Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dead. Sexy.

Recently I read an historical romance* in which the still-feisty, aged heroine is telling her spirited, dear-to-her granddaughters of the adventurous life she lived, regaling them with tales from her childhood and adolescence, as well as the tumultuous story of the merry chase she led the gorgeous man who would be her forever love. And a few pages in my heart literally stuttered because I realized the author’d broken romance convention; the heroine’s a widow, and the hero of this “reminiscence” romance now is dead!

We must assume the poor guy lived a long, happy, lusty life with the lovely old gal, for she’s still full of mischief ‘n vinegar. Yet the reality is, he’s toes up when we begin the book. How do I know this? I did the unthinkable: I flipped to the end of the novel.

Now, I really liked this book. And it’s not like we watch the hero die on the page; we simply understand from the grande dame’s later comments. Yet as I mentioned, I was saddened a little that I was going to have to face in black and white what I like to avoid by reading romances.

The device of foreshadowing death of a prominent character isn’t new, it’s simply one not used all that often in romance. It’s a snazzy trick, however, and one of my favorite fiction reads, “Slammerkin,” by Emma Donoghue, uses it as well. My coronary palpitation at the realization I’d be losing a leading protag in that one added to the sense of desperation and hopelessness conveyed in the novel. Still, the burgeoning HEA addict within me – I read it before I’d begun reading romance – was really stirred.

I remember thinking at the time that using foreshadowing in that novel – as well as other devices that add to that kind of maudlin, bleak feel I absorb from a lot of popular women’s fiction – is kind of a cheap way to tug at women’s empathy genes. Pretty condescending when one considers the same criticism sometimes is lobbed at romance-fiction writing.

Some say that the death of any major lovable character in a romance breaks the reader/author HEA contract. Yet I’ve read an old-school novel in which a secondary heroine sort of euthanized her lover when he fell in battle, then killed herself, as well as a romance in which a female warrior-heroine from another novel was reported as having died with honor while in combat. I remember feeling really sad and teary, yet accepted the storytelling “as is.”

Maybe 30 years ago we didn’t need the strict HEA as much as we do today. I know I’ve been more than happy to avoid harsh life’s realities with marvelous romance during the last year’s economic craziness. Yet I’ve got to say that, while it shook me a little, I enjoyed the rattle and roll our matriarch heroine provided in the book I first told you about today.

Maybe we’re ready for a little peek at what comes after “Happily Ever”.

What novels have you read which jolted your HEA comfort zone, yet you found still worked for you? Why do you think older romances might have allowed for a little more tragedy?

*NO SPOILER ALERT: I’m not going to tell you which book I’m discussing because it’s new and I don’t want to spoil plot points. If you think you know which it is, thanks for giving the author the same consideration by not spillin'.
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23 comments:

ev said...

It doesn't bother me- maybe it would if the widow was younger. But she seems to have a great story to tell. the fact that she is able to tell it to her grandchildren so they know the history is cool. Shows that even after the HEA love continues.

You get the HEA in a book, but you don't get the future.You can only imagine what it was and if they lasted. This way you know that it did.

cheryl c said...

I recently read a backlist book of a favorite author. I expected the usual witty romance from her, but this was a totally different kind of book. About halfway through the book, I was stunned when the hero dies. I'm thinking, "Nooo, this is a romance novel, the hero CAN'T DIE!" I was so upset that I couldn't finish the book.

I let the book rest for a few weeks before picking it up again. I must have needed time to grieve like the heroine did.;-) This time when I picked up where I left off, I looked at it like a new story with a new hero. I really enjoyed the last part of the book with the heroine discovering love again. So this story had two heroes, and the heroine got her happy ending.

I finally got the HEA ending that I needed, but I felt sucker-punched in the middle of the book.

debbie haupt said...

Well those of you who know me, know that the HEA is very important to me. I am one of those people who if they don't know or trust their author read the end just to make sure the hero and heroine are riding off in the sunset. It's the main reason I stay away from Nick Sparks, although I love his writing and I loved The Wedding and some others. Also Luanne Rice has a tendency to have us go through two boxes of puffs on occasion, in fact Cloud Nine by her is the reason I read the end of romance books today. There is enough bad in the world and I don't enjoy a good cry with my romance unless I know that the end will justify it.
But when you do spill the beans on the book I'd be interested in knowing it, because I don't think a dowager widow speaking of the love of her life who has passed at an old age would bother me.
Deb

denise said...

