Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lesbian Romantic Suspense: Mason Dixon's DATE WITH DESTINY and Andrea Bramhall's CLEAN SLATE

During my summer vacation, as part of my ongoing project to read and review all of the books nominated for this past year's Lambda Award for best Lesbian Romance, I took on two books that can also be considered works of romantic suspense. Both Mason Dixon's Date with Destiny and Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate feature heroines whose lives, and loves, are under threat. Would that threat stem from the fact that both protagonists are out lesbians, I wondered? Or would the danger result from something completely unrelated to the heroines' sexual identities?

The answer is slightly different for each book. In Date with Destiny, Rashida Ivey has been off the dating market for the past two years, throwing herself into her work as district operations manager for Savannah, Georgia's Low Country Savings Bank after her break-up with her partner of six years. But when Rashida accidentally dumps her coffee on another patron at her local GLBTQ coffee-shop, she finds herself immediately drawn to the attractive butch with the unusual name of Destiny. Destiny, out of work and looking for a job in the want ads, isn't someone professional Rashida, who has worked hard to pull herself up from her working-class roots, would be drawn to in the normal course of events. But when their paths cross again, and Destiny's background as a security guard comes up, Rashida suggests she apply for a job at one of her bank's branches. The fact that it's against company policy to fraternize with a fellow employee makes Rashida more than reluctant to pursue a relationship with Destiny, but the heat that sizzles between them has the usually rule-abiding Rashida tossing the rules to the wind. Rashida's referral of Destiny stands the bank in good stead, though: she discovers an embezzler, and helps rescue bank patrons during an elevator fire. But when Rashida is threatened with incriminating photos of her trysting with Destiny (accompanied by the kindly note "Is this any way for a reputable business woman to behave? Obviously, you can take the girl out of the 'hood, but you can't take the 'hood out of the girl"), and discovers the threat of a robbery plot, she finds herself questioning the wisdom of placing her romantic life ahead of her job.

It was exciting to read a romance with not just one, but two African-American heroines, as well as one that touches upon class as well as race as a category of identity. Rashida's competence and devotion to her job is made abundantly clear (too much so, perhaps, as the details of bank mergers and security procedures slows down the story's pace), a welcome change from the plethora of stereotypical negative depictions of the black woman in much American popular culture. The narrative structure itself is also interesting, with the first half of the book told from Rashida's point of view, the second relating the same events from Destiny's. For me, the surprise revelation that occurs mid-book wasn't very surprising, alas; I'd guessed it pretty early on, which made the novel's plot feel quite predictable. On the surface, Rashida's lesbian identity seems to play little to no role in the threat which she finds herself facing, but once the villain of the piece is unmasked, sexual identity certainly plays a role, and not a feminist one. Definitely a mixed bag for this reader.

Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate (the ultimate winner of the 2014 Lambda Award for Lesbian Romance) takes one of the most popular, and most often laughed-at, tropes of category romance—the hero or heroine who's lost his/her memory—and gives it a lesbian spin. After being attacked and viciously beaten, art teacher Morgan Masters wakes up in the hospital thinking it's 1992, not 2014. She doesn't remember her kids (13-year-old Tristan and his younger sister, Maddie); she doesn't remember her mother's death; she doesn't even remember Erin, the woman with whom she's been in love for the past fifteen years. And she certainly doesn't remember that three weeks ago, she asked Erin for a divorce.

Given that Morgan moved out without ever explaining what went wrong, and hasn't seen her family since, Erin feels caught between anger, fear, and guilt, especially when she finds herself even more attracted to the "younger," more carefree version of amnesiac Morgan than she was to her more melancholy wife. Is it really wise to respond to the attraction that Morgan inspires. Can she really take Morgan back, when even Morgan herself can't explain why she left in the first place?

Morgan's lesbian identity certainly plays a role in her being subject to danger; the opening attack (which we as readers witness) appears to be motivated by her attacker's clear prejudice against lesbians. But is this the only reason? Even in this early scene, we are given hints that there's more behind Morgan's beating than a random hate crime. When the motivations behind Morgan's abrupt divorce request come to light, sexual identity once again looms large as a motivating force. The vanquishing of the villain, then, strikes a symbolic blow against all who discriminate and abuse women who choose to live their lives outside of normative heterosexual sexuality.

