A few weeks ago Canadians wondered whether the impending takeover of the iconic coffee shop Tim Hortons by the Miami-based Burger King fast-foodery would somehow change our morning cuppa. But a different cultural disaster went largely unnoticed.
The world’s top publisher of romance novels, the made-in-Canada Harlequin Enterprises Limited, was formally signed over to foreigners for $455 million. In cash. We lost a fully Canadian book publisher to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (and Harlequin will now be controlled out of the United States).
Harlequin was quite the success story. It was founded in Winnipeg in 1949, reprinting all sorts of novels in paperback, for a quarter. By 1953 romance was added to the roster, and within a few years the firm specialized exclusively in love. Harlequin romances became an industry leader. Yes, demure Canadians are behind a darned racy genre. (Way back when, my grandmother had two piles of Harlequins – one I was allowed to read, and a forbidden pile. Of course I snuck out the forbidden raunchy books whenever she wasn’t looking.)
Still, as shown by the lack of concern over the loss of Harlequin, romances don’t get no respect – even the historical novels, which require huge amounts of research.
They are often caricatured, but have changed with the times. Dr. Jackie C. Horne has written that “the women who now write romance novels grew up enjoying the benefits of the feminist movement… [many] heroines are adamant that their careers not suffer in order to make a relationship work.”
Here’s an example of a modern Harlequin (published under the Mira imprint): Robyn Carr’s Harvest Moon (2011), one in the immensely popular series of books set in a small town named Virgin River. Kelly Matlock is a chef in a big-city, five-star restaurant, flirting with her boss. One day she comes in to work to find the boss’s wife waiting for her, and is accused of conducting a full-blown affair. Matlock then goes back to work, and passes out from the stress.
Matlock realizes she’s made a mistake. She has always seen herself as careful, practical, and safe. That very day she quits her job and goes to small-town Virgin River for a few days, moving in with her sister. And falls for widower Lief Holbrook, a hunky single dad with a troubled teen daughter, Courtney.
Can this be more than a flirtation?
“Kelly didn’t want much, nor did she expect much. They didn’t have to be best friends, she and Courtney. But before she could let herself fall in love with Lief, she had to at least be on level ground with the girl.”
Everyone has baggage, just as in real life, and they try to work things out. There’s also a creepy step-dad and a nasty custody battle… this is a well-paced novel, with a bit of advice for would-be step-moms.
Not that Harlequin has a monopoly on the genre. The Sherbrooke Bride, by Catherine Coulter (1992), is set in the early 1800s, and features the personal life of Douglas Sherbrooke, Earl of Northcliffe, set somewhere in England. It’s an older novel, with a different mindset.
The footloose earl is nearing 30 and needs an heir, but is rather busy having fun and secretly harassing Napoleon. So he sends a cousin to wed (by proxy) a beautiful redhead he hasn’t set eyes on for three years. Instead, cousin returns with the redhead as his own bride, and has wed her younger sister on the earl’s behalf.
The sister is deliriously happy, having been secretly in love for years. But Douglas has been betrayed by his closest friend, and finds himself wed to a conniving stranger.
He hates her, she loves him. He begins to love her, she hates him. All set about the complex political shenanigans of the 1800s.
Both these books are filed in the Lennoxville Library in Adult Fiction. And here’s one more note about romance novel readers: Surveys indicate they often go through 50 to 100 novels a year. Romance fans are a particularly well read bunch.
– Eleanor Brown, Oct. 10, 2014