This post is heavily inspired by my reading of The Heart Principle and the subsequent review I wrote and then also the additional mini rant I wrote in response to Nick’s comment on my review. One of the things I mention in my review is that I never really felt safe reading The Heart Principle and at the end of the book, I still didn’t find myself convinced at all that Anna and Quan were going to be happy, individually or together. So today I wanted to talk a little bit about how romance can and should handle difficult subject matter, but what I need in order to feel like it really, truly is a romance. In some ways, this ties in to my thoughts on how some traditionally published romances are leaning into this women’s/contemporary fiction blend, but I’m going to endeavor to keep this particular post focused only on the more difficult topics aspect and not the broader issue, which I may circle back to at a later date.
The promise of the premise in a romance novel is truly that everything will be okay at the end. Authors can put characters through the absolute wringer as long as you know at the end that everything will work out and they will be okay. And it is a they will be okay type of thing. A romance is something where both or all members of a relationship will find themselves in a partnership, with someone to lean on when things get hard, someone who loves them for better or for worse. This is why we can have angsty romances that don’t result in me needing to put the book down for two weeks, not because it’s a bad book, but because I cannot handle the anxiety that is accompanying the angst. We’re in a sort of romantic comedy renaissance (though, admittedly, the majority of these books do seem to be mis-marketed, but that’s a post for another day), but I want romance that tackles difficult topics. But I need them to live up to what I’m asking for in this paragraph.
Beach Read by Emily Henry carries with it a thread of grief, of betrayal, and of figuring out how to pick yourself up and move forward when your entire world view has been shaken. And I loved that aspect. But it is also the story of January and Gus taking their rather silly rivalry to a conversation à la the music video “You Belong with Me” from my Queen, Taylor Swift, to real in person conversations, to a romance. And yes, the whole time, January is dealing with the fall out from discovering that her dad had a whole other life, while grieving for him. And then there’s a random cult that Gus is investigating. There are serious topics in this book. And yet, for me, what makes this book a romance in truth though, is that the entire time I read it, I felt safe. I knew that Gus and January would figure it out. And in the end, I fully believed in their HEA. There were a lot of discussions about this book though and the way that it was marketed as a romantic comedy when the book itself contains much heavier content. It is my unprofessional opinion that the mis-managed marketing of this book contributes to why so many people think this book should not be classified as a romance.
You may remember when Long Shot by Kennedy Ryan won a RITA for Best Contemporary Romance: Long, but I’m bringing it up in this case because Long Shot contains the most graphic depictions of domestic violence in a romance novel that I’ve ever read. Those depictions led to some discussions about whether a book like Long Shot deserved to be classified as a romance because of how the story was told. For me, Long Shot worked as a romance, even though I will probably never be able to re-read it, because I knew and trusted and felt safe enough to know that eventually Iris would find her way out of her abusive relationship and she and August would have their HEA. Kennedy Ryan didn’t hold back in displaying the horrifying things that Iris went through, but the whole time, she carefully wove in Iris and August seeing one another again and again so that I knew and felt confident it would work out. And, most importantly, she gave us time to see Iris escape the relationship and figure some things out on her own. When a romance novel has a really dark and hard subject matter at the center of the book, I think it’s so incredibly important for us to see the healing process on page just as we see the hard stuff. And, for me, that is the difference between Long Shot and The Heart Principle.
The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang tackles autistic burnout from masking, ableism, depression, suicidal ideation, and caregiving burnout. It is the third book in a series following three men who are all related and so everyone was eagerly anticipating this book as Quan’s book. Even once reviews were out making it clear that this was Anna’s book and I went in with my expectations adjusted, knowing the book would end with an HEA and contain heavier content, I never felt safe reading the book. Well, maybe for Part One. But after that? This book is literary fiction wrapped in romance packaging. Which is not to say that I do not think this book has value. Actually, I think it’s vitally important. I think it was a book that Hoang needed to write, but it was not in my mind a romance, or at least not a successful one. This book is sad and leaves you with this vague hope that maybe Anna will find her way through the world and that Quan will be there with her. It does not leave you ending the book confident that Anna and Quan will make it. I did not really come to understand why the two of them are allegedly good for one another. This book was not, to me a romance. (To be clear, for some, this book undoubtedly does have an HEA that works. It tells us there is one, after all. I just couldn’t buy it.)
Ultimately, I want romance to keep pushing the boundaries and sharing difficult stories because romance is the genre I feel the safest reading. I’ve mentioned this before, but I love reading romances with grief storylines because in real life, I’m awful at processing grief. I can’t do it. I don’t really do it. Instead I just try and pretend like everything is fine. So reading these books where people do process and move through the grieving process is a really healthy way for me to try and learn coping mechanisms to use in my own life. It’s just that if a book is marketed as a romance, I’m going to need the book to make me feel safe while I’m reading it. And I think that we would all benefit from knowing what we’re walking into when picking up a book, and not because we’re savvy buyers who read a lot of reviews, but because the marketing accurately reflects that. Personally, I do not think that should be too much to ask.