Forcing Romance

In my continuing effort to understand the popularity of the romance genre (and tamp down my jealousy, since I can’t seem to write in that vein), it has occurred to me that some stories try too hard to fit the mold.

I consider myself a fan of chick-lit, but I define that as any story that is woman-oriented, whether it has a happy ending or not. I prefer stories that skirt romance without necessarily following all the rules of the genre. For example, I was intrigued by the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. It starts with an unusual premise and setting, featuring a rather innocent but ambitious heroine whom I easily identified with. Andrea, whose friends call her Andy, is an aspiring journalist who moves to New York after college graduation and gets a job at a fashion magazine, despite her own lack of interest in fashion. She works her tail off for a self-centered, insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, who can never be contradicted or overruled because she controls the entire fashion magazine scene. Andy finds herself failing at the job, until she hits on a solution: she will become a fashion plate herself. This neutralizes not only her boss, but her nasty colleague Emily, who has continually belittled Andy for her lack of style.

Strangely enough, Emily grew on me, despite being as mean as blazes. Judging by some reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only one who found her more intriguing at times than Andy. At least Emily speaks her mind. She’s the one who gets stabbed in the back when Andy starts to become the crazy boss’s favorite. Still, Andy pays the price, losing the love of her idealistic boyfriend, who preferred the unstylish version of her. There’s some hope for a reconciliation at the end, after Andy impulsively quits her job during a trip to Paris for fashion week. However, it’s not certain that the boyfriend will “forgive” her.

When I became aware that there was a sequel in book form, published in 2013 (Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns), I downloaded it. The story picks up a decade later, when Andy and Emily, both having escaped from Miranda Priestly’s reign of terror, have become partners in a successful wedding magazine. Andy is married with a baby daughter. Her husband, an investor in her new project, is obviously more supportive of her fashion-oriented lifestyle than her old boyfriend could ever be. This seemingly ideal setup goes sour when Emily and the perfect husband join forces to sell the business to Priestly, striking a lucrative deal behind Andy’s back. A betrayed and shattered Andy breaks up with both the husband and the business partner.

If the rest of the novel dealt realistically with Andy’s efforts to get back on her feet and find love again, it would have continued to engage me. Instead, there is a happy ending that, for my money, is tacked-on and not adequately explained. I could see it coming a mile away, when the original boyfriend, Alex, returns to the city from a teaching stint in the boondocks and keeps managing to run into Andy. They get involved again, predictably enough, but why? What about the issues that broke them up in the first place?

This sort of forced romance is nothing new. It was going on in the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens, in an effort to satisfy his serial-reading public, came up with three different endings for Great Expectations. Most readers wanted the star-crossed pair, Pip and Estella, to live happily ever after. That would have been unrealistic, considering that Estella was damaged goods. She had been raised by an embittered, jilted woman for the sole purpose of breaking men’s hearts, and that was all she was capable of doing. Dickens seemed torn between artistic integrity and the desire to please his audience. Since he was never financially comfortable, I’m sure there were also commercial considerations. In the final version, the pair reunites at the end without falling blindly into each other’s arms. The best Estella can do is assure Pip that they will always be friends, even when they are apart.

Some hedging along those lines, when Andy reconnects with Alex in Weisberger’s sequel, would have made logical sense. What has changed between them, except that he’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and Andy’s marriage has collapsed, making them both available? This was the same man whom, by her own account, she had shared everything with for six years, only to be dumped without warning. He kicked her to the curb even after she had quit the fashion job that he thought had changed her too much. That lifestyle, in his opinion, had made her “too eager to do what everyone else wanted.” She wondered, What does that even mean? Good question. Maybe it meant she was learning that a grownup must answer to others besides herself. Or maybe, deep down, he was offended that she made more money than he did.

At any rate, he had refused to elaborate on what he meant. He accepted a job with an idealistic nonprofit, Teach for America, and moved to Mississippi, leaving her behind with barely a goodbye. As she recalls later: “He hadn’t called a single time, and the only contact had been a curt ‘Thanks so much for remembering. Hope you’re well’ e-mail in response to a long, emotional and in hindsight humiliating voice mail she left for his 24th birthday.”

Who was he to decide she was worthy of his attention again? One thing I hope all women take from the rapidly developing “Me-too” movement is that it isn’t only about sexual harassment. It’s also about respecting women’s choices in other areas, even if they turn out to be wrong. The romance genre is full of ends that supposedly justify the means. The man, possessing superior insight, pinpoints the woman’s hang-ups on first meeting her. In the course of the story, he turns out to be right. The message seems to be that if only the woman had obeyed him without question from the beginning, she would have saved herself a lot of time and stress. Heaven forbid she should forge her own path and learn from her own experiences.

Andy had certainly changed and grown in the time they had been apart, but what about Alex? He had returned to the city and started teaching at a progressive school that paid more than his previous job. He was aware of Andy’s life circumstances through e-mail blasts from her mother. He had been forced to leave the nonprofit world because he needed to earn more, especially since his former girlfriend had made noises about wanting a baby. I expected that Andy, as a parent herself, might take that opportunity to point out that as one gets older and responsibilities pile up, there are more and more benefits to having a job that pays the bills.

Andy can’t help recalling “the resentment, neglect, lack of sex and affection” that had characterized the end of their relationship. Yet she says, “I think I’ll always love him.” Approximately a year and a half after her marital and business breakup, she has a freelance writing career going and is dating someone perfectly nice, but for reasons she can’t quite pinpoint, she’s not really into him. At this point we are 95% through the book, and I’m asking myself, when is Alex going to stop being a jerk so that Andy can take him back without sacrificing her integrity?

