Dec 8 2014 10:15am

Troubling Times in Romance Novels from Monroe, Anderson, and More!

The Magnate's Manifesto by Jennifer HaywardToday we're joined by author Jennifer Hayward, whose The Magnate's Manifesto is out this month. Jennifer deals with some powerful topics in her books, including her debut, The Divorce Party, where her heroine suffered from anorexia. Jennifer is talking about issues in romance novels and has asked a few author friends to discuss it as well. Thanks, Jennifer!

A few months ago I was involved in a fascinating discussion on  Twitter with some fellow authors who had tackled important issues in their books. Although writing romance is first and foremost about giving our readers a happily-ever-after they can cheer about, and the escapism that comes with it, it was also for us, important to sometimes touch on the bigger issues—the issues that make our characters human and three dimensional, people we can identify with. Human struggle is not an isolated experience. Many of us go through tough periods in our lives, many of us wage battles that are considered taboo, that we don't talk about for fear of being judged. To write a character who has gone through a significant struggle and has triumphed or perhaps learned to exorcise that particular demon on a daily basis makes for an empowering read. It spreads the message that to struggle is okay, to talk about it is okay. It breaks down taboos and sets the example that despite our character’s flaws, or perhaps because of them, they are no less beautiful inside and out, no less heroic for their struggles.

But of course, romance novels have been tackling societal issues for centuries. Jane Austen's wonderful novels of the early nineteenth century told of heroines coping with their place in their families and society as they were being swept up in heart pounding love affairs. Scarlett O’Hara found passion with Rhett Butler against a backdrop of war and slavery.

As the decades have passed, the challenges and issues facing women and society have morphed along with them. Romance novels have addressed everything from the demands of being a working mother to such intense personal challenges as eating disorders, alcoholism and agoraphobia.

Lucy Monroe in her book, Taken: The Spaniard's Virgin, speaks to anorexia, a subject near and dear to my heart as I suffered from this debilitating disease as a teenager. Amber, Lucy’s heroine, comes very close to dying before she finds her way out of the abyss. Says Monroe: “She has to come to realize the cost not eating has on her body as well as her psyche, but she also needs the support of those closest to her. Miguel's love doesn't heal Amber; she has to find healing inside herself, but in doing so, she also opens herself to the reality of that love.

Monroe isn’t shy about her passion for talking to difficult topics. “I determined early on I was fine with being labeled an issues writer because I believe that by addressing issues important to women in our books, we give the message that those dealing with the hard things in life are not alone and that there is hope.”

Here’s a scene from TaTaken: The Spaniard's Virgin by Lucy Monroeken: The Spaniard’s Virgin. Says Monroe: “It's a harsh place for Amber to be emotionally, but so true to the diseases that attack our minds as well as our bodies.”

She'd been a little stunned at first that no one had demurred when she'd said she didn't want to be a model anymore. Then she'd latched onto the fact from a couple of things her mom and sister had said that they blamed her career in part for her near death experience from self-enforced starvation.

They blamed Miguel too and the stress of learning she'd been kidnapped as a baby. Her mom still felt guilty, no matter what Amber said. She hated that, but she couldn't admit the truth. That her inability to eat was her own fault...she was the one who had killed her baby.

She couldn't admit that to them though.

If she allowed herself to feel, the grief and guilt would overwhelm her.

Ellie was looking at her worriedly again and she realized she'd let her façade of contentment slip. She was pulling it back into place, trying to project warm friendliness in her eyes when the doorbell rang. Seconds later her dad's housekeeper led Miguel Menendez into the room.

He looked haggard. Dark circles under his eyes, thinner than she'd last seen him and his complexion was almost sallow with stress and fatigue. Even so, he was the most gorgeous thing her eyes had ever set on.

Shouldn't she hate the sight of him? But she didn't...only the feelings trying to break through her self-imposed barrier.

He ignored everyone else in the room and focused entirely on her. “Querida, we need to talk.”

The world went dark around the edges. She swayed.

He lurched toward her, his arms stretched out and he swore. In Chinese. Like the first time he cursed around her.

For some reason that was more than she could take and the blackness descended like a welcome blanket.

Sarah M. Anderson has dealt with alcoholism and addiction issues in several of her books, including A Man of Privilege and her recent release, Tempted by a Cowboy. When asked why this has been an important focus for her Anderson says, “For starters, I often write about Native American Indian heroes and heroines and alcoholism is an issue that affects tribal members disproportionately. So to pretend that addiction issues don't exist doesn't do my characters or real people any favors. But beyond that, addiction is something that has touched my life personally. I also have OCD issues, which means that I personally know what it's like to want to stop doing something and not being able to.”

