Jan 28 2013 12:00pm

Author Molly O’Keefe on Bad Marriages in Romance Novels

Today we're happy to welcome author Molly O'Keefe to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Molly's newest release, Crazy Thing Called Love, tells the rekindled romance between two formerly married people. So today we've asked her to come discuss bad marriages in romance novels. Thanks, Molly!

(See the bottom of the post for a comment sweepstakes!)

My four-year-old daughter has become obsessed with my wedding album. Her sighs of delight over my dress and flowers stroke my inner princess. But a month ago when my six year old son had friends over, she insisted they play wedding. The boys declined, choosing to do their own thing—she dressed up anyway and waited for one of them to “win” and then announced that getting married to her “was the prize.”

I thought, “I need to put a stop to that.” But then realized I write the grown-up version of that same mythology. And while romance novels have evolved past the heroine waiting on the sidelines while the hero wins her love, marriage is often the romance novel end-game, the proof that the love the characters feel is real and will last. Marriage is a big part of the promise romance novels keep.

I began to wonder if the romance genre's treatment of marriage was relevant anymore. Or had it slipped into the fantasy land of sheiks, princes, waxed chests, and instant orgasms? Granted, many romances have eased away from the HEA=marriage and into the more realistic Happy For Now, but the door to marriage is wide open.

USA TODAY best-selling author RaeAnne Thayne who has written over 40 novels tackling many tough and relevant topics, believes in that promise:

“That's part of the magic of a romance novel to me, that these two very different people have overcome all obstacles and are willing to completely bind their lives together without hesitation.”

I think most romance readers agree with this magic, despite having experienced divorce or being close to someone who has. Which I believe is a powerful testament to the willingness of the human heart to love, despite heartbreak. (Put another check in the column under reasons why I love romance novels. )

But all this marriage rumination made me think of one of the most popular romance tropes; reunited lovers, or second-chance at love and its success in opposition to the nearly taboo subject that is marriage in jeopardy. Or—gasp—infidelity.

Part of the appeal of reunited lovers is the fact that one of the major stumbling blocks to a HEA is one character is undoubtedly going to have to forgive the other for something that might be very unforgiveable.

Karina Bliss wrote the fantastic second chance at love story, Second Chance Family, about a divorced couple brought back together by orphaned children, understands the powerful appeal of forgiveness in love stories.

“Second chance at love stories are often to do with outside forces undermining the relationship. Or maybe the couple were young and immature, not capable of dealing with the issues that pulled them apart. One of the noblest things to give is forgiveness. Which is why these romances can resonate so powerfully.”

Soraya Lane, whose Back In The Soldier's Arms was a powerful rule-breaking Harlequin Romance about a woman coming back from the war to deal with the fact that her husband had cheated, says that exploring forgiveness was one of the reasons she wrote that book:

“I also wanted to explore the idea - that marriage isn't always easy, and walking away from the person you love isn't always the right decision. Also that being honest, talking about your feelings, and asking for forgiveness is something to be encouraged.”

If forgiveness plays an important part in a successful reunited lovers story, then a marriage in jeopardy story should be the ultimate realization of that fantasy. In the historical world—absolutely. And no one does marriage in jeopardy or marriage of convenience better than Sherry Thomas.

According to Thomas,

“An aspect of the marriage-in-distress plot that appeals to me is what happened to put the marriage in distress in the first place. There must have been mistakes and I'm deeply interested in mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes—a given. It is what we do in the wake of sometimes catastrophic mistakes that determines the shape of our future. And I am also fascinated by second chances. In real life, not everyone deserves a second chance; but in a literary context, the ability to forgive and move on and forge a new life together despite past mistakes—that is what I love to explore.”

But in the contemporary world, romance novels set within marriage are rarely seen. In large part in fear that the fantasy of true love will get worn down by all that ugly reality.

Robyn Carr, who has written with grace and humor about nearly every aspect of marriage and relationships in her Virgin River Series, agrees:

“In most of the romances I've read, if the marriage is in serious trouble it's the precursor to the hero or heroine moving into a new, better, more exciting relationship. That seems to set the stage for the 'Oh I've never felt this way before!' concept along with this ”I've never been this happy before!“ idea. That fits the HEA promise better, more easily. And in fact, it's a better fantasy for readers.”

