Tag Archives: contemporary romance

T is for Twisted

{Content note: the following post is about a romantic suspense novel and contains some discussion of physical and sexual violence. Nothing graphic, but it’s a pervasive mood. There are also some mild spoilers, but that’s the price we pay for informed criticism.

Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

I’ll admit, I picked up Ms. Curtis’ romantic suspense Twisted because not only were there two major characters with disabilities, but also the author has epilepsy and penned a pretty epic rant about disability portrayals in fiction. So I bought a copy of Twisted (see? rants do sell books!) and it kind of sat around until I thought of this post series, because I am terrible at reading books in a timely fashion. And now that we’re in the home stretch of the alphabet — the letter T! I’m amazed it’s gone so fast! — I feel like resisting the urge to talk about specifics of the disability portrayal. Yes, there are two main characters, each with a different disability (one genetic, one a result of injury) that impact their lives and the plot in different ways, but do not take over the bulk of the story. They’re well-rounded and specific portrayals, which is such a relief. But I’m trying to keep this project from becoming myopic, from making the inclusion of marginalized characters a niche topic — so it’s appropriate at times to talk about a particular book’s inclusion in the wider world of romance. Because these books are romances, and must be understood as such. And Twisted in particular seems to be a book that exists in conversation with its genre in a more self-aware, metafictional way: the novel simultaneously illustrates and refutes some of my personal issues with the subgenre of romantic suspense.

Cover image for Twisted by Laura K. Curtis. Cover is divided in two. Upper half is a sepia-toned image of the top part of a blond woman's face. She looks frankly out at the viewer, her curling hair tumbling over one eye. There is a faux-paper tear that prevents us from seeing more of her face. Lower image is blue-toned, a man from the chin down, head tilted slightly to the side. He wears a pale uniform shirt with a star over his left breast. Trees wave ominously through the mist behind him.First, let me say this book is a page-turner; despite the occasional moments of feminist-lens side-eye, I was desperate to find out what was going to happen next and I had pre-ordered the sequel even before I hit the final page. It starts with our heroine, true crime writer Lucy Stone, returning to her hometown to solve her mother’s cold-case murder. I believe it’s significant that Lucy writes true-crime rather than mystery; she’s neither Jessica Fletcher or Harriet Vane (love you, Harriet!). She deals in fact, not fiction: her skills are the same as any detective’s, and unlike many true crime authors she specifically focuses on the victims and the survivors:

“All that time and energy, all that ink and air devoted to a man whose every act was destructive. It’s criminal in and of itself. He doesn’t deserve it. How do you think the friends and families of his victims felt when, every time they opened a paper or flipped a channel, they were confronted by another talking head spouting off about him? He killed those girls, but the media machine erased them.”

“So you fix it.”

“I can’t fix it. All I can do is create a tiny bit of balance, a little resistance.” (1424)

Lucy resists the true crime genre’s slant toward voyeurism and fascination with monsters in favor of empathy for the survivors and the victims of violence. I am very tempted to also read this career choice as a subtle reaction to the way women’s perspectives and experiences are often discounted in the justice system: Lucy is a woman who is literally not in the business of making things up. She’s a great heroine, steely and vulnerable and sympathetic without feeling syrupy.

Our hero, police chief Ethan Donovan, is the perfect blend of laid-back charm and sharp-eyed observation. He’s got secrets of his own and the usual ex-wife — who, charmingly, is not demonized or blamed for his relationship failings! Oh frabjous day! things just didn’t work out — and he’s also got a protective streak a mile wide. And I’ve got an absolute hair-trigger sensitivity for protective streaks: not enough, and I read the hero as callous; too much, and I read him as controlling. Ethan does pretty well, but he has an unsettling tendency to push Lucy’s boundaries in ways that put up the hairs on the back of my neck. One example, from mid-(consensual)-kiss:

He palmed her breast through the jersey and she froze, a reaction even he could interpret. Lost in his own fantasies, he’d pushed her too hard, too fast. He loosened his grip, easing back slightly. She tried to wriggle completely free, but he kept her near. If he allowed her to step away, it would create a rift he’d never bridge.

Besides, he wasn’t ready to let go. He wasn’t at all sure hanging on to her wasn’t the only thing keeping him standing. (1254)

We’ve already had plenty of hints in the narrative that Lucy’s past includes trauma: she goes pale and chilly when certain men show up, she avoids questions about her childhood in Dobbs Hollow, she asks that evidence be sent to the state lab for testing and not the county lab controlled by the sheriff who she went to high school with and who she point-blank claims not to trust. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that something happened, and I expect any decent cop to be able to put two and two together. I would also expect any decent cop to respect a woman’s physical boundaries and resistance, even if they happen to contradict his urgent pants-feelings at the time. Alas, little beats like this crop up continually during the romance and rather kill my buzz. We’re in a romantic suspense, with heightened stakes, where women are being raped and killed and tagged with the word whore, or left to die in a pool of blood on the kitchen linoleum: it’s an atmosphere where I’m encouraged to think of the world of the text as sinister and rife with hidden agendas. Ethan’s disregard for Lucy’s physical boundaries made my stomach twist every time, even after she started to accept it, even as they grew closer both physically and emotionally. It reminded me of the thousand Victoria Holt books I read as a teenager, where the hero is brooding and mysterious and may have killed his first wife but (probably) didn’t (except for that one time he did, not that I can remember which Holt book that was). And we’re supposed to thrill at the contrast of the good man who seems villainous versus the villain who seemed good up until the point where their villainy was unmasked.

