GS vs. STA: A Stab to the Perfect Virgin - Sane Exes in Romance

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 fiancé 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?



Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Sharyn says:

    Well I just finished Bet Me by Jennifer Cruisie and both the hero and heroine were divorced.  The hero didn’t want to be, was still sleeping with his ex.  The heroine’s husband cheated and she was finally feeling the rage. 

    It’s got that great scene where the heroine looks around the table and announces that she’s slept with everyone there (hero, hero’s cousin, her sister-in-law, and her ex) except for the ex’s new wife.

    Robyn Carr’s hero in Whispering Rock is twice divorced (apparently without a whole lot of bad feelings) and the heroine is divorced (also because the ex cheated).

  2. 2

    ISTR that some of Jayne Anne Krentz’s novels had ex-wives who weren’t evil, they just weren’t in love with the hero or didn’t really understand him, or really loved his brother and ended up marrying him.  But most of the ex-boyfriends or husbands of the heroine were portrayed as schmucks.

  3. 3

    Sharyn, that sounds like Fast Women, not Bet Me. In Bet Me the hero and heroine both have exes who are conspiring to get them back. I wouldn’t say they were evil, exactly, but they’re certainly not behaving well.

    The heroine of Jo Beverley’s Hazard is an ex who finally gets her own hero and she’s definitely not evil (and neither are her former suitors): “You may have met Lady Anne Peckworth in FORBIDDEN, being exquisitely polite after being jilted. You may have heard about her in THE DRAGON’S BRIDE, being pitied from afar because another suitor found a woman he truly loved.”

  4. 4
    Jessica Andersen says:

    Judith Arnold’s HEART ON THE LINE has always stuck with me because the hero has a nice girlfriend, meets the heroine, and has to make some tough choices between the two.  It’s not ‘evil woman versus paragon of virtue,’ it’s more along the lines of ‘history and a known quantity but maybe not quite right’ versus the promise of a new, shiny relationship that might or might not have legs.

  5. 5
    Jenns says:

    I’ve been trying to think of any romance I’ve read that includes an ex who’s a normal person, a divorce because it just didn’t work out.
    Nope. I can’t.
    Personally, I’d like to read one. I think it would be refreshing.

  6. 6
    Tina says:

    I’m at work right now so I don’t have access to my books but I know I’ve recently read one where the heroine was in a 20-or-so-year marriage prior to dating the hero.  The heroine and her ex grew apart over the years and when she started working outside the home, it became more pronounced.  When he made it clear that he didn’t think she could start her own business and be a success, it was her last straw, and she ended the marriage.  (It’s established in the book, though, that both of them and neither of them was really at fault for the distance between them.)  They aren’t best buddies, but they aren’t enemies.  There’s a scene where she’s invited her sister and father to Easter dinner.  Her daughter is supposed to come home from college for Easter, also, so she also invites her ex and his new girlfriend.  This read as very normal as I have gone to dinner with my ex and his wife a few times when our kids have graduated from high school or had some other rite of passage attended by both of us.

    I know I’ve read a couple by Jayne Ann Krentz with fairly normal exes, too, and I think a couple of them were even friends (and/or family—a cousin in one instance and a couple of “knew him/her since we were kids together”).

    What kills me is not even the “she’s extraordinarily beautiful=EVIL” as much as “she’s wealthy, independent, gorgeous, and enjoys sex = (literally)insanely jealous, vile, mean, and EVIL”.  Why would anyone who has so much going for her be that psychologically damaged, generally?  Not that some wouldn’t be, but it’s irritatingly common for “beautiful and sexually active” acting as shorthand for severe psychological problems.  It’s not just in Romances, either, but in many other genres.  There seems to be a pervasive attitude, at least in literary circles, that if a woman enjoys sex she has deep-rooted issues that invariably lead to a bad end (or at least a lifetime of pining for the One Perfect Man Who Got Away?)

