Ah, despair! We all love a funny romance with rakish pirates, but every now and then we want an author to rip out our heart and stomp all over it with pointy little stilettos.
When you read any other genre, the despair, the “black moment,” can be beyond painful. In romance, it can be cathartic because the reader knows when that forbidden box is opened and death, destruction, disease and despair fly out, at the end there’s a small fluttering instance of hope. It’s hope of a HEA, or at least a Happy For Now, which keeps us turning pages even as the tears roll down our faces.
The problem with discussing our favorite angsty novels is sometimes—usually—the despair moment is linked to a betrayal, or a disaster, or a Huge Reveal that would be a spoiler. I’ll discuss the black moments when I can without giving too much away, but if I just say, “Read this for a good weepfest!” you’ll have to trust me.
Linda Howard’s Cry No More begins with despair. A child is ripped from its mother’s arms and she spends the rest of the book trying to regain her lost son. This may be the ultimate despair moment. You can survive betrayal, you can survive the loss of your one true love, but can anyone survive not knowing her child’s fate? You will need your tissues. There is an amazing love story in this book, and it hits a lot of readers’ keeper lists for good reason. Even if you’ve had some less than positive experiences with this author’s novels, you’ll want to read Cry No More to experience despair.
Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale is an excellent example of a book where we can’t be sure the hero and heroine will ever experience a “happily ever after,” but these two badly wounded souls have each other, and that in itself helps relieve the despair of their lives:
He stroked her hair with shaking hands.
“I’m here,” she said into his shoulder. “I’m here, and I love you. No matter what.”
I’m only going to mention Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm in passing because it’s been discussed so much lately, but you want despair? Put yourself in the mind of Christian, a man who has everything until an aneurysm in his brain takes it all away, even the ability to convince people he’s not insane.
I wrote a review of Mary Jo Putney’s One Perfect Rose that started “Get out your handkerchiefs!” It’s not a spoiler to say why the book is filled with despair: Stephen Kenyon, a duke who’s always taken his responsibilities very seriously, gets a diagnosis of a fatal disease and a limited lifespan. A few months, if he’s lucky. Stephen decides to make the most of the handful of days left to him, especially after he meets lovely Rosalind Jordan, who has suffered in her own life. How can he offer her love when he can’t guarantee weeks together, much less a lifetime? This is part of the Fallen Angels series, but can be read as a stand-alone novel.
Kiss An Angel by Susan Elizabeth Phillips is a favorite of some of her readers. I thought the hero was a jerk, but the despair of the heroine resonates throughout the book, without overcoming her deep seated optimism and hope for a better tomorrow. The moment where the hero is at his absolute, over-the-top jerkiness is horrific, and very, very well written. I can’t say more about it without giving too much away, but it’s good, solid writing and the circus setting is unusual and contributes to all the characters’ growth.
To Have and to Hold by Patricia Gaffney is a difficult book for some readers, dealing as it does with coerced sex and powerlessness. Nonetheless, the story of Sebastian and Rachel is intense and absorbing, and the emotion the two protagonists bring to the story sucks the reader in and makes her care about them.
Sometimes, despair and humor can slam together like some hapless schmuck slipping on a banana peel and landing on his butt. In Lois McMaster Bujold’s science fiction romance A Civil Campaign, we’re treated to Lord Miles Naismith Vorkosigan desperately courting a young widow. Miles plans a dinner party to woo the fair Ekaterin, and since Miles is good at organizing things he’s going to make sure it’s perfect.
If you don’t see where this is going, you haven’t been paying attention and you’ve never watched a screwball comedy. It’s the most hilarious, horrifying, worst date and dinner party ever and our hero and heroine are thrown into the depths of despair by the end of the evening. The reader is laughing at them as this is happening, but in the back of our minds we’re saying, “This is horrific! OMG, I can’t believe that happened!”
A truly talented author can cram a great deal of despair into a small package. One such author is Mary Balogh, famed for her Christmas Regency short stories. The holidays can lend themselves to despair, as many people know too well. When you’re alone, or poor, or suffering, whatever you’re experiencing can be compounded by the holiday spirit around you. One story guaranteed to unclog my tear ducts is “The Best Gift” from the collection Under the Mistletoe.
Miss Jane Craggs is a teacher in a girls’ school, a position she grew into as an unwanted bastard at the same institution. Her room and board was paid for, but she has nothing else in her life. No one to hold her when she’d stumble, to say she was loved, to celebrate a holiday with her, to give her a small gift. When a disgruntled student needs a chaperone to accompany her for a visit to her uncle, Jane is available, and leaps at the chance. Even a holiday with someone else’s family where she’s a despised employee is better than nothing. Her life is one long day of despair followed by another leading to a gray end.
Then she meets a child from a situation similar to hers. Jane is as motherless and alone as this child, and their joint situation builds the emotion in the story to a tear filled but satisfying conclusion.
Another author whose stories are wonderfully full of despair followed by hope is Carla Kelly. Reforming Lord Ragsdale is particularly noteworthy, but many could make this list. In Reforming, an Irish indentured servant is in the household of an English lord who hates the Irish, and with good reason. Emma Costello’s life has been damaged by torture, death, destruction and now servitude, but Emma turns her despair into hope, dragging Lord Ragsdale into the light with her.
Finally, a Western: Penelope Williamson’s The Outsider is about a gentle, religious widow whose husband was killed by outlaws. When a wounded gunfighter stumbles onto her land she treats his wounds and grows closer to this outsider, despite everything working against them. It’s a book with strong religious overtones, which is not surprising considering the themes of despair and redemption. Part of what’s noteworthy about The Outsider is the writing, which is astoundingly good. We’re never in the hero’s POV until the very end of the book and it makes the story that much stronger.
Many of the books listed here are classics in the genre. What modern romance novels should be included in a theme of despair, especially ones guaranteed to give you a good weepfest?
Darlene Marshall writes historical romance about pirates, privateers, smugglers and the occasional possum. The Pirate’s Secret Baby is available now in print and all ebook formats, and she’s hard at work on her next novel. You can contact her and read excerpts and reviews at http://www.darlenemarshall.com