Passing Time

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Unsurprisingly, I don’t currently have much patience or attention span for close readings. However, because this blog brings me joy and distraction, I didn’t want to stop posting. So the solution I have for the moment is to share a few short posts with quotes from 3-4 novels around a single theme.

The theme of today’s post is passing time: something we’re all doing right now in unexpected ways. Days seem like months, February was possibly six years ago, and we’re all waiting for changes in our circumstance without a fixed deadline. And for those of us who still have the attention span, reading romance offers a way to pass some of this weird, distorted time.

As I read, I’ve been on the lookout for the ways that romance novels narratively express the passage of time. And I’ve found that, unsurprisingly, some of the best examples come from novels where time passing is central to the plot or character conflict: from a discussion of pastimes versus work, to an age-gap romance, to a historical “we’ve only got a month to make an heir!” plot, here are three of my favorites.

A Lady Awakened

Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened is about a very specific kind of time pressure: Martha’s husband has just died, and she needs conceive a child that can plausibly be counted as her late husband’s legitimate heir. Enter Theo, who agrees to spend the next month trying to make this happen. The only problem? For Martha, their arrangement is strictly business, and she has no plans to enjoy the baby-making. Theo, on the other hand, would prefer not to sleep with someone who visibly refuses to enjoy herself.

Every delightfully, hilariously stilted this-is-just-about-the-heir encounter between Theo and Martha takes place on the clock, counting the days until it will be too late. Which is why it’s all the more ingenious when the first breakthrough Theo makes in tempting Martha to enjoy herself includes on-the-clock-kissing:

“Allow me ten minutes.” He reached past her to set the watch on the tabletop. “I’ll stop the very second you tell me it’s time.”

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

Martha, never easily deterred, reverts to her favorite deflecting tactic: turning pleasure into a negotiation over time spent kissing:

“Five minutes,” she said.
Haggling. He could do that. “Seven.” He flexed his fingers on the chair.
“Six.” One small crease appeared in her forehead.
“Seven and a half.” He breathed the words next to her ear.
Her eyes snapped open, all coffee-colored impatience. “You’re supposed to go lower, to meet me. Six and a half, you should say.”
“Eight, he murmured into her shoulder. “And I’ll go lower, to meet you, any time you like.”

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

Theo is ready to show Martha that the time they spend together – even when limited – can be about her pleasure, and not just about solving problems.

Eight minutes it was, then. He kissed her, and kissed and kissed and kissed her until he knew that narrow path of skin, and the knobbly scaffolding underneath, the way he knew the lines on his own palm.

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

What I love about the passage is that even though Theo’s plan of timing their kiss works, the two of them are still operating on different scales of time:

Someone was breathing harder. He was. He did that. And someone was breathing more softly, the slow, languid breaths of a person half-drugged. He glanced up at her reflection and a jagged bolt of desire shot through him.

Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened

The words in the passage match the cadence of their breath. Short utterances like gasps (“Someone was breathing harder. He was. He did that”) and longer, more drawn-out ones (“And someone was breathing more softly, the slow, languid breaths of a person half-drugged.”). This is a slow burn romance, and it takes Martha and Theo a while to get past their imposed and opposing time frames. They do, however, figure out that time together is just as well spent in pleasure as in… production.

For Real

Alexis Hall’s For Real is an age-gap romance between Laurie, an older, experienced sub, and Toby, a young and inexperienced dom. Their relationship is about much more than these disparities in age and experience, but all the same, temporal differences are woven throughout the novel. Laurie narrates in first-person past, Toby in first-person present, and the gaps in their relationship to time loom large in many of their conflicts.

This novel subtly compares the experience of time across different romantic relationships. In this first passage, Laurie remembers kissing Robert, his first love and a man his own age.

Three days, thirteen hours, and twenty-two minutes after we first met, he put his arms around me, pressed our bodies together, and kissed me.

Alexis Hall, For Real

This careful counting of time immediately reminded me of the (much missed) TV show Pushing Daisies, casting a kind of fairytale glow over the past of that first kiss. It also shows two lovers so temporally in sync they can count the minutes between them – whereas Laurie can’t stop worrying about the years that separate him and Toby, and about how much more significant those years would feel further into their seemingly-impossible future.

Perhaps this is why so much about Toby and Laurie’s relationship revolves around reconfiguring their relationship to time passing. Their first encounters are full of little temporal distortions, particularly moments where a short amount of time seems to take ages:

His hands come up and frame my face.
Kiss me, is what I think.
Forever limps by.
“What do you want, Toby?”

Alexis Hall, For Real

After a silence that contained the rise and fall of at least six or seven civilisations, he nodded.

Alexis Hall, For Real

As their relationship progresses, one of the most important changes Laurie makes is to stop measuring time in terms of the age gap between himself and Toby. Instead, he starts measuring time in terms of days and weeks spent with, and without, the man he loves.

I had barely known him, but – as the days slipped into weeks – I realised I missed him too.

Alexis Hall, For Real

I’d been living my life as if nothing had changed. But the promise of Toby had illuminated all my days, edging them with gold like the calligraphy of medieval monks.

Alexis Hall, For Real

Toby and Laurie’s relationship is, in a lot of ways, about finding new means to understand closeness, realizing which kinds of temporal gaps between them have meaning, and which don’t.

A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

Olivia Waite’s A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is both a swoony romance between astronomer Lucy Muchelney and embroiderer Catherine St Day, and a thoughtful look at women’s work. It’s especially invested in looking at how patriarchy shapes the distinctions we draw between “pastimes” and “work.”

One of the first things we learn about Catherine’s embroidery is how her late husband misunderstood the relationship between her craft and the passage of time:

It had taken her weeks aboard ship to embroider this panel. Red and pink and green shading into one another, silks shimmering against their linen background. She’d lost herself in the creation, putting in stitch after stitch, the threads a way of marking time in what had felt like an endless, eventless journey.
Just playing about with fripperies, George had always muttered when he barged into her parlor to demand her help with the latest matter of scientific urgency. An acceptable way to pass the time until there was real work to be done.

