by “Tom Terrell”
I’m dating a woman who writes romance novels.
Romance novels are the red-headed step-children of the literary world: too visible to be ignored, too embarrassing to acknowledge as real members of the family. In my defense, I didn’t know that Abby wrote romance novels until very recently. Julia, my friend of twenty-eight years, told me the awful truth.
Back in college, my relationship with Julia was my closest personal approach to a tragic romance. She married someone else in the meantime, though, and lucky for her, because I’m a lousy husband. (Ask my ex, she’ll tell you. In detail.)
After Julia and I met again about a decade ago, she’s been an inveterate kibitzer in my love life, such as it’s been. I admit I need it. I’m not a particularly subtle man. I can pick up nuances in literature, when things are happening to fictional characters and authors are cutting out all the distractions and telling me what I need to know, but in my own life the most important details of the narrative seem to pass me by.
Julia is a vociferous defender of the romance genre — not as great literature, of course, but as socially legitimate popular art. So when I expressed my dismay at my inamorata’s dark authorial secret, I should have known I’d get yelled at.
Sure enough, Julia said “Kee-ripes!” (more or less). “It’s not like she writes books for terrorists on how to make bombs. It’s not a crime to write a love story, is it?”
Cut to me and my Hugh Grant imitation (stutter, mumble, shuffle).
Closeup, Julia: “You ought to read a couple romance novels yourself, you know. Men are always complaining that they don’t know what women want. It’s all in there.”
That stopped me. I’d heard the genre referred to as “women’s porn.” Maybe there would be a few pointers in it, things I could do when I got Abby to the critical stage, so to speak. I didn’t think I could rip her bodice, even with an invitation, but there might be some other useful tips.
“You mean, like sex techniques?” I said. “I heard they were getting pretty explicit these days.”
She just looked at me. Julia’s look is one nuance I do get. This one said, “You silly ass.”
So this piece is Julia’s fault. She gave me the idea. I read some of the books she gave me — not Abby’s books, no, I wasn’t ready for that — looking for advice on the pursuit of amour. To prevent my fellow men from having to do this challenging research themselves, I herewith offer the Top Ten Ways to Woo a Woman, according to romance novels.
10. Get yourself into a really improbable situation.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ First Lady takes the prize here, telling the story of Presidential widow Nealy Case, who is fed up with her fish bowl existence as White House hostess for her husband’s unmarried successor. Giving the Secret Service the slip and lighting out for the territories, Nealy collides with burnt-out Man’s Man Mat Jorik, a journalist at loose ends. Jorik is on his own bizarre quest, trundling his dead ex-wife’s teenager and baby across the country in a Winnebago, intent on proving that he is not the father of either kid. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
It seems that the best way to arrange an appropriately bizarre position vis à vis your heroine is to pretend you’re something you’re not. Jorik, for example, tells the First Lady that he’s a steel worker, not a reporter, and the revelation of his true occupation creates the story’s climactic confrontation.
Linda Nichols’ Handyman takes this “I have a confession to make” concept to a snort-worthy extreme. Her childlike heroine, Maggie Ivey, mistakes building contractor Jake Cooper for the hospitalized psychiatrist whose office he is remodeling. Jake, apparently befuddled beyond all hope of reason by Maggie’s tearful charm, continues to pretend to be the doctor and “treats” her for another three weeks. Yeah right.
Still, if insane impersonations could win fair lady, I’d be willing to give it a try. Unfortunately, Abby knows who I am and what I do.
9. Obtain good genes well ahead of time.
You must be tall. That seems to be a minimum requirement, because you have to look fondly down into the heroine’s face, and be able to gently tuck her head into some mysterious “hollow” under your chin. I checked in the mirror, turning my head up and down, but it doesn’t look like I have one of those. I have the height, but not the hollow.
Romantic heroes also can’t be bald, because they have to have thick hair to run their fingers through, impatiently, when they are fed up with lesser men, or temporarily flummoxed by the heroine. (There is a lot of flummoxing going on in these books.) My qualifications in the hair field are shaky, given the creeping inroads on either side of my forelock, but there’s still enough up there to furnish the necessary gesture.