Tempted by the Cowboy by Sarah M. Anderson“In my recent book, Tempted by a Cowboy,” says Anderson, “the hero, Phillip Beaumont, is an active alcoholic. He thinks he can quit drinking whenever he wants to—he just doesn't want to. He hires a horse trainer named Jo Spears, who has been sober for a decade following a horrific drunk-driving accident that left her permanently scarred. They butt heads about Phillip's drinking in an early scene:“

Jo sighed. “Don’t you ever get tired?”

“Excuse me?”

“Tired.” She spoke the word carefully, as if she were pronouncing it for someone who didn’t speak English. “Don’t you get tired of the days and the nights blending together with no beginning and no end? Of waking up and not knowing who you are or where you are or most importantly of all, what you’ve done? Tired of realizing that you’ve done something horrible, something there’s no good way to move on from, so you angle for that blackout again so you don’t have to think about what you’ve become?”

She turned her face to him. Nothing about her was particularly lovely at this moment, but there was something in her eyes that wouldn’t let him go.
“Doesn’t it ever just wear you out?”

He did something he didn’t usually allow himself to do—he glared at her. She couldn’t know what she was talking about and, as far as he was concerned, she was not talking about him.

Still, her words cut into him like small, sharp knives and although it made no sense—she was wrong about him and that was final—he wanted to drink the rest of his coffee and let the whiskey in it take the edge off the inexplicable pain he felt, but she was watching him. Waiting to see if he’d buckle.

Well, she could just keep right on waiting. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” His voice came out quieter than he’d meant it to. He almost sounded shaky to his own ears. He didn’t like that. He didn’t betray weakness, not to his family, not to anyone.

A shadow of sadness flickered across her face, but it was gone as she turned back to the paddock. “If that’s what gets you through the night.” She didn’t wait for him to deny it.

Another compelling example of romance handling weighty issues is Andrea Laurence’s Secrets of Eden series in which the four boys are all foster children and each of them comes to the Garden of Eden Christmas Tree farm with their own unfortunate pasts. Over the course of the four books, Laurence explores child neglect, child abuse, parents dying or going to prison, and finally, surviving rape.

Says Laurence: ”Romance novels are the stories of women’s lives and those lives aren’t always on the smoothest and easiest of roads. There are obstacles and hard times and I think it’s important for characters to experience those things on their way to their happy ending. They are hard stories to write, but if just one reader sees a character going through the same difficulties they’re experiencing and it gives them hope that they can get through it too, it’s worth it.”

Her Secret Husband by Andrea LaurenceIn Her Secret Husband, the fourth and final book in Laurence’s Secrets of Eden series, the Edens’ biological daughter Julianne and foster son Heath are returning home to help on the farm when Julianne’s father has a heart attack. Says Laurence, “Without giving away too much about the series as a whole, I’ll say that Julianne and Heath have a past together they’ve never really addressed because Julianne is afraid to tell him the truth about what happened to her when they were teenagers, Julianne has always put other’s feelings first, so she’s kept the truth of her attack a secret for years, even when it threatened to ruin their relationship. Like in reality, she doesn’t necessarily handle the situation the right way, but eventually, she realizes that secrets hurt more than they help." Here’s a scene from the book where she wrestles with the decision to keep her rape from Heath:

“Talking with Sheriff Duke made me realize I should’ve seen it coming. With Tommy. I should’ve known he was going to come for you. And I left you alone. When I think about how bad it could’ve been…” His voice trailed off. “I never should’ve left you alone with him.”

“You didn’t leave me alone with him. I was doing my chores just like you were, and he found me. And you can’t see the future. I certainly don’t expect you to be able to anticipate the moves of a monster like he was. There’s no reason why you should have thought I would be anything but safe.”

He looked up at her at last, his brow furrowed with concern for things he couldn’t change now. “But I did know. I saw the way he was looking at you. I knew what he was thinking. My mistake was not realizing he was bold enough to make a move. What if you hadn’t been able to fight him off? What if he had raped you?” He shook his head, his thoughts too heavy with the possibilities to see Julianne stiffen in her seat. “I wish he had just run away. That would’ve been better for everyone.”

The pained expression was etched deeply into his forehead. He was so upset thinking Tommy had attacked her. She could never ever tell Heath how successful Tommy had been in getting what he’d wanted from her. He already carried too much of the blame on his own shoulders and without cause. Nothing that happened that day was his fault.

Powerful stuff huh?

