The Best Bad Sex Ever

I read Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened in a trance, a state not unlike swimming through the deepest layers of a dream. I rarely reach that layer of involvement in my reading—not in “literary” and not in romance—and it’s the highest compliment I can give a book. I grabbed it whenever I could get my hands on it and finished in two deliciously wonky nights.

Here’s the story:

Martha Russell’s husband has just died, and, because she’s heirless, his estate will go to her brother-in-law. Unless, of course, she should happen to be pregnant with an heir.

Martha knows she’s not pregnant, but instead of telling her solicitor the truth, she tells him she needs a month to find out for sure. And then she hires her neighbor, Theophilus Mirkwood, to impregnate her.

Theo has been exiled by his father from London for womanizing and otherwise wasting time and resources. He’s supposed to be behaving himself on his country estate, not dallying with widows. But he’s a sucker for Martha’s beauty and agrees to the plan.

The problem is that Martha is only interested in Theo’s semen-delivering properties. She despises sex and refuses to allow herself to enjoy it at all. But she is deeply determined to make her scheme work, especially after she discovers that her brother-in-law took advantage of the female servants when he lived on the estate. Much joyless sex ensues, until Theo can barely bring himself to do his studly work.

And then—spoiler alert—slowly but surely, Grant leads us to happily ever after.

There are some very conventional aspects to this book, on the surface. The premise—widow must involve herself in unconventional sex/love/marriage situation to hold onto her property (usually for the good of the servants or the tenants) is familiar to readers of Mary Balogh’s Slightly Married and many other historicals. Theo is not a particularly unusual hero. He’s rakish and handsome and knows it, and until the heroine pushes him to be a better man, he’s not the deepest well on the estate.

There are also some profoundly wonky bits. Martha’s iciness during sex goes far beyond the blushing virgin trope. She hates the sex, she hates the idea of the sex, and she doesn’t want to ever like it. And her dislike of Theo goes beyond her distaste for the sex. She has no respect for him at all. And rapidly—as you might imagine—he develops matching feelings for her.

But this isn’t a classic I-hate-you-I-want-to-bonk-you setup. The disconnect between hero and heroine grows, not shrinks, during the first half of the book; it endures much longer than is typical; and there is no steamy hate-bonking to compensate for that cold core to the book. The sex is decidedly, brilliantly, unsexy.

She put her knees apart and closed her eyes. Vague noises ensued: he must be readying his male parts, as he’d done yesterday. A moment later, it began.

Martha gave a small sigh, just to herself. This again. Presumably this was enjoyable with a man one desired. Absent desire, she was left only with the weight of another body on hers. Strange skin against her own, with hair in strange places. Hip-bones pressing into her, and everything pressing into her. Seeking entry; seeking and … gaining it, there, on one long slide.

Can we talk about the brilliance of that scene? “Vague noises,” “readying his male parts,” “it began,” “strange skin,” “hair in strange places.” If she had referred to grunts or moans or groans or sighs, we would have been turned on. If she had said his cock, his dick, even his penis, our conditioning would have taken over. But she exploits the way our snake brains recognize what’s sexy. She keeps us suspended and unfulfilled, just like Martha. Until that very end sentence, when she gives us just a little hint, just enough of a hint—that “there” in italics capturing that unwanted pique in interest on Martha’s part, and the long slide driving it home. Note the tension Grant is holding us in—the sex is awful, but you keep believing it doesn’t have to be. There. One long slide.

I couldn’t put it down.

I argued a couple of months ago that truly wonky books tend to provoke love/hate reactions, and this book is no exception. Some readers hated this book. They hated that Martha committed fraud, that she’s cold, snobby, and unresponsive, that the hero is shallow and conceited. They wanted to know why the hell Theo didn’t move on when Martha proved herself to be not only sexless but also narrow-minded and judgmental. They felt—many of them even said so explicitly—that Grant had violated their expectations about what romance should be. “This is not a bad book,” wrote one Amazon reviewer, “simply this is not the type of story I look for in a romance.”

