She: Zoe is an ex-New York cop, fed up with the corruption of the police force and now a successful private eye, not at all happy at being protected. Ã¢Â€ÂœI donÃ¢Â€Â™t need you to take care of me.Ã¢Â€Â
They: Are caught up in a spiraling thriller, danger from a psychopathic killer looming everywhere. Will she survive? More important: Will she let Carver back into her life? Go straight to Cheris HodgesÃ¢Â€Â™ DEADLY RUMORS (Dafina/Kensington, paper, $7.99) to find out. But, once again, the sex is great: Ã¢Â€ÂœHe licked, sucked and nibbled at her throbbing bud until she screamed his name as she came over and over again,Ã¢Â€Â and her Ã¢Â€Âœknees quivered and shook as if she were on the San Andreas Fault in the middle of an earthquake.Ã¢Â€Â Oh, yes Ã¢Â€Â” Zoe and Carver are African-Americans, though except for some scattered references to racial matters, youÃ¢Â€Â™d never know it. (Well, you would from the cover.)
They: Are young Cameron, a single father, and young Kirstin, who works like a dog on the family ranch. WeÃ¢Â€Â™re in Montana, where we often are in books like these, unless weÃ¢Â€Â™re in Wyoming or Colorado. Clearly, Cam and Kirstin are made for each other, and weÃ¢Â€Â™re not kept in suspense over their fate. The real romance is between CamÃ¢Â€Â™s mother, Maddie, a famous detective-story writer whoÃ¢Â€Â™s just come through a successful bout with chemo, and KirstinÃ¢Â€Â™s cantankerous, aggressive and overprotective father, Sam. SheÃ¢Â€Â™s 67, heÃ¢Â€Â™s 68, but whoÃ¢Â€Â™s counting? Not much suspense here either, but lots of comfortable detail about food. Rugged Cam Ã¢Â€Âœloved to create different dishes from scratch and had an uncanny sense of what flavors complemented others.Ã¢Â€Â In fact, the first time Kirstin tastes his cucumber salsa she exclaims: Ã¢Â€ÂœRecipe, please. Ã¢Â€Â¦ It would be great as a veggie dip.Ã¢Â€Â EveryoneÃ¢Â€Â™s problems are resolved at the big holiday dinners they all share. This cozy romance is called THE CHRISTMAS ROOM (Berkley, $19) and is by the popular Catherine Anderson. Her pleasingly written books have sweetly pretty covers, and this one has an extra added attraction: the authorÃ¢Â€Â™s recipe for Russian tea cookies.
The hundreds of romance novels Ã¢Â€Â” perhaps thousands, if you include the self-published ones that constitute their own phenomenon Ã¢Â€Â” just published or due to appear in the next few months essentially fall into two categories. There are the Regency romances (descended from the superb Georgette Heyer, whose first one, Ã¢Â€ÂœRegency Buck,Ã¢Â€Â appeared in 1935). And there are the contemporary young-woman-finding-her-way stories that are the successors to the working-girl novels that for decades provided comfort and (mild) titillation to millions of young women who dreamed of marrying the boss. This formula reached its apogee in 1958 with Rona JaffeÃ¢Â€Â™s Ã¢Â€ÂœThe Best of Everything,Ã¢Â€Â whose publishing-house heroines find either (a) business success at the price of stunted love, (b) true love and wifey bliss, (c) death. But almost 60 years have gone by since the virgins of Ã¢Â€ÂœThe Best of EverythingÃ¢Â€Â hit the Big Apple, and real life has had its impact not only on modern romance but Ã¢Â€Â” as we shall see Ã¢Â€Â” on modern Romance.