When I was younger, I never talked about my struggle with anorexia. It was done and over with, I had managed to pull myself back from the brink of a disease that could have killed me. I felt the shame of it being such a taboo. I wanted to move on.

I wished I’d talked about it earlier, I wish I’d talked about how easy it is to give in to societal and peer pressure, to unrealistic standards of how we as women should look, how empowering it felt to finally control something in my life when everything felt so out of control. But sometimes it takes the perspective of a good amount of life lived to recognize that speaking only makes you stronger. That wrestling your demons to the ground only enhances your personal power.

To write about things that matter is a unique opportunity for us as authors to give back through our own experiences, whether direct or indirect. It isn’t something to be wasted.

I’ll close with a wonderful quote from Sarah Anderson:

“Despite what some people assume about romance, it is not a perfect world filled with perfect people. That's not a romance, nor is that why we read romances. The characters are flawed—some more than others—and it's how they cope and adjust for those flaws that make the journey worthwhile. So while Romance might have the larger message of Everyone Deserves a Happy Ending, I want to make sure that includes people who might think they don't deserve one because there's something that controls them, not the other way around.”


Learn more about or order a copy of The Magnate's Manifesto by Jennifer Hayward, available now:

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JENNIFER HAYWARD has been a fan of romance since filching her sister’s novels to escape her teenaged angst. Her career in journalism and PR, including years of working alongside powerful, charismatic CEOs and traveling the world, has provided perfect fodder for the fast-paced, sexy stories she likes to write, always with a touch of humour. Her debut novel, The Divorce Party, explores the affect anorexia has on her heroine Lily’s glittering, high profile Manhattan society marriage. Jennifer’s latest novel, The Magnate’s Manifesto, is available now with Harlequin Presents.

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1. Scarlettleigh
I am very much a fan of heroines having personal tribulations in novels. I think that is one reason I enjoy women's fiction so much. There is more to the story then just sexual attraction and the heroine getting her man.

And I do appreciate that Harlequin authors tend to tap into issues facing women today.

There is one caveat though -- I want the issues to be personal to the heroine or a character, not a political message that the author sneaks into the story. As an example the heroine can have problems with immigration, but I dislike being told in the story all that is wrong with the present system. Does that make sense?

Once I feel like I'm being preached to, then the author loses me even if I agree with their views.

Thanks for a great blog, and for sharing your own personal struggles.
2. JenniferHayward
I totally hear you Scarlett! I am the same way when I read books. Love having this feedback. And I know some readers would prefer not to have any isssues in their books - prefer it is pure fantasy. We are all different and that's what makes it so interesting!
Megan Frampton
3. MFrampton
Jennifer, thanks for joining us to share your and your fellow writers' thoughts--I really like issue-driven romance, especially because I definitely don't like perfect heroines.
5. AmandaCinelli
Powerful post, Jen.

I'm a big fan of books that tackle the more serious issues. The stories that stay with me are the ones that make me stop and think. Your story is inspirational xxx
6. JenniferHayward
Thanks Megan! That's the thing - I think heroines go through this stuff too.

Thanks for stopping by Karen!

Thanks Amanda! :) So glad you dropped by!
7. Racahel Thomas
I enjoyed this post Jennifer and love to read a story with personal issues for the characters - it's what makes them real. As you said in your post, we all have tough times in our lives.
8. Melanie Milburne
Hi Jennifer,
Great post! I am so glad other writers tackle challenging issues in their novels. Romance novels are entertaining and escapism to a point, but they are also lessons on life- as indeed most literature is.
Thanks for sharing Lucy and Andrea and Sarah's work too!
9. Jennifer Hayward
thanks Rachael and Melanie! So glad you dropped by!
10. Kate Walker
Thaks for this post, Jennifer. I'm all for romance dealiong with important issues while in the threads of a great romance story. It can be tricky to deal with something that really goes deep in the short word count and primary romance focus - but when it's done well it can really hit home and communicate deeply. But I'll agree with Scarlett that the problems have to be personal to the hero or heroine - and part of the devlopment of the story not used to preach. I have had so many messages, thanks ,emails etc about my book Kept For Her Baby about a heroine suffering post natal psychosis . One woman even wrote to me and said that she wished her husband had read the book before she suffered so badly! And several health practitioners have given it to patients. I totally agree with Sarah Anderson that romance doesn't portray perfect characters in a perfect world. It's their flaws and problems that make them human and so much more real - and their stories so worth reading.

Thanks for a great blog.

11. Jennifer Hayward
Ah such an important subject Kate! And I agree with all you've said. And passing your books along to patients - that's powerfull stuff! So glad you came by! x
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