  7. 7
    snarkhunter says:

    I think Jenny Crusie does the ex thing well, b/c her exes, even the crazy ones, are still very human. The ex-gf in Bet Me is just sort of sad, you know? And in Crazy for You, the ex-wife of the hero is, of course, the heroine’s adored and awesome older sister. So…yeah.

    The only other example I’m coming up with is La Nora’s Birthright…but in that case the ex is the hero. So.

  8. 8

    In LaVyrle Spencer’s Twice Loved (I think that’s the one), the heroine’s first husband returns from the dead while she’s married to a second man (she thought she was a widow).  Both husbands are nice guys but she has to choose which one to keep.

  9. 9
    Rhian says:

    I think Judith Ivory’s “Black Silk” falls into this category – all the characters seemed real, rather than walking clichés, and especially the ex-girlfriend character. She’s not a wonderful example of a human being, but she’s really not that bad, either. I found her reaction to the situation (without giving anything away) pretty convincing, and felt genuinely sorry for her at times, though I was rooting for the heroine all the way. (Amazing book, by the way!)

  10. 10
    Angela James says:

    Lauren Dane’s Chase Brothers series, there are normal exes involved (also a few psycho exes)and they get more than a brief mentioning.

  11. 11

    The only sane ex is a dead ex.  I really think that’s true 90+% of the time in novels. The dead ones are sane, stable, etc, whereas the live ones are horror shows.

    I do think this is possibly because it naturally raises the question of whether there’s “just one”, whether the characters in question worked hard enough at their relationship, whether they’re the kind of people we want to become invested in as readers.  But it’s also true that extreme relationships of all kinds can add tension and drama to a piece—the paranoid ex, the vindictive ex, the dependent ex all give an author a chance to show a protagonist’s character.

  12. 12
    Tina says:

    Okay, my inconvenient memory just supplied the name of the book with the divorce:

    Leaving Normal by Stef Ann Holm

  13. 13
    Jane O says:

    In historicals, since it’s death rather than divorce that creates the ex, the ex can be remembered fondly. In LORD PERFECT, for example, the worst that can be said of Bathsheba’s late husband is that he didn’t know how to be a good provider.

  14. 14
    YorkshireLass says:

    Mary Balogh has exes who aren’t evil.  In fact, the exes often get their own book later, as with Lauren Edgeworth in “A Summer to Remember” or Freya Bedwyn in “Slightly Scandelous”.  In these cases the exes act as anyone would when jilted: by being hurt, confused and angry, rather than turning into the wicked witch of the East (or was it West, I can never remember?).

  15. 15
    Sharyn says:

    Laura is right.  Bet Me is what I’m reading now and Fast Women is the one I wanted to mention!

  16. 16
    Leah says:

    I just got done reading the first of an inspirational series by Tracey Bateman called Everybody Loves Claire, and while Claire’s ex-husband cheated on her, thus causing their divorce (kind of), he remarries another (not THE other) woman, and they are both saner and more pleasant than the main character, whom I wanted to beat over the head several times.  It was one of the more realistic depictions of what goes on in your head when your ex remarries that I have read

  17. 17
    Cat Marsters says:

    Ah yes, how could I have forgotten La Crusie?  Nell’s ex in FW is a bit of a jerk-off, but Gabe’s ex is perfectly sweet (and doesn’t she tell him he should get together with Nell?  Because of their horoscopes or something).

    I think my email to Sarah came after I’d read a particularly annoying book where the heroine took an instant, massive dislike to another woman because she was so petite and beautiful—but she later found out the woman was the hero’s ex, and evil to boot, so that made it okay.  Oh please.  That’s just justification for petty jealousy.

  18. 18
    Kimberly Anne says:

    La Nora had a not-batshit-crazy ex in Luring a Lady, too.  Sydney and Peter had been best friends, and got married because everyone else thought they were perfect together. But they had no sexual chemistry – Peter refers to it as sleeping with his sister.  He ends up cheating on her, and they divorce.

