Kissing Books: The Niceness Industrial Complex

Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.

The more people there are around you, the easier it is to disappear.

You can be anonymous in a city, if you want: travel to a new neighborhood, or try a new restaurant, and you encounter a whole different circle of strangers. But in a small town, everyone knows who you are. Everyone’s always watching, judging, gossiping about the ups and downs of everyone else’s life. No wonder so many romance novels and series take place in small towns: a small town makes everything significant, and a romance novel is all about the life-changing significance of ordinary things. A ring, a letter, three small and well-worn words.

For a long time I was grappling with why small-town romances felt like historicals to me — but it’s only very recently that I stumbled over part of the answer. Author Jennifer Hallock’s presentation for this year’s IASPR conference (that’s the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance — they have a wonderful journal!) introduced me to the delightful term chronotope, which is a shorter, fancier way of saying the way in which fiction represents time and space. Hallock’s work looks at the Regency/Victorian chronotope in romance to explore why there are more fictional dukes than real ones, and the shocking reason why none of them are afflicted with historically accurate syphilis (spoiler: it’s because syphilis isn’t sexy).

If we can consider the historical romance as establishing a chronotope primarily of time, then I think there’s a case to be made for the small-town romance subgenre as maintaining a chronotope of space. There is often a faint sense that these places are somewhat set apart from the wider world, like Brigadoon or Camelot. So many of these towns are not meant to be real so much as they’re meant to be Nice: idyllic Main Streets lined with non-franchise diners and art galleries and cupcake bakeries, near some pristine body of salt- or fresh water. They often have cutesy or openly symbolic names: Virgin River, Lucky Harbor, Sweetwater Springs. They promise comfort in turning away from the troubles of the real world. I don’t mean this as a blanket dismissal of the form: legion are the readers who pick up a small-town romance in the hospital, or when grieving a loss, because they need to find one small place in which nothing truly bad can happen. We need books that soothe as much as we need books that startle. Done well, these comfort reads can be engrossing, dreamlike, and restorative.

Unfortunately in this world some people’s comfort counts more than others’ — and as Sondheim says, Nice is different than Good. Some authors, in attempting to write something Nice, choose to erase entire groups of people from their fictional landscapes. Some kinds of bigotry don’t depend on malice: they depend only on your willingness to believe that, say, race or queerness only belongs in certain kinds of stories. This is the stunted logic that says queer people shouldn’t appear in sweet or cozy stories, because queer people signify sex — and people of color shouldn’t appear in stories that aren’t about race, because people of color produce racism out of thin air simply by showing up. So you get fictional rural towns full of lily-white, stick-straight characters. And then you label these places “safe,” in ways that books with non-default characters aren’t. Next thing you know you’re using “urban” to describe a character when what you mean to say is “black” — because you’ve internalized the rural=white myth and you think describing someone’s skin color is rude. Because you think it’s like pointing out something that’s wrong with them. And that’s not a Nice thing to do.

Do you see how you’ve just shored up white supremacy a little bit more? Do you see how you’ve erased queer people from your make-believe corner of the nation? If you let yourself believe queer people shouldn’t exist somewhere, it’s a very short leap to believing they shouldn’t exist anywhere. In trying to keep your story Nice, you’ve fertilized the pernicious lie that small towns are naturally white, straight, and conservative — when in fact, in the real world, many of those places systematically drove out the queer folks and people of color who did live there by legislative discrimination, redlining, and sheer brutal violence. Your attempts to be Nice have made straight white people’s comfort a higher priority than people of color and/or queer people’s right to exist. You’ve bought into what Ijeoma Oluo describes as the promise of racism: you will get more because they will get less.

