This summer, National Public Radio devoted its reader poll to a class of fiction that rarely gets much in the way of credit or critical attention: the romance novel. And last week, NPR released the results of that survey, recommending 100 different books across subgenres ranging from historical fiction to paranormal romance. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of you who read this blog don’t think of yourselves as having read romance novels, even if you’ve got a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” or “Eleanor and Park” on your bookshelves. But if you consider yourself above the genre, I’m here to serve notice that you’re denying yourself considerable pleasure–and not simply of the bodice-ripping variety.
My favorite romance novel is probably Jennifer Crusie’s contemporary novel “Bet Me.” For genre skeptics, though, I’d point you to a different entry on NPR’s long list: Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels.
Like “Jane the Virgin,” which is both a wicked satire of telenovela conventions and an beautifully-executed example of the genre, Quinn’s Bridgerton romances aren’t afraid to parody romance novel cliches, even as they’re outstanding stories that hit all the standard storytelling beats you’d want from a straightforward Regency romance.
“On the sixth of April, in the year 1812–precisely two days before her sixteenth birthday–Penelope Featherington fell in love,” begins the fourth book in the series, “Romancing Mr. Bridgerton.” “It was, in a word, thrilling. The world shook. Her heart leaped. The moment was breathtaking. And, she was able to tell herself with some satisfaction, the man in question–one Colin Bridgerton–felt precisely the same way…His earth shook, his heart leaped, and Penelope knew without a shadow of a doubt that his breath was taken away as well. For a good ten seconds. Falling off a horse tended to do that to a man.”
Passages like this crop up all over the Bridgerton novels, a welcome reminder that while Quinn takes her characters and their emotional lives seriously, the books themselves are not self-serious.
Add to that welcome tone Quinn’s best device: in many of the books, chapters are framed by dispatches from the pseudonymous Lady Whistledown, the author of a gossip column who is highly skeptical of the conventions and hypocrisies of London society. Quinn’s characters tend to stand slightly outside that society for reasons that will be familiar to romance novel readers: they’re not conventionally beautiful, they’re not wealthy, they’re past the conventional age for a first marriage, or they’ve got more than the usual number of thoughts in their heads. If standard romance novels create empathy between readers and characters with these kinds of distinctions, the Lady Whistledown device sharpens that complicity into critique: you’re getting social satire along with your sexual satisfaction.
None of these elements would be worth much if the romances at the heart of the Bridgerton novels weren’t compelling, and they are. Quinn may not be Jane Austen, but she’s learned the most important lesson about crafting credible relationships that you can take away from Austen’s books: the best fictional couples compliment each other. In the Bridgerton novels, men with terrible fathers fall for women who were privileged to have wonderful mothers; aspiring artists meet people who see painting as a viable career; writers bring out each others’ talents; widows learn that they have a right to love again. In the Bridgerton novels, romance isn’t the only thing that drives plot; the characters’ development as independent people are equally important to the story.
If you’re the sort of person who reads door-stoppers on the beach–and as someone who once read “The Magic Mountain” and “The History of the Peloponnesian War” by the pool at Disney World, I understand you–maybe I’ve failed to convince you. But not all fiction has to be immortal. And whatever you think of their origins as romance novel characters, the Bridgertons have a gratifying staying power.