Romantic heroes have to be broad-shouldered, flat-bellied and well-muscled, so that their heroines can (with a straight face) say starry-eyed things like, “I wasted a lot of time thinking about how you look without a shirt.” That’s Elizabeth Cabot, the protagonist of Jayne Ann Krentz’s Soft Focus. Six months earlier her new business partner, Jack Fairfax, somehow neglected to tell her that he had been the architect of a hostile takeover of her aunt’s firm. To fulfill the Unlikely Story criterion, Krentz has Elizabeth discover this awful truth the morning after the couple’s first, abortive sexual encounter (Jack failed to perform. No, I’m not kidding.). Elizabeth’s fury at Jack’s business deception prompts her to dump a pitcher of ice water over his head, in the middle of a fancy restaurant.
You’d think the situation couldn’t get more implausible, but you’d be wrong. Elizabeth and Jack end up unwillingly bunking together in a cozy private ski chalet while they try to track down a thief who stole their company’s top secret technology. Forced proximity and a hot tub can resolve all kinds of conflicts, it seems.
It might be tricky getting Abby into a secluded vacation hideaway, but “Soft Focus” gave me hope that once we’re past that logistical hurdle, the erotic fireside interludes will follow as the night the day.
8. Scowl and snarl a lot.
This expresses the depth of your passion. Anger means you care. But be careful. This is not routine masculine crankiness. Romantic heroes do not piss and moan about things like computer crashes or the dog crapping on the rug or the heroine neglecting to fill the gas tank. No, you have to be furious about dramatic things like the villain’s threats to the heroine, or her charmingly stubborn refusal to submit to your wishes.
If ever there was a hero set up to be pissed off, it’s Noel Magnus, newspaper publisher and Arctic explorer, in Meagan McKinney’s overwrought pot-boiler The Merry Widow. McKinney turns the fake-identity premise around with a vengeance. Magnus refuses to marry Rachel Howland, keeper of a northern outpost’s Ice Maiden Saloon, so while he’s out on an expedition she runs off to his home in New York and claims to be his widow. Never mind how a real man would react to such a grotesque charade; in McKinney’s alternate universe Magnus not only forgives Rachel (after some apparently attractive growling and snapping), but risks life and limb on the frozen tundra attempting to save her from kidnappers.
I’m not exactly sure how this example can instruct me, though. I don’t think I could induce Abby to pretend to be my widow. Then again, after she sees this article she’ll probably want to kill me.
7. Get physical early and often.
You have to move in without invitation and touch her, right out of the chute. Kiss her fingers. Lift her chin with your knuckle and look into her eyes. Smooth her collar. Put your hand in the small of her back. Take her elbow on the stairs. Astonishingly, actions which in any other circumstances would be considered sexual harassment are de rigeur for romantic heroes.
But — wait — only the Good Guys can get away with these things. Merry Widow Rachel Howland, for example, is threatened by rival publisher Edward Hoar, who leers and insinuates and paws the fair maiden with villainous impunity. But when lover boy Magnus himself rips her bodice — yes folks, he really does — it’s just another jambo in the erotic mambo. So it seems important to be sure you’re a Hero before you try this at home.
In The Least Likely Bride, Jane Feather’s swashbuckling hero Anthony Caxton fulfills the assertive expectations in the grand romantic tradition. He makes off with Olivia Granville, daughter of his sworn enemy, and seduces her aboard his pirate ship. Feather also fulfills the Counterfeit Identities requirement by recalling the Scarlet Pimpernel: in the course of his plot to free King Charles I from the clutches of Parliament, Caxton pretends to be a foppish peabrain in the court of the imprisoned king. This book seems to say that if I sail off with a beautiful unconscious woman and take off her clothes and put her in my bed, she will be mine forever.
Okay. Sounds like a plan. “Abby, my dear, would you care to drink this mickey now? There’s a girl.”
Even in more prosaic contexts, these romances depict heroes immediately and confidently manhandling the heroine. Within minutes of the adult reunion of childhood friends Tory Bodeen and Kincade Lavelle in Norah Roberts’ Carolina Moon, Cade is touching her “lightly, to guide her to the chair.” A scant page into their second meeting, he is “unable to resist” running a hand over her hair. The next day he’s making suggestive remarks and grabbing her shoulders. These guys have the moves. And the moves always work. Maybe that’s how you can tell you’re a hero: you put your hands on a woman the minute you meet, and she doesn’t knock your block off.
