Apr 17 2014 10:00am

Gorgeous and Gritty: The Appeal of Gritty Romance in Skye Warren’s Wanderlust

Hard Time by Cara McKenna

Today we welcome Cara McKenna to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Cara’s Hard Time came out earlier this week, and it features a convicted felon hero who courts the librarian heroine via clandestine love letters. An ex-con falling for a librarian is not the easiest tale to tell, and comes with some pretty intense moments. Cara is here to share some of the reasons (and recommendations) that gritty is oh-so great. Thanks, Cara!

Editor's note: Please be aware that his post contains discussion of rape and dubious consent.

Darren, Michigan, is a struggling former factory town, home to my most recent book, Hard Time, and the fictional Cousins Correctional Facility. Darren’s a pretty bleak little working-class city, short on both industry and hope. Recently, I asked friends and readers on Twitter what their favorite gritty romances from the past year were, and got loads of excellent recommendations. I picked four that I intended to read and reference in this post, but then something messed that plan all up.

A something called Wanderlust, by Skye Warren.

I’d not read Warren before, but a friend came over for pizza and gossip and told me about it. I caught key words—dubious consent, trucker, kidnapping—and promptly one-clicked.

The trouble with my original plan is that since I started Wanderlust I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I don’t want it out of my head yet, like a flavor I’m a little worried I won’t ever taste again, so I’m hesitant to wash it away with some other meal, no matter how lovely the new tastes might be. It’s beautiful, and it’s so, so, fucked. And wonderful. And fucked. And so not for everyone. Let me explain some of the ways in which it’s fucked.

The twenty-year-old heroine, Evie, is sheltered by her overbearing, abusive, mentally ill mother. Evie dreams of escaping on a road trip to visit Niagara Falls, a place she’s been infatuated with for years. She saves up and formulates a rickety plan, and she goes. But her very first night, she meets the villain. I mean hero. I mean… Jesus, I have no idea. The villain/hero is a thirty-ish drifter and part-time long-haul trucker. Hunter. Don’t let the name fool you—he’s not a typical romance hero, not aside from being handsome and hung and pushy. Make that really pushy. Make that an ex-con, imprisoned for aggravated rape. And he rapes the heroine. Not dub-con at first—straight-up non-con. He rapes her repeatedly, and takes pleasure from her fear. (I found the initial sexual encounters far more frightening than arousing, which I suspect is the reaction Warren intended; this didn’t feel like rape-as-titillation.) Then he drugs her, and kidnaps her, rapes her some more, drugs her again… Like I said, he’s the villain. Yet he’s the hero. And somehow, the story really worked for me. And it totally shouldn’t have. This book is black magic.

Wanderlust by Skye WarrenAll voodoo aside, I think Wanderlust is truly well done. Plainly, beautifully written. The heroine, who one would naturally assume must be crazy or brainwashed or damaged beyond a reader’s ability to muster empathy for, is shockingly self-aware.

Sometimes it seemed to pain him when he hurt me. Maybe it was a sickness, an impulse he couldn’t control or a personality shift that took over him at those times. But he seemed fully aware every time he had taken me. I was just making excuses for the man who held my fate in his hands. False hope that he would do right by me in the end.

She hates herself in moments, she hates him, she hates what he does to her, and hates the fact that sometimes it feels good. She’s hopelessly conflicted, as she has to be. She’s a victim in the most excruciating sense of the word, but no excuses are made for it. It’s not exceptionalized in such a way that we’re asked to forgive her for this, or even forgive him. It just sort of…is. Light is shed on the hero’s behavior, late in the book, but Warren doesn’t ask the reader to absolve him, merely to understand him a little better.

Anyhow, I didn’t mean to write a book report. I’m not even comfortable telling people, “Read this!!” because it’s quite upsetting, and a lot of readers will hate it, passionately. All I can say it that I enjoyed it a lot, and I want to hold it quietly in my brain for a few days before I let any other fiction in.

Wanderlust is the grittiest of the gritty, in my opinion—it teeters along the very sharpest edge of what a book can get away with and still call itself a romance.

So what’s the appeal? Why read gritty, in a genre so typified by luxury and escapism? Why write and read stories about people whose problems are too fundamental to be fixed by love alone? Doesn’t that mess with the very premise of romance, to imply that true love can’t solve all our problems?

Not to me, it doesn’t. While some readers seem to crave escape, I crave realism. And reality’s often a mess—and to me, all the more fascinating for it. I think it has to do with contrasts.

If you’ve ever been backpacking, you’ll know that after a tough stretch of hiking, of dirt and sweat, and a too-hot day chased by a too-chilly dusk, skin whining from bug bites and blisters and maybe sunburn, knees aching…it doesn’t matter what you eat for dinner. It will always be the most delicious meal you’ve ever eaten, because it’s warm and salty and you’re sitting still, and the stars are out, and all you need to do after this is sleep.

