GS vs. STA: Surprise Romance

Bitchery reader Jessica has a rather odd request in her search for romances to read. In fact, when she first emailed me, I said that I didn’t think what she was looking for was precisely a romance. I’m as much curious about your opinion on that as much as on whether there’s a book that might meet her criteria.

Jessica wrote:

I just get a little bored with the predictability of most romances.  Boy and girl meet, are horribly attracted to each other on first sight, but deny it/are torn apart/decide to be attracted to someone else for a while/are in some other complicated situation/etc., lots of stuff happens, boy and girl end up together.  You ALWAYS know from the very first page (or chapter, at any rate) who will ending up doinking whom.

So, maybe The Bitchery can help me out.  Any suggestions for books where the hero/heroine DOESN’T end up with the first attractive, named character of the opposite sex they see and get moist for?  And it’s not because said named character is a ginormous asshole/the villain/secretly their sibling/etc.  I’m looking for a little healthy surprise here.

It happens to people all the time.  You meet someone and you think they’re just the best thing since BEFORE sliced bread but after a period of time (a date, a few weeks, a month, whatever) you realize that maybe they’re not for you.  They’re not BAD or anything, but it’s just not as right as you had hoped.  But this other person you met at the same party/event/etc. or shortly afterwards or before, or somewhere along the line is finding a place in your heart.

And I would debate that it COULD still be a romance.  The hero or heroine is just not who you would expect. I guess it’s [more the idea of]  surprise.  I want to NOT be hammered over the head from the very beginning with “these two are going to do the dirty!”  I still can’t think of any novels I know of that have the type of plot I’m looking for.  But, last night my DH, reminded me of the movie, “While You Were Sleeping.”  That’s almost exactly the plot I’m looking for.  Still definitely a romance, but the first “hero” she gets excited about is not the hero she ends up with.

I’ve read a few books like this, and it’s a delicate balance for a writer to sustain. On one hand, you don’t want the reader getting all invested in a hero who isn’t going to be The One, but you also don’t want to lose the respect of the reader if the heroine falls for the wrong dude or chases someone that the reader KNOWS isn’t right for him.

While I’m a very big fan of friends-to-lovers plotlines (*sigh*) that’s not quite what Jessica is looking for, but it’s also not merely a triangle “Which one will she choose” romance either. But I’ve read romances where the heroine has, for example, a lifelong crush on Dude A, but then realizes that Dude B is The One – and sometimes the reader knows it all along, while other times the reader figures it out along with the heroine.

What’s your take? Got any books to recommend?


Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Sarah says:

    While not strictly “romance” per se, I’d highly recommend both Jane Fairfax and The Youngest Miss Ward, both by Joan Aiken.  Sure – they’re Jane Austen spin-offs, but they’re well-written and neither heroine ends up with who you’d expect.

  2. 2
    Kim says:

    It is chick lit, but I just finished Good at Games by Jill Mansell. Heroine is dating guy from first pages, but later she meets and ends up with his brother.

  3. 3
    jonquil says:

    In Jennifer Crusie’s Fast Women the heroine has a detour through a second guy before winding up with the Alpha Male.

    And, of course, the immortal Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion!

  4. 4
  5. 5
    Janice says:

    Kind of reminds me of the movie Sabrina too. Heroine is in love with the younger brother first.

  6. 6
    Leslie Kelly says:

    I was taken by surprise re who the hero was when reading Allison Brennan’s first book The Prey.

  7. 7
    karibelle says:

    “Sugar Daddy” by Lisa Kleypas (I promise, I do read other authors..lots of them).  The heroine has to choose between her childhood crush and her new lover.

  8. 8
    Becky says:

    A Girl’s Best Friend by Elizabeth Young has the heroine with a different guy in the beginning.  And her books Making Mischief and A Promising Man (And About Time, Too) both have the hero with someone else in the beginning.

    I adore Elizabeth Young!  She inspires me to write chick lit.  Too bad I’m so terrible at it.