The push-pull between fantasy and reality was something I wanted to explore in Crazy Thing Called Love. Maddy and Billy are a couple who married very young and divorced not long after only to be reunited ten years later. Can they forgive? Do people change? Can they find equality in their relationship? Can old love be new again?

These seemed like hugely relevant questions to me.

The truth is romance walks a fine and tricky line between fantasy and reality on a number of topics, marriage being at the top of the list. Many readers and writers who hold the idea of marriage and life-long partnership in high regard - want to keep the fantasy intact. And even as more reality seeps into our fantasy, the Happily Ever After, marriage or not, is the promise our books make. And I'm good with that. And so is my daughter.

To enter for a chance to win 1 of 2 copies of Molly O'Keefe's Crazy Thing Called Lovemake sure you’re a registered member of the site, and then simply leave a comment about the post below.*

*NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of fifty (50) United States and the District of Columbia, who are 18 or older. To enter, fill out entry at beginning at 12 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) January 28, 2013. Sweepstakes ends at 11:59 a.m. ET on February 4, 2013 (the “Promotion Period”). Void outside of the 50 US and DC and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules at Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010


Molly O’Keefe published her first Harlequin romance at age twenty-five and hasn’t looked back. She loves exploring each character’s road toward happily ever after. She’s won two Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice awards and the RITA for Best Novella in 2010. Originally from a small town outside of Chicago, she now lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband, two kids, and the largest heap of dirty laundry in North America.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
When I was your daughter's age, I thought marriage was The End of the romance; of course, 17+ married years later, I've realized it's totally not the End, and I do like reading The End, part two, books even though they can be painful.
Molly O'Keefe
2. Molly O'Keefe
When I first started thinking about this post, I thought that marriage as part of a romance novel was something I wanted to subvert or something I needed to play with, but I realized I love that part of romance. I like the promise.
Molly O'Keefe
3. Janga
Eloisa James is another author of historical romance who has used the marriage in trouble trope extensively. I would go so far as to say that to a great extent she has built her career on such stories, beginning with her very first trilogy and continuing with Your Wicked Ways in her second series and An Affair Before Christmas, When the Duke Returns, and This Duchess of Mine in her Desperate Duchesses series. In the DD series, Jemma and Elijah’s troubled marriage is a thread that runs through the first four books and culminates in the fifth, the aforementioned This Duchess of Mine. James recently returned to the theme in The Ugly Duchess and its spinoff novella “Seduced by a Pirate.”

As for the trope in contemporary romance, category authors have been writing about marriages in trouble for at least the last couple of decades. I think immediately of Kathleen Gilles Seidel, who used the trope often, with Mirrors and Mistakes (1984) being perhaps her best. Emilie Richards’s The Trouble with Joe (1994), another of my all-time top categories, is another example, and Richards wrote of troubled marriages in her single titles (The Parting Glass and Wedding Ring) as well. I think part of the attraction of such books is that they explore real relationship problems with the assurance that, within the context of romance fiction, the problems will be resolved and the promise of the HEA will be fulfilled despite the characters’ mistakes.

And I'm so glad Crazy Thing Called Love does fulfill that promise. I would have been immeasurably disappointed had it not done so.
Chanpreet Singh
4. chanpreet
I never really thought much about marriage as a child. When I was in Montessori school around the age of 5/6, I remember playing every day with my younger brother, his two friends, and my first crush Alex. Alex would be the damsel in distress, my brother and his friends the villains, and I would be the superhero and save him from their clutches. I faintly recall playing house and school with an older neighborhood girl and our male siblings. But only once or twice.

Now that I'm a lot older, I know that marriages come in all forms, and they aren't going to be perfect. It's nice to see that reality shown in books. And some of my favorite books have people overcome bad marriages and sometimes even get back together with their ex-spouse once they were able to work out their issues. Who knew I'd like them so much?
Molly O'Keefe
5. Laura.R
Thanks for the contest. I look forward to reading Crazy Thing Called Love, whether or not I win the contest.
Molly O'Keefe
6. Molly O'Keefe
Janga - I tried very hard to get my hands on a copy of Mirrors and Mistakes - it was brought up repeatedly when I asked friends for recommendations on marriage in romance - and people had mixed but strong reactions to it.
Chanpreet - I don't remember a lot of playing house, but I did play detective relentlessly. And Thundercats - I played a lot of thundercats. I hope Alex appreciates all your rescues.
Laura - thanks for stopping by!!
Kimberly Perry
7. kppeachy
Some of favorite books have storylines focusing on second chance romances or where the couple is considering divorce at the beginning of the book across the genres. It's fun to watch a couple find a way forward whether it's a new, current, or previous relationship.
8. Kareni
Sadly, I can't recall any early childhood memories pertaining to marriage. I hope I can enter the contest anyway!

