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.

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Jane Eyre is My Shoulder Devil

Spoiler alert: this discussion of Jane Eyre makes reference to a twist in the novel that may not be known to some readers, even though the novel was published in 1847.

As I mentioned in my blog reboot, I have shocked many people in my literary life by admitting I have never read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I’ll admit, it’s weird for someone whose coursework consists mostly of nineteenth-century British novels to not have read one of the most well-known novels of the time. It took me three starts to finally finish Jane Eyre after college.

Here’s a story about a class I took in college because all my blog posts start out this way: my best introduction to the works of the Brontës besides Kate Beaton’s comic. I took a class in college called The Victorian Social World. We read five novels: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope. Someone asked about the Brontë sisters one day in some capacity: probably because their books all came out about the same time as the books on the syllabus. Our professor told us that the only novel any of the Brontës wrote that has a large social world is Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, which he left off to avoid redundancy in our small department, since Shirley was the centerpiece to a class taught almost every year (those of us who took that class the next semester discovered that Shirley has a plot very similar to North and South anyway).

He told us the Brontës’ novels were not engaged in larger social worlds. Instead, there were few characters, and they were often geographically isolated from anyone else. He said that the Brontë heroines were full of strong emotions roiling below the surface and they would bubble over at intervals: anger, passion, despair. Their novels were Gothic romances, highly melodramatic stories where these  passionate heroines fall in love with brooding Byronic heroes despite forces threatening to tear them apart. (I have read no Anne Brontë yet, but I believe many of these traits pertain mostly to Charlotte’s and Emily’s works. I could be wrong.)

In March of 2011, I went to see Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre in the theater. I really enjoyed it and wanted to read the book, but I had less than two months until graduation and had other things occupying my time (read: finishing my thesis, writing two long finals, and not going insane). I picked up Jane Eyre soon after graduation and saw what my professor was talking about—things that were downplayed in the film.

First, a synopsis (skip to the the picture of Charlotte Brontë if you’re familiar):

Jane Eyre is an orphan who lives with her aunt and cousins, the Reeds, who all despise and mistreat her. She is sent to Lowood school to endure abuse and a strict religious education until age 18, when she seeks employment as a governess. The only respondent to her advertisement is Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper at Thornfield Hall. Jane begins to teach Adèle Varens, a French child who is the ward of Thornfield’s master, Edward Fairfax Rochester. Jane first meets Rochester when she is out walking and he is thrown from his horse, though he doesn’t reveal himself as her employer until Jane arrives back at the house.

Rochester is a hard fellow to read: he’s gruff, abrupt, he seems to delight in making Jane uncomfortable, but she meets his mental obstacles with grace and without fear. Jane is happy in her new home, but weird stuff happens at Thornfield. There’s weird laughter in the halls at night. One night she wakes up to discover Mr. Rochester’s bed chamber in flames and saves his life. Jane and Rochester become closer and act almost as equals, but Rochester seems to favor a nearby noblewoman, Blanche Ingram, as a potential wife.

Miss Ingram’s party comes to stay at Thornfield and subject Jane to humiliation. An unexpected guest turns up while the party are there, Richard Mason. In the night, Rochester fetches Jane to his aid—Richard has been stabbed and bitten, and Jane must attend to the wound while Rochester fetches the doctor.

Jane receives news that her cousin John Reed has squandered his fortune and committed suicide, sending her Aunt Reed into an apoplectic fit. Jane goes back to see Mrs. Reed, who tells her that Jane has a living relation, John Eyre of Madeira, who had written to ask about adopting Jane. Mrs. Reed replied that Jane had died of typhus at Lowood. Jane forgives Mrs. Reed, who dies. Jane writes to her uncle to correct her aunt’s lie.

When Jane arrives back at Thornfield, rumors of Mr. Rochester’s impending marriage fly. Jane tries to leave Rochester, the two confess their love for one another, and Rochester asks Jane to marry him. Jane loves Rochester, but she is apprehensive of the marriage: she does not want to wear fine clothes and a strange woman tears her wedding veil in the night.

One month after the proposal, as Jane and Rochester stand at the altar, a solicitor named Mr. Briggs and Richard Mason interrupt the ceremony to reveal that Mr. Rochester is already married to Mason’s sister: Bertha Antoinetta Mason, who still lives at Thornfield. Richard Mason was tipped off by John Eyre of Madeira that his niece Jane was to be wed. Rochester takes everyone back to the house to reveal his wife: violent and insane, she lives locked in a room with a caregiver. Bertha is responsible for the fire in Mr. Rochester’s room and the stabbing of her brother; she stole the keys while her caretaker slept.

Rochester proposes to Jane that they live as though they were married in Europe without legally tying the knot. Jane refuses; she says she must respect herself. She runs away and finds shelter and employment with the Rivers family, St. John the parson and his two sisters. Jane does not reveal her real name or past, but soon St. John uncovers her secrets after receiving word that his uncle, John Eyre of Madeira, has died and left a fortune of £20,000 to his niece Jane Eyre. Jane, overjoyed at having family, splits her inheritance four ways. St. John feels a calling to become a missionary in India and asks Jane to accompany him as his wife.

Jane does not love St. John. She travels back to Thornfield to seek news of Rochester. She finds the house a blackened ruin: Bertha set the house on fire before jumping from the roof. Mr. Rochester survived, but lost his vision and his right hand trying to save her. Jane travels to his cottage, where she and Rochester reunite, they eventually get married, and live together happily, have children, hooray everybody.

Charlotte's got a pretty brooding countenance herself.