Olivia Waite, A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

Catherine uses embroidery to mark time passed stuck on a boat while her husband pursues his career. Her craft is quite literally a means to take control over a patriarchal system that assumes time can only be worthily spent in service of a man making money. Her husband can neither see the importance of a woman exerting control over her own time, nor the possible value of work outside of capitalist ends. To him, “passing time” is the opposite of both “value” and “work.”

Which is why this next passage, showing how Catherine thinks about time while falling in love with Lucy, is so powerful.

Catherine wanted Lucy, but more than that, Catherine wanted Lucy to want her back. And Lucy wouldn’t, if she were still pining for the girl she’d lost. So Catherine let the days flow by like water while she put in stitch after stitch after stitch, as though each one were mending a small rent in Lucy Muchelney’s heart.

Olivia Waite, A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

The phrase “stitch after stitch” that echoes in both passages is a particularly elegant way to make the comparison. It shows that given the right conditions, “pastimes” can do important emotional, affective work.


I do wonder if romance novels are adept at reimagining the passage of time in part because of how the time we spend reading the genre is looked at – and looked down on – by non-romance readers. The idea of romance as an idle time-filler, or somehow as less productive than other kinds of reading, ignores exactly how much good it can do to pass time in enjoyment. So, if you’re finding yourself able to still read romance right now, I hope it’s bringing you a bit of relief from the otherwise-disorienting way the days and weeks are passing right now. And if not, you’ll certainly get back to it – it’s only a matter of time.

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

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Like many of you, I got a lot less reading done this week than I’d originally anticipated, due to the general state of the world. But I really don’t want to give up on the time I spend reading, and especially the time I spend discussing it here.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of reading Cat Sebastian’s The Soldier’s Scoundrel. I picked this book out looking for a comfort read, which is almost a guarantee for me with this particular author. I was delighted to find that the book’s central theme is even more comforting than I realized: it’s all about the ways people help each other. Even those not in a romantic relationship, even those who might not know each other, or see each other face to face.

It also talks about finding unexpected comfort and a sense of rightness even in those moments that turn your life upside down, and that’s what today’s Friday Feature is all about.

In this passage Oliver, who has recently returned injured from war, is confronting his father about his association with Jack, a man of a very different social class, and one with whom Oliver is secretly falling in love:

Everything Oliver had experienced during the war had turned his world upside down, and he had come home trying to set it right side up again, only to fall in with a man who set the entire operation even more radically askew. And now, in this moldering old room, he felt that he had his feet firmly planted for the first time in years.

Cat Sebastian, The Soldier’s Scoundrel. 2016

The “moldering old room” here refers to Oliver’s father’s house, and I was intrigued by its appearance in a passage that otherwise hews firmly to images of “upside down/right-side up.” It’s a sudden insertion of a sense of place, at a moment where Oliver is searching for his. It’s also a reminder that enough of the right kind of change can make you stand firmer in spaces where you’d always felt out of place.

I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking a comfort read right now. Buy link and CWs here.

What were your favorite words you read this week? Come share with me over on Twitter!

Subtext and Intertext: (Re)inventing the canon in KJ Charles’ Band Sinister

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Today’s post is about KJ Charles’ Band Sinister, a regency-set story which, in addition to the central romance between Guy and Phillip, features queer and polyamorous relationships with a broad range of inclusive representation. In doing so, it offers readers a new way to think through the romance genre’s complicated relationship to its own past. For those who haven’t read it, a quick summary from the book’s back cover copy:

Band Sinister by [Charles, KJ]

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)
Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.
Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.
In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Links to author’s website here. A comprehensive list of CWs can be found at the end of Love in Panel’s excellent review here

So much of romance thrives on referring to other texts in the genre : the very concept of a beloved trope (enemies to lovers! there’s only one bed!) or character archetype (cinnamon rolls! difficult heroines!) is predicated on a callback to previous iterations. On the other hand, there’s also been a lot of interesting work done recently about how to deal with the more problematic elements of romance’s past [1].

Band Sinister definitely leans hard into referencing previous canonical texts. Perhaps the most talked-about is the work of Georgette Heyer, but the referential universe of this text is much broader. So I want to take a close look the opening passage to show how Band Sinister conceives of current romance’s relationship to its predecessor texts.

Hist! There! Look!” Sebastian whispered, and pointed down into Darkdown Hall’s extensive gardens. Araminta knelt by him to peer out through the leaded windows, fearful of discovery yet aflame with the realisation that at last she would learn the secret of Darkdown Hall and its sinister guardians.

      Lord Darkdown stood at the centre of a stone circle lit by flaming brands, his handsome face twisted in terrible pride. Around him stood the men whom Araminta feared more greatly than any others: Sir Peter Falconwood, whose ungodly knowledge had trapped her in this nest of devils, and Darkdown’s nameless, cruel-eyed brute of a henchman. The torchlight danced and flickered over these three evildoers, like the hellfire they invoked in the very name of their blasphemous society, and over one thing more. A young lady clad in nothing more than a thin close-fitting white shift, her heaving bosom the sole sign of life, lay deadly still on a stone slab at the centre of the circle.

      Araminta’s heart stopped as Darkdown took a step forward and raised a knife—

      Guy read on frantically, page after close-scribbled page, reached The End in a rush of adjectives and relief, and yelped, “Amanda!”

      He didn’t have to shout. His sister was on the chair opposite, pretending to sew while carefully not looking at him. Nevertheless, shouting seemed appropriate.

      “What?” Amanda enquired, raising her head with an innocent look that fooled nobody.

       “This—this—!” Guy gestured at the manuscript he held, for lack of words.

      “It’s quite long, dearest. Which part do you mean?”

      “Which part do you think? What about the part where the hellfire club descends on a virgin in that—that lascivious manner!”

      “It’s all perfectly decent,” Amanda said. “Or at least, if it isn’t, the indecent parts are only hinted at, which means they’re in your head. I can’t be held responsible for your thoughts going awry.”

      “Oh yes you can,” Guy said with feeling. “You are publishing under a pseudonym, aren’t you?”

      “Yes.” Amanda spoke with understandable annoyance, since Guy had asked her that before.

KJ Charles, Band Sinister. 2018.