At first blush, “Carolina Moon” doesn’t seem to fit the Remarkable Premise rule. Tory was the childhood friend of Cade’s sister Hope, who was raped and killed when she and Tory were 8 years old. Eighteen years later Tory returns to her home town of Progress, South Carolina to face down her personal demons and solve Hope’s murder. Cade, who was 12 when he and Tory last saw each other, is now her landlord, a handsome and prosperous gentleman farmer whose mother objects to his interest in her dead daughter’s friend. Pretty standard stuff, you say? Not really. It turns out that Tory is psychic and can relive horrific murder scenes from the perspective of the victim. Cade is given the opportunity to witness these clairvoyant fugues and — of course — comfort the distressed damsel when she comes to.
But Abby doesn’t do trances, so that’s out.
6. Think of almost nothing but the heroine, day and night.
Never mind that you are embarked on a vital task like solving a murder, or recovering stolen crystals, or exploring the Arctic. You can’t concentrate on the business at hand. No, your thoughts must drift to the problems you are having with your heroine, or your concern for her safety. Throw caution to the winds if you haven’t seen her in 24 hours, because you must find a way to get to her. When she’s in the same room with you, you shouldn’t be able to tear your eyes away. Your gaze must follow her, rake her, lock with hers. Memorize her every feature. In “The Least Likely Bride,” for example, Anthony occupies his time while Olivia is away by covering dozens of sheets of paper with drawings of her face. Can you do that?
Again, in the parallel universe that is Romance World, what might seem like a disturbing sexual obsession is only business as usual. I’m not really surprised that this is the female idea of the “perfect” man. Every woman I’ve ever known has wanted to be the center of my attention, number one on my mental hit parade, every hour of every day.
Sorry, Abby, but even you only get the top spot about one hour out of three.
5. Be preternaturally competent and successful. At everything.
In spite of having heroines uppermost in their minds, and dropping everything to run around after them, heroes get a lot done, and everything they touch turns to gold. Kincade Lavelle, for example, has converted the family plantation to organic farming and made considerable profits in less than three years. Jack Fairfax is a powerhouse of executive talent who takes up struggling companies and turns them around, making millions for all concerned. Noel Magnus publishes a newspaper, drives dog sleds and builds igloos — when he’s not giving fashion advice. Anthony Caxton hijacks a Spanish galleon, sews up a wound, halts a wreck, and plots a raid to rescue a king. The “Handyman” Jake Cooper is…well…handy. In fact, Jake is so handy he can organize crews and materials to build a finished house in two weeks flat. Hoot.
None of these guys ever puts a foot wrong, except when it comes to the heroine. But even then, any mistakes they make with her are temporary and caused by a misunderstanding, an excess of passion, or too much concern for her safety. All the rest of the time they know just what to say, what to do, and what to give.
4. Have money.
Own a plantation, a publishing empire, a venture capital firm, a contracting business, a pirate ship. Dress well. Eat the best. Drive great cars. Drink expensive booze. See? You look more attractive already. It really is important to be able to give her things. Own dozens of acres of land, like Jake Cooper, so you can provide your love with her dream of clean country living for her son. Wave your hands and make money appear, like Noel Magnus handing over major bucks, no strings attached, so Rachel Howland can fulfill her dream of opening an orphanage for New York City street children.
I’m far from being that rich, but I don’t think Abby wants to open an orphanage, either, so it may be okay.
3. Be the best she’s ever had.
You were wondering when I’d get to the sex, weren’t you? Frankly, I was surprised there was so little of it, given the genre’s reputation. “Handyman,” in fact, didn’t have any at all. Just a couple of kisses toward the end. As far as specifics, I only gathered a few, because a lot of the time it was hard to know exactly what was going on while they were getting it on. Very metaphoric, these gals. Sexy, yes, but hard to follow.
Two of these novels, “First Lady” and “The Merry Widow” feature scenes in which the heroes give the heroines orgasms without getting one themselves. That’s right: all foreplay. The guys not only didn’t get in, they didn’t get off.
