Reading Romance: Romancing the Stubborn

Everyone knows the trappings of romance: long, lazy dalliances, handmade chocolates, luscious gowns, roses, waltzes, and more chocolate. Oh, and a dark-eyed man with tousled hair and broad shoulders.

But just watch that romance disappear when the dark-eyed charmer refuses to ask for directions because he knows the way to the interstate -- and an hour later you're still lost. Or when he informs you that his mother always told him that marriage was a trap, roses are an opiate, and diamonds are nothing more than consumerist rubbish.

So what do we do with a hero who's unrepentantly stubborn, defiant, and convinced he's right, even when he's obviously wrong? Not just wrong about the need to summon a plumber (versus play around with his own wrenches) but wrong in the way he views the world?

When I started writing my current novel, When the Duke Returns, I didn't intend to create a hero defined by his stubbornness. I had designed a tidy plot in which a duke returns from years wandering the world to meet the wife he married by proxy. I was thinking about the fun of marriages between strangers, not to mention an alpha, virgin hero. But then my returning adventurer took one look at his wife and offered an annulment. Isidore isn't what Simeon wants: she's too sensual, too beautiful, and too irritated, whereas he is absolutely convinced that happy marriages result from unions with chaste, obedient, and peace-loving women. Isidore's virginity is her only qualification.

Where's the romance in a man so wrongheaded? I doubled the reality by causing Simeon's ducal mansion to stink, because the water closets (or toilets) hadn't worked for years. The former duke had been even more pigheaded than his son: when the pipes broke, he refused to pay for plumbers to fix them. That stench is a metaphor for the stinkiness of male stubbornness.

This might seem contradictory, but I firmly believe that the most romantic stories toss roses and waltzes to the wind in order to deal with stubborn men and broken toilets. There's huge satisfaction in seeing a man change his mind. To me, a box of chocolate is nowhere near as sexy as a man who admits to being wrong: wrong about what he thought a marriage should be, and wrong about the uselessness of plumbers as well.

The hero in Sarah McCarty's Promises Reveal is as stubborn as my Simeon. This antihero lands right in the middle of a beloved romance plot: a forced marriage instigated after McCarty's heroine, Evie, paints a naked picture of the town's preacher. Of course, everyone decides that she's seen all that the preacher has to offer, and so they're married off within the week. Promises Reveal is a western, so you won't be surprised to discover that the reverend, Brad Swanson, is a fast hand with a pistol, though he doesn't try to escape his own shotgun wedding. Maybe that's because he's so shocked by the diminutive dimensions gifted him by Evie, who wouldn't know a real piece of male equipment if she saw it.

Brad wears his priesthood lightly -- and basically only to avoid the hangman's noose. He's definitely one of the most stubborn men in the West. As a gunslinger wearing a priest's collar, he's far too cynical to believe in romance. Crucially, he doesn't believe that he has the right to anything: to a friend, a lover, a life, even a soul. And he stubbornly hangs on to that belief in the face of enormous evidence to the contrary.

It takes Evie's faith in him to beat back his stubbornness to the point at which Brad understands that being the solitary gunslinger isn't his only choice. A man can choose to be an obstinate ruffian, or he can change his mind about his personal self-worth and go from being fallen to saved -- in this case, by Evie. The conclusion of this novel will make you smile and sigh at once: romance doesn't get much more romantic than the end of Promises Reveal.

Margaret and Lizz Weis's Fallen Angel leaps from McCarty's fallen preacher to a literal fallen angel. This fascinating novel poses a world in which Matthew Gallow was cast out of heaven and landed on earth essentially for the crime of stubbornness. He isn't evil (though satanic forces do take a shot at recruiting him), but he's so stubborn that even God got sick of his obstinancy. So now Matthew whiles away his time as a con man who pretends to cast demons out of nubile blondes. That is, until the tent show where he really encounters a demon.

Fallen Angel is more paranormal than inspirational: Matthew does have a guardian angel, but along with blessings, he gets a dormouse with the ability to open doors. The heroine, Natalia, works for a rock 'n' roll band whose lead singer lives up to the 1950s warnings about rock's satanic influence. She too has a guardian angel of sorts: the ghost of her dead grandfather, an aging hippie with delusions of rocker grandeur. Like Brad, Matthew doesn't find his life (or soul) worthwhile: it takes Natalia to convince him that his soul is just as important as those he tries to save.

In all three of these novels, the alpha hero is confronted in the last chapters with a situation in which he cannot control the violence around him. All three heroes throw themselves in front of the metaphorical bullet, willing to sacrifice their lives to save those they love. In each case, the last, stubborn belief that their own lives are the ones with no value is countered by the three heroines, who intervene to save them.

The core of this sort of male stubbornness is a conviction that they really don't need -- or want -- a partner in life. My hero, Simeon, plans to go through life as if he were still a solitary explorer, fighting off alligators and robbers. He has to learn to rely on Isidore, not just to stand next to him, but to be a full partner in whatever the future may bring. Similarly, McCarty's heroine bluntly asks Brad, "So the only thing standing between you and me is?you?" And Natalia gives Matthew the chance at redemption that he's convinced he doesn't deserve -- because he never learned how to admit he's wrong. Until, of course, the moment she teaches him that valuable lesson.

Every romance writer is asked skeptical questions about the genre, the general allegation being that romances are escapist trash that leave women with the impression that a knight in shining armor will show up waving a diamond and trailing roses. In my opinion, there are diamonds and roses enough to go around, and romances encourage women not to settle for less than their heart's desire.

But I do admit a tinge of guilt when it comes to particular romances at the heart of these novels. How often does a woman hear her stubborn husband admit that he was wrong, wrong, wrong? Well if in your case (like mine) it doesn't happen all that often, may I invite you to indulge in the delicious pleasures of escapism?

If you'd like to discuss stubborn heroes and what really makes a romance romantic, please stop in to chat with Eloisa in the Romantic Reads Book Club, where she'll be joined by Sarah McCarty! You can check out Eloisa's past columns in the Archives. And if you'd like to read the first chapter of When the Duke Returns, please visit Eloisa's web site, www.eloisajames.com.

About the Columnist
Eloisa James is a New York Times–bestselling author of historical romances, as well as a memoirist (Paris in Love) and professor of English literature teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University. Her latest novel is Once Upon a Tower.

April 16: ""Blue pottery vases and bowls for flowers are most attractive, and certain blue books...will repeat and emphasize color."

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.