Excluding and including through narrative voice

Band Sinister opens on a note of confusion. It begins with a passage from Amanda Frisby’s fictional gothic romance The Secret of Darkdown: a fact which readers will only realize once they’ve reached its end. The novel is narrated in the 3rd person, focusing on Araminta’s perspective. It is, however, deliberately constructed to hide knowledge that both Araminta and the narrator share from the reader. A quick survey of things the reader has incomplete information about :

  • “the secret of Darkdown Hall”
  • “more greatly than any others”
  • “ungodly knowledge had trapped her”
  • “the very name of their blasphemous society”

Because we don’t have access to the rest of Amanda’s novel, it’s possible some of these questions were answered earlier. But for the purposes of Band Sinister, that doesn’t matter. What matters is the effect: the reader is excluded, placed in the position of an outsider.

As we pull back to discover the main plot featuring Guy and Amanda, the narrative voice changes to one that creates intimacy rather than distance. The narrator describes Guy having “reached The End in a rush of adjectives and relief” and “yelp[ing]” at his sister. We know from Guy’s dialogue that he’s sincerely scandalized by Amanda’s story. The narrator, however, seems to enjoy Darkdown  (“a rush of adjectives” lovingly highlighting it’s flowery nature) and find Guy’s reaction to it a touch overblown (the word “yelped” connoting a more comedic brand of shock than a more assertive verb might). The next line, “He didn’t have to shout,” also brings the readers into complicity with the narrator, who suggests both that Guy’s reaction might be a bit excessive, and that he doesn’t (yet) understand why.

I think of the narrative shift from Darkdown to Band Sinister in terms of a kind of zoom lens. We start off in the same position as Guy, as readers of the same gothic novel, both outsiders looking in on narration we don’t fully understand. Then we zoom out, and become readers of novel where Guy is the hero. At the same time, the narrative voice shifts to a more inclusive one, which let us understand things that others in the scene might not.

There are some obvious parallels here to the romance genre’s relationship to its canonical texts. For a long time, readers like Guy sat on the “outside” of narratives that didn’t represent their experiences or sexuality. Band Sinister turns those readers into the heroes of their own stories, while also ensuring that we, the real-world readers of Band Sinister, feel included rather than excluded by the narrative voice.

But when it comes to a relationship with canonical fictional texts, Band Sinister doesn’t stop there. There’s a whole second layer of reference between The Secret of Darkdown and Band Sinister that deepens its reflection on canonical predecessors.

Fictional intertexts

The most striking similarity between Darkdown and Band Sinister is their opening dialogue. Darkdown starts with three single-word exclamations: “Hist! There! Look!Band Sinister does as well, though not one right after the other: “Amanda!” “What?” “This-this-!” However, Band Sinister does not uncritically adopt Darkdown’s style. In addition to the funny and inclusive narrative voice, The Secret of Darkdown is characterized by a “rush of adjectives” (177 words, 15 adjectives), while this bit of Band Sinister decidedly is not (167 words, 2 adjectives). With just these two examples, we see how Band Sinister builds a relationship of referentiality, but also significant difference, from its fictional counterpart.

The idea of referencing other fictional texts is crucial to Band Sinister’s entire project, and this is where I want to introduce a new term: intertextuality. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.” Basically, it’s a catch-all term for when any text refers to another, whether that’s through parody, pastiche, epigraphs and quotations, a character mentioning a book they’ve read, etc.

Band Sinister has several layers of intertextuality. Some of its intertexts are “real” novels : it references not just Heyer’s body of work, but actual published gothic novels, and regency romances from Austen right up to the present. But it also has an intertextual relationship to a fake book in Amanda’s The Secret of Darkdown.

What does it mean for a book like Band Sinister to have a relationship to both “real” and “fictional” intertexts? Personally, I think it highlights how nearly all of the canon the romance genre is built on is a constructed fiction, one that for a long time excluded characters like the queer, multiracial, multi-ethnic, and religiously diverse cast of Band Sinister.

In fact, Band Sinister actually contains some discussion of how that exclusionary fictional world gets perpetuated in the face of a much more diverse reality, once again through the device of Darkdown as a novel-within-a-novel. One of Darkdown’s main characters, Sir Peter Falconwood, is extremely close in both physical aspect and personal character to Sir Philip Rookwood, their scandalous neighbor and Guy’s eventual love interest. Amanda’s novel is (perhaps even unbeknownst to her) inspired by the queer, multicultural reality of her society- in this case her own neighbors. And Band Sinister is explicit about the societal and publishing pressures Amanda would be under to not write a book that represents that reality. She can’t publish her work under her own name, but instead publishes under the Austen-esque pseudonym “By A Lady.” Even the hint of sexual content in her work risks ruin for her and her brother. Thus, the queerness of her source material largely disappears into a subtext, the kind of subtext where Guy will initially struggle to place himself: 

 “That has been one of the worst parts: the youthful hero Sebastian in a dungeon, bound and helpless at the mercy of the dastardly rake Sir Peter Falconwood with his ‘strange cruelties and velvet tortures’ for several chapters before Araminta rescued him. It wasn’t entirely clear what the book had meant by ‘velvet tortures,’ since the whole sequence was a mass of allusion and implication. That had been both a relief and – in a way Guy had no intention of considering further – a disappointment.”

KJ Charles, Band Sinister. 2018.

 Through Amanda’s role as a fictional writer of intertext, Band Sinister gestures to the societal pressures that reduced the diverse reality of history to subtext at best, absence at worst, in so many canonical literary works.

There are so many layers to how Band Sinister deals with both the benefits and pressures of maintaining a relationship to a long-established fictional canon. The mere mention of a “heaving bosom” in the Darkdown passage recalls the playful way romance readers can use stereotypes about the genre as a kind of insider reference (see also this great thread on bodice-ripping as in-joke). Illustrated covers like Band Sinister’s are their own kind of referential paratext:

Band Sinister by [Charles, KJ]
Image source: http://kjcharleswriter.com/books/

This cover takes what other romance intertexts have taught us to read as a “love triangle” where two straight men vie for the affection of one woman, and applies it to a novel where gay and polyamorous relationships are the dominant paradigm.

Ultimately, by opening with a fictional intertext, Band Sinister reminds us that all of the intertexts of romance are inventions, and that the best novels know which elements to borrow, and which to entirely re-conceive.

