I read an honest-to-god romance novel and my brain needs a thousand showers

Spoiler alert: I read a Nora Roberts novel and I hated it. If you don’t like snark, judgment, and possible myopia, click away my friend. Click away.

I now have only one book left in my staff reading challenge: a Western. That means I have conquered a romance novel.

Before I start talking about the actual book I read, I want to point out that there are a lot of underlying issues here that I want to dig deeper into with time. Sexism in the publishing industry is an issue I don’t take lightly. I mean, Jane Austen writes about read novels being dismissed as a silly, “female” past-time, and two hundred years later Austen’s books are still dismissed for their being “girly” and so are many other books aimed at female readers.

That being said, the romance novel I read was fucking awful. Like, maybe the worst novel I’ve ever read. Like, I’d rather re-read The Sacred Fount ten times than re-read this one. So I’m going to be honest and say that I had a hard time trying to actively deconstruct the issues in place surrounding the genre because trying to finish The MacKade Brothers: Rafe and Jared caused me to expend the majority of my mental energy trying to keep my eyes from rolling all the way into the back of my head.

I knew at the outset I would have to read a romance novel for the staff reading challenge I’ve been on about for months now. I had no idea which one. I decided to try to pick a novel that was only a romance, i.e., did not blend with other genres like urban fantasy, mystery, or historical fiction. No naughty dukes for me. But I still suffered over what to pick. I’m almost never about the love story. Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, and Mr. Tilney are pretty alright, but secondary to Austen’s wit. I rarely watch movies where romance is the focus. There are exceptions to this rule, of course (even if I argue romance isn’t at the center of my beloved costume dramas, I still love Rushmore). So picking a book with no pretense other than the love story made me a little crazy.

When I tried to do research, I discovered this list of romance writer Bella Andre’s ten favorites. Her Number 1 book wasn’t available in physical book format from the library where I work and I don’t have an eReader (the reading challenge needs to involve books available in our catalogue). I picked up books with hunk-a-licious entanglements on the cover for months and put them all back.

One day, I couldn’t take my own over-analysis any longer and pulled The MacKade Brothers: Rafe and Jared out from the pack of Nora Roberts novels. The book is actually a twofer, containing both the short novels The Return of Rafe MacKade and The Pride of Jared MacKade. It was like the worst piece of Wrigley’s Double Mint Gum ever.

The Return of Rafe MacKade

Nora Roberts has published over 200 books and something like 175 of them have been #1 bestsellers. I am about to say a myopic, judge-y thing: this fact makes me lose faith in humanity. Even with troubling social tropes in play throughout the novel, it’s very badly written and it’s very boring. In short, I’m offended as a feminist, as a reader, and as a writer.

The Return of Rafe MacKade is the first book in a series about the four chiseled, green-eyed MacKade brothers of Antietam, Maryland. But they’re all different. Their eyes are even four different shades of green because symbolism. Bad boy Rafe comes back to town after a decade-long absence in order to restore a decaying old house to its 1862 splendor. And who better to help him than Antietam newcomer Regan Bishop, the local antique dealer and the only woman possibly ever to rebuff Rafe MacKade’s advances…at least at first……

Let’s start with the bad writing. The book certainly does. Chapter One opens thusly:

The bad boy was back. The town of Antietam was buzzing over it, passing fact, rumor and innuendo from one to another, the way guests at a boardinghouse passed bowls of steaming stew.

It was a rich broth, spiced with scandal, sex and secrets. Rafe McKade had come back after ten years. (18)

So his return is like an awkwardly executed, overly specific soup metaphor? Like, a friend stayed over at my apartment on Valentine’s Day and in our own stew of ironic zeitgeist, holiday spirit, and chardonnay we tried to read this book out loud to each other for the lulz but it was too bad to continue.

I will just  briefly list some of the problems: the perspective shifts are scattered and jarring, the characters are drawn with such broad and divergent strokes that they’re both clichéd and confusing, and a pretty major subplot about Civil War past life/ghost business appeared suddenly and then was dropped. And so much telling-not-showing—Rafe is a bad boy but he’s also sensitive. What about his own character drives him forward? It’s pretty much not answered. We get the allusion to some daddy/mommy issues, but other than that he’s a bad boy stereotype who goes against type at periods that occur seemingly at the author’s convenience. Even as someone whose knowledge of the genre comes from pop culture osmosis, it felt like Roberts was going through the motions.

Also, I found The Return of Rafe MacKade to be sexist in a lot of troubling ways. I give Roberts credit for at least attempting to cast Regan Bishop, the female lead, as someone who treasures personal independence. you know, when it’s convenient. Rafe MacKade, again, is a “bad boy”—he picks fights and lets out his aggression by committing violence (or threatening to). For example he threatens and/or beats up on his brothers for talking about Regan’s physical attractiveness and for one having gone out with her on a couple of chaste dates before Rafe knew she existed. It bothers me that Rafe’s possessiveness and aggression make him somehow heroic, especially because Rafe is contrasted with another character’s physically abusive husband.

