Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Who's afraid of the big bad trope?

Today, it's me.  Yes, after wallowing in tropes for thirty five years, suddenly I'm running scared. I should mention perhaps I'm using the term trope in it's common usage among romance afficionados as a fancy word for Clichéed plot devices.

I love tropes because they are what makes Harlequin Mills and Boon romances so special.  Somewhere in every one of those adorable books is a trope.

Lovely sweet adorable tropes that we all recognise and love because of their very familiarity.  We like tropes because we know that they are like an insurance policy.  They are tried and true story lines that we like and feel comfortable with.  Sure there are variations, the characters, the location, the journey the protagonists take to the guaranteed Happy Ever After.  They are comfortable things, like that worn out jumper or sweater we put on at the end of a tough day that we know is a little frayed around the edges but is so soft and cuddly and warm that it doesn't matter.

Familiar things like our favourite soap opera that holds no surprises but is peopled by faces we know all doing the things we expect of them.  These are tropes.  The very things that cause outsiders to sneer about 'formulaic writing' and 'shallow plot lines.'  Sorry but there is nothing formulaic or shallow about the many and varied ways people meet and fall in love and struggle and find their happy ending.  These are core to every human beings experience of life.  Show me one person who doesn't want or hasn't experienced love in their life and I'll prove to you that they are not real but a trope in a romance novel. Everyone wants and needs love even if they don't know it or show it.

So getting back to business.  Wherein cometh this sudden fear of tropes?  It's been growing for some time, under the subtle heading of trends and a vague feeling of unease.  It burst forth fully grown with sharp teeth and wings poised for flight this afternoon as I finished one of the latest offerings from the HM&B stable and found myself faintly nauseous and tearful.  Not just the usual emotional residue of an angsty story that had me gripped in fear and anguish but ecstatic at the end, but a genuine grief.  A grief for something lost.

Lets back track a little to the dawn of time.  In my case this was 1976 when I first started to read Mills & Boon romances under the desk at boarding school.  The tropes at that time were starting to get a little daring.  Forced marriages, Marriage reunions, Even the odd child born out of wedlock.  But there were still a lot of the traditional tropes around, Millionaire boss, virgin secretary (just change that to Billionaire to update); Marriage of convenience; Rich Playboy, sweet vicars daughter in flower shop; May December romances; the odd widow or amnesiac. It was around this time that Mill's and Boon started to refine their tropes into lines like Presents which featured some of the more daring writers of the time.

The 70's also started to see a lot more of the feisty career woman stories where traditional alpha males tried unsuccessfully (sort of) to subjugate these burgeoning feminists.  The one place where these have been fairly consistent is one of the biggest tropes of all.  In every decade in my lifetime the doctor nurse romance has been liberally presented.  Nowadays the heroine may be someone of power in the hospital, whether doctor, nursing staff or even administration but they still fall for those gorgeous doctors who may be harsh and unfeeling until faced with a child or patient under their care.

Everyone say Aaaaw!

We've established that there are some tropes that have remained consistent over the decades but what about new tropes that reflect the times.   When you've read as many books as I have over the years of course you become aware of changing norms, but I hadn't really noticed that one of those subtle changes had become a trope of it's own until I went to the neighbouring town the other day to inspect the HM&B shelves at BigW (no we don't have a real bookshop locally).

It seemed like every second book had a pregnant or new mother as the heroine.  And the child was NOT the child of the hero. Whatthe!  Now I love a good pregnancy or baby book with the best of them, but a common trope that includes a heroine pregnant to another man while falling in love with the hero? That really rocked my boat and not in a good way. Of course I've read some and they've been around for at least a decade to my knowledge and probably more. Some of them I've loved and are on my keeper shelves, others, well not so much.  But I don't really understand why they are so popular.  I mean they must be popular if so many people are writing them.  Have HM&B gone into the business of providing hope, or maybe an instruction manual, for every unwed mother who has a child to a loser? Here, shack up with a loser, fall pregnant, and you too can end up with a stunningly handsome rich alpha male or dedicated surgeon with trust issues and a heart of gold under a surly exterior.  And they tell me this is all in the interests of adding realism to the books.

I did mention somewhere that I was crying over a trope this afternoon didn't I. Then I suppose the time has come to fess up about why.

