Daisy.”
Daisy Valenksy was all things I wanted from a heroine at the time. She was as blonde and beautiful as any Dollanganger, but not balls-out crazy. She was intelligent, talented, a survivor, resourceful, and hell, she even dealt with depression; in fact, this was the first time I remember reading a book that depicted someone, a heroine, experiencing the dark, bleak, hopeless moods that I’d thought were my own secret shame, and didn’t even have the language to understand at the time. Seeing that Daisy sometimes felt that way too was the first time I thought that maybe those (as I thought of them) “Sunday moods” were not a unique condition unto me born from unworthiness.
This first novel I read by Krantz was also where I discovered how to make my itch for certain kinds of environments or accoutrements into a reality, to be able to articulate that the things in my mind’s eye could actually exist… from toile-filled rooms in a Le Havre country home or London square to Daisy’s bohemian SoHo apartment with its ever-changing rotation of furniture and a pastoral mural featuring her dog. Daisy’s wardrobe, in particular, thrilled me; after reading countless paperbacks about designer jeans and angora sweaters, Daisy’s eclectic fashion sense was something else, something that piqued my imagination. She crafted a workable wardrobe (circa 1970s) from old couture or odd combinations of things, and it sent me to the library multiple time, where I spent hours with oversized coffeetable books on the history of fashion, becoming familiar with the names of the designers that Daisy found at London jumble sales: Schiaparelli, Vionnet, Patou….
Another fun, dishy feature I loved about Krantz that has fallen out of favor, style-wise, is that her books are loaded with characters, and multiple characters provide insight to the FMCs. Often the secondary characters are intrinsic to the plot, but there are usually a few strays who pop in for a scene or two to give a different perspective of what’s going on, or how the FMC looks to others, or drop a few insights about that tall, mysterious, intriguing man whose attention she’s snagged….
A lot of Krantz smacks of Mary Sue-ness, especially since her heroines are usually short, spunky red-heads. (Note: short, spunky, red-headed Judy Tarcher’s nickname in college was “Torchy.”) But that doesn’t diminish her importance… or how much fun she is. She’s the reason why the glorious genre moniker “sex and shopping novels” exist.
Judy also made BANK because most of her novels were adapted into those lush, big, super-80s made-for-TV multi-night sagas (usually starring people like Stacy Keach and Lindsay Wagner… and one of them was one of Hugh Grant’s first big roles), and it was due in part to the fact that her husband was a massive TV producer dude. That is the down side to Judy, when one reads her deliciously-titled memoir… she is a bit too oblivious to her own connections and privilege that allowed her to step into significant writing jobs and within reach of major players in the industry.
But she’d still be an awesome dinner party guest… especially after a couple drinks.
(It sucks, though, that we can no longer enjoy the absurd fun of I’ll Take Manhattan, where the spunky red-headed heroine lives in a certain address that was enviable in the 1980s and interacts with the building’s “business mogul” owner, who then went on to have a cameo in the movie adaptation.)
Bertrice Small’s O’Malley Family Saga Series.
I have a love-hate thing going with Bertrice Small, but at times, I return to a few of her books for re-reads, including the O’Malley books. There are a bunch of these, starting with the first six books from the 80s, then going on into several “Legacy” series books through the 90s. Skye O’Malley is gorgeous and daring and Irish, all the boxes you’d tick under “romance heroine,” and literally spawns an epic romance legacy, since she collects husbands and gives birth to what seems like a dozen children, each more beautiful than the last. It’s a bit of a genre deconstruction that Skye (spoilers!) actually has several “soulmates” over the course of her life, for whom she risks her life, even as she manages the family’s Elizabethan-era shipping business. There are pirates, sultans, kidnappings, castles and estates and elaborate gowns and jewels, and assorted tangles with the Tudor court, all of the over-the-top bodice-ripping shit seemingly intrinsic to the genre. I like that Small also includes a lot of interesting descriptions of era-appropriate food, herbs, gardens, medicines, and agriculture… although if you read a lot of her books, you’ll notice the same meals appear all the time, and without an obvious framework of “this is common,” but rather, feeling more like “this is cut-and-paste.”
And, because it’s Small, there is a whole lot of graphic sex (including a lot of rape/dub-con shit).
Small’s plots are often too convoluted for their own good; forty-seven traumatic things happen, and then on top of those, she had a habit of unnecessarily throwing in a new kidnapping or disease epidemic or death in the last few pages to add one last POW! of plot tension.
Of course, this also means that over the course of the series, every single heroine in, like, four generations of the family is abducted and sold into a harem as a sex slave.
One would think they’d learn to stay off the O’Malleys’ merchant ships for their own safety, huh?
Bonus mention: Even though they aren’t quite as epic, I also have a fondness for the Channel Pleasures books of the early 2000s. The premise is interesting—a TV channel catering purely to women’s fantasies that, through some supernatural twist, are somehow real and yet not real —although the execution is weaker than I’d like (because the Channel is controlled by a dude… the Devil, no less).
Jacqueline Briskin’s Paloverde
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who remembers her books. I found a bunch of them in the same box that I found Judith Krantz, but they didn’t grab me instantly the way Krantz and Collins had. Probably because their covers were more innocuous, not as flashy… a little dated, even, by the time I got to them.