The problem for me is the problem of escalation: just as many killers start sloppy and grow more methodical, as Lucy and Ethan discuss, men who push small boundaries are much more likely to push large boundaries. (Required background reading: Shrodinger’s Rapist.) It’s the sense that the hero knows what Lucy needs (emotional support, physical touch) more than she does, and that that knowledge entitles him to override her wishes, expressed or merely telegraphed physically. (And Ethan is under no misapprehension as to her wishes in the above quote.) So while a certain balance was built into their relationship from the start — his disability (bad knee, mild mobility issues) meant he couldn’t be as physically overpowering as many RS heroes, while Lucy’s martial arts training and willingness to pick up a gun felt more empowered than I expect from a RS heroine — it was not enough to override that little pulse of Ethan knows best, Ethan knows best. Especially since all Lucy’s self-defense training never seemed to help her out in the clutch: I feel that was a missed opportunity. And Lucy’s parallel desire to protect her younger brother Tim — who has in fact been targeted by our villain — is presented as a bit suffocating, as something she needs to let go so that Tim can be a full human being. Why is Lucy not granted the same privilege?

This aspect, and a persistent undercurrent of gender essentialism (“super-feminine” was used of our heroine’s feeling of attraction at one point in the text and I rolled my eyes to the point of strain) were my biggest problems with the book, and they are problems I have with romantic suspense more broadly. Why are so many villains sexualized, and so many killing scenes eroticized? I think sometimes there must be a lot of overlap with mysteries and thrillers and horror, genres that skew male in their readership and are thus more prone to make victims out of their female characters in order to motivate their male heroes and titillate male readers. I think the urge to make fictional crimes more shocking and edgy pushes things in directions that go wrong quickly in careless hands. And, too, humans are never entirely immune to the voyeur’s urge. That little twist in the gut that I hate so much is some people’s sought-for pleasure.

Where Twisted really gets interesting, and definitely meta, is not the scenes where characters are in danger. Shootouts in the woods (spoiler?) is a pretty standard climactic move — instead, the genre’s usual feature of the villain’s POV scene is twisted (aha haha) and multiplied, to really great dramatic effect.

Villain POVs are always a bit squicky for me, and the first one we see in Ms. Curtis’ book is no different — except that our villains are named. I was a little puzzled by this, since usually you’ll get a few clues and a few red herrings in this kind of scene, but rarely names. Names give the game away too soon, would deprive the reader of the fun of solving the puzzle along with our hero and heroine. And then there comes a second villain’s POV, from a second villain — and it becomes clear (to the reader at least, if not to our protagonists) that there are two sets of crimes being committed in Dobbs Hollow. That we have two networks of bad guys whose operations are starting to converge and get in each others’ way.

Reader, I was delighted. Not only does this triple my fun as a puzzle-solving reader (solving is the thing that keeps me coming back to mysteries and romantic suspense, despite all my other reservations), but it breaks the usual good/evil binary down. Evil in this book is not a monolith. Some people are monstrous, but some others commit terrible crimes just out of apathy and entitlement. Persistent harrassment, isolation, and poisonous gossip can be as traumatic as outright harm. Good is equally various — witness librarian Eulie, who starts off as the classic Small Town Harridan but segues into a more humanized figure. I won’t spoil the end of the book for you — I will just say that this narrative choice made me super-happy despite all the dozens of disappeared and drugged and raped women, and that is no small thing.

Of course, we do have all those nameless, faceless victims — rapes and murders and kidnappings, other cold cases that have never been solved, that may not have even been intensely investigated, which form the data constellation that helps our heroes solve Cecile’s murder. This constellation shows us exactly which groups of people are considered disposable in the small Texas town of Dobbs Hollow: prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and Hispanic women, no matter their class. There’s an unsettling construction of personal strength, particularly female strength, that sometimes veers a little too close to victim-blaming for my taste. Some sample quotes:

