Literally decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.
These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger instead of a pleasurable diversion. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.
The second one is adultery involving the hero or heroine.
I’ve seen scenarios where the non-hero husband is cruel and abusive, even threatening to kill the heroine (especially in medievals), but I don’t find that a good enough excuse for adultery. I wouldn’t tell a 21st century abused woman that she either has to go back to her husband or go to a nunnery (perhaps the closest thing to a medieval equivalent of a shelter for battered women), but in medieval times there weren’t many other options. In one story I read recently, the abused wife ran away to a distant town with her lover and they pretended to be married. But the guilt of their deceit had already started to tarnish their relationship before the book’s conclusion, leaving the reader with a very unsatisfactory HEA. (In fact, the story was set up in such a way as to make a satisfactory HEA impossible.) I know this isn’t fair by 21st century standards, but you really should not write a novel set in medieval times and then proceed to ignore the social and religious mores of the time. Less knowledgeable readers might not notice, but those of us who have read widely in the genre will recognize an amateur when we see it. [Historical inaccuracy, another deal breaker, will be discussed in a later post.]
What about a spouse who is ill, disabled, or confined to a mental institution? Or a spouse who has run off with another person and disappeared? While I do not expect a hero to remain celibate forever under these circumstances, I cannot like the heroine to be his mistress. Remember Jane Eyre? She knew she couldn’t have a proper HEA with Edward while his wife was living, even if she was a lunatic. I mean, how can you justify stigmatizing your children with the label “bastard”? Somehow, the HEA has to include a legal marriage, and I can’t believe a heroine who starts out as a mistress can have that much confidence that her husband/protector won’t eventually deceive her as well.
Oh, and the plots where the sterile husband invites his best friend to impregnate his wife? NO! Forget it! It doesn’t matter if the husband is good or evil, the whole adultery/deception angle opens up a Pandora’s box of guilt and fear that always manages to tarnish the HEA in some way.
What about you? Do find adultery in a historical romance acceptable in some situations?
*Disclaimer: This series of “deal breakers” is meant to refer to books labeled historical romances, and not to erotica, which is a completely separate sub-genre and has an entirely different purpose.