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  • Corrina Lawson 3:00 pm on 2018/05/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , cheryl etchison, christmas on crimson mountain, deeanna gist, , it had to be you, , kasey michaels, , , michelle major, once and for all: an american valor novel, , , tender texan, texan's reward, , the lurid lady lockport, the rake, tiffany girl, , when the stars fall down   

    The Great RITA Read: Trauma and Recovery in Romance Novels 


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    Perhaps the single biggest misconception about books in the romance genre is that they’re fluff.

    I’m up to 70 books in my Great RITA Read, and I cannot stress how wrong this assumption is. There are so many stories of women dealing with real-life issues, so many heroines who have suffered horrible traumas, including, but not limited to: the deaths of beloved family members; sexual assault; exile; cancer; and crushing poverty.

    However, their stories are not about their traumas.

    The stories are about their recoveries.

    Most of these romances begin not when the heroines are traumatized, but when they have decided to take action to improve their lives. And nothing is more hopeful than reading about heroines who begin again and, this time, emerge the victor. Their triumph is inevitably earned by the heroine’s own efforts, which are recognized (eventually) and encouraged by the hero.

    This pattern of recovery with the support of a hero who sees the strength of the heroine, has repeated itself across all the romance sub-genres awarded in the RITA Award, from historicals to contemporary romantic comedies to paranormals and even the recently revived category of mainstream fiction with romantic elements. It’s also a pattern that has existed since the awards first began in 1982.

    Take Carolina Dreaming by Virginia Kantra, the 2017 RITA winner in the Contemporary Mid-Length category. It’s the story of a divorced woman recovering from an abusive marriage. She’s started her own business, a bakery/coffee shop on a beautifully described island in the Carolinas, and is doing all she can to provide stability and love to her son. She’s already on the road to recovery, already making strides, and making plans for the rest of her life. It’s not a sad or tragic book. It’s a joyous book set in a lovely place, one where you can practically feel the sun on your face and the ocean breezes. It’s about living again, for both the hero and heroine, not a deep dive into the trauma that led to it.

    This story of recovery even shows up in comedies. In It Had To Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, winner of 1994 Best Romance Award, the first chapter is set at the funeral of the heroine’s father, a ruthless businessman and owner of the Chicago Stars NFL team. Our heroine hated her father with good reason. He could never show her love or even affection and he certainly never believed in her. But our heroine didn’t fold. She ran away from home, created a new life and fabulous persona for herself, and shows up at his funeral in an outrageous outfit with her little dog and her friend, a prominent male model.

    Comedic chaos ensues. That scene is probably one of the funniest openings to a romance novel ever. The reader doesn’t find out until later in the book that the reason for the heroine’s estrangement from her father was that he never believed her when she reported being raped. (And, yes, her rapist gets a comeuppance in this book.) Again, the book is a comedy but, like all great comedies, it does not overlook the pain behind the laughter. The hero of the story is forced, over and over, to look beyond our heroine’s outrageousness to realize that she has for more strengths and smarts than anyone believes exists. And, of course, he comes to believe in her.

    Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran, the 2015 Historical Romance: Long winner, is a Regency-set historical with a heroine who falsifies references to gain entry into the home of a Duke. She needs to search the house to find incriminating letters that implicate the man trying to kill her, the plan being to blackmail him to back off. He’s already tried once to murder her, nearly succeeded, and she’s been exchanging identity after identity for several years in order to escape him. Obviously, she’s traumatized but working toward a solution. Meanwhile, the Duke is mired in a deep depression because not only is his wife dead from a drug overdose but she’d been cheating on him for years, with several men, and spilling political secrets to his rivals. The reason I came to love this hero, who enters the story in a scene in which he drunkenly throws a bottle at the heroine, is that he recognizes that while he’s been mired in self-pity and unable to leave the house, the heroine has been remaking her life, and taking steps to outflank her enemies. She is stronger than he is and he knows it.

    Sometimes the reader experiences the heroine’s trauma on the page, at least for a time. When the Stars Fall Down by Anne Stuart, which won the 1986 Single Title Romance RITA when it was named Banish Misfortune, tackles the everyday sexual harassment that women encounter at work (sadly the sexual harassment described in the book is all too depressingly current), and shows the emotional cost of this harassment. The heroine grew up as the child of alcoholics, and was raped by their drinking buddy, and has tried to commit suicide twice. In contrast to the others I’ve described, it is a dark book, but it begins as the heroine believes she’s found a way to function in the world. Problems ensue which cause her to fall apart but, of course, she rallies, and it’s not until she feels centered that she’s able to even think about a relationship with the hero. Like all these stories, the heroine finds love not because she’s been rescued but because she’s taken steps on her own to recover from past events.

