I have read several contemporary romances in a row with the conflict resting in part on the idea that it's not acceptable to date the sibling of one's best friend. If, for example, the heroine's got it bad for her brother's BFF, said BFF is off limits to her, and more importantly, said sister is waaaay off limits to the BFF.
On one hand, I understand that conflicts in contemporary romance are tricky because, really, there's not a lot of emotional or physical boundaries to keep people from hooking up if they really want to. But for me, this particular conflict does not work if all the reasoning behind it is, “because reasons.” I'm going to compare and contrast two books wherein this conflict worked for me and did not work for me, and explain why those books were or were not successful for me as a reader. Part of the requirement, I think, to accepting what I call the “bff/sibling/no no” conflict is that the reader must agree that this is a viable boundary between two people, and for me, I don't think it is unless there's consequences. Real consequences for the hero and heroine, that is, not just “someone will be mad at you for awhile.”
First, I think this conflict works MUCH better when the hero and heroine are younger – early 20s or even teens in a YA novel. It assumes a protective pseudo-paternal attitude on the part of the sibling — who is usually if not always male. Are there any where the sibling is also a girl and must defend her younger sister from her male friend's advances? The pseudo-paternal attitude can either work well (for example, Locke in Dee Tenorio's Rancho del Cielo series) or be really goddam distracting or even inappropriate. If all the reasons behind “You can't hook up with your BFF's sibling” amount to “Because it's a rule,” I as a reader do not buy it.
I particularly do not buy it if the hero and heroine are in their upper 20s or even 30s. Once all the characters are adults, it's harder to prove to me as a reader that this is a viable reason for two people to refrain from hooking up. And if the majority of the support for this boundary comes from every other character saying, “Dude, he'll kick your ass if you go out with his sister because IT'S A RULE” I really really don't buy it because everyone insisting something is true doesn't mean it is. There is no conflict by fiat, not if I don't agree as well. If the argument hasn't been made for why dating a sibling is not ok, or if the argument does not include real and actual consequences that are discussed and possibly felt by the protagonists, everyone insisting this is a code of behavior is not going to convince me.
Of the stories I've read recently that rest partly on this conflict (and I think so far I'm up to four or five now, which is a weird coincidence), I'm looking at two: Love a Little Sideways by Shannon Stacey, and In the Clear by Tamara Morgan. Factual things to be aware of: Love A Little Sideways is a novel of 70,000+ words, and In the Clear is a novella of 37,000 words. That said, the sibling/bff/no no conflict probably lasted for about the same amount of words in each book, give or take a chapter, so the length isn't the issue here. It's the supporting consequences to the “sibling/bff/no no” rule that matter. (I don't think I spoil anything major up in here, so read on if you haven't read either of these two books.)
I'm going to start with the one that did work for me, because oh, sweet holy gosh golly, did it ever work. I read In the Clear after Love a Little Sideways purely by accident, and the contrast between the effective establishment of the bff/sibling/no no conflict and the ineffective conflict was helpful because it not only enabled me to articulate what left me unsatisfied, but gave me examples of what totally did work, like OMG did it work, you guys. Emo tingles ahoy.
The hero of In the Clear, Fletcher Sinclair, is a tall, quiet, awkward shy dude with a secret. A few secrets, really, but two big ones. One, he works at night and odd hours as a volunteer on a Search and Rescue team, and two, he's deeply in love with his best friend's sister, Lexie. Lexie has no idea that Fletcher feels that way about her, but she loves both him and her brother deeply, even though she feels left out sometimes. Fletcher, Lexie, and her brother Sean have been friends for a long time. Lexie and Sean's family have been Fletcher's family since they were kids, as Fletcher's family life was pretty crappy.
It's a challenge to take one protagonist from not loving the other to loving them deeply within the word count of a novella, and I think the story mostly pulled it off. Lexie doesn't pine for Fletcher in the beginning, so there's a jump over the chasm of disbelief in here, and I nearly cleared the leap. I could believe that as Lexie came to understand more about Fletcher, she also recognized her feelings for him. Her flightiness and “zany” personality worked against her, though, because I wasn't sure she really understood her own motivations fully, at the beginning or the end of the story. Lexie is one of those people to whom disasters and upsets just happen all the time, and being around her can be exhausting. Fletcher finds her intoxicating, but refuses to act on his feelings.
What worked for me was the reasoning behind Fletcher's refusal to act on his feelings. The story features both Lexie's and Fletcher's points of view, and I understand why there was hesitation and negative consequences for both Fletcher and Sean if Fletcher let his feelings become public. Fletcher is painfully aware of himself, and of his emotions. He loves Lexie deeply. He also loves his adopted family, his acceptance with Lexie and Sean, and he knows what he would lose if the didn't have them anymore. He would be painfully alone, and he knows it. Fletcher's point of view highlights the depth of the loss he'd experience if he tried to have a relationship with Lexie and failed, and so I understood why he kept his feelings a secret and refused to act on them.
