Earlier this summer, Random House re-started its iconic romances line Loveswept as a digital-only imprint, releasing e-book versions of previously published titles from the '80s and '90s. The publisher was proud to announce, “we haven’t changed a word of the original text or updated them in any way.” Good idea or bad idea? We wanted to know, so the web team each picked out a re-released book (priced right between $2.99 and $4.99) and got to reading. Here’s our Dish on what we thought about how well three Loveswept favorites stood the test of time. (Warning, there are spoilers ahead!)
Morgan: I choose to read This Fierce Splendor by Iris Johansen. First published in 1988, this western historical was written in the middle of Johansen’s Loveswept career and the author has since gone on to crime fiction, leaving behind her romance roots. I picked up this e-book because of the Johansen name and also I was hoping that this would be similar to my favorite western Nobody’s Darling by Teresa Medeiros. After reading the Johansen, I will admit that it has a lot in common with the Medeiros and also I saw shades of Jude Deveraux’s short story “A Perfect Arrangement” from The Invitation (both of which were written after the Johansen).
This Fierce Splendor finds young Elspeth MacGregor traveling from her native Scotland to the Arizona desert to find Dominic Delaney. Believing that Dominic is the only person that can lead her to the legendary city of Kantalan in Mexico, Elspeth will do anything to find the lost city, even if that means submitting to Dominic, a supposed outlaw, to find out the secret of its location.
Whitney: I’m a devoted romance reader so I was excited to head back to the (recent) past to see how well the 1988 contemporary romance The Baron by Sally Goldenbaum really held up. The story features a quiet librarian named Halley Finnegan who meets millionaire Nick Harrington at a weekend-long murder mystery party. The pair flirts during the event but when it ends, Halley leaves thinking she will never see Nick again. However, when the tycoon tracks her down, she teaches him that you don’t need to be rich to have fun. But when a shocking secret from Nick’s past surfaces, will it destroy their blossoming relationship?
Elisa: I picked a contemporary romance from 1997, Annette Reynolds’ Remember the Time. I don’t read romance frequently, and the premise of this story sounded like it was really something different. When heroine Kate Moran enters the lives of best friends Michael Fitzgerald and Paul Armstrong when all three are in high school, the two boys swear not to let a girl ruin their friendship. Both men love her, but Kate falls for Paul — the sexy athlete who becomes a famous major league baseball player and Kate’s seemingly loving husband. When Paul dies in a flash flood, Kate becomes a recluse, turning away from her friends and family and finding comfort in alcohol. Mike offers to help Kate restore her dilapidated house, but as their romance blossoms Kate discovers that Paul wasn’t the perfect husband he pretended to be.
Morgan: Now that we have the stories’ rundowns, I was hoping that we could discuss the tropes in each book that we might see today and also the plot devices that went out with neon tights and Max Headroom.
The thing today’s readers will definitely appreciate in This Fierce Splendor is the bad boy hero. After an incident his past when he killed a man, Dominic has been running from the law. We meet him years later, living without roots at a brothel where he has an “understanding” with the Madam. Dominic doesn’t believe in love or happy endings and uses women shamelessly because he believes they are all interchangeable. Or as he puts it, “All cats are gray in the dark.”
Whitney: In The Baron, modern readers will definitely recognize the not-so-plain Plain Jane heroine. When we meet Halley in the first few pages we learn that this woman doesn’t go out much, and will later be surprised by the attention she gets from Nick. Nonetheless, Goldenbaum describes Halley as having “large emerald eyes”, a “slender body”, and “pale, full breasts” and she's is in an outfit that makes her feel practically naked. This bombshell description doesn’t really fit with the down-home heroine that Halley becomes later in the story. But this trope is used in romance all the time, from one of my all-time favorite books the Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ classic Nobody’s Baby But Mine to Kieran Kramer’s When Harry Met Molly. The seemingly not-so-beautiful lady dresses up as a … shall I say, "less than reputable" woman, but then because of her behavior she ends up with the guy and everyone thinks she’s super cute!
Elisa: Remember the Time uses both the friends-to-lovers and the unrequited-to-requited love devices, which are still very common in contemporary romance. Both tropes occur are between Kate and Mike, and it feels like forever before they fully explore their feelings for each other. The “almost” moments really build the romantic tension between them — and this is definitely something I’ve seen in other romances.