The Regencys, however, have barely altered their formula. You may be Georgette Darrington Ã¢Â€Â” of Bridget BartonÃ¢Â€Â™s A GOVERNESS FOR THE BROODING DUKE (Amazon Digital, 99 cents) Ã¢Â€Â” whoÃ¢Â€Â™s left penniless by her improvident father and perforce becomes governess to the adorable wards of the taciturn, unfeeling Duke of Draycott, suffering such humiliations as being served burnt toast by the antagonistic upper servants. Ã¢Â€Â¦
Or Lady Honora Parker, whoÃ¢Â€Â™s struggled for years to wrest autonomy from her father (Ã¢Â€Âœthe eighth Earl of Stratton and a bunch of lesser titles not worth repeating at the momentÃ¢Â€Â) and is the heroine of Joanna ShupeÃ¢Â€Â™s A DARING ARRANGEMENT (Avon/HarperCollins, paper, $7.99), set in the late 19th century, though Regency in all but chronology. Honora takes New York by storm, entering into an agreement with the notorious rakish financier Julius Hatcher to pretend to be engaged Ã¢Â€Â” his entree into top society, her strategy in her war with the earl. Ã¢Â€Â¦
Or Emma Gladstone, a vicarÃ¢Â€Â™s penniless daughter in THE DUCHESS DEAL (Avon/HarperCollins, paper, $7.99), by Tessa Dare, author of Ã¢Â€ÂœRomancing the Duke,Ã¢Â€Â Ã¢Â€ÂœAny Duchess Will Do,Ã¢Â€Â Ã¢Â€ÂœOne Dance With a DukeÃ¢Â€Â and Ã¢Â€ÂœSay Yes to the Marquess.Ã¢Â€Â (Not everyone can be a duke.) The young Duke of Ashbury is traumatized by the terrible scarring that one side of his face has suffered in battle. He doesnÃ¢Â€Â™t want love, he doesnÃ¢Â€Â™t want a real wife, he wants an heir. Emma is working as a seamstress (though every inch a gentlewoman), and when the duke proposes at their very first meeting, what choice does she have? Ã¢Â€ÂœShe would be a fool to refuse any duke, even if he were a bedridden septuagenarian with poor hygiene. This particular duke was none of those things. Despite his many, many faults, Ashbury was strong, in the prime of life, and he smelled divine.Ã¢Â€Â And Ã¢Â€Â” a bonus Ã¢Â€Â” it turns out that Ã¢Â€Âœbringing a woman to orgasm had always been a particular pleasure for him.Ã¢Â€Â Ã¢Â€Â¦
Or Wilhelmina Ffynche, the most beautiful girl in London, who has rejected 14 proposals of marriage and has no intention of being Ã¢Â€Âœwon.Ã¢Â€Â But when she encounters Lord Alaric Wilde, second son of a duke, whoÃ¢Â€Â™s just back in England after becoming a Byronic legend through his fabulously successful books about his adventures around the world, she agrees to rescue him from the crazed attentions of female fans. SheÃ¢Â€Â™s funny, sheÃ¢Â€Â™s sexy, and as the funny and sexy (at least on the page, and for all I know in real life) Eloisa James, author of WILDE IN LOVE (Avon/HarperCollins, paper, $7.99), puts it, Ã¢Â€ÂœIn the last half decade, heÃ¢Â€Â™d seen an enormous white whale, the Great Wall of China and the aurora borealis. And now heÃ¢Â€Â™d seen Miss Willa Ffynche.Ã¢Â€Â Robust sex and amusing plotting follow, as we would expect from a writer who in her other life is the daughter of the poet Robert Bly and a professor of English literature at Fordham.
Whichever of these heroines you may be, you are guaranteed to end up in marital (often ducal) heaven, after dealing with one or another of the ingenious obstacles that create whatever suspense the genre can generate. As has often been noted, the Regency romance is a cross between Ã¢Â€ÂœPride and PrejudiceÃ¢Â€Â and Ã¢Â€ÂœJane EyreÃ¢Â€Â: Either the lovers discover their true affinity through their intelligence and humor or, as mousy Jane does with fierce Mr. Rochester, the heroine tames her man by helping cure him of his anger, depression, self-loathing, trauma. Or both. The only new element in the genre these post-Heyer days is the relentless application of highly specific sex scenes featuring his Ã¢Â€Âœhardened rodÃ¢Â€Â and her orgasm that Ã¢Â€Âœwent on for what felt like hours but was probably only a minute or two.Ã¢Â€Â Bodices no longer need to be ripped Ã¢Â€Â” your bosom happily meets his abs halfway. Twenty years ago, a Regency would not have ended, as Ã¢Â€ÂœThe Duchess DealÃ¢Â€Â does, on this rapturous note: Ã¢Â€ÂœThey reached a toothache-sweet climax together, as if simultaneous bliss wasnÃ¢Â€Â™t a rarity but the most natural thing in the world. The sun rises; the wind blows; orgasms arrive in tandem.Ã¢Â€Â Now thatÃ¢Â€Â™s Romance.
