Paratexts, Part One: Judging a Book by its Back Cover

This post is the first in a three-part series about romance paratexts. 

Paratext is a catch-all term for the parts of a book that aren’t the narrative itself. This includes the obvious elements that come along with a book – front cover, back cover, blurbs, dedications – and the less-obvious things that live separately from it – reviews, things the author has said in interviews, artsy bookstagram photos, etc. The term originated in the work of Gerard Genette, who titled his French-language book on the topic  “Seuils” or “Thresholds.” Essentially, paratext is everything that meets the reader at the threshold of reading  : what they encounter once they already know the book exists, but before they start to read it. Genette argued that paratexts affect how readers receive the books they pick up. What I’ll be looking at over 3 weeks are particular kinds of romance paratexts that do just that – influence how individual readers consume novels – but also how paratexts shape the way romance exists in the world. 

(This is how long the book about paratexts is, so obviously this is a rather crude summary of his argument) Image: 

The most obvious and often-discussed type of paratext is book covers. While I thought about including that topic in this series of posts, I ultimately decided not to wade into the Cover Wars. I don’t think it’s necessarily more complex than what I’m planning to discuss, but it’s ground that has already been covered (heh) frequently. Plus, I certainly feel more comfortable discussing words than images. 

So I’ve decided to start with a post on what I naively thought I could just call “blurbs” –  the 1-3 paragraph description of the plot and characters that you can find on the back of a book if you have a physical copy, or at online book vendors or “about this book” pages for ebooks. But I realized via an online conversation that calling these paragraphs “blurbs” wasn’t entirely accurate, as that word also defines publicity quotes about the book. Other options floated were back cover copy – somewhat dated with the advent of ebooks – and jacket copy – back from when books had jackets.  I’m going to be an insufferable academic and call these descriptors abstracts, as they fulfill more or less the same function of condensing the contents of a piece of writing to a paragraph-sized summary. 

Ideally, romance novel abstracts have a pretty straightforward job: they should tell readers who the characters are and describe their central conflict. But beyond this basic information, all kinds of other communication can get encoded. Reading between the lines, especially for those well-versed in the genre, good abstracts divulge information about mood and trope and even a book’s relationship to its predecessors. Taken together, the style of romance abstracts also tells us a lot about how romance conceives of itself as a genre distinct from others on the literal and virtual shelves. 

Doing an informal survey of romance abstracts (and I should clarify, from an exclusively reader perspective: I have no idea how these things get made and I’m not qualified to talk about this from a process or marketing standpoint) I found that they generally follow a three-part structure. First, at least in romances between two people, we meet the two MCs in sequence, each via a paragraph or section devoted to their personality and central character arc. Then a final section explains the circumstances under which the two MCs will come into contact, and why falling in love is a Bad Idea.  My shorthand for that structure here is going to be [MC1] [MC2] [Contact and Conflict].  Here’s a good standard example, from Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You:

When shy and secluded author Sara Fielding ventures from her country cottage to research a novel, she inadvertently witnesses a crime in progress—and manages to save the life of the most dangerous man in London.

Derek Craven is a powerful and near-legendary gambling club owner who was born a bastard and raised in the streets. His reputation is unsavory, his scruples nonexistent. But Sara senses that beneath Derek’s cynical exterior, he is capable of a love more passionate than her deepest fantasies.

Aware that he is the last man that an innocent young woman should ever want, Derek is determined to protect Sara from himself, no matter what it takes. But in a world where secrets lurk behind every shadow, he is the only man who can keep her safe. And as Derek and Sara surrender to an attraction too powerful to deny, a peril surfaces from his dark past to threaten their happiness . . . and perhaps even their lives.

Together they will discover if love is enough to make dreams come true.

There are, of course, almost as many variations on this theme as there are books, and in the right hands these variations are rich in information. For example, I love how readers can pick up on the cutting humor and classic enemies-to-lovers trope as early as the [MC1] section of the abstract for Christina C Jones’ Getting Schooled: 

When 26 year old Reese accepts a position as a grad assistant, she has no idea an unpleasant encounter with a student will lead to the discovery of what she calls “the trifecta”: fine, intellectual, and a little bit rude – three qualities she finds irresistible in a man. 

The abstract for Hate to Want You, Alisha Rai’s childhood-friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-sex-pact-to-lovers romance uses the words “illicit pleasure” before we hear who Livvy and Nicholas are, signaling high heat up front. And the inversion of the classic structure into [Contact and Conflict] [MC1] [MC2] [Contact and Conflict] reflects the twists and turns of the couple’s relationship, as well as the plot-focused nature of this 3-book family saga. 

One night. No one will know.

That was the deal. Every year, Livvy Kane and Nicholas Chandler would share one perfect night of illicit pleasure. The forbidden hours let them forget the tragedy that haunted their pasts—and the last names that made them enemies.

Until the night she didn’t show up.

Now Nicholas has an empire to run. He doesn’t have time for distractions and Livvy’s sudden reappearance in town is a major distraction. She’s the one woman he shouldn’t want . . . so why can’t he forget how right she feels in his bed?

Livvy didn’t come home for Nicholas, but fate seems determined to remind her of his presence—and their past. Although the passion between them might have once run hot and deep, not even love can overcome the scandal that divided their families.

Being together might be against all the rules . . . but being apart is impossible.

There are a million small tweaks that happen within the formula once you recognize it. Beverley Jenkins’ Tempest, which starts with the heroine shooting the hero, also uses an atypical interrogative opener:  

What kind of mail-order bride greets her intended with a bullet instead of a kiss? 

The abstract of Lucy Parker’s Act Like It evokes the style of the celebrity gossip magazines that propel the plot of the book. 

Sources say the mismatched pair has been spotted at multiple events, arm in arm and hip to hip. 

The abstract for Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels contrasts Jess and Dain by presenting Dain’s [MC2] paragraph in free indirect discourse of hysterical exclamation-point-y worries, in contrast to Jess’s more staid statements of fact in her [MC1] intro.

Tough-minded Jessica Trent’s sole intention is to free her nitwit brother from the destructive influence of Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain.

Damn the minx for tempting him, kissing him… and then forcing him to salvage her reputation!

In Band Sinister, KJ Charles sets up a tongue-in-cheek relationship to genre predecessors (which I’ve written about here) with an aside inserted into an otherwise mostly- traditional [MC1] intro. 

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.)

When it comes to most romance abstracts, there’s clearly an identifiable formula (as Twitter pointed out last week, first person abstracts are a whole different thing that I don’t have space for here). Part of the potential of that formula, though, as I hope I’ve shown above, is that small changes can encode a wealth of information about tone, subgenre, tropes, and character traits. A good abstract provides transparent basic information to anyone who reads it, but can also offer a kind of inside communication to romance readers, who know the form enough to appreciate the variation.

Of course, if “knowing the form and appreciating the variation” sounds familiar, that’s because it’s true of romance as a genre on the whole. Not unsurprisingly, the structural touchstones of romance have given rise to a concomitant structure for describing the book itself. The presentation of [MC1] [MC2] reassures that the “central focus on the love story of two or more characters” requirement will be met. And the end of the abstract – the last sentence in particular – addresses the need to deliver on romance’s other primary task: an original and compelling journey to HEA.  

What intrigued me about the final sentences of most of the abstracts in my survey is that they focus more on the obstacles to HEA than the HEA itself. In a lot of ways, this makes sense: having an HEA is what makes romances similar to each other; the obstacles are what makes every novel different. These final sentences fall into five broad categories. 

The rhetorical: asks a question about threats to the HEA. The answer is yes.

Can their love survive their countries’ enmity? (Honeytrap, Aster Glenn Grey)

The contingency: an “if” or “maybe” statement that suggests the uncertainty of the HEA.

With every minute they spend under the same roof, this working mom can’t help but wonder if Rafe can handle all her needs… (Rafe, Rebekah Weatherspoon)

The either/or: presents the options that either will or will not lead to HEA.

Giving in for just one night might quench this longing. Or it might ignite an affair as reckless and irresistible as it is forbidden . . (Forbidden, Beverley Jenkins)

The obstacle: this closer presents an obstacle so great, its threat to the HEA is understood.

Following the path of the Underground Railroad, they find themselves caught up in a vicious battle that could dash their hopes of love – and freedom – before they even cross state lines. (A Hope Divided, Alyssa Cole) 

The prize: more common in old-school histrom, this one focuses on how great the HEA will be, rather than the obstacles to it .

But she never dreamed her gentle, healing touch would alter his life and her own so completely – and bind them together in need, desire…and love. (Flowers from the Storm, Laura Kinsale) 

Almost every romance abstract ends on some kind of statement proclaiming its capability of pulling off the fundamental tension between structure and struggle. But does that really set it apart? Lots of books ask leading or enticing questions about the plot. But I was curious if abstracts for other genres – particularly the somewhat vaguely-defined “literary fiction” – have different sets of codes and constraints from romance, and what that paratextual difference might tell us about how romance is positioned in the literary world. 

Consulting my shelves of non-romance fiction, I found a significant number devoted their final sentence to a citation of the title followed by a statement about what the book is like, rather than what it’s about. Here are four examples, all of which I read in the last year: 

In Daisy Jones and the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid brilliantly captures an unforgettable place and time in an utterly distinctive voice. 

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From the bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters – strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis – survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history. 

The Bone Fire is a political gothic, carried along by the menace and promise of a fairy tale. 

