Romance novels need a canon
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats. Read the whole essay.
“I am often asked why there are no people in my paintings,” writes Thomas Kinkade (The Painter of Light™) in the introduction to a novel, “Cape Light,” purportedly written by himself and one Katherine Spencer. The paintings, sold in thousands of mall-based franchise galleries nationwide, generated $130 million in sales last year. According to Media Arts Group, the publicly traded company that sells Kinkade reproductions and other manifestations of “the Thomas Kinkade lifestyle brand,” including furniture and other examples of what the company’s chairman memorably called “art-based products,” his work hangs in one out of every 20 American homes. And if only one person out of every 20 of those Kinkade-owning households is curious enough about the people who inhabit the world of Kinkade’s landscapes to buy “Cape Light,” he’ll have a bestseller on his hands.
Which seems to be the point. It’s hard to imagine a more shamelessly money-grubbing little bait-and-switch than “Cape Light,” an art-based product to which Kinkade certainly contributed no more than his name, the 600-odd words of introduction and the preposterous cover painting depicting a stone cottage with lighthouse surrounded, unhelpfully, by trees. “Cape Light is a place,” Kinkade assures us, “where people have the time to savor life’s simple pleasures” (presumably between shipwrecks). “Where they have learned to find joy in the simple — but extraordinary — blessings of everyday life.”
Despite his crutchlike overreliance on the word “simple,” Kinkade is described in the book’s author bio as “a painter-communicator.” Spencer, who gets second billing, is, we’re told, a former fiction editor who lives “in a small village on the Long Island Sound, very much like Cape Light.” Yeah, right. As limned by Kinkade, Cape Light is a Massachusetts waterfront town (“an hour’s drive north of Boston”) where, “on Main Street, the storefronts and restaurants look much the same as they always have.” Kinkade’s introduction takes us on a brief tour of this improbable hamlet before he gets out of Dodge and hightails it back to his no doubt unsimple home in Santa Cruz, Calif.:
“First stop at the Clam Box where Lucy Bates and her husband still make the best clam chowder and the strongest coffee in New England” — the better to keep the reader alert throughout the soporific events to come, presumably — “Walk down to the harbor and you’ll probably see Digger Hegman. The old fisherman is never too far from the water. Let your gaze follow the coastline and you’ll see Durham Point Lighthouse whose beacon has guided ships for more than a century,” and which will serve far more laboriously as a metaphor for the lodestar of religious faith to the characters in “Cape Light” as they march dutifully forward in their quest for “deep, satisfying lives.”
Kinkade’s introduction is about as good as it gets for those seeking to plunder “Cape Light” for literary kitsch on a par with the hollyhocked and morning-gloried cottage porn of his paintings. The novel itself is a limp imitation of Jan Karon’s anodyne tales of small-town life — Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon if everyone’s blood were removed and replaced with Karo syrup. It centers on the two Warwick sisters: Emily, the 40-ish mayor of Cape Light, and 32-year-old Jessica, an assistant bank manager who must choose between life in Boston with a successful but preoccupied yuppie suitor and settling in Cape Light with Sam Morgan, a sweet, kind, romantic, attentive, strapping, well-read, neighborly carpenter who adores her. (Did I mention that he’s “maddeningly handsome”? That too.) This takes her the whole book, mostly because she’s so dazzled by the “excitement and sophistication” of Boston. Or so she thinks.
Emily, unmarried and childless, has some tragic secret in her past, but when a young woman shows up in Cape Light and stays on for the summer for no apparent reason, a girl in whose face the townsfolk spot “a flash of something familiar,” you can pretty much figure out the back story (and by Page 25, for that matter). Then there’s a lot of other narrative debris about the town minister’s estranged son, the crotchety proprietor of the Clam Box and his attempts to run against Emily, a stray cat, a couple of retired college professors who open up a specialty coffee shop called the Beanery (“I tried one of those gourmet coffee drinks on my way over. What do they call it? A Lottie? A loddy?” is a sample of the wit deployed here), Digger Hegman’s overly protective daughter, the local physician’s retirement plans and, almost odd enough to be actually interesting, an incident of bee-charming at a Fourth of July picnic.
This is the kind of milieu where half the characters are famous for making something like strawberry shortcake or clam rolls while the other half chuckles about how they have to go easy on so-and-so’s “famous blueberry pancakes” or the doctor will scold. The dialogue is enough to make you feel like you’re on Thorazine:
“‘I suppose that’s true.’ She shook her head. ‘Marriage is hard work sometimes. You know what I mean?’
“‘Yes, it is, but well worth it. The hardest part is changing ourselves, not the other person. It’s a lifelong self-improvement course, you know.’”