No orgasm, solo or in tandem, we should note, graces the pages of the most prolific and successful romance queen of all time, Barbara Cartland, step-grandmother of Princess Diana and author of 723 novels, 160 of them unpublished at her death (just before her 99th birthday) in 2000. Her son is still doling these out, one a month, as Ã¢Â€ÂœThe Pink Collection,Ã¢Â€Â and they are without benefit of sex. The formidable Barbara knew where her readers wanted the line drawn: No Cartland heroine ever came into contact with a hardened rod.
CartlandÃ¢Â€Â™s successor as Queen of Romance is AmericaÃ¢Â€Â™s Nora Roberts. And she deserves to be. Roberts is not only extraordinarily industrious Ã¢Â€Â” 215 or so novels, including 45 futuristic police procedurals under the pseudonym J. D. Robb, also big best sellers Ã¢Â€Â” but her books are sensibly written and on the whole as plausible as genre novels can be. I remember being struck some years ago by her common sense about what women want, need and deserve. Unlike her leading competitorsÃ¢Â€Â™ heroines, for whom the ultimate goal remained scoring the ideal mate, a Nora Roberts heroine was encouraged not only to score him but also to find a satisfying career path in life: It wasnÃ¢Â€Â™t either/or, it was both Ã¢Â€Â” and heÃ¢Â€Â™d better adjust to it!
Today, indeed, a plot limited to catching a man would seem an anomaly. Not only do young heroines work hard and well, they may even be the boss. Consider Maggie and Owen Ã¢Â€Â” both bosses Ã¢Â€Â” who grew up together in adjoining mansions on the Jersey Shore in Caridad PineiroÃ¢Â€Â™s ONE SUMMER NIGHT (Sourcebooks Casablanca, paper, $7.99). The famous retail chain that Maggie and her father run together is faltering, and real estate tycoon Owen has reappeared in her life Ã¢Â€Â” theyÃ¢Â€Â™ve drifted apart since that one magical summer night on the beach when they were kids. (Standing in the way of their mutual attraction was the mortal enmity between their fathers, New JerseyÃ¢Â€Â™s Lords Montague and Capulet.) Owen has all the standard appurtenances Ã¢Â€Â” heÃ¢Â€Â™s Ã¢Â€Âœthe epitome of male perfection Ã¢Â€Â” raven-black hair, a sexy gleam in his charcoal-gray eyes, broad shoulders and not an ounce of fat on himÃ¢Â€Â Ã¢Â€Â” plus the sensitivity todayÃ¢Â€Â™s heroines demand in their men: He wants to help Maggie, not dominate her. Even so, itÃ¢Â€Â™s not Owen but his equally sexy and macho brother, Jonathan, whoÃ¢Â€Â™s taken some cooking lessons in Italy and makes them all dinner, the pasta Ã¢Â€Âœdeliciously al dente while creamy at the same time.Ã¢Â€Â The sex between Maggie and Owen is equally delicious: Ã¢Â€ÂœWhen he danced his tongue across perfect white teeth, she playfully chased it and then lightly bit his lower lip, jerking a groan from him,Ã¢Â€Â shortly before heÃ¢Â€Â™s caressing Ã¢Â€Âœthe swollen nub.Ã¢Â€Â Maggie also has the support of todayÃ¢Â€Â™s de rigueur group of women friends, wise in the ways of romance. (IÃ¢Â€Â™m absolutely certain that lawyer Connie is going to end up with Jonathan of the Bolognese.)
