Mar 26 2014 1:35pm

Binding, Broken, or Unraveling: Family Ties in Romance Novels

Coming Home by Mariah Stewart

Family: any group of persons closely related by blood, as parents, children, uncles, aunts, and cousins.

For better or worse, we all have families. And this unit influences us for most of our lifetime, no matter if we rebel against it or embrace it. Likewise, characters in books have families that impact them in the same way. In novels, just like television (think of The Andy Griffith Show to Married with Children), we have a gamut of family types, from sublime families to the more dysfunctional ones. So even if you are reading a romance book, there is a huge probability that someone’s family will play a part in the book. And if the book is part of a series, then there is 99.9 percent likelihood that the books are spinoffs of a family unit.

With the Andy Griffith Mayberry scenario, you have an almost Shangri-La feel to the family and the community. Of course there is usually a Barney Fife. But overall the family unit is practically perfect in every way—loving, supportive, nurturing, and wise. Many small town romances have this type of milieu. Mariah Stewart’s Chesapeake Diaries series is set in a very idyllic community and for the most part, the families are unflawed. In her early writing, Nora Roberts wrote several series that centered about picture-perfect families, like the MacGregor family and continues that even now, with the Montgomerys from the Boonsboro Inn Trilogy. Jayne Ann Krentz’s characters might not have had a wonderful childhood, but they found someone in their life to teach them the importance of family, honor, and integrity. One of my favorite series by Ms. Krentz is the Eclipse Bay series. Barney Fife has nothing on Arizona Snow, a recurring character in all three books.

One Mountain Away by Emilie RichardsThen you have gradients of happy family life. Sometimes the relationship just falters because a parent doesn’t know how to come across without sounding judgmental or controlling even though the love is there, like Charlotte Hale from One Mountain Away by Emilie Richards. Then other times the parents are just too selfish. Oh, they provide food and shelter and in their mind love, but that love has strings attached. Do what I say, be what I want. Margot Radcliffe from Remember Me by Laura Moore knows exactly how that feels:

She could be a dutiful daughter, go off to Farleigh, and marry some conceited drip…and maybe, just maybe, she’d finally please her father.

Sadie Hollowell, from Rescue Me by Rachel Gibson, couldn’t live up to her mother’s or her father’s expectations, which impacted her ability to put down roots.

Then you have the complete opposite of the perfect family where the author creates miserable, wretched childhoods for the hero and or heroine and then shows how this bleak beginning stymies them in love as they moved into adulthood. In Cowboy Take Me Away by Jane Graves, Luke Dawson knows that love is just an illusion. His abusive, alcoholic father taught him that. In Some Like It Hot by Susan Andersen, Max Bradshaw’s father made it a habit of abandoning his sons.

Some books are a combination of both. You can’t have a worse childhood than Cameron, Ethan, Phillip, and Seth from Nora Roberts’s Chesapeake Bay series. But luckily their whole childhood wasn’t filled with misery. They had the good fortune to be adopted by Stella and Ray Quinn, and then they in turn impacted Seth Quinn’s childhood for the better.

The Biscuit Witch by Deborah SmithIn Deborah Smith’s new series, the MacBride siblings from The Biscuit Witch, The Pickle Queen, and not yet released The Kitchen Charmer, have not had an easy life. While they don’t live in each other’s pockets, they know the importance of family, especially after losing both their mother and dad at an early age.

Any of these family scenarios can be make a novel compelling, but I have to admit that I enjoy the stories where the familial relationship is a positive one. As Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and a whole family adds so much more to a story. It’s like a two for one—a great love affair and immersion in a story where family do what they are intended to do. Not only is the reader moved by the love affair between the hero and heroine, but by scenes between the family members.

The idea for a post on family came after reading Virginia Kantra’s Dare Island series. I love the Fletchers. Even though the three siblings, Matt, Meg, and Luke, are in their thirties, they rely on their parents and each other for support. They have each other’s back. In fact, that is the family saying—“Back to Back to Back.” In Carolina Girl, Meg realizes that it is a nice feeling to have an ally outside her family.