The Other Americans is at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story informed by the treacherous fault lines of American culture. 

These are markedly different from the closing line of romance abstracts- so why is that? An obvious answer is that these final sentences narrow down genre in a way that romance doesn’t need to. However, indicating genre isn’t all that these portions of litfic abstracts are doing, nor arguably is it their most important function. These sentences also (justifiably!) laud the quality of the books, marking their contribution to broader discussions. They are “unforgettable” and “utterly distinctive” and expose the “fault lines of American culture.” They’re serious. They’re well-written. The end of these abstracts shift from the “plot summary” mode to “book review” mode, preparing readers to think of the contents as having measurable value. 

Citing the title directly also invites readers to think about the book as an object: something we might display on our bookshelves, or tell people we’ve read. That’s something I and many readers do with romance novels. But I’m suspicious that others might have past experiences mirroring mine, of having to wade through a swamp of societal judgment before reaching that point. Romance has a reputation for readers who go through books quickly and don’t want others to know what they’re reading (part of the putative reason we were early adopters of ebooks), which is the opposite of the kind of visible materiality suggested by talking about your book as an object in a blurb. I don’t want to fall into the trap of assuming that quick and private consumability is somehow inferior but… I do wonder about the way we’ve been conditioned to not to think of romance novels as objects of permanent value and as subjects of serious critique.

So, is the fact that romance abstracts rarely cite the book as a book a sign of broader reticence to consider romance novels as something appraisable and praiseworthy? 

I don’t think this difference is exclusively down to internalized messaging about quality. To begin with, there are other places on romance covers (endorsement quotes, “from the bestselling author of” intros) where such evaluation takes place. Furthermore, like any other semi-closed literary system, romance has evolved its own codes to mark itself as distinctive: they conclude with an estimation of the nature of the book, we conclude with a commitment to plot and conflict. Not citing the title betokens a kind of unselfconsciousness, too. The book just needs to be about something compelling, not announce to readers what their opinion should be before they’ve started.

In a lot of ways, romance abstracts have a different kind of knowledge of, and trust in, the reader. So it really is the farthest possible thing from my mind to make the argument that romance should be marketing itself like litfic. I do think, however, that this difference opens an opportunity to look at how we talk about romance: to both celebrate the codes we’ve created, and find spaces for evaluating quality and legacy and importance alongside plot and character and structure. 


Mostly what this initial survey of abstracts brought home to me is that paratexts are about a lot more than the meeting of reader and text at its threshold. They also reveal where and how the text lives in the world. That’s what the next two posts in this series will look at as well. Next week I’ll be talking about front matter – specifically content warnings, dedications, and epigraphs – and how they build bridges between the text, the reader, and other works of art and moments in time. Then the last stop will be a close reading of Twitter promo – both the kind authors create deliberately for marketing, and the kind readers create incidentally to push favorite books on people – and how they’ve created a more dynamic space of paratextual negotiation than anything Genette probably imagined. 

See you next week!

Grumpy Sunshine, Orderly Chaos: Opposites Attracting in Talia Hibbert’s Act Your Age, Eve Brown

Photo by Daniel Romero on Unsplash

The third book in Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, Act Your Age, Eve Brown, delivers a tropey take on an unlikely love story between two apparent polar opposites. Eve is a “purple-haired tornado of a woman,” a “natural-born nemesis” to stiff and orderly Jacob. However as the blurb promises (making every romance reader sit up and pay attention) “the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else.” Classic enemies-to-lovers, opposites attract? Well, yes and no. Today’s post is going to look at how right from the very beginning – in fact, from the first moments Eve and Jacob meet – this book plays with how much common ground love can find in opposition.

Eve Brown is a certified hot mess. No matter how hard she strives to do right, her life always goes horribly wrong—so she’s given up trying. But when her personal brand of chaos ruins an expensive wedding (someone had to liberate those poor doves), her parents draw the line. It’s time for Eve to grow up and prove herself—even though she’s not entirely sure how…
Jacob Wayne is in control. Always. The bed and breakfast owner’s on a mission to dominate the hospitality industry—and he expects nothing less than perfection. So when a purple-haired tornado of a woman turns up out of the blue to interview for his open chef position, he tells her the brutal truth: not a chance in hell. Then she hits him with her car—supposedly by accident. Yeah, right.
Now his arm is broken, his B&B is understaffed, and the dangerously unpredictable Eve is fluttering around, trying to help. Before long, she’s infiltrated his work, his kitchen—and his spare bedroom. Jacob hates everything about it. Or rather, he should. Sunny, chaotic Eve is his natural-born nemesis, but the longer these two enemies spend in close quarters, the more their animosity turns into something else. Like Eve, the heat between them is impossible to ignore—and it’s melting Jacob’s frosty exterior.

Cover image and blurb from the author’s website. CWs are provided in the front matter of the book.

Because so much of this book is about seeing and being seen, it stands to reason that a lot rides on the moment the reader first sees Eve and Jacob, and the moment they first see each other. Eve Brown is written in alternating 3rd person POV, and it’s organized such that both Eve and Jacob are introduced individually to the reader in their own POV sections. Shortly after that first introduction, we then see Jacob through Eve’s eyes and vice versa.

In the two short moments where Eve and Jacob present themselves, they focus on how they are misunderstood by others. But in so doing, they come across to the reader as two people with a very similar struggle to be seen and understood. It’s when they first meet that their distinct personalities – an order-loving grump and a chaotic ray of sunshine- snap into place. But just as Eve and Jacob start to appear differently to the reader, they move to an interesting piece of common ground, as neither one of them yet fully perceives who the other one is.

Let’s start with our first introduction to Eve and Jacob: the very first sentences we get about each of them in their own POV. These occur in Chapters 1 and 2 respectively: 

Eve Brown didn’t keep a diary. She kept a journal. There was a difference.

Contrary to popular belief, Jacob Wayne did not create awkward situations on purpose.

These sentences differ in a few noticeable ways. Eve – a born performer with a self-assured personality – kicks things off by offering her own full name, making her the star of the show. Jacob, slightly more shy of the spotlight, emerges a few words into his sentence from behind the weight of “popular belief.” This difference is echoed in the chapter structure too: the first chapter starts with Eve’s perspective, whereas Jacob doesn’t take over the POV of the second chapter until several pages in. They also display a different level of formality in their speech. While they use the same basic negation structure, Eve’s is a contraction (didn’t) unlike Jacob’s (did not), reflecting Eve’s more casual style and Jacob’s adherence to proper formalities. 

However, all things considered, their first introductions have more fundamental commonalities than differences. To begin with, they both make categorical statements establishing themselves as people with a clear vision of who they are. Eve is a journal person, not a diary person. Jacob does not create awkward situations on purpose. What strikes me the most is that the use of categorical statements coupled with negation suggests that they share a history of being misunderstood. Eve’s addition of “there was a difference” to her first statements suggests that she, like Jacob, feels compelled to amend popular belief about the fundamentals of who she is. There is an element of self-justification to their introductions, a correction of the record that implicitly asks readers to understand them better than others have. The need to be understood turns out to be central to both characters, when it comes to how they socialize, how they relate to their families, and how they move through the world.

As readers, we have 375 delightful pages full of chances to understand Eve and Jacob better. We also get to watch them learn about themselves through their relationship to each other, one of the best journeys a romance novel can take. When Eve first presents Eve, and Jacob first presents Jacob, they sound pretty similar to each other – categorical and record-correcting and clear on who they are. When they first see each other, however, they sound like fundamentally different people.

Here’s Jacob’s first look at Eve, when she shows up unannounced to interview for a chef position at his B&B:

After a moment’s hesitating an unfamiliar face popped itself through the gap in the door. Jacob assumed the face was attached to a body, but all he could see right now was a head, a little bit of neck, and a whole lot of purple braids. 

“Hello,” the floating head said. “I’m here for the interview.”

Assertive and straight to the point: good. Complete stranger, unscheduled: bad. The kind of crisp accent Jacob usually heard from the guests themselves: potential issue. Hovering in the door like a supernatural creature: undecided. 

And Eve’s first impression of Jacob, as she reflects on how different he is from what she expected from a charming B&B owner:

Jacob Wayne should, by rights, be an old married couple with a twinkle in their eye who looked upon the world at large with kindness and goodwill and would be happy to hire Eve so that she could start her journey to self-actualization in a job she’d never get too attached to. 

Instead, Jacob Wayne was a single man, not much older than her, and the twinkle in his eye was more of a steely, judgmental glint. Or maybe that was just the light flashing off his silver-rimmed glasses. Those glasses were balanced on a strong, Roman nose that someone should probably break, because all his features were strong and Roman and that likely had something to do with how he’d become so arrogant. The man was disgustingly, inescapably, thoroughly handsome, and as Gigi often said, A handsome man is a fearsome liability to everyone but himself. 

Jacob’s first glance at Eve shows how reliant he is on order, as well as on concrete, observable phenomena. The second half of the passage, in particular, reads as a kind of hybrid between the notes Jacob might be taking as he meets job candidates, and the more general way he approaches the world. The statement “complete stranger, unscheduled” suggests a mental record of encounters structured like an academic book index: by extension, we can assume that the previous interview fell under the pre-established category of “complete stranger, scheduled.” 