It was funny, though. The back cover blurbs made it sound like I was going to be in for more sex ‘n shopping, more over-the-top dishy Rich People’s Problems. And, actually, yes, it was totally Rich People’s Problems… but with the richness of history and almost Greek epic storytelling, too. Briskin’s books move through history, and she’ll take you to ravaged wartime Berlin just as easily as she’ll take you to her contemporary Hollywood, or pre-War New York City, or turn-of-the-century Detroit.
Paloverde is, in many ways, a history of Los Angeles, which is another reason why I love it. It’s a history that isn’t often depicted, either, with a focus on the Spanish, Mexican, and Mestizo people, colonized and re-colonized, forming uneasy tandems… much in the same way that the movie industry took over.
Centered on the Van Vliet family — specifically brothers Bud and 3Vee, and the girl-next-door that they both love, Amelie Dean, witty and sparkling half-French daughter of local scandal (that has roots in now-forgotten California history) — Paloverde follows two generations through Los Angeles as it grows from dusty hamlet to real metropolis.
There are a few things that are squicky now, like the fact that twenty-something Bud first becomes infatuated with Amelie when she is fifteen, still in short skirts and understood socially as a girl. (It’s part of the problem, and is addressed a bit, with speculation that 3Vee is a bit more age-appropriate for her, but you can still side-eye it.) And Briskin can lean too heavily (pun intended) on the trope of fat women = mean and miserable… but in Paloverde, she initially includes a character that undercuts that a bit. Nevertheless, the character development is graceful, believable, all-encompassing. I believe in the people she created in ways that I never truly believed in the “real people”-ness of some of Krantz’s… much less Andrews’s and Collins’s.
And I fully admit that I am a sucker for one of Briskin’s stock hero types: the brooding, tormented, philosophical MMC, in this case, Captain Kingdon Vance, silent film hero (and semi-secret Van Vliet)… and her bookish, awkward FMCs, in this case, writer Tessa Van Vliet, also had major impact on the types of heroines I prefer to read about. And write.
In fact, I love this book so much, and have re-read it so often, that I am now on my fourth paperback copy of it, not counting the hardcover version I keep stashed.
While not exactly a series, references to this book pop up elsewhere, and the Van Vliet family is in most of her other books (if imperfectly; there are a few major continuity errors that kept teenaged me calculating dates and scrawling family trees to quadruple-check things). The idea that more facets of a family can be revealed in other books when you least expect it is an added bonus.
Jackie Collins’s Santangelo books
Okay, really only the first three or so. After Lady Boss, which may be one of the most 80s books (and made-for-TV-movies) ever, things not only get so repetitive that they’re dull, but it’s almost like Collins was too fond of her own characters to give them real stakes… a common issue you usually see in younger/newer writers… but a hallmark of Mary Sue characters.
And this is more Mary Sue-ness, for sure. Just a look at Collins’s old desk, with all the panther trinkets a la Lucky, gives hints.
But that dismisses one of the most important elements of Collins, and Lucky Santangelo in particular: this was one of the first times we saw a “strong, smart, kick-ass heroine” like this in contemporary fiction. Instead of being the sidekick or the love interest or the one who needs rescuing, Lucky, daughter of mobster “Gino the Ram” (!!) gets shit done her own damned self. Sure, a lot of it is because she’s filthy rich, and gets richer based on who she marries and what she inherits, but still… she’s also often the one wielding the pistol, arranging the hit, confronting the shady criminal or family’s enemy, getting the business on track or the Vegas hotel built.
Also, remember how much I hate the sloppy shortcuts to “strong, smart women” with nothing to back it up, and have complained about how things like having a FMC curse a lot or pound a couple shots or “fuck like a man” is not necessarily an indication that she is strong, smart, tough, or challenging? Well, Lucky is the example of how that shit can work. Because she’s flying directly in the face of expected female behavior, both in the book and in general when it was first published, the way she appropriates male space and, as a result, disrupts everything male is effective… and an essential part of her character development. She’s not just a “cool girl.” Lucky doesn’t impress or intrigue dudes (or love interests) because she can down liquor, because she doesn’t talk or act “like a lady.” Instead, those things are 1) things she likes and is and does authentically and believably, and 2) are actually a real threat to the men around her, which means Lucky is a real threat to the men around her… and she is treated accordingly. She doesn’t just exist to fill male-centric “cool girl” mirror fantasies.
However, even more than previously mentioned authors, Collins can rely on the “sloppy shorthands” of using things that aren’t actually flaws — fatness, baldness, unattractiveness — to indicate bad characters, which is worth a red flag. Another thing: she was also the first mainstream adult author I read who included black main characters… although they, too, can be presented problematically. Still, their presence had an influence on the ways I thought about who and what was in a fictional world. Her works may have gotten less impressive at the end of an almost 40-year writing career, to be sure, but her influence on fiction and FMC is sadly underrated, and worth another look.
One of the byproducts of sorting through the old books — along with doing a peace-out due to depression for days at a time — was that I went back and re-read a ton of stuff, some things that I hadn’t looked at for ages, some that I reconsidered in new ways. After a lively IM with a pal over our years-ago plan to have a “Sex and Shopping Novels Book Club” with all the Susann and The Devil Wears Prada that we could handle, I saw an opportunity.
So in the coming months, I’m going to be re-reading and blogging (or maybe even reading for the first time, since, believe it or not, I have… um… never read a Nora Roberts book) about several of these old epic family history and romance novels. Why not?
Link: Book Shaming
That means if you have any suggestions about what book I should tackle, drop me a note, please!