As I was finishing up the edits on my new story, “Something So Right”, I got to talking with a friend of mine about happily ever afters in romance novels and what makes them such an essential part of the genre. He (and yes, it is a he) studies romance as part of his academic career while I come at it from the practical “get cat up tree, throw rocks at cat, get cat down the tree” standpoint of a writer.
On some points, we agreed to disagree but when it came to happy endings what both of us agreed upon was that in order for any conclusion in a story to feel really convincing, it had to be hard won. Trauma was the word he used. I usually call them plot points and backstory but I think they refer to the same thing.
In “Something So Right”, Lily Carver has survived a truly traumatic experience. Her former fiancée was psychologically and emotionally abusive and that anguish has left deep scars on her psyche. The wounds feel so personal and shameful she can’t bear to share them with anyone, even her best friend, Sam Denning, a man who’s known her since childhood. In the way of so many domestic abuse survivors, she’s internalized the guilt and come to believe that it is her fault she suffered as long as she did.
That if she’d only been stronger or braver or more determined, Brent wouldn’t have treated her like that, in other words.
Of course, that’s what her abuser worked so hard to inculcate into her – a feeling of worthlessness that made it possible for him to control her. Long before the story begins, she escapes and rebuilds her life but the trauma, as carefully as she tries to bury it, lingers and has a direct impact on the way the story moves ahead.
When she and Sam begin to explore their attraction, that trauma adds all sorts of wrinkles and difficulties to their burgeoning relationship. Lily thinks anything long-term is bad news. Sam thinks her reluctance stems from their disparate backgrounds. Lily wants an affair. Sam wants forever.
Not all heroines suffer like Lily, of course, but bad relationships, betrayal, loss and distant families are all part of the romance genre.
Lily and Sam’s pasts colour their present and complicate their reactions to each other. The trauma that both of them experience (and Sam carries his own burdens, too) makes the HEA that they finally achieve that much sweeter. We value and respect what we earn, not what is simply given to us through luck or inertia, and nowhere is that more critical than the person we love.
When I write my stories, I want the characters to feel real, like people I know. And part of real life are the adversity we face and triumph over. I think I’ve done that with Lily and Sam. The conclusion of their story filled me with hope for their (fictional) future, while at the same time realizing that it isn’t a matter of forgetting the past but of coming to terms with it and putting it into perspective, thanks to the happiness of the present.
What do you think? Do you think characters have to suffer before they can have their happily ever after? Or do you prefer to read stories where the heroine and hero aren’t burdened by events that occurred prior to the start of the story and the happiness they find at the conclusion of the story isn’t shadowed by the pasts?
Elyse Mady is the author of “Something So Right”, “Learning Curves” and “The Debutante’s Dilemma”, all with Carina Press. Upcoming books include “The White Swan Affair” (2012). She blogs at www.elysemady.com. You can also find her on Twitter at @elysemady and Goodreads.
In addition to her writing commitments, Elyse also teaches film and literature at a local community college. In her free time she enjoys (well, enjoys might be too strong a word – perhaps pursues with dogged determination would be better) never ending renovations on their century home with her intrepid husband and two boys.
With her excellent writerly imagination, she one day dreams of topping the NY Times Bestseller’s List and reclaiming her pre-kid body without the bother of either sit-ups or the denunciation of ice-cream.
Excerpt from “Something So Right”
“Jules?” Lily called again, walking into the living room. Although their home was small, a wide bank of windows overlooked the lake and a granite fireplace dominated the space, its pink and grey façade reaching from floor to ceiling, a testament to the stonemason’s skills. A large braided rug and cozy corduroy sofas invited visitors to sit and relax while the small, dated television set revealed how little time either woman had for mindless leisure.
Juliette was curled up on the sofa, asleep. The sight of her usually up-and-at-’em sister looking so tired was a surprise but now, her face softened by sleep and without her usual wide smile, Lily could see that her sister looked exhausted and pale.
