Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reflections on Contemporary Romance & Too Hot to Handle by Elizabeth Lowell

I've read a few recently acquired older romances and one of the things I've found interesting is how some of these books stand the test of time and some of them just seem... dated. This seems particularly evident to me in contemporary romances, weather it's the writing style, what was acceptable to write/include in romances at the time, fashion, dialogue and/or attitudes.

However thinking about it, that's the reason these books are called contemporaries after all -- the content reflects contemporary times, whatever those times may be. If well written, as time passes these contemporary books become a glimpse into the past. In a way they almost become historicals... I mean think about it. Read a contemporary book set in the 1950's, 1960's, 1970's and even the 1980's (don't kill me) and what do you get? A tiny piece of history... even if it's just in the style of writing and what was acceptable and popular during that era.

Pop culture is pop culture and contemporary fiction is a great way to glimpse these little pieces of history as we go along. However in this case, when referencing contemporaries within the romance genre there's a glitch. I've always found contemporary romances to be behind the times when it comes to relationships between men and women, specifically when it comes to women and their true roles in society -- in many cases I found that pop culture was often ignored as well. I think this applied mostly in romance books written in the 1970's, 80's and even 90's where in most cases women were still characterized as submissive, repressed or innocent/naive and even when portrayed as working or independent women, they somehow reverted to those roles. That has changed for the most part, although unfortunately not completely, within the contemporary romance genre.

I remember always being amazed, shocked and awed when reading contemporary romances in the 1980's and even in the 1990's when all (or almost all) the heroines were virgins -- not that there's anything wrong with being a virgin. It's just that after the 1960's sexual revolution, the one that came along with the pill, there seemed to be very few 25 and 30 year old virgins around. So the fact that almost all the heroines in contemporary romances were virgins, always left me wondering if those authors would ever write, or be allowed to write, about the rest of the female population.

I also always wondered when the time would come that female romance readers would stop judging those romance heroines who were not virgins... as sluts. It seemed that the romance genre would never catch up with the 60's sexual revolution or with contemporary female roles in society -- the independent working woman with freedom to choose a relationship when ready. Reality vs. fantasy. How we are vs. how we would like to see ourselves. Fascinating.

A great example of the type of contemporary romances that were being written during the 1980's, but one that is not truly representative of the era is Too Hot to Handle by Elizabeth Lowell. It's interesting because I enjoyed the first -- recognizing the style and the format, the types of characters and story. So this book is definitely dated in the way it is written -- the style.

Interestingly enough some of my old frustrations came back to the surface. This book was written in 1986, yet it could have been written way before that. There's little if anything there that reflects that era, so it's not dated when it comes to pop culture. It certainly has nothing to say when it comes to the reactions of an independent young woman in her 20's during that time -- definitely a retro-style romantic fantasy.

The book is 249 pages, the first meeting between the protagonists takes the first 85 pages of the book, and by end of those 85 pages, they want each other... badly. But the heroine is a useless/clumsy/city girl who's coming from Los Angeles and trying to get a job at the hero's ranch, and HE wants a real woman who will help him run that ranch.

The hero is one of those stereotypical ones who is hot for the heroine on sight, but who decides she's not good enough for him. So he turns hostile, mean and bossy because he's horny and treats the heroine like crap until about half way through the story. Once they get together, he then turns into a tender and hot sexin' machine. Their sexin' scenes go on for page after page and they are HOT -- the highlight is a super-duper HOT sexin' scene on top a horse! And it wasn't just because it was summer and they were ambling/riding through a meadow. Of course that's before he turns back into a mean jerk again... and then reverts to the tender hero by the end so they can have a happily ever after.

The heroine is a virgin in her 20's. She's one of those perfectly perfect young women who had a rough childhood and suffers in silence. And even though she lived in Los Angeles independently and left home at age 16, she has somehow managed to stay naive, innocent and untouched -- her hormones never kicked in until she met HIM. For our girl, it doesn't matter how mean or hostile the hero gets throughout their "romance," she just wants to please him. Of course, our hero gets turned on by the fact that she's a virgin and he calls her "my sweet little virgin" so many times... that I was actually relieved when he finally got rid of that impediment, and needless to say that first time was painless and glorious! And no matter how much of a jerk this hero is throughout the story, he is HOT and our heroine understands... and well... if you've read a book like this you know where it goes from there.