Thanks for reading- and get ready for this Friday, when I’ll be returning to my regular feature asking you to share your favorite words of the week!

[1] For just a few examples, see Felicia Grossman’s article or Alexandra Sterling’s piece on the problematic legacy of Georgette Heyer, Fated Mates’ work on our relationship to the “books that blooded us,” or Asha Ganesan’s guest post for SBTB on diversity in historical romance.

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

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I did a lot of good word-reading this week, so this was a tough choice! After a million twitter recommendations I finally read, and greatly enjoyed, Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley, a novella-length WWII-era m/m Beauty and the Beast retelling.

I particularly liked how this book dealt with depictions of time passing. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog (prompted by discussions in Romancelandia) I’m eventually planning a longer post on how romance novels convey the passage of large periods of time at the sentence level. And Briarley is a great place to start thinking through this.

This story takes place on a grand estate that has been frozen in time by an evil curse. Briarley is up against a pretty significant challenge: make readers feel the weight of 100 years in stasis, with only the length of a novella to do so. And it accomplishes this task through some rather beautiful writing.

I picked two lines from the book, which succinctly convey two different kinds of time passing. The first is from the beginning of the book, where a young woman named Rose is waiting for the return of her father, the parson, not realizing he’s found his way into the lair of the Beast (in this case, a dragon in an enchanted castle).

“But then the rain stopped, and he did not come. Rose read on, and he did not come; and she finished another chapter, and he did not come; and then she found herself sitting with the book closed over her thumb, gazing fixedly toward the fire, although she was not seeing it.”

Aster Glenn Grey, Briarley, 2018

The repetitions here convey both the monotony and the worry of her waiting- the monotony of the minutes that pass are marked by the mundane act of reading, while the larger worries of tragedy befalling a loved one are conveyed in the greater force of the weather.

The second passage takes place after the parson has been on the estate a while, and is beginning to care for the dragon. Here, we can see the subtle shift between the negative associations with a curse that has frozen time, and positive associations with the familiarity of routine related to home, and comfort, and love.

“Time passed. The parson now went up to the dragon’s lair every day, to gaze out the windows at the changing trees beyond the walls. Brown and red leaves had utterly replaced green, and in turn were falling to reveal bare black branches. All Hallow’s Eve was on its way. Yet a kind of peace reigned within the estate. The roses bloomed, and the dinner arrived everlastingly the same each night, and it seemed impossible to believe that anything would ever change.”

Aster Glenn Grey, Briarley, 2018

If you’re intrigued by any of this, I highly recommend buying Briarley here. If you’ve already read it, and want to dive further into this book’s gorgeous writing, Fiona West has a neat post about a different passage on her blog here.

Happy Friday, and happy reading!

Written Soundscapes: Dialogue and Music in Katrina Jackson’s Layover

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This week’s close reading is from Katrina Jackson’s Layover, a masterfully plotted and written novella that I highly recommend to all romance readers. Here’s the cover and blurb:

Layover by [Jackson, Katrina]

Lena Ward is an unhappy travel blogger with a less than 24 hour layover in her hometown. She spends the day with Tony Dembélé, a podcaster she’s been flirting with for a few months online. In their brief time together Lena confronts some hard truths about her life and her past and the two test the waters of their connection.

This is a short story with a sweet and satisfying happy for now ending.

Buy link here. CW for a storyline dealing with grief; this part of the plot is not discussed in this post.

The scene I’ll be looking at occurs about 1/3 of the way into this novella. Lena and Tony have flirted a bit online, but this is their first in-person meeting. There’s a bit of hesitancy on both their parts. Tony has driven all over town to buy Lena’s favorite expensive pressed juice, which he’s now ready to casually pretend he had on hand in his fridge. Lena has shown up with her best friend Aiyanna, who wants to meet and vet the stranger who invited Lena to his apartment to record a podcast. The bit I’m going to analyze occurs after the initial small talk between Lena and Tony, as they’re just about to start recording. I want to look at how the two passages play with sound and visuals; what can be caught on tape, and what can’t; and the formal overlaps between written words and music.

Her smile widened when they made eye contact and then both of their gazes fell. He took a sip of water and she took a sip of her juice. 

He cleared his throat. “Ok so I sent you the interview questions. Did you want to make any changes or anything you want me to avoid?” 

Lena’s smile faltered for a second but then she shook her head and smiled wider, “Nope. Let’s do this.” 

“You…” Tony hesitated. “Are you sure?”

 “I’m sure.” 

He didn’t believe her, but he didn’t know her well enough to know what lay behind that brief hesitation. 

He nodded and decided in that moment that he would edit this interview himself just in case. 

He dropped his eyes to his intro script, cleared his throat, and began to speak. 

◆ ◆ ◆ 

Tony: 
So how did you get into travel blogging? 

Lena: 
By accident. [laughs] I started traveling in college. I would save every penny to go on a short trip: LA, Vegas, Portland. And my mom [pause, Lena clears throat] My mom had never even been on a plane. Her entire life she’d never been anywhere she couldn’t drive. And we didn’t even have a car for most of my childhood. Her world was here in the Bay with our family. [pause] So anyway, when I would travel she’d want to know everything I saw and I took a million pictures, but like on real film. [laughs] 

Tony: 
[laughs] 

Lena: 
And then when I came home I’d pay a grip to get ‘em developed and tell my mom everything about my trips. But then I got a cheap laptop, an even cheaper digital camera and my passport. I started a blog and put everything online for my mom to see. I never even thought anyone besides my family would be interested in it. 

Tony: 
Word? But now you have one of the most popular Black travel blogging sites. What’s that feel like? 

Lena: 
[pause] Yea, it’s-[pause] It’s great. I’m still kinda shocked that so many people read my blog and watch my videos. I’m so grateful.”

Katrina Jackson, Layover. 2018.

This scene is the first time the novella uses the podcast transcript format, and it’s doing some interesting work. To begin with, it establishes a different kind of intimacy between Tony and Lena. The reader gets to know them through bare dialogue, without intervening narration. The podcast format also evokes one of the main motifs of the novella: music. Lena makes playlists for the places she visits (the first line of the novella is “Every city has a playlist”) and listens to music constantly to set or reflect a certain mood. Podcasting lives in an intermediate space between written fiction and music: like fiction, podcasting often has dialogue and narrative storytelling; like music, it relies on a listening audience and often similar platforms like smartphones and streaming apps. The way this novella presents the podcast transcript really highlights the way it borrows from music, and sets up Lena and Tony’s relationship as a kind of artistic collaboration.

