Impossible Love

The other day on Twitter, I said, “I just can’t resist a good incest romance!”

I’m not sure why I didn’t predict the reactions I got to this comment. Because I am oblivious? Because I rarely think before I tweet? I expected crickets, and I got something more like, “Wha? Incest romance? Is that a thing? Are you drunk? I can’t read about incest at all, ever. Just, no.”

The conversation this statement came out of involved a book that I thought was a romance but it turns out is not, because it has a tragic ending.* So, I guess “incest love story” might have been more apt. Either way, such stories are a great big “NO THANK YOU” for many of the people I was talking to on Twitter, and I can understand that, I really can. I have brothers, and I don’t want to kiss them. It’s not that I find the idea of incest sexy in the abstract — I know it’s some people’s kink, which is cool and all, but it’s not mine. So why did I see this book and immediately decide I had to read it?

* I’m not going to link it — the book is unimportant, and I ended up abandoning it halfway through because it was dull. I know! Dull incest! So unfair.

Here is what I decided. For me, the appeal of a brother-sister romance is the impossibility of it. What couple could be more doomed? And what is more compelling than reading about doomed love, hoping against hope that the author will rescue these poor bastards?

I read LaVyrle Spencer’s The Fulfillment with the same rapt fascination in the characters’ doomed-ness. The Fulfillment is an adultery book. A farmer, his wife, and his brother all live together on a late-nineteenth-century Minnesota farm. The husband has decided, after seven years’ marriage, that he is infertile, and he asks his brother if he will impregnate his wife. “No!” brother and wife say. “How appalling!”

Except . . . you know how this story goes. Once the idea is there, the brother and the wife can’t push it away. They have always liked each other. In many ways, their easy friendship is more fulfilling to them than the wife’s relationship with her husband. And so a romance blooms between them that ends, predictably, in pregnancy. But it’s not right! The wife can’t keep seeing the brother. She returns to her husband, promises fidelity, and leaves the brother miserably heartbroken. At this point, there is simply no way for the story to end happily for everyone. Everything is impossible.

This is the point at which I couldn’t put the book down.

I am enamored, too, of cross-class historical romance. When I was a historian, I studied working-class social and cultural history. I have a very real sense of the size of the gulf between the British aristocracy and the working class in the nineteenth century. And it’s for this very reason, I think, that I love the Pygmalion-type historical romances most of all when they beat me about the head with their impossibility. Judith Ivory’s The Proposition (rat catcher hero meets well-off spinster!), Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm (devoted Quaker heroine meets dissipated duke!), Meredith Duran’s A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal (poor thief heroine and scandalous aristo hero!) – these are books wherein the protagonists pretend to be someone they are not, and it sort of works, in the middle. But all the while the book reminds the reader over and over again, “Impossible, impossible, impossible.”

The problem with these impossible romances, for me, is that I nearly always hate the endings. Because they are romance novels, the novelist has to come up with a wand to wave that will make the impossible seem possible, and I never believe the magic. Even beautiful wand waving feels, in the end, like trickery.

And — here is the other thing — I don’t even know if I want to buy it. All the theories of how genre fiction works suggests that I am meant to be on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, weeping in agony at the black moment — and then the cathartic resolution of the plot is supposed to fill me with joy and satisfaction. But in my case, at least, it almost never works. The more impossible the book is, the less likely I am to believe its happy ending. But I don’t care. I don’t read impossible books for the endings. I read them for the impossible love in the middle.

So what is that about? Is it about my interest in love’s tenacity? Its brazen refusal to crop up only in the appropriate places at the appropriate times? Is it that love in these stories is so often the torch the characters carry in otherwise dismal lives? I think of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which the father’s love for his son and the son’s love for his father are the only beauty in an unbearable world. Maybe I just want to watch love grow like a weed where it isn’t wanted. Maybe I hope it will be dandelion love, changing the color and texture of the landscape, more beautiful for being hardy and unwanted.

Only, I have no patience for Romeo and Juliet. My favorite part of Wuthering Heights is the bit at the beginning where the weirdo narrator is closed into the wooden bed, and also the dogs keep bothering him. I am not such a romantic soul that I seek out stories that venerate impossible love and then end tragically. I only seem to like the romancey ones, even though I hate the endings.

So I don’t know. I really don’t.