As an alternative, and a much better option from my point of view, you can give her a virtually instantaneous orgasm via intercourse alone. These heroines come like gangbusters, in every position — missionary, doggie style, standing up — in no time flat. Not only is this every woman’s dream, it’s also every man’s. Now that I think of it, it’s no wonder these guys are obsessed with these women.
The better the sex is in these books, the less likely it is that anyone would be able reproduce it in real life. The best scene of all is in “Carolina Moon,” when Tory Bodeen uses her psychic powers to experience her own body from inside Cade’s head as he comes. Very hot, but you can’t get much more improbable than that.
2. Let her rescue herself.
This surprised me. I was under the impression that the hero’s role in romances was to rescue the heroine. But in all of these books the heroine has the most significant role in her own triumph over adversity. Even Rachel Howland, kidnapped and schlepped to the frozen North, eludes her captors and walks over miles of permafrost before she finally meets Magnus coming after her. Olivia Granville is the decisive factor in the escape of Anthony Caxton after the royal rescue mission is betrayed. Tory Bodeen has the serial killer under control before Cade Lavelle shows up. “Handyman” Jake Cooper plays Mr. Fixit for Maggie Ivey’s life, but only to a point. It is Maggie herself who makes the decisive break with her past and gets herself back on the road to Jake…in a U-Haul truck.
And now, the number one way to woo a woman is:
1. Be articulate. Declare yourself.
These guys talk up a storm. In bed, out of bed, and all around the town. They tell the lady she’s beautiful. They declare their intention to romance her whether she likes it or not. They whisper erotic sweet nothings in the midst of sex, in full sentences, and without using a single dirty word. Most of the rest of us clods find it hard to summon more than heavy breathing and a gratified grunt under those circumstances.
The prizewinner in the verbal finesse category is the journalist, Mat Jorik, who, ironically, can’t find the words when he wants to declare his love. Former First Lady Nealy doesn’t believe his first tongue-tied speech. His failure makes him desperate, and he kidnaps her and forces her to listen to another expression of his devotion, a “How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways” riff which goes on for — get this — five pages. She believes him then.
The only one of these guys who doesn’t have the gift of gab is Jake Cooper, the “Handyman.” Cooper says little, and in plain words, and he lets his actions speak for him instead. He’s lucky, of course, because Maggie understands him. At the end she articulates his feelings and asks him, “Is this what you’re trying to say?” And he can just agree, with great relief.
So. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this article is my way of getting myself into an Improbable Situation with my lady fair. Julia thinks I’m nuts, but I’m going to take a chance and declare myself like a hero should.
Abby, my sweet, I know you’re reading this, so listen: I’ve fallen in love with you.
“Tom Terrell” claims he holds a day job as “Director of Skid Greasing and Derailments” for a major media company. No real names were harmed in the making of this article.
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This paricular piece had me rolling on the floor in a riot of giggles. I think this very well demonstrates the unrealistic “perfect” standard of a desirable mate that women are often hand fed from childhood, just as porn magazines show a fake and unrealistic “perfect” standard of women for men. The truth of the matter s there are all kinds of romantic gestures. We females seem to feel that our male counterparts should be attuned to every one of our nuances (I’m guilty as charged). Even after 6 years my husband looks at me and says, “I don’t do subtle. If you need something spit it out. Otherwise don’t get mad at me if I don’t do something you wanted me to do.” His other favorite tends to come out when I read to much into one of his actions or statements. At that point it’s “You should know me well enough by now that if I need to tell you something, I’m going to say it and if you don’t like it, the hell with you. I don’t do subtle!” Yes I admit after 6 years I still have not gotten it through my thick skull, but he’s getting better at picking up my subtle nuances here and there, and I’m learning not to read too much into him.
On the other hand, for my husbands lack in the art of subtlety, he is well versed in the art of romance. In other words, he brings me flowers still, he writes me love letters, he helps me (when I remember to ask him instead of getting pissy that he didn’t think of the obvious on his own anyway) and he treats me with love, respect, and equality. No he’s not perfect, but in my oppinion, he’s as close as any woman has ever had to perfection.
Square1 10/7/04; 9:01:17 AM