Jacob perceives Eve mostly as a list of what is physically apparent “a head, a little bit of neck, and a whole lot of purple braids.” Rather endearingly, he reins in his powers of imagination so strictly that he only “assume[s]” the face is attached to a body, a conceptual leap that most people would be ready to make. That being said, his strict observations create surprising spaces for creativity: because he’s not willing to surmise what Eve’s head might or might not be attached to, we are treated to the slightly fantastical descriptions of Eve as a “floating head” and a “supernatural creature.” This lets us see early on how Jacob’s order and literal-ness can hold space for Eve’s whimsy. 

In contrast to Jacob’s adherence to the observable realties of Eve, Eve’s first impression of Jacob gives almost as much space to imaginative speculation as it does to physical appearance. She starts by devoting an entire sentence to who she thought would be running Jacob’s B&B, spinning out a fanciful portrait of two twinkly-eyed elderly owners that ends in musings about her own career woes. Indeed, her sentences rarely end up in the same place they started, with a looping logic that sits in start contrast to Jacob’s listing and order. 

But just as Jacob’s lists make space for whimsy, Eve’s creative imaginings are open to revision. She sees Jacob as judgmental, but also admits that it might be a trick of perception created by the “light flashing off his silver-rimmed glasses.” She recognizes both his strong exterior and, in a subsequent section, its vulnerability to being broken. While others often perceive Eve as off in her own world, untethered from reality, in the presence of Jacob we can see how she keeps herself open to other ways of seeing the world. 

Eve Brown uses its fundamental tension between similarity and difference in so many ways throughout the novel. The novel itself is both a loving homage to the “opposites attract” trope and a clever book-long deconstruction of it – and thus a masterclass in how romance tropes are as much about exploration and change as they are about formula. The book also uses similarity and difference to ground a truly moving moment in which Eve comes to realize she is autistic, in part through talking to Jacob about his diagnosis. She inches towards this realization because of a few traits that she and Jacob share, but more importantly she learns that the same term holds space for experiences as different as Jacob’s and her own. 

Part of the satisfaction, to me, in reading Act Your Age, Eve Brown was how deftly the book moved Eve and Jacob towards each other without every straying from its knowledge of- and commitment to- who the two characters are as individuals. Which, in itself, says a lot about love : as an act of growth into oneself rather than fundamental change, as a search for space and compatibility rather than a resolution of binaries. And the book unfolds all these journeys so deftly, taking readers beyond where they thought they’d be going at just the first look. 

Close Reading Snapshot: A Duet for Invisible Strings by Llinos Cathryn Thomas

I picked up this novella on a whim after seeing it on this Twitter list of under-sung novellas. It’s a lightly-magical contemporary romance between two older women who play in the same orchestra: Heledd is a violinist, Rosemary is the conductor she’s been in love with for ages. I won’t give away too much more, because one of the pleasures of reading Duet was watching it unfold in tone and genre with an amplitude that far exceeded expectations for such a short read. Here’s the cover and blurb:

Heledd, leader of the first violins, has been in love with her irrepressible conductor Rosemary for years.

A secret from her past means she must hide how she feels, but the time they spend working and performing together is enough for Heledd – until a near miss with a speeding car forces her to rethink everything she thought she knew.

When the orchestra is mysteriously summoned to perform in the Welsh village where Heledd grew up – a village she hasn’t returned to in decades – the life she’s made for herself begins to unravel, and her secrets threaten to escape.

Cover image and blurb from the author’s website.

The passage I’ve chosen takes place a few days after Heledd has gone to Rosemary’s home to have pizza and hear her practice a harp piece: it’s an understated and private moment of longing that sets readers up nicely for the concert where Rosemary gives a rare public harp performance:

In the concert hall with its vaulted ceiling, a few days after the pizza and the harp lesson, Heledd kept remembering that night. The memory tangled with the music Rosemary was playing now–an entirely different piece, on a different harp, in a different place, but Heledd was still mesmerised by the way Rosemary made the music fill up the room. Near the climax of the piece there were four bars of silence, and Heledd thought not a single person in the room breathed. When Rosemary’s fingers touched the strings again, the whole place seemed to exhale as one. It made Heledd giddy.

What strikes me about this passage is the way it conveys the meaning and emotion of Rosemary’s music through senses other than sound, which are more accessible to the reader. Rather than telling us what the harp piece sounds like, the passage conveys how it occupies space (filling an entire high-ceilinged concert hall), time (blending together Heledd and Rosemary’s private harp lesson with a public concert), and most importantly, silence: a breathless, collective silence. The power of the music is conveyed precisely by what happens when it’s not audible, involving the readers in parts of the performance they can access more easily than trying to imagine how it sounds.

A particular strength of this novella is its ability to make use of absences, gaps, and silences. There is, of course, the metaphorical silence of Heledd’s unrequited and unconfessed pining for Rosemary throughout decades of friendship. But more than that, Duet leaves a lot of detail unspoken, particularly around Heledd’s dark secret and its fantasy elements. While these absences might frustrate some readers, I found the sparing use of detail to be beautifully constructed. Like Rosemary’s music, the text brings readers into its silences, using them to create a sense of shared wonder and mystery.

I recommend picking up this novella for:

  • A delicate blending of contemporary and fantasy romance, that layers the two genres for Maximum Pining.
  • Two professionally accomplished heroines, both over the age of 40.
  • One particularly gorgeous metaphor for falling in love without realizing it: “It hadn’t happened in a flash of lightning … It was more like she’d been walking along a path, a quiet path on a sunny day, not noticing the gradual upward slope until finally she’d looked around her and found that she was on the edge of a cliff and about to walk right off”
  • Aching, eerie atmosphere.
  • A literal one-sitting read, at 84 pages.

Close Reading Snapshot: Big Boy by Ruthie Knox

After having it recommended to me by multiple people whose reading taste I trust, I finally picked up Big Boy by Ruthie Knox, and this 77-page slip of a novella has ended up being one of the most impactful bits of reading I’ve done this year. The setup is fairly simple, but delightfully unconventional: the two MCs are strangers who meet up once a month for trysts in a train museum, where they role play characters from different historical eras.

Meet me at the train museum after dark. Dress for 1957.

When Mandy joins an online dating service, she keeps her expectations low. All she wants is a distraction from the drudgery of single parenthood and full-time work. But the invitation she receives from a handsome man who won’t share his real name promises an adventure—and a chance to pretend she’s someone else for a few hours.
She doesn’t want romance to complicate her life, but Mandy’s monthly role-playing dates with her stranger on a train—each to a different time period—become the erotic escape she desperately needs. And a soul connection she never expected.
Yet when she tries to draw her lover out of the shadows, Mandy has a fight on her hands…to convince him there’s a place for their fantasy love in the light of day.

Cover image and blurb from the author’s website. CWs can be found in Leigh’s review here.

There are multiple passages I could have chosen that show off the spare lyricism of the prose. But what I kept coming back to with this book is how it fit so much into a one-hour read. By the time you reach the end, you’ve traversed months of timeline and know and care about both characters deeply (despite almost never having seen the hero as “himself” until the end). I tend to assume that kind of temporal and character development is primarily the work of plot and pacing and structure- but in this book, it’s the work of prose, too. Like in this passage, where Mandy thinks back on one of their encounters:

I think about him in the days between our dates. I figure out what I’m going to wear when I see him again, who I’ll be. The anticipation is so sweet, sometimes I wonder if it’ll make my teeth ache eventually, turn my stomach, and that will be that.

We’ve been on nine dates in nine months.

I didn’t sleep with him until the fifth date, and I might not have done it then, except it was wartime, and my sweetheart had died in the Eastern Theater. I’d decided not to waste any more opportunities. When he kissed me in the stateroom of General Eisenhower’s train, I pulled him down to the floor by the lapels and asked him to make me forget.

The first thing I love about this passage is how it juxtaposes the details of Mandy and Tyler’s “real” selves with the characters they role-play. There’s nothing in this passage, stylistically or structurally, that suggests there’s a different truth value to the statement “I didn’t sleep with him until the fifth date” (which we assume to be true of Mandy) and “my sweetheart had died in the Eastern Theater” (which we assume to be true of the character she’s created). The idea that Mandy and Tyler reveal their true selves through role-play is integral to the storyline, and the prose does a lot of work to make the reader feel what it’s like to slip between personalities, what that reveals and what it keeps hidden, by weaving them together in single passages, or single sentences.

This interweaving technique is also part of what makes the book feel so temporally expansive: it recreates the feeling of traversing nine months in only a few pages by telescoping the distant past of the Second World War with the present of the 21st century, through the space of Eisenhower’s stateroom: which existed both in the past of Mandy’s character and the present of the trysts at the train museum.

Another juxtaposition I appreciate is how the sentences can use seemingly-mundane details to set up deep emotional revelations. We see this at the end of both full paragraphs above. “What I’m going to wear when I see him again” is a fairly rote logistical detail, “who I’ll be” gets at the core of Mandy’s struggle to define who she is. Similarly, the last sentence uses the details of the train to evoke the logistics of their lovemaking, but builds to a crescendo of “make me forget,” deftly evoking the real-world problems they are both trying to escape from. It lends real emotional depth to two people readers don’t have a lot of time to get to know.

