Book Review; or What makes a good romance novel?

I am cheap.  Very, very cheap.  Part of this is because I grew up living on that margin that Mr. Micawber described so well in David Copperfield:

We never tipped into misery, but we knew we were living on that edge.

I worked my way through college and law school.  When I graduated, I got my first real money. I then embarked upon a four year spending binge. I didn’t buy anything big — no Mercedes, no diamonds, no luxury trips — but I bought and bought and bought: a new Honda, not a used one; Ann Taylor clothes, which looked like a dream on me; lunch and dinner out every day, and dancing out many weekends; and books, my gosh did I buy books — hundreds of them. The result was that, at the end of four years of a salary higher than my father had ever earned, I had $1,500 dollars to my name. That really frightened me, and made me feel quite stupid.

My life now is financially secure, although I never assume that it will be tomorrow. I live in a lovely upper-middle-class community, drive a solid car, and have an iPad and an iPhone, both of which are luxury items. I travel a lot, because my husband likes to travel. Those are my expenses.

On the other side of the ledger, I buy my clothes at Target (love their stuff); don’t eat lunch out anymore (especially since Don Quixote and his missus moved to retirement bliss in Florida); and I rarely buy books retail. I either get them from the library, the thrift store, or the Amazon Kindle freebie list. The last is, of course, the easiest way to get book, because you can lounge in your arm chair with your dog as you shop for freebies. The downside is that so many of the freebie books are dreadful — especially the freebie romances. Even if they’re well proofread (and few are), they’re dreadful.

Since I get a lot of these books (they’re free, after all) and read one or two chapters in each before abandoning most, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what makes these free romances so dreadful. I’ve figured out that it’s primarily the lack of plot. Free romances are all about guy meets girl, guy sleeps with girl, guy sleeps with girl again and again and again, guy and girl have stupid reason for parting, and then guy and girl come together. No matter the setting: Vegas, Hawaii, Paris, nowhere Texas, it’s always the same. There is no plot. Even if the sex scenes are discreet they read like porn, because porn has no plot either. The thing is that romance without context is just as boring and sterile as sex without context.

What makes a good romance novel is a genuine plot, whether it’s a thriller, a small town situation, a mystery, a social comedy, or whatever. It needs to have a beginning and a middle, both of which lead to a satisfying end; it needs to be cleverly done; the dialogue needs to transcend wooden preludes to sex; and it helps if the characters actually move in a real world inhabited by people other than themselves and their boring trajectory to bed. Within that framework, the male and female characters need to be likable, with a good sense of humor being a plus. Only then is the romance a satisfying one, because it’s real people, in a real world, having a real relationship.

I read two of those good romances this weekend, and here’s the thing that thrills my cheap soul about them:  I got them both as free review copies.  It was like an explosion of ice cream and fudge sauce.  I was pretty sure both would be good because both are by tried and true authors:  Julie Garwood and Susan Anderson.  There’s no doubt that their books are formulaic, but they do formula really, really well.  Just as I never tire of Haagen Daaz chocolate ice cream (who cares that I’ve had it before?), I never tired of a solid romance writer who doesn’t skimp on plot and character development.  So, with that introduction, a short review of each book:

Julie Garwood is an interesting writing.  Her writing style is at about 9th grade level, but her plots are complex and her character’s nuanced.  I always feel a bit funny reading her books, because her writing is simplistic, but I always get completely caught up in her stories and I really like the characters she creates.  They’re like real people.  One of the nicest things about them is that they don’t behave stupidly.  I hate books in which the characters jump to insanely stupid conclusions as a way to advance the plot.

Hotshot is a typical Garwood outing:  writing that’s almost too straightforward (although not Hemingway-esque), a very well-thought-out plot, and appealing characters.  The book begins with the lead characters — Finn and Peyton — meeting as young next door neighbors.  Fast forward to the future, and Finn’s a former Olympian and current FBI agent, while Peyton’s a chef who thought she’d gotten a dream job at a leading foodie magazine.  Instead, she ended up working for a guy who gets an A in sexual harassment with an A+ in revenge when she rejects him.  When she and her sisters are given the job of re-vamping their uncle’s resort hotel, psychopath boss causes problems, so Peyton — of course — calls Finn.

I don’t need to tell you that the story has a happy ending.  I knew that on page one.  I just enjoy reading along with Garwood as she takes me there.  I knew there’d be lots of well-fleshed characters and a variety of reasonably believably plot turns, and that’s precisely what I got.  This is where major publishing houses still have the edge on self-publishing — you can usually trust the product.

Susan Anderson is another reliable writer.  Her style is a bit more sophisticated than Garwood’s (probably 10th or 11th grade), but she certainly doesn’t make her readers work.  Unlike Garwood, her romances are dressed up as thrillers.  They’re just stories that see the main characters working their way to each other.

In Anderson’s latest outing, Some Like It Hot, the main characters are Max, a former Marine and current deputy sheriff, and Hayden, a rolling stone who’s looking at a charity in which he’s involved to see whether her foundation should give it money.  They both make and have friends, they have good back stories, and their attraction to each other and the way that attraction plays out are reasonable.

Anderson is good at believable dialogue, and I especially enjoy the fact that her characters are actually fairly witty.  Too often, bad romance writers will preface or follow a horrible, stupid, or bland remark by saying “He was charmed by her wit.”  If the other has to tell you a character is witty, the character isn’t witty; the author is just desperate.  Anderson doesn’t make that mistake.  Her characters crack actual jokes.

Both writers have steamy sex scenes, which I find less interesting than the developing relationships.  I certainly wouldn’t let a teenager read these books — although they read worse in high school English classes, except that the books in English classes are sordid and degrading, whereas these romances actually celebrate real emotional connections.  Finding “pure” books, along the lines of my friend Judith Lown’s books, isn’t always easy, unless you’re willing to read mostly Christian books.  I don’t mind reading a good Christian romance, but it’s not the only thing I want to read. (If you do like Christian romances, I recommend Julie Klassen’s books, which are very well written and plotted.)

Bottom line:  If you’re looking for light summer romance that’s got plot and charm, you’ll probably enjoy Julie Garwood’s Hotshot and Susan Anderson’s Some Like It Hot.