Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Pitfalls of Poor Plotting and of Mere Marquess Heroes Named Gareth

Title: Faith
Author: Deneane Clark
Genre: Regency-set historical
Grade: D
How Hot is it?: 2 chili peppers

Title: Proof by Seduction
Author: Courtney Milan
Genre: early Victorian historical
Grade: A
How Hot is it?: 3 chili peppers

This is a little game of compare and contrast. Both of these stories are historical romances set in the early 1800s and have heroes named Gareth who are Marquesses. Marquesses are not quite Dukes, but they're high up enough that they have the aristocratic appeal. This is pretty much all these books have in common. Faith (the book title and also the heroine's name! It's like a twofer!) is the story of two poorly matched people who are socially forced into marriage after they kiss in a garden during a party. Misunderstandings ensue between them, which make them both miserable. A meddling sister-in-law doesn't help. Eventually the misunderstandings are unraveled. This is the basic "Big Misunderstanding" plot, variation "multiple misunderstandings.

Proof by Seduction
is about an unlikely love affair between a professional fortune-teller and the aristocratic uncle of one of her clients. In this book, the hero sets out to prove the heroine a fraud, and she sets out to not only prove herself but also improve his life--she's a benevolent fortune-teller, trying to improve her clients' lives through her insight and prognostications. The insights are real but the prognostications are not. The hero, Marquess Gareth, is a naturalist with a high regard for integrity but a very low ability to demonstrate any sort of affection to anyone (including his sister and cousin). This would be a match made in heaven if not for the obvious class differences.

One of the things that makes a romance satisfying, for me at least and I think for others, is that the hero and heroine not only complete each other but they challenge each other to be better people. This is one of the pitfalls of using the "Big Misunderstanding" plot--sure, it may lend itself to either Three's Company style humor or to tragic misery, but at the end, the author has given you two people who leap to conclusions and don't trust each other. The author has to unravel the whole thing while simultaneously displaying to the reader that these two people have learned their lesson. A lot of the time, I don't feel they've learned anything at all--particularly if the misunderstandings are multiple and lead to tragic misery. It often makes a hero, particularly a hero beset by sexual jealousy, look like an emotional abuser. During the course of the novel (I speak not only of Faith here but also of Rolls's His Lady Mistress, James's Potent Pleasures, and other books I've read not long ago) the hero goes through multiple cycles of jealousy/distrust, infliction of cruelty, and reconciliation with the heroine. At the end, the reader wonders if the characters truly do have a Happy Ever After, or are they just in the reconciliation phase of another cycle? To resolve the plot properly, the author has to convince us that the cycle is broken. Many authors just don't have the skill or experience to do this.

Of the last 2 authors I've read, Milan gets this basic thing about romance. Clark does not. In Proof by Seduction, Gareth and Jenny challenge each other to be better people--as a result of their relationship Jenny becomes more honest (at a heavy price) and Gareth becomes more able to show his affection to those he loves. They emerge from the novel better than they were before. In Faith, however, Gareth leaps to conclusions, always negative, about his new wife, putting her through useless misery; while she, confronted with his coldness and irrational jealousy, continually runs away from him. The misunderstandings unraveled, the story ends. There's no indication that the hero and heroine are no longer 2 people who jump to conclusions and run away from their problems--or even that they're self-aware enough to address the issue properly.

And that, my dear readers, is the difference between an A book and a C book. Faith has additional pacing and plot problems besides the basic problem at the core of the novel, which earns it a D.

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