This is less of a review than it is a question – what makes a romance novel worthy of the title of romance novel? Up until now I considered any novel to qualify if it had a HEA, and if the love story was the central aspect of the novel. Lately the book Warm Bodies has challenged my assumptions about what a romance novel is or can be.
In Warm Bodies, a zombie apocalypse has destroyed most of human society. In an un-named city, the zombies have taken up residence at the airport, while human survivors live at the stadium. R, a zombie, eats Perry, a human, and takes in Perry's memories. As a result, R falls in love with Perry's girlfriend, Julie. MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.
I can tell you with confidence that Warm Bodies is an amazing book. Its use of language is marvelous, the sense of humor sneaks up on you in the most fantastically subversive fashion, and it is deeply moving. It also meets my romance novel criteria of old. Not only is the love story the most important aspect of the novel for personal reasons, but the fate of the world hinges upon its success. What it doesn't have is anything, or any person, or any place, that I would want to be – and that leads me to my question.
Does a romance novel have to contain an element of fantasy to qualify as a true romance novel as opposed to just a love story? I'm using the term fantasy in the sense of wanting or desiring something, not in the sense of a genre that regularly includes unicorns. In every romance novel I've read, there is something to desire, and it's not just the sexy guy and the great relationship. People eat great food, or they fly a spaceship, or they have a crappy little apartment but they decorate it with fabulous throw pillows. They go to exotic locations, or live in bustling and exciting cities, or live in quaint and quirky towns. We may not want to actually be the protagonist, but we want to dream ourselves into some aspect of their worlds or their lives.
Warm Bodies is occasionally a funny book, and it is certainly a sweet book, but it is also profoundly horrifying, not because scary things go “Boo!” but because it describes two terrible fates. People who are turned into zombies lose their memories and their ability to use language – yet they still feel, albeit in a muted sense. They feel just enough to know that they should feel more – just enough to suffer. They speak in monosyllables. For R, in particular, this is a torment – he longs for the ability to communicate fully and to feel deeply. I was so appalled by this situation that the things other reviewers have praised about the book, especially its sense of humor, were totally lost on me until I re-read it. Meanwhile, humans cower within the walls of the stadium. They teach their children how to load weapons and plant crops before they teach them to read (the redemptive power of language is important in both the zombie and human plotlines of the book). They have no hope. They are almost zombies themselves through sheer despair.
Although I'm a little jealous of Julie's iPod and R's vinyl collection, this is not a world I want to live in or to visit, and as amazing as R is as a character, I'm beyond grateful that there's no sex scene. It is true that Julie and her friend comment about how nice R looks when he's cleaned up, but still, all I can think in terms of sex is, “Ew”. The upcoming movie adaptation has tackled this by casting a gorgeous actor, but I think they overshot. I don't think this is a story about a guy who sparkles gorgeously in the sunlight – it's a story about a decomposing, bloody, dead person who smells bad. It's the grim fact of the zombieism that makes the story so incredibly touching – but I can't find it sexy, and any dream I may have of the world in which the characters live is nothing but a nightmare.
Obviously, Warm Bodies' biggest struggle is with marketing. We aren't used to stories in which a romance on which the fate of the world depends starts with brain consumption. I'm not sure how to convince the readers of Smart Bitches to read a book about a romance between a human and a zombie except to say that it will touch you, it will horrify you, it will perplex you, it will fill you with hope, and it will challenge your assumptions about YA, horror, and romance. I recommend it – I just wish I knew what to call it!