Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Report: Romance vs. Romantic

In spite of my good intentions, I ended up treating yesterday as a break day, anyway. I think a lot of it was the time change -- I generally start writing work in the late afternoon, and that came later, so the quality of light didn't quite hit the spot that triggered my work impulse. It also doesn't help that I don't feel a lot of urgency about anything at the moment. I heard from my new editor and got the planned work schedule for that book, so I've figured out what I'm going to be working on and when for the rest of the year. I guess that was the main bit of work I did yesterday. But I did start getting some ideas to incorporate into the revisions I need to work on, so it wasn't a totally wasted day.

It's been a while since I discussed a book, mostly because I was reading a book that took me forever to finish. I'm not entirely certain if that's the book's fault or because at the same time I was getting sidetracked by crocheting and knitting, organizing my office and getting a book finished. I'd grabbed something off the To Be Read shelf, and I think it was just what I needed for that time in that it was a pleasant read but not a stay-up-all-night page turner. I could read a chapter or two before bed and turn out the light.

But the real point of interest to me was a cultural comparison. I ranted a while ago about what I don't like about today's romance novels. This book was a British book I got from a former boss's wife when they were getting rid of stuff before a move (they were Australian, but I think they'd been at the London office previously and all the books she gave me were British publications). According to the cover, this was voted the Romantic Novel of the Year. It's from the late 80s, but it's very different from American romance novels even of that era.

The book is The Peacock's Feather by Sarah Woodhouse, though I would suspect it's difficult to find a copy. The set-up would sound familiar to any reader of historical romances -- Our Heroine grew up in the local manor house, but when her father died, the estate had to be sold to pay off debts, and at the same time, her fiance, who was the heir to the neighboring estate, broke off the engagement. She's had to live on the kindness of a friend since then, and she's grown somewhat bitter and aloof from her experiences. Then a man from Jamaica who made his fortune as a privateer buys her old family estate, moves in and starts making improvements. If you've ever read a romance novel, you pretty much know what will happen.

Except, not so much. In an American romance novel, they'd hate each other on sight while also being strongly physically attracted to each other. There would be lots of bickering and fighting until they gave in to the attraction and had lots of sex. That's not what happens here. For one thing, the primary viewpoint character isn't either of the romantic parties. He's a third party (who is apparently a recurring character in this author's books), a doctor who has become friends with the new owner and who observes the developing relationship between the two of them. Another difference from an American novel of this type is that we don't even meet the heroine until well into the book. First we meet the romantic hero through the doctor's eyes, get to know him and travel with him to his new estate. He expects her to be testy about his improvements to her old home, but she turns out to be okay with them. She's mostly just so burned by the way she's been treated that she's wary of him until he really proves to be a decent human being. The developing romance is very slow and subtle and plays out against a lot of other goings on in the community.

I wonder if this is a cultural/publishing industry difference or if in England there's a distinction between a "romantic" novel and a "romance" novel. This seems to me to be more historical fiction with strong romantic elements than "romance." I probably enjoyed it more than I might have enjoyed the American romance take on it, though I will admit that the pace was awfully languid. Sometimes you need a book you can read a page or two of before turning out the light, but that's not usually something spoken of as a positive in reviews. "Page turner" is considered a good thing. "A nice book you can put down in time to get some sleep" isn't considered a recommendation (even if it's what you might need). I have a few more books on the shelf that came in that bundle, so I'll have to see if there's a pattern -- but then it may also be selection bias because all the books came from the same person. Are there any Brits/readers of British-published books who can chime in on this? Is there a British equivalent to the American "bodice ripper" historical romances that's different from this kind of "romantic" novel?

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