If you ask someone who’s been married a few years about their spouse, you’re apt to get an answer that begins with “I love him/her to death, but…” That’s because marriage is hard. The falling in love part, the part we see in romance novels, may be angsty and difficult and there may be hurdles to be overcome, but we know—because we are reading a romance novel—that the hero and heroine will conquer the issues keeping them apart. By the end of the story we’ll see a committed couple.
But what happens in the “ever after” part of the HEA? I admit to being turned off by most of the “marriage and a baby” epilogues I’ve read. That doesn’t mean I want HFN endings, because I don’t. For me to feel satisfied by a romance, I need to see some kind of commitment between the leads by the end of the book. No, it’s not the “ever after” that frequently sticks in my craw, it’s the “happily.”
I’ve been thinking about this issue a great deal lately because I’ve found myself unable to believe that many of the relationships in the books I’ve been reading the potential to last beyond the time frame of the story. Partially, this is because I read a lot of romantic suspense. The nature of the genre is that characters spend a lot of time running, hiding, fighting…anything but talking to each other. Problem-solving is immediate and critical. You cannot argue too long about which direction you’re going to run or you’ll end up dead. So, yeah, by the end of the novel, he respects her fighting abilities and she realizes he has some emotional depth. That’s good. But it doesn’t exactly tell me that they’ll be able to resolve the issues that inevitably arise during a marriage. What if they can’t pay the bills? What if one of them gets a job offer halfway across the country and the other doesn’t want to move? If they’re both badass, high-powered, high-energy thrill seekers, who will take care of the kid that shows up in the epilogue?
I am also a fan of contemporary romance, and I know I am not the only one frustrated by the number of stories in which the heroine is forced to move to a small town she hates at the beginning, is determined to return to the “big city,” only to find that by the end of the novel she is totally happy in that same town. There’s virtually never any question that the guy might move to the city or that, together, they might move somewhere entirely different. What about—*gasp*—the suburbs? Presumably the heroine enjoyed her life in the city for a reason and all too often the story never touches on how she will replace whatever she got from that life. Maybe she was a litigator or a high-fashion model or a gallery-owner. Will running a chocolate shop or starting a law practice that basically works on wills and real estate transactions give her the same satisfaction? I am not saying it won’t, I’m just saying that too often that question is ignored.
So, what does make for a good ending if it’s not a “happily ever after”? Well, to start with, it has to fit the story. I once read—and I wish I could remember the name, but I can’t—a book in which a woman’s tragic past included an emergency hysterectomy due to abuse. It was one of the great sorrows of her life that she would never have a child. But the guy she falls for has tons of cash and in the epilogue they’ve just returned from “overseas” where she’s had some “experimental procedure” and…she’s pregnant. Seriously. There was so much wrong there I just mentally blocked out the title and author. If you give a character a backstory like that, and invest me in it and in her desire to have a baby, the best kind of ending would be to show me how she and her lover work through the fact that she will never get what she wants. Don’t magically make it possible, show me how they deal with tough times. Then I will believe that when their house burns to the ground and they have to live in a hotel room for six months, they won’t drive each other nuts.
I am not saying that romance should change its focus to the reality of marriage. That’s been the mainstay of women’s fiction for a long time. Occasionally, the two cross—as they do in K.M. Jackson’s Bounce—but romance tends to be about the finding of love, not the keeping of it. And that’s fine. I love that. I don’t have any desire to change it. I just want a shot of realism injected into the ever afters. I am tired of the deus ex machina flying in at the last minute to solve problems that real life couples would have to adjust to, or one partner in the couple magically changing their mind.
So I am asking for recommendations: what books, old or new, in any subgenre, do you think do a particularly good job showing couples working through difficulties and making compromises?