I use to devour romance novels. Short, easy to read, page-turning plots: what’s not to love about books about love? Nora Roberts, the reigning queen of hearts, has published over 200 novels. She also publishes under the pseudonym J.D. Robb, which was created just to keep up with her output. By her own estimation, Roberts finishes a new novel every 45 days. What?!? You can argue about the quality (and we will), but you can’t deny that she still puts words on the page at a phenomenal rate.
Given her success and influence in the romance genre, I thought it would be an interesting comparison to read her first romance novel and one that was recently published.
Her first, Irish Thoroughbred, was published in 1981 with Silhouette Books. Irish Thoroughbred tells the story of Adelia Cunane who moves to America to live with her uncle and winds up training champion horses and falling in love with Travis Grant, the owner of Royal Meadows stables.
For comparison I chose Dark Witch, published in November 2013 with Berkley Books, though it isn’t the most recent as there were three other books published after this date. Dark Witch tells the story of Iona Sheehan who moves from the U.S. to live in Ireland with her distant cousins and winds up caring for horses at a local stable and falls in love with the owner, Boyle McGrath.
Despite the similar basic plots the books are wildly different in tone and focus and highlight the progression of Roberts’ writing and, as a result, the change to the romance genre in general.
The keystones of romance novels are the heroine, the man, and the romance/sex, so I’ll break down the novels by looking at these three areas, but to keep the posts a little more manageable, I’ll first discuss Roberts’ debut and make a separate post for her more recent publication.
So, let’s begin with Irish Thoroughbred.
Adelia Cunane is a 23-year-old orphan who was raised by her emotionally distant aunt from the age of 10. She took care of the family farm and eventually her aunt from the time of her parents’ death until she was called to live in America by her uncle. She is innately in tune with horses and empathizes with them. She is described as having wavy auburn hair, large, deep green eyes with thick lashes, tilted nose, full mouth, and, most importantly, tiny.
Adelia is referred to as “half pint,” “little lady,” and “little thing” and her nickname from her uncle is “little Dee.” Besides these references she is also referred to as a “girl” and “child” or, alternatively, depending on the situation, as a “little wench,” “green-eyed witch,” and “blonde witch” or “faerie queen” and “faerie goddess.”
To a modern reader, these references are occasionally cringe-inducing, as in this moment early in the romance: “‘You look like a child.’ Her chestnut hair hung loose and heavy over the shoulders of her robe, and he ran a hand down the length of it. ‘A child can’t be bundled off to bed with out a goodnight kiss’, he said softly.” Nothing is sexier than being referred to as a child, right? This exchange ends with him kissing her on the cheek, though it leaves her “unsatisfied.”
The emphasis on her size and youthfulness, despite being 23, does not change as the romance progresses. Near the end of the story, Travis says he wouldn’t feel so protective of Adelia if she “didn’t continually look fifteen instead of twenty-three.” Protective, okay, but remember he is supposed to be sexually attracted to her, a person he thinks looks like an underage half-pint. Creepy. Which brings us to…
Roberts provides an unintentionally amusing description of Travis as it is almost like that of a horse: tall, powerfully built, sharp blue eyes, tanned, muscular, black curly hair, and strong white teeth. The description of his teeth made me laugh. I pictured a vet opening a horse’s mouth for inspection. Yep, all good here.
But Travis makes a good first impression on Adelia before she even meets him. First through the opinion of her uncle and secondly by the way he treats his horses. Two awkward descriptions come from this first impression. When Adelia arrives at Royal Meadows she sees how the horses are treated and warmly thinks that he “knows how to care for what he owns.” This phrasing is a little disturbing, “what he owns,” given that he will soon be Adelia’s employer and the emphasis on ownership rather than what should be an expected behaviour. It stuck out to me the first time I read it and it stayed with me as they continued to interact.
Travis spends most of their relationship overwhelming and overriding Adelia. Their first kiss comes after a brief argument and he kisses her to shut her up, a reason given more than once. Giving orders and protecting Adelia, his half-pint, is really all there is to him. His character is not as well formed as Adelia’s; while she has a relationship with her uncle, befriends Travis’ twin sister and interacts with his nephews, he is only revealed in direct relation to Adelia.
As already mentioned, Adelia, despite being in her 20s, is depicted as a little spitfire with emphasis on the little. While her stature is meant to make her seem vulnerable, it is also exploited.
In an unfortunately common scene in romance novels, Adelia is nearly raped by a co-worker but is saved by Travis. She tries to defend herself, of course, both verbally and physically, but is too small to fight him off. Travis comes and beats him near to death until Adelia calls him off. Travis’s anger is frightening to Adelia: “His face seemed to be caved from granite, his eyes steely blue and penetrating as he started at her. She trembled at the strong, harsh mask and offered up a silent prayer that she would never have that deadly fury directed at her.”
It is meant to show the intensity of his emotion but, especially on the heels of a rape scene, the mixture of violence and love is disturbing. (I won’t get into a detailed discussion of this issue here, but check out these two posts, here and here, from Romance Novels for Feminists for more information on this issue.) It is worth noting that in Irish Throughbred Adelia refuses to call the police out of fear of upsetting her beloved Uncle Paddy but in Roberts’ later works the heroines occasionally rescue themselves (or are rescued by their love interest) and do call the police.
Travis and Adelia continue to bond through the race horses as she accompanies him to several races where, of course, their horse wins. The relationship is sped up by the ill health of Uncle Paddy. After he has a heart attack, he asks Travis to marry Adelia so that he doesn’t have to worry that she will be left alone should he die. Travis agrees and Adelia goes along with the idea.
Within the confines of marriage, sex is now allowed and expected. A storm facilitates an opportunity and, weeks after their hospital bed-side wedding, they have sex. Their lovemaking is glossed over, referenced more in comparison to the storm, and then it is the next morning. Adelia’s lost virginity is only confirmed by her remark that she never had woken up with a man in her bed.
But their relationship isn’t completely solid until the “I love yous” are exchanged so one more complication is thrown up before the story can end. In this case, it is Travis’ ex-girlfriend, who comes to the house and implies that Travis will divorce Adelia and marry her. Adelia, despite her bond with her uncle, decides she can no longer live in America and leaves for the airport to head back to Ireland.
In one of my least favourite romance tropes, Adelia and Travis are yelling at each other before finally admitting they love each other. They go from yelling, with Travis physically restraining Adelia (while kissing her), to making love. What is strange is that despite the I love yous being the final act of the story, Roberts never has the characters actually say “I love you.” It is implied, said second hand, but not provided as dialogue. With so much of the story hinging on that realization, it seems to be an odd omission.
Overall, Irish Thoroughbred is typical for its time and follows a plot that most people would associate with a book in the romance genre. At just over 170 pages in the addition I read, it was a quick read. The pace and Adelia’s generally enjoyable, if dated, character makes it easy to see why Roberts was given another book deal.
Now I’m really looking forward to reading Dark Witch to see the differences; I’m sure there will be many. Roberts is a force within the romance genre and it should be interesting to see where she takes her writing. So come back next week to hear all about Dark Witch!