The Chick: Sara Rose Fielding, a.k.a. "S.R. Fielding." A novelist famous for writing about the underprivileged of London, she accidentally rescues the owner of a gambling hell from thugs, and sees a grand opportunity to guilt him into helping her research for her latest book.
The Rub: She'd rather do a little more intimate "research" on the criminal "underbelly" - as long as that criminal is Derek. Too bad he wants nothing to do with her!
Dream Casting: North and South's Daniela Denby-Ashe.
The Dude: Derek Craven. He brought himself up from the gutter to become the richest man in England. He knows first hand that the slums of London are no place for a naive country girl.
The Rub: He quickly comes to love Sara, but pushes her away because he believes he has nothing to offer her - nothing but piles of money, stunning good looks, and the anatomical blessings of a bull.
Dream Casting: Johnny Depp.
Derek: Ah! My pretty Alpha Male face is threatened by thugs!
Sara: Anachronistic Twit to the rescue! *kills thug*
Derek: Are you here by yourself?
Sara: *eyes sparkle* Oh of course, everyone is so nice, what could possibly be unsafe about walking down dark alleyways in 19th century London by myself? *sparkle sparkle*
Derek: You're a moron. And an inexplicably attractive one to boot. GO AWAY.
Sara: *sparkle sparkle* How dare you refuse my naive and blundering advances! *wears pretty dress, gets drunk* Look at me, I'm a seductive worldly woman!
Derek: You're still a moron. *gropes* GO AWAY.
Sara: *sparkle sparkle* Fine. I'll go and marry my almost fiance, who's a real man! *sparkle sparkle*
Perry: No I'm not.
Crazy Whore Ex-Mistress: I'll get you, my pretty, and your little virginity too!
Derek: *saves Sara* Guess we have to get married, now.
Crazy Whore Ex-Mistress: *crazy evil bullshit*
Sara: Wow, you make me look organized in comparison! Can we have our happily ever after now?
Sara: *sparkle sparkle*
Sarah: HOORAY! *sparkle sparkle*
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Too Angsty To Live Hero
1 Too Stupid To Live Heroine
1 Crazy Whore Ex-Mistress
2 Smug Marrieds from Previous Kleypas Books
Several Easily-Won-Over Servants
1 Rapist for Hire
1 Lookalike Hooker
1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
The Word: I'm sorry, but Lisa Kleypas and I? We are done. I'm not picking up her option, we're going in a different direction, it's time we see other people, yadda, yadda, yadda. But we are done. I'm taking her books off my shelves, and after Lent will probably trade them in for better, used books. I've tried. Really I have. Some of her books have been diverting, especially when I was starting out as a romance reader, but I just can't read her books anymore.
In romance, there is an element of fantasy, for when it all comes down to it, everything (at least everything that matters) works out for the hero and heroine. However, there is a wide spectrum concerning the amount of fantasy in a romance novel and, as I've repeatedly discovered, Lisa Kleypas sits pretty darn close to the "full out fantasy" end of the field.
Lisa Kleypas Land: Reality - Not Welcome.
Her heroes are pretty much always richer than God - or end up richer than God by the end of the novel. Sure, some of them aren't aristocrats (*maidenly gasp*) but they are all rolling in money and tend to be physically interchangeable - huge and dark and ugly and hot, or huge and blond and pretty and hot. Her heroines are "feisty" and "quirky," by which I mean they act like 21st century girls after a summer spent cloistered with the full collection of Jane Austen's works on DVD: full of modern enlightenment, tolerance, saintly goodness, and great tits.
The heroines are perfectly good - but their main draw is their pillowy-soft innocence that lures our heroes (used to the dried-out charms of bus-station-toilet-paper ladies) with the promise of Charmin. Our villains are perfectly evil in as many ways as it is possible to be evil and are soundly vanquished in the end - or worse, are retroactively neutered into goodness by becoming heroes in a sequel (et tu, Sebastian?). Her writing style dedicates the majority of her description to letting us know how wealthy and grand and classy the setting is by overusing words like "rich," "sumptuous," and "succulent" - without actually describing the settings in any great detail.
Once the protagonists start having sex, they go at it like they're stockpiling it for the upcoming Sexpocalypse. Precious narrative time is spent on shopping trips, spending sprees, and general romantic gestures on the part of the hero, by which I mean, the hero spends an obscene amount of cash on the heroine. Then some random dude shows up at the end waving a gun and our hero gets to prove he's a man for free.
*sigh* I'm sorry, but I need some substance with my cotton candy. I need some nuance, and some subtlety. I need Lacklustre Romantic Rivals who aren't cartoons. I need sex scenes that have narrative purpose. I need heroines who have spine and don't wander around like doe-eyed sheep looking for a hot shirtless shepherd. I understand why readers love Lisa Kleypas, but I also understand why I don't.