This book certainly brought back memories of many a contemporary romance and even through some of my frustrations, I had to smile and actually laughed at some pretty inappropriate times -- mostly when I anticipated the dialogue... the predictability of it all. The story was just so familiar it felt as if I'd read it many times even though this was the first time. I must admit despite all the frustration, Lowell wrote some pretty enjoyable hot scenes and I'm sure this book was probably quite popular during that time.

Unlike this book, there are a few contemporary romances that I think stand the test of time... but I'll save those thoughts for another post.


  1. I've been thinking about this too. I believe in the past there was a deliberate attempt to leave out pop culture references and things that would date a book, and that recently authors are breaking that rule a lot more often.

    When I'm reading a current book with a lot of those references, I really enjoy it. But there absolutely is a somewhat negative effect once the book is a couple years old. Like how the Black Dagger Brotherhood all use Razor phones or "silver bullet" phones. Or plots that revolve around people not answering their phone at home-- who doesn't have a cell phone these days? Or scenes where the wrong person is around when the answering machine kicks on and everyone in the room hears the message.

  2. I've never been into het contemporaries, and this is one of the reasons. [nod] I've tried a few (mostly when a favorite historical author switched over and I followed her to her new subgenre for a while) but the characters always seemed to be throwbacks to the fifties and sixties, and not the cool, mod chunk of the sixties, either.

    After reading however many thousand romances, I'm thoroughly sick of the virgin woman. Even in historicals I find I'm wishing they'd show some of the women who actually went after what they wanted before their wedding, and certainly with contemporaries it strikes me as ridiculous to have these women be twenty-five or thirty and still virginal. :/ Sure, it happens, and if it were as rare in romances as it is in real life, that'd be fine. But when 99.8% of contemporary romances feature virgin females older than twenty, it just gets silly.

    Same thing with the whole submissive woman who's delighted to find a strong man to take care of her. I don't mind that theme per se, but when it seems every single book is based on that idea, you have to wonder exactly what the writers, collectively, are trying to say to their mostly-female readership. :/

    One thing (of many) I like about m/m romance is that it hasn't developed nearly as many rules and barriers and thou-shalt-nots as het romance. A guy can have a huge fight with his boyfriend, go out and get laid with some random dude he meets at a bar while drunk, then come back and work it out with the boyfriend and have his happy ending, and that's cool. Wow, realism! What a concept! :)


  3. who doesn't have a cell phone these days?

    Umm, I don't? [raises hand] I've never had one and never wanted one. I don't want to be that easily contactable, 24/7.

    Angie, enjoying the irony of being one of the throwbacks after her previous comment ;D

  4. Really interesting post! It got me thinking about category romance and how it changed over the decades; I wish I had read more 1960s examples.

  5. I always liked Jane Feather for the fact that she had non-virgin historical heroines.

    I just finished "Delicious" by Sherry Thomas, and while I had problems with some of it, I really liked the heroine's [non-virginal] character.

  6. i loved your thoughts, and it so true!!! Some of my favorite contemporary authors are Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts and Elizabeth Lowell, and for some of their books, that was a long time ago,(at least for me) so its all a matter of perspective! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Nicola, pop culture can defintely be a double edge sword when it comes to contemporary romance. I personally prefer to have an inkling of the era or the times when the book was written... weather by use of language (dialogue), a bit of fashion or other subtle means. Of course, IMO, JR Ward goes a bit too far in the BDB books, there's nothing suble about the use of pop culture there. :D

    In the case of Too Hot to Handle, although there were no references to pop culture, the book seems dated due to the devices used in the story. The "formula" used to write this story definitely dates it.

    RE: Jane Feather and Sherry Thomas and non-virgins in historical romances... well, that's another post, lol! There are quite a few non-virginal heroines in that genre these days. Since the the contemporary romance genre changed the last decade or so in that respect, the trend seems to have shifted to historicals as well.

    Angie, reading this book brought back memories of those times and frustrations I had as a reader for me.

    you have to wonder exactly what the writers, collectively, are trying to say to their mostly-female readership.

    This is something that I wondered over and over again for many years while reading a book that was set during OUR times, about a women that were supposed to represent us. There was no such thing as relating... maybe my mom could have, although I'm not quite sure of that either.