By contrast, this is exactly the type of story I look for in a romance. For nearly the entire time I was reading it, I was transfixed by what was passing between this opposites-attract couple. I couldn’t believe either of them was sticking it out—and yet I completely believed it. I believed it because it was so evident to me that both the hero and heroine desperately needed exactly what the other one had to offer. They just didn’t know it yet.

I’ve referred before to what Michael Hauge says about why people fall in love in the best love stories. He says that too often, the halves of the couple come together for little or no reason. If you ask the author why the man loves the woman and vice versa, the author shrugs and says, Who can say what draws one person to another? Or—Hauge’s favorite answer—Chemistry!

But Hauge says that the real answer in a well-crafted love story is that the hero and heroine can see about each other what no one else can see. They can see past all the defenses and down to the real self.

Martha and Theo are not the classic romance hero and heroine—two thoroughly likable, popular, sunny people who happen to have minor flaws that have kept them from committing. Their wounds, their individual forms of self-loathing, in this case, have infected not just their love lives but everything about them. Theo thinks so little of himself that he can’t take anything or anyone seriously; Martha’s fear of opening up makes her take everything and everyone too seriously. They could go on like that forever, but deep in their psyches, they don’t want to. They want to be saved, fixed, reborn.

Of course it is not easy for them to like or want each other. They are nothing alike. And yet—of course it is inevitable that they will come to need and love each other—they are perfectly aligned to bring each other to life. Long before they know it intellectually, they “see” it in each other in the way Michael Hauge means. They sense it there, deeper than conscious knowledge. And Grant manages to convince us of both things at once–both that they cannot connect and that they know at a deep level that they must connect.

That tension—the same tension Grant employed so brilliantly in writing the sex scenes—the push of what they think they want and the pull of what they need—is what drew me in and kept me deep. That and Grant’s phenomenal storytelling and gorgeous writing.

It’s hard to balance depth of damage and likability. Most romance heroines are not the Grant kind, whose troubledness infects every inch of her. They are the popular, sunny,  minor-flaw kind. We’re tolerant of wounded heroes because the downsides of a wound—the inability to connect across the board—are more socially acceptable in men than women. But we want our heroines mostly okay. I thought Grant’s gamble, her willingness to push that envelope, succeeded fabulously, but that’s the danger of walking the wonkoboundary. Not everyone will see it that way.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 13 Comments

On Escapism in Historical Romance

I recently read Carrie Lofty’s His Very Own Girland it has thrown me into a mental tizzy regarding historical romance and escapism and what on earth it is I want from the historical subgenre. Such a tizzy, in fact, that I kind of just want to tear madly at my hair and say, “I don’t know, all right?” and then eat a large chocolate chip cookie. But I’m going to give this a go anyway, because Lofty’s book tapped into some questions I’ve been asking myself for a long time, and I’m interested in throwing them out to my wonk-o-peers and finding out what you guys think.

So, first, Lofty. His Very Own Girl is a romance set in the English Midlands during the latter part of World War II. The hero, Joe, is an American medic with a dark past (oh, ex-con heroes, how I love you), and the heroine, Lulu, is an Englishwoman who flies planes for the Air Transport Authority, which was a British civilian unit that ferried military aircraft around England (and to a very limited extent Europe) during World War II. Early in the war, her parents (also pilots) were killed while flying over Egypt. Her English fiancé fought in Europe, came home, and committed suicide shortly thereafter. She survived the Blitz in London, then joined the ATA. She is a supremely dedicated pilot; she deals with grief through action.

Lulu dances with soldiers, dates them, occasionally kisses them, but never sees the same guy more than once. She can’t go through what she went through with her fiancé a second time.

Until Joe.

The first half of His Very Own Girl is Joe and Lulu engaged in a courtship dance. She doesn’t want to fall in love with him but can’t help himself. He’s drawn to her but doesn’t understand why she would need or want to fly airplanes and put herself in danger. (It doesn’t help that when he meets her, she’s crash-landing a plane right in front of him.) He objects to what the war has done to gender roles and looks forward to a time when the world can go back to the way it used to be. Lulu finds everything about wartime gender roles liberating and has no intention of ever giving up flying planes. Their clashing views come up repeatedly and are impossible to paper over.