There has always been the odd instance of infidelity in the HM&B lines I read.  Anne Mather's heroes are almost invariably unfaithful when separated from spouse or lover over a period of time.  Her studly guys are pretty much ruled by their ferocious libido.  It's part of her stock in trade.  Penny Jordan on the other hand had heroes who were quite often faithful for surprising lengths of time. You get to know these things so when you pick up a book you can make a choice about whether you want to go there. Sara Craven has written heroes that are unfaithful to their marriage vows, sometimes a small one off when the marriage has been difficult, sometimes more recently a little more spectacularly. But these instances were rare.  In most cases when the hero appeared to be unfaithful it turns out to be wrong and that knowledge, usually delivered at the climax of the story gives an added filip to the HEA.

That is starting to change.  Heroes are becoming unfaithful more often and more spectacularly as mentioned in the recent Sara Craven.  Lynne Graham has written several books recently where infidelity has been blatant and in one case results in a husband having a child by his mistress during a separation.  No I haven't read it yet but the spoilers in the Amazon reviews are fairly consistent. I love Lynne's writing and up until halfway through the Drakos Baby duet could have said I'd read everything she'd written. She's probably done a wonderful job on the books.  But I can't make myself read them.

Today I read a book I didn't plan to read. It was a book that advertised itself as being about a married couple dealing with the husbands infidelity while the soldier wife served overseas.  There's enough in that statement alone to bring on a severe case of nausea.  It's actually a really good book. Well written and dealing with a difficult issue in a very sensitive way.  But twice I had to put the book down and walk away.  Twice I had to force myself to pick it up and read it.  I told myself I had to be fair.  I had to read the book before I could comment on it. Before I could say whether the subject of infidelity was one I want to see more regularly in HM&B romances. 

Because you see that's what will happen.  This book will do well because it's a well written book.  So more books will be written around the topic of infidelity and it will have become a trope.  A regularly accepted story line that will feature more and more often in the interests of making HM&B romances more 'real'. There will come a time when I explore the romance shelves of the neighbouring towns BigW and find just as many infidelity stories as I did pregnant to another man stories this time.  Just as the brilliantly written and very popular story about a bad girl who's love life ended up on the internet will spawn imitators, and lovable spunky heroines with promiscuous backgrounds will become a trope.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

But where then will I go to escape from reality when the books that have served me so well in that respect for thirty five years have chosen instead to give me painful reality instead of escape.

I suppose there's my collection of vintage Harlequin Mill's and Boon romances. In fact I might have to have one right away to take away that feeling of loss and betrayal.  I guess I really do understand how the wife in "Back in the Soldiers Arms" feels.  Because like her, I feel infidelity is a dealbreaker.  The question is how much can I forgive if I keep feeling betrayed.


  1. Every romance reader has their favourite stories. I'm partial to a bit of amnesia myself, especially when really well done so it keeps me guessing. Not a big fan of heroine marrying her late husband's brother, though I haven't seen that done in a while. Luckily the genre has wide enough scope to cater for all tastes.

  2. Thoughtful piece, Fiona. I guess we all have our dealbreakers and I'm queasy about infidelity, too. Soraya's book was just awarded best Harlequin Romance for 2011 by Romantic Times, which makes it a book I have to read, though.

  3. Every reader has their own favorites, Fiona. The reason I loved Soraya Lane's BACK IN THE SOLDIER'S ARMS was because it didn't just show infidelity but it also showed unexpected depths to human relationships and trust as well as how to move forward from that and get on with life and family. Also it's about second chances at love.

    Today I have Annie West talking on her latest which has a theme of the Beauty and the Beast, so hope to see you there!

    1. Thanks for the comment and the invite RBH. I would agree with you that the book is wonderful in that it showed all those things. My comments were more about how I would feel if infidelity became a common theme in the books I read for stress relief, to make me feel good when I'm down. For everyone there is topic that comes under TCTH (Too Close to Home) or too emotive for them to deal with. For me personally infidelity is one those things. I chose to read the book and still found it extremely difficult to read because of the emotions it evoked. It is as I said a well written book and dealt with the topic sensitively but it left me feeling depressed and miserable and that's not why I read this kind of romance. Others may not have this reaction and that's fine. For me it is a problem.

  4. I hate books in which the hero is unfaithful or that the heroine is pregnant by another man. I read all the books mentioned, but I read only because my reading group was commenting on the books.