As any good librarian should, I am attempting to become familiar with the romance genre. The Adams Street BPL branch keeps their romances in upright, spinning wire display racks, and I picked one each from two major publishers: Kimani Romance (African-American, their teen imprint is Kimani Tru, which my female students read like crazy) and Harlequin Blaze (“Blaze” being the more “red hot” imprint). Here go my reviews:
Sizzling Seduction, Gwyneth Bolton (2009), Kimani Romance.
Really just an anodyne, classic fantasy love story with about 6-8 slowly escalating sex scenes thrown in to get the female readers wet. A clean-cut, conservatively dressed kindergarten teacher single mom who has been burned by love meets a muscled, hunky, kind, and too-good-to-be-true firefighter. It is love at first sight, but she pushes away his advances out of fear. He wiggles his way into her life very respectfully, taking it slow and winning the affection of her son with out-of-this-world committed daddy qualities (this has got to be a trope in African-American romance/fantasy). Drama enters the story in the form of their crazy exes and a scheming aunt, but it is all just a tactic to see if the love between the protagonists will remain strong in the face of (mild) adversity.
I am more familiar with urban fiction / street lit books that are way more hardcore, including constant profanity, violence, poverty, and exceedingly grim situations (Sister Souljah, Sapphire). So this, by comparison, felt like middle class Sesame Street. Black English is used very sparingly, except to add “flavor” to one side character, and instead of profanity and violence, angry male characters say things like, “Watch your mouth. . . .You should know that I will press charges.” There are no references to Christianity in this book, but there is a strong moral vibe that makes me feel like I am watching a Tyler Perry movie. Traditional notions of heterosexual courtship, love, and family loyalty are really what this book is about. Is this really comforting to female readers who just want a fantasy man to dote on them, care for their kid(s), be kind, gentle, and safe, and give them great sex? This book holds no appeal to me, but it must appeal very widely to others based on the market strength of this genre.
Intent to Seduce, Cara Summers (2002), Harlequin Blaze.
This book has a totally ludicrous premise: a sexy yet virginal white female doctor believes seduction is a science, so she embarks on complicated “research” scheme in which she will seduce a stranger using the top fantasies that “science” has proven will work with men. After reading all of the world’s treatises on sex, her schemes somehow boil down to a reliance on seductive role playing (meeting your man in public dressed scantily and using a false persona) and the use of a string of pearls during oral sex. This female-initiated seduction is meant to be feminist, I gather, but as in the Kimani book, it is all so vanilla and clean cut (no real risk or danger).
Well, the man falls for her plans when she surprises him by showing up at the tropical resort that he owns (oh yeah, he’s a hunky and wildly successful businessman). They run through a series of crappy role play and sex scenes, including the supposed turn-on of sex underwater in a sort-of public place (a hidden “cave” at the resort). Totally NOT a turn on. There is also an intrigue/spying subplot running throughout the book, which is totally boring. You know everyone is just flipping through to the sex scenes to see if they are any good–why do romance writers use these narrative techniques when they must be aware that their characterization is weak and their plotting is thin?
Really, I should just talk with a bunch of women in a romance book group to get more of a feel for why they spend their time and money on this genre. I just don’t understand.