Feb 21 2012 3:30pm

Revenge in Romance: A Dish Best Served Hot, or Leaving Readers Cold?

Slightly Tempted by Mary BaloghGiven the recent success of ABC’s romantic soap, Revenge, it seems like a good time to discuss one of the most narratively interesting of romance plots: the revenge romance. The storylines tend to follow a basic pattern—one of the protagonists seeks to revenge him or herself for a perceived offense by initiating a romantic relationship with the other protagonist, with the intention of using it to harm/humiliate/defeat the other, only to fall in love, realize they were wrong, reveal their true intentions, and stride off into the Happily Ever After Sunset.

Revenge romances are intriguing because they combine elements that normally shouldn’t work together. On paper, the idea of a protagonist eliciting feelings from an opponent in order to use them as a weapon against them is morally reprehensible. This idea is particularly strong in romances where the hero is the one seeking vengeance, since heroes tend to take the sexual route, often by seducing, ruining, then discarding the heroine to spite her (or whichever protective male relative or friend he’s really hoping to hurt). Heroines in general tend to go the romantic route—they usually aim to have the hero fall in love with them in order to leave them heartbroken. Social ruination doesn’t normally enter into it (at least in historicals).

However, much of the enjoyment of a revenge romance comes when the vengeful protagonist winds up hoisted on their own emotional petard, caught up in the same emotional “weakness” they sought to inflict upon their romantic counterpart. Revenge romances also tie in with redemption and forgiveness, powerful themes that provide endless opportunities for delicious angst and interesting backstory, which can make up for the hero or heroine’s initial dastardly intentions.

ABC’s Revenge posterLike everything in romance, however, it comes down to execution and personal taste. For this reader, it depends on three things:

1) What are the reasons for revenge in the first place? (spilling red wine on a white carpet won’t cut it)

2) What reasons does the vengeful protagonist have for suspecting the other (many of the worst revenge plots use the dreaded “Big Misunderstanding” trope)? 

3) How far do they take their revenge before they are sidelined by genuine affection?

One example of a lovely romance with a revenge plot is Slightly Tempted, by Mary Balogh. The hero, unjustly accused of rape and theft, is banished from England, and the one man who could have proven his innocence turns his back on him. When the hero and that man’s younger sister (the heroine) cross paths in Belgium, he decides to seduce her in order to spite his former friend. However, his vengeance is sidelined by the arrival of French troops, and he learns the heroine’s true worth as they survive the battle. He puts a halt to his schemes immediately thereafter, but the repercussions of his actions continue to haunt the pair throughout the novel—with the heroine’s forgiveness of the hero dovetailing beautifully with the hero’s forgiveness of the people responsible for his banishment.

Sweet Trouble by Susan MalleryFor a truly appalling example of how a revenge romance can go wrong, there is Sweet Trouble by Susan Mallery. When the hero’s ex (the heroine) returns to town with a boy she claims is his, he’s outraged that she didn’t tell him—except that, um, she did, and at the time, he’d called her a whore and slammed the door in her face. He slut-shames his way to the moral high ground, blaming her former promiscuity for why he didn’t believe her the first time around. He decides to get back at her by secretly suing for sole custody of her son (who’ll be shipped to boarding school at the first opportunity), and he never truly realizes the depths of his idiocy until after he has the heroine served with custody papers three quarters of the way through the novel. So for the greater part of the novel and all the romantic scenes contained therein, the hero was still planning on taking the heroine’s child away.

Perhaps that is the appeal of a good revenge plot—the idea that it all could have gone horribly, horribly wrong but for the talented storytelling of the author.

Which revenge-plot romances worked for you? And why did they? Or which ones didn’t work—and why not?


Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Kristin O
1. krismas29
I just read Julie Anne Long's Pennyroyal Green series, in which nearly every book features some form of revenge as a subset of the plot - a wife getting revenge on her husband, a betrayed man getting revenge on the so-called-friend who betrayed him, a man seeking revenge against the pirate who murdered his friend ...

However, my favorite was What I Did For a Duke. The heroine's brother is caught, red-handed so to speak, with a duke's fiancee..... and the duke, who never met a man he couldn't ruin, decides to seduce, abandon and ruin the virginal sister of his fiancee's lover.

I think what I like about it was that the revenge against the sister had barely begun before the duke began to be intrigued by her. I would have felt much differently if she had not figured him out, and/or if he had succeeded in his plan and then changed his mind about how he felt about her.

Realizing too late that a planned and executed revenge should not have happened reminds me too much of the scene in "Overboard" with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, when she finally regains her memory and realizes he has tricked her. He has made her believe that she is is wife and that his 4 children are hers, and she has blossomed. In reality, he is a carpenter that she stiffed out of payment (who picked her up when she lost her memory in order to get revenge on her). "You're that sweaty carpenter who hates me ...." she says when she figures it all out. It is a comedy to be sure, but I always wondered how someone could ever trust again after trickery like that.
Heather Waters
2. HeatherWaters
It's a delicate balance with revenge romances, isn't it? Your examples illustrate that perfectly. The first that came to my mind was a recent Anne Stuart, in which the hero's plotting led to the heroine getting raped. I usually love Stuart's heroes and how bad they can be (and have said so before) but that was pretty unforgivable and still bothers me.
Vanessa Ouadi
3. Lafka
@redline_ : are you talking about Anne Stuart's Breathless? If so, I totally agree with you, I found it very hard to sympathise with a hero who makes the heroine go through that much for his own personal vendetta, especially when he doesn't show any hint of repentance afterwards.