Not a very good secret, though – Sean knows how Fletcher feels, and that was a huge portion of why this conflict worked for me. Sean knew, and understood Fletchers feelings and fears, and tried to protect him somewhat, warning Lexie that “she knows how he feels about her,” (and of course Lexie has no idea what Sean's talking about). Lexie isn't forbidden to Fletcher because of Sean or because Sean threatens some consequence against Fletcher. Lexie is forbidden because Fletcher has decided she is because for him, the risk of failure is too great, and because he didn't think Lexie felt the same way about him, or ever would.
I had huge emo-tingles reading this story, especially for the hero, who is lonely and shy (I have a definite thang for shy heroes). Fletcher understands the value of his friendships and his adopted family so deeply that he's willing to endure the pain of suppressing his true emotions. Lexie is forbidden to him because he'd risk losing her altogether, and Sean, and their family, and he is unwilling to risk his only true family. Oh, have mercy, emo tingles everywhere.
[Also, and this has nothing to do with my argument about bff/sibling/no no, this novella is also really funny. There's a predatory lasagna, and some really funny scenes that mix well with the tingly emotional scenes. I didn't always like the heroine, not because she didn't see Fletcher's feelings (dude is goooood at keeping secrets, yo) but because she was often flighty and selfish and takes some actions that I found intrusive and uncool, but at the same time, even though she's a little bit of manic pixie, her accident-prone, disaster-not-proof self is a good antidote to Fletcher's rigid fear and self control. The way in which she soothes and diminishes his fears is really touching. Even if I didn't always like Lexie, I definitely knew that Fletcher adored her, and I wanted him to be happy with her.]
The bff/sibling/no no conflict in In the Clear was paired with deep emotional self-knowledge on the part of the hero, and that knowledge compounded his fear of changing the status quo in his friendship with Lexie and Sean. Fletcher stands to lose his adopted family, the one that accepts him as he is, if he takes the risk of changing his relationship with Lexie, and because of what that loss would mean to Fletcher, I was on board with the idea that his bff's sibling was a big ol' no-no. For Fletcher, though, it was a self-administered boundary, not because of Sean but because of his own feelings.
As I said, I read In the Clear after reading Love a Little Sideways, which is one of the Kowalski series books by Shannon Stacey. In this story, Liz, the faraway Kowalski sister, has moved home after breaking up with her deadbeat boyfriend, and is trying to avoid re-enacting a passionate secret moment with Drew, her brother Mitch's best friend.
The problem for me was, Liz was off-limits to Drew because…everyone said so. I think there might have been six or seven different conversations wherein some third party underscored the fact that It's a Code that You can't Date your Best Friend's Sister, and that if he did, Drew's ass would be summarily Kicked by Mitch. Just because everyone SAYS it's a conflict doesn't mean that it IS. For me, there was no real emotional consequence of their hooking up, except “there's a code” and “Mitch won't like it.”
Mitch, despite being the hero of a previous book I really liked, needed to butt the hell out of their relationship. His involvement and his attitude (and the attempted asskicking that ensues) diminished him as a character and made him look completely ridiculous in my eyes. For one thing, Liz hasn't lived in Whitford for years and years. For another, SHE'S AN ADULT! She's old enough to make her own decisions, and moreover, she had a boyfriend that none of the Kowalskis, including Mitch, thought was good enough for her – but there was no asskicking then. So it's ok for Liz to date anyone but Mitch's best friend because then there's a code and everyone in town knows about it. She can date a complete asshole who takes advantage of her, and no asskicking will ensue, but should Liz date Drew, who is by all accounts a very decent and lovely human being, then there's a problem because There's A Code.
Part of the tension rested on Liz and Drew keeping their hookup and their simmering feelings a secret, which was difficult because they're in plain view of everyone, and Whitford, like any small town in a contemporary romance, is incurably nosy. EVERYONE has an opinion on Liz and Drew and their possible “relationship,” and why it shouldn't be.
They were all adults. He was almost certain Mitch would be reasonable if Drew and Liz wanted to be in a relationship, not that they were there yet, if ever. Their two interactions in the past year had been a forbidden quickie and his response to her accident. Whether he was attracted to her or not, that was hardly a relationship. But, hell, maybe Mitch would even be happy for them if they were.
But that little bit of doubt kept him from spilling his guts. He and Mitch had been friends a long time. Mitch had been his best man when he married Mallory and the shoulder he cried on the night she moved out.
If Mitch felt betrayed – if Drew saw that in his eyes – it would cut him to the bone.
“I told Paige you'd never do that.” [Mitch said] You're my best friend and she's my little sister. I told her you'd cut your own balls off before you'd ever lay a hand on her.”
So much for reasonable. If Mitch would rather Drew castrate himself than touch Liz, it was probably best he keep his mouth shut.
WHAT THE HELL.