Dreaming of You, considered by many to be Lisa Kleypas' masterpiece, is just the final nail in the coffin of my fandom. The book opens on one of the worst examples of TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) behaviour I've ever read. Our heroine is Sara Fielding, a writer who rose to literary fame with the publication of Mathilda, a novel about a reformed prostitute (possibly a reference to Defoe's Roxana?). She prides herself on her meticulous research, which involves walking through some of London's worst neighbourhoods by herself at night to interview people, her only protection the pistol in her purse which she's never learned how to aim. She goes alone, of course, because her family - oh, they just wouldn't understand. Neither can I, honey.
She comes across a man being set on by thugs and fires a warning shot - into a thug's neck. Nice. The surviving thugs flee, and Sara helps the injured man back to his place of business: an infamous gambling club. Turns out the man is Derek Craven, the club's owner. Sara is delighted. Her next novel is about a gambler, so she figures this is an excellent way to gather more research.
Frankly, by this point I'm surprised Sara can read, much less write bestselling, socially-conscious novels about prostitutes and criminals. She's a walking contradiction. She's simultaneously described as a naive country bumpkin glowing with purity who rarely travels beyond her precious little village of Greenwood Corners - and a globally-thinking, anachronistically open-minded crusader. She apparently has no knowledge of or common sense regarding how to act and behave in London's seedier neighbourhoods but still somehow manages to write dark, profound works of fiction a la Charles Dickens. She's a pure creature of fantasy - pure and sheltered and shy and virginal and yet still somehow knowledgeable enough to make thought-provoking commentary about society.
Our hero is also a fantasy creation, albeit one less grating and less obviously fictional than Sara. Derek Craven was born in the gutter, raised by prostitutes and even worked as one himself (but only on the ladies - which of course makes him sexier instead of realistically damaged, like Gabriel St. Croix), until he eventually clawed himself up to become the obscenely wealthy man he is today. He tosses and turns in his gigantic, overly-symbolic bed, wondering why money and power don't make him happy.
To quote the folks from Team America, there's an emptiness that Derek needs to fill, and only one emptiness will do. Sara, the Sugar-Free Marshmellow of Goodness, charms the hearts of all the jaded people in his club through her sheer purity, Derek included. The novel tells us that Derek falls for Sara because she is the saintly bleach to his dirty, sexy stain but what the novel shows us is that Sara unintentionally blackmails Derek into falling for her.
How? Every time she makes overtures that Derek refuses, she goes out and does something stupid and nearly gets killed. When Derek refuses to kiss her, Sarah disguises herself and gets shitfaced at a party filled with hookers and rakes. When Derek refuses to have sex with her, she runs off with a complete stranger and nearly gets gangraped during a riot. I think Derek somehow senses that unless he puts a ring on her finger, the next time he says "no" she's bound to throw herself down a well.
There's also the cartoonish villain, Lady Ashby. I'll admit it's refreshing to have a novel where the hero is stalked by a crazed, possessive ex-lover, but she's not a character, she's a collection of evil traits sewn up in a bag of skin and blond hair. It's not enough to have her be jealous of Derek. No, the author has to make her a sexual deviant so kinky she makes even the jaded Derek blush, who has countless abortions because she doesn't want to get fat, who ruins debutantes' lives for the fun of it, etc. I'm sure Lisa Kleypas would have written in a scene where she kicks puppies if it wouldn't have strained the novel's wordcount.
The novel loses its Stupid around the midway point - Sara learns a bit of common sense from her near gang-bang - but makes up for it with a surplus of Boring. Derek mopes and sleeps with Sara lookalike-hookers. Sara tries to make it with her fiance, Perry - who sadly morphs from a gentle but boring lad into a full-on condemning mama's boy. Oh, yes - heaven forbid the romantic rival should be a good, consistent, or realistic character. That would suggest that there is a sentient, reasonable human male in the world who finds the heroine undesirable! That cannot be borne! Any man who doesn't want to marry the purely pure candy floss Sara must be wrong in the head, evil, and/or gay!
The novel dissolves into scenes of shopping trips, Craven's sickeningly cutesy Smug Married friends meddling where they're not wanted, over-the-top evil Lady Ashby antics, lots and lots of pointless sex - and an 11th hour climax. Not a word of which was unexpected. I suppose the fault is mine in supposing that Dreaming of You might be different from Lisa Kleypas' other books, that if I just keep reading, I'll eventually find the Kleypas book that fulfills all the promises her fans make about her storytelling ability. But the fact is, like C.L. Wilson and Nalini Singh - I just plain don't like her writing.