I’ve been thinking about all of this in relation to what I write, in which the conflict is never even remotely impossible. Indeed, the conflict is generally scaled so small in my books that I reliably get two-thirds of the way through the draft and then panic. Oh, God! There’s no conflict at all! This is not even a book. I give up. And sometimes reviewers call me out on this. They say, “This was not a heart-pounding read. It was kind of quiet. It was kind of slow.” Fair enough.

As a writer, my preference is for small-scale, stupid human conflict — for characters who make the same sorts of mistakes I have made. People who don’t want to talk about their feelings. People who are afraid to take risks, afraid to rock the boat, afraid to make themselves vulnerable. I once wrote a buddy romance in which the entire conflict was that the heroine didn’t want to tell the hero she was into him, and vice versa. They got married in Vegas, had a lot of excellent sex, and got along like gangbusters — all while refusing to talk about their feelings at all. Because risk! Scary! My agent read it, and she was like, “Wait, why aren’t they just talking about this like normal people?” And I was all, “But normal people don’t like to talk about feelings!

Ha. Yes. That one’s still sitting on my hard drive.

The hero of my latest book, Flirting with Disaster, is afraid to talk to the heroine because he thinks she’ll make his adolescent stutter come back. (He’s right.) He’s hanging around his hometown because his mother died and he’s so incapable of dealing with everything he feels about her that he ends up squatting in her house instead of packing it up. The urn with her ashes in it sits on the kitchen countertop next to the Peet’s Coffee. This guy has issues, but there’s nothing impossible about them. He just has to open his mouth. He just has to pack his mom’s coats up and give them to Goodwill.

I write these sorts of stories because I love the arc of them. I love thinking about how love can help us take small but important steps as human beings toward more fulfilling, more honest, more open lives. This is the kind of happy ending I believe in. It’s the argument I know how to make, the story I have to tell. It’s a good story, I think. People seem to like it.

But those other stories — the impossible ones that I never imagine writing, myself — they have a beauty that lures me back time after time, pressing my nose against the glass, looking through the window, rapt.

Show me a love that’s impossible. Wave your wand and make me believe in magic. Convince me.

I don’t know what to make of it.

About Ruthie Knox

Ruthie Knox writes witty, sexy romance novels for grownups. Read more >
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23 Responses to Impossible Love

  1. I once said to a real dominatrix (on Twitter, not face to face): “Hurt me, beat me, make me act cheap, just don’t make me tell you what I really feel,” and she thought that was just hilarious.
    I was like, “Ummm…”

  2. Cate Ellink says:

    I too am fascinated by incest as a story concept. I saw a TV news story where a guy and a girl met, fell in love, lived together and then went to get married only to find they’re brother and sister – they must have been adopted out or something, I forget the details.

    It was the impossibility of the situation that fascinated me. How does that happen? What are the chances? If you share some of the same genes, does it mean you have more in common? Or is there a bond between brothers and sisters that can be mistaken for love if you don’t know the familial situation?

    How on earth do you ever resolve the situation? It’s chock full of emotion, with no way out except parting – yet how do you part when you’re family? How do you see each other when you love each other but can’t? It’s impossible… exquisitely impossible.

    I’m glad I’m not alone in my strangeness. Thanks, Ruthie.


  3. Amber Lin says:

    OMG, the urn! I forgot about the urn. Or maybe blocked it out of my mind. I can’t handle death.

    Ah yes, incest. Back on more comfortable ground… LOL. I think for a while my thoughts on incest were basically ew, yuck, gross, which now I find to be sort of offensive. I excuse myself for having those thoughts because I was young and also there is, in many of us and in me, a physiological imperative telling us not to do that, ever ever ever.

    Then I read a first-hand account of someone who was in love with their sibling and, separately, a first-hand account of someone who had sex with their sibling but it wasn’t romantic love. They were both written online in blogs and stuff so for all I know they could have been fictional (and good fiction at that!) but they definitely changed my perspective. Like having children together is obviously a situation with real conflict, due to the genetic implications, but aside from that? Well, if they are consenting adults, who the hell am I to say that no, you can’t do that or even to say that it’s gross.

    I would read an incest romance, if there were a happy ending. Can we commission Bonnie Dee to write one? She rocks the impossible love so hard.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Yes, I feel the same way as your middle paragraph, there. Like, I don’t want to do it, but I’m not going to tell someone else they can’t/shouldn’t/shouldn’t want to, and if Bonnie Dee wants to convince me, I’m totally game.

