From Eloisa James's "READING ROMANCE" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
When it comes to romance writers, lifetime membership in the Optimists' Club is practically a prerequisite. More than the writers of any other genre, we must keep the faith: that a thoughtful, sexy, and loving relationship is possible, long-term. But that doesn't mean that we're optimistic about so-called "perfect" matches or, for that matter, "perfect" people. Perfection is highly overrated when it comes to love, as these five romances demonstrate.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Call Me Irresistible opens with two flawless people on the verge of marriage…until the bride's best friend shows up. Meg is far from perfect: she never graduated from college, and doesn't have a job, a decent car, or a career. But when she says -- skeptically -- of the groom, Ted (a gorgeous millionaire with umpteen degrees), "He sounds like Jesus. Except rich and sexy," the bride realizes that she's not ready to marry a deity. This plot could easily turn dizzy and light, but instead the novel offers a fascinating picture of two people who have made a lot of mistakes. Meg truly has wasted her life, and Ted is so overwhelmed by his own reputation that he can't emotionally connect with anyone: beneath her banter and his aloof demeanor is a deep loneliness. Yet for all their antagonism (Ted blames Meg for his failed wedding), it turns out that they are at their best together. Meg learns to be responsible, and Ted finds his wild side. But Susan Elizabeth Phillips doesn't pull her punches: a man who is unavailable emotionally is not a good lover, no matter how many orgasms are exchanged -- and it takes Ted a long time to reform. In fact, in the last chapters, when it isn't clear whether Ted will be able to win Meg back, I defy you not to be turning the pages as fast as you possibly can read.
In Elizabeth Hoyt's Notorious Pleasures it's the heroine, rather than the hero, who seems to gaze down from an unapproachable height. Lady Hero Batten is the daughter of a duke: she's beautiful, tactful, intelligent, and witty. Even so, she is mortified when her fiancé's brother Griffin mocks her with the title Lady Perfect. Griffin Remmington, Lord Reading, is Hero's polar opposite. His reputation is even worse than Meg's in Call Me Irresistible: he has made himself notorious for drinking, carousing, and general worthlessness. In reality that façade hides an even more terrible truth about his activities, as Hero discovers. One of the wonderful things about this novel is that, like Phillips, Hoyt doesn't underestimate the challenges of falling in love with someone who has made dreadful decisions. But it's the downfall of Lady Perfect that gives the book its tantalizing, seductive pleasure: when Hero wonders whether "she could ever resurrect her perfect façade again," you'll be rooting for Griffin, sins and all. This is a novel that laughs in the face of anyone who believes that romances can't or don't depict the dark side of life -- while still standing up for the idea of real, long-term happiness.
Courtney Milan's Unveiled also contrasts a high-born heroine and a flawed hero, but here again, the stakes are much higher than mere reputation. Lady Anna Margaret Dalrymple is in a dreadful position. Her ancestral home, Parford Manor, now belongs to a vengeful distant cousin named Ash Turner; discovery of her father's bigamy has resulted in his children's disinheritance. Margaret promises herself that "she would be noble, even if she was no longer considered nobility." But perfection comes at a price. Since her horrible father is dying in the master bedroom, Margaret poses as a nurse in order to stay with him. And when she falls in love with Ash, Margaret finds herself torn between her role as a dutiful daughter and sister, and the man she loves. Only after she realizes that Ash would sacrifice everything to make her happy does Margaret understand love is the real yardstick by which we should measure loyalty.
Jill Shalvis's Animal Magnetism pits the perfectly sweet, charming Lilah Young against a weary, battle-worn ex-soldier named Brady Miller. He's spent the last few years in battle zones where "grime and suffering trumped hope and joy," whereas Lilah lives in a Disney-ish small town named Sunshine, where everyone loves her and she loves everyone -- including the baby animals she's surrounded by. In short, she's a princess, and he's a cynic. Her real perfection (from Brady's point-of-view) is that she accepts his wandering nature and offers red-hot sex with no strings attached. But, as he comes to understand, that may sound "perfect. Only it wasn't. Not even close." This is a wildly sexy, sweet story, as Lilah and Brady realize that falling in love with a flawed person can be a passionate affirmation of love's ability to bring people together.
My last romance poses a particularly modern conundrum: what if the person you fall in love with online, your Tweetheart, isn't really as unblemished as his electronic persona seems to be? Teresa Medeiros's Goodnight, Tweetheart moves between text and tweets to depict a love story between a struggling novelist, Abby Donovan, and an English professor on sabbatical, Mark Baynard. Their tweets are fascinating, as they joke about everything from Project Runway to Velveeta. It's impossible not to fall in love with someone as witty and sweet as Mark (he signs off as Goodnight Tweetheart), even though Abby does realize that he's using humor as a defense mechanism. Can someone so glowingly "perfect" ever live up to his Twitter feed? Of all the novels, this one falls most firmly into the "no one is perfect" camp. When Mark reveals a shocking truth about himself, Abby realizes that perfection is deeper than tweets: it's Mark's smile, the smile that says "I will always love you no matter what you've done and no matter what you'll ever do."
My latest romance, When Beauty Tamed the Beast, has just been published -- and as you can imagine, my hero is definitely less than perfect. I chose to rewrite this particular fairy tale because I think that a love story between all-too-human persons is far more interesting than that between "golden boys and girls," as Shakespeare had it. In fact, these novels are a splendid antidote to an overdose of sickly sweet Valentine's Day sentiments. Buy your beloved a card that insists he or she is the perfect match for you -- and then remind yourself that love trumps all those flaws the card pretends don't exist.