  9. 9
    ames says:

    Chick lit, but still applies:

    Jane Green’s Straight Talking and Lisa Jewell’s Ralph’s Party.

  10. 10
    Laura says:

    Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison. It’s a good paranormal. I wouldn’t really classify it as a romance because the man gets introduced as a sub-plot to a sub-plot. Still, it’s a good read and doesn’t follow the same tired rules.

  11. 11
    jali says:

    Pride and Prejudice

  12. 12
    Ellen says:

    It’s funny that someone suggested Jane Austen spin-offs, because I was going to recommend Jane Austen. Bridget Jones’s Diary—inspired by Jane Austen if not a spin-off—also meets the criteria.

    This is a big part of the reason I’m not a romance reader; I don’t like the guaranteed HEA. (But I stick around here ‘cause I love the Bitches.) I’m a big fantasy reader, and I can think of a lot of fantasies with romantic elements that have more than one potential hero. Three of my favorites: Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel trilogy, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin.

    And how about Bitchery interviewee Colleen Gleason? The heroine hasn’t ended up with anyone permanently yet, but there have been three hero candidates so far. I know which one I’m backing, but I could be wrong.

  13. 13
    Ellen says:

    P.S. How about some Jennifer Crusie? She doesn’t vary from the formula by too much, but of the four books by her I’ve read, the heroines of three have started out in a relationship with one guy and ended up with someone else.

  14. 14
    Scotsie says:

    I’ll probably get shot for this, or at least buried under man titty, but Bertrice Small usually had two or three different heroes throughout her “series”.  I seem to remember quite a few where heroine meets one hot dude, is separated from hot dude, meets new hot dude, boinks new hot dude to the tune of some seriously awful purple prose … lather, rinse and repeat.

  15. 15
    Amelia June says:

    Second and third the Kushiel books, they are great and BOY does she end up with someone you least expect.

  16. 16
    Jo says:

    It may not quite fit the bill, but Second Chances by Lauren Dane.

  17. 17
    karibelle says:

    You do have a point, Scotsie.  Small’s heroines usually start out with one guy but you never know who she will end up with after she escapes from the harem


  18. 18
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Um . . . isn’t this the kind of thing that happens all the time in the dreaded (and seemingly dead) Chicklit? I seem to remember it as such.

  19. 19
    Jepad says:

    Perhaps Crazy for You by Jennifer Crusie.  Actually Jennifer Crusie is usually pretty good with not following the usual romance formula.

    I do think that most romances declare right on the back who the hero and heroine are.  Even if the author tries to lead you on, the cover blurb gives it away.

    I think that if one wants more surprise then you’d have to steer clear of romances and maybe find novels where romance is the subplot rather than the main focus.

  20. 20
    Ziggy says:

    I love surprise romances. My favourite Mills and Boon (what?! stop looking at me like that!) was one in which the guys who wrote the blurb on the back of the book obviously had not read the actual book, and so they implied that the heroine would be getting together with a different guy from the one she ACTUALLY gets together with. And he was soooo much better too. I wish I could remember the title of that book.

    Marian Keyes is a good writer of surprise romance. “Anyone Out There” is an excellent example, I think, though more chick-lit than romance. I think “Sushi for Beginners” and “Last Chance Saloon” had some surprise element in their romance, though to be honest, I can’t really remember. They’re good reads though. Oh, and “Hunting Unicorns” by Bella Pollen, at a str-e-e-etch.

  21. 21
    Angela says:

    If you mention Marian Keyes, you cannot forget “Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married”—the ultimate “who will she end up with?” book. It’s hilarious-I can never read a Keyes book in public because I always die with laughter even if I’ve read the book a gazillion times.

  22. 22
    Cat Marsters says:

    I’m with Kalen.  For me that was one of the appeals of chick lit: that you didn’t know from page one who was going to end up with who, and ‘detours’ were plentiful.

    What am I saying, ‘were’?  They still are.  People keep saying chick lit is dead…maybe that’s just because people aren’t admitting to it any more.  At least there seem to be fewer of the really bad chick lit books (you know the ones I’m talking about: they mention Manolos on every page and make you feel inadequate because you don’t have a high-pressure job and at least three gorgeous men panting after you.  Yawn).