  4. keller knight says:

    Reading new book by author I have read for 20+ years. Romantic suspense and the heroine is a shrink who studies serial killers. The hero is alpha-studly and was on death row as a convicted serial killer. No, he did not get out. He died. Yep, the hero is a ghost. But it is working so far! Even included some ghost sex. Starting the sequel now. No idea how she will pull a HEA out of this!

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Ghost sex is tricky! Is it possible he’s in a coma? Because sometimes there’s that. Inez Kelley once told me on Twitter that she killed off her heroine in one of her romances, and I bought it. I was like, “Okay, this I have to see.” But it was paranormal, so kind of cheating. :-)

    • How can you come here and say that and not tell us what the book is???????

  5. That previous post was w/o the quoted material. (Can it be deleted?)

    I’m such a student at heart. All of these Wonk pieces make me want to print them out and write comments all over them.

    I also find it difficult to respond because my brain goes off in so many directions when I read. But, in the spirit of conversation, here are some thoughts.

    “And what is more compelling than reading about doomed love, hoping against hope that the author will rescue these poor bastards?” Oh the anxiety! As a reader, the clearly doomed relationships push all my anxiety buttons, and if I want to keep reading the book for some reason, I have to read the online spoilers so I can quell some of the anxiety. I do love the writer to rescue the poor bastards, but I hate impossible rescues, which is one of the reasons I don’t like to read about billionaires or princesses or incest, because all of the endings are fantastic by default. I’d rather an unhappy ending than a fantastical one.

    “I’ve been thinking about all of this in relation to what I write, in which the conflict is never even remotely impossible. Indeed, the conflict is generally scaled so small in my books that I reliably get two-thirds of the way through the draft and then panic. Oh, God! There’s no conflict at all! This is not even a book. I give up. And sometimes reviewers call me out on this.”

    This is one of the reasons I love your books. Life-scale conflict is almost always resolvable if we—the protagonists—get out of our own way, make compromises, and decide love is better than its absences. We live best when we understand that life is messy—that the mess is the life—and love is a part of that. I don’t need a perfect ending because I want realism. (Good SF has realism, but a lot of contemporary fiction doesn’t.)

    On a side note, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why all the men in Romances are Alphas. I don’t have a single female friend who married an Alpha, and yet many of their stories are romantic and their loves book-like. Why no more betas?

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I think a lot of the heroes get called “alpha” when that doesn’t really mean anything in regard to their core personalities. I don’t find the categories very helpful, but if I had to classify my own books’ heroes, I’d call Nev a beta. Probably Sean, too, and quite possibly Caleb. I think all sorts of strength get painted with the alpha brush when they’re not, really. :-)

  6. Noelle says:

    This is such a great post, and it made me want to say all kinds of things!

    First, I laughed so hard at your point about the Vegas-wedding-buddy romance. I’ve had many people tell me the same thing about my books where the tension comes from not knowing the other’s feelings. Even in Escorted, with the crazy, unpredictable couple, the main tension was not knowing the other’s feelings. I understand why people don’t like a conflict based primarily on not sharing feelings, but that kind of story feels so real to me because that’s genuinely the tension that defines the early stages of most real romances. That’s how we live romance in our lives, so I love books that really feel like that (not crazy misunderstandings, just reluctance to open up about feelings). I bet I’d love your Vegas-wedding-buddy romance!

    I write the quiet, slow conflicts myself, and that’s mostly what I like to read in romances. The impossible-love pairings in romance don’t usually feel authentic enough for me to buy the HEA. But I love them in non-romances, where the ending isn’t pulled together with a tidy bow.

    The only time I’ve felt compelled by an incest plot was in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana – where the incest pairing was tragic and beautiful and completely sympathetic. Ironically, that book also has my absolute favorite impossible-love pairing – with the same female character as the incest pairing but with a different man. That book rocks my world every time I read it, and it’s an incredibly powerful picture of love on a number of levels, but it’s definitely not a romance, which is why the impossible-love stories in it are so compelling and believable.

  7. Yes yes yes yes to everything you said here. In fact, I did a post at oh get a grip almost exactly like this. Because what I love best are boundaries. Restrictions. Things that keep people apart. And he bigger those boundaries are, the more I love it. I hate incest stories in principle. The idea of incest makes me nauseous. But when I read Evangeline Anderson’s incesty books I find them hot as hell and impossible to put down. Same with Selena Kitt’s. Barriers and impossibilities just up the stakes.