It’s hard to put my finger on, but something about the way many of the sentences combine logistical details with more poignant notes puts the purely-details sentences into relief. “We’ve been on nine dates in nine months” is an unremarkable declarative sentence, but it stands out to me so starkly- not only the way it’s typeset on its own line, but also how much unspoken weight it carries in contrast to the sentences around it. One of Mandy’s primary struggles in the book is coming to terms with being a single mother to her late sister’s child, and her life is incredibly difficult in a logistical sense. We learn so much about her in just those eight words: that she keeps meticulous track of schedules, that she’s mentally holding on to the time she gets with Tyler, that when she thinks about it directly, she can’t quite say to herself what it means. The starkness of the sentence lends a rhythm to the passage, but it also draws the reader in further, to try to excavate the emotions underneath.

If you pick up Big Boy, you’ll also find:

  • A story you can truly read in one sitting, and that will stay with you for days (and I’m guessing probably weeks) afterwards.
  • Reflections on the classic romance themes of knowing yourself/knowing others that are baked right into the structure of every chapter and every sentence.
  • A heroine who is unsparingly honest about herself in a way that is both uncomfortably real and yet somehow comforting in its relatability.
  • A hero who seems like a classic mysterious romantic enigma, until a turn-on-a-dime final reveal makes you realize how much you knew about him all along (truly, it’s remarkable).
  • Hot train sex, and some really great clothing descriptions.

Lady Chance/The Luckiest Lady in London: Reading Sherry Thomas in Translation

Photo by Amy-Leigh Barnard on Unsplash

I am very excited to share this most recent post, which is a product of a read-along and blog collaboration with Felicia Davin over at Word Suitcase. As we both have studied and worked in French, and consume tons of romance novels, we decided to pick a historical romance out of J’ai Lu’s collection of works translated from English. We settled on Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London, translated into French by Nicole Hibert as Lady Chance. I highly recommend subscribing to Word Suitcase, where this week you’ll find Felicia’s etymological exploration of chit/ingénue, and an insightful discussion of Thomas’s narrative voice.

Personally, I went into this project with very few preconceived notions : I read in French for my job, in English for fun, and I’ve never read a romance in French before at all. Lady Chance was my primary text, which I read start to finish while referring frequently to The Luckiest Lady in London for comparison. It was a fascinating experience, and while I’m not sure I extracted any overarching truths about reading romance in English and French, the two books did feel incredibly different to me. In a few places, the translator was able to take advantage of French’s unique features and add layers to the text- in many others, I felt the loss of the brightness and complex tone of Thomas’s work. I wanted to start by exploring a few instances in both of those categories – where I felt things were gained or lost in translation – and close with some more general thoughts about the experience of reading two very different versions of the same romance. To start, here’s some info on the original text, as well as a link to the French, for those so inclined.

Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, is The Ideal Gentleman, a man all men want to be and all women want to possess. Felix knows very well his golden image is a hoax. But no one else suspects the truth, until Miss Louisa Cantwell comes along.
From their first meeting, Louisa has mistrusted his outward perfection. But even she could not have imagined that The Ideal Gentleman would propose—to make her his mistress.
Yet she cannot ignore the pleasure his touch ignites. Nor can she deny the pull Lord Wrenworth exerts upon her. But dare she get any closer to a man full of dark secrets, any one of which could devastate her?

Image and blurb from the author’s website. Link to the French translation here.

Moving from “vous” to “tu”

One linguistic feature the French translator had to play with is the distinction between formal “vous” and informal “tu” address. Because that distinction doesn’t exist in English, the translator had to identify when a couple who started off as strangers in proper society (using “vous”) would switch to greater intimacy (using “tu”). In Lady Chance, that occurred right after Felix and Louisa sleep together for the first time, marking it – rather than the moment of their marriage ceremony-  as the spark of true closeness between them. 

What I didn’t anticipate, however, is how the translator continued to play with this register, taking the couple back to using “vous” when they fought – and even having them make the shift at different times, so that there are sections where Felix is oblivious to the extent of Louisa’s anger and still using “tu” while she keeps him at a distance with “vous.” 

The use of “vous” between a married couple is brilliant at reinforcing the emotional register of  “I am freezing you out while I absolutely burn you to the ground” that is the hallmark of Thomas’s angsty marriage-in-trouble stories. Let’s look at one example, a line Felix says to Louisa:

Permettez-moi de vous donner un conseil, ma chère: il ne faut jamais croire ce qu’un homme vous raconte quand il vous baise. 

Lady Chance

Let me tell you something, my dear: You should never believe what a man says when he is fucking you. 

The Luckiest Lady in London

This line is a fairly straightforward translation (except that in French he gives advice instead of telling). But, to me, the last three words of the French “il vous baise” land much harder than “he is fucking you” for the simple reason of register: if you are a reasonably polite person, there is almost never a scenario where you’re employing a word as vulgar as “baiser” with someone you address as “vous.” The seeds of the formality are planted in the English with “he is” instead of “he’s,” and the French takes full advantage of that tension.

There are also a few interesting moments where the translator takes license to choose – and even to add – words and phrases that reinforce Thomas’s themes. One of these happens when Felix is brooding over his marital feud with Louisa. (Because the French is significantly different from the English here, I’ve provided a more literal translation of the French for non-Francophones in smaller script below)

Le dos voûté il gagna son observatoire. Les nuages masquaient l’éclat des étoiles. Il y demeura pourtant jusqu’à l’aube, à scruter inutilement un ciel noir d’encre. 

With his back stooped, he reached his observatory. The clouds masked the shine of the stars. Yet he stayed there until dawn, to uselessly examine a sky black as ink. 

Lady Chance

When he finally took himself to his observatory, clouds had already rolled in. But there he remained until dawn, under a sky he could no longer see. 

The Luckiest Lady in London

At no point, in Sherry Thomas’s original scene, is Felix’s back stooped. So what is it doing in the French? The adjective used to describe his back – voûté – derives from voûte, or arch. La voûte is commonly used in the expression “la voûte céleste” or “the celestial arch” – referring to the sky or the heavens. So to describe Felix, an astronomer who shares his love of the stars with the woman he has lost, as having a “dos voûté” as he walks up to his observatory, takes advantage of the specificity of the French while reproducing the rich thematic work that Sherry Thomas maintains throughout the book. 

I do have to say, though, that moments like this – where the translation is creatively dialoguing with the style and thematic complexity of the novel – are few and far between. My overwhelming impression was of a work of interpretation that, in most cases, didn’t trust the reader as much as Sherry Thomas’s writing does. This issue is likely, in part, circumstantial: it’s impossible for me to know at what pace – and for what kind of compensation – these translations are produced. But overall, reading the translation heightened my awareness of what characterizes Thomas’s writing, because those things often disappeared: suggestively ambiguous phrases, deliberate double meanings, and poetic abstraction of the individual from their own emotions. 

The joys of ambiguity

One issue that came up frequently was that, in an effort to render Thomas’s references and metaphors understandable, the translation flattened some of their delightful ambiguity. This passage shows it happening in two different ways.

– Je sais pourquoi je t’aime, ma douce. Et je t’aimerai encore plus lorsque les braves gens viendront chercher avec leur fourche la sorcière que tu es. 
Elle éclata de rire puis, reprenant son sérieux, plongea son regard dans le sien
– Et moi, je sais qu’aucun homme au monde ne pourrait me rendre plus heureuse. 

I know why I love you, my sweet. And I’ll love you even more when the good people come with their pitchforks looking for the sorceress that you are. 
She burst out laughing, then, becoming serious again, plunged her gaze into his. 
– And me, I know that no man in the world could make me happier. 

Lady Chance

“I know I love you for a reason. I will love you even more when they come for you with pitchforks.”
She laughed, cupped his face, and looked into his eyes. “And I could never be this happy with anyone else”  

The Luckiest Lady in London

Reading this passage, two different things jumped out at me: the appearance, in the French, of “the sorceress that you are” – which doesn’t exist at all in the English, and “becoming serious again” – which replaces “cupped his face.” 

“The sorceress that you are” is a fairly understandable addition. While in English, the word “pitchfork” is enough to conjure up images of an angry mob, in French “fourche” mostly just suggests a farmer. A fun – though by no means foolproof – way to test vocabulary-use theories is to run words through Google image search:  “pitchfork” brought up a pretty even spread of farmer images and devil images, whereas “fourche” definitely leant more heavily towards the farming end of things. Even more tellingly, “with pitchforks” turned up lots of images of angry mobs. “Avec des fourches” taught me that this word in French is also used for having split-ends. 

As a reading experience, adding sorcery to the pitchforks errs on the side of clarity, but I think it also takes something away : a trust in the reader to conjure up images with a single word. Obviously somewhere in French there’s a corresponding metonym for crowds, but it can be hard to turn away from the more direct, explanatory translation. 

“Becoming serious again” is an interesting example of an instance where an action doesn’t have a simple, elegant translation into French, and the translator has instead substituted a feeling. While French obviously allows for describing the motion of placing a hand against someone’s jaw, there isn’t a single verb like “cup” that does so quickly. I agree with the choice to substitute something else for “took his face into the palm of her hand” or “pressed her hand to his face,” but there’s a loss of interpretative work for the reader, when the translator preempts the choice of that gesture conveying tenderness or playfulness or attention, and decides it marks seriousness instead. 

One of my favorite things about Thomas’s writing is that she isn’t afraid to play with syntax in a way that distances her characters from strong emotions they can’t yet face. Two of my favorite lines in the English describe Louisa and Felix as deeply in love, yet incapable of expressing the sentiment. For Louisa, it’s the first time she sleeps with Felix, which the narration describes like this: 

It was like the sky falling.
Beyond, the stars. 