Clean Slate possesses both the strengths and the weaknesses of much category romance. Its quick pace, heightened emotion, and out-and-out evil villain will likely appeal to readers who don't read for deep characterization and who do not mind a few "why in the heck did she do that?" moments in their plots, as long as the story delivers excitement and angst in equal dollops.






Friday, September 12, 2014

Nancy Garden on My Mind

It's always bittersweet to turn to the "Obituaries" page of the Horn Book Magazine, listing the latest luminaries of the world of children's literature who have passed on to the next. The column in the HB that awaited me in my mail pile when I returned from summer vacation included profound losses in both the professional realm—legendary Farrar, Straus, and Giroux editor Frances Foster; disability advocate library professor Margaret Mary Kimmel—and in the creative—Eric Hill, author and illustrator of the Spot the Dog books; Mary Rodgers, the author of wacky middle grade novels A Billion for Boris and Freaky Friday; and Walter Dean Myers, the innovative and widely lauded African American writer whose legacy includes award-winning picture books, fiction for middle schoolers and teens, as well as outstanding works of nonfiction.

The novel's first cover, by (I believe!)
Trina Schart Hyman
But the obituary that hit me the hardest was that of Nancy Garden, best known for a novel published when I was still in high school: 1982's Annie on My Mind. Young adult fiction featuring gay protagonists were few and far between when I was growing up in the 70's and 80s; what little existed tended to be in either the "gayness is tragic and must be punished" mold, or, (in the few books with girls falling in love) "oops, sorry, just experimenting a little before taking up the heterosexual mantle" one. Garden, an out lesbian, wanted to tell the story—in many ways, her own story—differently.

As a tribute to Garden, I pulled my copy of Annie from the shelf this week and sat down to reread it. Garden's novel is a story within a story: in the frame narrative, a third-person narrator tells how Liza Winthrop, a first-year architecture student at MIT, begins writing a letter to her high-school love Annie, struggling to stop "thinking around" the very public revelation of their hidden relationship months earlier and come to terms both with her own sexuality and her feelings for Annie. The main narrative, in Liza's first-person voice, begins from the beginning, telling of the two girls' meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; their initial forays into a cross-class friendship; and Liza's growing awareness that her feelings for Annie are not those that her friends, family, or even she had expected. Brief passages jump from the past to Annie's present, showing how the memory of moments from her past with Annie are affecting Liza in the present.

My own 1992 edition
Garden's novel is not at all sexually explicit. There's no blow by blow descriptions of what parts touch what parts, no details of what the lips, or hands, or bodies of these girls do with, and to, one another. Perhaps this is why so many recent commentators and reviewers have called the novel "sweet." Yet for its day, Liza's narratives of her encounters with Annie are both frank and evocative in their depictions of the joys and possibilities of the wonders of discovering sex for the first time:

I remember so much about that first time with Annie that I am numb with it, and breathless. I can feel Annie's hands touching me again, gently, as if she were afraid I might break; I can feel her softness under my hands—I look down at my hands now and see them slightly curved, feel them become both strong and gentle as I felt them become for the first time then. I can close my eyes and feel every motion of Annie's body and my own—clumsy and hesitant and shy—but that isn't the important part. The important part is the wonder of the closeness and the unbearable ultimate realization that we are two people, not one—and also the wonder of that: that even though we are two people, we can be almost like one, and at the same tie delight in each other's uniqueness (146).

It was new every time we touched each other, looked at each other held each other close on the uncomfortable living-room sofa. We were still very shy, and clumsy, and a little scared—but it was as if we had found a whole new country in each other and ourselves and were exploring it slowly together. Often we had to stop and just hold each other—too much beauty can be hard to bear. And sometimes, especially after a while, when the shyness was less but we still didn't know each other or ourselves or what we were doing very well—once in a while, we'd laugh. (150)

The most recent cover
Horn Book Magazine's obituary suggests that Annie was "the first LGBTQ novel for young people with a happy ending" (Sept/Oct 2014, 140). Happy may be stretching it a bit; much of the second half of the novel depicts the fallout from the discovery of Annie and Liza in flagrante delicto at the house of two of Liza's teachers (Liza's been cat-sitting for them over spring break), fallout which has presumably led to the estrangement described in the opening frame narrative. The "have illicit sex then immediately get punished for it" trope is present and accounted for. Yet through the reflective frame narrative, and Liza's decision in the book's final scene to reach out once again to Annie, the book ends with hope and reconciliation, rather than punishment and rejection of a lesbian identity. In the words Liza's teachers: "Don't punish yourselves for people's ignorant reactions to what we all are.... Don't let ignorance win.... Let love" (232).