She crouched beside the sofa and laid a careful hand on her sister’s shoulder.
Slowly, Jules opened her eyes, looking bewildered for a moment. Then she scrambled into a sitting position, clearly embarrassed.
“Sorry,” she said, tucking a long strand of blond hair behind her ear. Juliette was the only person Lily knew who could fall asleep on the sofa for an impromptu nap and wake up looking utterly gorgeous and put together. If not for the fact that she was her elder sister and the one person in her family she loved above all others, Lily might be forced to hate Jules for her effortless chicness.
As it was, she felt guilty that she hadn’t noticed how run-down and tired Jules had gotten helping her run the resort. Success like they’d been enjoying didn’t happen without a tremendous amount of work and they’d both been burning the candle at both ends.
Now the trick would be to get her closed-mouthed older sister to admit she needed a break to recuperate. And from experience, Lily knew that wouldn’t be easy. Neither of them liked to admit weakness or vulnerabilities. After all, they’d learned from the best at a very young age. A Carver should never retreat could practically be engraved as the family motto.
Just another example of how Lily’s ignominious retreat five years ago, fleeing from Brent and their high-powered life in favor of a backwater career in hospitality, had let down the family. But when she looked into her sister’s wan face, she knew it wasn’t time to rehash her own shortcomings. Juliette was her priority.
“What’s wrong?” Concerned, Lily slid onto the soft sofa beside her sister. “Everything alright? You look—”
“I’m fine,” Juliette said briskly. “It was a hectic day and I wanted to put my feet up. Give me a minute and I’ll make supper.” She smiled in a show of efficiency and swung her feet to the floor. She folded the blanket and replaced it along the back of the couch.
“Do you really feel like cooking tonight? You look done in.”
Ignoring Lily’s question, Juliette hastened toward the compact galley kitchen and opened the fridge, peering inside intently.
“What do you feel like? I was thinking about doing an omelet. Do we have lettuce, if I toss together a salad?”
“You’re not up to cooking,” Lily countered. “Why don’t we go out tonight? My treat.”
Juliette’s face lightened and her smile actually reached her eyes this time. “The Hollow?” she asked as she slammed the fridge door shut. Known for thick burgers, cold beer and casual games of pool, the local bar was the kind of place where the jukebox played songs about being done wrong by a country girl. Rustic but lively and just the ticket for taking Juliette’s mind off her troubles.
“Give me fifteen minutes to hop in the shower and we’ll head out. I spent most of this afternoon repairing the hot water pipes in number twelve. I’m sweaty and gross and need to get the smell of solder out of my hair pronto,” Lily said and her sister nodded. A night out with a casual, unhurried meal would be just the thing to help her sister relax and perhaps encourage her to share the reason for her atypical mood. Hurrying to the bathroom, she called over her shoulder, “Thank God Sam stopped by and gave me a hand. He had a strap wrench and a long-handled pipe wrench in his tool box, and I put them to good use.”
“Yes, and I’m sure he’s got lots of other tools he’d be happy to lend you,” her sister teased as she collected a pile of clean clothes from the laundry room. Her mouth full of toothpaste, Lily could only fix Juliette with a baleful glare. Her sibling just laughed and continued down the hall to set the laundry away. But she quickly returned and leaned against the bathroom doorframe, her face thoughtful.
“But seriously, he’s been crazy about you since forever. If you don’t show him a little encouragement… Well, don’t be surprised if someone else decides to put the moves on him. I mean, it’s not like eligible men are thick on the ground around these parts, and Sam’s a catch no matter which way you look at it. He’s gorgeous, he’s built, he’s got all of his own hair and teeth and then some. He doesn’t live with his mother or suffer from ex-wife-itis, he’s successful and owns his own business, he raised his sisters single handedly since the age of eighteen and he’s an all around nice guy who likes kids and is kind to puppies.”