The Luckiest Lady in London

I love the truncated simplicity of “Beyond, the stars” and how it captures the confusion of falling in love. The focus on things (the sky, the stars) rather than emotions also matches the state of a character whose emotions haven’t yet caught up to physical sensation. The sheer magnitude of the images reflects the grandeur of what she experiences. The French, unfortunately, simply captures this as “Elle voguait en plein ciel, parmi les étoiles/She was sailing across the sky, among the stars” which strikes me as both more simple and more conventional than the original. 

Similarly, when Felix first suspects he might have fallen for his wife, he thinks to himself

“Such a lonely feeling, being hopelessly in love.”

The Luckiest Lady in London

There’s an ambiguity there: obviously we as readers know Felix is thinking this because he is in love with Louisa, but Felix keeps distance by not inserting himself into the sentence. The aphoristic quality of phrase is key, as it – artificially – abstracts “being in love” from anything he’s feeling. In French, this is rendered as a fully grammatical sentence, with Felix as its subject: “Il était amoureux, et il se sentait désespérément seul/He was in love, and he felt desperately lonely.” 

I think it’s easy to get caught up in this kind of comparison. As I read Lady Chance I accumulated an entire document of side-by-side quotes that ranged from clever additions, to faithful renderings, to absolutely baffling changes and frustrating absences. My reading of the French was haunted by assumptions about the original. I’d come across a word and dash back to The Luckiest Lady in London, wondering where it had come from and how it had come into being. It was tellingly difficult for me to not let the translator stand in between me and the “real” text like an interloping second reader:  I was constantly aware of consuming someone else’s reading, rather than the new and independent text that a translation ideally becomes. That’s in part, I think, because of my reading method (I knew I was reading comparatively for the blog), and in part because the style of the translation leaned so heavily into the task of interpreting even the most poetic of ambiguities. 

 Ultimately, the exercise of reading Lady Chance and The Luckiest Lady in London gave me a new perspective on one of my favorite topics:  how much the individual reader brings to the consumption of a novel.  It made me think about why I needed “sorceress” to stand alongside “fourche” but not “pitchfork” – and how hard it must be to make linguistic choices as a translator when every word is dragging a suitcase full of historical usage around with it. Ultimately, this experience reminded me that I appreciate authors who trust their readers to do some work with what’s on the page: to decide what cupping a face means, or to revel in the grammatical dark spaces around phrases like “Beyond, the stars.” All the while, though, they also have to have a sense of their readers as a community, with shared understanding of language: otherwise you have a bunch of random farmers showing up to taunt your heroine, instead of an angry mob. Part of what Sherry Thomas’s original accomplishes so well is conceiving of its readership as a community, but one made up of many individual interpretations. Reading these two texts together really drove home why ambiguity, and innovation, and lexical incompleteness are a part of the magic of my favorite writing. 

Close Reading Snapshot: Love at First by Kate Clayborn

It’s release day for Love at First, the most recent contemporary romance from Kate Clayborn. I’ve already talked a bit on this blog about how much I love Kate’s writing, and I was fortunate enough to get an ARC of this book from the publisher. For those of you who are considering picking it up, here’s a little snapshot of the writing – and loving treatment of romance tropes – that awaits you if you do. First, the cover and blurb:

Sixteen years ago, a teenaged Will Sterling saw—or rather, heard—the girl of his dreams. Standing beneath an apartment building balcony, he shared a perfect moment with a lovely, warm-voiced stranger. It’s a memory that’s never faded, though he’s put so much of his past behind him. Now an unexpected inheritance has brought Will back to that same address, where he plans to offload his new property and get back to his regular life as an overworked doctor. Instead, he encounters a woman, two balconies above, who’s uncannily familiar . . .

No matter how surprised Nora Clarke is by her reaction to handsome, curious Will, or the whispered pre-dawn conversations they share, she won’t let his plans ruin her quirky, close-knit building. Bound by her loyalty to her adored grandmother, she sets out to foil his efforts with a little light sabotage. But beneath the surface of their feud is an undeniable connection. A balcony, a star-crossed couple, a fateful meeting—maybe it’s the kind of story that can’t work out in the end. Or maybe, it’s the perfect second chance.

Buy links at the author’s website. CWs can be found in Leigh’s review here.

The passage I’ve chosen for this snapshot takes place as Will and Nora sit a veterinarian’s waiting room, as they deal with a pair of kittens that have appeared rather inconveniently in their shared apartment building. It occurs fairly early on in the book, yet we can still see how Nora intertwines the details of a short but meaningful shared history into her description of Will:

He looked down at her, all stubble-faced and kitten-scratched and unwinking, and he may have had a serious expression on his face, but she felt oddly like their shared laughter still lived between them, same as the way their weeks-gone golden hour always did.

Will and Nora first “meet” as teenagers: Nora on the balcony of her grandmother’s apartment building, Will on the ground below. They then reconnect across the space between balconies in the same building – one that has become a home for Nora, and source of conflict for the couple. Thanks to this first half-remembered meeting, Will and Nora have a kind of physical memory of knowing each other that haunts their interactions. That feeling comes through beautifully in this quote, where Nora takes the few interactions they’ve had – sparring with kittens, laughing together, sharing a golden hour – and grafts them onto her description of Will. As will be true of the rest of the book, we find comfortably familiar romance idioms (like the serious, buttoned-up, stubble-faced hero) alongside moments that feel sharply specific to who Will and Nora are as individuals.

Love at First also makes masterful use of physical space and material items as anchors for its love story. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another romance novel that has so many things that stick in my memory: towel racks and upholstered couches and summer tomatoes and flower crowns. While they all lend texture to the world of the novel, they also articulate so much about how Will and Nora feel about each other. The above quote gives us a quick glimpse of the opposite effect, which is just as prominent: intangible things like laughter that live, in an almost physically embodied way, in ineffable spaces like the golden hour, or the space between Will and Nora. I’m deeply impressed at how the book can make both the emotional and the tangible seem not just intertwined, but anchored to the same type of meaning.

So! If you pick up Love at First, here are some other things you’ll find:

  • A take on a Romeo-and-Juliet balcony scene as a setup, that informs the novel without taking over it (or its plot! HEAs all around).
  • Many a familiar romance trope that feel somehow new, because they’re deployed in a way that is so specific to who Will and Nora are as characters. There’s a real “reading your favorite book again for the first time” vibe to this one.
  • A close sense of space – most of the plot takes place in Will and Nora’s apartment building – that recasts living inside the four walls of your apartment as a comfort, which I found particularly soothing in pandemic times.
  • A fairly gentle touch of humor that periodically cuts through the angst and longing without disturbing the mood of the book.
  • Some real tear-jerker moments (I periodically cried because the prose was so good, so if that’s at thing that happens to you too, stock up on tissues).


Mirrors and Bemazement: For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale

It’s been just over a year since I started this blog, and it has taken that full time to work up the courage to write about Laura Kinsale’s work. Her backlist includes some of the most complex and intriguing romance I’ve ever read, and I am perpetually astounded with how she plays with the English language. While I do plan to eventually tackle my very favorite of hers (Flowers from the Storm), today I’m looking at a book that’s a close second in my affections, For My Lady’s Heart. Here’s the blurb, cover photo, and link to CWs.

With Princess Melanthe di Monteverde widowed, a political marriage would tip the balance of power to any kingdom that possessed her. Determined to return to England alive and unwed, she hides behind a mask of witchery.
Protecting her is Ruck d’Angleterre, a chivalrous knight who never wavers—and the only man Melanthe wishes could lift the veil of her disguise. He once desired her, but now his gaze reveals distrust. As they flee her enemies, Melanthe’s impossible love for the Green Knight grows.
Ruck has remained chaste for thirteen miserable years, since his wife entered a nunnery, continuing to honor their marital vows. In that dark hour, when the church stripped him of his spouse and his possessions, the princess secretly came to his aid with two emeralds. Her safety is his duty, yet his heart is not pure. Each time he gazes upon Melanthe’s sable hair and twilight eyes, he wants more.

Buy links at the author’s website. A comprehensive list of CWs can be found in Leigh’s review here.

First Meeting

I’m going to examine two passages in this post, starting with Ruck and Melanthe’s first meeting. Despite the fact that Melanthe is the focal point of the passage, she’s described primarily in terms of what is absent – particularly noteworthy is the absence of any description of her face, which Ruck is unable to look upon.

A shimmer of color sparkled at the corner of Ruck’s eye. He turned his head reflexively, as if a mirror had flashed. Space had opened around him. At the edge of it, two spears’ length distant, a lady paused. 

She glanced at him and the guard as she might glance at mongrels scrapping. A princess—mayhap a queen, from the richness of her dress and jewels—surrounded by her attendants, male and female, secluded amid the crowd like a glitter of silent prismatic light among shadows. 

Cold… and as her look skimmed past him, his whole body caught ice and fire. 

He dropped to one knee, bowing his head. When he lifted it, the open space had closed, but still he could see her within the radius of her courtiers. They appeared to be waiting, like everyone else, conversing among themselves. One of the men gave Ruck a brief scornful lift of his brow and turned his shoulder eloquently. 
He watched her hands, because he could not bear to look long at her face and did not dare to scan her body for its violent effect on his. The gauntlet and the falcon’s hood, bejeweled like all the rest of her, glittered with emeralds on silver. She stroked the bird’s breast with white fingers, and from four rods away that steady, gentle caress made him bleed as if from a mortal wound in his chest.

