Several weeks ago, my romance-reading friend Swell told me about a novel she was reading. She said that the plot was seventeen different kinds of batshit crazy and WTF, and the characters were all nutjobs, and she swore the 2012 this romance HAD to be a reprint from 1975, not a Harlequin from 2012. However, it was a 2012 publication, which is what led to her to thinking WTF, and me thinking: Gee, this book has all the hallmarks of what my dear friend and shallowreader Vassiliki looks for. She LOVES WTFery and the ca-razier the better!
So, I contacted Vassiliki to ask her to give me some insight on why the plot of Swell’s effed-up book, and other effed up romance plots full of bizarre-o-osity, would appeal to her.
Sandra: Thanks for joining me, Vassiliki. I know you pride yourself on being a shallow reader. You’ve mentioned you like WTFery and crazy in the categories you read and have mentioned several authors by name. Would you care to explain your appeal for what I like to call The ‘70s Caftaned Hero Romance?
Vassiliki: Awww man! You go straight to the hard questions! I love absurd humour. Early Woody Allen has a lot of bizarre occurrences where he still gets the girl. I just love the absurdity of Sleeper and Take the Money and Run. I love Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroentorologist and Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing. I love a touch of the absurd in my romances too—but only occasionally.
Sandra: OK. You named 2 of the 4 Woody Allen movies I don’t mind.
Vassiliki: Are the others Play it Again Sam and Annie Hall?
Sandra: Nope. Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Vassiliki: I liked those too, but Play it Again Sam is my favourite. It is all about the romantic leading man and try-hards. You say ‘70s caftaned roms. Can I point out the most over the top bizarre caftaned hero was from 1993.
Sandra: And now there’s the one Swell read from 2012, the one she found over the top with WTF and referred to as a “POS Angst ridden wallow in self pity with completely non realistic psychological behavior.” There are scenarios you’ve mentioned you enjoy are that are over the top, like a hero in a caftan. Tell me about them.
Vassiliki: Please note that there is no disrespect to the authors that write WTF roms. I LOVE their writing.
Sandra: So tell me what WTF is to you…with examples, please.
Vassiliki: I truly believe that they are deliberate in their attempt to write bizarre, over the top plots whilst sustaining believability. It is like Fantasy, but no fantasy elements. Beth and the Barbarian is totally WTF. The guy lives in a compound like place in Morocco. She’s a feisty Aussie who rides a crazy stallion he owns because she’s just that sorta go get ‘em gal. The hero has the most ridiculous clothing sense and she calls him out on it too. Yet they connect. He actually does wear a caftan. It is described as Satanic Black and the heroine can tell he is wearing nothing underneath it—this is in the seduction scene. The other example is Lynne Graham. I ADORE her books. There is an aspect of unbelievability to most of her plots, yet I am often crying towards the end because her characters go through some powerful low points.
Sandra: I remember you once telling me about the book with the Satanic black caftan—and I was stunned it was from 1993. The seduction scene when the guy is wearing a Satanic Black caftan and nothing else….I mean HOW did that work? Was he de-caftaned? It screams ‘70s!
Vassiliki: That one was the most cra-cra I have ever read. It was a page-turner only because I needed to read the next lot of crazy. I wanted to know what outline could she see that she ‘knew’ he wore nothing else underneath…but back to Lynne Graham: the plot. The plots she writes, to me, seem to stretch the believability spectrum. My ‘As-IF-o-meter’ was screaming with The Contract Baby. It starts in the US. A Billionaire CEO decides to hire a surrogate to have his heir because women are not trustworthy, but he needs a baby. He decides upon a 21 year-old woman. She needs to be a surrogate to pay for her mother’s cancer treatment—Oh, the mum that she was just reunited with. The Mum dies before the heroine gives birth. The heroine then decides she loves her bub too much, so she will escape/renege on the surrogacy and flees to her home in the UK. Surrogate dad (who unbeknownst to her had befriended her on her walks to the park so he could meet the woman having his baby) follows her, kidnaps her and takes her back to his hacienda in Argentina (?) to ensure that he has the baby. Then plausibility is stretched again in that she has a caesarean, which is great news because she was a virgin (you know—gotta keep it all tight down there), and of course she feels vulnerable about the sexy hot neighbour next door. But none of this was too ludicrous for love. At the end she brings this ever-powerful man to his knees and he loves her and adores her. HEA! Smiles for all. And a baby too. Phew! Does that example help?
