The 80% Break-up

Approaching the end of my romance reading challenge

I’m currently reading through a pile of award-winning romances and analysing the values on display in each one. Why? ‘Cause!

The 80% break-up is a familiar trope to romance readers - or anyone that’s ever watched a rom-com. The bulk of the story is, of course, Harry meeting Sally. They meet. They cute. They face challenges. They cute further. They cuddle. They commit! And, just when everything is looking rosy: WHAMMO. The reader is ready to cheer, but there’s still one last hurdle - a break-up.

The problem is with the 80% break-up is that, more than 80% of the time, our main characters have already overcome all of the obvious challenges. So that last trope-mandated hurdle is generally, painfully, spawned by their own ridiculous issues. ‘But I don’t deserve love,’ whines Harry, after spending 80% of the book begging for it. ‘But I’ll never fit into his billionaire lifestyle,’ moans Sally, after spending 80% of the book reveling in it. It is odious, and exhausting, and means that - even after the 90% reunion - you’re pretty irritated. A good romance book manages the 80% break-up in a way where you don’t resent the protagonists. A great romance book ignores the trope entirely, seeds it well from the start, or brings in an interesting external factor. There’s your hot writing tip today, folks.

All of which has nothing to do with anything, except that I’m about 80% done with the challenge, which was a nice prompt for me to vent about this particular trope. I’m also way behind on reviews, so you’re getting the slightly shorter, hotter takes this time.

As a reminder, the ‘RITA’ books were all titles that won the RITA ‘best debut’ award. And ‘Option’ books are debuts that I added to the list, because the RITAs are so very white.

  • Beverly Jenkins’ Night Song (1994, Option): Some obvious similarities with Brenda Jackson’s Tonight and Forever, which published around the same time. As far as settings/tropes, the main difference is that Jackson’s debut is contemporary, while Jenkins’ is a historical, set during the Reconstruction era. Thematically though, they’re very similar: both ‘cozy’ stories set in Black communities, with the greater, more oppressive system in the distant background. I think this is fascinating, within the greater literary context of romance as escapist fantasy. My main issue with Night Song is simply one of the two main characters. Chase is a pretty common alpha male archetype - he’s not the modern, bullying type of alpha, thank god, but he’s more pushy and assumptive. This is a slow burn as he presses Cara with his charms, and I felt slightly overburdened by the intensity of his company. I really liked Cara, which led to the general sense of ‘she could do better’. (Or, given that she’s living in a small town in the middle of nowhere… maybe not. Poor Cara!)

  • Lani Diane Rich’s Time Off for Good Behaviour (2005, RITA): This is only barely a romance. Wanda is an absolute disaster - estranged from her family, fleeing from her (horrid) husband, jobless, broke and miserable. The book does interesting things with the conventions of romance. Wanda, somehow, meets a dreamy man right off the bat. Does she deserve him? Even Wanda doesn’t think so. She spends the bulk of the book telling him to piss off while she works on herself. She’s self-absorbed and totally chaotic, but it works. This isn’t an obnoxious story of self-discovery: there are no ‘exotic’ trips involved. Wanda gets stuck in, and, aided by a cast of charming side characters, rediscovers herself. She gets what she deserves, and she earns it.

  • Tracy Anne Warren’s The Husband Trap (2007, RITA): As always, Regencies are my heartland (pun intended). This one is a ridiculous premise: Violet’s got a crush on Adrian. Adrian’s getting married to her identical twin sister. Her sister wants to run off instead… You can see where this is going. The idea is slightly undermined by Violet’s weird belief that she was going to keep this deception going for her entire life. That’s made even sillier by the fact that Violet’s sister is a trash person. So the book oscillates between Violet being Violet and charming everyone and then Violet reminding herself to be not-Violet, and being a pain in the butt. It all plays out exactly as you’d expect. Very silly.