She turned to someone, lifting her finger to hold back the gauzy green veil that fell from her crown of braids to her shoulder—a feminine gesture, a delicacy that commanded and judged and condemned him to an agony of desire. He could not tear his look from her hand as it hovered near her lips: he saw her slight smile for her ladies—so cold, cold… she was bright cold; he was ferment. He couldn’t comprehend her face. He hardly knew if she was comely or unremarkable. He could not at that moment have described her features, any more than he could have looked straight at the sun to describe it.

Ruck first sees Melanthe as a shimmer of color “as if a mirror had flashed” and then the empty spaces that open around her. Even the visual cues that Ruck does receive from Melanthe use turns of phrase that over-emphasize absence: “a silent prismatic light” is remarkable for the modifier “silent,” which denotes an absence of sound for an already soundless phenomenon. 

The longer Ruck stares at Melanthe’s “silent, prismatic light” the more he sees of her. In the full version of this passage, a section I’ve cut describes various parts of her body and clothing – jewels, embroidery, her hair, a dagger – as Ruck takes them in. But despite the narrative insistence on Ruck’s gaze, the object of it never quite comes together as a whole. Melanthe is fractured, seeming absent despite her overwhelming presence, active primarily in terms of her effects on Ruck.

These effects are described so poetically that the passage almost – almost – lets you gloss over how fully it overturns the romance trope of the hero finding the heroine instantly attractive, although that comes through clearly at the end: 

So cold, cold… she was bright cold; he was ferment. He couldn’t comprehend her face. He hardly knew if she was comely or unremarkable. He could not at that moment have described her features, any more than he could have looked straight at the sun to describe it.

I’m going to insist a lot in this post on how closely the language mimics the emotional journey of the novel: the narrative takes the unfamiliar and slowly, carefully, brings it closer to the reader, in ways that echo how the novel presents love as a path to perception and knowledge. “Ferment” is a prismatic term: it’s uncommon, but legible to the reader through a constellation of related words around it. Ferment here is a state of “agitation or excitement,” but in 21st century English it’s almost never used in a nominal form. The word recalls two other, more familiar nouns, though:  fermentation, a chemical reaction that gives off heat; and firmament, an expanse of stars as cold and distant as Melanthe. In bringing these meanings together, ferment creates meaning for the modern reader, bringing together the “ice” and “fire” themes central to the passage. 

Another word that flies a bit more under the radar here is “comprehend,” but I found it almost equally as strange.  What does it mean to “comprehend” a face? We think of physical beauty as demanding perception, appreciation, or desire perhaps, but not comprehension. Diving into a bit of etymology, though, comprehend starts to make more sense. It comes from the latin “com” – together  and “prehendre” – grasp. So, to comprehend is to be able to grasp something as a whole: exactly what Ruck fails to do in this scene. He cannot comprehend Melanthe’s face in the sense that he is not able to look upon it and take it in as a whole. In contrast, various etymological dictionaries suggest that to understand (which has a less clear provenance) is about standing among or between. Ruck has no problem with that kind of knowledge: he can be near Melanthe; he simply cannot  grasp her as a whole. 

That comprehension, the grasping as a whole, is the business of perhaps the most romantic scene in the novel, and on my list of most moving scenes in all of romance. It takes place at the very end of the book: while there are no plot spoilers here, readers who like to encounter prose for the first time in context might want to put a pin in things and come back after they’ve read the final chapter.

Happily Every After

At this point of the narrative, the plot twists and turns have all been worked out, and Ruck and Melanthe are discussing their future. Ruck promises that even if his career as a knight takes him away for a time, Melanthe need not fear for his faithfulness. She is not entirely assuaged, however, and has a lingering request. Throughout the book, we’ve been reminded that Melanthe is afraid to look at herself in the mirror. This fear works, I think, on at least three levels: there’s basic human insecurity, the fear of finding one’s own reflection less than beautiful. On a more esoteric level, Melanthe has been accused of being a witch, and her fear of not appearing in mirrors reads as a period-appropriate worry over her own unnaturalness and difference. And finally, her fear of mirrors works on a metaphorical level: in the course of fighting to escape the grasp of powerful men, she fears she’s lost her sense of self. 

A shimmer of color as if flashing off a mirror, of course, is what first caught Ruck’s eye the first time he was in Melanthe’s presence. He couldn’t take in her face at that moment; but this is the end of the book, and he’s fully able to now. She holds out her mirror to him, asks him what he sees, and here’s how he responds:

He did not even glance at the mirror. 

“Sharp wit,” he said. “Valor past any man I know. Foolish japery and tricks worse than a child. Lickerous lust, hair like midwinter night. A proud and haught chin, a mouth for noble-talking—that does kiss sufficiently, in faith, and slays me with a smile. Guile and dreaming. A princess. A wench. An uncouth runisch girl. My wife. I see you, Melanthe. Ne do I need a glass.” 

“Look in the mirror!”

“Luflych.” He wrapped his hand about her tight fist. “I see the same there.” 

She gave a rasping breath of relief, without opening her eyes.

“Thou art certain? My face is there? Thou dost not say me false?”

“I fear for my life do I e’er say thee false, my lady.” 

“Oh, I am lost! I need thee to sayen me true. I need thee to say me what I should be. All is changed, and I know not what I am.”

“Then will we keepen watch and see. And if ye be someone new each morn, Melanthe-—God knows thou art still my sovereign lady. Nought will I be at thy side in e’ery moment, but in spirit always, and return to thee with my whole heart, to see what bemazement thou wilt work upon me next.

We see so much of Ruck and Melanthe’s first meeting come back in this passage. The theme of absence returns in Melanthe’s fear that she won’t see herself in the mirror. That fear casts a slightly different light on their first meeting: the fact that Ruck took her in mostly as an absence suggests that he immediately sensed her deepest fear, “seeing” her emotionally even as he failed to physically. 

In this case, of course, Ruck’s gaze doesn’t falter: he looks Melanthe directly in the face, and tells her what he sees. Many of the disparate elements from the first passage are there: her hair, her royal bearing, her mouth, the very contradictions that so confused Ruck at the outset. But this time, not only does he perceive it all under a different aspect, he is able to take all those disparate elements together and grasp them – comprehend them – as a whole: “I see you, Melanthe.”

Another major change between these passages is the movement from mostly-standard-English to Middle-English-inflected dialogue. A great deal of textual work has gone into making the language in this latter passage understandable. By this point, readers are accustomed to many of the grammatical features of Kinsale’s Middle English. Two of the most unfamiliar words in the above passage – lickerous and runsich – have been highlighted earlier, ensuring that readers recall their meaning. Other features have been used so frequently that they’ve become second nature: e’er, thee/though, ne/nought. 

The process of making unfamiliar language gradually legible to readers is one that fascinates me, and in this passage I think the language has a lot to say about the way Ruck and Melanthe have fallen in love. “Bemazement,” for example, is a word the strangeness of which passes virtually unperceived. It sounded (to me at least) quite familiar, but in fact the term is so infrequently used that it returns no more than 400-odd Google results (along with a passive-aggressive query if you really mean “amazement.”) It’s clear to readers, though, because it relies on the common prefix be- that turns a verb transitive, as well as proximity to words like “bemusement.” Drawing on our familiarity with similar terms lets us read this uncanny word as if it came from our own vocabulary.

As I was scouring the few actual Google results for “bemazement” I found a quote from a 1903 translation of Dante Alighieri’s Convivio that defines the word “bemazement” as “bewilderment of the mind on seeing or hearing on in anywise perceiving wonderful things.” It goes on to tell us the following:

“For in so far as [these wonderful things] appear great, they make he who perceives them reverent towards them, and in so far as they appear wonderful they make him who perceives them desirous to have knowledge of them” 

The Dante is a translation, and there’s no reason to suggest its influence on Kinsale’s text, yet it still offers a lovely bit of intertextual felicity. In a very different context, it uses bemazement to explore the relationship between perception and desire, to suggest that desire is a kind of awe inspired by the very act of seeing. It’s perfect, then, that Ruck and Melanthe seal their love this way: with mirrors and bemazement.

For me, though, the key part of the last passage isn’t this strange word, but what directly precedes it:

 “Nought will I be at thy side in e’ery moment, but in sprit always, and return to thee with my full heart” 

If we look at what follows “in” in each sentence, there’s a significant functional difference. “In every moment” is a time marker – it describes when Ruck can (or cannot) be by Melanthe’s side. “In spirit,” by contrast, is a marker of mode- it describes how Ruck will be there. The parallelism functions to highlight the promise of a deeper, spiritual presence in the absence of a physical one. “Return to thee with my whole heart” brings the passage full circle, by reiterating the theme of love as wholeness –  comprehending (grasping together) rather than understanding (being close to). By emphasizing the manner of Ruck’s love, rather than proximity in time or place, the book deepens its exploration of spiritual love as equally important to the physical.

 In a way, I think of this as another point of connection between language and love in the novel. As a modern-day reader, some of the religious themes in For My Lady’s Heart are hard to read: the text takes seriously things like religious vows of chastity, the Medieval church’s edicts about marriage, and whether physical lust is sanctioned within the bonds of holy matrimony. It can be hard to connect these attitudes to the way many of us think about love and lust in the 21st century. But just as the text does with words like “ferment” and “bemazement,” Ruck and Melanthe’s story takes the strange specificity of the past, and helps us comprehend it through connections to broader, nearly timeless depictions of love. 