Sandra: Oh, Gawd, I am rollin’ my eyes! Perhaps if I approached it from a different perspective—if I read for the WTF, I might enjoy it the way I enjoy the total unbelievabliity of say, The Transporter or Die Hard…
Vassiliki: YES! As unbelievable as Die Hard and Bond movies, but in the romance genre. It is awesome.
Sandra: For me, the romance aspect is the game changer. I have to believe the romance would happen. The kidnapped bit makes me hit a wall. I’d stop reading. And then the book would hit the wall. Funny, I can buy John McClane jumping off a building with a fire hose wrapped around his waist or James Bond landing on his feet after jumping through a hole he made in a train car, but I can’t buy that a woman would fall for the guy who kidnaps her and keeps her prisoner on an island. That’s more like a mental illness, horror, sex slave story…Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Boxing Helena… With that stuff, it ceases to be romance for me. Completely.
Vassiliki: In Beth and the Barbarian she consents to going back to his compound against the advice of other people. She is not a prisoner/kidnapped.
Sandra: She is willing? That’s A NEW KETTLE OF WTF!!! Willing = huge WTF.
Vassiliki: In The Contract Baby it is a bit more tenuous, but he is holding her to the contract. I can’t read most fantasy because the unbelievability of werewolves and vampires stretches me beyond reading. But yes, I think it is a new kettle of WTF! Sara Craven’s Count Valieri’s Prisoner was a Stockolm Syndrome romance. I usually like all her books but this one did not work for me. The power imbalance was too great. And perhaps that is the key—who holds power and how much.
Sandra: Tell me how THAT power balance worked because I’m not getting it.
Vassiliki: In the other 2 WTF roms I’ve mentioned, there is still power within the female character; they brought the guy to his knees. From memory, it wasn’t only the power of great sex (which is definitely one criteria), but somehow a personal connection that no other person managed to have with the hero. Somewhere along the bizarre story the heroine connects with the vulnerable part of the hero. Isn’t the vulnerability aspect the best though? How the hero/heroine copes and communicates when they find you are vulnerable.
Sandra: So which is more important, the vulnerability or who holds the power? When it comes down to accepting the WTF, I mean.
Vassiliki: I think it needs to be equal. Imbalances in relationships is what makes them unbelievable not plot twists. Can I also point out I have 3 subcategories of WTF. There is the WTF Absurd (discussed above) WTF Wallbanger (I cannot bear to read any longer for any number of reasons) and WTF Dysfunctional.
Sandra: I understand the Wallbanger. Can you explain the Dysfunctional?
Vassiliki: WTF Dysfunctional romances are when people enter abusive horrid relationships. They happen in real life. We see people we know in unhappy partnerships, they may go through mercurial love/hate stages and it can make my skin crawl yet they stay (at least for some time) in these relationships.
Sandra: I can’t read those at all. Those fall into dysfunctional for me.
Vassiliki: A Dysfunctional example is Lillian Cheatham’s Shadowed Reunion. This book is quite bleak. The hero is abusive both physically and mentally. He finally gets her to say I love you by breaking her will. All the power is his. He too says, I love you, AFTER her. I hate this book, yet I reread it every few years. The power imbalance is horrible. But I am intrigued by that momentary high, that moment of the love declaration. People look at the Taylor/Burton pairing. “True love!” Yet they were too mercurial to stay together, but those high moments of love still fascinate readers. I guess it depends on what sort of reader you feel you are. I am not a placeholder reader (I think that is the term that is used).
Sandra: I can do Rhett & Scarlett & Taylor Burton. They were equally matched. I’m not a placeholder. I’m more a voyeur or observer.
Vassiliki: I read as an observer/voyeur even when I get totally immersed in a book. I never see myself in a specific role….well with the exception of Miranda Melendy in Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays, but that is a kid’s book and kinda different.
Sandra: Thanks for joining me this morning to discuss the appeal of reading Absurd, Wallbanger and Dysfunctional WTF romance and caftans. I see the joy reading gives you, and I’m all for reading and joy. Will you join me again to discuss other aspects of reading and romance and romance scholarship? Or we can just talk about heroes with facial & body hair or the sublime WTFery of jumpsuits for men.
Vassiliki is The Shallow Reader who barely scratches the surface of romance literature, reading and libraries. She is an avid romance reader and romance scholar. She is, the shit. You can read her blog here.