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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sarah Wendell's "Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels"

Author: Sarah Wendell
Title: Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011

    Although this nonfiction book is more about regular romance novels than paranormal romance novels, much of the content applies to both. Two paranormal fiction authors and/or works are referenced: Nalini Singh and Kresley Cole. Wendell is the co-author of the 2009 book, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, which is an entertaining look at the genre. She is also a co-founder of the blog, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a popular book review blog devoted to the romance genre.

     In this book, Wendell mines the minds of her blog readers and a handful of romance authors to analyze just what life lessons we can take away from romance novels. As she did in her previous book, Wendell strongly opposes the popular notion (among people who don't read romance novels) that reading "those" books means that romance readers have unrealistic expectations of real life because they believe that their lives should mirror the ones of the romantic heroines. On the contrary (or, as Wendel says, "Wrongity wrong wrong wrong"). She goes on to say, "That accusation implies that we don't know the difference between fantasy and real life, and frankly, it's sexist as well. You don't see adult [male] gamers being accused of an inability to discern when one is a human driving a real car and when one is a yellow dinosaur driving a Mario Kart, but romance readers hear about their unrealistic expectations of men almost constantly." (p. 6)

     In the "Introduction," Wendell asks romance writer Loretta Chase for her perspective on hero and heroine behavior and on character traits that are required for a romance. Chase immediately points to the movie, The Wizard of Oz, saying, "The Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man are seeking traits that, combined, make my idea of a romance heroCourage, a Heart, a Brainand Dorothy, who has all those traits, is a heroine. Equally important, we can relate to all of them at some very basic level." (p. 18) After the lengthy (25 pages) and rambling "Introduction," Wendell divides her book into these nine chapters. 

Chapter 1: We Know Who We Are, and We Know Our Worth: aka: Seeing Yourself in a Romance Novel Is Not a Bad Thing!
In this chapter, Wendell makes the point that in modern romance novels, the heroine is much more important to the relationship than she was in the romance novels of 20-30 years ago. She goes on to say, "romances teach readers that we should know ourselves, and value ourselves, in order to find happiness....That's the first lesson of romance novels, really: romance is found in how we treat ourselves." (p. 28)

Chapter 2: We Know More Than a Few Good Men
Here, the point is that in our real lives we don't really want a clone of a romance hero. "And because of the over-the-top, top-heavy images of males in romance, one of the most common accusations tossed in the direction of readers is that all that romance reading gives women unrealistic expectations of love, of sex, and of men in general." (p. 56) Wendell calls this theory, "deep-fried bullpucky." (She uses a lot of colorful language.) She goes on to analyze the traits of romance heroes: the care-giving alpha male, the heroes who tackle and learn from their problems, the heroes who honestly recognize their own worth, and the hero who is full of mystery. This chapter concludes with a discussion of the top nine romance heroes, based on her blog survey. 

Chapter 3: We Know What Not to Want
Here, Wendell points out that romance readers can use their reading to recognize and avoid certain traits of romantic heroes. A prime example is possessiveness. If you've read even one paranormal romance, you know that the herobe he werewolf, vampire, or whateveris nearly always supremely possessive. Although this makes for entertaining reading, in real life some of these guys would be considered to be stalkers, and the girl would be filing for a restraining order. Wendell's point is that "romance readers recognize traits they love in fiction and in heroes which they would abhor in actual peopleand...these readers can absolutely identify the differences and similarities in their own lives." (p. 89)

Chapter 4: We Know How to Spot Real-Life Heroes and Heroines
In this chapter, Wendell lists the traits of an ideal romance character (respect, honesty compassion, etc.) and proposes that seeing these traits in the behaviors of romance heroes and heroines allows us to extrapolate those experiences to real-life situations.

Chapter 5: We Know Good Sex
The first point Wendell makes in this chapter is that "sex depictions in romance novels have changed drastically, and the rapetastic romances are things of the past....In romances published today, not only is the sexuality a variable part of the pilot...but both parties participate in making sure the sexuality is fantastic for all involved." (p. 113) She makes the argument that readers can explore levels of sexuality in romance novels that may help them make decisions within their own sex lives. "Reading about passionate sex and sex as a method to express emotional passion has two benefits. First, you get to think about, or mentally try out, acts that you're curious about without actually doing them...Second, you are able to read and learn in privacy." (p. 117)

Chapter 6: We Know How to Solve Problems
Here, Wendell lists various problems that must be solved within hero-heroine relationships and suggests using the characters' problem-solving methods to take care of your own, way-less-severe problems. She makes the point that in romance novels, there is always plenty of conflict, but almost all of it gets worked out by the end of the book. She says, "Repeatedly reading about courtship and the problems facing each one also allows readers to see and consider problems that are solved in myriad patterns." (p. 158)

Chapter 7: We Know How to Ask for What We Want
In this short chapter, Wendell uses excerpts from romance novels to make her point: "The characters figure out what they want and decide to go after it. This step...usually means revealing everything the person feels, and what that person wants. It's risky, but the payoff is worth the terror." (p. 179)

Chapter 8: We Know That Happily Ever After Takes Work
Wendell calls this the number one lesson to be learned from romance novels: "Happily-ever-after isn't sometime in the future. It exists right now, and starts with you." (p.181) She ends the chapter with three easy steps for romance and courtship.

Chapter 9: The Final Chapter: The Happy Ending Starts...Now
In this brief concluding chapter, Wendell includes a table entitled "Life Lessons Hidden in Romance Novels." She also summarizes her main points in the book and closes by saying, "May we all be happy, may we all feel the joy of romance, and may we all live happily ever after." (p. 214)   

     This is an entertaining book that romance readers will probably enjoy. Wendell lards her pages with many, many quotations from her blog readers, which I found myself skipping over to get back to the author's witty rants.

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