Close Reading Snapshot: You, Me, U.S. by Brigitte Bautista

I can think of no better way to start 2021 at Close Reading Romance than with the first book to knock me off my feet, in the good way, in 2021: You, Me, U.S. by Brigitte Bautista. This book is short without sacrificing depth, bracing and innovative while still speaking with the language of romance tropes. I’m hard pressed to think of another romance I’ve read recently that has taken so seriously that it is a challenge to fall in love and to put yourself – your needs and your happiness – first.

I will absolutely be returning to this book for a full-length post eventually, but I’m also excited for it to kick off a (hopefully) more regular feature: Close Reading Snapshots, quick 2-3 paragraph readings of a passage from a novella and or novel. I’m hoping these Snapshots will offer a little taste of a book’s writing style, maybe encourage folks to pick up something new, and allow me to share a broader picture of what I’m reading this year. While these posts won’t be entirely spoiler-free, they’re still meant for readers unfamiliar with the book, who want to know what they’ll find from the writing if they pick it up.

So, before I make this “snapshot” too unnecessarily long, here’s a cover image and book summary:

Best friends Jo and Liza are as opposite as night and day. Sex worker Jo swears by the worry-free, one-day-at-a-time dance through life. Salesclerk Liza has big plans for her family’s future, and there is nothing bigger than a one-way trip to the U.S. But an almost-kiss, a sex dare, and news of Liza’s engagement to her American boyfriend unveil feelings Jo and Liza never thought they had. Deciding between staying together and drifting apart puts Liza’s best-laid plans and Jo’s laidback life in jeopardy.

When love clashes with lifelong ambitions and family expectations, someone has to give in.

Question is: who?

Buy link here. Author’s CWs listed here.

The snapshot quote comes from the low moment of the book. It’s in Jo’s POV, as she faces the reality of Liza leaving Manila for the US:

She didn’t know if she wanted to set fire to her memories of Liza or build a dictionary of apologies and I love yous and change your mind, please.
I can give you the life you want. I love you. Please come back.
Backspace, backspace, backspace.

I picked this line out of all the others I could have highlighted because I loved the metaphor of a dictionary of ways to bring back someone you love, as well as the idea that such a dictionary would need to be built, not just consulted.

There’s a beautiful rhythm to the first sentence that comes out of packing three disparate elements into the grammatical framework of “a dictionary of” :

I love yous
change your mind, please.

I appreciate the choice NOT to separate these elements with commas, or to wrap the latter two in neat quotation marks (“I love yous”) or italics (change your mind, please) to make them fit into the sentence as a unit. Instead, like Jo’s emotions, they run together chaotically, suggesting just how eclectic and broad-ranging her “dictionary of getting Liza back” will need to be.

This book accomplishes a rare thing in romance: while it offers a happy ending, along the way it fully commits to the possibility that Liza and Jo might not get back together. We have that possibility in the passage: it’s just as likely that Jo will burn her past down as it is that she’ll rebuild with Liza. That tension isn’t resolved yet, which you can feel in the knife-edge tension of the next two lines: admissions of love crafted from Jo’s dictionary, I can give you the life you want. I love you. Please come back… and their immediate destruction. Backspace, backspace, backspace.

Some other things you’ll find if you choose to pick up this book:

  • Friends-to-lovers pining and angst
  • Two MCs who enjoy sex lives with other partners while slowly falling in love
  • Prose that makes great use of the setting and surroundings (there are a number of passages where Jo is so deeply denying her feelings that she projects them onto the objects and setting around her and it’s a *fascinating* bit of character work)
  • A portrait of sex work that isn’t shame-y
  • Clever subversion of romance tropes: particularly toxic ideals of cis male capitalist saviors as a means to HEA.

If you have read this, or plan to, let me know in the comments! My head is still full of this book, and I can’t wait to talk about it more.

A Close Reading Top 10 of 2020

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

It’s been a very strange year, but one of the constants has been that reading romance, as well as discussing and writing about it, has brought me a lot of joy. Seeing everyone else’s celebratory year-end Best-Of lists made me want to put one together myself. But something about ranking everything I loved seemed daunting to me. Rather counterintuitively, it was way less difficult to pick 10 passages from books I loved in 2020: I highlight like a fiend, and when I love a passage, it sticks with me for ages. These are also, to be fair, among the 10 best 2020 releases I read, so it’s still kind of a best-of list. Enjoy!

Sweetest in the Gale, Olivia Dade

Not everyone could decipher subtext. Not even if they noticed its presence, which many people – too enmeshed in their own thoughts, their own concerns- did not. Not even when it was pointed out to them by, say, a longtime teacher who wanted his ninth graders to pass their end-of-year English proficiency test, and also wanted them to take pleasure in the way simple words could contain multitudes. Universes secreted away, but open to explorers with sufficient curiosity and persistence.

Dade’s novella is a beautiful extended metaphor of love as a kind of close-reading, which is obviously right up my alley. I love how, reading this quote in context, it’s so clear that Griff is both talking about his joy in teaching students, and his realization that he, too, has the curiosity and persistence to discover the hidden subtext in the people he loves. 

Take a Hint, Dani Brown, Talia Hibbert

…the only passions Dani typically permitted herself were sexual and professional. Anything else had to make it past the committee, and the board had not approved Feeling Intensely for Zafir. The board had approved Shagging Zafir, which, more to the point, was the only proposal Dani had actually submitted.

It can be really, really hard to write a believable character who is lying to themselves about being in love. Because, after a while, if you can see it as a reader, you have to wonder why the character can’t see it themself. Dani Brown handles this beautifully by deflecting every moment of nascent emotion with sarcastic humor. That humor, on display here, helps define Dani as a character, and makes her journey enormous fun for us to go on as readers.

The Rakess, Scarlett Peckham

The loss of you reduces me. 

This quote is from the end of a letter the hero writes to the heroine in the low moment. I’m always intrigued by how romance can express the idea that it would be devastating for the main couple to be apart, without veering into alarmingly codependent “I would die without you” territory. The idea that being alone “reduces” Adam is a perfect expression of that balance.  

“Yes, And,” from He’s Come Undone, Ruby Lang

But worry over Joan aside, he’d enjoyed himself, sitting knee-to-knee in a warm, crowded bar on a weeknight with a woman who had laughed at him and with him, whose hands cut gracefully through the air, who interrupted him when he was about to be his worst, most patronizing self, who’d smiled at him always like he was his best self.

I adore how Darren’s POV is on display here. Having already seen him freak out, in Chapter 2, that his accidental attendance at an improv class might involve “touch[ing] knees with another human being,” we know that “knee-to-knee,” “warm,” “crowded,” and “weeknight” are all descriptors Darren should not enjoy. Yet here, he does. It’s a descriptor of place that’s infused with character, and it’s specific in a way that contrasts beautifully with the broad strokes of Joan’s understanding of his worst and best self. 

The Love Study, Kris Ripper

Their nose crinkled up. Adorably. In a vaguely intriguing way. 

Here’s another great take on sarcastic deflection of one’s own emotions, with a clever use of strikethrough that I’ve never seen before. This book does a great job of taking the online environment that’s so important to the plot (one of the MCs is a successful YouTuber) and translating it into the way the prose is written. It felt fresh without being forced, a kind of internet idiom that was still organic to novel-writing as a form. 

You Had Me at Hola, Alexis Daria

Having seen what was within, she could even love the walls for keeping him safe, even though she thought he was being a royal jackass for locking her out again. 

The idea that romance MCs put up walls to keep love out is a metaphor we use so often we hardly think about what it means, and this line breathes new life into that metaphor by making it concrete. In the process, Daria crafts a beautiful statement about loving someone’s flaws, even those that keep you apart. 

Boyfriend Material, Alexis Hall

“Who are you wearing?” someone yelled from the crowd. 

 Okay. They were definitely not talking to me. My clothes were much closer to a “what” than a “who.” 

A lot of the jokes in this book are BIG laugh-out-loud moments, but I’m partial to this slightly smaller one. It crafts humor out of an understanding of idioms: “who” are you wearing is a question for classy, rich celebrities; “what” are you wearing is a question for someone who has taken some very serious wrong turns. “Closer to a ‘what’ than a ‘who’” helps build our understanding Luc’s particular brand of minor-disaster-celebrity, and sets up this book’s clever take on celebrity romance as a trope. 

Honeytrap, Aster Glenn Gray

“Let’s get takeout,” Daniel suggested. “That way you won’t even have to stop reading for dinner.” 

“Yes,” Gennady agreed. He added, with an attempt at American overstatement, “That sounds perfect.” 

Matching a meaningful gesture to a couple who barely know each other yet is no small feat, and Daniel suggesting they get takeout so Gennady can read a book he’s excited about hits that sweet spot. And I love how Gennady can both skewer American habits and want to try them on for himself  – a tension maintained throughout the book in a really sharp, observant way. 

Love Lettering, Kate Clayborn

I would say that a woman stood next to me on the subway and I think she used the same shampoo as you, and I could hardly breathe for how much I missed you.

I love an early declaration of emotion as a hypothetical or counterfactual: like right here, when Reid tells Meg exactly what he would say to her… if he told her the truth. And then tells her the truth and gives away that he knows what her shampoo smells like and is already coming to think of very NYC places as full of her. Also, “I could hardly breathe for how much I missed you” is just ACHINGLY romantic. 