Before I was a blogger, I was a children's literature professor. And before that, I worked in children's book publishing. Though most of my publishing work was in an administrative capacity, there were a few short years during the mid-1990s when I had the opportunity to acquire and edit new projects. Spurred by a piece in one of the trade journals about the lack of books for gay young people, I decided to move beyond being a fan, and wrote to Nancy Garden, asking if she might be interested in working together on a book. Garden, who, like me, lived in Massachusetts, agreed to meet, and we talked about a picture book story she had written,  which featured two princesses who ended up together. Her other publishers had not been interested in publishing it—might I be? I looked forward to reading the story with eager interest, but the actual manuscript she sent was less a story and more a heavy-handed lesson. With great regret, I, like the other editors with whom she worked, declined it. I left publishing soon after, and did not stay in touch with Garden, but I couldn't help thinking of her when picture books King and King (2000) and Tango Makes Three (2005), which featured gay males as protagonists, arrived on the scene. I'll bet she was smiling, but also wondering when we'd see a similar picture book with lesbians as the romantic protagonists (rather than just the parents of the protagonist child). As far as I know, we're all still waiting...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fighting for Women's Rights: A MAD, WICKED FOLLY and THE SUFFRAGETTE SCANDAL

I'm guessing that for many American kids, their first introduction to the history of women's suffrage comes not from a history textbook, but from a Disney film. In a scene not included in P. L. Travers' original novel, the movie Mary Poppins opens with Edwardian mother Mrs. Banks arriving home from a political rally for women's suffrage, excitedly breaking in to song as she relates the day's doings (see full lyrics here.) One protester has chained herself to the Prime Minster's carriage, another sings while being carted off to gaol, scattering pro-suffrage literature in her wake, and the otherwise unidentified "Missus Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!" she informs her parlourmaid, cook, and governess, adorning each with her own "Votes for Women" sash as she dances them around the room.

The servants, alas, have news of their own for Mrs. Banks: the children have gone missing, and the governess is resigning her post. Women's suffrage comes across both empowering and problematic, the struggle for the right to vote clearly energizing and enlivening Mrs. Banks, but also taking a married woman's attention away from where it rightfully belongs: on her household and her children.

Historical romance has often taken up the figure of the bluestocking (the educated woman), or at least the woman fighting for equality in the face of a doubting, often disparaging, masculine culture (see All About Romance's list of "Bluestockings, Independent Misses, & Feminists" and the list of "Women's Rights in Romance Novels" on Goodreads). But I hadn't come across any that feature an actual suffragette as a heroine until this summer, when I had the pleasure of reading not just one, but two, suffragette romances, one written for YA's, the other intended for the Historical Romance market. And neither, surprisingly enough, creates conflict by placing its hero and heroine in opposing ideological camps.

In an 1870 letter, reacting to the news "that Viscountess Amberley had become president of the Bristol and West of England Women's Suffrage Society and had addressed a... public meeting on the subject," Queen Victoria of England wrote:

I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of "Women's Rights," with all its attendant horrors.... Were women to "unsex" themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen, and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection. (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Victoria_of_the_United_Kingdom)

Victoria Darling, the heroine of Sharon Biggs Waller's YA historical A Mad, Wicked Folly, initially has little interest in the political activists urging the British government to grant women the vote—except as potential subjects for the portfolio she is preparing for her application to the Royal College of Art. She's even taken for an anti-suffragist cartoonist by a sympathetic-to-the-cause police constable during a suffrage protest outside of Parliament. But privileged Victoria gradually discovers she has more in common with the women and men fighting for an expansion of the vote that she ever imagined. Meeting the artist Sylvia Pankhurst (daughter of the activist Emmeline Pankhurst referred to in Mrs. Banks' song), learning how art can play a role in political protest, and discovering just how little choice the upward mobility of her socially ambitious family allows her, even regarding her art, ultimately leads Victoria down a far different ideological path than her royal namesake. As a friend encourages her to imagine, freedom lies not only in personal choice, but in economic independence:

"How about loving who you want instead of settling for someone your parents have chosen for you? Wouldn't it be a real lollapalooza to bring him home and say, 'Ma and Pa, this is my guy and if you don't like him... well, then, too bad. I don't need your money or anyone's money. I don't even need him to have money, 'cause I got my own.'" (315).

