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Guilty Pleasure Romances

February 14, 2009

I’m about to attempt the mental gymnastics of comparing Lauren Willig’s excellent costume drama romances to space opera scifi.  All because I’m a great big cynical romantic, and Valentine’s Day has gotten under my skin.

I see romances as a guilty pleasure because of the inner voice that scoffs as I read, waiting for two oblivious characters to see that they’re secretly smoldering for each other.  I”m not entirely comfortable with my own romantic streak.  I like my romance well-armored in repartee.   So when I read earnest and yearning romance, I hope for good dialogue, and feel a little sheepish reveling in romances that aren’t so barbed.

I’ve been on a steady diet of Lauren Willig all this week, and couldn’t be happier.  Espionage provides zest to the strange social gyrations of manners in Napoleonic-era England.  In the hands of a modern author, there is room for raunchy comments about translucent muslin dresses and tight trousers. Thus far, my favorite is The Masque of the Black Tulip, because the romantic pair, Henrietta and Miles, are more clearly friends (who trade sarcastic banter) before and after they romance each other.

I wonder how tall Lauren Willig is.  There’s a lot of “just barely five feet tall” women heroines.  With dreamy, overactive imaginations. 21st century grad student Eloise, Amy of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is wee, as is Letty, of
and Charlotte from The Temptation of the Night Jasmine. Not sure how tall Jane is. Thus, far, though, it seems like the dreamier heroines are shorter than the ones with all the pithy lines.
But I digress.
Reading all these romances in a row makes me cynical the same way horror movies do. Willig’s characters all know each other through their spying, and through social circles. And yet, when the romance develops, both participants in it seem completely broadsided, stunned that they’ve ended up together. Can’t they see the signs? It’s like characters who run into the woods or the basement in horror movies. The conventions of the genre appear not to exist in the world the genre creates. Okay, now I know I’m being far too cynical!

And here’s where another guilty pleasure, space opera romance, comes in. I know taboo love is a theme far older than even the idea of space travel. Two excellent examples of taboo inter-alien love, however, are among my favorite guilty pleasures. In Conquest Born sets up the stoic, warrior Braxins and the emotional, psychic, artful Azaens as warring alien cultures. When two arch-rivals find that their obsession with defeating each other has turned into respect, and even love, it comes as very little surprise.   The world-building, the detail of each alien culture is what I love best here.  And it’s a guilty pleasure, not because of the romance, but because Friedman’s prose is rather clunky.  (For all the frothy romance, Willig turns phrases with elegance and humor.)

However, for sheer guilty glee at the dumb romance amid space opera, nothing rivals Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.  Humans are at war, or at uneasy truce with the alien Liaden race. Both sides are deeply prejudiced against each other. When the first human-Liaden romance takes place- it rocks both cultures! But- it keeps happening! And the cultures keep being shocked!  And I keep being utterly unable to put them down, even though I know how predictable it is.  Therein, my guilty, sheepish glee.

There’s room here for a good discussion of science fiction as a safe place to examine social constructs, by setting up actual aliens to highlight prejudice, assumptions, and differences, but I’ll save that for another day.  (And would welcome links to others who have discussed the theme.)

Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2009 11:24 am

    I think perhaps that the surprise is in that they actually fall for each other. I get the impression there were not a lot of “love matches” in their set and people marry other people for social standing/money a lot.

    But yes, Willig is absolute fun.

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