Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Recipe for Romance
By Roxanne Fequiere
“The sweetest woman in the world can be the meanest woman in the world,” goes the 1971 song “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” Presumably, this goes for men, too, which is the incongruity at the center of Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game. Lucy Hutton and Joshua Templeman are co-workers by way of their respective employers’ recent merger. Executive assistants to each company’s CEO, they work directly across from one another and spend their days silently fuming and subtly antagonizing each other—and then a new position opens up at the company, one for which they’re both in the running. You can guess what happens next.
Knowing what comes next, of course, is kind of the whole point of romance novels. While researching titles and reviews, I found that tropes are discussed almost constantly: the fake date trope, the hate-to-love trope, the sexy millionaire trope. Avid reviewers seem to each have favorite, and authors are rated not by how well they sidestep these tropes, but rather how they manage to do something interesting within them. After all, you’re always going to have two characters who end up falling in love (or at least lust) by book’s end. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Even though I’m brand new to the genre, I’ve noticed a few recurring details that not only link the two titles I’ve read so far, but are mentioned roughly infinity times throughout each individual story. For starters, the male characters are More Than Muscular—that is, so unbelievably ripped that it’s literally incomprehensible to their would-be lovers. No dad bods here. Secondly, the female character is short, at least a foot shorter than their suitor. Much ado is made over the stooping and tippy-toeing necessary for these characters to neck and make out while standing. Also, these tiny girls get flung around like rag dolls: over shoulders, onto beds with a girlish giggle, etc., etc.
I should mention that, perhaps as a byproduct of the short female protagonist trope, there’s also a general rule that tall girls are the enemy. The chick at the party who’s eyeing our girl’s man? Tall. The entire back catalog of his dating history? Leggy bitches. The well-meaning acquaintance who accidentally reveals a tidbit that threatens our main characters’ entire relationship and destroys our girl’s self-confidence? A giraffe-ass broad. You must remember this. Tall girls equal disaster. Steer clear.
I can see how it might be intriguing to see how a variety of authors play with the “short-everywoman-snags-male-model-type-while-dodging-competition-from-towering-waifs” storyline. Still, desire is such a broad, varied, and personal thing that the striking similarities in the books I’ve read so far already strikes me as odd. My research tells me that romance is a sprawling genre with countless niches—maybe I’m simply going about finding my books in the wrong way. My favorite bookstore doesn’t have a romance section, so I’ve been poking around the Barnes & Noble a few blocks south, where the four broad categories appear to be: bodice rippers (not interested), supernatural-type tales (nah), “urban” romances (one of which may be my next read), and half-cute, half-kinky tales like the ones I’ve read so far. Maybe I need to take a closer look at the sort of stories that are well-reviewed but not on a major bookseller’s shelf.
There are several more narrative tics I’ve picked up on so far: an inordinate amount of sighing and groaning whether the act in question is a chaste kiss or full-on unclothed hip-lock; vaguely broken and/or trifling male characters that become centered, goal-oriented, and fully down for a committed relationship, if not at first sight, then after one night spent with our heroine; heroines who, sadly, never realize the healing powers of their vaginas and spend the vast majority of the book doubting their suitors’ attraction. In spite of its already too-familiar tropes, The Hating Game was equipped with a voice sharp and real enough to carry the reader through their inevitable sense of déjà vu.
Narrated from Lucy’s point of view, her observations were at turns sarcastic, confident, self-deprecating, and frenzied. She’s prone to freak outs, a lifelong collector of Smurfs figurines, and highly committed to her own personal look, no matter what others may think of it. She’d make an incredibly endearing character in a romantic comedy, and it seems I’m not the only one who’s had that thought. The director of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion recently signed on to helm the big screen version of Thorne’s book. I’m starting to think that I may prefer these stories in feature film format—a lot of their most frustrating instances of repetition would most likely end up the cutting room floor, yielding a much snappier final result.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.