    But the genre also explores other traumas aside from rape or physical assault. In The Texan’s Reward by Jodi Thomas, which won the Short Historical RITA in 2016, the heroine is disabled, left without the use of her legs due to a gunshot wound. She spends most of the novel in a wheelchair, wary of anyone pitying her, while she struggles to regain some of her physical mobility. The hero has known her for years and loves her, but her struggle is that she must feel complete again, if not physically, emotionally, first.

    In Christmas on Crimson Mountain by Michelle Major, the 2017 Contemporary Romance-Short winner, the heroine has recovered from cancer and is learning to start planning for a future that’s been on hold for some time. In Once and For All: An American Valor Novelby Cheryl Etchison, the RITA Winner for Best First Book in 2017, the heroine has gone through cancer treatment twice and seeks a way for a new beginning, desperately wanting to be seen as a whole person and not a patient.

    Then there’s the abused widow in Tender Texan, again by Jodi Thomas, the Short Historical winner in 1992. The heiress terrified about being forced into marriage in The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, the 1990 Regency Romance winner. (To say nothing of how well the book portrays the hero’s struggle with alcoholism.) The heroine of Tiffany Girl by Deeanna Gist, the 2016 Historical Romance: Long winner, who refuses to stay at home and work because, if she doesn’t leave, her father will always control her money. The young orphan heroine of The Lurid Lady Lockport by Kasey Michaels, the 1985 Regency Romance winner, who insists on being treated as equal despite having no real power, at least until she insists on it.

    Over and over, these stories feature heroines overcoming doubt, horrific traumas, and the bad hands that fate has dealt to them and, finally, winning.

    Not only winning but winning with style, and building a future in which the hero honors the person she’s fought to become.

    The next time someone calls romance “frilly fantasies,” smack one of these books into their hands and make them eat their words. What they’ll find are stories written mainly by women, writing for women, providing hope, inspiration, and many different roadmaps for triumph.

    The post The Great RITA Read: Trauma and Recovery in Romance Novels appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Corrina Lawson 7:00 pm on 2018/03/01 Permalink
    Tags: , come spring, , it had to be you, jill marie landis, , lavryle spencer, lord of the night, morning glory, , , , , , , the prince of midnight   

    The Great RITA Read: The “Best Romance” Award 


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    As I was studying the list of Rita-winning books in preparation for this great adventure in romance reading, I noticed an anomaly.

    From 1989 to 1996, the Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award included winners of the “Best Romance” of the year. Then again, in 1998, an award called was “RWA’s Favorite Book” was given.

    And, then, alas, the award was dropped.

    I say “alas” because the books that received this award were some of the best of the genre, represented numerous romance subgenres, and would be ones I’d point to even today as a place to start reading romance.

    The authors?

    LaVryle Spencer. Laura Kinsale. Jill Marie Landis. Susan Wiggs. Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Nora Roberts. Diana Gabaldon.

    The books?

    Morning Glory. The Prince of Midnight. Come Spring. Lord of the Night. It Had to Be You. Born in Ice. Outlander.

    The sub-genres?

    Historicals set everywhere from late 1930s America, to Regency England, the American West, and Venice in 1531. A contemporary in which a supposed “bimbo” inherits an NFL team. A time travel story in which a World War II nurse steps through standing stones and into another era.

    Morning Glory was made into a movie starring Christopher Reeve. And, of course, Outlander is now a popular television series. All these books are still available and in print, over 25 years later.

    I applaud the taste of the RWA membership, who were responsible for honoring these books. The rest of the RITA Awards were judged by a jury of their peers. The “Best Romance” and “RWA’s Favorite Book” RITA Awards were chosen by an open vote of RWA members.

    That means these stories were not only quality, but they were also beloved by their fellow writers and thus have had had a huge influence on the genre.

    As someone who rarely read romance growing up, all these books save Outlander were new to me. I wish I had read them earlier, because they’re wonderful examples of the genre and probably would have hooked me on at least three of the authors.

    The Prince of Midnight is the story of a disabled former highwayman living in the ruins of a castle in France with a pet wolf. (Note: sold already!). Our hero is suffering from deafness in one ear and vertigo from a grenade that ended his rakish career. Then a young woman disguised as a man shows up, intent on learning from him how to kill people and avenge her wrongs.

