Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture by Catherine M. Roach
Indiana University Press 2016
This is the first time I’m reviewing a work of non-fiction, but I simply can’t resist when it comes to this book. Roach looks, in an entertaining and enlightening way, at how the romance narrative permeates popular culture and what romance novels in particular do in that respect. You don’t have to be a romance reader to enjoy this book – it doesn’t assume you are – nor do you have to be an academic, because Roach is particularly approachable with her autoethnographic, intersectional approach.
The book comes in eight chapters, which alternate in tone. Every other chapter discusses romance, sex, and love in the Anglosphere (i.e., English-speaking nations of British heritage) and particularly North American culture. Of these, I especially like chapters four and six. Chapter four brings us back to the issue discussed and worried about on a grand scale in the 80s: is romance porn? An interesting question to look at from a non-alarmist sort of way, and I must admit I was slightly shocked when Roach concludes, why, yes it is. She continues to explain, however, and makes perfect sense. In conjunction to this she brings up female sexuality and its expression, the double standards of society, the rise of erotica and romantic erotica (“romantica”), the role of sex in romance literature, and “cliteracy”, that is, knowledge and understanding of female sexuality.
Chapter six in turn discusses the concept of love, leaning especially on bell hooks’s concept of love as the practice of freedom. Is love freedom or bondage, and if it’s bondage, is it good or bad bondage? It can be all of this, Roach concludes, and the question is full of traps and potholes and complications. She also discusses the effect this idea of love as bondage has on men in a patriarchal society – there’s a particularly astute analysis of slash and gay romance as the ultimate underminer of patriarchal rules – and the political dimensions of love. The question is returned to in chapter eight, which considers love as religion, along the lines of Polhemus’s concept of erotic faith.
Every other, in contrast, is lighter in tone, detailing and discussing Roach’s own efforts in becoming a romance author. My particular favourite of these lighter chapters is chapter three, in which Roach concocts an imaginary conversation between her academic self (Roach) and her romance-author persona (LaRoche). The two debate the pros and cons of romance fiction in a lively and hugely entertaining Socratic dialogue, and I’m sure many romance scholars who are also romance fans – aca-fans, they are called, as I learned from this book – can relate to this conversation.
While this is without a doubt the funniest chapter in the book, Roach’s descriptions of the Romance Writers of America conventions and her own struggles to get published are vastly diverting as well – and very inspiring. I’m not a fiction writer, nor do I aspire to be, but reading chapter seven and about all the work she put into what became her first published novel made me want to get back into my academic writing. I also admit that the scene she paints of herself alone at a hotel restaurant gave me a need to get up and pour myself half a glass of red wine. You can tell it was very evocative.
In the epilogue, Roach lists the top ten things she learned in the process of writing her novels and this book. The concluding remark she makes is that love matters, that romance fiction discusses many critical questions about society, about the self, about life and family and relationships. While she has questioned these effects throughout the novel, and while she doesn’t shy away from pointing out the failings and points of imperfection, her approach is, as she remarks at the beginning, fair but loving.
I would recommend this book for romance readers and non-romance readers alike. We’re all affected by questions of society, of love, of sex, of self. Maybe you’re an aspiring author; great, there’s a chapter about the writing process and publishing! Maybe you’re interested in love studies. There’s a chapter for you! Maybe you’re impassioned about feminism in general – this whole book is for you! Roach’s book offers something for everyone, I dare say, and her sharp analysis and intelligent conclusions, however benign or open ended, cannot fail to elicit nods of agreement. Well worth the read!