Archive for August, 2011

Five Things I’ve Learned from Romance Novels

So much chatter about romance novels in mainstream America comes from people who have never read one.  Common misconceptions accuse them of generating unrealistic expectations, condition women to await Prince Charming’s rescue, or suggest romance novels contain nothing but smut.  The reality is starkly different.  Strip away the covers of heaving bosoms and the sometimes over-wrought cover quotations, and you usually have a novel that reflects traditional values and celebrates the strength of women.  I would have no concerns about sharing romance novels with impressionable young women, because I think if a young reader embraces the themes that are common to romance novels, they will do well in life.  

Here are a handful of things I learned from reading romance:

1) You can’t judge a book by its cover.  Romance novels have a regrettable history of cringe-inducing covers, but if you crack one open, you are likely to find stories of amazing poignancy, insight, and courage.  Thankfully, most covers of romance novels have gotten much better in recent years, but the rush to judge something, or someone, by appearance is a universal problem.  The plots of some of the most famous romances of all time feature characters who also jumped to famously poor conclusions.  Didn’t Elizabeth Bennett dismiss Mr. Darcy before she truly knew him?  Time and again we see the heroes underestimate the heroine due to meaningless surface details like her appearance, her parentage, the way she speaks.  Always the characters are wiser by the end.

2) No Heroine Should Expect to be Rescued.  Any heroine who waits for a rescue will never get the respect of the reader.  Novelist Barbara Dawson Smith said, “Unlike other forms of fiction, romance novels spotlight a woman who struggles but always wins in the end.”  The heroines of romance novels almost always have something they cherish, and will fight any odds to protect it.  Remember Scarlett O’Hara slogging through the Georgia countryside to get back to Tara?   For every flailing heroine who occasionally appears in a romance novel, she is dwarfed by the hundreds of women who have the backbone, fortitude, and resilience to weather any storm.  Frankly, the Damsel in Distress is not a very attractive character unless she is doing something about her plight.  She is rarely seen in romance novels.

3) If you Don’t Treat Your Man Well, Someone Else Will!  Back to Scarlett O’Hara.  Time and again she snubs Rhett, driving him straight into the attentive arms of Belle Watling. Many romance novels feature a wicked Other Woman who is waiting in the wings.  She is usually portrayed as a dazzling, amoral creature who is sending out lures to trap the unsuspecting hero.  Rarely in fiction, but sadly in real life, she is simply a soft place to land after the heroine has been tossing a load of guff at the hero. That was who Belle Watling was for Rhett.  She is far more dangerous than the cardboard caricature of the wickedly evil woman, and a smart heroine needs to be on the lookout for her.  There is a certain amount of routine maintenance that goes into a great relationship.  Men don’t like being taken for granted any more than women do.

4) Judge your man by his actions, rather than his words.  Heroes in romance novels tend to do extraordinary things on behalf of the heroine.  They take risks, slay dragons, cross a raging sea on her behalf.  One thing they aren’t so good at is delivering the perfect turn of phrase.  That is because men are hard-wired to be doers, rather than talkers.  Ironically, it is usually the villain who is good with words.  He is the man who will tell the heroine what she wants to hear, but when it comes time to deliver, he is nowhere to be found.  I think most teenaged girls would be well-served if they learned to stop listening to what boys tell them, and simply observe their actions. 

5) Falling in Love involves Risk.  For a relationship to take root and flourish, both sides need to open up, share their deepest thoughts, vulnerabilities, fears and aspirations.  This is scary.  When you lay your heart on the line, there is always the danger that it is going to get stomped on.  The characters in a romance novel will learn how to overcome embarrassment, the risk of rejection, and become vulnerable enough to fall in love.  That is huge.  Some people go through their entire lives and never learn how to do it, but not so in a romance novel.  




Happy Birthday to the King James Bible

One of the greatest books in the English language turns 400 this year.  The translation was the work of 47 scholars, who labored for seven years on the project.  First printed in 1611, buyers could opt for loose-leaf pages for ten shillings, or a bound copy for twelve.

In celebration of the famous Bible, the Museum of Biblical Art  is hosting an exhibition that explores the historic context of the King James, an examination of its predecessors, and over fifty bibles of historical interest.  I have heard great reviews of the show. 

If you are in New York City, the exhibit runs through October 16, 2011.



Mary Ann or Ginger?

If you are of a certain generation, that phrase needs no explanation.  For those who were born after 1980 or so, perhaps it does.  Gilligan’s Island was a popular sitcom back in the 60’s and 70’s, before the typical household had 300 television channels to choose from.  The show featured two pop culture icons who were polar opposites of each other.  

Ginger was the bombshell sex goddess.  Brazenly gorgeous, she oozed sex appeal as she slithered through her scenes with a knock out figure, dazzling repartee, and a promise of unabashed sexuality.  In contrast, Mary Ann was the homespun farm girl with her hair in pigtails.  Low-maintenance and non threatening, it is said that Mary Ann was preferred three to one by men surveyed on the topic.

I’ve always been partial to Mary Ann, simply because I could never carry the Ginger attitude off.  Besides, I think Ginger always seemed like someone who would come to a bad end in a James Bond movie.

In the fictional world of Romancelandia, Mary Ann is also the hand-down winner.  I don’t see many heroines modeled after the sex kitten. It simply isn’t something most women aspire to.  It might be fun to look like Ginger for a day, but I don’t think many women would want to walk in her shoes for a lifetime.

Fireproof: Never Leave Your Partner Behind

I loved this movie. This is a very different type of love story, as it does not follow the course of two people meeting and falling in love. Rather, it is about learning to fall in love with your spouse all over again.

The movie opens with a young married couple who have fallen out of love. Their lives developed in different directions and they have slowly become two strangers inhabiting the same home. Disrespect is corroding their ability to communicate or even want to be near each other. When the wife asks for a divorce, the husband (brilliantly portrayed by Kirk Cameron) is ready to throw in the towel as well, but decides to give his marriage one, last-ditch effort to succeed.

Kirk Cameron plays a firefighter in the movie, who is well aware of the preventive measures all people should take to insure against fire hazards that can flare up to destroy a home. The movie is about the concept of fireproofing a marriage. How to spot the corrosive habits, behaviors, and attitudes that can undermine the love that once seemed so promising. How to fix them, even if it means gritting you teeth day after day.

So often love stories deal with the initial whirlwind of falling in love. I found Fireproof a more complicated exploration of an aspect of love that hasn’t found a lot of traction in popular fiction or movies.

I gather the movie has generated an entire business helping couples, families, even businesses put the principles taught in the movie into gear.