Perhaps it’s hopelessly naive to expect “Cape Light” to have any relationship at all to Kinkade’s weirdly compelling images of snug stone cottages whose unimaginably cozy interiors send an amber glow cascading out over their radioactively colorful gardens in the violet light of dusk. (Certainly no mention of the novel can be found on Kinkade’s official Web site.) Although there’s a dash or two of architectural fetishism in the novel, about halfway through it becomes painfully obvious that nobody in “Cape Light” lives in a house like those Kinkade paints. Quite a few of them rent apartments, and Sam is working on refurbishing a Victorian with some promising-sounding floribunda roses in the yard, but that’s about it. The thatching that predominates in Kinkade’s paintings is more or less limited in range to English country towns where the income from serving cream teas to tourists offsets the cost of maintaining such labor-intensive roofing.
Furthermore, once the novel gets into even the most tepid doings of its characters it begins to drift away from the ecstasies of coziness conjured by Kinkade’s paintings. The interiors of all his preternaturally adorable cottages appear to the viewer as golden blurs of unattainable bliss; you can no more plausibly imagine living in them than you can picture frolicking on the surface of the sun. Kinkade has made an entire, hugely lucrative career out of invoking and vulgarizing the dreamy experience of taking an evening walk and admiring the homely warmth emanating from the neighbors’ windows. The whole reason it looks so charming in there is because you’re outside. Once you’re in, even if we’re only talking about the relentlessly insipid lives of the denizens of Cape Light, you’ve got overly critical mothers, distracted spouses, rebellious children and all the other routine drags of family life.
What “Cape Light” does share with Kinkade’s paintings, however, is the sense that it has been created for very, very worn-out and perhaps even traumatized people. Both have the blandness of foods prepared for invalids whose stomachs can’t tolerate too much excitement or variety. They’re cultural Prozac. We are forever being assured that even when a character is behaving badly he or she is “not a bad person,” just a little hurt or misguided, nothing that a nice chat with the good Reverend Eliot can’t fix. While there’s something to be said for the generosity of this sentiment, it lacks the vigor required even for good trash.
There’s something sad about the idea of escapist entertainment taking the form of a complete retreat from any stimulation at all, but that’s what “Cape Light,” and Kinkade’s paintings, represent. About the only thing you can get worked up about is the raging venality of the book as a product; it’s the publishing equivalent of Kinkade’s paintings, which are sold to the public in the form of mass-manufactured prints customized by “master highlighters” who apply a few dabs of real paint. Spencer is like one of these drones, churning out a generic widget of prose for Kinkade to stamp his name on and peddle to the public as a slice of his own tranquilized “world of beauty, peace and hope.” (Quite possibly he’s never even read the thing, but simply based his introduction on a précis supplied by a “master summarizer.”) This from a man who presents himself as a proponent of genuine, old-fashioned, homely, solid values. At least a McDonald’s outlet never pretends to offer more than cheap, plastic fun.
"Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie
"Welcome to Temptation" by Jennifer Crusie
Another of Crusie's romantic comedies, this one in the shadow of an ostentatiously phallic water tower. Read the whole essay.
"A Gentleman Undone" by Cecilia Grant
A Regency romance with beautifully broken people and some seriously steamy sex. Read the whole essay.
"Black Silk" by Judith Ivory
A beautifully written, exquisitely slow-building Regency; the plot is centered on a box with some very curious images, as Edward Gorey might say. Read the whole essay.
"For My Lady's Heart" by Laura Kinsale
A medieval romance, the period piece functions much like a dystopia, with the courageous lady and noble knight struggling to find happiness despite the authoritarian society. Read the whole essay.
"Sweet Disorder" by Rose Lerner
A Regency that uses the limitations on women of the time to good effect; the main character is poor and needs to sell her vote ... or rather her husband's vote. But to sell it, she needs to get a husband first ... Read the whole essay.
"Frenemy of the People" by Nora Olsen
Clarissa is sitting at an awards banquet when she suddenly realizes she likes pictures of Kimye for both Kim and Kanye and she is totally bi. So she texts to all her friends, "I am totally bi!" Drama and romance ensue ... but not quite with who she expects. I got an advanced copy of this YA lesbian romance, and I’d urge folks to reserve a copy; it’s a delight. Read the whole essay.
"The Slightest Provocation" by Pam Rosenthal
A separated couple works to reconcile against a background of political intrigue; sort of "His Gal Friday" as a spy novel set in the Regency. Read the whole essay.
"Again" by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Set among workers on a period soap opera, it manages to be contemporary and historical both at the same time. Read the whole essay.