A discussion over the last several days on Twitter, and a long and interesting post with a great discussion on Dear Author, on the topic of what kind of ending readers require in a romance–HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now), and indeed, what “happy for now” means to different readers–led me to examine my own feelings. But before I subject you to ruminations on fiction, I will give you this little piece of writing that sort of explains my feelings as fiction.

I almost miss him, eclipsed as he is by the stark white blouse and night-black pants of the hostess leading him across the room. He has turned gray, a mist that trails in her wake, a near void amidst the burgundy wine, white tablecloths, mahogany furnishings and bright, fresh food.

– That’s him? He’s not what I imagined.

I almost tell her I was wrong, that the slope-shouldered shell is not my former brown-haired, bright-eyed, laughing lover with the rough hands and soft kisses.

– He’s changed.

I have changed, too, and for a brief moment regret the twenty pounds I’ve put on, the fact that I’ve been gardening and my face is smudged with dirt.

– You’re glad, now, to have escaped, I bet. I can’t see you being happy with a man like him.

I look at her, the one he married, sitting across from him. As brown as he is gray, she wears tailored slacks, a cream shirt, a string of pearls. Not an extra ounce to soften her frame; all her unworn pounds weigh him down. They don’t speak to each other, menus held like shields between them.

– I wouldn’t have been with a man like him. He wouldn’t be that man if we’d stayed together.

I cried at our parting. Tear of loss, tears of self-pity. I resist the urge to cry again. Tears of sorrow, this time, tears of frustration at what might have been.

– He got what he deserved. He should have stuck with the one he loved, not left her for the one who made sense.

She is angry for me, and I appreciate it, but she does not understand. We are what we are and he made the only choice he could. I don’t hate him. I never have.

When we leave, I will kiss his stubbled cheek and clasp his softening body to my own and wonder if he ever mourns the long-gone pieces of his soul.

As you might guess, that’s loosely based on my own life. I was 39 years old when I got married. I’d been in love before. More than once. Those were HFNs, but they could have been HEAs. When we were together, I think we thought it was forever. If you’d read about us, you could have closed the book and imagined forever. But it didn’t work out that way, mostly because I was young and so were they. We weren’t ready. We weren’t able to make the kind of commitment to each other a true HEA requires.

For me, a romance novel needs, at the minimum, a HFN like that. A HFN where you can close the book and imagine a future for the couple. Not that they won’t have to work at it, but that they might, realistically, be able to have one. So it’s definitional…if the “FN” just means that the characters are gleefully enjoying a sexual affair, well, that’s not romance for me. I’m not saying it’s not a fine reading experience, it’s just not romance. For romance, I need the characters to feel love, even if they don’t say it.

My real life is hard. When I pick up a romance I want to know that at the end, regardless of the trials and tribulations the couple goes through, regardless of how many horrible things may happen to them, their friends, their families, even their pets, that in the end, they will have a future together. That their lives will be better because they have someone to share them with. In fact, the books that end up with low grades from me when I review them are very often those where, although the characters at the end profess their love for each other, I simply cannot believe that they will be happy, even if they do actually work at it.

I must admit, it’s the rare thriller I am happy with where the criminal gets away at the end, though, so I guess I am a traditionalist. I want books to be better than real life.