My very first introduction to romance novels was LaVyrle Spencer’s The Gamble. The Gamble is a story about a Southern gambler who opens a saloon in Kansas—and comes up against a lady prohibitionist. What I like best about Spencer’s writing is the very homey, very traditional American feel. It could be because I’m American, it could be because she’s the first romance author I read, but whatever. I read her historicals and I feel like I’m transported to somewhere I could call home.
Her heroes are kind, honest men. Her heroines are strong and worthy. There’s something unusual about all of her romances; most focus narrowly on the hero and heroine, as well as on family. (What it means, who becomes family, and so on.) They can be sweet or sexy (and sometimes weird *cough*The Fulfillment and Forgiving*cough*) but they always feel epic. Here are some of my well-worn favorites:
The Gamble: With his lazy Southern drawl and charm, Scott Gandy has always been a gambling man. Now he’s setting up a saloon on Main Street in small western town Proffitt, Kansas. The town’s only claim to fame is that the cattle trail ends there, bringing with it a lot of dusty dirty cowboys with money to spend. Gandy’s next door neighbor is Agatha Downing, a prim and proper spinster. Her millinery business would be able to keep up with the times if she had a Swinger sewing machine. She has a handicap that causes her to limp, but her heart’s big and her vulnerability squeezes at Gandy’s heart. Unfortunately the two of them are competing on opposite sides of the Prohibition so nothing can come of it—until a boy in need finds them both.
What makes it great: Agatha peering through hole in her shop into hero’s saloon to watch the Can-Can dance (you really get a sense of who she could have been had things been different for her); their mutual affection with the boy and their partnership to help the kid; when Gandy makes love to Agatha and holds her hips, and the family they made out of strangers.
Hummingbird: A bandit and a gentleman both set their sights on a sweet spinster who is taking care of them after a botched altercation on a train. Abigail McKenzie follows all the rules, but is perceived to be uppity and unlikeable (even unlovable) by the town folk. When two men are taken off the train after an attempted robbery, Abigail notices the general inhospitableness of the town and offers to take both in. She hopes that David, gentle, kind, unassuming, David, will be her ticket out of spinsterhood, but that awful no-good criminal Jesse Dufrayne goes ahead and ruins it!
What makes it great: The constant tit-for-tat dialogue, the intense focus on the main characters (the story takes for the most part in her house), can we say gunpoint kissing? (hot damn!), that the romance Abigail really wants isn’t the safe choice, the big reveal for Jesse’s character, sexy wedding photographs, and that Abigail doesn’t stick to small town life in the end, but makes a big change and one for herself.
Endearment: Karl Lindstrom is a Swedish immigrant virgin hero who wants a mature spinsterish bride who can handle herself out in the middle of the Minnesota Territory. She should be able to cook, clean, sew, make soap, etc... and basically help make a home. What he gets is a big mail order bride screw up! Anna Reardon is an illiterate teenage orphan daughter of a prostitute with a thirteen year old brother. She wants them to get out of Boston and find a better life, but to do that and bring her brother, James, with her too, she’ll have to sell her virginity to make the money for his passage...oh, and dupe a man into marrying her in the process. Everything she tells him is a lie and what he wants to hear.
What makes it great: Anna has to own up to all of her lies eventually, but she drags it out, fearing Karl will not understand and yes, he’s disappointed, but he’s willing to look past her lies...all except one; there’s the first scorching hot sex scene and later as they giggle over the enjoyment of it all in bed and they discuss (her) breasts (and size = blueberries vs watermelons.) The friendships made with another immigrant family and Karl’s relationship with James also add to the warmth of the story. When Karl puts lotion on Anna’s back after she’s been bitten like crazy by mosquitoes, and later when he grovels after Anna goes to a lot of hard work to appear like the mature Swedish bride he wanted in the beginning.
Keira Gillett reviews romance of all genres at Love Romance Passion. She loves marriage of convenience plots and angst ridden breakups that ultimately end up in gooey happily ever afters. You can also find her on Twitter.