Don’t ask me why but I’m going to tell you about Harlequin books.
The context was simple though: it was just another studious night during which my teen and I were working each on her side of the table – like it is often the case – when we started drifting towards Harlequin books, cheap and totally unlikely romance novels that neither of us had ever read.
We jumped onto this occasion to take a well deserved break (my teen was writing a philosophy essay answering the prompt “what is forbidden?” – good luck with that – and I was working on some cases). I went on Harlequin’s website in a nanosecond.
We hesitated for a long time on which collection to click on. Two of them were battling for the first place in our eyes (the selection was based on the title and the general description). One : Audacity (“Love stories that combine passion, boldness and sensuality. The Audacity collection will take you deep into an intense and sexy universe. Dare erotic romance!” and two : Azure (“Push open the doors of a worlds made of luxury, glamour and passion. Here, men are handsome, rich and arrogant, women impetuous, proud and flamboyant. Between them, lust is immediate and love… impossible”).
We couldn’t choose so we just read summaries from both collections, laughing ’til we cried as we started a little game.
Let me explain: on the Harlequin website, each book’s summary ends mid-sentence with suspension marks (a subtle technique used to trigger the buyers urge to purchase the book online and put an end to this atrocious suspense).
The aim of the game was to finish these sentences with the most absurd ideas possible.
Title : Trapped by the Sheik
Summary: “Pregnant, alone, on the run. Sterling could never have pictured herself in that situation someday. Yet, when she hears that Rihad al-Bakri, the fearsome King of the Persian Gulf has arrived in New-York, she knows that she must run as fast as she can, to a place where no one can find her. Because if Rihad (…)”.
Prior comments: Who is pregnant, alone and on the run? For real? Even I, who likes reaching a certain level of complexity in my life, could never even dream of competing with that. Also, who calls their daughter Sterling? A british banker?
Our suggestion: “Because if Rihad – who is madly in love with her but sadly his love is not requited – hears that she is expecting quintuplets from an anonymous sperm donor, he may very well want to adopt them and that is not going to be possible. Sterling is a strong, independent woman, she won’t even have a nanny to help her out, even if she works 60 hours a day in a company that she built one her own (oh, stereotypes). Also, she will change her name to Dollar so that Rihad can never find her again”.
Title : At the billionaire’s mercy
Summary: “How could Leo dare to accuse her of diverting his company’s funds? Natasha was bewildred. Did the Greek billionaire’s arrogance know no limits? She could never be guilty of such wrongdoings! Unfortunately, evidence is working against her. She doesn’t know how but the stolen money (…)”.
Prior comments: Leo is obviously super rich. Natasha’s posture isn’t looking too good.
Our suggestion: “She doesn’t know how but the stolen money will be credited to the account of the foundation she created for African children. And you know what, she doesn’t care, because she can use that money to help these kids, which can only be more interesting than helping the billionaire choose the color of his third yacht. Yes he has a yacht because he’s a billionaire and he’s Greek so let’s just go with the stereotypes here. Also, he’s called Leo and that’s not very Greek so he kind of asked for it”.
Title: A fearsome boss
Summary: “Love at first sight can hit you at any time… Even at the office! “Run while it is still time”, the stranger had whispered to her that night. A smart piece of advice that Alicia now regrets not having followed. She is now in an impossible situation: the man in who’s arms she had (…)”.
Prior comments: Yes the working place is THE place to meet your partner, thanks for the scoop, Harlequin, there must be dozens of sociological studies on the question at least.
Our suggestion: “She is now in an impossible situation: the man in who’s arms she had known the most intense of joys was the printing machine mechanic, which not at all what she expected when she first strated off in the prestigious company, given that she had a crush on the archives director at first but oh well (no more stereotypes)”.
Title: Pleasure meeting
Summary: “Draping her silk slip around her naked body as she stood in front of the hotel room’s massive mirror, Holly closed her eyes and let her mind wander to the audacious scenario that has been playing in her head since the day she met Cage Carswell. A scenario in which he enters he room and approaches slowly (…)”.
Prior comments: who drapes their naked body in a silk slip in front of a hotel room mirror? I think you’re supposed to put it on like a dress? Who calls their son Cage? A psychopath?
Our suggestion: “A scenario in which he enters the room and approches slowly, with a platter of garlic butter snails, aioli and garlic bread in order to have the most totally orgasmic culinary experience and not erotic at all because Cage is a renowned chef and he’s also gay, which means he’s not into Holly at all and Holly is going to slip a pair of jeans and a comfy sweater on because it’s rather cold in that room, especially when you’re only wearing a silk baby doll slip.”
You can imagine the rest. I have no problem with Harlequin novels per se: reading is a pass-time and each person can have a preferred style.
What does bother me a bit more is the repetition of archetypes. The heroin is young, beautiful, independent, strong with an aversion to love (I’m starting to write Harlequin style). In a nutshell: she is the beautiful, wild animal that must be tamed. From what I’ve read on blogs and studies dedicated to Harlequin books (because you know me, once something starts intriguing me I do my research as if I were writing a thesis), the dramatic climax often comprises an episode when the man slightly or not so slightly forces himself onto the heroin’s chaste lips, who gives in to her desires after having resisted. Which I find to be quite borderline given our rape culture and the date rape concept.
The hero is often Italian or Arabic (or Greek, hey there Leo), a foreigner at any rate (sexy, unreachable, ungraspable foreigner). He is dark and mysterious (whatever that means, I have noooooo idea). He is always handsome and rich or powerful or both. He is always the one who can tame the wild animal woman with his powerful charisma (a charisma that is always linked to money or beauty and never to spirituality).
Consequently, the man and the woman must always be in a hierarchichal relationship, with a love-hate dynamic. But rest assured (because I know that you must be prancing with worry at this point): everything finishes beautifully in every way possible, be it sexual, emotional, material or other. Total fusion. Absolute and unconditional love, in three pages, towards the end, on the right.
I don’t really know what else there is left for us, the women and men who are of average beauty, average wealth and average power.
What happens to all of us?
Nothing worthy of a Harlequin novel and thank God it’s that way. They struggle with everyday life and enjoy it too at the same time, and I am just like that too.
Nonetheless, thank you Harlequin: you gave us fifteen minutes of pure joy during that evening.
I laughed so hard I cried.
And to top it all off, a few pictures. No silk babydoll slips for me, just a silk pyjama, but in a hotel room! Can’t wait for Cage to join me, I love garlic bread.
La Perla pyjamas