Friday, August 28, 2015

THE BEST MAN by Kristan Higgins

Last week I read an article by romance novelist Kristan Higgins, who is understandably tired of people rejecting her chosen genre without having read a single example of it.

"The categorical dismissal of the most-read genre in the world reveals ignorance, not intellectual superiority," she wrote. "This is a billion-dollar industry, and it’s not built on vapidity and cliché. It exists and thrives because romance authors offer readers an emotional experience that mirrors an elemental desire in life: to find a constant and loving companion; to become our best selves; to forgive our mistakes of the past and learn from them."

I stood convicted: I had never read a romance novel, at least not of the Harlequin variety, and I had no interest in doing so. And yet romance novels, in her description, sounded a lot like the kind of books I'm always looking for. "Our books have happy endings, yes," she wrote. "Our books affirm faith in humanity and preach the goodness and courage of the ordinary heart. We make our readers laugh, we make them cry, and we affirm our belief in the enduring, uplifting power of love. I fail to see the problem here."

I decided to read a romance.

So of course I asked my hundreds of Facebook friends to help me find a good one, and they cheerfully provided an avalanche of recommendations (I've listed them here)--so many, in fact, that I had no idea where to start.

Until it occurred to me that the obvious place to start was with Kristan Higgins herself. Her books' covers looked less embarrassing than most, and she has a series about a winery. I picked The Best Man, book 1 of the Blue Heron winery series, a genuine Harlequin romance.

It wasn't bad.

Faith Holland, spectacularly jilted at the altar, flees upstate New York for San Francisco and makes a career for herself (in an improbably short time) as a landscape designer. But her sister, worried about their father's girlfriend, summons her home, and she suddenly comes face to face with the man who had a lot to do with spoiling her wedding.

OK, you already know how it's going to end, don't you. But if (like me) you are unfamiliar with contemporary romances, you may be surprised (as I was) by the narrator's kicky style, by the abundant laugh-out-loud scenes, and by the numerous chapters told from the guy's viewpoint. In addition, there are a number of mostly funny subplots involving squabbling octogenarians, a sexting middle-aged couple, feckless adolescents, neurotic inhabitants of Faith's home town, totally unsuitable romantic interests... Hey, this book is almost chick-lit, and I'm a big fan of Jennifer Weiner.

But it isn't quite chick-lit. 

Like Weiner's heroines, Faith is a bit overweight, or at least thinks she is. She's about 30 years old, and her romantic life is a mess. Her pajamas are festooned with tiny Dalmatians. Those touches of realism are a plus for Higgins's readers, who can no doubt identify with Faith more easily than with, say, Wonder Woman.

But Higgins also adheres to what I assume are romance conventions that most chick-lit authors mercifully avoid. Her hero, for example, emanates conventional masculinity--washboard abs, hard muscles, a career in both the military (Afghanistan!) and the police force--and Higgins has a hard time not mentioning this every time he walks into a room (this man has "tanned, smooth, muscular forearm[s]" with "little golden hairs" that catch the light!).

There's no graphic sex, but every encounter between hero and heroine ends in either bickering (think Katharine Hepburn movies) or in tingling body parts ("the hot golden feeling was stronger now, pulsing hard"). The hero is obsessed with Faith's gorgeous or mighty "rack," as he frequently refers to her abundant endowment (she, on the other hand, calls it her "boobage"). The attraction between these two is more sexual than romantic, and they are so busy avoiding or sleeping with each other that it's hard to tell if they have common interests.

Unfortunately, the ending isn't likely to be happy.

Oh yes, the girl gets the guy. But this marriage, I'm afraid, is not going to work out. Our hero suffers from various emotional traumas that he does not want to talk about. He opens up slightly, since that seems to be a requirement for keeping Faith; but once they're married, she can probably forget about further revelations. He's not the kind of guy who prizes vulnerability.

Her ex, however, is exactly that kind of guy, and our hero may get jealous if Faith starts spending her evenings with him.

On the other hand, will he even know? Faith has a rather magical career that seems not to require either her physical presence or a great deal of her time, though she's always getting high-level commissions. But as Gilbert & Sullivan pointed out, "When constabulary's duty's to be done, / A policeman's lot is not a happy one." Our hero will continue to work around the clock, which may have something to do with why his first marriage broke up (even if Higgins makes it appear to have been entirely the ex-wife's fault).

When it occurs to Faith that she's married to a guy who is rarely home and refuses to share his feelings, she may stop experiencing the "rush of molten gold [flowing] through her limbs, heavy and electric." And if, as it seems, they have little else in common, what happens to the marriage then?

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, though I'm in no hurry to read another romance: the passages intended to be erotic were often unintentionally funny, and the flowing molten gold tended to disrupt the story's flow. I'm glad Higgins spared us the details of the nightly lovefests, but I wish there had been some indication that the man who used to bonk the town slut donned a condom for subsequent couplings, and that the woman who hadn't had any sex for several years was nevertheless using an effective contraceptive.

I was just a little worried that a powerfully built man with four tours of duty in Afghanistan (that he didn't like to talk about), several years as a policeman, and a predilection for "doing" Faith against the wall just might snap someday and abuse his wife or kids.

And, being a retired editor, I really wished Higgins's human characters would stop barking.

Still, finding a life companion, becoming our best selves, learning from mistakes, believing in human goodness and courage and "the enduring, uplifting power of love"--these are indeed good things. Maybe some of Higgins's 13 other books feature characters who achieve these ends without risking their physical or emotional health. Whether or not I ever find out, I wish the fictional Faith Holland the best, and I hope her talented, award-winning, oft-translated, and very popular author will soon break out of the romance mold and write a first-rate, life-affirming novel.

Not because romances are bad, but because Higgins could do better.