Escape Into Wonk

Does wonkiness interfere with the escapist quality of romance?

Or to put it another way, if you write heroes and heroines who are more real, whose conflicts are deeper and wounds more intense, do you risk waking people out of the romance dream?

We read romance—not exclusively, but often—because it isn’t hyper realistic, like a certain literary novels (*cough* The Corrections), or intensely adrenaline packed, like the opening episode of the first season of Friday Night Lights, which I loved but which had me doing deep breathing afterwards to stave off an acute bout of nausea induced by the injury plot line.

In the abstract, there are certain places I really don’t want my romance to go—children in danger (for a time at least, this sub-genre, a la Mary Higgins Clark, had its own name in publishing, “ped jep”), friends or family members dead, bile-raising injuries sustained.

And yet, one of my critique partners recently gave her hero a dead-child back story, and it worked for me because it made his happily ever after that much more intense for me. That man had suffered and being redeemed out of that kind of suffering, being brought to the point where you really believe you deserve to love again—that is what it’s all about.

Two other wonky books that go where it’s hard to go are Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm and Megan Hart’s Broken. In Flowers, a historical romance hero’s stroke is mistaken for mental illness and he’s institutionalized. In Broken, the heroine’s husband has been a paraplegic since a skiing accident broke his neck years ago (there are other aspects of Broken that make it wonky—in fact, it’s tricky to find anything non-wonky about Broken, and it’s one of my favorite romances of all time).

Those are some seriously gutsy books, and yet it’s possible to go even further than this—a truly schizophrenic hero or a paraplegic heroine. (For the latter, you can pick up Catherine Anderson’s Phantom Waltz, which I haven’t read.) Also, you have to check out these lists of atypical heroes and heroines on Goodreads.)

Both Flowers and Broken were completely all-consuming experiences for me. I woke from periods of reading both those books like someone who’d been submerged in a dream, not sure where I was or how to re-enter my own existence. I wasn’t heartbroken about the ways that people had suffered or lost in those books, I was uplifted by the ways they’d been redeemed and repaired. And I’d escaped in a much more profound way than I do when I read sugar-light romance, the stuff that feels like it skates over the surface of people and their problems. (Genuinely funny light romance is the exception for me—I go into a zone with that as well, I think because it, like wonky-deep romance, activates emotion at a deep enough level that I abandon my own emotions.)

That said, there are plenty of ways to write wonk badly, plenty of ways to write dark or weird characters who aren’t realistically wounded or properly repaired. There’s reached-for wonk, where the effort is obvious (I wrote about that a few weeks ago, in “Out in the Swamp, Things Are Murker,”) slathered-on wackiness, or dark gloom that isn’t well-woven into a redemption experience. Just like with any romance, how well a wonky book works as escapism depends entirely on how well it’s handled. If you can disappear into the experience—whether it’s an ordinary or a weird one—you’re gone from the world for the duration. We’ll see you when you get back—dazed, happy, and a little wonkier for the wear.


Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 1 Comment

Cinémawonque Analysis: Rizzo as Heroine

So I was self-editing the first book I’m writing for Penguin, and this passage got me thinking:

He’d probably make a good father, if he went down that road. Kids today could use more Kelly Robaks in their parental dugouts. He might not let his daughters date until they were twenty, but they sure as shit wouldn’t come home after curfew, tattooed, carrying the baby of some burner they’d let finger them behind the gym in exchange for a cigarette.

“You think you ever want kids?” I asked casually.

“Hell if I know. Not unless I got married, and I don’t think I’m cut out for that.”

“I bet you are. With the right woman. One who’d put up with your bossy ass and go in for all your old-school man-of-the-house patriarchy bull.”

Kelly laughed. “That ain’t you, I take it.”

I felt my cheeks warming. “No, that ain’t me.” What did it make me, then? Some good-time girl, an equally antiquated notion. Still, I’d rather be Rizzo than Sandy, no question. Rizzo found love without changing a thing about herself. Sandy had to dress like a skank and get that horrible perm and take up smoking.

It occurred to me this is actually the second time I’ve referenced Grease in a book, and moreover, the second time I’ve referenced Betty Rizzo, specifically. What is it about that character that’s so got her so indelibly tagged across my subconscious? She’s not even the story’s heroine…but could she be?

The movie version of Grease was set in the ’50s, released in 1978. Back then, no, a sarcastic high school girl who sleeps around, smokes, drinks, and occasionally smacks her friends would probably not fly as heroine material. As a cautionary tale pity-case? Likely. But not as a heroine.

But we’re living in a post-Bridesmaids world, now. A lead female character doesn’t have to be pure and unfailingly kind and demure to win our hearts. In fact, I daresay a lot of modern viewers and readers would roll their eyes at all that woodland-creatures-frolicking-at-her-feet shit. In 2012, a heroine can be a hot mess, and we’ll still believe she deserves love, as long as she’s compelling.

Sandy is not compelling.

Sandy is a bore. So pure and penetration-proof, she doesn’t even have pierced ears. In turns chirpy and shrill, she’s a blonde, pastel-clad, urge-less canvas on which to project a magnetic, rakish hero, making him seem all the more dynamic in relation to her blandness.