She shot him a mischievous look. “Of course, he might have been the tiniest bit intimidated by Dad cleaning his gun on the kitchen table when he came to pick me up.”

Sam winced. “Your parents do know you’ve had sex before right?”

“New York Meg has sex. Dare Island Meg, not so much. Not under my parents' roof.” In fact, Tom’s insistence on separate bedrooms was one of the reasons Derek had rarely accompanied Meg on her visits home. She slid Sam a wry look. “And never with you.”

Sam carried her bag down the walk toward the back door of the inn. Good thing I drove to Raleigh to meet you, then.”

“It’s not too late to back out.”

“I won’t sneak around. And we’re facing your family together.”

She had never felt the need for a buffer against her family. They were on her side, always. Back to back to back. The idea that she could have an ally outside her immediate family circle was…

Weird. And not entirely unpleasant.

Exclusively Yours by Shannon StaceyShannon Stacey’s Kowalski family struck a chord when they were first introduced in Exclusively Yours, because the members seem so realistic. They might bicker a bit, but the love for one another shines through:

He’d tried to hide his pain when she’d dumped him and taken off for California. With two pain-in-the-ass brothers, he couldn’t afford to be seen crying over a girl. But then Ma had snuck into his room and sat on the edge of the bed. She’d rubbed his back as she had when he was little and he didn’t feel good, and somehow he’d wound up with his head in her lap, sobbing his sorry, broken heart out.

The most touching scenes in books tend to mimic the way we interact with our family, and when we read them we experience emotional memory. Reading this scene from Suddenly You by Sarah Mayberry brings back a wealth of feelings, because it is unusual for the men in my family to freely show tears:

His father shook his head, lips pressed together, eyes swimming. Harry’s own eyes pricked with tears and he blinked rapidly.

“Bloody hell,” he said.

He flung an arm around his father’s back and hauled him close. After the barest second his father reciprocated, squeezing him so hard Harry was sure he heard a rib pop. They stayed like that for a long seconds, both of them fighting back tears. His father thumped him on the back a couple of times, then released him, taking an abrupt step backward.

What romance novel families are memorable to you? Do you have a favorite book or favorite scene about family interaction that always just gets you?


Leigh Davis, Blogger

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Kareni
You've named a number of my favorite fictional families (hey, alliteration!) I'll add Lisa Kleypas' Travis family and the Hathaways.
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
I love the way NR does families. Other favorites are the Dempseys from Jennifer Crusie.
Lee Brewer
3. LeeB.
Well not mentioned but one of my favorites are the Bridgertons from Julia Quinn.
4. lauralee1912
The Bridgerton family is a favorite of mine, along with the O'Briens in Sherryl Woods Chesapeake Shores series.

Thanks for a thoughtful post. I also love the Fletchers!
Maggie Boyd
5. maggieboyd66
I loved Karen Witemeyer's Archer family. The books are funny, sweet and poignant. My second favorite family is NR's Concannon Sisters. Haven't read the books in years but I have really good memories of them.
6. Janga
You mention several of my favorite fictional families. I'd add Linda Howard's Mackenzies and Nora Roberts's Stanislakis to the list. Terri Osburn's Dempseys, a blended family, are a recent addition to my list. And the series is just starting, but I'm already in love with Marie Force's Abbotts. Then there are the series like Kristan Higgins's Blue Heron books that feature great families like the Hollands and seriously flawed one like the O'Rourkes. Most long-running series such as Robyn Carr's Virgin River, Susan Mallery's Fool's Gold, Emily March's Eternity Springs, Susan Wiggs's Lakeshore Chronicles. RaeAnne Thayne's Hope's Crossing, etc. include families in all your categories. What about the families with parents who failed but siblings who form a tight, supportive group such as the Nolans in Lisa Kleypas's Friday Harbor series? Is that a separate category? Of course, I haven't even touched on my favorite families in historical romance. :)
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