Morgan: While these plot devices all work well in romance novels, I have to mention something in This Fierce Splendor that I am very happy to say goodbye to — forced seduction. While Dominic never actually rapes Elspeth, it is a close thing. Johansen tries to justify Dominic’s actions, but really, there is never a reason for abuse no matter what the character has gone through.
“I was angry and I wanted her. It seems like everything I’ve wanted in the last ten years has been snatched away from me. I guess I got used to grabbing and holding on tight when I saw something I wanted.”
Whitney: In my story, I was shocked when it was revealed that Nick is not only a widower, but he also has a four-year-old daughter who has been living with his in-laws. While having children from a former relationship is definitely something we see today, Nick is a bad father. Like barely even seeing his daughter from birth to age four, bad. One year he simply never went to visit her; we’re talking that kind of bad. And on top of that, he lies by omission about his daughter's existence. Obviously this has Halley wondering if she wants to continue her relationship with Nick. And while she ultimately decides to stay with Nick, I just don’t see today’s readers feeling that that type of behavior is acceptable in a partner or a hero.
Elisa: What made my book so out-of-the-ordinary was the relationship between the Mike’s 20-year-old nephew, Matt, and the older heroine, Kate, which took a sexual turn. Although this pairing isn’t technically incestuous, it still struck me as wrong. Kate is Matt’s mother’s best friend, and later has a relationship with Matt’s uncle. And at the end of the book it turns out that Kate’s dead husband is Matt’s father. It was a very strange sexual relationship.
Whitney: One thing that our little experiment reminded me was how much hotter sex has gotten in romance novels in recent years. Also I believe that in recent releases, there are be fewer convoluted relationships between partners. Additionally, the actual writing itself seems to be different. Reading the Goldenbaum I found the pacing to be kind of awkward. Over one fourth of the story takes place as the characters are meeting, and the final plot twist in the tale happens extremely close to the end. I think that today's readers are used to a bit more continuous action.
Morgan: In the Johansen there were some very, very long descriptive paragraphs that go on for pages. We get the setting — in detail. The heroine’s feelings — in detail. Even the weather — in detail. I don’t think this is so much a writing thing, as much as it would be an editor issue. For instance, I can only imagine a contemporary editor’s reaction if they were to read the first few chapters of This Fierce Splendor which don't have any real action or information. Even the back story that is in the prologue seems lengthy and unnecessary.
Elisa: Now in mine, I thought the pacing was excellent. I really felt that Reynolds’ fantastic use of flashbacks fleshed out the story. They certainly gave me a deeper understanding of the character development. Kate’s flashbacks about her relationship with Paul were especially touching, as they provided evidence about how he may not have been the perfect man for her — and how she lost part of herself in her dependent relationship with him. They were so detailed and gave an important look into the characters’ teenage lives. So for me, the writing style worked really, really well.
Morgan: You know, although not every aspect of the writing of This Fierce Splendor worked for me, I really loved seeing flashes of what makes Johansen the bestseller she is today, her clever writing. One of my favorite passages is when Dominic’s young nephew is defending his uncle:
“Dominic is no gunslinger. However, on occasion he’s been known to have permanently removed a few gentlemen, who have displeased him. I happen to know one of the things that displeases him most is to be called a gunslinger.”
Whitney: You know, all while I was reading the murder-mystery weekend portion of my story, I totally thought that the author was going to kill someone off for real, and that that would be part of the story. So, I was pleased to learn that Sally Goldenbaum is still writing and has switched her focus to cozy mysteries. And although The Baron wasn’t really to my taste, the author’s vivid character descriptions and quirky community definitely would fit right into a fantastic mystery.
Elisa: To my knowledge, Remember the Time is Annette Reynolds’ only book. It was nominated for a 1998 RITA award for “Best First Book,” and overall I thought it was a well-constructed, solid read, especially for a first-time author. I think that because this book was such a good debut, and the author hasn’t done anything else since, people remember it. Her use of flashbacks, and I mentioned before, are especially notable. And because she doesn’t directly mention any time-specific technologies or brands, this book can be read in the same way now as it was nearly 15 years ago. So I was excited to learn that according to this author’s website, she’s currently at work on a new project!
We want to know: What do you think about Loveswept re-releasing these classics and does it make a difference to you if a favorite book from the ‘80s or ’90s doesn’t hold up when you re-read it today?
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