Charlotte’s got a pretty brooding countenance herself.

I enjoyed Jane Eyre each of the three times I began it after graduation, but finishing the novel was a challenge and took over two years. Some of it was readjusting to reading for pleasure, but a lot of it was the fact that I have a really weird reaction to this book (and the first third of Wuthering Heights, but that’s another story for another time).

Here’s the thing: if I could be a character in literature, it would probably be an Austen heroine. Austen heroines take all of society’s ridiculous bullshit with aplomb and eventually they meet the man of their dreams, there’s some mutual sanding-down of rougher edges from both parties, and they live happily ever after as islands of well-tempered bliss in a sea of blithering idiots and flat characters.I’m not saying Austen heroines are without emotion, no matter what Charlotte Brontë thought of Jane Austen’s work.But I’m probably closer to a Brontë heroine than an Austen heroine. Whether I like it or not, I feel like I could sometimes be described as a “simmering soup pot of rage,” even if I generally keep a tight lid on it. To continue with the soup metaphor (I skipped lunch, okay?), I have had moments where I feel like I might overboil. Generally, I vent in a safe space, like to friends over instant messaging instead of hauling off and yelling at the construction workers next door, “Do you HAVE to start at 7:30 EVERY MORNING?”But when I read Jane Eyre, something happened to me.The first time I read through Jane Eyre after graduation, there was a little bit of friendship drama going on in my life. After one particularly bad night, I tried to calm down by escaping into the world of literature. Big. Mistake.

Here’s Jane having a showdown with Mrs. Reed (note: all citations come from the third Norton Critical Edition):

“I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty….You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity….I will tell anybody who asks me questions, this exact tale. People think you a good woman, but you are bad, hard- hearted. YOU are deceitful!”

Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty. Not without cause was this sentiment: Mrs. Reed looked frightened; her work had slipped from her knee; she was lifting up her hands, rocking herself to and fro, and even twisting her face as if she would cry. (30-31)

This is one of those moments that hasn’t made it into either of the film adaptations I’ve seen (the 2011 feature film and the 2006 miniseries—both very good). It shocked me. Even at age 10, Jane Eyre takes no bullshit from anybody. Sometimes I feel as though I go through life as a doormat that secretly covers a hellmouth. Reading Jane Eyre’s telling-off when I as already mad at all my friends, when I was struggling with moving back home after graduation, when every job application was rejected….I stopped reading because I felt like continuing on  would put me in genuine peril of grabbing my phone and texting someone “YOU ARE DEAD TO ME.”  Brontë’s work resonated with my emotional tumult in a way I’ve rarely experienced in literature. It’s kind of creepy, actually.

The next two times I began the novel, these strong emotional reactions persisted. It wasn’t just the “you go, girl!” moments of Jane Eyre giving somebody the business. Even though I knew what was going to happen, the nighttime arson and stabbing gave me real cases of the heebie-jeebies. Throughout, Brontë seasons her narrative with Gothic flavoring (note to self: eat before writing next time): not only are Thornfield and its happenings and its surroundings creeptastic as all get-out, but Jane grows up in a home where a servant feeds her fantastic tales about fairies and the haunted Red Room. But for all Jane’s imaginings of the supernatural, the horrors she experiences are a weird mix of the realistic but melodramatic: Lowood school is tortuous and plagued by disease, the laughter at Thornfield is not a spirit but the very tangible obstacle to Jane’s happiness.

I would go so far as to say I loved Jane Eyre. I’m not sure I would say, “I loooooooove Jane Eyre,” and my sticking point is actually Mr. Rochester, even though he’s supposedly everybody’s favorite romantic hero. This doesn’t pertain to Movie Rochester when played by either Toby Stephens or Michael Fassbender—in that case the creepy-sexy-cool stars align and it’s more like, “No, Mr. Rochester—leave your ascot on.” But in the book, I found Mr. Rochester overbearing to the point of creepiness. When Jane tells him about her veil being torn by what is revealed to be Bertha, Rochester totally gaslights her. Once he finally proposes, his insistence of showering her with gifts and her insistence on not giving an inch made me feel really uncomfortable:

“I will myself put the diamond chain round your neck, and the circlet on your forehead,—which it will become: for nature, at least, has stamped her patent of nobility on this brow, Jane; and I will clasp the bracelets on these fine wrists, and load these fairy- like fingers with rings.”

“No, no, sir! think of other subjects, and speak of other things, and in another strain. Don’t address me as if I were a beauty; I am your plain, Quakerish governess.”

“You are a beauty in my eyes, and a beauty just after the desire of my heart,—delicate and aerial.”

“Puny and insignificant, you mean. You are dreaming, sir,—or you are sneering. For God’s sake don’t be ironical!” (220-221)

Like…is this “oh I’m so ugly why would you marry me” schtick supposed to be flirtation? Protofemisim? Nineteenth century humblebrag? I DON’T LIKE IT. WHERE IS THE JANE THAT TELLS AUNT REED TO EFF OFF? I agree with what this rundown of Jane Eyre adaptations points out: we love Rochester because we love Jane. Jane and Rochester is like when you secretly hate your best friend’s main squeeze, so you just say like, “I’m just happy you’re happy.”

So here’s some more textual evidence that Jane Eyre totally rules:

“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!” (215-216)

And my favorite:

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” (270)

Aw yis. Doesn’t she just make you want to call up that person that made your day totally crappy and lay down the law? Four for you, Jane Eyre. You go, Jane Eyre.

Final thought: Reader, I hearted it.