The Sugared Game, KJ Charles

He trusts me with some things, but not everything by a very long way. He loves me, but he doesn’t tell me about what matters most. He holds onto things that hurt as if it would be cheating to let anyone help.

Like all of KJ Charles writing, this passage has a gorgeous sense of how much rhythm and structure matter to a good sentence. The first two sentences have a “but” that emphasis the push and pull of Will’s love for Kim… and the last one leaves you waiting for the “but” that never comes: a perfect expression of how insurmountable some of their conflicts seem. 

Well, that’s my end-of-year list! I’m hoping to be back in 2021 with more close readings, and a more-regular “Favorite Words Friday” feature. Hope you’ve enjoyed, and feel free to share any books/words/passages you loved this year too!

I bet you’re wondering how I got here: Starting from the end in Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong

‘Tis the season where many romance readers are indulging in holiday novellas, and today I’m writing about one of my favorites, Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong. In addition to being a trope-filled, masterfully-written delight – with one of the best MC meeting scenes in all of romance – it is available for free! Here’s the cover, and a quick plot description excerpted from the author’s website:

With one more errand to go—the purchase of a hunting falcon—Andrew Blackshear has Christmas completely under control […] He has no time to dawdle, no time for nonsense, and certainly no time to drive the falconer’s vexing, impulsive, lush-lipped, midnight-haired daughter to a house party before heading home. So why the devil did he agree to do just that?

Lucy Sharp has been waiting all her too-quiet life for an adventure, and she means to make the most of this one. She’s going to enjoy the house party as no one has ever enjoyed a house party before, and in the meanwhile she’s going to enjoy every minute in the company of amusingly stern, formidably proper, outrageously handsome Mr. Blackshear […]

When a carriage mishap and a snowstorm strand the pair miles short of their destination, threatening them with scandal and jeopardizing all their Christmas plans, they’ll have to work together to save the holiday from disaster. And along the way they just might learn that the best adventures are the ones you never would have thought to plan.

Full blurb and download links here.

The novel starts with two introductory paragraphs of two sentences each, and that’s what I’ll be looking at today. This opening gambit exists in a liminal space – after the Chapter 1 marker, but also set off from the rest of the narrative by a row of asterisks (which today I learned is called a dinkus) and a date. Here’s the passage, and a picture of what it looks like laid out on the page of my Kindle.

The trouble, Andrew Blackshear would later reflect, might all have been avoided if he’d simply kept to the main road. His first glimpse of the girl would then have been indoors, seated, with her hair bound tidily back, and their first dialogue would have been an inquisition so tedious as to temper the allure of those great swooping clean-edged curves that made up her prodigal mouth. 

But with no way of knowing what lay in store, he hadn’t any reason to avoid the detour. The clouds broke above him, he turned down a lane whose towering yews promised a bit of shelter, and trouble found him, in torrents that put the winter squall to shame.

The first thing I love about this opening is how the heroine inhabits it without being named or introduced- in fact, she’s only referred to via association as “the trouble.” However, Lucy is present, in particular, in the way she unravels Andrew’s thinking. He tries to hold on to his composure in the first and third sentences: they are short, straightforward, unembellished with adjectives.

“The trouble, Andrew Blackshear would later reflect, might all have been avoided if he’d simply kept to the main road”

“But with no way of knowing what lay in store, he hadn’t any reason to avoid the detour”

And she unravels it it as he starts to think about her in the second sentence of each couplet. 

“His first glimpse of the girl would then have been indoors, seated, with her hair bound tidily back, and their first dialogue would have been an inquisition so tedious as to temper the allure of those great swooping clean-edged curves that made up her prodigal mouth.”

“The clouds broke above him, he turned down a lane whose towering yews promised a bit of shelter, and trouble found him, in torrents that put the winter squall to shame.”

The second sentence turns on the word “allure,” not coincidentally the first one that suggests Andrew’s desire. Before that we have orderly descriptions betokening harnessed control: indoors, seated, hair bound “tidily.” What comes after allure, though is… well, swooping. A very un-Blackshear-like effusion of three adjectives (great, swooping, clean-edged) for a single noun, and a “prodigal” mouth which evokes the biblical to describe the profane. I also love the sheer amount of alliteration to match the word “trouble” that stands in for Lucy herself – tidily, tedious, temper, turned, towering, trouble, torrents. Trouble is everywhere, tapping on Andrew Blackshear’s door, and he’s really a fool to think he could escape it when it has literally already baked itself into the structure of his thoughts. 

If the trouble is already there, it is because at the moment of narration, Andrew has already met Lucy; we just haven’t heard about it yet. The phrase “Andrew Blackshear would later reflect” places readers into the narrative with a reminder of how things will turn out. I want to focus most of my post on how this opening sentence plays with time, and more generally with reminders of romance’s foregone conclusions. 

Reading this passage had me thinking about one of my earliest grad school readings: Philippe Lejeune’s idea that a book’s genre is, to some extent, determined by a “pact” between the reader and the author. Lejeune did most of his work on autobiography, so he talked about how that genre comes into being when an author makes a “pact” with the reader to tell the story of their own life, as faithfully as possible. Another way Lejeune puts it is that autobiography as a genre happens when author = narrator = character. In fiction, however, the author is very much not identifying with the narrator, and the narrator doesn’t have to be a character within the novel (though in certain narrative styles they are). I have a very clear memory of expressing this idea with little triangles in the margins of my grad school notes. Here’s the narrative triangle for most of 3rd-person extradiagetically-narrated fiction, including A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong :

It got me thinking about how one of the ways romance works is that, in part via this separation, we are allowed to have a VERY different pact with the author and with the narrator. I’m going to tread carefully here, because one of the main premises, for me, of doing close readings is to not bring “the author” into it at all. But when you pick up a romance, particularly from an author you trust, the one pact you’ve made is that you both know how it will end – happily – and the book will be consumed and enjoyed under that assumption. However, for narrative to be propulsive, to draw you in, it has to set up a different “pact” for you and the narrator: you both largely pretend you don’t know how it ends. Expressed as a triangle, because why not, it looks like this: 

Because of the pact of mutual ignorance we maintain with the narrator, romance often doesn’t have (to borrow a meme) the record-scratch “I bet you’re wondering how I got here” conceit of starting at the end and then rolling back to tell you how it happened. Once we’ve opened a romance novel, the primary pact that governs our reading has shifted from the one we made with the author – we both know how this ends – to the one we’re making with the narrator and characters – How this is ever going to work out? 

Of course, nothing is ever quite that simple: this strict division of HEA foreknowledge/ignorance takes on a lot of variation. For starters, it’s not like the HEA pact ever goes away. A lot of the comfort in romance reading comes from the fact that we can remind ourselves throughout that everything will work out fine. Even narrator ignorance is a deliberately fragile construct. In fact, I’m guessing a close look at just about any romance would suggest a lot of subtle ways in which the agreed-upon unpredictability of the reading is governed inside the narrative by the predictability of the outcome – foreshadowing, narrative tense, tropes, etc. Each romance novel has its own way of navigating the tension between two kinds of pacts with the reader, and it’s part of what makes the genre itself unique. In the case of A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong, even just the first few sentences offer a glimpse of this novel’s take on that tension.

The phrase “Andrew Blackshear would later reflect” is an unusually stark invasion of the novel’s end right at the beginning. As such, it’s a fun meta-reminder that we’re reading genre romance, which is thematically consistent with a book as unabashedly tropey as this one is (tiniest spoiler alert: at one point the fake-engaged virgin hero has to share a bed because he and the heroine have been snowed in. I mean.)

If holding on to the HEA even just a few words longer is a way of insisting on the peculiar joys of romance’s predictability, it’s also a bold act of narrative confidence. It’s rare to actually be inside the narrative and still reminding readers this clearly of how everything will turn out. And in fact, just as surely as this opening leans hard on the promise of HEA, it also flips it upside-down by reframing falling in love as “trouble” and disorder. This gesture, I think, is part of the narrator pact: the promise to keep the story interesting, even if we already know the ending. 

Even within romance reading, there’s a sense that narratives with an HEA progress towards order. We start with narrative “chaos”: the couple is apart, they may not even have met each other yet, even if they don’t know it something is missing. Slowly, they reach greater proximity and harmony until they end up together. A lot of the idioms we have around this moment are about order (even if I don’t love some of them): a couple getting together could be seen as “settling down;” once they find love “everything falls into place.”  Andrew, on the other hand, experiences the path leading up to HEA in the rather contradictory way of things falling apart, of increased disorder.

This disorder comes through in a lot of ways in the opening paragraphs. The heroine is obliquely referred to not as the solution, but as “the trouble.” There are images of storms, torrents, and squalls. Every suggestion of restraint and stillness turns out to be a counterfactual : if Andrew had stuck to the straight path, everything would have happened quietly, indoors, tightly wound. (I also appreciate the “would have” of this alternate, orderly history echoing the “would later reflect” of his actual, disorderly ending.) As mentioned above, disorder also works its way into the sentence structure, as each set of sentences progresses from control to effusion. It sets the book up as a narrative about love as losing control and embracing disorder, even as we’re reminded right away of the narrative’s orderly ending.

In addition to serving as a tantalizing opener, these first lines also prove that you can lay bare the constraints of the HEA plot and still find moments of novelty and renewal. And it’s also, just generally, a pretty neat encapsulation of how romance balances respecting and confounding expectations. Sometimes reaching the end isn’t about following the “main road” to get there.