  • “‘It’s only fair you understand up front that whatever he can do to you is nothing compared to how far I am willing to go to find out who killed my mother.’ The words were emotionless, cold, but over the red rage that filled him, Ethan noticed the rise and fall of Lucy’s chest, how her breath came faster and her chin rose even as she half flinched, expecting the violence in him to take physical form. Why would she deliberately provoke such a reaction? Did she even believe what she was saying? He already knew she didn’t trust him, so perhaps this was nothing more than another test. Artie had been right. Lucy’s single-mindedness would get her into trouble in an inhospitable town with secrets to hide. She might not want a protector, but she was going to need one.” (623)
  • “‘Pretty’ doesn’t exactly scream ‘competent police officer.'” (1059)
  • “‘I’m not like those poor Hispanic women you chased through the woods,’ Lucy said, leaning over. ‘I fight back. I’m stronger than you are. Better in every way.'” (3723)
  • “‘He killed her because she wouldn’t sleep with him.’ Impending hysteria added a sharp edge to Lucy’s voice. ‘Of all the men she could have turned down and didn’t, she had to pick the psychotic killer to get some standards with.’ Ethan jerked his head at TJ, who rose and left. He took her spot, putting his arm around Lucy and pulling her into him. ‘She always had standards, sugar. She’d never have slept with anyone in your school, and she never brought men into the house. You stressed that yourself. He broke her rules, rules she set to protect you and Tim, so she sent him and his pals on their way. You’ve lived in Dallas. I’m sure you saw women there who truly lived without standards, whose lives had beaten any fight out of them. You can’t say that about your mother.'” (3738)

Again: if Lucy’s as take-charge and self-protective as the opening scene would have us believe — and it’s one hell of an opening scene — why does she never actually get to fight back effectively in the course of the novel? Why is women’s strength always tied to how sexually attractive and/or available they are? Why is women’s agency — Cecile’s thwarted plan for escaping the town, Lucy’s plan to find her mother’s killer — seen as provocative, as a woman making herself a target? Dobbs Hollow in these moments brought up a lot of the same questions asked about True Detective — remember True Detective? — particularly one raised by the Hairpin: what is the distinction between a work of fiction that shows misogyny, and a work of fiction that is actually misogynistic? I had no trouble buying the realism of the above quotes. But they would make my lip curl if uttered by someone in whose presence I was standing. I’d mark them down silently as a minor red flag and make sure not to have feminist arguments with that person unless I felt like I could spare the effort. Yes, Lucy is a strong heroine in many ways — but when the heroine’s strength is somehow exceptional among her gender, I start to have questions about the politics of the worldbuilding.

In the course of writing this I found a fascinating argument, not all of which I agree with, by author Tracy Cooper Posey:

Romantic Suspense novels had their golden age in the nineties and the early years of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and that was when women were just getting used to the idea of equality and beating men at their own game.  The glass ceilings were crashing down all over the place.  Having alpha heroes rescue us was still sort-of okay in our fantasies, until erotic romance fantasies like Sex and the City showed us that we could be equals or better in bed,too.

These days it’s no longer a matter of equality.  It’s a matter of being more powerful and completely different.

She goes on to suggest that paranormals and urban fantasy grew more popular because they gave their heroines power, rather than damselling them, while still preserving the marks of difference that keep men and women from being identical rather than equal (I’m extrapolating from her use of phrases like “And she never forgets she’s a woman”). Someday I’m going to do a lengthy post on power structures (race, class, gender) in PNR/UF, but that day is not today. Suffice to say I rather disagree with her analysis of how power functions in paranormal romance — and her assertion that alpha male heroes and rescue plotlines are a thing of the past.

I quote Ms. Posey’s argument because to me it seems, like the worldbuilding in Twisted, expressive of the idea that women and men are equally but differently powerful. Men in Ms. Curtis’ text are in positions of official authority: sheriff, mayor, DA, chief of police, county coroner, FBI agent. Women are in service or communication positions: author, librarian, cleaning service, diner owner. Lucy’s friend Tara Jean/TJ is a cop, but most of her time is spent either talking with Lucy or eavesdropping on her well-connected family (including the mayor) for our hero and heroine’s benefit. This unequal division of power is precisely what allows for the crimes Lucy and Ethan are eager to solve: women will always be primarily victims in a world that constructs them as inherently less powerful. This is true of Dobbs Hollow, it is true of romantic suspense, and it is sadly true of the real world in which readers live.

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A powerful refutation of the ‘monster myth‘ has been making the rounds of the internet recently, and seems like an excellent companion piece to Lucy’s focus on the humanity of her subjects.

Romance Novels for Feminists has done several posts on romantic suspense and related genres like the Gothic, which may be found via the tag.

Speaking of sex workers, writer and activist Melissa Gira Grant has a great roundup of the best sex work writing of 2013. It’s a lot of links and a lot of information — I plan on coming back to this one many more times myself.

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Curtis, Laura K. Twisted. New York: Intermix, November 19, 2013. Ebook.

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S is for Suleikha Snyder

{Content note: the following post contains very brief discussion of sexual assault and suicidal thoughts.

Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

One of the biggest themes of this series is the idea of people being trapped by stories — we saw how Jade Yeo refused to yield to the colonial narratives that threatened her autonomy, and how the Navajo were destroyed by the lies and omissions of American authorities. Suleikha Snyder’s Bollywood-set novella Bollywood and the Beast is a further addition to this list. Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has already done a complete breakdown of the feminist elements of the novella’s plot, which covers just about every point I jotted down during my reading, so I’m free to go in a more metaphysical direction as I discuss the ways in which characters in this book struggle against the narratives that entangle them or mask their true selves. Because the film world of Bollywood is, like its Western counterpart, a tailor-made metaphor for exploring the points where image and reality differ, where appearance and substance are at odds. And I’m going to break with the analytic essay format and use bullet points! I like bullet points. This may partly be the Theraflu talking. My brain is going in tiny swirls and circles and I cannot seem to make it do anything in a cohesive line.