To see how this works, I think it’s important to contrast the podcast transcript with the preceding prose. The lines leading up to the switch in form use sound and silence as narrative descriptors, setting them up for use as musical beats in the subsequent podcast transcript. Let’s start at the beginning:

Her smile widened when they made eye contact and then both of their gazes fell. He took a sip of water and she took a sip of her juice. 

He cleared his throat. “Ok so I sent you the interview questions. Did you want to make any changes or anything you want me to avoid?” 

Lena’s smile faltered for a second but then she shook her head and smiled wider, “Nope. Let’s do this.” 

“You…” Tony hesitated. “Are you sure?”

 “I’m sure.” 

He didn’t believe her, but he didn’t know her well enough to know what lay behind that brief hesitation. 

He nodded and decided in that moment that he would edit this interview himself just in case. 

He dropped his eyes to his intro script, cleared his throat, and began to speak. 

The 3rd person narration includes three types of audible interaction that will all reappear in the podcast transcript: throat clearing, hesitation/pausing, and spoken dialogue. Beyond that, however, it consists exclusively of things that either cannot be caught by a recording, or are typically edited out: smiles widening and faltering, eye contact, nods, drinking, head shaking. This preparatory passage reminds readers of things that fill silences, things that the podcast transcript won’t be able to capture. And as we’ll see, the podcast transcript charges its silences with a lot of work and a great deal of meaning. Let’s look a bit closer:

Tony: 
So how did you get into travel blogging? 

Lena: 
By accident. [laughs] I started traveling in college. I would save every penny to go on a short trip: LA, Vegas, Portland. And my mom [pause, Lena clears throat] My mom had never even been on a plane. Her entire life she’d never been anywhere she couldn’t drive. And we didn’t even have a car for most of my childhood. Her world was here in the Bay with our family. [pause] So anyway, when I would travel she’d want to know everything I saw and I took a million pictures, but like on real film. [laughs] 

Tony: 
[laughs] 

Lena: 
And then when I came home I’d pay a grip to get ‘em developed and tell my mom everything about my trips. But then I got a cheap laptop, an even cheaper digital camera and my passport. I started a blog and put everything online for my mom to see. I never even thought anyone besides my family would be interested in it. 

Tony: 
Word? But now you have one of the most popular Black travel blogging sites. What’s that feel like? 

Lena: 
[pause] Yea, it’s-[pause] It’s great. I’m still kinda shocked that so many people read my blog and watch my videos. I’m so grateful.”

On my first pass of trying to analyze this passage, I thought of it as an encounter between Tony and Lena that didn’t adopt the POV of either of the two characters. No narrator, no POV, right? However, on closer examination I actually think it’s a subtle continuation of Tony’s POV from the previous passage. We can assume Tony created this transcript after the interview, based on his assertion that he’d be taking over the sole editing responsibilities. His narrative hand is especially clear in how he transcribes the non-verbal communication, i.e. the bits of description between brackets. Given how people talk, it’s likely Lena pauses more often than is noted in the transcript. The pauses marked in brackets are either the longest pauses, or (I think more likely) the ones that communicated something to Tony.  These bracketed words tell us how Tony is reading Lena, how attuned to her he is, how his awareness of her is developing. A bit like deep 3rd-person POV might.

So what do Tony’s inserted brackets tell us? The first way to read them is on the level of meaning: they indicate that certain moments are funny for a reason, or that there might be a deeper story behind a pause. In general, Lena laughs self-deprecatingly, after she talks about starting blogging accidentally, and looking back on the “retro” methods she used to use to take pictures. In a pattern that remains the case throughout, Tony laughs (and later pauses or is silent) reactively: laughing mostly only right after Lena has laughed, or pausing after she has. 

Lena’s pauses are more complicated. In the intro passage we’ve seen Lena hesitate when Tony asks her if there are questions she wants him to avoid, suggesting that there are certain topics that are hard for her to talk about. And in fact, we see her pausing around the two things she’s struggling with at the moment: her burnout from working on her travel blog, and as-yet undefined family issues. The placement of the [pause]s around things that Tony later learns are meaningful to Lena (struggling with work and missing family) show his awareness of emotions she hasn’t yet put into words.

I do think though that there’s a second, even more compelling way to look at these bracketed moments: they turn the passage into a piece of writing that has rhythm the same way music does. To begin with, the bracketed words set a particular cadence to the dialogue. While I won’t subject you to the actual number crunching I did of the whole passage beyond this excerpt, in general you get a quick burst of bracketed words in a row, followed by longer stretches of dialogue. It creates two rhythms for Lena and Tony’s conversation: short and staccato, and longer and more lyrical – like slower and faster rhythm in music. You can see a microcosm of that pacing in the section of the scene here:

Tony: 
So how did you get into travel blogging? 

Lena: 
By accident. [laughs] I started traveling in college. I would save every penny to go on a short trip: LA, Vegas, Portland. And my mom [pause, Lena clears throat] My mom had never even been on a plane. Her entire life she’d never been anywhere she couldn’t drive. And we didn’t even have a car for most of my childhood. Her world was here in the Bay with our family. [pause] So anyway, when I would travel she’d want to know everything I saw and I took a million pictures, but like on real film. [laughs] 

Tony: 
[laughs] 

Lena: 
And then when I came home I’d pay a grip to get ‘em developed and tell my mom everything about my trips. But then I got a cheap laptop, an even cheaper digital camera and my passport. I started a blog and put everything online for my mom to see. I never even thought anyone besides my family would be interested in it. 

Tony: 
Word? But now you have one of the most popular Black travel blogging sites. What’s that feel like? 

Lena: 
[pause] Yea, it’s-[pause] It’s great. I’m still kinda shocked that so many people read my blog and watch my videos. I’m so grateful.”