Your new book sounds intriguing, Ms. O'Keefe; I enjoyed the review posted earlier this month with its snippets from the book.
Carmen Pinzon
9. bungluna
I'm looking forward to this book very much. Ms. O'Keefe is a favorite author of mine.

As for the 'second-chance-at-love' trope, I usually enjoy it. There are some things that I would find unforgivable, but I do believe that people change and grow into their own. The other aspect that I enjoy of this trope is that the h/h eventually re-discover why they fell in love. My caveat is the big missundertanding, though. I hate that one.

Too often I'm left wandering about the intelligence of my h/h, particularly in books where the ex-spouse is an unredeamable evil villain. It's nice to read stories where the inital falling in love wasn't a big mistake, maybe just a case of bad timing. And the road to forgiveness can yield a very satisfying emotional payoff.
Jennifer Hiemstra
10. rootsgrrl
Well, it doesn't look like I'm eligible to enter since I'm a fellow Torontonian, but I did want to say that I just read the first in this series and really enjoyed it - it was deeper and more thoughtful than I'd expected, and you got the hockey stuff right! I'm planning to pick up the 2nd & this new one soon. And thanks also for the post - I too have wondered about the marriage mythology, and why I - a single feminist in a traditionally male work environment - still find it relevant/desirable in most of the books I read. I think you hit the nail on the head - because there's something hopeful and human about our ability and/or desire to love.
Julie Guan
11. hafelina
I love second-chance romances: it allows us to see all the ways that the characters have grown and changed, in all the ways that matter most. It also allows for the injection of a bit of realism in what is usually a set up for fantastical situations.
Lori Meehan
12. LoriMeehan
This is one of the reasons I read romance. There are so many aspects of life that go into making a love story.
Molly O'Keefe
13. Janga
Molly, I was checking a Madeleine L'Engle quote for another post and came across this passage on marriage from L'Engle. I thought you would appreciate it.

“No long-term marriage is made easily, and there have been times when I've been so angry or so hurt that I thought my love would never recover. And then, in the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again — till next time. I've learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won't stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed.”
Nancy Luebke
14. nancydl
After being married for 39 years, there is still the romance but it does become different as we age. Would love a chance to win this.
Molly O'Keefe
15. Molly O'Keefe
Janga - that is amazing. How perfectly it says everything you need to know about marriage and being a wife and a partner. Thank you so much for sharing this! Flashing fish of hope - I'm so in love with that!
Molly O'Keefe
16. Goldenmane
I've been in love and been deeply hurt. I've been loved, but couldn't love back and sadly caused hurt. Fortunately I've never made the mistake of marrying because I think that would have been the worst of all. I still think there might be a soul mate out there, but maybe I'll have to wait until my possible next life. I'm getting a little old now.
Karin Anderson
18. AquarianDancer
That is what I love about Romance books - they give us hope that even when things are hard there will be a happy ending.
becky moe
19. beckymmoe
Ever since I read the start of their story--"All I Want For Christmas is You"--I've been dying to read the rest! Can't wait for the chance. :)
Molly O'Keefe
20. joyofbean
Loved your other book "Can't Buy Me Love" and I'm looking forward to reading this new one as well. I don't have time for totally unrealistic HEA stories anymore - perhaps as we experience our own mature relationships we want to see them reflected in our romance novels.
Lynne W
21. LynneW
Hi Molly,

