Friday, July 6, 2018

Reading Romance, Part Two: Vintage Romance

When I labeled this series as a beginner's guide, I meant it. As it came time to fulfill my challenge for the month of June, and choose a vintage romance novel to review, I found I had no background knowledge as to where to start!

how to choose?

I looked up various lists - courtesy of  Goodreads - to try and find some common titles, but nothing seemed like exactly what I was looking for.

Even a cursory glance at Google's recommended yielded too many classics: yes, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and their kind are technically romance novels... but then again, so is Madame Bovary. I needed something printed in mass market paperback, with a flourishy title, large-printed author name, and insane amount of hair on the cover.

I even looked into what it would take to buy a box of Harlequins off of the Internet... and you'd be surprised at the kinds of wonders eBay can work on the regular! However, no matter how good the price was, I knew I didn't exactly want a ton of those books sitting around, because they'd most likely go right back into our donation pile.

Instead, I went thrift shopping!

i'm gonna pop some tags 

The truth is, if I wanted to read like a romance novel fan, then I needed to read the kinds of books that romance fans have read before me. No matter what Goodwill, Value Village, or Bargain World that you look into, the place is sure to have bookshelves stocked with these kinds of novels! Their spines are broken, their covers are tattered, but the people on the front illustration are having just way too much fun to care.

At first, nothing was biting: everything my sister and I grabbed was either too recent (as in, within the past twenty years), outside of my comfort or interest zones (everything from pregnant heroines surviving domestic abuse, to stories centered around things like baseball and airplanes). A great population had, regrettably, seemed to be donated by the same person, all with the words "cowboy," "rancher," or "rodeo" in the title, which I uniformly rejected.

After a rigorous elimination of titles, we walked away with four books that seemed to hit all of the requisite marks. Ranging in years between 1990 to 1998, they were all over twenty years old, had completely ridiculous names and covers, and had the kinds of plots that I was actually looking forward to reading. We figured that I'd do a little more research into each, then from that point, make an executive decision... and we felt fine springing for the four of them, as each was less than two dollars!

what we found

  • Bobbi Smith's Rapture's Rage, published in 1983 by LoveSpell Books, but reprinted in 1997, which is the version I picked up. A brooding widower still scarred by his wife's death is drawn to the innocent woman everyone can't help but seek after.
  • Bertrice Small's The Spitfire, published in 1990 by Ballantine Books. In the year 1483, Lady Arabella Gray is whisked off on her wedding night by the vengeful Travis Stewart.
  • Jane Feather's The Hostage Bride, published in 1998 by Bantam Books. Out of all of the novels, this was the only one Google auto-filled the title for me, which was explained by its Goodreads rating of 3.61 out of 1,253 ratings. Portia, the unwanted bastard ward of a powerful family is mistakenly abducted in place of the marquis' daughter by a ruthless outlaw.
  • Susan Krinard's Twice A Hero, published in 1997 by Bantam Books. Y'all, I can't with this tagline: "She's finally met the man of her dreams... 113 years in the past." Apparently, while undertaking an expedition to Mayan ruins, our heroine falls back in time.

what I read 

Twice a Hero, Susan Krinard

Mac is tasked by her dying grandfather to return a broken necklace - the remnants of a Mayan expedition gone wrong - to the place it was found, and clear the name of an ancestor accused of killing his best friend. At the temple, however, she stumbles back in time, and straight into the arms of the man who was supposed to be dead. (And, gasp, he's hot!) Now Mac must complete her quest, and find her way back to the future... without messing up too much of the past!

It's my first impression of the romance genre, and I came away with a clear and distinct feeling: this was really, really fun.

  • Tropes bananza! Bookish heroine, nude swimming scene, emotional walk along the beach, masquerade ball...
  • Didn't spend as much time in the jungle, but instead, changed up locations halfway through to bring our main characters to San Francisco. I definitely missed the Indiana Jones vibes, the attention to historical detail made for decently interesting backstories for both our love interest, and the background characters. 
  • A vigilante subplot involving the freeing of exploited Chinese immigrants was something I was definitely not expecting; but, surprisingly, I didn't hate it. It gave greater depth to the otherwise kind of boorish love interest, and tied into his backstory in a poignant way. 
  • There were words that I didn't know! Like actual, more-than-SAT-worthy words! I had to Google them! That's awesome! Is all romance diction this low-key impressive? 

The Hostage Bride, Jane Feather

Portia, a willful and wild young girl raised under the wide gaze of an alcoholic father, is suddenly thrust into the middle of a conflict between Court and Parliament, during the English Civil War. After her father dies, she is entrusted to the care of Cato, marquis of Granville, and sworn enemy of local outlaw, Rufus Decatur. After a case of mistaken identity finds Portia captured not once, but twice, she finds herself spending a lot less time trying to escape, and a lot more trying to see Decatur's side in the 30-year-old feud. When her loyalty is called into question, threatening the lives of those she loves most, which side will she choose?

  • Holy cradle robber, Batman! Not sure if it was attention to historical detail that made our author decide to make 17-year-old Portia the perfect leading lady for mid-30-something Rufus, but it was incredibly discomfiting to read. 
  • Lots of ladies breaking out of traditional clothing roles and choosing to wear pants, so far occurring so far in each of the books I've read. It was in keeping with both characters, so I don't mind it too much... and I appreciate the fact that even when reflecting backwards through the nostalgic gaze of history, we can all agree that layered dressing, especially in gowns, is a pain. 
  • Portia is one among three young women, around whom this particular romance trilogy is set. Unfortunately, all are given distinctive attributes that serve to infantalize them in some manner: Portia is a tomboyish prankster and desperate for female friendship, Phoebe is prone to accidental spills and is constantly dirty, and Olivia is not only incredibly shy, but speaks with a slight impediment. All of these character traits only serve to emphasize the already uncomfortable differences in age between them and any potential suitors. 

Takeaways from both novels: 

  • lots of tropes (but that's not a bad thing!)
  • kind of mean or standoffish main love interest, with some kind of shot at redemption
  • kind of nerdy or shy heroine, who maintains an independent streak
  • once you get a couple nicknames, you just kind of stick with them for the rest of the book
  • a young and innocent girl set up as a foil against less-likely-to-bend-to-convention leading lady
In terms of which I preferred, the further I got into Hostage Bride, the more I realized I liked Twice a Hero. It's not that Hostage Bride is bad, because it's not - I liked it! - but it's that Twice a Hero was a lot more of an example to me of what I had thought reading romance would be like. Whereas that choice was more fun, more outlandish, more lighthearted and compelling, Hostage Bride was just bogged down by a few more problematic behaviors, historical details, and questionable writing choices that made the entire thing lose that sense of buoyancy that Twice a Hero had.

where to next? 

As detailed in my plan, the next step in my journey is into the realm of recently written historical romance. I have a couple novels from Tessa Dare already downloaded onto my Kindle, and a few Julia Quinns already coming my way courtesy of a recent book order (Keep your eyes out for a new haul soon!), so I'm pretty ready to get started. 

Besides, I have a cousin getting married this weekend, so I get the feeling I'm going to be in a pretty romance-friendly mood! 

Have you read any vintage romance novels? Which of the ones I listed do you think you'd want to pick up? Let me know, in the comments below!

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