And what exactly did Danny have to do to win Sandy’s heart? I’ll tell you—he apologized once, before immediately trying to grope her at the drive-in. Oh and he lettered in track. Is that seriously character arc enough to deserve all that hopelessly devoted nonsense? Sandy did all the changing, and that changing was superficial. The changing, in fact, seemed to have gone against her morals. If that’s a romance, romance kinda sucks.

Rizzo, on the other hand.

While Sandy spends the entire movie running away, incessantly scandalized, Rizzo strides toward scandal. In heels.

Rizzo is a straight-up alpha bitch, literally the leader of her own pack. She goes by her surname, a hero-level symbol of autonomy. She’s impulsive to Sandy’s bunny-like caution; skeptical to Sandy’s naivety; sexually proactive to Sandy’s willful, joyless innocence; red-and-black snugness to Sandy’s swishing white lace, with angles and rough edges all framed in a healthy smear of eyeliner. She’s funny and fearless, and not afraid to speak her mind—though she may be afraid to apologize, even when busted. Sure, she’s kind of conniving and evasive now and again, but the girl’s got a spine and a half. She doesn’t fear the enemy—she hops in his car and consorts with him. She lies to the father of her presumptive baby, preferring he believe it’s another guy’s rather than feel reliant on him. Dude, Rizzo is such a kick-ass supporting character, she’s already boned the motherfucking HERO, before the movie even starts. She’s not mooning over Danny, swishing a love letter around a kiddie pool—she’s already over that weenie, busy taking her own hero’s virginity.

Yet we do get to see her vulnerable side, too, in musical soliloquy form, no less, and though she doesn’t have a huge revelation—she is a secondary lead, after all—she does soften by the end of the film, just in time to admit her feelings for Kenickie…in her own snarky, Rizzo way. She stays true to herself, unlike our skankified so-called heroine, and she doesn’t need to become the possession of an alpha male lead to be realized. Sandy basically has to turn into Rizzo, to complete her arc. But Rizzo’s already a fully formed character, and Kenickie’s the perfect beta to balance her out, not fill in her gaps. (He’s also cuter than Danny, in my opinion.) And their love story is ten times more passionate than the leads’. I mean, they spend the entire final two numbers making out, they’re so into each other.

In this day and age, I’d like to think Rizzo would be the heroine. A girl who suffers no rescuing, no corrupting, no coercing. A girl who can do the rescuing and corrupting and coercing herself, thank you very much. And that’s peachy keen, jellybean.

Oh and because I’d be remiss to leave you without an earworm…

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

A Tale As Old As Time

One of my favorite tropes is decidedly unwonky – one might even say a tale as old as time. Romance is full of re-interpretations of the Beauty and the Beast trope… why? Probably most compelling is that the couple must look past the surface, and isn’t that what falling in love is about? Mmm, the animalistic side of man has a certain carnal appeal, I must admit.

But even if it’s a great story, why read it over and over again? Speaking more broadly, why is it that we re-visit a certain trope, why are we drawn to them? Looking at sales charts, it’s not just me – tropes sell.

Recently I read Judith Ivory’s Beast. God, that woman. Judith Ivory has the most beautiful usage of language I have ever read… in fact, her books drink the words from the air, so that I am left without any, dumb-founded, in awe. But that’s not what I’m supposed to be talking about!

So I’m reading this book, and the hero has a problematic eye and a slight limp, which should be the extent of his beastliness. But it’s not, because the worst thing about him is really his excessive pride. In his appearance, of all things! He hates things that are beautiful even while he is unerringly drawn to them.

The heroine is, of course, very beautiful. So insanely gorgeous she has been fawned over and sought out her entire life. I really loved that she was vain about her appearance. It seems inevitable, no? More realistic than modesty, if she truly is so beautiful.

The heroine uses a French phrase to describe the hero. It means ugly/beautiful, something that is not conventionally pretty but undeniably attractive. I believe it is jolie laide though I’m not sure if that refers only to women and there is a male form? Anyway, because the hero is kind of sinister looking on the outside but a good guy on the inside, he is the Beast. In the Disney incarnation of this story, and in many others that I have read, that’s it.

Here? Not quite. The heroine, most people love her on sight. Très belle! But she is…. rather…. sometimes… well, she’s beastly! She is vapid, she recognizes her own vapidity and wishes, in a mostly passive sort of way, to be more. She is vain and selfish and occasionally manipulative, and she recognizes all this, feels mildly mournful, and then goes about her business. And I don’t mean to imply that she was a unsympathetic heroine, because she wasn’t. Despite being shown each unattractive quality in her person, I really liked her. I was rooting for her. (Jolie laide comes to mind.)

It was the hero who hated the heroine on sight, for her beauty. He was the one who looked past her appearance to what was inside, and on finding it somewhat lacking in the traditional sense, was compelled to love her anyway. Well, she did the same for him, so it wasn’t precisely a role reversal… maybe a reciprocation.

As for why I read yet another interpretation of Beauty and the Beast… well, I would probably read the phone book if Judith Ivory were writing it. Do you need a new roof? the ad would say. As much as anyone needs security. Hardy, robust, resistant to undue leakage: these are the qualities we tender at A+ Roofing. And that is just the carpenters; wait until we tell you about our roofs.

But why did I go back for one more interpretation of the old trope? Why will I go back again? Was the mantle clock Cogsworth the father of Chip?

I don’t know. I just I don’t know.

Posted in Historical Wonktastical, Writing Wonkomance | 3 Comments