I recently made a slightly doomed attempt to get into category romance. The ‘doomed’ part of the endeavour was my own fault because my research was basically on par with the sort of background reading that leads you to name yourself Ford Prefect or, in my case, read two books by the same author from the same imprint. Win! But, in my defense, category romances are so trope driven and context dependent they can be quite opaque to the newbie reader, so I found it a bit hard to know where to begin.
To reach for an analogy that makes sense to me (and also dates me horrendously), I think seeking out recs for category romance is like trying to get into Buffy the Vampire Slayer; everyone has their favourite episodes, but the problem is they’re always outliers, like ‘Hush’ or ‘Once More With Feeling’ and their power derives from the wider context of the show, and the ways they subvert and play with your expectations. Really, if you wanted to get someone into Buffy you should probably show them ‘Puppetshow’ because it’s absolutely typical in every conceivable way. It contains none of the really transcendentally awesome stuff about Buffy, but it also demonstrates its strengths (snappy dialogue, interesting characters, a twist) without getting too far away from the type of show it actually is. If you don’t like ‘Puppetshow’, you’re probably not going to like Buffy full stop because if you can’t invest in the monster-of-the-week format or get behind a blonde cheerleader kicking vampire arse, you’re probably not going to care when her boyfriend turns evil or her mother dies.
So basically I think I’ve been reading the category romance equivalents of ‘Once More with Feeling’—the sort of books people remember because they do something different. Which has made my adventures in this particular corner of romance, shall we say, interesting because, without really knowing what something is different from, or what it’s working within, it can occasionally come across as just plain weird. But I guess what struck me the most was just how very different two books by the same author within the same category could be. So my next two columns are going to be about the two random books by Susan Napier I read, which are united only by the fact they’re category romances and they have word ‘mistress’ in the title when neither of them seem to involve mistresses at all.
Susan Napier's Mistress of the Groom opens with our heroine, Jane Sherwood (who is generally considered plain because her legs are too long and her boobs are too big) gatecrashing Ryan Blair’s “I ruined your entire life” party, where she punches him so hard she breaks her hand. To give Mistress of the Groom credit, I think you kind of know where you are when a book opens like this. And while I appreciated the sheer balls-to-the wall, Spinal Tap “our amplifier goes up to eleven” of it, to say nothing of Jane’s commitment to really hurting the hero, it’s unfortunately kind of symptomatic of the book’s attitude to her that she hits Ryan hard enough to crack bone, but he still gets off with a sexy manbruise.
Ryan Blair has been on a vengeance crusade against Jane since she stopped him marrying her best friend three years ago. Admittedly, she did this by standing up in the middle of the wedding and claiming to be his mistress when she, in fact, isn’t, so you can see why he’s a bit peeved. Again, this kind of no-holds-barred absurdity is one of the aspects of the book I was secretly kind of into. I mean, heaven forefend anyone in this novel have a quiet conversation with anyone else. They always burst into each other’s lives and Enact Drama at the least (or, depending on your point of view, most) opportune moments. I don’t know if this is a category thing, or a Harlequin Presents thing, or a nineteen-nineties thing but I pretty rapidly came to the conclusion that Mistress of the Groom is the romance novel equivalent to a Nicholas Cage movie.
It doesn’t exactly have a scene in which the hero jumps through the air firing two guns while simultaneously receiving a blowjob but I think it has something pretty damn close. Not long after the punching-in-the-face incident, Ryan sends Jane an invitation to meet him at a hotel to discuss business and since she’s now bankrupt, discredited and physically injured, she’s desperate enough to accept.
So this business, right.
It’s the business of … pimping her out.
Our noble hero has concluded Jane is insufficiently miserable and has therefore decided to employ her as a prostitute without telling her. Which, if nothing else, proves just how unsuited he is to doing whatever high powered job he does because this is seriously poor management strategy. How is it going to look at the inevitable inquiry when he has to confess that ‘sex worker’ wasn’t on the job description at the point of hiring? Anyway, Jane responds to this frankly peculiar behaviour by sitting down with Ryan and calmly addressing the miscommunication that seems to have arisen between them. Oh, who am I kidding? She decides to play along. To…get Ryan back? Somehow? Um? And she’s just about to sleep with some dude to make a point when Ryan bursts in, full of manly sexrage, and argues that—as her operations manager (self-appointed)—he should be entitled to first, uh, I don’t even know how to phrase this. Let’s just say he gets to call dibs.