I really enjoyed the first two in this series, and have been eagerly anticipating Billy's and Maddy's story. Second-chance romances, where the individuals have grown and changed over the years to become a better fit, are a particular favorite of mine and I will be interested to see how you develop it.
Molly O'Keefe
22. ShellyE
Having previously been married to a cheater, I have zero tolerance for a person who cheats on their spouse, and I don't care to read about it in a romance novel. I may be too inflexible on this subject, but I believe there is absolutely no excuse for cheating. If you no longer love someone, move on, and save the sex until you are free from your marriage. IMHO :o)
I just love romance books. When my then young daughter looked at my wedding pictures, she wanted to know why she wasn't anywhere in them.
Megan B
25. Megblod
Thanks for the giveaway. It sounds like a good read.
Molly O'Keefe
26. Kanchb
This isn't my fave reading matter, but I loved Kathleen Gilles Seidel's take on it (The book was called A Risk worth Taking, really worth hunting down)
Michelle Palmer
27. ChelleP
Second chance love is my fav trope, whether it's historical or contemporary. Sherry Thomas and Eloise James are two of my favorites in the historical genre. Crazy Thing Called Love will be my first O'Keefe book!

@Janga, the L'Engle quote is beautiful. Definitely one to save. :)
Molly O'Keefe
29. SheilaS
I love stories about second chances, especially in marriage! I was married at 17, my husband 18 and we just celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary.........but marriage is never do have great years, some not so great years... some days a butter knife away from prison... because so much influences our life, our love, even our ability to like each other... but in the end its the feelings, forgiveness, and fun that make us try.... and the reward of each other.
L Lee
31. lwl8
The book sounds intriguing. Taking a second chance at love is hard when someone has been burned.
Heather Martin
32. CrystalMirror
I always thought marriage was the begining of romance, then I wound up in an abusive one. Forgivness is possible depending on the offence and if true remorse is there. For my part, I've stayed away from relationships after being burned too many times.
Julie Dunbar
33. jleigh
I thought I was living my dream, until my husband or nearly 11 years said one night "I don't love you anymore, we are over, I want a divorce" with no warning. To say I was shocked was an understatement, I felt that he had ripped my heart out and crushed it. He destroyed my HEA with no warnings, signs or even the chance to make things right (and I didn't even know there was something wrong). I look at him now and think who is this stranger? Do I think I could love again? Maybe. Do I think I could trust again? A very, very skeptical maybe. That doesn't mean that in the far recesses of my bruised and battered heart and confidence there isn't a little kernal of hope.
Mary Lynne Nielsen
35. emmel
I honestly find this a challenging trope. I've read a couple "bad marriage" romances that work, but it's tough for me to buy into this angle when a couple is all the way past divorce. A variation I enjoy on this is the estranged couple--not yet fully broken apart--who find reasons to reconnect. So is that a different trope, or not?
kathy pease
37. klp1965
Thank you for the great giveaway please count me in :)
Susan Smoaks
44. susansmoaks
thank you for the chance to win, i love to read and this one sounds good!!!
Molly O'Keefe
45. teeskaz
I think I prefer to fantasy to reality and I have beeen married happily for 21 years.
Daniel Thornton, Jr.
48. superbook3
I have not read any bad marriage romance novels so it would be internetsing to read the books.
Alicia Jespersen
50. orangepeacock
Awesome post! I am super excited to read Molly's books! I own the first two and can't wait for the third!
Joan Boose
51. joan.boose
I really need to get away with a good book. If I win the book, I will be able to get away! Please and Thank You :)
Molly O'Keefe
52. Sonia Paul
Sonia Paul
After being in relationship with Paul for seven years, he broke up with me, I did everything possible to bring him back but all was in vain, I wanted him back so much because of the love I have for him, I begged him with everything, I made promises but he refused. I explained my problem to someone online and she suggested that I should contact a spell caster that could help me cast a spell to bring him back but I am the type that don't believed in spell, I had no choice than to try it, I meant a spell caster called Dr. Jumba and I emailed him, and he told me there was no problem that everything will be okay before three days, that my ex will return to me before three days, he cast the spell and surprisingly in the second day, it was around 4pm. My ex called me, I was so surprised, I answered the call and all he said was that he was so sorry for everything that happened, that he wanted me to return to him, that he loves me so much. I was so happy and went to him, that was how we started living together happily again. Since then, I have made promise that anybody I know that have a relationship problem, I would be of help to such person by referring him or her to the only real and powerful spell caster who helped me with my own problem and who is different from all the fake ones out there. Anybody could need the help of the spell caster, his email: you can email him if you need his assistance in your relationship or anything. CAN NEVER STOP TALKING ABOUT YOU SIR. CONTACT HIM NOW FOR SOLUTION TO ALL YOUR PROBLEMS. CALL HIM VIA +2348112136125
Post a comment