Dec 14 2015 9:30am

Centuries, Countries, Cultures: Epic Romances Lead to Epic Loves

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCulloughHeroic, long, grand, monumental are the words used to describe an epic. Webster’s tells us that epics tell a story about a hero/heroine or about exciting events or adventures which are very great or large and usually difficult or impressive. In the '80s, epic romances such as The Far Pavilions by M.M. KayeThe Thorn Birds by Colleen McCulloughPrincess Daisy by Judith Krantz, or Evergreen by Belva Plain abounded. Covering the life span of a single character, these huge volumes recorded the loves and losses of men and women leading thrilling, turbulent lives.

In the '90s, the genre moved toward shorter books which concentrated on the courtship period of a couple. There were fewer separations and lots more emphasis on the HEA. But for readers still longing for that over-the-top, majestic, sweeping saga-style story there is good news. Epic romances are still on the shelves, in more abundance than you might think.

The first story that comes to mind is one that is undoubtedly familiar to most readers—the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. In Outlander, heroine Claire Randall is told “Some individuals are chosen by God to affect the destinies of many.” When Claire travels back through time she finds herself falling in love with Jamie Fraser, a Scots warrior and their epic, enduring love story changes the future of many. Their romance is far too epic for any one novel and is told over the course of eight books (so far).

The Ashford Affair by Lauren WilligAlmost all of Lauren Willig’s books are epic in scope. There is of course her Pink Carnation serieswhich cover the loves and adventures of a group of young spies during the Napoleonic Wars. Then there are books like The Ashford Affair, which tell the romance of a single, amazing couple.

In this book, granddaughter Clemmie has always admired grandparents Frederick and Addie. “They were, Clemmie had always thought, rather an inspiration.” The two had lived a life of incredible adventure and glamour.

They had met when Granny Addie was still, as they quaintly put it, in the schoolroom, and married when she was in her twenties. Together, they had taken a little farm in Kenya and turned it into a thriving coffee company. The business had been sold back in the seventies, swallowed up by Maxwell House, but the back hallways of Granny Addie’s apartment were hung with old posters, now framed, advertising KENYAN COFFEE— FOR THE DISCRIMINATING PALATE. Some even featured a younger-looking Granny Addie, poised and impossibly aristocratic, a coffeepot in one hand, a cup and saucer in the other.

They had been together so long, Granny Addie and Grandpa Frederick.

The Ashford Affair tells not just the epic love story of Addie and Frederick but the great mystery of Bea, cousin to Addie, which sends Clemmie on her own grand adventure.

[RELATED: What to read after Outlander]

The Winter Sea by Susanna KearsleySusanna Kearsley is known for her detailed, historically rich novels which combine the past and present with a touch of enchantment. In The Winter Sea and The Firebird she tells of the McClelland family and the way the past informs the lives of their present day relations.

Like many epic novels, The Winter Sea begins with destiny.

It wasn’t chance. There wasn’t any part of it that happened just by chance.

Those are the words of Carrie McClelland, a 21st Century author who writes historical fiction. She’s in Scotland doing research for her latest book when she begins to experience something she never has before – dreams which seem to deliver her story to her.

On Tuesday night, the last night that I spent in France, I dreamt of Slains. I woke, still in my dream, to hear the roaring of the sea beneath my windows and the wind that raged against the walls until the air within the room bit cold against my skin. The fire was failing on the hearth, small licks of dying flame that cast half-hearted shadows on the floorboards and gave little light to see by.

“Let it be,” a man’s voice mumbled, low, against my neck. “We will have warmth enough.” And then his arm came round me, solid, safe, and drew me firmly back against the shelter of his chest, and I felt peace, and turned my face against the pillow, and I slept. . .

It was so real. So real, in fact, that I was half-surprised to find myself alone in bed when I woke up on Wednesday morning.  

Carrie soon finds herself obsessed with telling the story of Sophia Paterson and her handsome Jacobite, the people in her dream. When she meets Graham Keith, it seems to her that everything makes sense—that the story and man together are the reason she is where she is.

But Graham held more tightly to me. “Let it be,” he mumbled, low, against my shoulder. “We’ll be warm enough.”

My eyes closed and I started drifting, too. Until I realized what he’d said.

I was awake again and staring. “Graham?”

But he was already sleeping deeply, and he didn’t hear.

It might just be a coincidence, I thought, that he had twice now used the same words that I’d written in my book, the words that Moray had once spoken to Sophia. And Moray only looked like him because I’d made him look like him...

The Firebird is the story of Anna, daughter to Sophia. Anna takes part in many adventures and leaves behind a treasured carving which is passed down through her family for generations. When one of her descendants has need of money they try to sell the carving but it lacks provenance. Nicola Marter has the ability to tell the history of an object just by holding it. She knows the woman is telling the truth, that she is desperate for the funds and that all Nicola needs to do to be able to give her that money is to find something, anything to prove the Firebird carving was once a gift from an Empress.