    And when writing my last novel, I struggled. It’s only looking back while working on my new ones that I realise why. The stakes weren’t high enough. But now it’s student/teacher things are different.

    • Amber Lin says:

      I remember when I read Selena Kitt’s biggest incest book, the one with the alternate non-incest-y ending so she could still sell it on Amazon. And without the incest, it’s really kind of confusing. My brain refused to accept non-incest in that situation.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I love this comment. It’s interesting how the too-low boundaries infected your writing process with struggle. I think that happens to me, too, but yet my boundaries stay so low and interpersonal. I doubt that will ever change, but maybe awareness will help — a reminder that I need to remember the realness of the boundaries I do create and trace out their sharp edges from time to time.

      • I think you do your boundaries a disservice. They may not be as wild as incest, but they are very real. For me, that’s what’s difficult – writing stories set in the modern world where boundaries are often so low, but still keeping the conflict high and tense while staying realistic. Doubly tough when readers want extreme emotions. Sometimes I just don’t think they’re willing to buy the real world reasons why people stay apart – miscommunication, etc. They want intense, dying for you, terrible restrictions, high stakes.

  8. Pingback: What-To-Read Wednesday: Bittersweet | Ruthie Knox

  9. I too am attracted to incest romances. Tigana, yeah… one of the best tragedies ever. Amazing. I am also a big fan of the manga series Angel Sanctuary, which is extremely supernatural, but pretty much spins on a brother-sister love story and has a fantastic, genuine, non-tragic resolution to that story.

    I think what appeals to me is the instant, intrinsic tension. A more acceptable alternative seems to be ‘sibling’s best friend’, where you get some of the forbidden/always known him tension but without the biological ickiness.

    And of course other forms of ‘forbidden’ romance can also be good, especially if the characters involved aren’t idiots determined to ignore the rules to be together. Warriors on opposite sides of a war. Etc.

  10. AJH says:

    May I, uh, recommend you an incest book? Oh dear.

    It’s not romance, it’s “literary” fiction (whatever that means) but I honestly think it’s … a love story, in its doomed, twisted way, and it’s a very wonderful book. I obviously hesitate to recommend it to people in the normal course of things because I don’t even know how to begin “hey, I read this great incest story, and I thought you’d love it!”

    It’s called Repeat It Today With Tears by Anne Peile. It’s set in the 1970s – the narrator, raised by her rather overbearing mother, is obsessed with her absent father, discovers he’s living nearby and, yes, seduces him and they basically end up having, well, a relationship. It’s so very wrong and so beautiful at the same time, the book is wonderfully written, and – most confusingly of all – deeply plausible. I don’t really want to say any more because, if you do read it, I don’t want to spoil your journey with my own interpretations.

    Though I do remember afterwards lying there in bed and musing aloud: “So why is incest wrong?” And poor H was like “dude!”

    I mean, obviously I was trying to have an ethical debate, I wasn’t trying to spice up our relationship with a bit of familial action, and I’m not, like, pro-incest or anything (I have brothers, and most certainly do not want to get it on with them).
    Sorry, I know the post was more general than “hey, guys, incest!” but I just thought the book might intrigue you.

    (Also I’m right with you on both Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights – I think Romeo and Juliet is basically best interpreted at the stupidity suicide of two teenage goths, rather than this great tragic and wuv love story, and I saw a production once that played up their youth rather successfully. It didn’t make them very sympathetic – they were whiny, selfish and self-absorbed – but strangely it made it more meaningfully tragic for me, because it became a tragedy of waste and silliness, rather than this epic doomed thingy. I mean, had they stayed married, it’s blatantly obvious that Romeo would get fat and lazy, and Juliet would have an affair with somebody or other who wasn’t dead at the end of the play).

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Color me intrigued. It sounds kind of beautiful, actually. I am imagining her father longing and how that might become sexual longing — very interesting. Off to look it up!

      (And yes. Blatantly obvious. And they brought down so many other people with them! Although that is kind of standard tragedy for you. Truckloads of corpses.)

  11. Ducky says:

    I think the ghost love story mentioned up-thread may be the newest by Karen Robards.

    I have an easier time reading a story about incest if it’s brother/sister rather than parent/child.

    The most well-known fictional incest to me is the twincest of Jaime and Cersei Lannister from the ASOIAF books by George R R Martin.