Yesterday evening I finally finished up the amazing novella box set, Seven Wicked Nights. Never one to read things in order if I can help it, I skipped around a bit and ended with Caroline Linden’s When I Met My Duchess. As expected, it was a great story with the right balance of humor and depth of feeling, steady pacing, elegant writing, and engaging, well-developed characters (which are not easy to create in a novella).
Did I love this story? No.
Is this a negative review? Absolutely not.
In which I attempt to explain the disconnect between the previous two statements to a hopefully modest degree of success.
Linden’s novels are always great fun to read (particularly Love and Other Scandals), but in When I Met My Duchess she hits upon a romantic trope I find particularly off-putting: The hero in love with his fiance’s sister. When Gareth, the Duke of Wessex, welcomes his bride-to-be and her family to his estate for the wedding, lightening strikes–literally! But the tree it fells is the least of his worries. Completely captivated by his fiance’s sister, Cleo, Gareth suddenly finds himself wondering if his heart hasn’t been struck as well, and if perhaps he’s marrying the wrong woman.
It’s such an emotional premise, and yet it’s just one that makes me bristle. Yes, I have a younger sister and no, she never stole my boyfriend, but I still have such a hard time with this plot device, even though it’s a great romantic set-up. The gender has little to do with it. Heroine in love with fiance’s brother or any same-sex variation on that theme is equally troublesome to me. I can’t explain it, and yet it’s there–that awful urge to hurl the book (or Kindle) across the room when the fickle fiance meets her/his true match in their intended’s sibling. I want to shout (WHY’D YOU PROPOSE IN THE FIRST PLACE, YA TURKEY?!?!), I want to roll my eyes (Really, you’re sure THIS is the right person for you?), and sometimes I find myself wondering what would happen if a third hotter/more intelligent/more sensitive sibling were to come along.
But mostly I just want to understand why certain tropes speak to certain readers when others make us want to run screaming for the next book on our shelf.
I’ve read romance reviews where the reader was instantly put-out by plots centered on marital infidelity, open relationships, or power plays (e.g. a governess and a lord). Often it’s difficult to separate these visceral reactions from an honest, objective review, particularly when a trope either hits us in the gut or sends an arrow straight to our heart. I can pretty much guarantee that I will love any and all novels where a bluestocking, shy bookworm, or nerd gets the rake or the belle of the ball. I can’t help it. I also can’t help angrily flipping pages until a HEA resolves itself so that both the hero, the jilted fiance and the fiance’s sister all find love. (Thanks, Ms. Linden, for giving Helen her very own happy ending).
I’ll admit to recently putting a stop to reading Theresa Romain’s Season for Temptation only so that I could read Season for Surrender and make sure that poor Louisa–the jilted sibling–gets her own happy ending. (Season for Surrender is lovely, by the way.) I adore Romain’s writing. The ongoing Matchmaker trilogy is beyond amazing, and Season for Temptation is so witty you’ll find yourself laughing at every chapter title, piece of dialogue, and turn of phrase she expertly crafts. But again, that trope just KILLS ME.
So what’s a reader to do?
One of my best friends admits to only reading books that challenge her in some way or make her uncomfortable. As a romance reader, I clearly do not subscribe to that reading point-of-view. Yet I will admit that part of that sentiment has merit. I think we as readers do sometimes need to step out of our comfort zone to discover new authors and approaches to the our favorite genres. Despite bristling at certain plot structures, I can still recognize a great read. I am so taken with Linden’s and Romain’s writing that I will easily pick up their next novels as soon as they’re available. Who knows, perhaps the next time the heroine falls in love with her fiance’s brother I’ll even cheer them on!
What tropes or plot devices in romance novels (or other genres) put you on edge? Which ones are your favorite?
I’d love to hear your reactions in the comments below!