    This heroine is fascinating. While the hero has obvious physical disabilities, the heroine has been emotionally destroyed by the systematic murder of her family and the failure of her friends and neighbors to protect them. She’s emotionally closed off, focused only on revenge, and is what we’d call today someone suffering from intense PTSD. She’s buried in her own anger, as it’s the only emotion keeping her functioning. She reminded me very much of the television show Jessica Jones, and I’ll just note here that Prince of Midnight won in 1989, many years before the superhero genre explored female emotional pain and trauma with any subtlety. So, the Prince of the title is attempting to reclaim his former panache, while the heroine is struggling to hold onto her anger, lest she fall apart. Of course, she eventually does, and it’s a powerful and healing moment. I immediately wanted to binge all of Laura Kinsale’s books but I have many more RITA winners to read before I can do that.

    This book should be a movie. Why isn’t this book a movie, Hollywood? No, scratch that. We need a British TV miniseries which casts all those wonderful British actors who pull off historical drama with panache. Did I mention the part where the hero has to train the heroine in swordfighting? Or how chilling the book’s description of the cult is?

    The book that did become a movie, Morning Glory by LaVryle Spencer, dials the world down to one farm in small-town Georgia, in an America on the brink of World War II and still suffering from the effects of the great depression. It’s a quiet, intense book about two broken people, a hero who’s never had a family and whose one friend betrayed him, and a heroine whose family believed her very existence was a sin. Slowly, these two shattered people find what they need in each other and create a family together, culminating in a beautiful love story.

    Come Spring by Jill Marie Landis is the prototypical “hero and heroine trapped in a cabin because of snow” book. In this case, the hero is a mountain man of sorts with a toddler niece to care for and he mistakes the heroine for the mail-order wife he needs to ensure the child’s safety. There is a class difference, as she’s from Boston money and he is assuredly not, and he must change to become the foster father the child needs and the person the heroine can love.

    Lord of the Night is a romance set in the Venice of the 1500s, where titles are everything, women are restricted to being wives or whores, and one women refuses to accept that her gender makes her any lesser, especially since she’s determined to become an artist. The hero is the head of what we’d now call the police, investigating a series of murders of men who are mutilated after death. Around them is all the intrigue of Venice, from the whispered meetings in canals to the festivals, to the way lordly men run amok when there is no one to check them. The descriptions of the heroine in the midst of artistic inspiration are amazing, as are the descriptions of her paintings, particularly those inspired by the hero. One note: the motivations of the killer, who turns out to be sympathetic and worthy of pity, may seem a bit dated.

    And then the contemporaries!

    It Had to Be You is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ first entry into her now famous Chicago Stars series and it breaks all the supposed “rules” of romance. Sports hero. Check. Bimbo heroine. Check. But the heroine is so much more than the bimbo she projects to the world as a kind of emotional armor, and the hero is far smarter and savvier than the stereotype of the dumb jock. It begins with a hilarious opening at the funeral of the heroine’s father, who bequeaths her his football team. But Phoebe has more depth and more trauma than anyone gives her credit for and, like most great comedies, there is something very serious at the heart of this story.

    It was inevitable that a Nora Roberts book would be among those chosen for this award and Born in Ice is a terrific example of Roberts’ contemporary romances, the second in the Irish Born Trilogy, set in a small town in Ireland. The heroine runs the local B&B and the hero is a mystery writer whose books have been made into movies. They’re both holding close the damages imposed by their lack of parental love, and it takes chipping away at each other to get to the truth. In the meantime, there’s a lovely dream trip to New York City for shopping and a movie premiere. Easy to see why this story was chosen, as it’s an incredible fantasy to sink into and yet, it deals seriously with the wounds caused by family.

    Then there’s Outlander.

    The popular vote explains why Outlander is among these award-winning books. Gabaldon has been clear in interviews over the years that she believes the Outlander series should not be termed a romance. Her well-known insistence on “not a romance” was my biggest clue when it came to realizing that the “Best Romance of the Year” Award was not like all the others, as it seemed highly unlikely that Gabaldon would have entered the RITA Awards if she did not believe her book to be a romance.

    Nevertheless, Outlander was voted Best Romance of 1991. Note: having read the book, I believe it’s a romance that ends in a Happily For Now (as opposed to an HEA—a happily ever after). Later books in the series are part of the continuing story and, thus, probably not romance.

    Ending the “Best Book of the Year” award was one of many changes in the RITA Award categories in the 1990s. “Best First Book” was added and, for the first time, awards would be given in the paranormal and romantic suspense. I’ll take a look at those early paranormal books in the next article and see how that subgenre has changed over the years.

    For earlier articles see, The Great Rita Read: In the Beginning, The Great Rita Read: Nora Roberts, and The Great Rita Read: Young Adult Romance.

    Final note: A big thanks to the help of the RWA office, who researched the Best Romance Award and provided a copy of the original advertisement from 1989 that called for nomination;  nomination that resulted in the win for Morning Glory.

    The post The Great RITA Read: The “Best Romance” Award appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
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