When a romance author advances her hero and heroine towards a serious relationship, readers expect romance, physical scenes, conflict, and eventually a happily ever after. We are pleased that our couple has survived the gauntlet and reached Eden. But sometimes, the author decides to change things up. Maybe introduce more conflict to our lovers’ relationship. Make them continue to work toward their happily ever after. As in real life, no relationship is stationary. It must continue to develop and grow or it will stagnate and eventually wither away and die.
Sometimes, though, the author takes a gamble and smashes the couple's happily ever after into a million pieces. That's when things get ugly.
Note: This post contains SPOILERS for books and series by Jodi Thomas, Kim Harrison, Lauren Dane, Heather Graham, Jennifer Estep, and Charlain Harris.
There are a few ways an author can break an established or assumed HEA. Cheating seems to be the number one reason, often using evidence of said betrayal in the form of a child. Jodi Thomas chooses this plot device in the latest release in her Harmony, Texas series, Betting the Rainbow.
Thomas’s Harmony series is set in a small town, with several of the town's founding family members featured as characters in the books. A long-running romance of the series focuses on Regan Thurman and Noah McAllen. The two met when Reagan was 15 and new to town; Noah became her best friend and eventually her first love. As the series progresses, Reagan and Noah grow older and begin to travel paths that separate them, yet we are assured their love for one another is strong and the HEA is just a formality. In Thomas’s latest release, Betting the Rainbow, readers are hit hard when Thomas blasts apart the assumed HEA and leaves us floundering, unsure if Reagan and Noah will be able to overcome this ultimate betrayal.
Death is another way to break the HEA, though many authors don’t often choose this route as it can send their fans screaming for the hills, never to return. Mention death of a hero and most Urban Fantasy readers will instantly point towards Kim Harrison and scream “Kisten!!!!!”
Anyone familiar with Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series will remember the day she demolished the established HEA between Rachel and her boyfriend, Kisten. Though the book was released seven years ago, most readers remember it like it was yesterday. Rachel and her boyfriend Kisten had a strong, well-deserved relationship that most readers assumed would withstand the test of time and ride the wave to the very end of the series. But Harrison killed Kisten off in For a Few Demons More. Shocked doesn’t even describe how most readers reacted to this event. His death is brutal and it almost destroys Rachel. Her grieving was a palpable force. Harrison never really gave a reason for why she decided this ending for Kisten, but many readers opined that the romance was too easy. There was no real conflict or angst between them and Harrison had always had another path in mind for Rachel.
Lauren Dane’s standalone erotic romance Second Chances not only uses the cheating trope but also the dreaded death trope. Our heroine, Rori, has always loved Jude Callahan, but his fear of commitment sends her into the arms of another man, Zach. Their love affair is a sensual heartwarming journey that left this reader in tears over the beauty of it. Rori and Zach had gotten their HEA. BUT, Dane wasn’t done. Yes, Dane takes a risky chance and kills off the hero. *GASP* Of course, Dane doesn’t leave us in an emotional dark pit for long and reintroduces a new and much improved Jude to help Rori through her pain and offer her a chance at another HEA.
Well-known romance suspense author Heather Graham took death by the horns in The Dead Room and offered her readers a unique twist on the average HEA. We open with the heroine grieving from the death of her fiancé. Graham uses suspense and romance to give our heroine another chance at love and builds a lush romance with another hero-Joe. A key component through all of this is Lindsey can see ghosts so her first love, Mike, is still very much in the picture. Readers cheered Joe and the fact that Lindsey was able to move on though Graham was far from done in her. In a rare turnabout, Graham kills Lindsey off at the end and reunites her in death with her first love, Mike. And makes Joe watch them float off into the sunset together.
Harsh, Ms. Graham. Very harsh.
Misunderstanding/misdirection seems to be the second most common HEA breaker as it may break romance for a book or two but gives the author an easy out to bring them back together if they so choose. A great example of this maneuver is in Jennifer Estep’s Elemental Series. Fans of this series were overjoyed when the heroine Gin finally finds someone who not only loves her but understands her. We are given a few books to rejoice in Gin and Owen’s romance and one particular novella pretty much cements their HEA. Everything is smooth sailing from here on out. Or is it? Estep pulls a fast on in Widow’s Web and uses a past love of Owen’s to push him from Gin. When Gin makes a hard but necessary choice at the end of the book, Owen is unable to reconcile his feelings for what Gin did and leaves Gin high and dry, effectively breaking their HEA. Or does it? You’ll have to read the series to find out.
Last but not least one of the most shocking examples of breaking an HEA through misdirection comes from none other than Charlaine Harris, who put readers through the ringer with the multiple paramours of her heroine Ms. Sookie Stackhouse. Each one presented were given enough page time to make readers think this could be the one. But alas, Harris wasn’t not going to make love easy for Sookie and she employed multiple tropes to tear her relationships apart:
Bill and Sookie. We were sure Bill was Sookie’s forever true love but then we find out he lied and she dumped him. Dare Sookie find love with a rare and very sexy tiger shifter? Nope. Sookie wants to be numeral uno and John Quinn has a lot of his plate with his extremely needy family.
Alcide and Sookie. I did like Alcide but let’s be honest, deep down we all knew his pack would NEVER allow him to mate with a human. Plus, there was that pesky thing of Sookie killing his ex-girlfriend. Nothing kills romance faster than death.
Sookie and Eric. Now this one survived the longest of all Sookie’s relationships. In fact, it survived up to the very end. We watched as Harris tried multiple times to break them up but Sookie and Eric always emerged triumphant. Until the last book.
Harris turns the tables when she brings in the one man who sat RIGHT UNDER OUR NOSES the whole book. Sam. We never gave Sam a second thought because Sookie never gave him a second thought. He was firmly placed in the friend zone a long time ago. Or so we thought. Harris manipulates the storyline to a point where she can legitimately break Eric’s and Sookie’s HEA and gives Sam as the reason way. At the very end when it’s all been said and done we learn that friendship trumps romantic love.
What books or series have caught you off guard when it comes to the Happily Ever After?