From Eloisa James's "READING ROMANCE" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
A flurry of rice and orange blossoms seems the presumptive end of every romance novel. Yet, in fact, very few marriages appear in my eighteen romances, and I'd venture to say that my reluctance on that score is shared by other romance authors. The problem is that marriage at a book's conclusion is a cop-out, at least in this particular genre. A writer who resorts to frothy veils in her last pages, turning her characters into a visual from Bride Magazine, is phoning it in. If marriage does appear in a romance, it needs to be there for a reason bigger than public vows and white dresses. In the four novels I am writing about this month, nuptials appear for different reasons, but in each the event is crucial to the plot rather than the relationship.
Teresa Medeiros's The Devil Wears Plaid starts out in a church. Emmaline Marlowe is on the brink of marrying a much older man, the laird of the Hepburn clan, in order to gain the money her father needs to avoid debtor's prison. As she is about to pledge herself to honor and obey her toothless fiancé, the door bursts open, and a man on a towering black horse rides straight into the church. Jamie Sinclair snatches Emma from the altar, and gallops off into the Scottish wilderness. While a reader might think that the next marriage scene will surely unite Jamie and Emma, the end of the book finds Emma back in that church, pledged once again to the same elderly laird, though this time Jamie interrupts sans horse. For Medeiros, wedding ceremonies are opportunities for inventiveness, and the first two nuptials are disastrous, if hilarious. When Emma stands before the altar for the third time, the vows are far more romantic due to the contrast with what came before.
Madeleine Wickham's The Wedding Girl also depicts an interrupted nuptial. Melissa Grace Havill is about to become Mrs. Simon Pinnacle in a dreamy, lavish wedding ceremony. Simon is the perfect groom: handsome, rich, and kind. But Milly has forgotten one little thing, a tiny detail -- her husband. That would be Allan, the man she married years ago so that he could apply for a visa. Her romantic wedding crashes around her ears when Simon leaves her in disgust, appalled by her false vows and her lies to him. Along with a divorce, Milly learns that lavish "society" weddings are as shallow as champagne. To most people, she decides, "the word 'wedding' meant happiness and celebration." But for her? The celebration is less important than the man to whom she actually speaks the vows. And when Milly finally marries, the church is echoing and empty, the flowers are nowhere to be seen, but the vows are spoken from the heart.
Lynn Michaels's Mother of the Bride begins with the same flurry of social anxiety about wedding details. Three women are about to marry, none of whom is the heroine, Cydney Parrish. Cydney's niece Bebe (whom she raised) has declared her intention to wed the rather moronic, if cheerful, Aldo. Cydney's sister Gwen is marrying a Russian prince in her fifth such ceremony, and Cydney's mother is to be married in a candlelight ceremony at Christmas time. Cydney, meanwhile, has never even been asked to go steady -- which might be because the man of her dreams is a famous author, Angus Munroe, whom she's never met. That changes once Angus -- Aldo's uncle -- shows up, determined to derail the marriage. As Cydney desperately tries to arrange decorations worthy of Vogue (for which Gwen will photograph the marriage), and a wedding cake worthy of Bebe, the happy couples proceed to wangle and fall apart, while Cydney and Gus engage in a hot, secret affair. The marriage that ends this book stands in counterpoint to the betrothals that brought so much heartache. Cydney's wedding is about the heart, rather than glamorous pictures, and it is more joyous for being happily out of Vogue.
The marriage in Virginia Kantra's Immortal Sea occurs at the end of a romance that doesn't include a single disrupted engagement, nor a wrathful kidnapping. In fact, Kantra starts the novel in the farthest possible spot from a wedding: in a hot and wild one-night stand. Elizabeth Rodriguez is on a trip to Copenhagen before starting medical school when she finds "adventure personified in moonlight and black leather." In fact, Morgan is a member of the finfolk, a warden of the northern deep charged with protecting the sea, though Liz has no idea he's anything other than a leather-clad bad boy. The best sex of her life leads to the best gift: her son. But it isn't until Morgan happens on that boy, Zach, that he has any idea their one-night stand had consequences. The marriage that ends this book plays a role that all marriages do, from those that end Shakespeare plays, to those listed in the New York Times: it pulls together the community, bringing into view a new society crystallized around the hero and heroine. In Immortal Sea, Liz and Morgan's wedding depicts a society that binds together humans and merfolk. When Morgan silently vows to love Liz "until the seas run dry," marriage vows are reshaped to suit the new society Kantra has created.