    However, I'm happy to say that in the past decade or so there has been a change in contemporary romance when it comes to women's roles in society, and even to the non-virginal heroine. You still find the above mentioned every so often, but not as a rule -- and of course I still have some issues. But, I think the genre is finally catching up. :)

    Victoria, I had a great collection of 1950's & 1960's category romances at one time. I loved those. They most definitely did not represent their times... except that you had the fashion description to define the era. But generally, the values represented were those of the 1950's (at least the books I read did). The one thing that changed throughout was the working woman and her independence.

    LoR, I love some of those authors you mention. Yes, it was a long time ago. The interesting thing is that some of those old books stand the test of time and some don't... and I agree that it definitely is a matter of perspective.

  8. Speaking of non-virginal women, I'm about halfway through Nora Roberts's The Search, and the characters have a wonderfully refreshing (and modern) view of sex. All right, the woman's a widow, which is one of the classic excuses for the female protag to not be a virgin, but she's had sex with at least one or two other guys since her husband's death, and although she's grouched a couple of times about the fact that the last time was just Bad Sex, she's not all angsting about it, or feeling the guilts over how slutty she's been, or any crap like that. Sex is sex, most people want sex, and there's nothing wrong with that. And her first time with Simon is just for the sex; she doesn't even start thinking about maybe being in love with him until afterward, and she's not picking out curtains or wondering whether he still respects her. Great stuff!

    I can see why people like Nora Robers, even if she does head-hop, which frankly surprised me in a writer of her stature. [blinkblink] It's not really egregious, though; it kicks me out of the story when it happens, but it's not like it's every other paragraph, and I'm willing to overlook it in exchange for her great characters.

    And the doggies -- doggies balance out a lot of negatives. ;D


  9. Angie, I just finished The Search! Really enjoyed it. :) The puppies were the best! NR... well, she has always written strong female characters, even back when they were the virginal types or even the mother earth types, they were strong characters -- as were her male protags (although she writes some great betas). There are very few female characters by NR that I have not enjoyed for one reason or another (there have been some, though).

    For the most part these days, you'll find her female leads to be independent and self-sufficient. Her J.D. Robb character Eve Dallas is an excellent example... you'll find some NR characters with those same characteristics. LOL on the head hopping. :D

  10. The story sounds like one of those that literary snobs turn their noses up at and say "see, that's what those Romance Readers like". Ugh!

    I'm sure there's still stories out there like this, maybe there is a market for it, but there's also more that reflect true contemporary women. Which, for me, means a variety of real women, not what publishers think we want.

    The heroine sounds too good to be real - like from a man's fantasy.

  11. I camped out on the sofa most of the day and finished it. :) Good stuff. I particularly liked how the two main characters got involved with the hunt/investigation, especially at the end, but it all felt realistic. Establishing Fee as leader of a S&R team made it legit to have her out there at the end, unlike so many writers who have their character(s) sneak into the middle of a police action where they have no business being, or have some law enforcement type let them (one or two civilians) go along on a bust or whatever, when in actuality it'd mean his/her badge to do something that stupid. Good stuff, and another refreshing point. I might have to get more of her books. :)


  12. I agree Leslie, things have changed within the contemporary romance genre. This last decade books that reflect the true contemp woman are no longer the exception.

    like from a man's fantasy.

    Excellent observation. I never thought this would fit the fantasy of a 20 something y/o girl, late 1980's, who was independent & coming from LA... but maybe that's just me.?

    Angie, I liked that part too. It made sense in this story. :) I hope you enjoy some of her other books. I have a few favorites. I loved the sweeping descriptions of Alaska in Northern Lights; the darkness of the main male character... and well the atmosphere in general. And I know that Angels Falls is a favorite for most of her fans. :)

  13. LOL - I know I'm completely missing the point of your post but I had to laugh at the image of two people doing it on a horse. As someone who has been riding for the last 14 years I couldn't imagine my cranky old gelding ever letting something like that go on on his back :)

    As for contemporary's most dated references I try to ignore or I put in the latest current reference in my head but one thing I would like to see is a contemporary romance that doesn't have the couple pregnant or with a new born baby at the end.

  14. Like novelnelle, I can't imagine a horse ever letting a couple at it on his back...I would think the smell and, um, loud noises would jar the horse into motion at the very least. LOL.

