From Eloisa James's "READING ROMANCE" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
I grew up knowing all the connotations of pink, thanks to my feminist mother. Pink was the color of Barbie's shoes, hula hoops, and Pink Floyd, all of which she loathed. And the color of bubble gum and cotton candy, neither of which she allowed (she was an early foodie). But somewhere along the line, pink took on a different connotation: it was adopted by a fierce band of women tackling a devastating disease -- breast cancer. These days, pink is feminine and feminist, the color of women warriors.
This fall Penguin Books has launched a special initiative to promote breast cancer awareness: classic, reissued romances written by Nora Roberts, Bertrice Small, and more, tagged with pink ribbons. I read a few of these novels, and was delighted to find romances with no relation to cotton candy. These are books that tackle life's toughest issues head-on, that depict men and women in hardship, in pain, and in love.
Nora Roberts's Angels Fall is the story of Reece Gilmore, a woman whose life is torn apart by the kind of casual violence that has become seemingly commonplace in America. The sole survivor of a workplace massacre, she suffers from extreme PTSD. Once a promising chef, she now lives hand-to-mouth in a rattling car, hitting the ground every time a truck backfires. When the novel begins, she finds herself in a tiny town, meeting a sardonic, surly writer named Brody, and begins to heal -- until she witnesses a murder. She's already considered a nutcase, so no one believes her, except for Brody. He is the man every woman living through trauma needs at her side. When Reece tries to hide her scars, Brody shocks her out of self-pity by mocking her ears and her skinny hips. He never babies her, but he fights for her, always remembers to lock the doors, and brings her tulips in every color of the rainbow.
Irene Stenson, the heroine of Jayne Ann Krenz's All Night Long, is also haunted by murder -- but in her case, it's the deaths of her mother and father. She discovered their bodies as a teenager, and even now, seventeen years later, she's afraid of the dark, and blood makes her dizzy. Irene never believed the police's verdict of murder/suicide, and she's come home to find out the truth. Along with a murderer, she finds a man who understands, bone-deep, what it is to be scarred by death. Luke Danner is an ex-Marine haunted by the whap-whap-whap of helicopters, unable to take himself out of "battle ready" mode. Luke is a gruff, taciturn man, the kind a woman can lean on, and cry on, and depend on. He's no more social than Brody and he, too, believes Irene when no one else does. In a spinning world, he is, as she says, "sure and true and right."
In Jodi Thomas's Welcome to Harmony, Alex McAllen is the town sheriff -- and a woman given to behavior unbefitting to her uniform. She is so scarred by the guilt she feels for her brother's death that she tends to drink herself insensible on Saturday nights. Luckily for Alex, her brother's best friend, fire chief Hank Matheson, hauls her out of the bar before she goes home with any cowboy who wanders by. In short, Alex's problems aren't small, and Jodi Thomas doesn't minimize them. She is a woman in pain, a woman whose guilt is as crippling as Reece's fear in Angels Fall. Hank becomes her right hand, not only in the bar, but as they tackle a firebug threatening their small town, and his strength gives her the courage to fight on, to accept the past. This novel looks squarely at the fact that despairing people are not always easy to get along with -- nor to love. And yet they need love more than anyone else.
Catherine Anderson's Always in My Heart looks at a pain that is even sharper than that caused by the death of a brother or parent: two years ago Ellie Grant and her ex-husband Tucker lost their oldest boy Sammy -- and their marriage shortly thereafter. Now they're both trying to mend. Ellie is certain that Tucker's luscious girlfriend Liz doesn't bother her. Tucker thinks Ellie's friend Marvin is a loser, but it's none of his business. The only people who truly don't accept Marvin and Liz are the Grants' two remaining children, Kody and Zach. But it's not until the boys manufacture a way to get Ellie and Tucker into the wilderness together, with time alone, that they discover each other's wracking guilt. Both of them are hiding a heart-breaking secret, and it's Tucker who realizes that they must learn to talk to each other. Even better, he knows exactly the words that will start the healing: "I'll always, always love you…until the rivers stop flowing, and the ocean goes dry."
Christina Dodd's Ann Smith, in Scent of Darkness, feels unlovable not because of a burden of guilt or sorrow, but because she was convinced as a young girl that she somehow attracts devilish attention -- and that those who love her will die. Thinking that camouflage will work a miracle, she laughs softly, never swears, keeps her virginity, and dresses sedately, hoping to disguise the scary little tattoo she's had from birth, the one that will attract the Evil One and his minions. What she needs is no more than what the other women in these books need: someone who believes her, who loves her, and who is not frightened by her problems. Someone who will stop her from feeling unloved, unwanted, and sorry for herself. In her case, this turns out to be Jasha Wilder. A distant ancestor of Jasha's made a pact with the devil, so her little tattoo is nothing compared to the one that ripples from his shoulder to his waist. He realizes that Ann wouldn't, in his words, recognize love if it dragged her into the forest, but he convinces her: "Without you, I'm not whole…Maybe you want a stronger man who doesn't need you. But this is the only kind of love I have, and it's yours if you want it."
Sitting across from a doctor when she says the word "cancer" is a moment that no woman forgets. But if that woman happens to have at her shoulder a man like those described in these novels -- the kind who will love her no matter what, who accepts her scars and her guilt and even her drunken Saturday nights -- then she is luckier than she feels. Life spends a good deal of time knocking us down. These novels build a reader back up, giving her the backbone and the courage to go on for another day, without pretending that scars and guilt are easy to ignore, or that they don't mark us as people. That makes them perfect complements to the cause they support.