This whole tangle, which I’ve started referring to as the Niceness Industrial Complex, put me off a lot of small-town romance for a long time — until I found that it doesn’t have to be this way. Whiteness/straightness is not actually a genre requirement. There are other series that use the small town’s set-apart quality to foster a less narrow, or even subversive space: Lydia San Andres’ gorgeous Edwardian-era tropical island of Cuidad Real; Alisha Rai’s exuberantly inclusive Forbidden Hearts series; Victoria Dahl’s staunchly feminist small-town heroines; Beverly Jenkins’ black-centered communities in books like Vivid, Forbidden, and the Destiny trilogy; Rebekah Weatherspoon’s mountain retreats in Haven and Sanctuary (speaking of symbolic names!); Rose Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston Regencies with historical British Jewish rep and servant-class heroes and heroines. All these settings give us vibrant, engaging communities where all kinds of people love and are loved. They preserve the escapism of the chronotope without indulging its harmful prejudicial tendencies.

Three of this month’s romances are set in small towns: Erin Satie’s Bed of Flowers, Carla Buchanan’s Pride and Passion, and Farah Mendlesohn’s Spring Flowering. Jude Lucens’ Behind These Doors and Farrah Rochon’s Cherish Me take place in cities, but have a close-up focus on families (both the ones you find and the ones you’re born into) that gives them a small-town sense of interconnectedness: everyone knows who you are, and everyone’s a part of your history. Some of these settings are protective; some are suffocating; one is practically Orwellian in the way it surveils and punishes its characters for breaking social norms. Though the characters are frequently kind — Spring Flowering’s Ann in particular is a paragon of thoughtfulness — none of these books are Nice in the way I’ve described. The questions they ask are difficult, and often painful: what does it mean to be good? What do I owe to the world, or to my partner? What can I do to work toward happiness in the face of grave injustice and hurt?

These are questions always worth the asking, even when we think we have the answers.

Recent Romances:

Bed of Flowers by Erin Satie (Little Phrase: historical m/f):

I am abashed it has taken me this long to read something by Erin Satie — but lord was it worth the wait. This Victorian romance is a whole world in miniature: a moral-minded port town recovering from a devastating fire, an impoverished beauty newly engaged to the handsomest man in the neighborhood, and a misanthropic baron who sleeps in the greenhouse where his rare and delicate orchids grow. Everything is a delicate balance of old resentments, hidden agendas, and smouldering pain — how could there not be a scandal brewing?

This kind of thing generally follows an established pattern in historical romance: first, the heroine flouts polite convention in ways a modern reader will find sympathetic. Usually by having sexual desires or intelligence or wanting meaningful independence, that kind of thing. The resulting outcry becomes a litmus test whereby we judge the other characters: those who condemn are Bad and therefore Ignorable, and those who support the heroine despite the stain on her reputation are Good, and therefore Worthy. It’s rare for a character depicted as loving to end up on the Bad side of this equation.

This book asks a more difficult question: what if being good came with real, painful consequences? What if doing the right thing cost you your family — even if they still claimed to love you?

Bonny, our heroine, makes her fatal choices as we watch. Our hero Lord Loel’s moments of decision happened in the past, and are revealed in conversation as he and Bonny work out what they mean to one another. Both characters put saving a life above family advancement, and both suffer for it. Real suffering, not merely the oh no who will invite us over for tea now? kind of mild social consequences modern romance so frequently presents as disaster. Here things are far more serious: financial ruin, abusive language, mob violence, and the subtler pain of refusal of services (market stalls won’t sell to Lord Loel, for instance, which is no small burden in a small town).

At one point a wealthy London socialite — whose wealth insulates her from a lot of the moral quandaries other characters are forced into — explains that with scandals, “We are more forgiving of our friends than our foes.” This book lays bare the uncomfortable truth that the scandal trope’s moral test is usually merely a sop to the reader’s modern sensibility. Bed of Flowers shows how even a loving, thoughtful family — a beloved sister, a pair of parents whose own marriage is solid and supportive — can choose to shun a daughter who has erred in the eyes of the world. There is no reconciliation at the end to erase all the pain. But this refusal to satisfy with an easy out makes the romance far more meaningful — it has weight to it, because something was given up on its behalf. It feels like the start of something genuinely new. The next book in the series has a biracial novelist heroine, and you can bet I’m already pretty excited about it.