The 1909 Women's Exhibition in London (the panels
in the background were painted by Sylvia Pankhurst)
Caught between two potential suitors, Victoria ends up choosing the course that will allow her to pursue her art. That she wins the love of her dreams in the process makes for a tidy, but satisfyingly happy ending to this informative dip into early twentieth-century women's political history.




Courtney Milan's The Suffragette Scandal takes place a few decades before Waller's A Mad, Wicked Folly, in 1877, before the word "suffragette" was even part of common English parlance.  But Frederica "Free" Marshall, who played minor but memorable roles in earlier stories in the "Brother Sinister" series, is far more committed to women's rights than either Victoria Darling or Victoria regina. James Delacey, a man waiting to be officially declared Viscount Claridge (his elder brother having disappeared nearly seven years earlier), is infuriated by Free's refusal to become his mistress. But Milan, like Waller, refuses to cast a misogynist who must be persuaded through love of the wrongness of his beliefs in the role of hero. Instead, it is Delacey's mysterious older brother Edward, now calling himself Edward Clark, who becomes embroiled in the fate of the Women's Free Press: by women, about women, and for women, the newspaper funded and edited by Free. Drawn in initially to help a friend, now the paper's "Ask a Man" columnist, from being unfairly smeared by his vengeful brother, Edward, a liar, forger, and flirt extraordinaire, declares Miss Marshall "in need of a scoundrel," and offers her his services accordingly. Each protecting their own secrets and vulnerabilities while keeping one step ahead of the other, Free and Edward warily join forces, cannily defeating James' initial plans to discredit the paper. But English peers, even potential ones, wield real power, and James' plans for vengeance are far from scuttled:


   "So far as I am aware, the only circumstance of note is that you made me an offensive proposition and I refused. From that we come to all of this?"
     His hands clenched at his sides. "I've already forgotten that," he said coldly. "I do not wish to think of it."
     "Of course you don't want to think of it," Free told him. "It's obvious that you don't want to think at all. But despite your carefully cultivated ignorance, you'll have to comprehend that a woman has a right to say no."
     He bristled further. "That's precisely it. You said no, so that is what I wish for you. No newspaper, no voice, no reputation, no independence." He looked away. "No is apparently all you understand, and so I've made sure that when I talk to you, I use language that you can interpret." (126).



Like Waller, Milan presents a detailed, accurate, and compelling historical background of women's struggles for equal rights not just under the law, but in the minds of their arrogant "superiors." Milan has never been one to shy away from the more distasteful (to current-day audiences) of Victorian views, particularly those towards women. But by placing them in the mouths of her villains rather than her heroes, she eschews the game of personal male reform through love so common in more traditional historical romances. Part of what makes Edward and Free's romance so tender and compelling is Free's realization that it's not her job to fix Edward. Instead, she must grant him the freedom, and the time, to reform himself—changing not outdated political beliefs, but coming to terms with the traumas and betrayals in his past, and recognizing the limits his own cynicism and disillusionment have imposed upon him. Only then can he become a worthy partner for Free, and embrace the far more satisfying work of political reform to which Free has devoted her life, reform made all the sweeter when both members of a couple believe wholeheartedly in their work.

At the end of Disney's Mary Poppins, Mrs. Banks symbolically gives up her "Votes for Women" sash, transforming it into the tail of a kite repaired by her now child-friendly husband. A rejection of her feminism, I often thought, until someone pointed out that "Votes for Women" was now flying high above London, its political message visible for all to see. 

Let me offer my own kite, then, with its own words of praise for Waller and Milan: "Well done, Sister Suffragettes!"





Saturday, August 9, 2014

Summer Reading?

I've been in the midst of packing up to head out for a summer vacation with family, and have been mulling over which books to bring along. Paring down the pile of potentials is always difficult, especially when you know you have to carry your own luggage...

But the task is finally accomplished. Here's the final selection (at least of the ones in paper; lots more on the e-reader):




A few romances in the stack, of course! And even more on the e-reader...

August has once again been declared "Read a Romance Month"—what romances are you most looking forward to indulging in as you vacation or simply enjoy the last days of summer?


RNFF will be back with more book reviews, critical opinions, and intellectual musings in September. Enjoy the rest of your summer!






Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Resisting Internalized Sexism: Ruthie Knox's TRULY

If I asked you to name some examples of sexism, which would most quickly come to mind? Sexual assault? Sexual harassment? Job discrimination? Laws limiting women's rights and/or freedoms? What about the more mundane, everyday, and invidious kind of sexism that comes not from without, but from within? Internalized sexism—hearing, accepting, and believing sexist stereotypes about what it means to be a girl or a woman, and then enforcing these beliefs on other women, or enacting them themselves—may be less newsworthy than more overt, political sexist acts, but it may have an impact at least as far-reaching. And it certainly can get in the way of a woman's attempts to forge a romantic relationship with a potential partner.

I've certainly read romances that call attention to, and protest against, more overt forms of sexism. But I couldn't name a romance that confronts internalized sexism, particularly internalized sexism that a romance heroine must recognize and fight in herself. Until, that is, I got hold of an ARC of Ruthie Knox's latest contemporary romance, Truly.

Knox's latest heroine, May Fredericks, is your quintessential Midwestern good girl. May "hated drama and anger, disapproval, any kind of tension" (Kindle Loc 1664), and constantly finds herself apologizing, even for things that are clearly not her fault. She often does her best to be invisible, but disappearing can be a bit difficult "when you were five foot, eleven-and-three-quarters inches and had some meat on your bones" (Loc 75). We're introduced to her shortly after her penchant for keeping her true feelings bottled up has come embarrassingly, publicly uncorked—the rejection of a most suitable suitor, a rejection involving lots of cameras, lots of witnesses, and the less-than-conventional use of an uncommon table utensil. And after a series of mishaps had left her alone, without money or ID, loitering in a New York bar devoted to Green Bay Packers fans, hoping to find a friendly Midwesterner to offer her a helping hand.

Instead, May finds herself "rescued" by belligerent Ben Hausman. Ben, like May, is in the midst of major life upheavals—recently divorced, the restaurant in which he'd been chef and co-owner taken away in the settlement, unable to take on another cooking job due to a non-compete clause, and squatting in the apartment of a friend who is due to return home in a week. Surly and angry, he's about as far from an affable Midwesterner as anyone could find:

He'd wanted to be the best chef in New York. And that was great, except he'd also been a miserable bastard with stress-induced hypertension, insomnia, and a tendency to fly into unprovoked rages. He'd screamed at his kitchen staff and fought with his wife so much, they'd practically made an Olympic sport of it. (Loc 255)

His friend Connor teases him—"I bet you couldn't be nice if you tried"—and surly Ben suddenly sees the woman whom he'd rudely blown off at the bar not as a potential date, but instead as an "opportunity": "Because how was he supposed to learn how not to be a dick, except by talking to someone who actually seemed to notice when he was one?" (Loc 321)

May finds snarly, snarky Ben fascinating, particularly the way he doesn't seem to worry about what others think of him. "How liberating it must be to be able to say whatever you wanted that way. To be rude without guilt—without even obvious awareness. How did someone get to be that way? If she asked him, would he teach her?" (Loc 958). Ben may prove a potent example, but part of May's journey is to realize that the only one who can teach her not to care, not to embody the stereotype of the good girl that everyone around her wants her to occupy, is herself.

Part of May's journey involves a make-over scene, a standard trope of romance fiction. Yet in Knox's hands, the make-over is less about a transformation from ash girl to princess than about allowing May's true self to be seen—not by others, but by May herself:

It wasn't Dan's May, plain and steady. This was a tall stranger whose honey-blond hair had dried wavy and windblown. An unknown woman in snakeskin pants who looked like she might eat you up and spit out your bones if you crossed her. This was the woman who'd exacted vengeance against Dan for wrecking what was supposed to be one of the most beautiful moments of her life. A powerful, impolite, passionate woman. And the weird thing was, May recognized her. She was the person May had always known she was, deep down. The person no one had ever encouraged her to be. But in New York, she could be whoever she liked. (Loc 1447)

Rejecting social messages that large women are not sexy, that nice girls never get angry, that other people's worries are not always your responsibility to fix, is not a one-time event for May; rooting out internalized sexism is not easy, and takes a lot of practice. May does a lot of backtracking, two steps forward, one step back. But recognizing that "there was no black line drawn through her life, no way of making herself over into a new person at a moment's notice. There were only the choices she made, each of them separate and individual" is a vital, life-changing shift (Loc 2655). As is understanding that each choice is a political one, either a passive acceptance of internalized sexism or a shout of protest against it. A woman who damns her Spanks, who learns to express her needs during sex, and who refuses to let a man who gives up on her steal away her hope seems well on her way to yanking out the invidious tendrils that internalized sexism implants in every woman living in a culture grounded in patriarchal ideals.