When we camp, my husband cooks these pre-packaged Indian meals that come in silver foil pouches, and white rice. If that was our dinner after a day spent lazing around in luxury, I’d be pretty underwhelmed. But after all the effort and relative discomfort, it always tastes better than the best thing I’ve ever ordered in a restaurant.

I’m not usually drawn to books featuring wealthy heroes with lavish homes, and I suspect it’s in part because I see infatuation and affection and lust and sex as quite lavish in themselves. A love affair is a sumptuous thing. Set those pleasures against a backdrop that’s already glittery, and for me, it takes a little of the shine away. Part of me feels like, “Sure, it’s easy to fall in love with champagne on your lips and satin sheets under your back. But get back to me after his guy’s business folds and you two spend a year slumming it on Skid Row.”

Hard Time is almost like a love letter to that contrast. As the hero writes to the heroine:

Everything’s so hard in here. And mean and ugly and loud. I know you want to hear dark things, but what I say about the romantic stuff I want to do with you, I want that so bad I can’t tell you. I want to be in a room with you, so quiet I can hear your breathing and your heart. A place so clean I could smell your skin. And with candles, all yellow and soft after the bright white lights they use in here. I want to be with you someplace that’s nothing like my cell. Someplace big and open, with a giant mattress a foot thick and the softest sheets. Someplace cool in the summer and warm in the winter. In a huge bathtub. On the grass somewhere. I want feminine things, because that’s what I miss. Because in here, everything feels hard and sharp and bright. I want to escape and go someplace dark and soft and quiet.

And he does. But the outside world’s not all rose petals and massage oil, either. It’s a rough town, and nobody’s thriving, and if anything, their romance becomes even harder to foster once he’s paroled. But that’s also what I like about settings like Darren, Michigan, or Skye Warren’s truck stops. Visit a beautifully tended garden, and of course there will be flowers blooming. But to find one blossoming in the middle of a fenced-off dirt lot? That, to me, is worth stopping to stare at, with just a little bit of wonder.


Are you a fan of gritty romances? What are some of your favorites?


Learn more or order a copy of Hard Time by Cara McKenna, available now:

Buy at AmazonBuy at Barnes & NobleBuy at Indiebound



Before becoming a purveyor of smart erotic romance, Cara McKenna worked as a lousy barista, a decent designer, and an over-enthusiastic penguin handler. She loves writing sexy, character-driven stories about strong-willed men and women who keep each other on their toes…and bring one another to their knees.

Cara now writes full-time and lives north of Boston with her bearded husband. When she’s not trapped in her own head, she can usually be found in the kitchen, the coffee shop, or jogging around the nearest duck-filled pond.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. wsl0612
I wasn't aware I was a fan of gritty romance until the last month where I've read Reaper's Property by Joanna Wylde, Unwilling Victim by Cara McKenna, and the start of the Gypsy Brothers series by Lili St. Germain. I can't really pinpoint why I've come to like the genre, maybe it's due to a surfeit of Handsome Billionaires, Controlling Sexy Paranormals, Sweet Young Ingenues and Misunderstood Bitches that seem to abound in so many books lately. But the writing in these books is so good, I just find myself drawn into their worlds. And maybe there are scenes that cause me to cringe, but I still want to know more about the characters and cross my fingers for their survival/redemption/HFN endings.
So I must confess that this book sounds intriguing, even though I have to FF the "video" whenever there's a hint of sexual violence on screen.
Jennifer Proffitt
2. JenniferProffitt
Like @wsl0612, I didn't really realize I was a fan of gritty romance, and I definitely wouldnt' say that's my main romance that I read, but when I find one that I like I LOVE it. I glom onto it like it's water and I'm in the desert. I LOVED Reaper's Property, and loved Reaper's Legacy even more because it took it a step further, a step deeper. And I love your books, Cara. I was talking with someone earlier about how the concept really shouldn't work but the execution of that concept makes it work on so many levels that it is borderline perfect.

I'm not going to lie and say that I'm weary of trying Wanderlust. I've been really on the fence about the Lili St. Germain series wsl0612 mentioned because I just can't see how that setup is going to work in the long-run. To me a rapist can't be a hero, a woman out to kill her rapist and his just doesn't seem to work for me, but I've been mesmerized by your argument, so I think I will give it a try!
Heather Waters
3. HeatherWaters
They're historical rather than contemporary, but I'd call Cecilia Grant's books gritty romances and I gobble them up and talk them up to people at any opportunity. The characters and the situations they're put in are so real and's refreshing.
4. wsl0612
@Jennifer- it's just like that moment when you realize you're rooting for Tony Soprano!
Lucy D
7. Lucy D
I have enjoyed your usual characters in Hard Times, Unbound and After Hours but Wonderlust is definitely not for me. I am one of those who read to be entertained. Absolute escapism. I enjoy an interesting and humorous paranormal romance as much as a contemporary. Books like Wonderlust and movies where people break in and torture the family are just too dark for me.
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