I’ve been reading historical romances for a while now, but I’ve still got a lot of catching up to do, and thematic elements that are probably old hat to established fans can still catch me off guard sometimes. For example, both Cathy Maxwell’s His Christmas Pleasure and Jennifer Haymore’s A Season of Seduction both use the device of a property in a remote location, or at least remote to London—Northumberland in the one case, Cornwall in the other—which is discovered to be in much worse shape than anticipated, but which the romantic heroine (with or without the assistance of the hero) is able by dint of hard work to restore to functional domesticity. The two scenarios play out rather differently, but it was still a bit jarring to see the basic premise appear twice in quick succession; I’m assuming that it’s a convention I just haven’t come across before now—one that I was almost tempted to attribute to the Christmas-themed historical romance, but I’m guessing the application is a bit broader than that.
The two novels share another basic plot element in common: Both heroes are eager to rush into marriage with a well-off woman in order to gain access to her funds, but come to fall in love with her for herself. Again, though, Maxwell and Haymore take very different approaches to this convention, and for my own tastes I’m inclined to give the edge to His Christmas Pleasure—it gets the elopement between its two leads out of the way fairly early, then focuses on relationship building (which is where that dilapidated estate comes in) then puts the marriage to one last, massive challenge. Haymore also brings her characters together very quickly in the sexual sense, but the story is less concerned with building a relationship than with throwing increasingly difficult obstacles in the relationship’s path and focusing on the separate emotional transformations of the hero and heroine as they are made ready for marriage. One of the biggest obstacles Haymore’s couple faces is that the hero is being blackmailed by a mentally unhinged ex-friend, though, and I confess that of all the generic conventions I’ve discovered in my romance reading, the mentally unhinged antagonist is the least satisfying, especially since I’ve yet to find a book in which it’s handled convincingly, rather than played as an over-the-top melodramatic twist. Maxwell also has a highly melodramatic secondary character, but she’s not so much an antagonist as an annoyance—the ways she lashes out emotionally, and the ways in which other characters react to her outbursts, feel that much more authentic… as do the rest of her supporting cast.
(For what it’s worth, the “Christmas” elements in both these stories are primarily confined to their big finishes; Maxwell’s story takes place over three months, and Haymore’s over two. But Maxwell does at least get into some detailed discussion of holiday customs.)
For a complete change of pace, I also read Vannetta Chapman’s A Simple Amish Christmas, which I enjoyed even more than the two historicals. It’s the story of a young woman who spent her Rumschpringe learning to become a registered nurse, a fact she initially tries to keep hidden when she returns to her family three years later. Eventually, though, word of her medical training gets out, and this puts her into regular contact with the widower who’s already been providing the community with some basic health care. Despite some early clashes, this isn’t a story about a rivalry that turns into a romance—it’s basically a story about two people who turn to their faith to get them through difficult periods of self-doubt, essentially finding the freedom to love each other without shirking what they see as their obligations to family and community. Chapman does an excellent job of making all her characters seem honest and authentic, and conveys the sincerity of their faith with very little preaching at the reader. (They certainly discuss their faith amongst themselves, but this tended to feel like an organic element of the story, not an excuse for authorial point-making.)
Of course, the ways “romance” plays out in an Amish-themed story are very different from the ways they play out in Regency historicals, but the shift away from a physical relationship leads to stronger emphasis on the emotional lives of the characters. If you’re the sort of reader who doesn’t want to have every emotional nuance spelled out for you in explicit detail, this probably won’t be the novel for you—for that matter, neither romance nor inspirational fiction as genres may be suited to your tastes.
24 December 2010 | read this |