A gang of girlfriends also rushes to the support of their friend, Pallas Saunders, who loves her work running Weddings in a Box, a Ã¢Â€Âœtheme weddingÃ¢Â€Â venue. Sparks fly between Pallas and Nick Mitchell (Ã¢Â€Âœhe was a world-renowned artist who had won awardsÃ¢Â€Â and has been in People magazine), but heÃ¢Â€Â™s finding it hard To Commit. The real conflict, however, is between Pallas and her domineering mother, who is determined to have Pallas join her in running the family bank. WhatÃ¢Â€Â™s a girl to do? Luckily, the sex in Susan MalleryÃ¢Â€Â™s YOU SAY IT FIRST (HQN, paper, $8.99) is just fine.
And then thereÃ¢Â€Â™s Catherine BybeeÃ¢Â€Â™s Lori, in FOOL ME ONCE (Montlake Romance, paper, $9.99 ), a flourishing attorney who works with a small elite marriage-for-hire service for the rich and famous, marriages designed to be temporary that include an uncontested and lucrative divorce. Lori takes three of her recent divorcÃƒÂ©es off on a European jaunt to help them re-enter a husbandless existence, and they bond: Ã¢Â€ÂœFirst Wives Club or bust.Ã¢Â€Â Ã¢Â€ÂœGirl power.Ã¢Â€Â But what about gorgeous Reed, some mysterious kind of private investigator? Whom is he working for? Can he be trusted? No matter: Ã¢Â€ÂœHis kiss was an inferno in under a second,Ã¢Â€Â so no surprise that Ã¢Â€Âœa lick, a nibble and a suck, and Lori was lost.Ã¢Â€Â But Reed still must earn her trust. The lesson: A lick and a nibble are all to the good, but complete honesty is essential. All truths must be told, especially by the man.
The empowerment of women, abundant sexuality steamily reported, female bonding rule the current roost, yet the biggest phenomenon in recent romance is atypical. Originally published privately in Australia, the E. L. James Ã¢Â€ÂœFifty ShadesÃ¢Â€Â trilogy, with its saga of a nice college girl giving herself over to the S &M predilections of a tormented (but gorgeous) zillionaire, has sold over 125 million copies in half a dozen years. James has been derided for her less-than-sterling prose, but mostly by readers Ã¢Â€Â” Salman Rushdie is one Ã¢Â€Â” who I doubt are familiar with the standard romance literature: E. L. James is no better or worse a writer than most of her compeers. WhatÃ¢Â€Â™s made her so astoundingly successful is the trope of spanking, give or take the odd whip and manacle.
Does this mean that what vast numbers of women are really looking for is bondage, not bonding? Or is this just a daring momentary flirtation with one extreme possibility of romantic relationship? If this seasonÃ¢Â€Â™s crop of romances is anything to go by, thereÃ¢Â€Â™s no general rush to the whip: E. L. James and a few other spankers may have both stirred up a vast market and satisfied it. We shall see. Not unexpectedly, her books, while breaking the rules in some areas, hew slavishly to others. Yet again we have the girl of modest circumstances winning todayÃ¢Â€Â™s equivalent of the duke, the multimillionaire Ã¢Â€Â” the Lizzie Bennet syndrome. And yet again we have the girl of empathy and generosity curing the tormented man: Jane Eyre redux. Spanking apart, itÃ¢Â€Â™s the same old song.
You canÃ¢Â€Â™t get farther away from quirky E. L. James than adorable Debbie Macomber (200 million copies sold). In her recent IF NOT FOR YOU (Ballantine, $27), not only does piano teacher Beth defy her controlling mother to mate with superior garage mechanic Sam, but she reunites her beloved Aunt Sunshine (yes), a highly acclaimed artist, with the man she loved when they were young, pulling off this miracle through a canny ruse featuring fish tacos. In MacomberÃ¢Â€Â™s current ANY DREAM WILL DO (Ballantine, $27), she brings together tragically widowed Pastor Drew Douglas with just-out-of-prison Shay (she embezzled only to save her brotherÃ¢Â€Â™s life). Best line of dialogue, spoken by Sadie, ShayÃ¢Â€Â™s co-waitress at the cafe where they work: Ã¢Â€ÂœYou got the hots for a man of God?Ã¢Â€Â And in MacomberÃ¢Â€Â™s just-off-the-press annual Christmas book, MERRY AND BRIGHT (Ballantine, $20) Ã¢Â€Â” sheÃ¢Â€Â™s MERRY Smith, heÃ¢Â€Â™s Jayson BRIGHT, get it? Ã¢Â€Â” handsome, rich but deeply despondent boss and pretty, warm, life-loving temp fall in love through the Mix & Mingle dating website, unaware that theyÃ¢Â€Â™ve crossed swords (and looks) in the office. (Yes Ã¢Â€Â” itÃ¢Â€Â™s Ã¢Â€ÂœYouÃ¢Â€Â™ve Got Mail,Ã¢Â€Â fully acknowledged.) Crucial to the story is Patrick, the light of MerryÃ¢Â€Â™s life: her enchanting 18-year-old brother, who has Down syndrome.