Never, as it turns out, because Andy keeps letting him off the hook. Rather creepily, Alex jokes about stalking her, physically and on Facebook. He summons her one morning from her regular writing spot in a café, fabricating an emergency (which should have frightened her to death, since she has left her young child at home with a babysitter).

Gradually, Andy buys into the idea that they were “meant to be,” an opinion expressed by Alex’s brother. (Do male opinions always carry more weight?) Alex suggests they take their new relationship slowly. That would be sensible, in view of his history of mistreating her. If Andy agreed with that, and demanded an explanation of his former cruelty, I would find the story more satisfying. This woman, with all her business acumen and ambition, would have the potential to be a fabulous role model. Instead, she does the romantic genre thing and declares that caution is for losers; she would prefer to dive into this “second chance” relationship with reckless abandon. All I can do as a reader is sigh and say, come on, ladies. We can do better than this.

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12 thoughts on “Forcing Romance

  1. I kind of believe in relationships where both potential partners have to do some work on themselves – my favorite is the one between Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, starting in Dorothy L. Sayers Strong Poison and ending with Busman’s Honeymoon and two short stories about the married pair and their children.

    I’m rereading Gaudy Night right now, where the relationship develops to the sticking point – and relishing every bit. Peter goes from a bit of a pompous ass to a quite satisfactory lover, Harriet from an angry young woman to the same. It works for me. Neither ‘wins’ – they both change, andin believable ways. It took that many words to do it right.

      1. The Romance style seems to be to have each participant discover the other’s good points, they somehow having been less than obvious at the beginning. It takes a lot more words to develop a realistic change in a character. People can and do change – a lot.

        I started with a premise of taking what looked impossible and asking myself what would make it possible. Still working at it.

  2. I went to a writers, let’s call it a thing not so long ago. There was a discussion on formulaic romance writing. Apparently it doesn’t exist. No-one writes to a formula. I was rendered speechless. I honestly think some people really don’t see the forced romance, or at least the authors don’t see because it is supposed to be what people want. Yet that in itself is contradictory.
    Good post.

    1. Thank you! I agree that the formulas often overtake what seems at first to be a promising story. I was particularly disappointed that Lauren Weisberger’s “Prada” sequel succumbed to this, because she is a good writer and the story had an intriguing heroine and setup to begin with. I found the blissful ending tacked-on and inadequately explained.

  3. Part of what’s going on there (I’ve only seen the first movie, and have read neither book), relates to a realization I recently had while watching “Ready Player One”; I caught myself thinking, “yeah, there’s the moment when she thinks he’s betrayed her, and it looks like it’s the end. Wonder how they’ll get over it.” And realizing I’ve said similar things to myself in “Black Panther”. And in dozens and dozens of others. Adding to this are some ideas I’ve picked up from a book copywriting course—people want the familiar. Therefore you write copy that fits genre expectations so someone reading it will go “oh, this is the kind of book I’d like” which means it has the expected problems, solutions, etc. Romance does so well because it conforms to certain expectations. I “knew” this intellectually. I finally understood it when listening to my own thoughts about what I was watching. If this is genre or sub-genre lit, it will have X, Y, and Z. If not, people won’t like it. And one thing people want, logical or not, is a happy ending. Life is hard, mysterious, full of disappointments: Why spend my time reading about that, sort of idea. Brand new genres, happen, but that’s rather rare, of course. There is probably a sub-genre of Romance that has the sad-sack boy and the smart girl who understands him. (I’ve tried reading a couple of straight romance novels and never made it past 10-15 pages.) Now that I think of it, there is “the Lives and Loves of a She-Devil” which flips the narrative. Loved that book. Sort of a Romance through the dark mirror.

    1. You make a lot of good points. I guess I’ll never be a fan of romance, because I don’t require perfectly happy endings in the stories I read. In fact, I hate resolutions that are predictable and unrealistic. I like to see a certain uplift at the end of a story, but I have no patience with the implication that all the couple’s problems are solved and life will be all rainbows and roses from now on. I identify much better with stories that acknowledge that life in all its stages is tough. The “Prada” sequel disappointed me because the heroine had acquired such strength and independence in the course of the story. Then she sacrifices it all, and to a man who had let her down in the past. There was no real indication that he had changed, and she didn’t even ask him to.

      1. I’m with you on that. But some hard-won knowledge tells us we must give the audience what they want: you point out Dickens, who has sold a stupid amount of books, wrote to the audience, WHILE writing some damned good stories. And if we are going to make any $ at this, or simply get read by more than our friends, we need to kick out what the audience wants. Of course, BELIEVABLE and UNEXPECTED happy endings are MUCH more to my and it seems your liking. Or perhaps, the Mixed bag ending—some good, a lot not so pat and perfect. All food for thought. (Of thinking online, which is basically what I”m doing here.)

      2. The “mixed bag” ending is probably my favorite kind. I don’t care for endings that are complete downers. The best kind of literature, in my opinion, uplifts even while remaining realistic. That seems to be what Dickens strove for. You would think that a story like “A Tale of Two Cities” would be a downer, ending as it does at the guillotine. Yet the man who sacrificed himself for another, and comforted a fellow victim before she died, had found personal redemption through his final acts.

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