Cover image for Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood and the Beast. A background of lush red brocade pillows. A tan-skinned, dark-haired woman with closed eyes has one arm wrapped around a brown-skinned man in a half-on, half-off white shirt. He is facing away from the viewer, and she is pressing her lips to his shoulder.

  • Taj Ali Khan

The main story tangling around Taj is Beauty and the Beast and he knows it. He positively relishes his role, sitting around in dramatic half-lighting and using a wheelchair as a prop more than a mobility aid. (Which our heroine rightly chastises him for.) He takes a visceral pleasure in monstrosity and heroine Rocky immediately calls him on it; it becomes a running conversation between the two of them as their relationship progresses. The scars from a long-ago car accident and fire destroyed Taj’s career as an action star and filmi hero; since then, he’s stayed locked away from the outside world, growing roses in the garden and watching his old films alone in the dark: “he’d built himself a perfect cage of stone and soil and celluloid” (Kindle location 75). Appearances are currency in this Bollywood world: since Taj cannot trade on his anymore, he chooses to have no appearance, to retreat from the world entirely and go unseen by anyone for ten long, dark years. To surround himself with flickering, intangible images, like a Bollywood Norma Desmond. Jackie Horne rightly pointed out that the novel’s end requires Taj not to fulfill the original fairy tale’s narrative arc, but to rebel against it — to go out in public is not only to refute the Beast’s domestication of Beauty, but also to reassert the existence of his own face. I honestly tried to find a more elegant way of putting that — damn you, Theraflu — but there really is a nearly mystical sense to Taj’s seclusion and then emergence: to the outside world, it really is as though he has recreated his own features from nothing. Taj is really very compellingly sharp and epic in scope: it’s hard for me to be convinced that a hero is large these days because all heroes are written to be large — but with Taj, it was very easy to believe that this one man could fill not just the room, but an entire crumbling mansion.

  • Rakhee/Rocky Varma

Rocky is the Beauty in our story, but this is by no means the only fairy tale she inhabits. There’s a scene at the beginning where she imagines a trio of catty Bollywood starlets as predatory birds — as RNFF put it there’s a whiff of misogyny here, but I liked the slight unreality of the imagery. I also liked where it wound up: “[Her mother said,] ‘This is no fairy tale.’ Maybe not the Disney kind. But the dark, gory, original kind with all sorts of ironic lessons …? Rocky stared at the blood-red heel of one fallen shoe and shuddered” (53). And I clapped gleefully, remembering the vicious birds and the lopped-off heels and the bloody shoes of the original Cinderella story. Cinderella’s arc, like Beauty’s, finds its closure in a castle with a Prince — but Cinderella’s arc is also about escaping the house, about class boundaries and artifice and whether or not you’re the same person when you’re dressed up as when you’re in your workday wear. An entirely appropriate fairy tale for an actress, whose job description is to put on masks and take them off as needed. It’s an open question whether this Cinderella promise is fulfilled in the novella; the ending is a trifle too ambiguous on the practicals. (I think Taj should become a director!)

And also, there’s our heroine’s nickname. “Rocky” is an American error: “The first time someone had mispronounced her real name, Rakhee, it had turned into a nickname she embraced wholeheartedly” (92). But by adapting to the American syllables she’s made herself in a way unfit for Mumbai. In Bollywood the nickname becomes another reminder of her American-ness, associating her with a Western film about a lower-class male fighter whose voice is distinctively low and slurred; this is the opposite of the high, refined treble tone and fluid tongue expected of heroines in Hindi-language films. Like her namesake, Rocky goes through intensive training and works constantly to live up to the industry’s expectations: diction coaching, Hindi language courses, script memorization. (And now, yes, I’m imagining all this happening in a montage set to “Eye of the Tiger,” or better yet this catchy Bhangra remix.) The reason why Rocky comes to stay in Taj’s house while filming is that her fellow actors and industry people are miffed because she dropped the polite, perfect heroine’s mask and spoke too candidly in an interview about Bollywood’s hypocrisy and bigoted underbelly: she pulled the mask off, just for a moment — but nobody likes a spoilsport. So she is sent to the haveli, where she pulls off more masks. Taj’s, of course — but also his younger brother’s.

