Cat Marsters emailed me a very interesting question, one that I hadn’t considered: what romances do you know of that feature sane exes?
Usually, the ex is a horror show, either a monstrous vindictive batshit crazy lady with an array of romance shorthand markers for shallowness, such as an obsession over nail polish (read: claws/talons), an over-attentive focus on her looks (read: vanity) or just a cold, calulating beauty (read: she’s evil).
As Cat puts it:
Why is the ex always a) a thousand times more beautiful than anyone else, including the heroine, and b) why is she completely evil? Not just I-hate-you-after-the-divorce angry, but totally-unhinged fount-of-all-evil-since-dawn-of-time eeevill!!
Quite apart from my total pet peeve on the hysterically jealous beautiful = eeevill!! equation (so you hate her on sight because she’s prettier than you? Gosh, what a mature, well-rounded adult you are), I’m getting really fed up with the automatic shorthand of ex = eeevill!! It’s just rent-a-villain. If she was so damn evil, why was he engaged/married/shagging her rotten in the first place? Are we to believe this paragon of manly virtues is really that susceptible to a pretty face? Especially when our heroine is less attractive than the ex? Yes, it’s realistic he’s dazzled by the red lips and giant bazoombas, but I’m sorry, but I don’t buy him as wonderful hero material. I buy him as a shallow jerk (now that’s realism). And what about our heroine whose horrible-but-gorgeous fiancÃ© was screwing her over? Couldn’t she see he was just a giant ass with a pretty face (I’ll let you enjoy that image).
Aren’t there any books out there that have a hero (or heroine) with an ex who isn’t 100% evil? Dead spouses don’t count. Can’t we have a mature ex-girlfriend who doesn’t wish painful death on her replacement?
While I was typing up this entry, Cat emailed me back:
OMG! I just remembered. Jill Mansell can do this. She writes very complicated used-to-be-married but-then-fell-for-your-brother whose-daughter-I-adopted then-she-married-your-new-wife’s-son type relationships, which take some keeping track of, but the exes in her book tend to be more…well, sane. Sometimes they’re even friendly. In one, there was a Jerry Hall/Mick Jagger type next-door thing going on, and the ex ended up with the heroine’s sister.
It’s rare, isn’t it, the normal, we-broke-up ex? There’s not much drama in it, and it forces the tension and potential antagonism to find another route since that easy shorthand of “beautiful ex = eeeebil” inaccessbile.
Sometimes that shorthand is used to build the nobility of the character, who despite the relationship being over, still cares for or takes care of the ex in question. There was one book I read a while back wherein the hero is constantly taking care of his ex-girlfriend, who is beautiful but utterly mentally unhinged and keeps taking her clothes off in his backyard. Of course, now I’m wondering what book it was. (I’m one big HaBO I swear.)
The Mentally Stable and Not Evil Ex is a rare find in romance, in my experience. The stable ex means that the hero/heroine has had sex with someone else, has had a healthy relationship with someone else, and has ended that relationship for whatever reason. Does stability in a protagonist’s past relationships, and the fact that those relationships fizzled, somehow cast doubt on the S/He’s The One-ness of the relationship detailed in the romance? Is there such thing as enough reassurance in the “we’re just friends” and “you’re the one for me” departments such that it satisfies any doubts on the part of the reader? Or do readers by and large prefer as much as possible a virginal sexual past for the heroine, and a virginal emotional past for the hero?
What about y’all? Have you read or enjoyed a book wherein the ex was normal, functional, and maybe even casual friends with the hero or heroine? Or does the idea that either the hero or the heroine may have had sex and a stable relationship with someone else who is potentially likeable turn you off as a reader that you prefer your protagonists to have either an unstable ex history or no ex history at all?