In addition, Joe also has a violent past that he tried to escape by enlisting. Of course, it chases him to Europe and throws a spanner in the works of his budding romance with Lulu.

But they persist. They are in love. D-Day arrives, and Joe goes to France. The rest of the book has Joe and Lulu corresponding, visiting once on a weekend pass, and trying to work out and/or bridge their differences to discover whether they have a future together. (Spoiler: they do.)

While I had a few quibbles here and there, I found His Very Own Girl to be engaging, well written, and very well researched. I love the idea of historical romance set in different periods and genres than the standard ones, and I’d looked forward to reading this one ever since I first heard about it.

And yet.

World War II was total war — much more so in Britain than in the United States. It affected every facet of everyday life in terribly intrusive ways for a terribly, terribly long time. Rationing in Britain began in 1940 and didn’t completely end until 1954. One of the things I admire about Carrie Lofty’s world-building in His Very Own Girl is that she gets that. The war is everywhere. It infects everything. It is a constant factor in Lulu and Joe’s relationship, the catalyst for their meeting, their disagreements, their reunions, their hopes and dreams, their inescapable sorrows. It is hard and mean and horrible.

I loved this about the book. But I hated it, too.

His Very Own Girl made me sad. Not just now and then, or at the dark moment, but frequently, throughout. Sometimes it was happy-sad, the way I get when I think about how beautiful humanity can be in the midst of trauma. Sometimes it was nostalgic-sad, as I thought about my grandparents World War II story and how the war shaped the generations that lived through it. Sometimes it was ordinary sad, i.e., Damn, this is depressing. I am sad. 

When I think about the book now that I’ve finished it, my enduring mental impression is dark. And I’m not sure that works for me. It isn’t what I’m looking for in a romance novel. It doesn’t make the book a bad book, by any means, or one I’d discourage someone else from reading — it just makes me wonder, you know, what is it? Is it a romance novel if it makes me feel this hopeless, or is it something else?

Is it even possible to write an escapist love story set in the context of an inescapable war? And is a romance novel that isn’t escapist really part of the romance genre?

These are difficult questions for me — perhaps more difficult for me than for others, because I’m a historian by training. When I first started reading romance, I wouldn’t read historicals. I read a few bad ones, and they bothered me because they weren’t set in the real past. They were set in a fantasy past. Eventually, someone tipped me in the direction of excellent historical romance, and I’ve been enthralled with it ever since — but simultaneously annoyed, from time to time, by its insistence on skimming the surface of history. Why so many Regencies? Why so many aristocrats with daddy issues? Why so many books that aren’t just about aristocrats with daddy issues but aristocrats with daddy issues who aren’t even confined by the social mores of their own time?

But perhaps Lofty’s His Very Own Girl is a case study in the why. It is not an accident, after all, that the most popular historical romances are about earls with daddy issues who fall in love with heroines who are unfettered by social convention. This is what romance readers want, because it is easy.

Yet I persist in thinking that don’t want that — or certainly I don’t always want that. I’m a Wonkomantic. I subscribe to the Wonk-o-Manifesto, which says, “We like our protagonists less conventional, our conflicts less tidy, our endings less certain. We want escapism, but we want it with a nice, stiff shot of human frailty.” It also says, “We want the whole messy spectrum of human behavior, packaged up for consumption in romance novel form.”

And I really think this is true — that I do want this. But it seems to be the case that I only want it if it satisfies me in particular ways, and not if it makes me feel excessively anxious or unhappy or depressed. I want some anxiety, but not too much. Some tears, but not too many. Some gritty reality in the portrayal of history, but not so much reality that I get all swept up in thinking miserable thoughts about the past.