  • Ashraf Khan

The gap between appearance and the substance beneath is most poignantly illustrated with Ashraf, or more familiarly Ashu. Like Rocky, he has two names: one formal and public, the other a private diminutive, familial and intimate. Ashraf Khan the actor is attempting to fill the void left by his brother’s departure from the industry. There’s a lot about this dynamic that I may be missing, since I haven’t (yet) read the earlier book in the series, but Ashraf’s bitterness and terror are palpable enough. He is acutely, achingly conscious of the many ways he fails to be as big a star or as powerful a presence as his elder brother; this consciousness becomes more and more a figure he uses against himself, to erase his own talents, desires, and even his existence:

He had never been one to hallucinate. Not until his brother’s phantom taunting had taken root in his brain and Nina’s oily threats had begun spreading like a slick down his spine. Now, those voices were almost deafening. With him always. And they all said the same thing: You are worthless, Ashu. You are terrible. You are filthy and dirty and godless. No one will ever love you. (1030)

Bollywood’s conservative cultural standards place great burdens on their stars: no nudity, no kissing, no alcohol — at least not where anyone can see you. It’s a world of polite fictions and open secrets, of making sure you always smile for the cameras no matter how much you are hurting inside. Ashu’s growing despair is typical for those who feel out of step with systems that privilege silence as a means of maintaining a pristine, false image of wholesomeness. His traumas are significant and impossible to speak about: he was sexually abused at a young age by an older woman in exchange for career advancement (an advancement that has tragically failed to materialize, which is also a source of trauma); he posed for nude photos for her, which she later uses to attempt to blackmail him and which could end his career completely; eventually it is revealed that Ashu is also gay, an orientation still highly marginalized and recently re-criminalized in India. The constant effort it takes to bridge the void between how Ashu feels and how he knows he should feel drain him both physically and emotionally — eventually he is interrupted in an attempt to throw himself from the roof of the haveli. His brother, his co-star, and his caretaker Kamal have to talk him down. It’s a moment as intensely, perfectly melodramatic as anything in a classic Bollywood tearjerker (personal gold standard for tearjerkers, and not just Bollywood ones: Kal Ho Naa Ho). At the same time, it’s also a desperate gesture toward nothingness: Ashu has been straining against the void for so long that eventually he concludes it would be easier just to throw himself in. He is only able to begin recovery with the (unexpected) love of Kamal.

  • Kamal

The most opaque character, especially to a Western-culture influenced reader: I find it very hard to separate Kamal from the stereotype of the Magical Asian, or from other South Asian/Indian caricatures (hello and goodbye forever, Punjab). The other characters appear to be at least as puzzled as I am — they refer to him at times as a ghost, a dead man, as cursed, a resident of the Hotel California, and so on. He is, as animated Kirk might say, the least scrutable man ever, a doctor who has somehow become a domestic nurse of sorts but who only follows his own orders, the bearer of an unrequited passion that finds only the tiniest gestures of expression until suddenly it bursts forth to give his beloved a new reason to live. Kamal has virtually no surface, no expression — his smiles are rarer than diamonds, his mask welded on and impenetrable. He is entirely substance: even when he becomes more human toward the end of the book, he is still something a little bit apart, too much himself to really fit into anyone else’s narrative — not the fairy tales, and not Ashraf’s burgeoning love for him. I freely admit that Kamal is a piece of this puzzle I have not yet figured out. Is there some key that I am missing? Or is he simply inexplicable? And why, if I do not know who he is or what he means, do I feel so much for him?

I have dabbled slightly in the films of Shahrukh Khan, so I am not entirely ignorant of Bollywood culture, but I wish I knew more about the politics and the industry to comment further, particularly on the dialect issues, which strike me as emblematic of a lot of fractures in current Indian politics and culture. I’ve included a few links to this effect in the extras — just because I don’t know what to say doesn’t mean there aren’t other smart people who are more expert and on top of this.

And finally this, because I could not resist, is “Dhoom Taana,” a song from 2007 film Om Shanti Om, in which Bollywood reimagines its own history. If you ever have a chance to see this in theaters, I highly recommend doing so. There’s an essay waiting to be written about Om Shanti Om and Singing in the Rain and a medium retconning its own past via musical spectacle for an audience in the know, but that Theraflu is really kicking in now and I feel a nap coming on.

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On Twitter recently, Suleikha Snyder tweeted a link to this piece about Bollywood’s mishandling of mental illness. The Guardian also recently discussed sex and censorship and Bollywood, and Priyanka Srivastava in the Daily Mail talked about Bollywood’s use of ethnic stereotypes for comedy.

Recent legislation in India has recriminalized gay sex but also given legal recognition to transgender people — which goes to prove that barometers of improvement in social justice vary from culture to culture. There is no Great Historical Narrative of Universal Progress: there is only the work that must be done in every culture to undo oppression and inequality.

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Snyder, Suleikha. Bollywood and the Beast. Samhain Publishing: February 11, 2014. Ebook.

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E is for Vicki Essex

{Content note: the text below describes a character dealing with being triggered and recovering from a past sexual assault, though nothing is graphically depicted in this post. There is also some transphobic language quoted.

For the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.}

Vicki Essex has one of the sleekest voices writing in contemporary romance today. Her prose is clear and engaging, grounded in her characters’ physical reactions, studded with moments that take my breath away as a reader and as a writer: “Kyle was still smiling, but inside, threads of anticipation and dread tangled into a tight, messy knot” (Kindle location 792). Damn, that just gets me right in the chest. This talent and her three-dimensional characters are what get me coming back to Ms. Essex’s books even though, as I found when I read Back to the Good Fortune Diner last year, her plots tend to leave me frustrated and unsatisfied. In Her Corner, Ms. Essex’s latest Harlequin Superromance, worked better for me than the earlier book, but still left me with unresolved questions.

Cover image for In Her Corner by Vicki Essex. Background is a running path at a park. A dark-haired woman with olive skin wears a yellow tank top with sweat stains and black athletic pants. She is running toward us, smiling off into the distance. Behind her runs a paler-skinned, dark-haired man in a blue tank top and shorts. He is smiling at the woman ahead of him.When your heroine is a Brazilian MMA fighter from a legacy family and your hero an Olympic gold-medal wrestler, your story is going to be more than usually concerned with the human body and your characters’ physicality. For once, the romance genre’s tendency to idealize its protagonists’ bodies makes sense, because these characters work hard to be in peak physical condition:

She was shorter than he’d first thought — five-eight at most. But she was built like a brick house with thick biceps that showed through the stretchy biking top and a trim, tapered waist. He’d been wrong to say that the biking gear hid all her feminine assets, because he could see them clearly defined now. Her grin widened as she unsnapped her helmet and shook out her hair. Long, thick, wavy black tresses slick with sweat tumbled out, barely tamed by an elastic hair tie at her nape. (133)

I have to admit, I cheered to see thick biceps on a heroine. Not just because it makes sense for the character, but because many athletic heroines are presented as slim and gamine rather than stacked or muscular, and it’s nice to have a little variety there. Notice, though, how careful the text is to make sure we know that even though she’s muscular she’s still obviously a woman, and more specifically a sexy woman (would an Olympic wrestler really use a word like “tresses”?).

Not long after, we have some equal-opportunity objectification of the hero:

He was the living portrait of a Greco-Roman wrestler, complete with broken Romanesque nose and dark brown Brutus-style haircut. She wondered idly if he’d ever wrestled naked like the pugilists of those bygone days. (152)

(Pause to envision and appreciate the underrated sexiness of the Brutus haircut.)

Both Bella and Kyle are pressured to match this idealized physicality with an idealized performance of binary gender roles: Kyle’s father was abusive and hypercritical, a chauvinist of the old school, and his son has been “forged by his father’s unyielding will into the manliest of men” (2273). (Reader, I giggled.) Manliness, as I’m sure you’ve heard, requires a person to suppress all emotions, to defend others (especially ‘weaker’ women and children), to disregard physical caution and safety in favor of pride, and to never let a girl “push you around” (504). Meanwhile Bella’s family — all of whom, brothers, father, grandfather, are into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and training as a career — are urging her not to fight, to settle down instead and raise babies with the boyfriend she dumped because he wanted her to stop fighting: “He said he didn’t want to see me get hurt. He kept going on about how it wouldn’t look right and how our kids would be affected” (102). Her family agrees, calling her desire to have an MMA career “selfish” (103). It’s a pretty standard patriarchal line, and it’s to Bella’s credit (and Ms. Essex’s) that she mourns their lack of support but never truly considers giving up on what she wants. I like a heroine with drive.

The tension between what is expected of Kyle as a man and Bella as a woman propels most of the plot. Bella struggles against gendered expectations for female fighters (skimpy costumes, sexism, underestimation of her abilities) while Kyle struggles to find ways to articulate the emotions he can no longer suppress (fallout from his father’s abuse, the trauma of being a rape victim, the depth of his feelings for Bella). One of the more elegant tensions of this story is that Bella needs what Kyle has (encouragement for her career,  training in wrestling) and Kyle needs what Bella has (emotional support and reassurance, unconditional affection). This is a romance where the two genders meet in the middle (stay tuned for why this is not necessarily ideal!). The text throughout is careful never to portray Bella and Kyle as meaningfully different based on their physical bodies — Kyle has experience and skills that Bella does not, and vice versa, which is why they are training together in the first place — but the expected gender performance for male and female bodies in the gender binary system leads to vastly different experiences within the highly sexist culture of the UFF (a fictional stand-in for the UFC).

MMA fighting in this book is generally presented as dangerous but acceptably so, a physically difficult yet uniquely rewarding career … except that there’s Wayne. For anyone who’s been following the increased scrutiny on concussions in the NFL and the long-term health effects of contact sports, Wayne’s sudden bursts of irritation, frequent migraines, and prescriptions for painkillers are a puzzle too easily solved, even before he explains it:

“It’s  nothing you need to worry about,” he said with a shake of his head. “I’m just getting old … Even if I’d known this would happen, I wouldn’t have given any of it up. That’s the price of glory. This –” he indicated his worn-out body ” — is just a thing that happens.” (3034)

Kyle himself has a bad knee from his early wrestling years — and he is none too happy when Bella points out that this means his peak athletic days are behind him. It’s less a matter of fetishizing youth and skill and more a question of control: “You think you can control everything in your life?” she asks him. “You can’t” (2881).

The great fear in this book is not physical danger, but lack of control over one’s own body. The real danger of a fighting career is not immediate pain, but a long-term debilitating injury — the risk is that the fighter will lose physical control, either in the present or in the much-battered future. Wayne regrets his aches and pains not because they hurt, but because they mean his body is doing things he does not want and cannot stop. This is inevitable and tragic. Meanwhile, Bella loses an important exhibition fight when she is distracted by Kyle’s voice at a critical moment, and this loss echoes the way Kyle’s father once took ownership of Kyle’s body and career:

The moment he’d opened his mouth, Bella had shifted because his voice had triggered her into taking a staggered stance. It was a Pavlovian response: the same thing had happened to Kyle whenever his father had pitched his voice in certain ways. They’d drilled that way, too, with Dad shouting instructions and Kyle going through the motions like a trained monkey. (1771)

This fear is the connecting thread between the gendered obstacles against which Kyle and Bella struggle: both dread giving (bodily) control over to someone else — Bella because it is too expected for a woman, and Kyle because it is not permitted for a man. The “Pavlovian” and “trained monkey” language in the above passasge puts both Bella and Kyle in the position of objects rather than actors; part of Kyle’s horror and regret after this scene comes from his disinclination to manipulate others the way his father manipulated him.

No wonder that in this context assault — whether violent or sexual — is presented as a more terrifying experience than simple hand-to-hand combat in a controlled setting. We have three characters assaulted over the course of the story: Kyle (raped by an ex-girlfriend), Bella (physically assaulted by a douchebag agent), and Shawnese (a teenaged recovering addict and prostitute who is stabbed by her former pimp). Control is a key issue in all three events, because the act of being assaulted takes bodily control away from the victim — not just because of the physical force involved in the incident, but because of the resulting emotional and physical instability. For instance, when Bella’s douchebag agent Ryan (a stock villain whose lines all come from Rape Culture 101) grabs her during an argument, Bella easily gets free and slams Ryan into the ground. But this moment is not followed by a rush of triumph:

Bella started trembling. Her heart pounded in her ears. She felt light-headed.

“Easy, easy.” Kyle was at her side instantly. He sat her down in a chair and pushed her head between her knees.

Her vision cleared as she breathed deeply to calm the jackhammer of her pulse. What the hell was wrong with her? She fought for a living. She’d fought against women and men tougher and better trained than Ryan. Why was she freaking out? (1379)

She is freaking out specifically because this was not a fight, something she’d trained and prepped for — this was an attack, by definition unasked-for and unwanted. When Bella next sees Ryan at a UFF gala, she loses physical control again: “She glared down at her ex-manager, heart pounding in her throat as those horrible feelings from that shocking day returned. Her fury intensified as all the things she should’ve said to him bubbled up” (2579). Again, the rush of rage is followed by a feeling of weakness: “I don’t want to sound like a wuss, but I’m kind of freaked-out” (2578).

Bella doesn’t use the word in the second scene, but it’s obvious she’s been triggered. Kyle recognizes it — though he doesn’t use the word either — because the same thing happens to him on a fairly regular basis. Including the scene immediately following this one, when he and Bella first try to consummate their relationship: Kyle panics and stops the sex right at the end of Chapter Fifteen. He describes his rape and how it is still haunting him: “I might as well tell you you’re not the first girl I’ve left in this state. They all thought I was just a doped-up loser who couldn’t get it up … It’s hard to fall asleep when every creak sounds like someone in your house” (2756). This is by no means the first rape we’ve seen in romance, but it’s one of the rare instances where the violation is separated from physical penetration (which I would argue is the feminized standard, particularly in the romance genre where rape or attempted rape is so often the province of the heroine). Kyle’s experience traumatized him not because he was penetrated (he wasn’t) but because someone took control of his body away from him without his consent. This is uniquely traumatic for Kyle on account of his father’s past abuse, which took similar forms of physical control and denial of his agency and autonomy.

When he and Bella finally — finally! — do succeed in seducing one another, Kyle believes (in true romance fashion) it has healed his broken self:

Born again. That was the only thing Kyle could compare this feeling to as he woke up the next morning. Every limb felt supple, and his back and chest felt light. It was like he was twenty-one again, rather than thirty-six — energetic, vital, invincible … A sense of accomplishment and pride rushed through him. He’d made it through the night with Bella. He hadn’t had any nightmares, hadn’t shot up out of his bed at the slightest sound. He’d had sex without embarrassing himself. His body had listened to him. He’d stayed fully in control of himself. (3383)

Kyle’s reaction to this miraculous event mystified me when I was first reading: he pushes Bella away and focuses on making future hotel-sex plans with his supermodel fuck buddy. No, really, he does. It’s baffling — there’s a woman you care about, and you can finally have sex again after so many lonely years and sleepless nights, and the sex was amazing, and you’re like, “Yep, time to ditch her in the most hurtful way possible!” But sitting down to compose this argument has shown me Kyle’s deep need for control, and how Bella threatens that. (This deeper understanding of a book is one of the reasons I love criticism, and one of the reasons I’m doing this project in the first place.)