I don't have to have a HEA. I like the journey.

LisaK said...

Hm, what an interesting plot device. I normally don't like it when there isn't a HEA but I understand - correct me if I'm wrong - that this book has some kind of frame story, so it actually starts with that widow telling her grandchildren about her life? So, in a story like that, I can accept that the hero had died along the way as long as I don't have to read about it in the actual story. Still, I'd think it would leave some bitter taste after having read it.

I'm one of the lucky persons who hasn't yet had the misfortune of reading a romance where one of the protagonists dies unexpectedly during the book. That would shock me, I think. It's okay in a Drama or whichever genre, but when there's "Romance" written on it, I normally want to have a HEA!

Kara said...

I haven't read a story where the hero dies...but I have read a book where there was infidelity in the middle of the relationship!! Did that ever throw me for a loop...I felt like I was kicked in the stomach. I almost didn't finish the book...but in the end...they worked it out...but still...the book lost that good feeling for me!!

Becke Davis said...

One of my favorite books is a romance where we suspect that the hero is dead, but it isn't confirmed until pretty far into the book. It's a story of the heroine, who lost her One True Love far too soon, and how she goes on with her life and opens herself up to love again. I so strongly connected with the heroine, I wanted to burst into tears when I realized she'd been in denial for a good part of the book. I wanted to stay in denial with her; I wanted it to be a mistake, just as she did. It was so well written, I really loved the book.

It wasn't a case of the author killing off a character; he was dead before the story began, the heroine just refused to accept it. It was one of those stories that ended with the possibility of a new HEA rather than the actual thing, but it was still a lovely book.

amy kennedy said...

I read a book where the heroine travels to the past -- falls in love and then realizes he dies in war (sorry, can't remember if she had seen his name among the listed dead in the future...)then returns to the present -- and sees someone close to her with new eyes, let's say re-incarnated eyes. It certainly was different, well written, just hard for me.

Which book had the hero killing the heroine's brother...historical/medeival. That was horrible, I almost couldn't finish it. But, I did.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Buona sera, Bellas! Good to see youz. Hey, first, I think I should say I believe the reader can assume the hero led a long, happy life and died of natural causes, as they say. Or at least one natural cause, cause, well that's all it really takes, no?

Anyway, I like this discussion because it's a little different from the 'can you live w/out an hea?' query. There's definitely an hea in there, just a little differently from the way we expect.

back in a few...

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

ev, you hit on a great point, because clearly, she's encouraging her grandaughters to live fully... good to see you!

wowza, cheryl! how brave of you both. It's really cool that you went back to see where the story traveled. Now that you look back, do you feel the author told a new kind of story by creating it that way? I so hear you on the sucker punch. Mine felt really disappointing, then I felt foolish, like, 'well, of course, nothing lasts forever, we all know it, and this story might have been more bland told without it."

Princess Bumblebee said...

Michelle, although tragedy is not usually my cup'o, I would say this story might be an exception. It sounds to me like this is a grandmotherly woman relating her life's events to her granddaughters for entertainment and probably to give them a little lesson of life. Much like my grandmother did. I mean, we sometimes don't always know the deets of our grandparent's life and how they fell in love, especially when the other has passed away. However, it probably would not work so well if it had been a young widow relating to her young children how their father died.

Princess Bumblebee said...

Just wanted to add that I definately love me some HEA and stay clear of any books that don't have an HEA. Just wanted to make sure that was understood, hehe.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Hi, Deb! Of course, we all know, or maybe have heard, that Nick sparks says he doesnt write romance, he writes "love stories". I stay away from him because of the sappy endings, though I probably would have liked him in my teens. I'm pretty ascared of non-hea, so I really am careful, like you, about picking up authors whom I know consistently don't do hea, or only do hopeful. but if someone changes their mind and goes for hea once -- and someone clues me in -- i'm all over it. I'm just never in the mood to give up my relaxation/escape time to anything that ends negatively or w/out the strong hea.

