In one of those, “Wow, everyone’s thinking the same thing,” moments, Faygie Levy at RTBookReview (who is awesome) contacted me about my thoughts on the number of new romances featuring small towns and communities. Starting with the steadily growing popularity of Robyn Carr‘s Virgin River series, along with Toni Blake’s new Destiny series (which I think of as, “Why, yes. Yes, I am excited to read about Ohio”) there are a number of series and romance novel collections set in or around supremely small towns.
There could be any number of reasons for this trend, and I won’t jump in front of Faygie’s article by listing my own thoughts, but before she emailed me about it, I received an ARC of Kate Noble’s The Summer of You, which is also a small town story, but with two differences.
First, it’s a historical, which I find fascinating because I have noticed smaller community settings in historical romances, almost as if that genre were paralleling the plot community downsizing that we’re seeing in contemporary romances. For example, two books in Tessa Dare’s series took place at country house parties among family, or on board ships, both of which embody the “small town” motif: a very intimate group of people you know, who know you, and who are undoubtedly all up in your business.
Second, it features a heroine, Lady Jane Cummings, who leaves London for a small summer town:
Lady Jane Cummings is certain that her summer is ruined when she is forced to reside at isolated Merrymere Lake with her reckless brother and ailing father. Her fast-paced London society is replaced with a small town grapevine. But one bit of gossip catches Jane’s attention- rumors that the lake’s brooding new resident is also an elusive highwayman.
Jane must face the much discussed mysterioso after he saves her brother from a pub brawl. She immediately recognizes him from London: Byrne Worth, war hero and apparent hermit-whom she finds strangely charming. The two build a fast friendship, and soon nothing can keep this Lady away from Merrymere’s most wanted. Convinced of his innocence, Jane is determined to clear Byrne’s name-and maybe have a little fun this summer after all.
So it’s not just a small town, but a tale that removes the heroine from a heavily-populated urban setting and places her in that intimate rural locale.
I was pondering why this motif of urban-to-rural movement and small town setting seems prevalent in the last year or so. It occurred to me that perhaps it’s due to the downturn in the economy. Perhaps in times of economic strength and growth, readers are more interested in urban fantasy of a different sort: the rich, luxury fantasy of a glittery metropolitan setting. But if the economy is shrinking, perhaps readers crave rural simplicity, the fantasy of hearth and home, with villas in rural areas and small towns and themes of agriculture replacing the urban grit and corporate glitter.
It might be that I’m assigning a pattern where one doesn’t exist, or that the urban/rural setting switch off has always been a part of romance, one that follows an ebb and flow pattern unrelated to the economy. I’m sure as hell not an economist, and I’m not saying that the books themselves were purchased with an eye on the economy. But I do think the reason they are popular is a reflection of changing feelings due to downsizing, diminished returns, and general economic doldrums. Thus the themes of intimacy, community, support and people all up in your business for better or worse are more desirable due to the feelings of isolation exacerbated by the external stressors of mass financial crapitude.
I don’t think that every trend and temporary popularity in romance can be attributed to external factors – it’s not like romances featuring sheikhs and mythical countries in the middle east are more or less popular based on the progress or stagnation of the peace process in that part of the world. But I have to wonder if there’s a correlation between small community set romances, and those featuring characters who are removed from urban, densely populated areas and relocated to much smaller, rural ones. I am definitely more curious about these types of books and am presently looking forward to reading them, though, as I pointed out to Faygie, New York and northern New Jersey function similarly to small towns – New York City is made up of a few bazillion small towns all stuck together.
Do you like small town or rural romances? Which of the recent ones have you enjoyed – or is there an older one you adore? Do you think it’s possible that there’s an external factor contributing to the popularity of these books?