When it comes to a book like His Very Own Girl – and I don’t want to single Lofty out, because I’ve read other books that similarly troubled me (Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm comes to mind) — my brain and my emotions part company. My brain is pleased at how wonky and different and difficult these novels are. But my emotions say, This is not enough fun. I end up torn and feeling — well, like not much of a wonkomantic.

What do you guys think? I don’t have all the answers today, but I’m interested in having the conversation.

Posted in Historical Wonktastical, Talking Wonkomance | 60 Comments

A Love That Festers Through the Ages

Happy Super Tuesday, Wonksters!

So I’m posting today with a request of sorts, because I know if anyone can point me in the direction of what I’m after, it’s our hella smart and well-read Sisterhood of Wonk (a sisterwonk that includes the odd male, of course. The odder the better, says I.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict lately. It’s hard not to in the States, what with the election brewing. On top of that propo-poopstorm, I’ve also been watching far too much cage fighting, so seething tension has become the theme of my autumn thus far.

I was listening to The Archers the other day—as I am wont to do because I’m incredibly cool—and during a rather heavy-handed scene in which Fallon and Rhys are rehearsing their lines as Beatrice and Benedick for the Ambridge Christmas panto, Lynda Snell sagely utters a quote that completely gelled the disjointed sentiments sloshing around my head of late.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
—Elie Wiesel

If you think about it, true and visceral hatred triggers many of the same physical reactions in our bodies as lust—a spike in the pulse, a knot in the guts, a shortness of breath, a heat that demands quenching. Only that quenching might take the form of violence, not sex. But those two acts share their own set of similarities, if your blood’s running hot enough.

It made me ponder all these fights I’ve been watching. In most cases, the men in the ring have had weeks or months to ruminate on their upcoming matches. When they really dislike the guy standing between them and a victory (which makes for the most exciting and indeed marketable bouts) that grudge can take on an obsessive, gnawing power not unlike an infatuation. And if it’s a rematch, with vengeance squirted like gasoline all over the fire? To hate a person with all the intensity and passion and yearning as you might desire a lover, and to spend months consumed by the anticipation of satisfying that need for a bodily confrontation… Yeah, I’m willing to bet there’s some truth to that rumor about fighters needing to fuck right after a match. And I don’t think it’s just the adrenaline. Fighting is intimate. Personal. One-on-one, staring into the eyes of person you’ve been waiting forever strip down and get physical with. It’s as primal as sex…except imagine only one of the lovers gets to orgasm.

And so all this pondering has me craving some good hate-love romances (or erotica).

I’m not talking a piddly grudge between the hero and heroine. Or a willful, hate-at-first-sight mutual annoyance. Not even like, “A man with a blond mustache raped my sister to death and so I can never trust this fair-haired, mustachioed scoundrel!”

I’m talking full-on, ugly, burning-a-hole-in-your-guts hate. Not frenemies. Straight-up enemies. Like if this were a movie and a Hugh had to be cast as the hero, it wouldn’t be Hugh Grant. It’d be Hugh Jackman, and even then, only as Wolverine.

And the hero (or heroine) can’t just be a hate-worthy douchenozzle—he does need to be three-dimensional and well-motivated (if not wholly redeemable) and ultimately worthy of the heroine’s love; but before they fuck, they need to be seething mad at one another. Consumptive disgust, burning like the most maddening infatuation. Possibly deepened by a hunger for revenge, or a fueled by a rivalry with a prize at stake that both characters need equally badly. A hate that festers and festers until it’s throbbing and taut and venomous then finally lanced—only not by violence, but by sex.

So, recommendations? I don’t care about the subgenre or period, as long the hate is intense and believable and well-founded, and there’s explicit sex. Doesn’t have to be erotica-level in detail or thoroughness, but I do want a front-row seat to the hate-fucking when it finally goes down after all that resentment-as-foreplay. I don’t even need an HEA.

No matter much MMA I watch, the dudes never seem to wind up bloodily boning, despite my many letters to Dana White suggesting this as an alternative form of submission…possibly because the term “rear naked choke” is already taken. So lay ’em on me! This itch needs scratchin’.

Posted in Recommendations Needed | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments