Tag Archives: meredith duran

heartbreak remakes the heart into a different organ

I just finished reading Meredith Duran’s At Your Pleasure – and though the cover was as gorgeous as ever, it was the first book of hers I didn’t love.

The prologue and first chapter made me feel fizzy and dark with, well, pleasure. It was brimful of the kind of romantic angst that’s been missing in all these lovely, nuanced, thoughtful romances people have been writing. It begins:


Adrian had abandoned the lathered horse a mile behind. He ran now, his feet no sooner striking the ground than lifting again, all his instincts and memories combining to aid him, directing him sure-footedly and safely over the darkened field where he had played as a boy and later loved her as a man.


This woman can write. Which is why my overwhelming feeling is “puzzled”; I can’t entirely figure out why this book did the opposite of wowing me.

The most convincing reason I’ve been able to come up with is that the “childhood lovers reunite” trope is incredibly difficult to do – and Duran didn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The premise: Adrian and Nora were neighbours and lovers in their youth, but as one was Catholic and the other Protestant there was no way they could marry. Their families intervened and helped cause one hell of a misunderstanding between them – major heartbreak included. They spend six years at court pretending not to notice the other exists – until Nora’s husband dies, and Adrian turns up at her country estate to arrest her treasonous brother.

The problem was, the heartbreak had changed them both irrevocably, but I never felt they got to know each other now well enough for their love to be convincing. It seemed to all stem from that earlier love that was clearly juvenile and careless, if also true.

I wanted them to just be in a room together and talk. Then talk some more. In fact, the most riveting scene in the whole book is when Adrian practices sleep-depravation torture on Nora, trying to get answers from her. They’re both worn down by it until they can’t help but be honest – and it’s not the treason that comes out, but the truth about their past.

The thing about first love is this: To get over it – to truly accept that you’re not magically going to be allowed to have that person because you really really want them – you have to change. It’s the only option. You have to become a person who doesn’t need them.

You have to outgrow them.

So it’s a lovely daydream that you might one day be thrown into a situation with that person where you can’t avoid each other or help but sort your history out – but that’s all it is: a daydream. It feels wrong to me to see it happen, because all my own experience disproves it.

When you’ve had to go through that moving-on – if you’ve ever attempted to go back to a lover and discovered the heartbreak of no longer fitting – you don’t forget it.

I needed conversation. And more conversation. I needed them to experience how ill they fit, compared to the dream of how well they fit. I needed to watch them surprise each other – and when the past turned up at unexpected moments to hurt/delight them, I needed it to be a complex thing that didn’t fit easily into the present.

The fit was so wrong, for me, that I ended up shipping Nora and the young spoilt nobleman in Adrian’s company who was obviously going to end up doing something villainous. He at least, I thought, would be something new for her. Something she didn’t know she wanted for herself. And she would have shown him the gulf between who he was and the man he might be.

Plus, I find it hard to go past a sulky man in ostentatious clothing.

the unaffected heroine

I’ve just started reading Unveiled by Courtney Milan, which is exciting because there’s a lot of buzz about her writing and so far I’m right there in the story. This is a huge thing for me, in these days of reading ennui.

One tendency that’s making me slightly uneasy: her heroine refuses to be affected by the hero’s almost supernatural charm.

This is pretty standard romance fare, really. A tough heroine who refuses to be diverted from her mission by a hero she has every reason to hate. But for me, it lacks complexity. One of the things that make writers like Meredith Duran and Sherry Thomas stand out, is the many-faceted – and unexpected – and human reactions of their characters.

I appreciate a heroine who is strong enough to know “I do not have time for this attraction”, but I think humans are easier than they like when it comes to charm and flattery. I think charm is very, very difficult to resist. And I like a heroine who is affected by the people around her, and who craves warmth, and who allows herself to feel complicated things, even when it makes everything else more difficult.

everyone likes old ladies

Despite my almost-thirties reading-taste crisis I borrowed a couple of Mary Balogh books at the library last week. It’s been a while since I last attempted a romance novel (okay, it’s been about 2 weeks – but that’s an age in book-years), so I thought I might be ready to enjoy one.

I didn’t. And here’s why:

The heroine of Simply Magic is beautiful but destitute. The beautiful part doesn’t bother me too much – a woman doesn’t have to be plain-until-you-know-her to deserve true love. But I had an epiphany about the destitute part.

Being destitute is not a character flaw – it’s a circumstance. This is huge for me. For such a long time, as I developed my heroine, I threw worse and worse circumstances at her – made her have to endure more and more. But in light of this I realise: It doesn’t matter how many circumstances I throw at her – unless she develops some highly interesting character traits, in reaction. Traits that hinder her in other ways, preferably.

We all know now that a romance can’t be based on two people being really hot (my writing teacher Toni Jordan likes to quote someone (McKee, I think?) as saying, ‘At the end of Pretty Woman Richard Gere could have said to Julia Roberts, I love you because we’re in a movie together.’) so now all romantic heroes and heroines have to have flaws. Flaws are all-important.

But writers are so anxious to keep their characters likeable that their flaws tend to be things like how poor they are (see above epiphany), how they’ve been treated by others, or – yes – how kind they are to old ladies.

See when I really stopped reading the book was when the heroine gladly – because that’s just the kind of gal she is – went to read to a poor old woman who was losing her eyesight. The hero had just been talking to the poor old woman earlier, because one must talk to poor old women, and the heroine of the previous novel (you can always tell a previous heroine because she exists in a kind of Happily Ever After stasis and has good-natured “arguments” with her husband, just to show that they’re happy but human) had intended to be kind to the poor old woman, but someone or other was holding her up.

I should say here that I have nothing against poor old women. Except when they’re nothing more than a plot device. If the heroine had shown some of Emma‘s qualities – some reluctance to spend an afternoon with a rambling acquaintance because she is expected to “do good” – I would feel so much more sympathy for her overcoming herself and doing it anyway. Or finding some actual good in a situation that grated on her.

Cat and I were recently discussing this and I think she nailed it when she said that these shiny-smooth characters lacks depth because they know themselves too well. There is no variation from their internal world to the external.

We weren’t talking the kind of self-misunderstanding where a heroine thinks things like, “My reaction to him just doesn’t make any sense! I hate him!” That kind of wilful misunderstanding is a bit boring. We were talking the kind of variations that come of never fully knowing yourself – thoughts and reactions to situations that arise before you have time to rationalise or consider.

This ambiguity of human nature is what makes Meredith Duran a great romance writer. Her characters have the ability to feel embarrassed by themselves, and to know themselves as vain, and to acknowledge how onerous it would be to read to a poor old woman, but find it within themselves to do it anyway.

why the random poem?

I’m not a huge reader of poems, and I think that’s exactly why I posted Epithalamion, come upon randomly in an anthology of homosexual literature throughout the ages. It goes beyond an overabundance of words – pours words out until they sit in dense clusters of meaning and images that create something altogether new. A sensory world arrived at by the mind.

Being a romance writer, wordy overabundance is all part of the job. Being any kind of writer, I sit on the wordy end of the scale. I am no Hemingway to say things baldly, despite the previously discussed wisdom of Just Saying The Thing.

So I feel like I have a lot to learn from that lusty, movement-filled poem.

Of all the romance writers I read, I think Meredith Duran puts wordiness to best use. From her gorgeous new book, A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal:

Together they crossed the threshold into the bedroom, sat onto the bed, still kissing, so earnestly, yes, this was earnest; he would have kissed this woman for hours no matter where he found her. He swept his hand up her back, into her hair, and realised his hand was trembling. Hot and desperate and gluttonous and hesitant and uncertain and tentative as a boy with his first woman: this moment, this simple bedding, was turning into something strange.

books and Brad Pitt

two things about my Easter weekend away:

1. My godmother, who we were staying with, also reads romance. A lot of romance. She let me rifle through the boxes of books she’s finished with, and take whatever I fancied. She is, officially, a champion.