In each of these novels, the marriage ceremony (or ceremonies) is no mere punctuation point to a happy union. The characters -- and thus the readers -- rethink the very idea of "'til death do us part." In each, white veils and bubbling champagne are far less important than the vows that will bind together warring clans -- whether the celebrants are the Scottish, merfolk, or high society.
Read an Excerpt
The worst day of Cydney Parrish’s life was a Monday. The last Monday in October. It began when she woke with a start at 7:12 a.m. Her clock radio should have wakened her at six, but the alarm was set on p.m. instead of a.m. She’d forgotten to check it at 2 a.m. Sunday when she turned the clocks back an hour from daylight savings time.
Cydney was particular about things like that. Obsessive, her sister Gwen said, but if the Kansas City Star said set your clocks at 2 a.m., Cydney set her clocks at 2 a.m. Who cares when you set the damn clock, Gwen argued, so long as you set it? Cydney cared, that’s who, and Cydney sprang forward and fell back exactly at 2 a.m. every April and October.
When she saw how late it was, she wanted to fall back under the covers, but she sprang forward—into the shower, into her clothes, into her office to grab her briefcase, her portfolio and her camera case. She stopped just long enough to pound on her niece Bebe’s bedroom door and yell at her to get moving or she’d miss her first class.
Cydney was late for her first appointment. She dropped into a chair in the lobby of Stellar Publications, one of her biggest and best accounts, breathless and annoyed. She was always on time, always. Unlike Gwen, whose tardiness on photo shoots was legendary.
“They can’t start without me,” she’d say. “I’ve got the camera.”
And an ego to match her genius with a 35mm Nikon in her hands. Gwen Parrish had two Pulitzer Prizes. Cydney had a mortgage and Bebe, Gwen’s nineteen-year-old daughter from her first marriage. And spider veins, she thought sourly, rubbing the thready little red spot she’d found on the back of her knee in the shower. She hoped it was just a bruise. Thirty-two was too young for spider veins.
It was also too young to be hit on by Wendell Pickering, art director of Bloom and Bulb magazine, a lanky man with thinning hair and pale eyes. He made the pass once he finished nitpicking the six-page spread on perennial borders Cydney had stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish.
“I’m afraid I can’t approve this,” he said. “I might be able to over dinner this evening if you think you can make the corrections by seven-thirty.”
Then he smiled and laid his hand on her tush.
It was now 2:30 in the afternoon. Cydney had a parking ticket in her purse, a headache and no Tylenol, a notebook computer with a blown graphics card that thought it was an Etch A Sketch, a roll of film a client had accidentally exposed and would have to be reshot, a broken heel on her best pumps, and now a man with a neck like a chicken who actually thought she’d go out with him to salvage a $2500 photo layout.
“I’m busy tonight, Wendell,” Cydney said in her iciest voice. Sticking my head in the oven, she thought. “Now take your hand off me while you still can.”
He did. Quicker than you can say “sexual harassment.”
Cydney shoved the layout in her portfolio, told Pickering she’d deliver the corrections to his secretary in the morning and flapped out of Bloom and Bulb in the old pair of loafers she’d dug out of the back of her blue Jeep Cherokee when she broke her heel. The loose nail in the left sole scraped the sidewalk and made her teeth clench as she slid behind the wheel and slammed the door hard enough to rock the truck.
Gwen was in Moscow interviewing Vladimir Putin for Newsweek. She was in Kansas City, Missouri, fending off Wendell Pickering. What was wrong with this picture?
