Q: What do a bunch of Disney movies and a slew of romances have in common?
A: Dozens of main characters who are orphans or who experienced unhappy childhoods.
Cold mothers and/or absent fathers come standard issue.
A screwed up childhood is a handy way to explain a lot of psychological problems, particularly for those heroes who have trouble trusting. If we’re talking Regency, one of my favorites is Sebastian from Loretta Chase’s amazing Lord of Scoundrels. An extreme example of unhappy childhood in a historical is Samuel from Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star.
But where are the happy families? The supportive parents and loving siblings?
Turns out it’s easier to find them than I’d first anticipated. They tend to gather in ensemble casts. Okay since I mentioned Regency—we have Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton gang. They might not have a dad, but you can’t find a more loving family in any time or setting. And there are also Lisa Kleypas's eccentric aristocrats, the Hathaways.
Plenty of contemporary books feature happy families. Kristan Higgins has the wine-making Hollands. For a western flavor, there’s Jesse Hayworth’s Skye family running the Mustang Ranch.
I put out a call for examples of happy families and got answers of dozens of happy fathers and pleasant mothers…not to mention scathes of aunts and uncles and flocks of cousins.
There are the Kowalski in Shannon Stacey’s series. Bella Andre has the Sullivans. As one responder said “Sure, the dad died when the kids were a little young, but they've got a great mom and are a very close bunch, with a nice aunt and uncle and tons of cousins, too.” Someone else mentioned Virginia Kantra’s Fletchers in the Dare Island series. Jeannie Moon has the Rossi family.
As I read over the list I noticed that when it comes to happy families, there are plenty of members and they tend to cluster around and make life interesting for the characters through a whole book—or series of books. And are there any small, happy families? Maybe they aren’t as memorable?
So we have large families that are extremely visible, but I couldn’t come up with many truly awful parents who are onstage through a whole book. They—or the memory of them—only show up at key moments of strife or in flashbacks.
You might get a phone call with a bad mom, but central to the story? In a fantasy with an invented culture, or new adult or YA (with heroes and heroines still literally dependent) the evil mom or cruel dad could be front and center but otherwise…not so much. Is this because sane, strong characters walk away from dreadful situations?
I get the impression that these days, weakness or victimhood isn’t an approved feature—not even for women in historical romances.
And maybe that sort of familial misery isn’t usually central because romance is a genre that’s supposed to help readers escape?
I’m sure sometime in the next couple of days, I’ll remember dozens of stories with awful families present through most of a book, haunting the reader and the characters. If anyone wants to remind me of specific titles—go ahead. I don’t mind.
But switching gears back to happy families, how about books in which the happy parents are just mentioned in passing? I just read one and the title is also notable because it’s got a family that could have posed a standard conflict—but doesn’t (and thank you for that, Zoë Archer).
In Skies of Gold, Archer’s heroine, Kalinda MacNeil, could have been as much a standard trope as any aristocratic victim of UPS (uninterested parent syndrome). In an alternate-steampunk world based on Victorian England, Kali, a half-Indian, half-English woman could have been portrayed as not belonging in either society, or scorned by half her family—but she apparently has a great relationship with both of her happily married parents. Come to think of it, she’s also an example of the elusive small happy family. No siblings—just Kali and her parents—who remain offstage through the book.
Unhappy families, awful upbringings, and sad orphans might be prevalent in romance novels, providing rich and necessary conflict, but happy families do happen in romance novels.
Kate Rothwell writes romance using her own name and the pseudonym Summer Devon. She lives in Connecticut with four men (three of whom are her sons). You can find out more about her at KateRothwell.com and SummerDevon.com.