Are there other romances that confront internalized sexism that I'm not remembering? Not books just about self-esteem issues, but ones with a protagonist learning to recognize and reject the stereotypically negative messages about femininity culture conveys?



Photo/illustration credits:
Women's brains: Femina invicta
Nice Girls Don't: Audrey Nelson






Ruthie Knox, Truly
Loveswept, 2014
(originally published via Wattpad, 2013)

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Few Statistics to Mull Over

A birthday trip to the local spa (my first time), as well as some frustrating familial health care issues, had me wondering this week—how does spending on women's health care research compare to spending on beauty and personal care items? After a bit of internet digging, I found the following statistics:










U.S. cosmetics and toiletries sales (2011): $38 billion





U.S. federal funding for women's health research (2012): $33.5 billion







And, just to tie this all in to the blog,






Annual spending on romance novels (2013): $1.08 billion








If you were in charge of the world, how would you proportion its budget for these three areas?



Sources:
Romance novels: BookStats, via Romance Writers of America
Cosmetics and toiletries sales: The Beauty Company
Women's health research funding: Women's Health Research

Photo/Illustration credits:
Makeup: World Discount Cosmetics
Women & Health: Women's Health Research logo
Romance novel shelves: Jessica Luther's blog

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Feminism in Romantic Suspense: Jill Sorenson's BACKWOODS

Jill Sorenson, you're making me eat my words. In a post last year about Robin Schone's The Lover, I asked, "Is there any such thing as a feminist romantic suspense novel?" and suggested the answer was "no." Because romantic suspense, like a related genre, the Gothic, relies so heavily on the threat of violence against women to propel its narrative and to create tension in its readers, I theorized that feminism and romantic suspense might be inherently at odds.

Several readers, including Sorenson, took exception to my overgeneralized and unsubstantiated claim. Sorenson wrote:

I've always thought of romantic suspense as being a little more progressive than other sub-genres. The characters are often evenly matched as far as power and socioeconomic status (vs. the duke and pauper, billionaire and secretary, Dom and sub, etc.). Most RS heroines have established careers. Many of the heroines work in law enforcement, in addition to or instead of the hero. Sure, there are damsels in distress, but not always. For me the appeal is in a protective hero and a strong heroine, who are both in danger and work together to get out.

One of my favs from Sorenson's
backlist
Sorenson herself is an author of romantic suspense, and in the wake of her responses to this post, I borrowed several of her backlist books from the library. I enjoyed all of them—Sorenson is a strong writer, well-versed in creating compelling characters and placing them in a story that keeps you eagerly turning the pages—but none of them quite hit my feminist sweet spot. This weekend, though, as  I raced through her latest, Backwoods, I couldn't stop folding down page corners and marking relevant quotations, eager to write more specifically about what bothers me about much romantic suspense, and how Backwoods refuses to engage with those more disempowering aspects of the sub-genre.

Sorenson argued in another comment to the above-mentioned post that the trope of the "damsel in distress" is "an inherent part of the subgenre," but that "I'm just not sure I agree that it undercuts the image of an empowered woman." She goes on to note, "When the hero is in danger, which is the case in all or most suspense, mystery, and thriller novels, do we see that as not empowered? Only if he can't rescue himself. Often he's challenged by another man or men, so there is no gender inequality to the question." Sorenson seems to be arguing that since we don't regard men as disempowered when they are being chased by a villain, it is sexist to see women being chased by a villain as disempowered. And also, that a heroine in romantic suspense should not be seen as disempowered if she acts to rescue herself, rather than simply being a passive victim waiting for her hero to do all the rescuing for her.