  • Terri Garey’s Dead Girls are Easy (2008, RITA): ‘Nicki Styx’ (really?) is our leather-pantsed (panted? pantalooned?) ‘Grim Reaper’. She’s able to see dead people and honour-bound to deal with their complaints. You know the score. She’s also aggressively cool, with her own vintage shop, a Gay Best Friend, and a lot of time invested in her extremely funky clothing. Nicki is aggressively ‘not one of those girls’, except, well, she absolutely is. Dead Girls has aged poorly, which is a little harsh, given it isn’t even old enough to drive. There’s a large and diverse group of characters, but they’re all painful stereotypes. The central plot, which is wincingly around 'voodoo’, comes with a cast of Black people that’ll make you wince. The Gay Best Friend is painful (he likes sex! talking about dresses! he lives his life entirely through her! they call one another ‘slut’!), and there’s even a Jewish grandmother ghost (she’s noisy! intrusive! she talks about matzah balls a lot!). Nicki’s romantic interest is a doctor who is boring, punctuated by vast bouts of creepy - at one point he even breaks her car so she has to spend time with him. (Also, he’s in a long-term relationship with her nearly-identical? long-lost? mystery? sister. So, y’know. Ick.) On the other hand, she’s awful. She spends the entire book talking about he will BREAK HIM in the sack and she’s up to all sorts of WEIRD KINKY stuff, and then they busy themselves with the most vanilla sex of any book to date. In hindsight, I think the real story of this book comes out in a few of its smaller moments. The doctor has never encountered, much less eaten, ‘Thai food’ before, and gets Nickisplained through a meal of its exotic mystery. (This book is set in Atlanta in 2008, not, I dunno, Nottingham in 1204.) Doctor Stalker returns the favour later on, impressing Nicki with her first ever Bolognese sauce. I was complaining about this to a friend, and they hit on the real truth here: maybe Nicki and the Doctor are both aliens. It would certainly explain a lot. Sadly, as a human, I had a hard time with this book.

  • Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair (2015, Option): I’m not really being brief, am I? Here’s a quick one. Mili has been married since she was a child - to a husband she’s never met. She has eight months to study in America, before returning home to be a perfect life. Her brother-in-law, furious about the demands made on his family by this total stranger, heads to America to see who this gold-digger might be. He’s a Bollywood star, she’s basically a Disney princess. All extremely cute.

  • Mia Sosa’s Unbuttoning the CEO (2015, Option): He’s the CEO of a tech company sentenced to community service. She runs a non-profit, bringing digital skills to the community. Sparks fly, etc. They’re both perfect, and kind of boring. The 80% break-up in this one is a sterling example of how dully predictable the trope can be. Something something ‘he’s actually a vastly wealthy and successful CEO who is doing good for the community’ and this triggers… commitment issues. Eh.

  • Pintip Dunn’s Forget Tomorrow (2016, RITA): A YA dystopia! Everyone in society gets a vision on their 17th birthday: a memory sent back from the future. From there, everything’s sorted: you know if you’re success, what’ll you do, who you’ll love. Or, frighteningly enough, you’ll get a vision of yourself doing something TRULY HORRIBLE and go to prison. This is an unexceptionable version of Minority Report, with a slightly wet-blanket protagonist who is hauled from scene to scene. There are interesting characters around her: rebels, revolutionaries, etc, but Callie’s a wet-blanket. I’m proud of the RITAs for recognising this genre was, indeed, a trend in 2016, but not sure this was the book to highlight it.

  • Marie Tremayne’s Lady in Waiting (2019, RITA): Regency again! This should be great, darnit. Clara is being forced into marriage, so she runs off and pretends to be a maid for the Earl of Ashworth. Hijinks ensue. Fortunately, her innate superiority as a member of the upper crust shines through, and he realises she is something special and not another mere peasant. Invariably leading to everyone realising that she deserves more because she was born better. Honestly, I would’ve preferred some tactful anachronism.