Finding that provenance sends Nicola on adventures that rival Anna’s, traveling from London to Scotland and on to Russia to discover the history of the small carving and the woman whom it was given to. Like Anna, she finds herself wrapped up in an epic romance.

“I know," she (Anna) said. “I’ll wait.”

“It might be months.”

Why was he talking? Anna wondered. Reaching up she kissed him lightly on the hard line of his jaw. “Ye’ll have your pardon, as Deane promised, will ye not?”

He gave a nod, his own mouth lowering.

“Well then,” she said. “I will return to Ireland with my mother and father, and I’ll wait for you, “she told him “to come home.”

And that, to Anna’s satisfaction, was the last thing Edmund let her say for quite some time.

When Nicola comes to the end of her research she finds that letting go of the people from the past she has spent so much time with is easy. But letting go of Rob McMorran who has helped her on her quest will be nearly impossible.

“I will have to go back to London.” (Nicola said)

“I ken that.”

“I’m sure I can get things arranged with Sebastian so I can work partly from Scotland, but that might take time.”

Rob repeated, “I ken that.”

“I mean, it might take a few months.”

Then I heard my own words, and I suddenly realized how closely they followed the last ones that Anna and Edmund had said to each other. I knew Rob had noticed it, too, because I saw the smile in his eyes as he lifted one hand to recapture a strand of my hair that had feathered away in the wind. As his fingers closed round it, he brought his hand warm to the side of my face, and his touch held a promise.

“I’ll wait,” he said gently, “for you to come home.”

And to my satisfaction, that was the last thing he was able to say for some time.

Teatime for the Firefly by Shona PatelOne of the most beautiful epic novels I’ve read in recent years is Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel. Set in India during the 1940s, this story covers not just the love story of Layla Roy and Manik Deb as they brave exotic and isolated tea plantations but the birth pangs of a nation as it takes its first steps to independence.

We receive an amazing introduction to our heroine in the first pages:

My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. The time and place of my birth makes me a Manglik. For a young girl growing up in India in the 1940s this is bad news.  The planet Mars is predominant in my Hindu horoscope and this angry red planet makes people rebellious and militant by nature.  Everyone knows I am astrologically doomed and fated never to marry. Marriages in our society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a warlike bride. Women are meant to be the needle that stitches families together, not the scissors that cut.

Fortunately, Dadamoshai (Layla’s grandfather) does not accept Layla’s fate as fact.

In many ways, Dadamoshai saw me as the poster child for the modern Indian woman.  He gave me the finest education and taught me to speak my mind.  I was free to forge my own destiny.

Layla throws off her unlucky bride status when she wins the attention of Oxford educated Manik Deb and goes with him to the lush jungles of Assam to run a tea plantation. This move places Manik and Layla at the forefront of the battle to take India back from the English piece by piece. The story is one that highlights some of the great features of the epic novel—adventures in exotic locations as well as an opportunity to examine the history surrounding the characters. Layla’s romance tells us of the fight for independence not just for a nation but for the women who have been oppressed by its patriarchal system. Rain Tree Road by the same author explores this subject in even greater detail as it describes the women who turned Dadamoshai into an exemplary advocate of women’s rights.

Choosing just one Karen White novel for this blog was difficult. Most of her wonderful books involve stories that intertwine the past and present to show us how life is not just moments in the existence of one person but a long thread that binds us all together into one large story. In The Sound of Glass, Meritt Heyward learns that three generations of women have grappled with the same problem, tied together by a shameful, unspoken secret.

It begins with Edith Heyward.

She jerked her gaze to the locked door, wondering whether her husband had returned. He didn’t like locked doors. The bruises on her arms, carefully placed and easily hidden under long sleeves, seemed to press against her skin in memory.

It continues with Cecelia Heyward.

Before she could protest, Cal was pulling at the neck of her sweater, looking for the chain. Cecelia stopped him, but not before Edith saw the finger-size bruises on the side of her neck, dark spots that looked like insects marching up from her chest.

It ends with Meritt.

The story had somehow propelled me into an unwanted spotlight as a sort of spokesperson about abusive relationships... I shared our stories, Edith’s, my grandmother’s, mine—to let others know they weren’t alone. That there was help.

Part of Meritt’s healing includes Gibbes, brother to an abuser who reminds her that, “Whatever he did to you, you didn’t deserve.” Their love story is sweet, poignant—and epic.

Overseas by Beatriz WilliamsKate Williams and Julian Laurence of Beatriz Williams’ Overseas are soulmates. When modern Kate, Wall Street analyst and career woman extraordinaire, meets wealthy Julian she’s surprised to discover they share a love of the past:

“I love O’Brian. Historical fiction in general. My friends were always giving me crap about it in college; everyone else was reading chick lit like Shopaholic, that kind of thing. Michelle thinks I was born in the wrong century.” I laughed stiffly.

He didn’t reply.

I turned around. He looked peculiar, preoccupied. The tiny lines about his eyes had deepened; his mouth compressed in an unyielding line. I tried to think of something to say, but he spoke first.

“Do you?” he asked, his voice wound tight.

“Do I what?”

“Think you were born in the wrong century?”

