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Lessons of romance novels: I should have been a spy

The rogue reporter with his measurable wealth and medium-sized, sort-of-masculine hands turned his not-so-dark, penetrating eyes on Penny. Why had she let him whisk her away to his domestic cat ranch in Corydon’s foothills?
Perhaps it was the Bic pen resting sensuously over his ear. No, the answer was simple, she thought. He knew her. He had waited until she was ready to come to him.
‘You need this,’ he said, again reading the poetry of her emotions. He was right. She melted into his strong, safe embrace.
‘Is that Brut by Faberg’?’ she asked.
Sorry, I got hit in the face by a romance novel, and it was a big one.
During a recent meeting of literary minds, a title was tossed my way with the usual caveat: ‘You may not like it.’ I was ready for some new material, so why not follow up J. D. Salinger’s teen-angst rant ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ with ‘The Ugly Duckling’?
‘ ‘How big the world is!’ exclaimed the ducklings.’
Not Hans Christian Anderson. I’m talking about New York Times bestselling author Iris Johansen’s ‘The Ugly Duckling.’ Johansen crossbreeds genres, and this time produces a murder mystery/thriller. Oh, yeah, and it’s kind of a chick book.
Get it.
Within the first 20 pages ‘ flower arrangements, motherly instincts, women as social competitors, Tampax (just kidding) … and a heinous murder ‘ I began to feel my testosterone wane.
Quick! Somebody get me a copy of Maxim magazine.
I considered putting the duckling down and backing away slowly, but instead I opted to minimize the pain by reading it as fast as I could, sort of like tearing off a Band-Aid quickly. Besides, I thought if I could master the psychology of romance novels, maybe women would escape into The Chuck rather than into the pages.
The hero, Nicholas Tanek, is compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the film ‘True Lies.’ The movie where ‘Monsieur Schwarzenegger … played the spy who could do everything except fly,’ an apparently French woman explains in Johansen’s book.
(Aha! But Schwarzenegger did, in fact, know how to fly. In the film’s climatic finale, he utilizes the vertical-take-off-and-landing capability of a Harrier jet to rescue his daughter from The Sand Spider, leader of the Crimson Jihad ‘ a terrorist faction of unknown national origin. I may not know romance, but I know my Schwarzenegger.)
We eventually learn that Tanek grew up an orphan on the mean streets of Hong Kong. After a lucrative career as a professional thief, Tanek bought a sheep ranch in Idaho and went straight, but he still has a score to settle with a saucy Frenchman who murdered his best friend, mentor and co-conspirator.
The heroine, Nell Calder, was the wife of a rich, international banker. Not too shabby. Their marriage was missing that certain I-don’t-know-what, but that conflict is rendered moot in a hail of semi-automatic weapons fire and some nifty knifesmanship. Calder’s family is wiped out, and her modest appearance is severely disfigured.
A world class plastic surgeon makes her look like Helen of Troy, but her transformation into a swan can’t be complete until she gets in touch with her inner beauty. Oh, and by the way, the druglord who ordered the attack on her family was none other than the same saucy Frenchman who killed Tanek’s best friend. Dun, Da, Duh!
You want the rest, buy the book.
So, what did I learn?
Well, I’ve got a much more concrete concept of Helen of Troy’s appearance. She’s never actually described in Homer’s work. Homer figured everyone’s concept of beauty is different, and so he left Helen’s appearance to the imagination.
Johansen describes the alterations that give Calder ‘the face that sailed a thousand ships,’ but curiously, only vague details are given about Tanek’s visage. Maybe the author is letting her female readers fill in the blank.
I’ve also noticed a few consistencies in the romantic section of the literary canon.
The leading man is usually wealthy, practically a mind reader (like Mel Gibson after being shocked by that hair dryer in ‘What Women Want’), has exclusive access to the leading lady for a long period of time, and he’s in excellent physical condition despite a seeming lack of interest in sports.
Example: Woman’s car breaks down in front of a castle as she’s driving through a secluded part of France and is assisted by a ripped prince filled with insights into her soul but lacking ESPN and ESPN2 on his DirecTV subscription. Oh, yeah ‘ there’s a huge blizzard and she can’t leave until the spring thaw.
A Chuck romance: I have exclusive access while placing order at drive-through window, ask to ‘supersize it’ and go over monthly budget, ask attendant ‘Who won the 9ers game?’ and realize after leaving that I ordered ‘Coke to drink’ when I should have just asked for ‘Coke.’ I wonder if she’ll call?
On the upside, counting the surgeon and his love interest, there are actually two principle couples in ‘Duckling.’ Written by a woman for women, the novel pairs younger women with presumably older men in each case. (Tanek’s age is never revealed, but it’s safe to assume it took more than Calder’s 28 years for him to amass his tremendous wealth.)
I’m all for that.
Truthfully, I’m a big fan of romance when it is the smaller part of a bigger theme. Romance novels are OK, but I like the romantic tension to simmer awhile before it boils all over the stove top. And I hate it when the leading man is perfect. It makes me feel inadequate.
‘Casablanca’ is a romance I can get behind. Humphrey Bogart’s character is a drunk and a bit of a womanizer, but he’s an idealist at heart. When Paul Henreid appears as the inspiring leader of a cause, he can’t even keep his wife away from the chain-smoking Bogart. Maybe that’s because Henreid keeps ordering champagne cocktails from which he never even takes a sip.
Ingrid Bergman sees right through Henreid’s false alcoholic bravado.
Now that I’ve finished my 400-page journey into the world of romance, I wish I could say ‘This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,’ but I’m more inclined to ask ‘Of all the gin joints of all towns in the world, why’d she have to walk into mine?’

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