    I’m still reading plenty of smart, funny books about modern women who are falling in love but don’t have it as their main concern in life.  I think now it’s called ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘romantic comedy’.

    I was going to suggest Bridget Jones, but it’s been done.  Jill Mansell is a prime example of that-which-is-not-called-chick-lit any more.  She has heroines of all ages and situations (although they’re all British, as she is: she’s pretty big over here but can’t seem to get a foothold in the States).  Pretty much all of them go through more than one guy in a book.  Sometimes you can pick pout the keeper; sometimes not.

    I know from when I started out writing romance that allowing your characters to dally with anyone other than each other is very much frowned upon, especially in the American market where romance is still sacred.  Over in Blighty, where romance is a dirty word in most bookstores, we’ve come a little unstuck from the formula.  As well as Jill Mansell, try Catherine Alliot, Marian Keyes and Chris Manby, who do lighter romantic comedies,  Jilly Cooper for a good ol’fashoned bonkbuster, and there are plenty of historical authors, especially if you look for some family sagas.

    Step away from the Harlequin lines, where true love is sown on the first page.

    There’s also a new Headline imprint called Little Black Dress which is about a year old ( When I spoke to the editor at the RNA conference this year, she said they loved heroines who might try out a Daniel Cleaver before they got to their Mark Darcy.

    Wow, that was a long post.

  23. 23
    Nelly says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. It’s not strictly romance but it’s definately a fun and entertaining and it keeps you guessing as to who she’ll end up with. It’s a choice between two very yummy men. I’ve gone through almost 9 of them so far.

  24. 24
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Marian Keyes and Wendy Holden are both great for this, but they’re “brit lit” (which I love)!

  25. 25
    Tammy says:

    How about Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Hot Shots. I’d just started reading romance and was so surprised that there could be 2 “heroes”, one for each stage of this heroine’s life.

  26. 26
    Meriam says:

    I ADORE Cotillion! Fantastic – the hero is not the heavy-lidded jaded rake Jack but bumbling, good natured, permanently confounded and impeccably dressed Freddy Stanton. I can’t believe how many romance conventions Heyer breezily disregarded in writing this book. And it’s bloody romantic, to boot.

    This is YA, but Tamora Pierce’s Alana series gave me the shock of my young life when she betrayed my budding romantic sensibilities with a bait and switch. I won’t go into it (I love that series, incidentally) but she pretty much does what you require – Alana grows up and away from her first love.

  27. 27
    willaful says:

    The Boyfriend Schoool by Sarah Bird. Added benefit, romance writing satire. I need to reread this now that I’m a romance fan.

    The Answer is Yes by Sara Lewis. Wonderful book.

    And now you ask, why yes I DO want73.

  28. 28
    KarenF says:

    The first one that springs to mind is Carla Kelly’s “Libby’s London Merchant.”  The “London Merchant” is a Duke in disguise, he gets half of the POV of the novel, Libby gets the other half, and in the end she marries someone else (eventually the Duke gets his own book), but the ending was a complete surprise since the second hero didn’t even get a POV in the narration.

    The other is Kristan Higgins “Fools Rush In.”  It’s pretty clear, even from the cover blurb who the heroine is going to end up with, but her first choice isn’t a bad guy… he’s just not right for her.

  29. 29
    K.L. says:

    Blue Smoke by (of course) Nora Roberts.  While you do get introduced to the hero way before they get together, the heroine has a number of romances (even boinking) before the final HEA.

  30. 30
    Gail D says:

    Nobody’s mentioned METHOD MAN by Naomi Neale. Some of the comedy is a little silly for me, but I liked it, and it wasn’t clear who the “real” hero was. I wasn’t too clear who I wanted him to be either. Definitely a surprise to me.

    And yes, SUGAR DADDY by Kleypas turned out differently from my expectations. I really wanted her to meet up with the childhood love again, but then when she did… Anyway, here’s another example…

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