I tend to get my feathers ruffled by readers who like to slap the “golden age” label on any one area of romance fiction. First, it implies that all the books published “back then” were fantastic ground-breakers—which we all know, they weren’t. Second, it implies that everything being published today is garbage—which we all know, it isn’t. I didn’t start actively reading romance until 1999, and I’ll admit it rankles that these readers could also be implying that the only reason I’ve loved the books I’ve loved is because I’m “ignorant” of the “golden age.” I’m not willing to concede on that point, but I will admit that there are many, now extremely successful writers, who got their start in the category world of the 1980s that I did miss out on the first time around.
The Forever Instinct by Barbara Delinsky was first published in 1985, and has the added benefit of being a very early book, number 41, in the now, sadly, defunct Harlequin Temptation line. One thing about contemporary genre fiction is that it’s the rare book that will hold up over time. This isn’t a criticism; it’s just a fact of life. What sounds contemporary and fresh at the time of original publication may sound dated and sad 27 years later. While there were certain attitudes that made me cringe, and certain terms of phrase that took me back, what really struck me was how amazing this book is when viewed as a part of social history.
If I had been a 20-something woman in 1985 and found this book, I would have fallen in love with Jordanna Kirkland. She is the epitome of how far category romance had evolved from the days of innocent ingénue and worldly Alpha hero. Jordanna is in her early 30s, and divorced. She runs her own business, a very successful clothing line that caters to “active women.” Her first marriage, to an NFL quarterback, ended in part because of his ego, but also because she wasn’t satisfied. She was left asking, “Is this all there is?” and her husband resented that being “his wife” wasn’t enough for her. She also finds herself routinely dealing with businessmen who underestimate and dismiss her. She not only has to be good, she has to work three times harder than any man to prove her worth. She’s used to dealing with overt sexism, misogyny and your garden variety jerks. It’s textbook for what many women were feeling and going through during this time, and the back-bone of the second wave of the women’s movement.
Patrick Clayes is a former NFL quarterback and spent his whole career playing second fiddle to Jordanna’s ex. He’s now a “venture capitalist,” and in his spare time takes tour groups hiking through the New England countryside. It’s on such a trip that he reconnects with Jordanna, and he spends a decent part of the rest of the story struggling with the idea that he’s back in his rival’s shadow now that he’s falling for the man’s ex.
Looking at this story through the lens of genre history, it’s truly remarkable. Jordanna is literally an Every Woman circa 1985. There is a moment during the second half where Patrick does “rescue” her, but Jordanna doesn’t lose her brain in the process. She continues to think, and act, like someone who runs a successful business. Patrick has the manly back-story of being a former pro athlete, plus he has money, smarts and good looks. However he’s about as threatening as Alan Alda, which I suspect was a deliberate choice on the author’s part. This guy is the antithesis of the heroes that were running amok, especially in historical romance, during this time period. So while I’m not convinced that he “talks like a guy”—he’s the sort of fellow who stops when the heroine says “no.” This type of characterization was probably quite welcome by some readers after wading through countless fictional heroes who raped the heroine until she fell in love with him.
It’s always interesting to me that some feminists have traditionally pointed to the romance genre as being some sort of problem. That the genre does nothing more than enforce traditional female stereotypes and are propaganda to keep women silent, dumb, and in the kitchen. It’s obvious that none of them read a book like this back in 1985. Jordanna is everything that women were pointing to and striving towards in 1985. Jordanna is what we wanted.
That’s not to say this story is entirely ground-breaking; it does have some earmarks that date it from a genre history standpoint, including the sex scenes. These are of the variety where hero inserts Tab A into Slot B and that’s all it takes for the heroine to see God. I’ll be honest, there are authors working within today’s romance genre that have more a deft hand in the sensuality department. Also, there is a delicious, pure 1980s, over-the-top moment during the climactic finish that I am convinced helped to invent eye-rolling.
All caveats aside though, from a women’s history perspective, this category romance is amazing. It’s like stepping back in time and remembering “what it was like.” What women in business had to deal with. What divorced women had to put up with. What women wanted, what we were hungry for, what our hopes and dreams were. Simply put, we wanted it all: We wanted the career, the partner who was a true partner, and a family. We wanted to be super woman, and Jordanna Kirkland could have been our role model.
Wendy the Super Librarian also blogs at WendyTheSuperLibrarian.blogspot.com. So dig that library card out of your pocket and head for the stacks.