    I actually don't mind dated contemporary books. I like to get a gist of the "time" in the storyline as I read so lack of references really remove the feel of the period for me.

  15. On the horse issue, sex doesn't necessarily require loud noises. Some people yell, grunt, scream, babble, whatever, and others don't. :)

    I'd think it'd be more the motion that'd bother the horse, but once the couple settled into a rhythm, I imagine it'd be less bothersome. [ponder] If the horse is moving (a trot, maybe? [grin]) that could actually help.

    It'd probably depend more on the disposition of the horse than anything else. An older, mellower horse would probably just eyeroll and think, "Whatever. Humans are weird." :D


  16. Hilcia - that's one fantastic post! So insightful. Thank you! It's interesting how times change...but I think I'm reading the different contemporaries because I keep meeting non-virgin heroines :)

  17. LOL about the horse, novelnelle... I think that's the reason I chose to put that there. I loved that scene, but hmm... I know how tough it would be for it to actually happen. *g*

    The present obsession with babies in category romances is food for thought. That's one I've been pondering for a while.

    Tabz, I also enjoy some subtle detail in contemps that let me know when they take place. Not glaring to the point where they take over the book, but subtle... it's nice to know that they were contemporary to a specific time.

    LOL, Angie... I don't know about the horse situation... I just don't know!

    Orannia. Times do change. Contemporaries now don't include virgin heroines the way they used to. So you're probably reading those. :D Although, of course... ALL the contemps written in past eras did not have ALL virgin heroines either -- just the majority of the ones I read, and that were published during that time.

    I was actually more concerned about how women were being portrayed in these books, the unrealistic way in which they were portrayed as opposed to they way women truly acted and reacted during those times. Women in society and roles played. It's interesting that the "virgin or non-virgin" aspect of my post is the one that garnered the most attention.

  18. On the horses, it probably says something about me that when presented with that scenario, my immediate response is to start thinking how it could work, and not in sexy terms, either. Let's see, big horse, muscular, able to deal with two adults jostling around on its back without a problem. Older horse, even-tempered.... Not that I have any interest in having sex on horseback :D but it presents itself as a problem to be solved and I try to solve it, just out of reflex. I've always been like that. It's probably why I have very little social life. [grin]

    On the virgin thing, I think it's more about what it symbolizes than about the fact of virginity. I still think it's kind of ridiculous that the vast majority of the female leads in romances are either virgins, or have socially acceptable reasons for not being, usually because they were married, and if so it's often mentioned that they lost their virginity on their wedding night, or at least to their fiance.

    But the whole virginity thing stands in for or represents a particular, conservative, restrictive way of viewing and judging women. If a woman is a virgin when she marries, especially if she's in her mid-twenties or early thirties, that implies a lot of other things about her. You wouldn't expect her to have ever experimented with drugs, frex., not even pot. You wouldn't have expected her to have shoplifted as a teenager or cheated on an exam in college. The fact of her virginity labels her a Good Girl, by some really old-fashioned standards, the same standards that label a woman who has casual sex with a guy just because she thinks he's hot and wants to get off a slut. A twenty-five or thirty-year-old woman who's a virgin on her wedding night pretty much symbolizes Family Values, and there's a major load of baggage that goes along with that. Some of it is very old, very ugly baggage, which desperately needs to be discarded before we go on our next trip. :/

    How a book's treatment of the female lead comes across depends on what else the writer does with her. As I mentioned above, Nora Roberts did a great job with Fee; she was a widow, and IIRC she'd never been with anyone but her husband until he died, but there were other factors in the story which showed us that she wasn't some sweet little Suzy Homemaker type from the fifties, determined to be a Good Girl and never have a single naughty thought.

    It's when the writer uses the Virginity Issue to stand in for a lot of characterization that it's an issue, because the gut-level response is to reach for the Good Girl, Suzy Homemaker label, if the virgin thing is all we get. You can mix it up, go in an unexpected direction -- add some jalapeno to your vanilla ice cream -- but that's not what the reader is going to assume if the writer doesn't spell it out. Virginity has become a symbol of a lot of conservative cliches, and it takes purposeful effort on the part of the writer to show us that she doesn't mean us to assume those cliches with this particular woman.


  19. Angie, thank you. I think you've summarized it quite well. :D


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