Saturday, March 22, 2008

Skylight Confessions, the Wall Street Journal and dissing romance

A friend sicced me onto Alice Hoffman last year, and I've read two of her novels, Blue Diary and now Skylight Confessions.

I really enjoyed Blue Diary, which I thought was clever and interesting and true to itself and its world. But I wasn't sure about Skylight Confessions. It's a family story, with layers of mysticism and interweaving of fairy tale ideas: the house which is central to the story is called The Glass Slipper, frex, and there is a haunting. There is love, but I wouldn't call this a love story. My real problem with it was that once you stripped away the rather fey allusions, the story of a family in meltdown was fairly banal and the characters also. Uptight, enclosed, emotionally repressed father, check, beautiful, neglected wife, check, tortured genius son, check, predatory tennis-playing next door neighbour, check, good little girl trying to make reparation for the family's shortcomings, check, saintly but secretive nanny, check.

The setting was what sets the book apart, but in this instance, it just wasn't enough. There were moments when the symbols and the story tied up, but then I also think that if you are reading a book the symbols shouldn't come up and slap you in the face like so many fresh on the slab fillets of plaice.

However, having read it, and wanting to find out a little more, I did the google on the book and found the Wall Street Journal review by Brooke Allen and this jumped out at me:

"Skylight Confessions is a genre story, in this case the kind of book that might best be described as a romance novel for college graduates. The book has enough intellectual trappings to flatter readers into thinking that they are getting some mental nourishment, but in essence it is pure romance novel and nothing more.

Now, that made me want to tell Brooke Allen to go and boil her head in a bag. The classic derogatory put-down...the review continues:

Skylight Confessions contains all the standard elements of Brontëan high romance, including hyperbole, predestined "true" love and a doomed, Heathcliffean character (in this case John and Arlyn's son, Sam). In the best romance-novel tradition, the ending is suffused with a sense of almost religious redemption and possibility. Those who crave a cozy read that affirms romantic fantasies about deathless love and knights to the rescue may well admire Skylight Confessions.

Here we are with several misunderstandings about the real nature of a good romance novel - first of all, WTF is 'Brontëan high romance'? If a person has actually read all of the Brontë sisters' novels, that person would know that Anne, Charlotte and Emily all wrote extremely different novels in theme, scope, style and approach. I would deeply disagree that there is such an animal as the BHR.

Second of all, books that 'affirm romantic fantasies about deathless love and knights to the rescue' are not necessarily cozy: the best romances (Jane Austen, Jenny Crusie, Eva Ibbotson, Tracy Grant and Georgette Heyer step forward) are not cozy - they challenge, they force the reader to face up to a world that is not necessarily kind to heroes, heroines or their love. The whole point is that deathless love is not cozy. It is difficult, it takes us out of comfort zone, but it wins. We may not want to love but ultimately, it forces us to confront what is really important in our lives.

Also, what's this about religious redemption? For me, the novels that are full of 'love conquers all' stuff are not the best of the romance novel tradition. For me, and I suspect for many readers of romance readers, the best of the genre display a wry understanding that while love can work miracles, it needs damn hard work and self-knowledge to achieve that. Mr Knightley only can offer for Emma when Emma herself comes to realise that love is more than simply trying to slot couples together like pieces of a jigsaw. There is not so much redemption as the understanding that forgiveness and humour are essentials in the satisfactory conclusion to any romance.

Which is where Brooke Allen has it all wrong - Skylight Confessions cannot be a romance because it fails in one essential to the genre: the one and only rule that exists in the writing of real romances, notably the HEA. The HEA or happy ever after is compulsory in the romance. It is the one element that all readers of romances agree about. And SC doesn't have one. Maybe a hint that such things are possible. But no HEA.

I just wish reviewers would cease to put down books by comparing them to romances. A really good romance is so transcendent and so enriching that it is a book that stays with you for ever, like love itself. And consequently it is rare. We who love romances are perpetually looking for that book or others like it, we are prepared to read quite a bit of risible dross in search of that nugget which is why the romance sector of the publishing industry is pretty robust, but we know that a real romance, the kind of book that does offer us truths about love is something to treasure, not to trash.


Tracy Grant said...

What a fascinating post! And thanks so much for mentioning my books (and in such good company :-). I was thinking recently about happy endings and while I love to read them (and usually write them) I often find them more powerful when they aren't "guaranteed." Some of my favorite happy endings are in love stories that are part of books that fall outside the romance genre (books by Dorothy Dunnett and Barbara Hambly among others) where I breathed a sigh of relief when the couple finally got together. On the other hand, I think writing a happy ending to a love story is often more of a challenge than writing a tragic ending, because one has to find a way for the characters to work through their problems to a believable future. Not easy to do, but very satisfying when it works!

Madeleine Conway said...

I'm with you - I don't think HEAs are the easy option for the writer. There are plenty of interesting books out there where it doesn't quite come off, for whatever reason. And the most satisfying ones are where you aren't sure whether it will work, or with whom it will work. There's a really fine line to tread in reaching the plausible and really satisfying HEA.

Tracy Grant said...

Yes, there's a frustrated. not-quite=right feeling in finishing a book being told the characters will be happy but somehow not quite believing it. A couple of years ago I saw a wonderful production of the play "Bus Stop." I believed the characters would have a happy future together. So did an actor friend of mine who was in the play. But the writer friend I saw the play with was convinced the relationship wouldn't work. Another friend had the same response. Interestingly, the two of them have both been married for some years, whereas the rest of us who were discussing it are single. Not seeing the end as happily ever after didn't ruin the play--both my friends enjoyed it--it just tinges the ending with a bit more melancholy.

I think the most satisfying HEAs are those where you're not quite sure everything will work out, but when it does, you know the characters enough to have a bone-deep conviction that they'll be happy.

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