It’s an important question for Julian since he himself is actually a First World War soldier who has travelled forward in time. But just when and where does he belong? In the 21st Century with Kate in America or on a 20th Century battlefield in France? As the cover says, their love must cross “over time, over distance, overseas.”

Three of the authors mentioned in this blog have combined their talents to bring us one epic novel conveying the love stories of three generations connected to the Pratt family mansion. In The Forgotten Room, Lauren Willing, Karen White, and Beatriz Williams tell us the story of Olive, Lucy, and Kate. “Love like this doesn’t come along more than once in a lifetime” each of them are told. For Olive, there is more to her life than the love of her young man. There are her parents—her mother, who needs her now more than ever, and her father, who calls out from his grave for vengeance. Will she be able to choose the man who cares for her over family obligations? Young Lucy’s Grandmother has made it clear she is no blood of hers. Convinced that the loving man she knew as her papa all her life wasn’t actually her father she goes to Manhattan to find out just who was. But when her life there introduces two handsome men into her life whom will she choose? Kate has worked hard to be a doctor, to prove her independence, virtue and strength. But when a handsome patient shows her a miniature of a woman who looks just like her, it launches her on a hunt for the past. It’s clear that the hospital they are in, once the home of a wealthy family holds secrets to both their pasts. But what will they find when they go looking for the truth? Each woman’s story sets the pattern for the next till an explosive conclusion leads to an HEA many years in the making.

Epics tell love stories that have their heroes and heroines spanning centuries, countries, and cultures to arrive at their HEA. Do you enjoy the long, complex stories told in epics? Which are your favorites in the genre? What authors do you feel tell the most epic tales?

Learn more about the books mentioned in this post: 

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye  
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough  
Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz  
Evergreen by Belva Plain  
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon  
The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig  
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley  
Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel  
The Sound of Glass by Karen White  
Overseas by Beatriz Williams  
The Forgotten Room by Karen WhiteBeatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig  













Maggie Boyd, blogger, reviewer, avid reader

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. reanderson
Sara Donati's Into the Wilderness series. It's like Outlander. But better written with 100% more historical accuracy and 95% fewer uses of rape as a plot mover.

(I'm starting an anti-OL club if anyone wants in.)
Lee Brewer
2. LeeB.
I do love epic romances but they are very rare nowadays. Two of my favorites were both by M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions.
Anna Bowling
3. AnnaBowling
I adore epics and would love to see more new ones. Hard to pick a favorite, but I'm going to give the nod to Aola Vandergriff's Daughters of... series, seven books that follow sisters Tamsen, Arab and Em and their descendants from the westward expansion of the mid-19th century (when their father abandons them on the trail, with their wagon and supplies but no horses) to the dawn of Hollywood. These gals and their descendants get around, from San Fransisco to Alaska, Hawaaii, Australia, China, England and more, before coming full circle back to the city by the bay. I am happy-weeping merely thinking of that scene.

These books took some risks. One of the main couples is infertile, another sister loses her first love to suicide, characters struggle with identity issues that come from growing up between cultures, raising a child with mental challenges, parental abandonment, etc. Two major characters must make difficult choices when they are on board the Titanic. This is one epic I wished had kept on going, because this family could have made some major history in the Great Depression, WWII and beyond.
4. Kareni
I read a number of these when I was younger and they were newly released. I haven't read such an epic romance though in years. Perhaps I'm getting lazier or perhaps I have less of an attention span or perhaps there are just so many shorter books out there that are worthy of my time.
5. Veronicasgardengrows
MM Kaye's novels are still some of my favorite books. I have heard about several of these (specifically Outlander) but haven't read them yet.
6. Scarlettleigh
I used to read epic novels more than I do now. I do think that my attention span is less and or, I just not into sequential series anymore.
But I do have some great memories.
Maggie Boyd
7. maggieboyd66
@Lee B. and Veronicasgardengrows - M.M. Kay was the best. Trade Winds and her Death in books are among my favorite novels ever.

@Kareni and Scarlettleigh - I hear you on the attention span; sometimes I just want something short and sweet.

@reanderson - LOL on the anti-OL club! And thanks for the rec.

@AnnaBowling - Something I loved about the epics is the risk taking. Today not only are you assured of an HEA but often the worst thing the H/h have to over come is their initial anitpathy towards each other.
Amy K
8. Amy K
I would second the Sara Donati rec and add that her initial series is actually a sequel of sorts to Last of the Mohicans with the hero being the son of Hawkeye and Cora. She has a new book now featuring descendants of the characters from the first series set in the late 19th Century. Her books deserve a lot more attention.

And thanks for helping me discover that MM Kaye's books are finally on Kindle! I have been wanting to read The Far Pavillions for years but didn't want to drag that huge book around.
9. reanderson
@Amy K I've been known to force people to read Sara Donati. The first two books are good, but Oh! once she stops trying to be OL and lets Hannah take over... I just get tingles.

I also spend a lot of time crossing my fingers that no one options it because I want it to stay a book and not get broken by Hollywood.
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