The other use of the bracketed sounds is how they operate in relation to each other, extracted from the dialogue. Taken alone, they’re a bit like the tone or key of a piece of music, setting the mood of what we’re listening to and letting us follow its shifts.  Again, I took my analysis from the entire scene, which echoes what you see in the passage I shared. If you look at just the dialogue tags, you see how they set a shifting mood:

[Laughs]

[Pause, Lena clears throat]
[Pause]

[Laughs]
[Laughs]

[Pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]

[Laughs]
[Laughs]
[Laughs]
[Laughs]

[Silence]
[Pause pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]
[Pause]

[Breath hitch]

[Muffled whisper]

[Sob]

Aside from the initial [laughs], no single bracketed word occurs in isolation until the end: each pause is always accompanied by at least one other, each laugh is the same. They alternate, like music might in tone, between minor and major, pauses and laughs. The piece also has an overall movement to it: the sections grow in length until the end where a series of three separate sounds reach a “crescendo” at the emotional high point of their discussion. 

Ultimately, while this passage represents a podcast, I also think we can see it as a kind of musical collaboration between Lena and Tony: she’s providing most of the lyrics and the rhythm, and he, through a kind of musical-literary deep POV, is “producing” it, deciding which of her pauses and silences are brought to the fore. Layover is a novella that’s about music, and that frequently references music, but it also finds really interesting ways to create music out of words. This passage is, all at once, a scene in a novella, a transcript of a podcast, sheet music for a song made out of words, and a great bit of characterization for how two creatives try out different ways of relating to each other.  

In other words, I love you

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Over on Twitter, I made a little Valentines-day-adjacent list of my favorite ways that romance characters have expressed romantic love without saying “I love you.” For the sake of having them all in one place (and for the buy links, because I highly recommend every last one of these books), here they are, all in one place 🙂

Olivia Dade, Desire and the Deep Blue Sea
Alexis Hall, How to Blow it With a Billionaire
Talia Hibbert, That Kind of Guy
Alisha Rai, Wrong to Need You
Ainslie Paton, The Mysterious Stranger
Olivia Waite, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics
Lucy Parker, The Austen Playbook
Roan Parrish, Small Change
Therese Beharrie, One Day to Fall
Kate Clayborn, Love Lettering

Happy reading!!!

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

Anyone who follows me over on Twitter has watched me yell in excitement about Scarlett Peckham’s The Lord I Left for the better part of a week. I savored this book slowly (until the end when I couldn’t stop myself) and enjoyed so much about it.

The passage I picked occurrs only a handful of sentences into the first chapter, and there isn’t much context for it. All we know about Henry Evesham’s current situation is that he’s just knocked on the door of a “whipping house” with a “forbidding reputation,” one that he’s visited at least once before. A visit which ended, as we learn, in our hero fleeing from a woman named Alice.

If he was being honest with himself – and he’d vowed to be rigorously honest with himself – Alice, for it was untruthful to pretend he did not recall her name – had glared not because he’d left but because he’d fled, bolting up the stairs and out of the door as if his life depended on it.

(No. Not his life. His soul.)

Scarlett Peckham The Lord I Left

Chapters from Henry’s point of view are full of revisions: of his thoughts, his feelings, and especially his desires. This stylistic choice is perhaps most obvious in the use of parentheticals, which will be the subject of a longer blog post eventually. However, it’s also baked into the structure of most of his narration.

If we dig for the heart of the passage above, we find a basic causal relationship: Alice glared at Henry because he fled. The hesitations that Henry constructs around this thought include his degree of honestly with himself, the impression Alice has made on him, whether he left or fled, how he fled, and what the stakes were of the fleeing. It’s almost to the point of an obsession, the way he keeps returning to his own thoughts to qualify or modify them.

So much of this book is about relationships to internal narrative: prayer, conscience, desire, and even music are forms of self-expression and self-silencing, often in tension with each other. Writing Henry’s internal narratives into the sentence structure like this is a great way of bringing that theme to the surface. I can’t wait to write more about this book.

Lest he succumb: subjects and subjunctives, objects and objectification in A Duke in Disguise.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Today’s close reading is from one of my favorite books of 2019: Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise.

One reluctant heir
If anyone else had asked for his help publishing a naughty novel, Ash would have had the sense to say no. But he’s never been able to deny Verity Plum. Now he has his hands full illustrating a book and trying his damnedest not to fall in love with his best friend. The last thing he needs is to discover he’s a duke’s lost heir. Without a family or a proper education, he’s had to fight for his place in the world, and the idea of it—and Verity—being taken away from him chills him to the bone.

One radical bookseller
All Verity wants is to keep her brother out of prison, her business afloat, and her hands off Ash. Lately it seems she’s not getting anything she wants. She knows from bitter experience that she isn’t cut out for romance, but the more time she spends with Ash, the more she wonders if maybe she’s been wrong about herself. 

One disaster waiting to happen
Ash has a month before his identity is exposed, and he plans to spend it with Verity. As they explore their long-buried passion, it becomes harder for Ash to face the music. Can Verity accept who Ash must become or will he turn away the only woman he’s ever loved?

Blurb from publisher. Buy link and CWs are available on the author’s website. None of the listed CWs are discussed in this post.

A Duke in Disguise is a m/f romance featuring, as the title suggests, a duke. It is also a queer m/f romance (Verity is bi) with one extremely reluctant duke. It’s a novel in dialogue with a set of traditional literary tropes that also makes critical variations on them. One phenomenon it’s critiquing is the literary convention of a male character presenting his female love interest in ways that can be reductive and objectifying.

Here’s the passage in question, which I’ll break down into three sections.

Ash knew all too well that there were two varieties of pleasure in life. The first included art, fine weather, good company, and all the rest of the world’s benign delights. A man could hold these pleasures at arm’s length, appreciate them with the proper detachment, and not mourn their absence overmuch. But a fellow could be ruined by overindulgence in the second category of pleasure: rich food, strong drink, high stakes gaming. 

Verity Plum belonged squarely in the latter category. 

For all she was one of Ash’s dearest friends and one of the few constants in his life, for all she and her brother were now the closest thing to family that he had in this country, being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses, like the bottle of French brandy he kept in his clothes press, lest he succumb to the emotional equivalent of gout. 