I’m sorry to say that, with a couple exceptions, this was a pretty mediocre batch. That’s a shame as my non-challenge romance reading has been far better. So to compensate for the damp squibs, some recommendations:

  • Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare (2019): Spawned so many imitations already, but a very cute book. O’Leary does something incredibly rare in that she gives her two characters very different voices. That alone makes it worth a read in the genre.

  • Katie Shepard’s Bear With Me Now (2023): Incredibly silly - and yes, there is an actual bear (not a shape-shifter, just a bear). But one of the few novels I’ve read in the contemporary romance sub-genre that actually addresses, and interrogates, the wealth inequality between the protagonists. I liked both characters a lot, and there are some genuinely funny moments. (Including a non-zero amount of otters.)

  • Lizzy Dent’s The Summer Job (2021): From the Bridget Jones school of ‘disaster protagonist’. And she is, undoubtedly, a disaster. For most of the book, our heroine is sassy and funny and doing a very good job of pretending to be a high-end sommelier at a ritzy hotel. But every now and then she’s an annoyingly self-pitying catastrophe. I like the arc of this a lot, and the (secondary) romance is well-played. The ‘plot’ twists are a bit silly, but the day-to-day ‘pretending to be a high-end sommelier’ is a lot of fun.

I mentioned Ted Gioia’s newsletter last week, and here it is again. Here’s his response to ‘ten things I’d do if I ran a major record label’ and it is fascinating. I like to talk about ‘brand-building’ as what you do as much as what you say, and his proposed business approach is based on authenticity from the inside-out. Less trend-chasing, more long-term investments, avoiding AI and building direct distribution channels.

As someone whose default cultural currency is the book, I think this framework could also apply to that type of publishing as well. (Find and replace ‘Spotify’ with ‘Amazon’, and whammo, Ted’s given you a business plan!) Roberto Calasso’s concept of ‘form’ in publishing applies here: taking a long term, holistic, editorial vision that permeates every aspect of the company.

Artistically, there’s not much to dislike in the Gioia Plan. The challenge is - frankly - you’d need a lot of money. You’re making a huge up-front investment in channels, authors and staff knowing that you won’t see returns from them in the short- or medium-term. These are expensive decisions, and we live in a world, even in the arts, of quarterly reporting. You’d have to begin with a big pile of cash, and accept that it might be a very small pile of cash before (or if) it begins to grow again.

A panel on the future of AI. “Sludge” already has one connotation, in the behavioural economics context, but I think the use of the term here - to describe “automatically generated noise” is very apt.

“The London restaurant was, and remains, largely the creation of immigrants.” A whirlwind tour through the city’s culinary history (via Web Curios).

On a mournful, but related, note, The India Club is closing its doors after over 70 years of serving large portions of decently-priced cuisine. The India Club was down the street from my first job in London. It was one of the few places where someone on a junior assistant sidekick’s salary could eat a solid, sit-down lunch in central London without having to skip out on rent. The atmosphere was ‘quaint’, but genuinely charming, and it was always busy in a way that made you feel like you were part of the hustle and bustle. When the vast majority of your meals are leftovers at your desk or Pret on a park bench, the opportunity to have a hot meal, on a plate, in the company of other people makes you feel a bit more human again. I’m very sorry they’re closing, and am even sorrier that the kind of space they represent has become so rare. Shutting its doors to become an exclusive hotel just adds insult to injury.

An extract detailing my hometown’s history of planning hijinks. I love that this is an ‘accidental’ thesis - it came out of writing a book about Patrick Mahomes, of all things. I don’t love, of course, the content itself. But speaking as a Kansas Citian: yup.

I have a book out. Next month! The Big Book of Cyberpunk attempts to capture this fascinating and timely genre, from William Gibson to Janelle Monáe, Philip K. Dick to Vauhini Vara. It collects over a hundred stories, covering over fifty years and two dozen countries. Never too late to pre-order. (Except, I suppose, when it is actually published, and can only be ordered. Then, yes, definitionally, it would be too late.)

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