Apr 9 2011 12:00pm

Going Back for Seconds: Exes in Romance

Red Wine and Her Sexy Ex by Kate HardyTropes. Archetypes. Recurring plots. Whatever you call them, they are embedded in our culture. 

Genre fiction, as a whole, is criticized for using and re-using these patterns, but they are found in literary fiction as well. They are definitely found in TV and movies, and even in the dominant and minor chords that run through music. They’re in the blurbs on the backs of books and sometimes even reflected in the title and the covers. All of that is designed to let readers know that their favorite, heavily worn, storyline is back.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday

One of my favorite romance tropes is the “exes that get back together.” Come on! It is drama on top of drama.

You have two people who were (usually) passionately in love with each other, they break apart over an explosive argument or betrayal, and then they get thrown together again for a “second chance” at love. I can NOT resist a plot like this. It doesn’t matter why the couple originally broke up. It could have been an infidelity, or a misunderstanding, or a move out of state to follow their career . . . whatever.  I don’t care why they are pulled back together.

Red Hot Reunion by Bella AndreMaybe they’re reunited at a class reunion. (Bella Andre’s Red Hot Reunion) or maybe they’re trying to stave off the apocalypse (Nora RobertsFace the Fire). All of that is interesting, but I’m really only interested in how the author is going to take me from “I love you” to “I hate you” and back to “I love you” with a few stops at “damn, you’re still hot” along the way.

You may think this is a way of circumnavigating around the whole “boy meets girl/getting to know you” kind of filler than can eat up word counts but can be a little bit boring. It isn’t. If anything, for this to be done well, the author must tell that story anyway, AND the story of the breakup, before pulling it all back together. The blurb on the back may say “She broke his heart, and now she’s back for a second chance at love” but if the characters between the covers are that shallow the book will fail. After all, if this was an easy breakup and an easy return, I wouldn’t be interested.

When you’re talking about lovers betrayed, there should be blood on the page. The emotional rift between them should be tactile (if very good) and at least visible, if decent. Maybe it is a little it of emotional masochism, but I’ll own that. In this kind of a book, if you’re not hurting me, you’re wasting my time. And no, repeating over and over again how much a character was “hurt” by another character’s actions and how they were betrayed/deceived/backstabbed etc isn’t the same as showing it through character interaction. If you can’t make me care about why you’re not together anymore, how can I care about your happy ending?

Face the Fire by Nora RobertsA book that hits it exactly right, for me, is Roberts’ Face the Fire. It is the last book of a trilogy, so world building and plot have been established. You know the heroine; you know the apocalyptic situation that is coming to a confrontation in this final book. When you meet Sam Logan, the hero to Mia Devlin’s heroine, you think you know how it’s going to play out. Yes, there will be anger and loud voices for awhile, but he’ll eventually work his way back into her good graces, and the good graces of the community he ran away from, just in time to save the world. Needless to say, things do not progress so orderly. The book reads like a restrained storm, almost to the point of frustration. The blood on the page isn’t gushing from an open wound, but is constantly seeping from a wound that our heroine is desperately trying to hold together.

The good thing about tropes is that there is one for everyone. If this one isn’t for you, there are a few hundred more to choose from. But, if you like your drama with an extra heaping spoonful of drama, the “my ex-romance” may be for you.


Robin Bradford is a lawyer, a librarian and, most importantly, a long time lover of words.  You can check her out on twitter @tuphlos, on Unpaged, the book blog, at, or read the backlist at Obiter Dictum at

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. EvangelineHolland
Your reference to His Girl Friday is precisely why I have a soft spot for the reunited spouses/lovers trope. Based on HGH, what I love is that the hero and heroine know what makes one another tick, and they might even still be in synch, and outsiders--including Hildy's fiance--are rather shut out of their world. Sure, the marriage didn't work out for myriad of reasons, but they've been as close to one another as a person can get, and you just can't shake that experience.
Donna Cummings
2. Donna Cummings
One reason I like these stories is because they not only have to learn to trust again, they have to learn how to trust each other. Talk about tough! They know where all the tender spots are, and they end up bumping up against those, even inadvertently. Their history demonstrates that they aren't very good at working things out, even if they're still attracted to each other. They definitely have to work twice as hard to get to their HEA. :)
Janet W
3. Janet W
Doesn't La Nora love that trope. She used it again in the Key series. Not sure how much I really feel that everything is resolved. The guy leaves and gets on with it, often for great reasons, and the love of his young life stays put and licks her wounds. I lap them up like buttah: just saying I'm not sure. Maybe I'm looking for more grovelling?

So here's a great one: Dragon's Bride by Jo Beverley ... I just happen to have a review by Cheryl Sneed What I found to be unusual: how both H/h used sex when they were apart -- and when they were together -- to explore whether it was truly love they felt for each other. It's a Beverley where I hold my breath each time I read it: will they find their HEA?
Robin Bradford
4. RobinBradford
@Donna YES! I think that is the part I was trying to get across and just couldn't find the right words. They do have to truth each other again, and that is where all the good drama comes in. That's what I love. that's why I keep seeking them out, again and again.
Alie V
5. ophelial
I love this trope too and you picked a great example with Roberts' Face the Fire. Another fave of mine from Roberts is Birthright. Highly recommended!
Post a comment