I recently read two books that got me thinking about why I read romance. Both of these books were about “long shot” relationships — pairings of people who have so many challenges that in real life, you know the odds would be stacked against them. I probably wouldn’t pick up either of these books in any other genre, but in romance, by authors whom I trust, I can read (heart in my throat much of the time) knowing that it HAS to work out, and it will.
Hard Time, by Cara McKenna, features a librarian main character, one of my favorite romance devices. But the other main character is a prison inmate, doing time for violent crime, and that is WAY out of my comfort zone.
Here’s the blurb:
Annie Goodhouse doesn’t need to be warned about bad boys; good sense and an abusive ex have given her plenty of reasons to play it safe. But when she steps into her new role as outreach librarian for Cousins Correctional Facility, no amount of good sense can keep her mind—or eyes—off inmate Eric Collier.
Eric doesn’t claim to be innocent of the crime that landed him in prison. In fact, he’d do it again if that’s what it took to keep his family safe. Loyalty and force are what he knows. But meeting Annie makes him want to know more.
When Eric begins courting Annie through letters, they embark on a reckless, secret romance—a forbidden fantasy that neither imagines could ever be real…until early parole for Eric changes everything, and forces them both to face a past they can’t forget, and a desire they can’t deny.
The first third or so of this book was hot and sexy, with an edge of the forbidden. I’m a sucker for epistolary devices, too, and the letters between Annie and Eric really worked for me as erotica. Annie’s sexuality really opens up under Eric’s attention, and of course her letters and their brief, chaste physical encounters add a much-needed positive dimension to Eric’s life in prison.
Eric’s release was handled pretty well; Annie doesn’t just rush to continue their relationship, and all the right questions get asked. Eric is patient, not really expecting her to want to be with him, and yet hoping that they can keep their connection and see where things go. The relationship doesn’t develop smoothly, as there are obvious bumps in the road, and yet the couple’s good times are easy to enjoy, even amidst the uncertainty. I really liked the back-and-forth of this part of the book; it felt believable, as Annie negotiated between the powerful emotional pull of Eric and the powerful rational pull of common sense.
The big problem is that Eric isn’t sorry for the assault that put him behind bars; in his world, you have to be willing to fight on behalf of your loved ones, and he’d do it again if he had to. This is a huge challenge for Annie, the daughter of a law enforcement officer who has always gone along with the social model that says that only “bad guys” break the law, especially in violent ways.
Eventually, Annie goes with Eric to visit his family in the rural Michigan trailer park where he grew up, and in that context she has to confront the ways in which his background has shaped him. This was the point in the book where I nearly gave up, because I don’t deal well with graphic violence, and it seemed to me that the potential for that was quite high. But I had a powerful emotional investment in Annie and Eric by that point, so I read on, trusting because this is a romance, it had to work out. And it did — better than I expected, and without the violent confrontation I feared. Annie and Eric’s connection actually got deeper as she realized that this place and these people shaped him into the man she loved — and that some of the qualities she found most attractive in him were part of that, not in spite of that.
Beyond Repair, by Charlotte Stein, wasn’t as scary for me on the surface. But once I started reading the book, it felt very risky.
The blurb didn’t really capture that:
When Alice Evans finds a bona fide movie star on the floor of her living room, she has no idea what to do. Ordinary men are frightening enough, never mind someone as famous and frankly gorgeous as Holden Stark.
However, once she realizes that Holden is suffering behind that famous facade, she knows she has to help. He needs someone like her to give him a taste of sweetness and desire and love. He needs normality. The only problem is—Alice is hiding a secret that is far from normal. In fact, her name isn’t even Alice at all.
And once Holden finds out, the intense connection they are just beginning to build may well be torn apart.
Alice is weird, there’s no question about that. She makes odd mental connections, has strange fantasies, and is a big bundle of fears and phobias. That’s clear from very early in the book, although the extent of her fears and the reason for them are only gradually revealed. Holden (or Bernie, as Alice calls him) is less complicated — although the story begins with his suicide attempt, he has a pretty straightforward story arc towards health and healing, thanks to his connection with Alice. She brings joy, fun and love into his life for the first time, since she’s really the first person not to see him as a meal ticket or celebrity connection.
As their relationship develops, they engage sexually in ways that accommodate Alice’s many fears. Their exploration of sexual boundaries parallels their discovery of other things they have in common — movies, a quirky sense of humor, and a powerful emotional connection. But Alice’s problems make her want to hide away from the world, while Holden is a celebrity, and that seems to be an obstacle that love and compatibility may not be able to overcome. Alice’s reasons are good ones, so (like Holden) the reader wants her to get better without blaming her if she can’t. It makes for an involving story, which is very internal — there’s literally nothing keeping them apart towards the end except Alice’s very real, very crippling fears. In hindsight, the steps on their road make sense, but as I was reading it, it was messy and unpredictable, as seen through Alice’s eyes. I agonized for her, and was glad that I could trust that it would come out all right.
Usually when I talk about romance as comfort reading, I don’t mean books like these — these both had elements that were definitely outside my comfort zone. But the genre meant that I could go ahead and hope for these couples to find their path to happiness together, and that safety net was what I needed.