From Eloisa James's "READING ROMANCE" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Many years ago I tried out for the cheerleading squad. Alas, I was plump, awkward, and couldn't manage a cartwheel. But I wanted to fit in so desperately that I convinced myself that a pleated mini-skirt would transform me into a perky, high-kicking member of the in-group.
When the cartwheel fairy didn't show, I decided I was doomed to be a pigeon in a sea of swans. We've all encountered -- and failed to join -- groups formed by the rich, talented, powerful, or beautiful. The five romances I discuss this month each feature a heroine who doesn't belong to the most powerful group in her particular milieu. But these aren't novels about women who succeed in joining the elites. Each of these heroines champions a different kind of group: a twosome.
The heroine in Rachel Gibson's Any Man of Mine is living on the edges of a very powerful social group: the super-rich professional hockey players, Stanley Cup winners who limit their friends to the rich and beautiful. Autumn Haven -- a single mom struggling to get her event planning business on an even keel -- definitely doesn't qualify. She doesn't have fake breasts, blonde hair, or the faintest interest in hockey. What she does have is the memory of a drunken Las Vegas weekend with hockey star Sam LeClaire that resulted in a divorce certificate and a 6-year-old son. Any Man of Mine is a fascinating look at how hard it is to bridge two dissimilar worlds -- cool and uncool, cheerleader and bystander. Yet both Sam and Autumn come to realize that they want one thing: to create ties between the three of them that are stronger than any ties between friends.
Pia Giovanni, the heroine of Thea Harrison's Dragon Bound, also has to deal with a powerful group of successful men: the Elder Races -- magical shape-shifters -- who surround Dragos Cuelere, the most powerful shape-shifter of them all. Dragos is a phenomenally rich dragon who keeps a hoard of treasure beneath his Manhattan skyscraper. In human form he is a muscled predator, a man who dominates any group. Pia is his opposite, a tiny woman whose mother taught her to be always inconspicuous. His magic is flashy and known the world over; hers is subtle and hidden, yet wildly powerful. When Pia steals a penny from Dragos's hoard, he erupts in fury, determined to kill the thief who managed to get through all his locks and magical wards. But after tracking Pia down, Dragos finds himself fascinated and falling in love. Pia is a peppery, funny heroine, and Dragos is a classic alpha, but what makes this romance so compelling is not only the brilliant world-building (which brings to mind J. R. Ward's Brotherhood series), nor the sexy appeal of both characters, but the way in which Dragos learns that being part of a couple is better than being the leader of an elite group. In the end, the two of them are the only group that matters, as Dragos puts it: "You're with me everywhere I go but I miss you when we're apart."
Sarah MacLean's Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart places the insider/outsider dilemma in one of the toughest societies of all: the English Regency. Simon Pearson, Duke of Leighton, is, like Dragos, a born leader, wielding power, money, and birth. Miss Juliana Fiori has no place in England's elite: she's the daughter of an Italian merchant and a dissolute English marchioness. Worse, she's a magnet for scandal. But Juliana has a clear understanding of the arbitrary fortune that puts men like Sam, Dragos, and Simon on the top of the social hierarchy: "The way you behave," she tells him, "one would think you'd actually done something to earn the respect these English fools afford you." This is one of the most wildly romantic books I've read in a long time, stemming directly from the moment when Simon decides to break every rule that kept him at the center of English aristocratic society. I defy you not to sigh with happiness when Simon throws away his reputation, and then tells Juliana "everything I had spent my life espousing -- all of it…it is wrong. I want your version of life."
Julianne MacLean's Claimed by the Highlander puts her heroine, Gwendolen MacEwen, on the fringes of a very different -- but equally rigid -- social group: that of a Scottish clan. Gwendolen is a MacEwen, at least until she's stolen by Angus the Lion, the head of the MacDonald clan. For sheer brawn, power, and elite status, you can't get more leader-of-the-pack than Angus, and Gwendolen finds herself fascinated by the laird. Still, she fights back, betraying Angus to the British in an effort to save her own clan. By the time she realizes that she desperately wants to be a MacDonald -- to be trusted by Angus -- it's too late. Angus too must learn that the strongest bonds are between two people who love each other, and that trust between man and wife means more than kinship or family loyalty. Claimed by the Highlander reminded me of Julie Garwood's early, wonderful Scottish novels about warring clans and feisty girls: novels in which love triumphs over the strongest of clan bonds.
Jacquie D'Alessandro's Summer at Seaside Cove appears to reverse the paradigm. Jamie Newman is the kind of girl who would have aced that cheerleading try-out. She has brains, honey-colored hair, and the ability to make friends wherever she goes. The novel opens when she rents a cottage for the summer on a North Carolina island, hoping to heal a broken heart. Unfortunately, that cottage turns out to be a broken-down mess, and its owner, Nick Trent, isn't much better. He's a scruffy, gorgeous bad boy. He certainly doesn't fit in on the island: he's a loner who disappears for days at a time, leading the community to think he's keeping secrets. This is the kind of novel that will make you nostalgic for sand and suntan oil, and might even have you singing "Summer Lovin'" in the shower. But the novel is not just a story of opposites. The secrets Nick is keeping have everything to do with his status as a loner, without friends or relationships. Like all the heroes in these novels, Nick has a lot to learn. The novel's sweetness springs from its understanding that material possessions and the power they bring can never guarantee happiness. None of the elite groups -- Rich, Ivy League, Handsome -- matter when it comes to the smallest and the most important group of all.
I never made the cheerleading team, and some part of me still wants to vet my friends and make sure they didn't either. But reading novels like these assuages any lingering tinge of bitterness. In the end, it doesn't matter how rich and popular a person may be -- or how successful he or she is in building up connections to peers. These novels promise that a happy relationship is better than cartwheels or cash.