    This sounds bad, but he’s suffered from his cruelty just as much as she had.  Good guy, bad choices.  Very refreshing.

  19. 19
    Eve says:

    I just read a Harlequin Blaze – Burning Up by Sarah Mayberry – in which the ex broke up with her because they’d gotten into a rut and their 14yr relationship was more of a comfort thing that any grand passion. She was angry but in the end it was an amicable break up. She wasn’t really angry, he wasn’t insane and trying to kill her.

  20. 20
    Liz C. says:

    I want to say the heroine’s ex in “Match Me If You Can” wasn’t evil. Wasn’t he the one who got the sex change? So, not evil, just confused. I could be wrong and unfortunately my books have yet to develop the ctrl+f feature.

  21. 21
    fiveandfour says:

    Funny…I was just thinking about this book for a different reason: Fancy Pants by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.  It includes exes who are best friends. 

    I really appreciated the dynamic in that story because the foundation and various changes within the relationship of the exes informs the hero’s character in a believable way as respects how he interacts with other women.

  22. 22
    Claire says:

    Another SEP un-evil ex: In Breathing Room the hero’s ex-wife is his oldest friend and actually the subject of the secondary romance…she’s very clearly portrayed as a sister figure though, despite being gorgeous.

    (new reader, delurking)

  23. 23
    Christina says:

    Cat by Freya North.  Hero’s ex is super nice (and the mother of his kid) and wants him to get together with the heroine.

  24. 24
    RStewie says:

    There was one in Veils of Silk, by MJ Putney.  He left his fiance, got kidnapped, yadda yadda, then came back to her, found she was married, and they really didn’t have issues with each other.  Not even any “I’m married but want to sleep with you anyway” crap, which was very refreshing.

    Also, very refreshing, he was impotent.  I won’t say more, because it was a good read, and I don’t want to ruin it.

    spamword: forces91…it must have thought I was commenting on the absolutely true and hilarious Devil’s Bride review…

  25. 25
    RStewie says:

    Oh, my bad!! Devil’s Embrace.

  26. 26
    Becca says:

    In Nora Roberts’ Birthright, the heroine’s birth mother is divorced; the trauma of having the baby broke up the marriage. The birth mother then goes on to become a wealthy entrepreneur, as I recall. At the end of the book, she and her ex get back together again.

  27. 27
    Trollop says:

    When I first started reading I remembered that Jill Mansen one too. The ex-DH was a good guy. I liked him.

    SEP did it in Heaven Texas.

    I know there are others, but I can’t recall them for the life of me.

    This will be bothering me all day LOL

  28. 28
    Julie Leto says:

    How interesting.  This made me go through my booklist and in nearly 30 books, I’ve only written one crazy, vindictive ex.  What was really interesting was that in all the others, the characters either had no ex to speak of (lots of relationships in their past, but nothing earth-shattering) or they were reuniting with that earth-shattering ex in my story.  I do a lot of reunion stories.  I don’t think I noticed that until today!

  29. 29
    soakbonus says:

    I just read Susan Wiggs’s latest novel “Snowfall at Willow Lake,” the fourth book about the Bellamy family.  “Snowfall” is about Sophie Bellamy, the ex-wife of Greg Bellamy, who is in another of her books.  Neither Greg or Sophie is perfect, and their marriage just kind of fell apart.  They’re not friends exactly, but they don’t believe the other one is evil.  They both do the best job they can with their kids.

  30. 30
    Lorelie says:

    Well crud, now this is bugging me:  I read a historical once that had a perfectly normal, sane ex-mistress who matter of factly warned off the innocent newbie that the hero would be bad for her.  And newbie was more terrified by the fact that the ex was otherwise normal ‘cause that meant she was probably telling the truth.  I think the conversation took place in a powder room.

    And do I remember even a bit more?  Nope. 

    Gawd, I have a memory like a collander.

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