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Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Other Sister

Though women stopped wearing bodices by the end of the eighteenth century, the term "bodice-ripper" is actually of recent coinage. The phrase debuted in print in a December, 1980 issue of the New York Times, to wit: "Women too have their pornography: Harlequin romances, novels of sweet savagery, bodice-rippers." A second article published in The Village Voice during that same decade characterized bodice-rippers as a strain of romance novels featuring scantily clad women being manhandled by alpha males on their paper covers, and went on to call them "juicy, cheap, predictable, and devoured in stupefying quantities by legions of loyal fans." No wonder, then, that authors of romance fiction haven't embraced the expression. In fact they consider it an insult.

If there's a line between bodice-rippers and "serious" romantic fiction it's a porous one—but then so too is the line between romantic fiction and such darlings of the literary canon as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Pride & Prejudice, which has been called "the best romance novel ever written" (despite having been published in 1813, when, per se, the genre didn't exist). In fact, if we define romance novels as novels of courtship told from the perspective of the heroine that end happily, then the original may be Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Published in 1740, Richardson's novel was one of the few of its time to offer a happy ending. It was also one of the first blockbusters.

However much (or little) prestige we assign to the romance genre, with its shuddering shoulders and lingering caresses the given sample clearly fits the bill. Even the main character's Christian name, by design or not, blows a kiss to Richardson's 1740 prototype. And whatever else may be said of the genre in general, its entertainment value is hard to deny. Fast-paced, suspenseful (in so far as any tale whose conclusion is foregone can hold suspense), studded with sex scenes, hospitable to clich├ęs, stereotypes, black-and-white morality, with little tolerance for subtleties and ambiguities . . . in other words, the literary equivalent of a soap opera.

Which isn't to suggest that the genre lacks sophistication. In its own way it's very sophisticated. There are first of all many more rules to be negotiated than with mainstream or literary fiction, many more restrictions. The protagonists must meet early; adultery must be avoided; ultimately, emotional commitment must be rewarded. Of course, many romance novels have been written that deviate considerably from these "rules" (the present example, with its male protagonist and Botox-enhanced antagonist certainly promises to do so). But even when deviating from them, still, it takes skill to negotiate such restrictions and still evoke breathing characters seemingly capable of exercising their own will.

And this author exercises considerable skill. From Lady Pamela's first drawled words ("Really, darling— I can't believe you're marrying a girl you haven't even met") I get a strong sense of her less-than exemplary character: a spoiled rich woman with (perhaps) her own designs on Alfie, a man committed to marriage not out of convenience or greed, but out of, if not love, duty.

However entertaining, I suggest that what's presented here isn't the opening of this novel, but a scene from deeper into it, after the relationship between Alfie and his Colombian bride-to-be has been established, along with Lady Pamela's stake in all of this, such that when we arrive at this scene we'll appreciate the dynamics that underlie it. Though I've painted Pamela as antagonist, for all we know this could be her novel, and we're meant to cheer her on in her mission to rescue Alfie from a doomed, loveless marriage. As things stand we don't know who to care for, or why.

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