Then he throws the other dude out and masturbates her with a cheque for $10k. And then they have sex, and also how the hell is she supposed to cash that cheque now? And then they both jump through the air firing two guns. Okay, they don’t really. But I did think it might be on the cards for a moment there. The sex is sufficiently genital-pleasing that he offers to make her his mistress which leads her to run away from him, taking up residence in some kind of shack owned by a friend of hers. Ryan tracks her down, non-consensually moves in and proves himself excellent husband material by cooking, cleaning and having a fax machine. It then turns out they were sort of weirdly into each other all along, so they get married.
I honestly don’t know quite know I felt about Mistress of the Groom. I think I might have to go back to the Nicholas Cage movie comparison: it went sort of beyond good or bad, and was just kind of compulsively entertaining in a completely ludicrous way. You can tell exactly what you’re getting from the very first line:
The tall, statuesque brunette wound her way sinuously through the glittering throng.
Honestly, it’s like the nouns are part of some kind of remedial programme and they’re not allowed outside on their own without an adjective to look after them. Also, the hero talks like this:
“Or is this martyred, monochrome look supposed to make me feel sorry for you? Have you come to beg for the crumbs from my table? I’m sorry, but as you can see—” he gestured mockingly towards the tables glittering with crystal and silverware “— we haven’t dined yet. Why don’t you call my secretary and arrange to see me at the office? If you’re lucky I might be able to dredge up a few odd scraps to throw your way. I can’t guarantee anything, of course, but then I’m sure you’ve discovered that beggars can’t be choosers, can they, Miss Sherwood...?”
That poor man. Desperately seeking a one liner. Although, actually, to be fair to Ryan, he has something approaching a coherent motivation for his behaviour and, despite the fact Mistress of the Groom is a pretty slender book, I did appreciate the way Napier gave over at least half of it to transforming him back into a decent person. I mean, I kind of feel alphas are the romance equivalent of an impulse buy. It looks great in the shop but then you get home and it’s like where am I going to put this thing? It doesn’t go with my furnishings and it keeps trying to kiss me punishingly. Whereas, I got the feeling that Ryan did have other qualities beyond aggression and amateur pimping, some of which might make him a sustainable prospect for a long-term relationship.
I did, however, struggle a little with the dynamic between the hero and the heroine. And, weirdly enough, not for the reasons you might think. It’s pretty clear from later dialogue that the whole Prostitution Chicken diversion is some kind of weird foreplay/trust game for both them so I managed to file that away relatively uncontroversially in the “whatever floats your boat” box. No, my main issue was with Jane. Not as a character (she seemed strong and capable and basically functional) but she starts the book having lost everything and, although she soldiers on relentlessly, she’s never allowed to get off the ground. Partially because of Ryan keeping her there, but also because of what looks, sometimes, like sheer unfairness.
For example, not long after Ryan tracks her down at her post-prostitution hovel, she injures her other hand. Leaving her completely dependent on Ryan in every conceivable way. And while I could see it was important to give Ryan an opportunity to prove he wasn’t a complete smeghead, there was a part of me left wondering how much you can really respect a man who has spent three years of his life driving a powerful woman to abject dependency. I think we’re meant to accept that it was okay for Ryan to completely total Jane’s life because it was a life she’d only chosen to try and win her evil father’s approval. But I can only say mileage may vary on this one, and the general cracktastic exuberance of the book might not be enough to overwhelm those sorts of concerns.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Mistress of the Groom: cheques make surprisingly effective sex toys, pimping is foreplay, a fax machine is an important quality in a future husband, when you punch a man in the face, keep your wrist straight and put your weight behind it.
Alexis Hall is a romance novel neophyte who likes hats, tea and sword fighting. He occasionally writes queer fiction. If you enjoy his ramblings, you can find more of them on Twitter @quicunquevult or on his website.