As a very young man he had compared Verity, pen in hand and smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose, to a bird diligently building a nest. Ten years later he knew it to have been the romantic delusion of a youthful idiot not to have straightaway seen the bloodlust lurking behind the spectacles; she bore more in common with a hawk picking the meat from its prey’s bones than with a songbird collecting twigs and leaves. 

Cat Sebastian, A Duke in Disguise, 2019. p 1-2.

I don’t have hard stats to back this up, but in m/f romance it seems far more common to open a novel with the heroine’s POV, just as we more frequently find single-POV m/f novels narrated from the heroine’s perspective. Moreover, because the couple usually meet on-page after some establishing scenes, it is even less common to have a hero’s description of the heroine serve as the opening gambit of a romance novel.

Too often in non-romance novels (and in some romance as well) letting the hero’s POV present the heroine means that his opinions and judgments are centered, that her physical aspect predominates, and that we experience her primarily in terms of a man’s impressions and value judgments. 

So what I want to look at in this passage is how A Duke in Disguise nods to this literary convention and subverts it through linguistic and structural choices that foreground the non-fixity of the hero’s opinions, downplay the heroine’s physicality, and reverse subject/object relationships.

Part One: Two Varieties of Pleasure

Ash knew all too well that there were two varieties of pleasure in life. The first included art, fine weather, good company, and all the rest of the world’s benign delights. A man could hold these pleasures at arm’s length, appreciate them with the proper detachment, and not mourn their absence overmuch. But a fellow could be ruined by overindulgence in the second category of pleasure: rich food, strong drink, high stakes gaming. 

Verity Plum belonged squarely in the latter category. 

I love a good first line. This one recalls a specific subset of literary openers, namely axioms about topics like happy and unhappy families, men with property in want of wives, the best and worst of times. The balance in this opening line between the personal (Ash’s experiences) and the axiomatic (categories of pleasure) offers a little taste of what readers will encounter: nuanced individual characters who nonetheless operate in the shadow of the superstructures and gendered conventions of literary fiction.

The first words offer a straightforward contrast between two kinds of pleasure: one benign, the other dangerous. What’s of more interest to me, however, is the difference in structure between the two sentences that discuss them.

The first included art, fine weather, good company, and all the rest of the world’s benign delights. A man could hold these pleasures at arm’s length, appreciate them with the proper detachment, and not mourn their absence overmuch.

But a fellow could be ruined by overindulgence in the second category of pleasure: rich food, strong drink, high stakes gaming. 

There is a lot to be said about the differences between these two sets of statements: the extra sentence accorded to the benign pleasures, the “walling off” of the dangerous ones behind a colon. However, I want to focus on the verb choice used to talk about the two, because it has critical ramifications for the issue of objectification.

In the first bolded sentence, “a man” (understood as a generic placeholder for Ash) is the grammatical subject. He acts upon his pleasures via a series of active voice verbs (hold, appreciate, mourn) of which the benign pleasures are the grammatical object.

Once we reach the second set of pleasures, however, both the type of pleasures and the voice of the verb changes. The sentence plays with the “object” in “objectification” by comparing Verity to a series of things made available for consumption: food, drink, gaming. However, as it does so, it also uses verbal voice to reverse subject and object positions. “Could be ruined by” is a passive voice construction, meaning that Ash is no longer the subject of the verb. Ash is acted upon, and Verity takes up the subject position.

Playing with the objects of verbs allows the passage to disrupt processes of objectification. But the objectifying gaze is about more than subject/object positionality. It’s also about physical appraisal and fixed knowledge: assuming that by gazing upon the the heroine, the hero can describe and know and thus contain her.

One of the things we’ll see going forward in the passage is an emerging theme of reversal: structures and motifs that force the reader to go back and reappraise things they’ve already read. The first one, of course, is the introduction of Verity herself in a standalone sentence after the opening paragraph. Once we’ve been introduced to her, we have to go back and reevaluate the taxonomy of pleasures before moving forward. As we’ll now see, the second full paragraph also uses verbs (in this case, verbal mood) to execute a similar reversal.

Part Two: The Emotional Equivalent of Gout

The second paragraph is in fact just one long sentence containing five clauses. I’ve separated them out to take a closer look at how they work:

For all she was one of Ash’s dearest friends and one of the few constants in his life

for all she and her brother were now the closest thing to family that he had in this country

being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses

like the bottle of French brandy he kept in his clothes press

lest he succumb to the emotional equivalent of gout.

This sentence is balanced around its middle clause, which is the only one that functions as a full sentence. However, if you read any other individual clause along with the middle one, it forms a full thought (try it!). Because of this, “being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses” is the statement on which the rest of the ideas hinge. 

In my mind’s eye I see this sentence as a structural reflection of the way Ash tries to protect himself from the effects of his romantic love for Verity. On one end, he buttresses himself with the other ways he’s close to her: as a friend, as a constant, as family. On the other end of the sentence, we have the ways that he keeps her at a distance, much like all the other pleasures he has to keep at arm’s length. 

This sentence also contains another reversal, because for the second time we have a paragraph that ends with a change in the verb. In this case, following a paragraph full of indicative-mode verbs, we have something that made my French-teacher heart sing: a subjunctive! “Lest he succumb” is in the subjunctive mood, which is used (among other things) to express emotion, fear, or uncertainty: basically everything Ash is currently feeling about Verity.

In terms of what the subjunctive mood accomplishes when it comes to objectification, I think it does a few things. To begin with, the change in verbal mood also accompanies a different mood change: the sentence suddenly becomes funny. It thus invites the reader, as before, to retrace what they’ve read previously, this time taking it all a little less seriously. Ash may be a bit in love, but he’s not dying. The change in mood establishes the act of critical revision as an important readerly practice.

Moreover, because the subjunctive is a verbal mood that expresses fear or doubt rather than certainty, it also encourages readers not to take everything Ash is saying about Verity at face value. He may be telling readers about her, but he isn’t necessarily positioned as the ultimate authority on her. (Arguably, he isn’t even really a great authority on his own emotions at this point.) This is yet another way that the passage refuses to reduce Verity to a simple object of Ash’s knowledge.

In the final paragraph, we’re going to be even more clearly invited to question and reverse what we learn about our heroine, destabilizing any claim to mastery on Ash’s part.