Why is Mitch the powerful arbiter of what is and is not ok for his sister? She lived on the other side of the country for years, but now he's in charge? SHE'S REALLY, I SWEAR THIS IS TRUE, AN ADULT. The conflict wasn't so much that Drew was ashamed of his relationship with Liz (he wasn't), but more that he was told by everyone else (who in my opinion are very wrong and incorrect and that's not their goddam job) that he should be, and that caused him some deep emotional confusion.
I mean, really, everyone has their turn reinforcing the conflict. Like there was a sign up sheet and they all took turns.
“Hey you're both single,” Kate said in a voice that dripped suggestions. But then she laughed. “I guess not. He's Mitch's best friend, so that's out.”
Was there a rule book passed out but only some people got a copy? No matter how much everyone else insisted, I wasn't buying it.
The more realistic tension was that Drew really wanted to find someone to have a family with, especially now that his divorce from his first wife, Mallory, is far enough into the past that he can potentially see himself moving on. Mallory had never wanted to have children, and had kept that a secret from Drew from the beginning, so when she finally fessed up, it broke their marriage. Drew doesn't have good feelings about keeping large secrets within his relationship to say the least, and he struggled with keeping his feelings for Liz and his desire for her a secret from everyone.
Plus, Liz had just moved home (which, while I'm mentioning it, is not remarked upon in her point of view at all. There's no culture shock, no mention of how New Mexico is different from Maine, nothing about the change in her life, nothing) after a bad breakup, and while she knows she's moved to Whitford for good, she doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. She's renting a home temporarily, her furniture is inflatable, and her life is half on hold and half is starting over. She's in a place of enormous change, and she isn't sure she wants a permanent anything, including a permanent relationship with children and everything else. Drew, on the other hand, knows he wants permanent, with Liz, and some children, etc, etc, and happily ever after. That conflict was much more nuanced and multi-dimensional (and ultimately not as well resolved either) than the idea that Drew had to keep his desire and emotional attraction for Liz a secret from Mitch because Mitch was somehow a third party authority in their relationship.
While I enjoyed the family scenes, and love visiting with all the Kowalskis, this book left me frustrated and disappointed in the way it handled the conflict – a conflict that was so similar to In the Clear, and yet worked so poorly for me. Mitch was WAY too involved in their relationship, either as a person who figuratively stood between them or actually stood between them (or chased Drew around to administer an asskicking I didn't think he was entitled to even think about). If the real problem with the bff/sibling relationship was the possibility that Drew would lose Mitch as his friend, I didn't see that discussed or explored with any serious consequence. Any of the consequences I could think of (which weren't nearly explained enough in the story so I had to think about this for awhile) would have been solved by everyone being a goddam grown up for 5 whole minutes. But then, if everyone was an actual adult about this, the conflict wouldn't exist in the first place because all of them, especially Liz and Drew, were old enough and in every other aspect adult enough that the disapproval of a brother who isn't in town a lot anyway shouldn't matter so much.
Ultimately, the reason the bff/sibling/no no conflict didn't work for me in Love a Little Sideways was because everyone else was deciding what was important and vital to everyone else's relationship EXCEPT for the two people actually IN the relationship. Mitch wants Drew to cut his own balls off than touch Liz. Drew thinks it would be “criminal” for him to come between Liz and Mitch. Liz thinks they're all being ridiculous but when she's told that the menfolk need to work this out, she accepts that and goes to eat baked goods or something. The paternal overtones from Mitch were, in my opinion, more creepy and misplaced than brotherly and appropriate, and Drew and Liz's reaction to his attitude didn't help – and neither did everyone else insisting that Mitch's feelings were a viable reason for them to not be together. Drew and Liz speculate on the consequences of their relationship not working out, but their pants are already a four-alarm fire for one another, so any ruminations or actions that might have revealed actual consequences I could identify with as a reader were never explained. I didn't understood the negative consequences for Drew and Liz's relationship initially outside of “Mitch wouldn't like it,” and as far as I was concerned, none of it was Mitch's goddam business.
Conversely, with In the Clear, I understood and had terrible empathy for Fletcher and his feelings, and appreciated what he stood to lose if he attempted to change his relationship with Lexie, and revealed to her how he felt.
Plus, In the Clear's bff/sibling/no no conflict focused on the possibility of change that hadn't happened yet. In Love a Little Sideways the change had already happened – Liz and Drew had already hooked up in a previous book – and they were dealing with the aftermath now that Liz was home full time. Because Sideways had to work so hard to prove that keeping their hookup a secret was necessary, and that their continuing where they left off would be such a bad thing, I never bought it as a reason for them not to be together, and in the end thought less of all of them for being so concerned with what Mitch would think.
Setting up a forbidden attraction requires an explanation of the consequences of that attraction to underscore why it's forbidden in the first place, and how the change in making the forbidden thing a reality would be difficult or painful (or both), but in the end, worth the trouble. It's a common motif in contemporary, but even though I really like it (and geez, add snowbound and shy heroes and I'm all in) I am pretty critical of how the forbidden is proven to be forbidden.
What about you? Do you buy the “bff/sibling/no no” conflict? Do you like it? When does it work for you, and when does it not?