In Backwoods, neither Abby Hammond, nor her college-aged daughter, Brooke, are presented as passive. After Brooke disappears during a hiking trip, Abby is determined to track her kidnappers, refusing to listen to the hero, Nathan Strom, when he tells her she's "not thinking clearly" and threatens to tie her to a tree to keep her from what he considers a foolish pursuit. She attacks and distracts one of the kidnappers when she sees he's poised outside a cave, waiting with a shotgun for Nathan and his son Leo to emerge. And she is able to use her wits (and a surprising source of wire) to break free both from the plastic zip-tie with which the kidnapper restrained her and from the locked cage in which he'd imprisoned her. Brooke uses a different set of skills—her ability to connect with others—to win the sympathy of the second kidnapper. Neither woman plays the passive victim, but instead actively works by herself, and later with others, to rescue herself.

Yet is disempowered female characters the only anti-feminist thing about romantic suspense? I'd like to think a bit harder about the parallel that Sorenson posits between heroes and heroines, pointing out other areas besides self-rescuing that impact a romantic suspense's underlying ideology.

A lot of the romantic suspense that I've read relies on a particularly gendered, sexualized violence, a violence different from that facing a hero in suspense, mystery, and thriller novels. In much romantic suspense, a male villain is after a female victim, often intent on inflicting sexual violence upon her body. This sexual threat seems far less common when a hero is under threat.

Backwoods features just such a villain. Abby, a worried, vigilant sort, notes the disappearances of three different women in the past four years in the area in which they will be hiking. No one else has connected the three, but Abby cannot help but be suspicious. And it turns out her suspicions are correct; the kidnappers focus only on abducting women (even killing one man in order to capture his companion), and for reasons that turn out to have everything to do with sex and sexual violence.

Yet I didn't have the negative response to this trope that I often do in works of romantic suspense. I think it is because Sorenson chooses not to give the reader access to the villain's point of view, as do so many other works of suspense. Such passages work to heighten reader tension, but they always strike me as icky and distinctly sexist, because as a reader, I am being forced to look at the imperiled woman through the eyes of man who sees her as an object, not as a person. Such passages are intended to make me more afraid for the heroine, which they certainly do. But at the same time, by forcing me to see the heroine through his eyes, they simultaneously ask me to objectify her, to both want her for her sexual appeal and to want to punish her for her for the same, just as the villain has/does. No matter how vigorously I reject such an invitation, unless I skip over said passages, I can't but feel complicit in the villain's objectifying, sexualizing, and ultimately punishing gaze. By refusing to include such passages from the villain's POV, Sorenson refuses to extend the sexist invitation.

Sorenson also weaves in several feminist issues in the non-suspense portions of the story, the parts focused on character growth and development. Nathan, the primary hero, forged a successful career in Major League Baseball by following his father's tough-it-out approach, and overcame a slide into alcohol abuse when a former coach kept on his case. His own son, college-aged Leo, though, has little interest in sports, and does not take at all well to Nathan's tough-love parenting style. Talking his difficulties through with Abby, as well as reflecting on his own upbringing and his differences from his son, allow Nathan to begin to realize that there is not just one way of being a real man, and that acting the same way but expecting a different outcome may not be the smartest move to win back his son's trust.

Leo's not only dealing with his anger at his father, but also at his frustration with his stepsister, Brooke (Brooke's father, Abby's ex, is currently married to Leo's mother, Nathan's ex). Brooke, affectionate but rather naive, is free with her hugs and kisses, especially when it comes Leo. Just out of a less-than-ideal first sexual relationship, Brooke wants love and affection, and tries to get it from her stepbrother, roughhousing with him in that way that young adults sometimes do, pushing past then withdrawing back across the boundary between childish wrangling and adult sexualized play. Given that they are step-siblings, and that Brooke's father has threatened Leo against engaging with Brooke in any sexual manner, Leo's feelings about Brooke's actions are more than a little mixed. I can't recall another adult romance novel that addresses the issue of adolescent female sexual aggression at all, never mind in a way that doesn't point the blame at one or other of the parties involved. Sorenson has a real gift for exploring teen sexuality in a nuanced, sympathetic, sex-positive, feminist way; I'm eager to see how Leo and Brooke's relationship (unresolved at the end of this book) plays out in a later work (although I'd appreciate it if Brooke were not placed in the victim's role—being in an earthquake AND being kidnapped seem quite enough for one girl to take...)

So, Jill Sorenson: thanks for proving me wrong. Romantic suspense can be feminist. Particularly when it is written by you.


Photo/illustration credits:
Stop violence: Trauma, Violence, and Human Rights







Jill SorensonBackwoods
Harlequin, 2014