And finally thereÃ¢Â€Â™s the redoubtable Danielle Steel, who according to Wikipedia is the fourth-best-selling writer of fiction in history, right behind Agatha Christie, Shakespeare and Barbara Cartland. Surprise! Recently Steel abandoned her predictable contemporary world of the rich and famous overcoming adversity, and ventured back into the Regency. Yes, Danielle Steel has given us the best-selling THE DUCHESS (Delacorte, $28.99)! A Regency with a twist.
Exquisite AngÃƒÂ©lique is the 18-year-old daughter of the Duke of Westerfield (cousin of George IV) and Marie-Isabelle, Ã¢Â€Âœa Bourbon on one side of her family and OrlÃƒÂ©ans on the other, with royals on both sides.Ã¢Â€Â It was a love match, despite a big disparity in age, and Marie-Isabelle loved Belgrave Castle as much as the duke himself did, Ã¢Â€Âœhelping him to add beautiful decorative pieces to his existing heirlooms.Ã¢Â€Â Unfortunately, she dies giving birth to AngÃƒÂ©lique, who is raised in happy seclusion by her doting father, adored by all. But Daddy dies, and her wicked half brother, the new duke, who hates her, exiles her from Belgrave to work as a nursery maid somewhere far away. She can inherit nothing, because of the entail, except for some jewelry of her motherÃ¢Â€Â™s. But providentially, as her father is dying, he hands her a pouch containing Ã‚Â£25,000 that he has squirreled away.
Bravely AngÃƒÂ©lique accepts her fate, and settles in to her new life of service. But when she rejects the advances of a salacious young master, sheÃ¢Â€Â™s fired Ã¢Â€Â” without a reference! Therefore no domestic work for her in England, and when she tries France, she has no better luck there. Down and out in Paris and London, knowing no one and with nothing but her pouch between her and destitution, what does this pure, delicate flower of the aristocracy do? Just what you or I would do: Practically overnight, she opens what rapidly becomes the most elegant, successful bordello in Paris (preserving her own virtue, needless to say). Then on to America, marriage to a hugely rich lawyer who dies (of plot), leaving her with a dear little boy and a fortune. Meanwhile, her wicked half brother has overspent, so has to sell Belgrave Castle, which she secretly buys Ã¢Â€Â¦ and so forth.
The entire preposterous story is predicated on AngÃƒÂ©liqueÃ¢Â€Â™s not grasping what anyone in her place would certainly know Ã¢Â€Â” that Ã‚Â£25,000, even cautiously invested in the famous 4 percents, would have provided her with a sizable income for life: no need to be a nursemaid or a madam. But we (and she) would have missed all the fun.
This retro venture, flatly written like all SteelÃ¢Â€Â™s books, is just further evidence of how romance can swing any which way. Regency, psychopaths, wedding planners, ranchers, sadists, grandmas, bordellos, dukes (of course); whips, fish tacos, entails, Down syndrome, recipes, orgasms Ã¢Â€Â” romance can absorb them all, which suggests itÃ¢Â€Â™s a healthy genre, not trapped in inflexibility. Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldnÃ¢Â€Â™t women dream? After all, guys have their James Bonds as role models. Are fantasies of violence and danger really more respectable than fantasies of courtship and female self-empowerment? Or to put it another way, are JonathanÃ¢Â€Â™s Bolognese and CamÃ¢Â€Â™s cucumber salsa any sillier than Ã¢Â€ÂœOctopussyÃ¢Â€Â™sÃ¢Â€Â Alfa Romeo and BondÃ¢Â€Â™s unstirred martinis?