The books:

I took home 32 books. But seriously, what would you have done?

There were many I’ve already read and wanted for my collection but couldn’t justify buying right now. I got the whole of Eloisa James‘s Essex Sisters quartet, and Meredith Duran‘s entire backlist.

I also picked up a few I’ve been meaning to try, but haven’t gotten around to reading, like Nalini Singh‘s Psy/Changeling series and Anne Stuart‘s House of Rohan trilogy.

2. Then there was Legends of the Fall. It was revoltingly appropriate that we rewatched this Brad Pitt classic, because we watched it together too many times to be healthy as teens. This is Brad back in the day when he still had more than a whiff of tv soap about him and his grin was of the cocky “I’m hot and I know it” variety.

I had the same sensation watching it as I had last year when I listened to Alanis Morisette’s album Jagged Little Pill and realised I knew the words to every song.

I had a groundless sense of fear or premonition at apparently harmless moments, just before tragedy fell. Certain images were so familiar to my senses, that I must have stared for hours at posters of them, freeze-framed on my bedroom wall.

My memory was correct at least in this: Julia Ormond cries more or less the whole way through the film.

It also clicked that this was why all my heroes used to be called Tristan.

Here’s the funny thing, though: Watching this movie as an adult, I couldn’t help thinking that Tristan (Brad Pitt) is exactly the kind of character who incites my rage – and the last person you would want to fall in love with.

He is, as per the voice-over, the rock that all the people who love him break themselves against.

He is the man who would leave those who love and depend on him to answer the call of his inner beast. He is unhaveable and wild and wildly selfish.

He’s a flake.

I couldn’t help thinking, as well, that Susannah (Julia Ormond) is the antithesis of a romantic heroine. The tragedy of that appealed to my teen sensibilities and just irritates the hell out of my adult ones.

third-wave romance

according to the people who like to talk, coffee culture is up to its third wave. So in a completely unrelated aside, I decided that I have a theory about romance writing, and where it’s up to.

(I’m obliged to say that “third-wave” is considered a highly pretentious, silly term by actual coffee people. But it works for my theory, so it stays.)

There is old-school, bodice-rippers-of-the-70s romance. This is what lingers, and gives people the impression they have of the genre. This is what we snuck into the library and read as teenagers, with its “quivering mound of venus”s and “purple-headed warrior”s.

As skilful and beloved as Stephanie Laurens is, I think she’s an example of first-wave romance. Her heroes are alphas, her heroines are plucky, and whilst the heroine never finds herself suddenly turned on in the middle of being raped, she does quite often “leave the mortal plane” for hours on end after sex, before coming back to herself.

To me, that says old-school.

The second wave are the intelligent, funny, sexy and wise writers like Eloisa James, Elizabeth Hoyt, Lisa Kleypas – even Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Their books are complex and peopled with flawed, human characters. Sex isn’t always perfect. The writing is that epitome of genre writing: entirely transparent, like a window that draws you into a scene, without making you aware at any time that there’s glass between you and what you’re watching.

Then there’s third-wave.

I admit to only having read a tiny corner of what’s out there, but for what I’ve read, there are three writers bringing in the new generation of romance: Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Julie Anne Long.

Third-wave romance has characters that don’t only have three dimensions and believable motivations, and aren’t just sympathetic and flawed. They feel human. To the point where sometimes you feel like you’re intruding on a private moment between them and their beloved.

These writers are also pushing the kind of language that romance novels are written in. They’re using unique, fresh images and startling turns of phrase. Their characters are so well-drawn that we are only ever seeing the tip of the iceberg, in the best writerly fashion. Language is becoming a facet of the novel, in and of itself.

I wouldn’t say third-wave is best. In a way, second-wave makes for a more enjoyable read, because of its transparency – it doesn’t unsettle you, or leave you wondering.

I aspire to be the best writer I can be, but I maybe secretly aspire to the third wave as well.