And let’s see…at some point, aforementioned physically abusive husband attacks Regan for getting . And what is Rafe upset about? Regan didn’t call him to come rescue her. I mean, what kind of woman is so preoccupied with stabbing an assailant in the eye that she doesn’t think to call her knight in shining armor? And she lets his butt-hurt over this fact actually convince her that she’s in the wrong. The couple also discuss how they have few things in common and make a friendly bet about something I’ve forgotten. If Regan loses, she must appear in a pool hall in a leather mini-skirt. If Rafe loses, he’s supposed to recite Shelley. Because no woman can love pool and no man could love poetry. And because they both want to prove how much they love each other, they each hold out the loser’s end of the deal. Of course, Regan’s is public and humiliating. But it’s okay if Rafe just privately recites the four lines of Shelley it took his dumb ass a week to memorize—because it would be embarrassing for a man to recite some sissy poetry in front of anyone but the woman he intends to marry.

Oh, and the sex scenes are boring. I know this isn’t erotica, but come the fuck on (pun intended? ew). If the love story made any sense, maybe I could get behind the more romantic-as-opposed-to-erotic inclinations. But then I mean, Charlotte Brontë has written some prose that makes my hair stand on end and my soul ache.

Also weird: not that many sex scenes even occur, especially if you think about the instances of antique/decorating talk in the book. Here’s a passage:

Her nerves strained as she stopped by the settee. It was a gorgeous piece, and it had had a price to match. However much she coveted it, she would never have made the bid if she hadn’t had a customer in the wings.

Now, she thought of that customer—the scarred boots, the ripped shirt, the potent aura of man. What had she been thinking of, she wondered frantically, imagining Rafe MacKade approving of an elegant, curvy, and decidedly feminine pieces such as this?

“Ah, it’s walnut…” she began, running a suddenly icy hand over the carved arm. “Around 1850. It’s been reupholstered, of course, but the material is very much in keeping with the era. You can see the double-shaped backs are centered by a circular upholstered panel. The workmanship is first-rate, and the seat is surprisingly comfortable…It’s sixty-nine inches wide, and well worth the expense.” (82)

Um…yeah does anyone else need a new pair of underwear after reading about this couch? I mean, clearly Regan is thinking about the settee as a metaphor for herself, seeing if she’s worthy to hold up Rafe MacKade’s bad boy butt. But then the details again get oddly specific. So let’s read part of a sex scene:

The climax slammed into her, a bare-knuckled punch that knocked her senseless. Reeling from it, she sobbed out his name. And, shuddering, shuddering, hungered for more.

He gave her more. And took more. Each time she thought he would end it, must end it, he found some new way to batter her senses. There was only him, the taste, the feel, the smell of him. They rolled over the floor in a wild, glorious combat, her nails digging ruthlessly into his back, his mouth searing hers. (110-111)

Remember, these two characters are supposed to just be naturally drawn to each other through preternatural sexual chemistry (hereafter referred to as PSC). I know more about that damn 1850s couch than I understand how they connected or what the hell was going on during their incredibly abstract sexy times (wait, did he actually punch her? no? maybe?). I also threw some major shade on those really violent metaphors through my yawning (if they are metaphors).

The Pride of Jared MacKade

So once Bad Boy Rafe gets his happy ending, it’s time to tell the tale of Lawyer Jared (the second twofer book in the series relays stories of Sheriff Devin and Farmer Shane, if anyone is interested). Jared gets in a tizzy because of a defiant, independent single mother who, like all women, apparently wants nothing more than to just be dominated and then taken care of. And I shit you not, her name is Savannah Morningstar, which is okay because she’s part Native American and therefore “exotic.” She’s also an artist and he is a boring lawyer with the worst color scheme of all time in his office (this is a major plot point).

The Pride of Jared MacKade wasn’t as awful, but the bar is set pretty damn low. This story is less about the “bad boy” trope and more about the persistent approach. It’s cool that Savannah is independent and all, but again the plot is really pretty sexist. Jared gets his undies in a wad because she used to support herself through exotic dancing and “he has a right to know” if she was ever a prostitute. He also gets mad at her secretiveness surrounding her past. Savannah gets upset by the perfect appearance of Regan as an ideal she can never measure up to. And I’m not sure either of these plot points would even be unbearable as they are if they were handled differently, i.e., not in a ham-fisted, unimaginative, melodramatic way that doesn’t seem to have much root in the characters. Or if Jared even really changed at the end. But even under his “heroism,” his possessiveness and obvious dominant position in the relationship as “the man” stay the same.

So yeah. Bad just bad. Boring and awful, so much so I can’t turn on the critical, lets-unpack-these-tropes part of my brain. Just crap. Crap I say.

Okay, now that I’ve had my temper tantrum, I’d really like anyone with anything to add to step in and help me understand the popularity of novels like this and Roberts as an author. Granted, I’ve read one book from the 200 she’s produced in the past 30-plus years. Are there any people in the audience who have more to add about things like theory or the perception of the genre? Are all romances this bad? Is this one even bad or is it relatively good to those familiar with the genre? I’m just baffled. Please help.