Bitchery reader Dalia sent us the following email:
I’m looking to read up on romance novels containing a certain storyline and I was wondering if you could help me by (if you’re interested yourself in finding out, I know this could come across as presumptuous!) putting the question up on your site?
I’m looking for romances with a side story line featuring either the heroine or the hero with serious relationship issues with either one or both their parents. Not salad dressing sort of issues like Penelope Featherington & her obnoxious mother dressing her in green (Julia Quinn in whichever Bridgerton series instalment that was). More in line with Kevin’s tv star mother giving him up when he was a baby in SEP’s ‘Heart of Mine’ in terms of ‘seriousness’, for example.
Thanks a lot if you can help me.
Parental dysfunction?! Mega Angst Dysfunction of parental origin!? Oooh, there’s hardly ANY of that in Romancelandia! *snort*
So what do I do when someone says, “Got any romances like this?” I think of, like, two or three, then ask Candy, whose brain flies through the data like one of those rotating shirt hangers at the dry cleaners on high speed and comes up with fifteen thousand examples. And then, as usual, we start talking about WHY this subset exists, and how it came to be:
Sarah: Now, that’s an interesting subset. There’s a good number of “my parents abused me” stories, including a Julia Quinn, “The Duke & I,” wherein the hero was abused and rejected by his father for having a pronounced stutter. Does Samuel in “The Shadow and the Star” count?
Candy: Oh, man, there are quite a few books like that. Many of my favorites feature parents of mucho fucked-uppedness.
Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase: Sebastian Dain’s father is verbally and emotionally abusive to him. Quite horribly so. The book kicks off showing us what a douche Dain’s father is, and it’s very effective.
Sweet Everlasting by Patricia Gaffney: Carrie’s stepfather is physically and sexually abusive.
The Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale: Zenia and her relationship with Hester Stanhope—now that’s some dysfunction cakes right there. Arden’s dad is shitty to him for being shy and having a stutter, but it’s nothing near the dysfunctionality of Hester and Zenia’s relationship.
Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale: Sheridan’s dad sends him to the motherfucking Navy when he’s 10 years old. For a lark. Sheridan’s dad explains a lot about Sheridan.
Uncertain Magic by Laura Kinsale: Faelan’s mother does unspeakable things to him—but we don’t find out what until the end of the book.
Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale: Allegreto’s father trains him to be an assassin, and some of the things he conditions Allegreto into doing…yeah.
Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie: Min’s mom isn’t abusive, but her obsession with weight inflicts some lasting damage on Min. (Man, can I ever identify with Min.) But Cal’s parents…oy.
My Lady Notorious by Jo Beverley: Some of the things Chastity’s father does to her to make her marry the man he chooses for her are pretty horrific.
I know there are a lot more—some Judith McNaught mothers are pretty awful, but I can’t remember specifics.
Also, Lucien’s dad in Lucien’s Fall. What a douche!
Here’s an interesting pattern to ponder: heroes with awful parents, but especially awful mothers, are allowed to be assholes who take out their mother-issues (especially their distrust and rage) on the heroines. Heroines with awful parents, however, generally aren’t allowed this latitude, especially in historicals. They’re supposed to suck it up, be sugary-sweet and direct the rage and grief inwards.
Sarah: You know, you have a very good point there – heroines with horrible parentage are supposed to suck it up and rise above with the healing power of the hero’s Luuuurrrve® – almost like a Cinderella-Forgiveness mystique. Cinderella never gets mad. It’s not supposed to have any lasting damage or do psychological harm, all that abuse. It’s supposed to make her, or any other heroine, more gentle and kind, more generous and loving, more wholesome and pukefully perfect in spite of the horrid abuse she lives through. There’s no rage or grief, just generous forgiveness. It’s very odd.
Yet heroes abused are petulant little boys inside who rage against their grief by taking it out, Freudian style, on the newer woman figure in their lives. Such a peculiar trend.
However, in Kinsale’s Dream Hunter, Zenia definitely bears long-term psychosis for her mother’s abuse, because woo damn is she a nutjob. But even then, is there a difference in how her neuroses are treated and play out in the story when she’s hiding as a boy vs. revealed as a girl? Once she’s ensconced in a corset and ruffles, is she just a nutjob anomaly to the Cinderella-Forgiveness rule, instead of a victimized boy-girl who has been denigrated into psychological damage?
Candy: Abused heroes having more latitude to be assholes vs. heroines isn’t all that surprising, because they’re embodying our cultural expectations. Weren’t there studies a little while back showing how when men failed at a task, they tended to blame the task as being difficult or being rigged, while women tended to blame themselves and their inadequacy? (This is me dredging up memories of psychology classes I took ten years ago, so I’m probably full of shit; I suppose I should look something up on PubMed or Google Scholar.) At any rate, this is just another example of the double standards men and women are subjected to. It’s more acceptable for a man to be angry, but it’s not acceptable for him to cry; it’s more acceptable for a woman to cry, but lord forbid she be angry.
I do admire Kinsale for allowing Zenia to be a mess; I just wish she hadn’t crossed the line from “Damn, I can see what she’s going through and why she’s being such a buttmunch” to “OK, she needs to get over this.”
Your hypothesis re: Zenia is interesting, but I think you should turn this to the Bitchery and let them duke it out, because it’s been ten, eleven years since I’ve read the book and I’m really not equipped to analyze it meaningfully.
So, members of the esteemed Bitchery – what do you think? Is there a difference in attitude and characterization between heroines who are victims of parental abuse and heroes? Does the source, father or mother, make a difference? And what books of hella-abuse from parental-fucked-uppedness do you recall?