I'm actually not a big fan of revenge-focused plots in romance. Perhaps because it distracts me from the main point _ romance _ or perhaps just because it often bores me. Or perhaps it's only because, not being a very revengeful person myself, I find it hard to empathize with the hero/heroine whose sole motivation is revenge. I'm not sure.
It will not prevent me from liking a book, or from buying a book from an author I like or the next book in a series I've started already, but it will not particularly attract me either.
There are some exceptions though. I really enjoyed for example Lions and Lace, by Meagan McKinney. The hero, an Irish emigree of low extraction, here wants to take revenge on the humiliation New York's good society has inflicted to his sister by forcing one of the said good society's most distinguished young ladies to marry him. I liked the whole story even if the revenge-plot is quite central.
Marian DeVol
4. ladyengineer
@redline_ and @Lafka - I also found Anne Stuart's Breathless disturbing, but a little like watching a train wreck - fascinating and hard to look away.

Although I have never been revenge focused, as someone of Scottish heritage I understand the family honor, clan loyalty and the like as major motivations for revenge. What else would you call the many clan feuds down through Scottish history?

The maternal side of my family comes from West Virginia and may have distant links to the Hatfields (of the infamous Appalachian Hatfield and McCoy feud). My Mom said when she was growing up her mother used to tell her that "in our family we do not turn the other cheek". I always took that to mean that we may not start a fight, but we will either fight back or walk away.
Vanessa Ouadi
5. Lafka
@ladyengineer : actually, I almost looked away from the entire book when, in one of the early chapters, the heroine denies she's been raped because, in her opinion, it's not really rape when you just lay there waiting for the assault to stop without fighting (no matter how many times you've said no, and no matter the reason you don't fight is because you know you'll not overpower the huge man who is assaulting you). Uh... really?
That very moment, I thought the heroine was stupid and/or masochist and I had the dreadful feeling that this book wasn't going to be my cup of tea _ and it wasn't indeed, no matter how much I appreciate Anne Stuart's other books. The fact that this rape was set up for revengeful purposes just made it worse.
Carmen Pinzon
6. bungluna
This is one of my hot button issues, which I avoid like the plague. Either the person seeking revenge has good reason for doing so and their targeting an innoscent bystander or turning away from it frustrates my need for violent catharsis or they don't and I get angry with them for being assinine.

Then again, I'm a big fan of movies like Charles Bronson's "Death Wish", so my opinion may be slightly biased.
Marian DeVol
7. ladyengineer
@Lafka - I know what you mean. I almost did not read beyond the Breathless rape incident. For the record I agree with you, it is rape if either party is unwilling and is forced into sexual intimacy, whether or not they protest the assault or fight back. I feel such forced intimacy is rape even if the two people are married. Of course, that was not the reality of the late Georgian/Regency or early Victorian era Anne Stuart was depicting. Because of this, I did not immediately think the heroine stupid or masochistic, but understand why you did.

@bungluna - Although I'm not a big Charles Bronson fan, I'm enough of a Scot and a fan of martial arts action films (Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris) to understand the need for the violent catharsis of justice/revenge/payback for any serious harm done to those close to you or for whom you feel responsibility. It can get morally dicey, however, if the one pursuing revenge involves innocents (I cannot really consider them appropriate collateral damage) or does not have what I consider a sufficient reason for the retribution.

I'm not sure Lucien de Malheur of Breathless had enough reason for using Miranda Rohan for revenge against her older brother, but considering his abusive childhood I can understand how he thought he did.
Jennifer R
8. Jennifer R
I mostly like Nora Roberts's Sweet Revenge, which is kinda like "What if we had Grace Kelly marry a prince...except this time it's a Middle Eastern one who turns out to be a massive asshole?" Mom can only birth one kid and it's a girl and then can't have more children, she's abused and becomes an addict in order to stand it. She eventually escapes with her daughter, but her life and soul are pretty much ruined forever. Adrienne (the daughter) becomes a cat burgler to pay for life/Mom's rehab/women's charities. Her revenge goal is to steal the jewel set that her father gave her mother upon engagement. A former jewel thief/the love interest finds out what Adrienne does and what her plan is. He goes along to help her with it, but it's completely chilling knowing what the costs are if she fails.

I liked the book, but in the end, the revenge is anticlimactic. Which it probably is in real life too, when you think about it. Mostly it seems like you just feel kind of empty once the gloating wears off.
Jennifer R
9. Jennifer R
Oh, hey, I just thought of one I read ages ago that didn't work. It was from a Harlequin called "No Sad Song," in which the heroine thinks that her agent had an affair with a friend of hers, which she thinks led to the friend's death. So when the agent starts coming on to her, she decides to get engaged to the dude and then dump him at the altar as REVENGE! Except it's totally lame, and in the end the agent hadn't even been boinking the dead friend in the first place. The heroine was a bloody idiot who didn't think shit through at all.
Jennifer R
10. J-me
Again the Magic by Lisa Kleypas -
Fantastic book, McKenna wants revenge on Aline for pushing him away when they were young and ending their young romance. He is forced to leave and makes something of himself. Upon his return he definitely seeks to ruin her or at least rip her heart to shreads, but he doesn't quite realise what he's up against and he's the one that ends up on his knees breaking down. Aline is the stronger character of the two and is completely aware of his plans to seek vengence for what she allegedly did to him. But, Aline has resigned herself to the fact that she will never love anyone as much as she does McKenna and she wants the few intimate moments that they have when he returns and she savours simply seeing him again, knowing that he won't stay and what his intentions are for her. Oh, it is so good!!
Jennifer R
11. AnimeJune
I actually didn't like AGAIN THE MAGIC because it didn't fit the first rule - all Aline did was turn McKenna down. I never felt it was enough reason for him to subject her to humiliation and social rejection. The punishment he planned didn't fit the crime. But then again, I had many (very very very many) other reasons to not like Again the Magic.
Post a comment