He was handsome, too, but in a feral way. All his features were sharp: his cheekbones were sharp, his chin was sharp. Even his nose sloped down to a sharp point. He looked like a man who, if he tried to give a lady a kiss, would cut her instead.

Cherish Me by Farrah Rochon (Wandering Road Press: contemporary m/f):

Marriage in trouble books disprove the idea that romance narratives are purely courtship-centered stories that end when the protagonists say their vows. As we saw with Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner’s A Midnight Feast, you’ve got to set up problems that feel like real obstacles, then knock them down in a way that feels like substantive progress. It’s about as hard to do this in fiction as it is in real life. This book is one of the strongest examples of the form I’ve ever read. I believed in these characters wholeheartedly, even when they were struggling to believe in themselves.

Rochon sets this up elegantly by taking the time to give the reader a full family portrait through the eyes of our hero and heroine — because of course this isn’t just a marriage with two people: it’s a family, with children and siblings and cousins and everyone’s hopes and disappointments and pressures inherent. The detail builds in layers, scene by scene, each small problem piling up until they make a mountain: hero Harrison’s concerns about a pending legal case, heroine Willow’s worry about her son’s pre-diabetes, their daughter’s teenage angst, the recent loss of Harrison’s mother, all viewed through the lens of a relationship that has suddenly, mysteriously ceased to be the source of joy and support that it once was. It’s a lot, and in the roughest moments it just feels like nobody has enough time to deal with everything that’s happening. This is all very everyday drama, but in Rochon’s capable hands it’s irresistibly compelling. Touches of humor soften the angst, and cameos from past series heroes and heroines offer tantalizing glimpses of earlier stories: a Vegas elopement, a playboy settling down with a comic-book artist.

This book is not entirely escapist, I think, but it is a testament to the necessity of escapism. Harrison and Willow can’t work on the problems between them until they’re removed from their usual haunts and habits. We first get to know them in the midst of their ordinary lives — then we watch as an anniversary trip to Italy helps them blossom into fuller, better versions of themselves. (Rochon is a dedicated traveler and her descriptions of the sights are one of the book’s great pleasures.) Deeply grounded, poignantly felt, and spiritually generous, this is one of those romances that feels like more than entertainment. It feels like you’re watching two people learn how to be better, happier human beings, and sharing in their mutual joy.

What she wouldn’t give to click her heels three times and return to the relationship she’d shared with Harrison for the nearly two decades they’d been together. You’re in Rome, not Oz.

Behind These Doors by Jude Lucens (Greenwose Books: historical m/bi m):

At the start of this book we have an Edwardian-era upper-crust poly trio in a long-established relationship, and one lonely gossip journalist with class consciousness issues. By the end of this book we know a whole ensemble of people whose search for personal happiness and political agendas we’ve had to factor in: members of parliament, militant suffragettes, queer men and women, bigoted family members, snobby newspaper editors, former streetwalkers and their families, valets, footmen, seamstresses doing piece-work, cooks, Boer War veterans, people of color, and disabled characters of both the upper and lower classes. It was incredibly transporting, a very persuasive snapshot of Edwardian London.

That's not all — there’s a great many other things this book does exceptionally well. Aubrey Fanshawe, our bisexual aristocrat with a tendency toward self-deprecation, is adorable and clumsy and utterly charming. Lucien Saxby, an army survivor turned gossip journalist painfully aware of the gap between his working-class roots and the nobs he writes about, is fascinating as someone who both desperately wants to care for someone and desperately wants not to be depended upon as a servant. The last thing he needs is to get entangled with a whole passel of aristocrats — so of course that’s where he ends up. Poly romances are always most interesting to me when they use polyamory not for cheap drama, but to show the process of constant negotiation and communication required to sustain a web of relationships so complex and vulnerable. This story reminds me of the poly characters of Solace Ames in the way small shifts in one person’s thinking can add huge amounts of tension to a relationship. Everyone has the best of intentions toward themselves and others — well, except for the bigoted relatives — but there’s still so much pain and conflict and real risk involved in telling someone how you feel about them, and learning where you stand in return. It’s the kind of charged story where every exchange matters: two characters argue over where to store a pair of sapphire cufflinks after they’re removed and you know it’s a stand-in for an argument over Who They Are and How They View the World. Recommended if you’re in the mood for Merchant Ivory-style pining and costumes, but without the crushing tragedy.