I’m glad you asked, said the little voice that occasionally made itself heard from the depths of her psyche. I’ve been waiting for years to tell you.
“It’s a rhetorical question,” Cydney muttered, rubbing the throbbing bridge of her nose. “I love my life.”
And she did. She really did. She loved her family and she was proud of Sunflower Photo, the freelance photography and graphics studio she’d built without any help from Gwen or their parents. It was a rotten day, that’s all. A thoroughly rotten day. Throwing in the towel wasn’t in Cydney’s nature, but she’d simply had enough. She dug her cell phone out of her briefcase, postponed her last two appointments of the day till Tuesday, and drove to the grocery store.
In the produce aisle she slipped on a grape and wrenched her left ankle. She didn’t realize she was out of checks and had only twenty bucks in her wallet—and no credit or ATM cards—until the checker rang up $34.17. The people in line behind her shifted and muttered while she gave back fourteen dollars and seventeen cents’ worth of stuff.
“I’m going home.” Cydney gritted her teeth as she limped the groceries out to her truck. “I’m going home and I’m going to scream.”
And that’s exactly what she did, once she dumped the two paper sacks on the kitchen table, walked down the hall, opened Bebe’s door and saw her niece naked on the bed underneath a young man with long blond hair. Bebe screamed, too. So did the young man on top of her.
Cydney slammed the door and went back to the kitchen, cheeks burning, hands shaking, brain reeling. She put the milk away, took a dozen eggs out of a sack and dropped them when Bebe came pelting through the doorway wrapped in the sheet that moments before had been tangled around her ankles. Her throat was flushed, her face shining as she thrust the diamond ring flashing on the third finger of her left hand in Cydney’s face.
“Look, Uncle Cyd!” she squealed. “I’m engaged!”
Egg yolk dripped into Cydney’s shoes. Dread dripped into her heart. Sweet little Bebe, who didn’t have sense enough to think her way halfway around a BB, was engaged.
Her niece’s smile faded and she bit her lip. “You don’t look happy for me, Uncle Cyd.”
“This isn’t a good time to call me Uncle Cyd,” Cydney warned. “This is a good time to call me long distance.”
“Because you caught us in bed?” Bebe thrust her hands on her hips. Wisps of red hair worked loose from her long single braid curled around her face. “Really, Aunt Cydney. Aldo and I are engaged! I called Mother in Moscow. She is delighted. She told us to celebrate our love!”
“Of course she did! She’s ten thousand miles away! She doesn’t have to deal with this!” Cydney clapped her hand over her mouth and the frustrated “I do!” she wanted to shriek at Bebe. Instead she drew a breath and forced herself to smile. “I’m sorry, Bebe. I’ve had a bad day, that’s all.” She held out her arms. “C’mere, Red. I’m happy for you.”
I think, Cydney thought, until an awful possibility struck her. “You don’t have to get married, do you?”
“No, Uncle Cyd.” Bebe laughed and pulled out of her embrace. “We want to get married.”
“For God’s sake, why?”
“That’s what Grampa Fletch said.”
“You called him, too?” Wonderful, Cydney thought. A long distance call to her father in Cannes to add to the one to Gwen in Moscow. “Did you call Gramma George?”
Bebe bit her lip and lowered her big brown eyes. “Uh—no.”
Of course not. Georgette Parrish, Cydney and Gwen’s mother and Fletcher Parrish’s first wife, was a local call.
“I’ll do it,” Cydney said. As usual, she thought, lifting her right foot out of a pool of egg yolk. “I suggest you and—what’s his name?”
“Aldo.” Bebe beamed. “Aldo Munroe.”
“Right. Aldo.” The name Munroe rang a bell, but Cydney was too rattled to think why. She kicked off her loafer and made a face at the egg dripping off her stockinged toes. “You and Aldo get dressed and we’ll talk.”
“Sure thing.” Bebe turned to leave, but spun back, her eyes wide. “Oh, I almost forgot! Guess what? Mother is getting married, too!”
