We will never reach a general sense of how realistic — or unrealistic — the romance genre is because with romance, every generalization is a trap. Some people will confidently tell you that romance novels are old-fashioned tools of the patriarchy; other people will just as confidently explain that romance is innately progressive and feminist.
The truth is it’s often both at once, since ultimately the point of the genre is to make happiness not only possible, but inevitable. You need a little unreality for that.
This month features multiple romances set in the funhouse-mirror medium of reality television, where the character arcs are often crafted in advance. Will the characters resist the limits of their scripts or bend them to their will?
Alison Cochrun’s buoyant debut romance, THE CHARM OFFENSIVE (Atria, 354 pp., paper, $17), is “The Bachelor” if the bachelor fell for his male handler instead of one of the women competing for him onscreen. Dev Deshpande and Charlie Winshaw are hyper-aware that the narrative they are creating should appear effortless to the viewers. They both have profound mental health struggles, which affect not only how they’re seen but also how they read each other. Fans of the writers Lucy Parker and Alexis Hall will adore seeing these two messy, endearing leads come together amid the chaos of an excruciatingly heteronormative dating show.
Speaking of Hall and Parker and their latest works, food-centered reality TV romances are having a moment. I want to shine the spotlight on Lily Seabrooke’s exuberant Sapphic romance FAKE IT (independently published, 462 pp., paper, $19.95), in which a burned-out celebrity chef finds an unexpected connection with the idealistic restaurant owner in town (who happens to be transgender). Where “The Charm Offensive” uses the onscreen straight romance as a foil to its heroes’ queer love story, here the relationship starts as a stunt for the cameras, so the pressure of an audience heightens the stakes for the growth of real emotions that slowly usurp the performance. The setting,Port Andrea, appears to be a town that consists of nothing but high-end, beautifully decorated dining spots, and I would like to visit immediately.
To switch moods entirely, we have Adriana Anders’s romantic suspense UNCHARTED (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 384 pp., paper, $8.99), where two accidental allies trek across the Alaskan wilderness, fleeing better-equipped mercenaries in search of a deadly bio-weapon. Reality here is a blunt instrument, because hypothermia is rarely open to interpretation.
This plot is simple the way a knife is simple. You have to be careful how to handle it: Picking up the book after sunset guarantees you’ll be up into the small hours, muttering “just one more page” as though those words mean anything. Anders writes hauntingly about ice and snow, the vast indifference of nature, the threat posed by the cold and the ice and the weather — all that appalling whiteness. The landscapes are not just backdrops, but powerful and living forces that test Anders’s characters to the breaking point and beyond.
Historical oppression is often treated as just such a force of nature, depersonalized and universal. But generalizations can be traps here, too: Erica Ridley’s THE PERKS OF LOVING A WALLFLOWER (Forever, 368 pp., paper, $8.99) takes an abstract historical reality — the way queer women have been erased from society and the historical record — and makes it the anchor for a plot full of mystery, high jinks and tender personal revelations.
One reason British polite society during the Regency period insisted upon formal introductions was that it was a world without photographs, without fingerprints, where virtually nobody carried identification. Your self was something other people had to vouch for — a real problem if you fell into a category that was criminalized or suppressed. How could one celebrate a fluid identity if the only acceptable choices were either/or?
From a fictional standpoint, though, this space leaves a lot of room for Ridley to stretch her wings, as silver-tongued orphan Tommy (Thomasina) Wynchester dons impeccable drag to court the bookish Philippa as the fictional Baron Vanderbean. There are truths that must be exposed and truths that must be shielded by disguises — because sometimes, to show someone who you really are is an act of trust and intimacy.
The next time you hear a romance broadly described as unrealistic, or implausible, or not historically accurate, it’s worth asking instead: What kind of reality are they looking for, and what reality are they viewing it from?
Olivia Waite is the Book Review’s romance fiction columnist. She writes queer historical romance, fantasy and critical essays on the genre’s history and future.