Today we welcome Cara McKenna to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Cara’s Hard Time came out earlier this week, and it features a convicted felon hero who courts the librarian heroine via clandestine love letters. An ex-con falling for a librarian is not the easiest tale to tell, and comes with some pretty intense moments. Cara is here to share some of the reasons (and recommendations) that gritty is oh-so great. Thanks, Cara!
Editor's note: Please be aware that his post contains discussion of rape and dubious consent.
Darren, Michigan, is a struggling former factory town, home to my most recent book, Hard Time, and the fictional Cousins Correctional Facility. Darren’s a pretty bleak little working-class city, short on both industry and hope. Recently, I asked friends and readers on Twitter what their favorite gritty romances from the past year were, and got loads of excellent recommendations. I picked four that I intended to read and reference in this post, but then something messed that plan all up.
A something called Wanderlust, by Skye Warren.
I’d not read Warren before, but a friend came over for pizza and gossip and told me about it. I caught key words—dubious consent, trucker, kidnapping—and promptly one-clicked.
The trouble with my original plan is that since I started Wanderlust I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I don’t want it out of my head yet, like a flavor I’m a little worried I won’t ever taste again, so I’m hesitant to wash it away with some other meal, no matter how lovely the new tastes might be. It’s beautiful, and it’s so, so, fucked. And wonderful. And fucked. And so not for everyone. Let me explain some of the ways in which it’s fucked.
The twenty-year-old heroine, Evie, is sheltered by her overbearing, abusive, mentally ill mother. Evie dreams of escaping on a road trip to visit Niagara Falls, a place she’s been infatuated with for years. She saves up and formulates a rickety plan, and she goes. But her very first night, she meets the villain. I mean hero. I mean… Jesus, I have no idea. The villain/hero is a thirty-ish drifter and part-time long-haul trucker. Hunter. Don’t let the name fool you—he’s not a typical romance hero, not aside from being handsome and hung and pushy. Make that really pushy. Make that an ex-con, imprisoned for aggravated rape. And he rapes the heroine. Not dub-con at first—straight-up non-con. He rapes her repeatedly, and takes pleasure from her fear. (I found the initial sexual encounters far more frightening than arousing, which I suspect is the reaction Warren intended; this didn’t feel like rape-as-titillation.) Then he drugs her, and kidnaps her, rapes her some more, drugs her again… Like I said, he’s the villain. Yet he’s the hero. And somehow, the story really worked for me. And it totally shouldn’t have. This book is black magic.
All voodoo aside, I think Wanderlust is truly well done. Plainly, beautifully written. The heroine, who one would naturally assume must be crazy or brainwashed or damaged beyond a reader’s ability to muster empathy for, is shockingly self-aware.
Sometimes it seemed to pain him when he hurt me. Maybe it was a sickness, an impulse he couldn’t control or a personality shift that took over him at those times. But he seemed fully aware every time he had taken me. I was just making excuses for the man who held my fate in his hands. False hope that he would do right by me in the end.
She hates herself in moments, she hates him, she hates what he does to her, and hates the fact that sometimes it feels good. She’s hopelessly conflicted, as she has to be. She’s a victim in the most excruciating sense of the word, but no excuses are made for it. It’s not exceptionalized in such a way that we’re asked to forgive her for this, or even forgive him. It just sort of…is. Light is shed on the hero’s behavior, late in the book, but Warren doesn’t ask the reader to absolve him, merely to understand him a little better.
Anyhow, I didn’t mean to write a book report. I’m not even comfortable telling people, “Read this!!” because it’s quite upsetting, and a lot of readers will hate it, passionately. All I can say it that I enjoyed it a lot, and I want to hold it quietly in my brain for a few days before I let any other fiction in.
Wanderlust is the grittiest of the gritty, in my opinion—it teeters along the very sharpest edge of what a book can get away with and still call itself a romance.
So what’s the appeal? Why read gritty, in a genre so typified by luxury and escapism? Why write and read stories about people whose problems are too fundamental to be fixed by love alone? Doesn’t that mess with the very premise of romance, to imply that true love can’t solve all our problems?
Not to me, it doesn’t. While some readers seem to crave escape, I crave realism. And reality’s often a mess—and to me, all the more fascinating for it. I think it has to do with contrasts.
If you’ve ever been backpacking, you’ll know that after a tough stretch of hiking, of dirt and sweat, and a too-hot day chased by a too-chilly dusk, skin whining from bug bites and blisters and maybe sunburn, knees aching…it doesn’t matter what you eat for dinner. It will always be the most delicious meal you’ve ever eaten, because it’s warm and salty and you’re sitting still, and the stars are out, and all you need to do after this is sleep.
When we camp, my husband cooks these pre-packaged Indian meals that come in silver foil pouches, and white rice. If that was our dinner after a day spent lazing around in luxury, I’d be pretty underwhelmed. But after all the effort and relative discomfort, it always tastes better than the best thing I’ve ever ordered in a restaurant.
I’m not usually drawn to books featuring wealthy heroes with lavish homes, and I suspect it’s in part because I see infatuation and affection and lust and sex as quite lavish in themselves. A love affair is a sumptuous thing. Set those pleasures against a backdrop that’s already glittery, and for me, it takes a little of the shine away. Part of me feels like, “Sure, it’s easy to fall in love with champagne on your lips and satin sheets under your back. But get back to me after his guy’s business folds and you two spend a year slumming it on Skid Row.”
Hard Time is almost like a love letter to that contrast. As the hero writes to the heroine:
Everything’s so hard in here. And mean and ugly and loud. I know you want to hear dark things, but what I say about the romantic stuff I want to do with you, I want that so bad I can’t tell you. I want to be in a room with you, so quiet I can hear your breathing and your heart. A place so clean I could smell your skin. And with candles, all yellow and soft after the bright white lights they use in here. I want to be with you someplace that’s nothing like my cell. Someplace big and open, with a giant mattress a foot thick and the softest sheets. Someplace cool in the summer and warm in the winter. In a huge bathtub. On the grass somewhere. I want feminine things, because that’s what I miss. Because in here, everything feels hard and sharp and bright. I want to escape and go someplace dark and soft and quiet.
And he does. But the outside world’s not all rose petals and massage oil, either. It’s a rough town, and nobody’s thriving, and if anything, their romance becomes even harder to foster once he’s paroled. But that’s also what I like about settings like Darren, Michigan, or Skye Warren’s truck stops. Visit a beautifully tended garden, and of course there will be flowers blooming. But to find one blossoming in the middle of a fenced-off dirt lot? That, to me, is worth stopping to stare at, with just a little bit of wonder.
Are you a fan of gritty romances? What are some of your favorites?
Learn more or order a copy of Hard Time by Cara McKenna, available now:
Before becoming a purveyor of smart erotic romance, Cara McKenna worked as a lousy barista, a decent designer, and an over-enthusiastic penguin handler. She loves writing sexy, character-driven stories about strong-willed men and women who keep each other on their toes…and bring one another to their knees.
Cara now writes full-time and lives north of Boston with her bearded husband. When she’s not trapped in her own head, she can usually be found in the kitchen, the coffee shop, or jogging around the nearest duck-filled pond.