“I’ll call a press conference,” Cydney shot back, ripping a paper towel off the roll and stuffing it in her shoe.
“That’s really sweet of you, Uncle Cyd, but Mother said she’d do it herself when she gets home from Moscow.”
And away Bebe went, twirling out of the kitchen like a lithe young goddess. She had Gwen’s innate grace and her grandfather’s knack for looking drop-dead delicious in anything. Or nothing.
On the inside of Bebe’s closet door hung a blowup of the seminude Playgirl centerfold that Cydney and Gwen’s father, Fletcher Parrish, New York Times best-selling author of umpteen-jillion spy novels, had posed for when Bebe was two years old. He’d done it as a birthday surprise for his Nymphet Wife Number Three. Gwen had taken the photo and given the poster to Bebe on her fourteenth birthday. Cydney thought Bebe hanging the poster in her room—even on the inside of the closet door—was creepy. Bebe thought it was a hoot.
So why was she surprised, Cydney wondered, that she’d come home in the middle of the day and found Bebe in bed with a boy? Despite Gwen’s claim that she wanted a solid and stable upbringing for her daughter, she’d spent the last fifteen years that Bebe had been in Georgette and Cydney’s care undermining the values she said she wanted for her child. The poster, the birth control pills when Bebe was sixteen—for which Cydney was suddenly grateful—the red Mustang convertible, whirlwind shopping sprees to New York to buy designer school clothes.
Why, indeed, was Cydney surprised? And why was she standing in a puddle of broken eggs watching the peppermint stick ice cream she’d bought melt through the bottom of the grocery sack and drip off the edge of the table?
Because Gwen was getting married, that’s why—for the fifth time—and because Wendell Pickering was the best offer Cydney had had since the last time Gwen had called a press conference to tell the world she was getting married.
“Gwen is so much like Fletch,” Georgette was fond of saying. “So focused and yet so carefree and impetuous. And what charisma!”
What horse-hockey, Cydney’s little voice said, but she ignored it and shoved the half-melted ice cream into the freezer.
Gwen and Fletcher Parrish were driven and ruthless—People magazine said so—their stunning successes and stellar careers nothing more than overcompensation for failed personal lives. Cydney had been so incensed by People’s Father’s Day cover story—“Like Father, Like Daughter”—that she’d canceled her subscription.
She’d also sent a blistering letter to People’s mail column. She was Fletcher Parrish’s daughter, too, and she wasn’t a failed anything. She owned her own home and her own business, had lots of friends and a full social life. So what if she wasn’t rich and famous like her sister Gwen? What did wealth have to do with success?
“Oh, nothing much, honey,” her father said to Cydney on the phone when he’d read her letter to the magazine. “Just everything.” And then he’d laughed.
“How many times, Cydney,” Georgette said, “have I told you to look before you leap?”
“If I’d known you felt so left out,” Gwen said, “I would have insisted that you be included in the article.”
Well why wasn’t I? her little voice had demanded, but not Cydney. She’d been too mortified to admit how hurt she’d felt at being left out. Bebe was included. After all, she was Gwen Parrish’s daughter. So was Georgette, who was Gwen’s mother and a nationally syndicated etiquette columnist ranked right up there with Miss Manners. People had even sent a photographer.
The thing that hurt the most, besides the photographer asking Cydney to drive him to the airport, was that her family didn’t understand about the letter. Her point was that fame and money were only two tiny little inches on the ruler of success. There were lots of other inches, like self-reliance and self-respect, being a giver and not just a taker. Like being loved for your own sake, not for who or what you are.
Cydney wiped the last of the eggshells off the floor and threw the paper towel away. While she washed her hands, she gazed out the window at the big maple tree shedding vivid red leaves over the brick patio.
“I think I’ll go outside,” she said, “come back in and try that screaming thing again.”
Go ahead, her little voice said, but it won’t change a thing.
From the Paperback edition.