Dysfunctional relationships are a dime a dozen in Romance. They make the journey entertaining and the emotional payoff sweeter. Damaged characters mean internal conflict, so the story can focus on its characters and their path to the happily ever after. It’s certainly not the only type of relationship portrayed in the genre, but it is one of the most common. We usually see these people falling in love and finding emotional stability in each other. Some of them have to redeem themselves, some have to grovel, but in the end we know they are going to be happy, and that they deserve it.
But sometimes I find a romance that, regardless of how much I want to see the characters happy, is so dysfunctional that the idea of them together makes me uncomfortable. Books like that never work for me because bad romances make bad Romances. But is that always the case? Can a damaged relationship with deeply flawed characters still be a good book and a good representative of the genre? Ruthie Knox’s newest story, Room at the Inn, is a perfect example of a bad romance that thoroughly worked for me as a reader. I’m sure I liked it, but I wonder why, and if liking it is enough to make it good.
The story is yet another version of one of Romance’s tropiest tropes that ever troped: love-phobic hero can’t wait to leave his hometown, and when he finally does it, he leaves the love of his life behind. The heroine is left brokenhearted and can’t let go as much as she tries, but now he’s back in town and they get a second chance. However, this story is a bit different, the hero, Carson, met Julie in college. He brought her to his hometown when her mother was dying, and Julie ended up saving his mother and finding a place to belong. The problem was that Carson couldn't wait to leave again, so she gave him her blessing and he left her there. As the years went by, they hooked up every time he came back to visit. But that was all there was to their relationship, occasional sex, and an inability to let go and move on that was deeply rooted in a love unwilling to die no matter how much pain it was forced to endure. And there was a lot of pain.
This is a Christmas story, but there’s nothing light and fluffy about it. I thought it was a sad novella about two people who had great chemistry between them, but lacked the emotional maturity to be in a healthy relationship. Carson was selfish and self-centered. He didn't want Julie, but didn't want anyone else to have her either. He never stops to think about how much he’s hurting her, and revels in the fact that Julie can’t let go of her feelings for him. His daddy issues developed into commitment issues and he’s so focused on himself that he can’t see the damage he inflicted on his family and friends. Julie, on the other hand, was weak and a pushover. She tried to have relationships with other men, was even engaged once, but she admits to sabotaging those relationships because of her love for Carson. But being with him made her as miserable as being without him. She tries to resist him, but the battle was lost before it begun. She’s living with so much heartache but is incapable of confronting him about it:
Her eyes filled with tears. She thought she made a difference, too. The kind of difference Glory had made. That the smell of sweet rolls mattered, and the fate of the factory building. The rescue of a stately mansion. Ordinary, everyday kindness.He made her feel so small sometimes. Judged and found wanting. Diminished.
And he didn't even know it.
I know there’s nothing new about anything I've said here, and in the hands of a less talented author I probably would have dismissed it as a bad book with insufferable characters. But the problem was that even while I kept taking note of these issues, I was completely riveted by the story.
Perhaps part of the reason why I enjoyed it so much was that it felt authentic. Carson and Julie didn't know how to be together, but they didn't know how to be apart either. I've met people like that in real life, hell, not that long ago I was them. Carson wasn't a heroic hero, charming, yes, but not heroic. But I liked him even while I disliked him. They also had incredible chemistry, and the sex was fantastic. It’s part of what makes Ms. Knox a great author -- her characters feel like they belong together, even if it’s uncertain whether they deserve each other or not.
But I’m sitting here and I keep thinking that as much as I loved Room at the Inn, I can’t deny that the romance was terrible. And the only reason I can believe in their HEA is that they were miserable apart from each other, so anything that’s not being separated means happiness. Yes they love each other, but I’m not sure they deserved being happy together.
So I guess the question is what makes a Romance good? Is it the enjoyment factor alone, or does the relationship, the romance, have to be good as well? I loved this story, and the quality of the writing was great, but I’m not sure if I would call it good.
Naughty & Nice Anthology. I’ll write a proper review of it later this week, but in the meantime I’d say that Ruthie Knox’s story was the best of the bunch. It’s not really a cohesive anthology; A Room at the Inn is quite long for a novella, almost like a short category book, whereas Molly O’Keefe’s only has four chapters, and Ms. Sloane’s is a historical. However, I think it’s worth reading it, and the price is fantastic, so it gets a recommendation from me.