You're a true lover of fiction and the art of the tale, Denise. : )


Kara, now there's a topic i love! the infidelity ish. I had the same experience as you when i started reading romance, pretty early on. I was so shocked. but it made sense in the time period -- and in this case the couple weren't a 'couple' yet, just getting started. Still, I really was taken aback, as they say, probably like you were. Since then I've certainly read other cases and find it another example of romance authors attacking difficult relationship issues and often either teaching us tolerance or understanding through them, or helping us get through our own pain.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

becke, that sounds pretty amazing.

ames, wasn't that kingdom of dreams? i thought you liked that one, unless it's a diff one. that reincarnation thing sounds wild. kresley cole has a upcoming hero who's a berserker who dies then is reincarnated over/over, trying to get with a heroine who's name's escaping me, but principessa bb would know...

speak of the devil(ish) principessa! this is really more like your grandmother, not a tragedy at all. and that's a great point, how we'd love to know what really went on with the courting, etc., maybe learn from it or realize we've more in common w/our mothers, grandmothers than we thought...

PJ said...

Michelle, I recently finished reading this book. At least, I'm pretty sure it's the same book, and my feelings were much the same as yours. For most of the book I kept hoping that my suspicions weren't true, that he was still alive, yet I knew in my heart that he wasn't. The surprising thing, for me, is that knowing that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story. Part of that may have been because of the heroine's advanced age but it's also because I know from personal experience that, in time, the heart heals and the excruciating pain of loss transforms into precious, treasured memories of the love and joy that two people shared. Though the ending of this story was bittersweet (for me), it was far outweighed by my journey through the heroine's treasured memories.

PJ said...

I read a book where the heroine travels to the past -- falls in love and then realizes he dies in war (sorry, can't remember if she had seen his name among the listed dead in the future...)then returns to the present -- and sees someone close to her with new eyes, let's say re-incarnated eyes. It certainly was different, well written, just hard for me.

Amy, that's how I feel about Jude Deveraux's A Knight in Shining Armor." I loved this book so much but I sobbed and sobbed when I got to the end.

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I know she ended up with Nicholas's soul reincarnated in Colin but I wanted her to be with Nicholas! It's still one of my all-time favorite books but I've never quite forgiven Deveraux for the way it ended and it still makes my heart ache whenever I think about it.

amy kennedy said...

Yes! PJ, I wanted her with the hero from WWII...that's what it was. Thanks

Michelle, yeah -- Kingdom of Dreams. I loved it, but the brother thing was hard to get past. I closed the book for a day, before finishing it.

I don't know why, but I love Berserkers Michelle.

Gannon Carr said...

PJ, A KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR is one of my favorites, but I still cry profusely every time I read it!

Jill Kemerer said...

I love the HEA, but as long as I get to experience their love journey, I think showing the end can work. The end better be death, though, and not divorce!

Eva Gale said...

How about an answer that's not an answer? It depends. If the writer has given me a satisfying read with the main couple, then I'm OK with that-AS LONG AS he doesn't die on the page-meaning within the timeframe the story is taking place. They got married, loved and laughed, he passed and now she's in her 90's telling her grandkids. The effect of the heroine looking back and telling her grandaughters is bittersweet. If he dies on the page some time after they start thier life and it's on the page? I hate that book. lol.

NOW, one book that breaks all of those rules --kinda--is Penelope Williamson's The Passions of Emma. Ther heroine falls in love with the hero, but the hero is married to a woman who dies of TB during the story. HEART WRENCHING and so, so bittersweet. But the thing that makes the book wonderful is that both the heroine (Emma) and the Hero (Shay) love the wife. And they keep thier own feelings to themselves. Total emotional read and you'd better have tissues. One of my most favorite books in the world. And yes, Emma and Shay have a happy ending.

Lucy Monroe said...

I remember reading a Danielle Steele years ago that used this type of foreshadowing - with the grandmother telling the granddaughter her story (with her usual twists and turns to romantic happiness) so the g-daughter would not hold back from love the rest of the family didn't approve of. It was really moving and though I would have told you before reading the book I wouldn't like it, I was happily wrong. ;-)

Blythe Gifford said...

I've had the opposite experience, I guess. Reading some historical fiction that was riding the rails straight to an UN-happy ending and the author managed to turn it 180 from my expectations. At the end of the book, my jaw dropped and all I could think of was "This is a romance!" (Sort of the way I felt about the movie Slumdog Millionaire.)

And no, I won't say who because it would also be a spoiler.

ajay said...
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