Thursday, July 9, 2009

Book Review: Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels

Like many things in life, I have a love-hate relationship with romance novels. While some of them are cheesetastic fun (the covers and titles alone can be hysterical), there is also a certain amount of shame that overcomes me when I stop to look at them in the bookstore or pick one up at the library. Are they just porn for women? Aren't they all just the same predictable story over and over? And aren't the readers just bored, uneducated housewives in the Peg Bundy tradition?

In order to answer these questions and to give some loving mockery to the genre's more egregious tropes (the covers! the secret babies! the eeevilll mistresses!), Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell, the founders of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, have written Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. This book is an extension of the website, in that it mixes intelligent analysis, humorous asides, and a good deal of snark and profanity in its discussion of romance novels. It is not unlike a book co-written by an English professor and the late George Carlin, and I mean that in the best way. At the book's strongest points, it is funny, candid, honest, and thoughtful.

Ultimately, one of the best attributes about the book is that the authors challenge the popular stereotype of the romance novel reader. In contrast to the book's illustrations of a frumpy, sweat suit-wearing housewife, the authors contend that many intelligent women (with jobs and advanced degrees) read romance novels. As Wendell and Tan state, "We're smart women with sharp intellects and a love of discussion and debate. And one does not cancel out the other. Romance novels do not make you stupid." To further the argument, they even provide a list of reasons why smart women read romance. My favorite reason is that "happiness is good. Emo may be chic. Angst is undoubtedly chic. Happiness is definitely not chic. But happiness is good." If this isn't a great defense of the romance novel and the happy ending, I don't know what is.

Despite their assertions that romance novels can be enjoyable and that some romances can be very good, do not mistake Wendell and Tan for fan girls who see any and all romances as equal. Besides acknowledging that there are some spectacularly bad romance novels gracing the shelves of bookstores, the two authors often scathingly ridicule some of the genre's insane cliches. For instance, when deconstructing the romance novel hero, they devote some time to the alpha (or alphole) heroes who do things that are less than noble. Wendall and Tan go so far as to offer a list of despicable acts by actual romance heroes. These acts include deliberately raping the heroine for a variety of inane and complicated reasons (most of them involving a revenge scheme that would make Rube Goldberg's head spin).

The only part of the book that fell a little flat was the section on "Controversies, Scandals, and Not Being Nice." Although the chapter addresses many of the recent issues that plague romance novels and the romance industry, such as the distinct lack of minorities and the Cassie Edwards plagiarism scandal that SBTB uncovered, the chapter's tone is a little jarring when compared to the humorous feel of the rest of the book.

This small quibble aside, Beyond Heaving Bosoms is an enjoyable and enlightening look at romance novels and the people who read them. If you love to hate (or hate to love) romance, you should take the time to read this book. It might just give you a new outlook on the romance novel or it might give you the courage to take that book cover and read your romance in public, embarrassing cover and all. Either way, it will definitely change your view of the genre and give you a greater appreciation for the books and their readers.