Swaying with the carriage, Aubrey stared at him in silence. Stark white lamplight glared through the windows, then faded into darkness, over and again. White shirt and pale face gleamed between the black coat and tall top hat, then disappeared into shadow: perfect symmetry revealed and then snatched away in regular, tantalizing rhythm.

Pride and Passion by Carla Buchanan (self-published: historical m/f):

The Decades series, with one black-centered historical per decade of the 20th century, has been an absolute godsend for people like me who love seeing romance authors branch out into less well-traveled historical eras. Carla Buchanan’s entry for the 1950s shows the budding love between a Korean War veteran and his friend’s widow, with the Civil Rights Movement as informing context. While heroine Constance navigates the shifting, unsteady pathways of mingled public and private grief, hero Nathaniel struggles with the emotional legacy of an abusive childhood. The questions are vital and universal: how do you move on from devastating loss when it’s all anyone can see when they look at you? How do you find purpose and joy in a world with so much tragedy built in?

I was pleased and charmed at the start of the book, and the more I read the more profoundly I was moved. There’s a quiet depth to this book that soothes the troubled soul. The characters are layered and self-doubting but the prose is frank and clear as crystal, which makes the moments of highest drama land with a resonant weight I can only describe as Shakespearean. At several points I actually gasped aloud. The book has a longer timeframe than many romances — entire years occasionally pass between chapters — but that expansiveness suits the story beautifully. Nathan’s carefully controlled strength pairs nicely with Connie’s fierce tenderness, and it’s easy to see why they fall so hard and so fast for one another. Easy to see what keeps them apart so long, too. Of all this month’s romances, this is the one that is most openly ambivalent about the nature of a small town: it’s home for Connie, and becomes home for Nathaniel, but it’s clear that the comfortable bubble to be found there can be stifling as well as protective. Perlshaw, Georgia is a safe place to heal, but there comes a time in every healing when bandages should be stripped away and the world must be explored and enjoyed and confronted once again.

You see, Constance knew she had to grieve. She knew she had to grieve, but she also knew she had to live as well. And because grieving felt so much like joining Al in death, life was what she chose even though no one else chose that for her.

This Month’s Historical With Double the Heroines

Spring Flowering by Farah Mendlesohn (Manifold Press: historical f/f)

Lately I’ve been craving a good f/f historical and it’s been surprisingly hard to find. So hard, in fact, that I started writing one. All I wanted was an Avon-style Regency with two heroines — why was this such an impossible quest? Finally, someone recommended Spring Flowering to me, and I’m so grateful they did. This is absolutely a romance reader’s romance — delicate and subtle and complex, playing with tropes and expectations and story rhythms like a virtuoso at an antique ivory keyboard. It’s some of the best Austen I’ve seen outside of Austen. This is also definitely an older style of romance: the story is told all from one heroine’s perspective, with part of the challenge for the reader being to puzzle out the real love story hidden in plain sight. Someone turns cold to our heroine for no reason — but of course there’s secretly a reason! Someone blushes at odd moments and her speech seems laden with double meanings — but of course the experienced reader can guess why! Ann, our pastor’s daughter heroine, has been knocked off-course by first her father’s death and now a move to the manufacturing town of Birmingham, impeccably rendered: we discover her as she rediscovers herself, going from wounded and hesitant to strong and self-principled. The ending is a beautiful, quiet triumph, and the more I think about it the happier I feel. To say too much about this book is to risk marring the reading of it, so I will simply leave you with one of the best and swooniest quotes, as one character grants Ann a lock of her hair:

“Do you remember the fairy tales were were told as children, and the one where the giant kept his heart in the ring in his nose? My heart is in this curl, Ann. Do not lose it.”