Part Three: The Romantic Delusion of a Youthful Idiot

As a very young man he had compared Verity, pen in hand and smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose, to a bird diligently building a nest. Ten years later he knew it to have been the romantic delusion of a youthful idiot not to have straightaway seen the bloodlust lurking behind the spectacles; she bore more in common with a hawk picking the meat from its prey’s bones than with a songbird collecting twigs and leaves. 

I’ll be focusing more on the content than the structure of this paragraph, in part because these two sentences make explicit in content what the preceding two paragraphs have implicitly built into their structure. 

To begin with, the content of this passage contains the only physical description of Verity we get: “pen in hand and smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose.” In fact, this description tells us far more about her interests and intellectual activities (writing and reading) than it does about her physique (having hands and a nose), continuing the theme of not focusing on her physical body as the first thing readers know or see about her.  

This final paragraph also extends the previous structural emphasis on reversal with the explicit mention of a change of heart: from “very young” Ash seeing Verity as a songbird to imagining her as a bloodthirsty hawk. Ash has engaged in growth and self-critique, and will continue to do so, specifically with regards to his (still hyperbolic and metaphorical) impressions of Verity. 

Ultimately, the genius of this passage is that it refuses to position Verity as an object of settled knowledge, either for Ash or for the reader, instead inviting us to revise our impressions of her.

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning how this passage, while introducing Verity, also grounds Ash as a character. Sprinkled throughout the passage are a series of subtle modifying words that evoke Ash’s backstory and personality. Knowing “all too well” about the pleasures of both art and rich food hints not just at experience, but at painful life lessons. That Verity is “one of the few” constants in his life speaks to both loneliness and change. The idea that she and her brother are the “closest thing” to family “in this country” alludes to a complicated relationship to biological family, as well as to dislocation and travel. 

In reading and re-reading the passage, I’ve come to think of these little words as a formal metaphor for Ash’s personality. He isn’t the type to be obtrusive, to loudly tell others about himself or his feelings. So we learn about him quietly, in little words tucked in here and there: phrases like “all too well” and “one of the few,” that only take on meaning as they modify other words in the passage. It’s gently reminiscent of who Ash is: someone who asserts himself quietly and thinks of himself relationally, in terms of how he connects with others.  

Ultimately, then, this passage cashes in on the promise of the opening line, which gave us both an axiom and a hint of personal detail. We have two characters, about whom we can only glimpse the nuance to come, presented in ways that play with overturning conventions around the objectifying gaze.

Thanks for reading! I’ve got some fun things planned around here, including:

The next close read! It’s Katrina Jackson’s Layover, an *amazing* novella you can buy here. It’s also on KU, if that’s your thing.

More Friday Features, including a silly little Valentines Day post about my favorite romance declarations of love that don’t involve the words “I love you.”

Another forthcoming post about KJ Charles’ Band Sinister and invented intertexts.

Stay tuned 🙂

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

Photo by Mattias Diesel on Unsplash

My reading time this week was primarily taken up by Lucy Parker’s Headliners. I’ve enjoyed the entire London Celebrities series, and this one was no exception.

Lucy Parker’s writing has a light touch- you never feel like you’re struggling to get through the prose- but the minute the plot takes a turn, you realize she’s somehow tricked you into being DEEPLY invested in the characters and their emotional journey.

There were many examples of good writing I could have picked from this book, but I’m going to be honest and go with a fairly random sentence that stuck in my mind and kept making me laugh. It takes place while Sabrina, a TV presenter, is trying to deal with a misogynistic, overly-flirty guest on her program. Sabrina is a redhead, which becomes pertinent here:

“You have beautiful hair,” smarmed the man with basically the same hair, randomly in the middle of a discussion on app development.

Lucy Parker, Headliners, 2020.

The verb-subject pairing of “smarmed the man” is doing a lot of work here, both the invention of the verb “smarmed” (making his grossness more integral to his actions than if he’d “said smarmily”) and the universalizing – and simultaneously dismissing- gesture of calling him “the man.” The repetition of “beautiful hair”/”same hair” at the end of each clause drives home the inherent recursive narcissism of complimenting someone on a shared trait. And because the reader is caught up in the sound of that repetition, the adverb “randomly” is separated from the verb it’s meant to modify (“smarmed”), allowing the end of the sentence to arrive, in fact, rather randomly.

Also, it’s just really funny.

***

I’ll be back next week with a long post I’m excited about: the opening passage of Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise. I’ll talk about how the first three paragraphs of the book subvert various conventions around a male MC describing his female love interest, and set us up instead to meet two nuanced characters.

Buy links and CWs at the author’s website : https://catsebastian.com/a-duke-in-disguise/

Friday Feature: Favorite Words I Read This Week

Photo by Piotr Makowski on Unsplash

Yes, this is the same book as last Friday. I’m a slow reader with a day job, so it’s more Kinsale!

The good news is, there’s an embarrassment of “good words” riches to choose from with this novel. Here’s just one sample, that the heroine (Melanthe) says to the hero (Ruck) after they’ve finally gotten together. For the moment.

“If I say to thee” – Melanthe’s voice was unsteady – “that I cherish and love thee, but that I am frightened at the weight of it – wouldst thou understand me?”

For My Lady’s Heart, Laura Kinsale, 1993.

This line stopped me in my tracks because it goes right ahead and makes text what is one of the most important subtexts of romance novel conflict: a character is in love, but is afraid of what that means.

This sentence is in some ways astonishingly plain. A lot of characters understandably bury the reality of “I love you but I’m scared” under misdirection and self-preservation. There are all kinds of interesting forms this conflict can take, too, which is part of how we get such a range of plots and character arcs in romance. But in this case, Melanthe just goes ahead and lays bare the fundamental conflict of falling in love.

In other ways, though, the sentence respects and reflects that recognizing this conflict is not the same as solving it. Melanthe structures her observation with a conditional and a question (if I told you/would you understand?), and the narrator interrupts it to remind us of the unsteadiness of her voice. She still needs, and seeks, recognition of her feelings from Ruck.

It’s a beautiful moment where we see both that she understands herself, her own mind, and her emotions; and that she’s still at a point of negotiating that understanding in the context of a relationship with a partner.