During one of the earlier episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, young surgeon Meredith Grey asks herself, “Why do I keep hitting myself in the hand with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop.”
You might very well hear that same question and response from a number of devoted romance readers. While all romance novels end with a happy ending for our hero and heroine, certain romance writers take a particular glee in making sure the protagonists’ journey is as excruciatingly painful and drawn-out as possible.
And we freaking love it. Bring on the tortured glances, the All-Important Words that catch in the throat, the miraculous opportunities to solve everything that go unnoticed or forgotten, the surprise obstacles out of nowhere that throw our protagonists even further asunder right when they’re about to come together at last.
That’s not to say that other romances don’t have conflict or tension. Far from it. There’s plenty of entertainment to be had from a novel that provides our hero and heroine with a solid central conflict and spends the next three hundred pages depicting their adventures overcoming it.
The Painful Romance sets itself apart from these, not only with the sheer amount of anguish it continually piles on the hero and heroine, but with how well it balances that with tantalizing glimpses of possible redemption that continually hang out of reach. It’s not only about the carrot it dangles in front of the donkey—but about showing how starved the donkey is. The hungry agony of the tease.
Take Sherry Thomas, for example. Her debut novel Private Arrangements didn’t only feature a couple who fell in love, fell apart and remain estranged for ten years—it also provided detailed, anguished flashbacks of all the times they almost reunited during that long, lonely decade, only to miss their chance by mere moments. He arrived at her hotel room too late! She took the wrong boat! It could have all been resolved if only—if only.
Marjorie M. Liu’s Dirk & Steele paranormal romances achieve the same level of pleasurable pain, especially The Wild Road. Our hero is a reclusive, virginal bookworm hero named Lannes who also happens to be a gargoyle. When he comes across the amnesiac, blood-soaked heroine, his efforts to protect her reveal the courageous heart beneath his shy exterior— and yet he remains constantly petrified of revealing his true form to her. His fears and self-consciousness become our own as his amazing feats of bravery aren’t enough to overcome his fear of rejection.
Mary Balogh is an old hand at twisting the knife. With exquisite novels such as The Secret Pearl, One Night for Love, and her marvelous novella “Spellbound” from the It Happened One Night anthology, she concocts the perfect recipe for a delightfully agonizing romance—turn up the romantic heat between the two characters, then increase tension with a slow avalanche of insurmountable obstacles: a still-living wife, class differences, family opposition, tragic mutual history, impossible secrets. The result is a delicious emotional taffy-pull of a romance.
There are hundreds of these sorts of romances out there and I cannot get enough of them; but why? Why do so many romance readers gravitate towards the books that tie us into knots? Why do we keep bludgeoning our hearts with these novels?
It could be, as Meredith Grey once said, because it feels so good, so very good, when we stop. The pleasure of the Painful Romance comes from the author’s ability to project the illusion of suspense onto a story that, thanks to its genre expectations, doesn’t really have any. By showing us how bad it can get, an author can almost convince us that it cannot get better. Because of that, the arrival of a blissful Happy Ending after four hundred pages of torture is a million times more magnificent and satisfying.
Are you a fan of painful romances? If not, why not? And if so—what are your particularly painful favorites?
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.