Lily rolled her eyes at the long list of virtues, none of which were exactly news to her. She wasn’t blind. Sam was a catch. Kind, funny and hardworking. Unfortunately, he had looking for long-term written all over him and Lily was looking for anything except that. Their relationship had never been passionate. They were best friends, there for each other through thick and thin, but Juliette was mistaken, imagining a connection where there wasn’t one. Sam wasn’t interested in her in any other sense. Not romantically, not sexually.
There had been times, especially in the past year or so, where she’d found herself wondering why she and Sam had never connected on another level but she’d put the question from her mind. Her therapist would have called it evidence that she was finally overcoming the emotional damage her fiancé had inflicted on her and showing readiness to contemplate another intimate relationship. But she knew the truth. It wasn’t a matter of readiness—she had no intention of getting swept up in something long-term again—but a matter of common sense.
Still, Julie’s playful admonishment stung a little. A small, teeny, infinitesimal part of her mind did wonder why she and Sam had never even explored the possibility of more. Lily might have come to her senses when it came to forever but a girl couldn’t help but feel a little piqued at not even earning a teasing pass. She’d turn him down, of course, because he’d only be joking. He’d be as horrified as she would be if they ever transgressed their friendship. Unfortunately, while she had no intention of acting on her observations, try as she might, Lily couldn’t deny noticing Sam in some very non-platonic ways.
Like when they’d gone on their annual summer camping trip to Algonquin. Settling in to their campsite after a challenging portage, she’d gotten caught up ogling Sam when he’d stripped off his T-shirt to dive into the lake. She’d been so distracted admiring the play of his muscles as he’d cut through the water with a powerful overhand stroke, that she’d managed to drop their entire meal into the campfire.
Of course, she hadn’t been able to tell him the real reason for the disaster. Instead, she’d invented a strained shoulder, aggravated by a long day’s paddle. Sam, being Sam, had been sympathetic, understanding and completely unfazed by the sight of his dinner, black and curling, in the fire stones. And Lily had been punished for her dishonesty after dinner, forced to endure his long, callused fingers massaging her “injured” shoulder with a slick muscle balm. She’d had to clench her teeth to keep from moaning, his tempting and skilled touch leaving her a quivering mass of unrequited need.
But despite the temptations, Lily knew unrequited was the way it had to be. At least for someone with her spectacularly unsuccessful romantic record.
She’d learned her lessons when her relationship with Brent Kellar imploded five years ago. In a word, it had been a disaster and she wasn’t eager to repeat the experience.
Her therapist’s sage advice echoed in her mind. You need to acknowledge what Brent did honestly and without fear or self-recrimination. When you can do that, you’ll know you’re on the road to healing.
She knew Carol was right. Because it hadn’t just been a disaster…it had been abusive.
Emotionally. Psychologically. Sexually. And by the end, occasionally physically.
Of course, it hadn’t happened overnight. Or every night. For long stretches Brent had been charming. Funny. Debonair. Romantic, even. But slowly and surely, he’d chipped away at Lily’s sense of self, at her worth and her confidence until she’d accepted as her due his cruel and manipulative behavior. She’d come to see herself as deserving of less, her shortcomings and flaws so abundant that it was a miracle he could even stomach her.
It seemed ridiculous that she could have fallen for such blatant lies but only in retrospect had she been able to see the damaging pattern that blighted her life for two years. And it had taken the visceral shock of finding Brent, pumping and thrusting into another woman, to finally jolt Lily into her self-preserving flight north.
While it might seem strange to other people, in some ways she felt grateful for her experiences. She’d learned her lesson with Brent, and it was indelibly etched in her psyche. She couldn’t trust herself to make good choices in a relationship. So no matter how tempting Sam was, or muscled, or skillful, she would never succumb to her secret fantasies. Because she couldn’t imagine her life without him or his friendship.
It was like trying to imagine the sky any other color but blue.