After successfully fucking Bella, Kyle believes he’s fixed now. That he can go back to old playboy patterns (supermodels, no-strings-attached sex). One sexual assault caused the hurt, so naturally he thinks one sexual triumph can heal it. He feels younger, so he believes he can act like he did when he was younger. He’s not thinking about his life currently, about his feelings or Bella’s. He still has a profound disassociation from his own emotions, which has the unfortunate tendency of making him rather opaque from a reader’s perspective — and from the heroine’s. “I didn’t cure you, Kyle,” Bella tells him. “You can’t go chasing women trying to make yourself feel better. You need to talk to someone. You need help” (3540). (A heroine who refuses to play amateur therapist! Ten points to Gryffindor!) It is at this moment, when she questions his newfound sense of stability, that Kyle turns into a bastard and tells her he only slept with her to help her unwind before her big fight. (It may also be worth pointing out that Bella uses Portuguese words more in this scene than in the entire rest of the book — no doubt on account of the unique and explosive emotional tenor of this argument, but I can’t help wondering if this evidence of her foreign-ness helps Kyle find her more threatening than he would have if she’d been cursing at him in English.)

This theme of bodily control helps explain something else otherwise inexplicable in the book: why the text’s presentation of Kyle’s trans sister Jess is so ham-handed. I’ll start with the concise analysis from Ridley’s review at Love in the Margins:

The line about slapping Kyle’s shoulder seems to illustrate masculine strength, and a guffaw isn’t generally used for women’s laughter. When Bella compared her to a drag queen, I cringed, but the story goes on to basically portray her as one. She’s tall and ultra-feminine and her contribution to the book is to be part of Kyle’s rough relationship with his late father and to outfit Bella in a fabulous dress for a glitzy party. I wanted more substance and less stereotype. She wasn’t a character so much as a convenience.

It’s abundantly clear that both Kyle and the narrative have no idea what to do when confronted with Jess’ physical body:

He watched for that moment in Bella’s eyes. That slight widening when she realized Jess hadn’t been born a woman. With her surgically enhanced body and flamboyant style, he could understand how some people might miss the little details, but there were some things surgery couldn’t erase. (2254)

Jess is presented as masculine-in-disguise, a man in drag rather than a ‘real’ woman. In this book’s world, the body does not lie: it expresses the truth about sexual attraction, emotional trauma, age, strength, and someone’s ‘original’ gender. These things can be distractions — emotions especially — but there is very little of the ‘traitorous body’ language we’re used to seeing in romance. The body is right: it is only brains and hearts that get confused. Just as Kyle and Bella can’t ignore their bodies’ responses to one another, Jess’ assigned-masculine body can’t hide its ‘true’ gender. Therefore a trans woman is presented as a drag queen, and her assigned-masculine body combined with her feminine gender performance are read by other characters as dissonant and disturbing. Because of the body problem, the text has to go to great lengths to feminize Jess — so she becomes of narrative necessity a makeup artist, highly skilled in performative femininity even though she fails to pass convincingly as a woman.

This contradiction is the symptom of a system unaware of its own baked-in assumption that gender and sex are identical concepts in a fixed binary system. (There’s a lot to argue in that statement, I know, but I’m still only a neophyte in that regard and the short answer for our purposes is: no, sex and gender are not identical or equivalent and the binary turns out to look more like a spectrum.) Trans embodiment troubles a text so fixated on physical, corporeal truth, and Jess’ appearance functions as something of a trigger for Kyle: “Jess reminded him of all the lessons their father had beaten into him, all the things a man was supposed to be. All the things he’d failed at…” (2291) The existence of a trans woman — even his own sister! — for Kyle does not lead him to realize that rigid sex/gender roles are notionally flawed, that there is a wider range of human experience and gender expression than simply This One or The Other. Genitalia is not destiny. Instead, Jess’ existence is a reminder of the gap between Kyle’s own fragile manhood and the fetishized, idealized masculinity his father insisted he embody both physically and morally. (Whispers: nobody tell Kyle about intersex people or he’ll have to go have a lie-down.) While Jess’ inclusion in the text is a step forward for trans representation in romance — your mileage may vary — it feels like Ms. Essex missed an opportunity for a deeper commentary on the way cultural binaries fail to describe the full possibility of human existence.

In short, I’m glad this hero gets himself a professional therapist by the end of the book. It seems like he’s gonna need it.

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While writing Back to the Good Fortune Diner with its Chinese-American heroine, Vicki Essex incorporated much of her own background and experience as a Canadian of Chinese descent. She also wrote a post looking forward to the first women’s fight in the UFC.

For an upcoming multi-authored look at trans experience and resources, check out trans bodies: they’ve got a book coming out sometime this spring!

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Essex, Vicki. In Her Corner. Toronto, Ontario: Harlequin Enterprises, 2014. Ebook.

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