Dueling Review, Let's Talk Tropes

Trope Duel: Two Views on Second Chance Romance

We haven’t done any buddy reads in a while, so for this installment of Dueling Reviews, Holly and Erin share their thoughts on Second Chance Romances. Holly thinks they’re great. Erin thinks they’re nothing but nonsense. Moderated by Ingrid.

Ingrid: Let’s start this Trope Duel with a definition of the “Second Chance at Love”:

This romance trope can play out in a number of ways. Perhaps a couple breaks up only to reunite decades later. Maybe they have been deeply hurt in the past, and have spent years avoiding any kind of romantic relationship. Now they will meet and learn to give love another chance. This is a hopeful trope that readers enjoy because it enforces the theme that “it’s never too late.”


Erin: Okay, so now we all have the definition … of malarky. The problem with Second Chance Romance (henceforth SCR) is that the characters have fantastically wasted huge amounts of time and then they’re coming back to a relationship that didn’t work in the first place and somehow magically whatever’s wrong is not a problem anymore, which is ridiculous because things and people don’t really change. 

BUT ALSO, when it’s presented in book form, it’s typically presented one of two ways. Either, it’s: I have hurt feelings and I’m not going to work through it or talk about it, but it’s enough for me to walk away from you forever. Then all of a sudden, when they have the conversation years later, they realize it was a dumb argument. Or it’s like: yeah, they really do need marriage or relationship counseling, and, as a reader, I’m not sure this is going to work out for you. Like, if it’s so bad that you think you should get a divorce, you should probably not walk that back. You should have thought that through before it went that far. That makes me completely nuts. For example, if it’s an issue of “you never respected me,” I typically don’t understand how someone goes from not respecting their partner ten years ago and then magically figures out what the problem was and starts being respectful ten years later. 

So, at the end of the day, I think that, in real life, it’s based on a pipe dream that people and relationships change enough that a second chance might be worthwhile, and in literature I think that it’s based on what are ultimately absurd premises for relationship failures. 

Holly: Are you quite finished?

Erin: I’m quite finished! You know I’m verbose.

Holly: Okay, so, here is my counterpoint. Ten years ago, in many SCRs, our characters are between the ages of 18 and 25. So we’ll say, in their first relationship, they broke up because they were young and stupid. 

Erin: Probably true.

Holly: Ten years later, they’re now between the ages of 28 and 35. They’ve had a lot of life experience. People change a lot between the ages of 21 and 31. 

Maybe you don’t understand this because you married the guy you were dating when you were 18, but maybe you can really love somebody when you’re 21, but that person is not the person you’re meant to be with at that point in your life, and you both need to separate and have different kinds of relationships and experiences before it’s right for you to be together. 

Take the respect example. Maybe he didn’t respect you because you didn’t respect yourself, and once you learned to do that and stand on your own two feet, you could have a more equitable relationship. 

So what I’m saying is, I think it’s totally valid for a couple to break up and then come back together ten years later and have a another conversation and bring different perspective and more mature communication styles to it, and be able to say, “This is something that we couldn’t work past before but we can work past now.”

Erin: It sort of boils down to two story lines with variations on a theme. Story one is “partner done me wrong, and I hate their guts.” So when they come back together we’re also including an enemies to lovers trope. Vs. option two, which is “I’ve been carrying a torch for this person for x amount of time”. 

In what way does either of those relatively binary storylines really provide an opportunity for growth and development? I understand what you’re saying in terms of people change over time, and being capable of having a particular relationship at 21 is different than being able to have a particular relationship at 31, but the way that these stories are often portrayed includes a lot of carrying that baggage forward in their lives. Which seems to put lie to your argument that people are able to grow and change such that they can sit down, have this mature conversation, and start over based on personal growth. Even if technically it’s totally reasonable for, say, two people who graduated high school and went off to college and did their own things and then just happened to be home for a summer BBQ, or for Whoshisface to come back from his deployment in the navy, and now he’s this buff, hot SEAL with an epic V-cut–right–like, I could totally see somebody being like, “well that’s hot, and you were hot before, and let’s sit down and have a good time at this BBQ,” but that’s not how it goes! In books, it’s not “let’s just touch base again and let this happen organically,” because that’s not enough drama. It’s “I’ve hated you for the past 10 years, and I’m going to continue hating you now that you’re back in town,” or it’s “I’ve carried this torch for you for the past 10 years.”

Basically my point is the whole premise of this in a romance novel is dumb, even if it does make sense in real life. 

Holly: Okay, so your problem is not with the idea of the second chance at love, per se. Your problem is with the extreme ways that it is portrayed in romance: it’s about the one who got away or the one who ruined me for love forever. One or the other.

Ingrid: If I might interject, I’m also hearing that one of the things that bothers Erin is that, because this trope involves messy human interaction, it also involves huge plot gaps for her because she can’t relate to the characters because they’re messy and imperfect and can’t marry [her husband]. 

Holly: Erin, not all of us can marry [your husband].

Erin: I feel really bad for you.

Back to the point at hand, I think the reason that I so dislike this trope is this: if I we’re going to pick a book based on a trope, I don’t feel I can rely on this one to provide me with a story that I can reliably find satisfying. Not because there aren’t some good ones out there, or because I think that it’s completely unreasonable, but because I feel that it routinely falls into these trope traps that I don’t like. 

If we’re looking for something based on a trope, I’m going to say, “this is a trope I can trust and rely on to give me a good story that I would find satisfying,” and second chance is not something that I feel I can trust and rely on, because I would have to sort the wheat from the chaff in a very deliberate way in order to find the satisfying SCR. I mean, I really liked Every Last Breath by Juno Rushdan, but I feel like 9 times out of 10, with my SCR experience, I don’t have the feelings I had with the Rushdan I just read.

Holly: Obviously I can’t tell you to like what you don’t like. But here’s one way to think about it: for  people who have had a variety of partners throughout their young adulthood, it’s kind of fun to imagine the “might have beens.” This is a chance to explore the might have been. 

Like, what would my life be like, if the guy I dated in college, who moved to California, reappeared and we met again ten years later. What would it be like, how could that have been a HEA? Let me look this guy up, what’s he doing now? It’s this fun voyeuristic thing, and I’m happily married. And, sidenote, I think based on what the guy in CA is up to on social media, I would not be happily partnered with him now, because all he does is live in a van and go to Burning Man and is 37 years old. Solid.

But if romance caters to fantasy, sometimes the fantasy is that you’re Cinderella, and the Duke or the Prince or the Navy SEAL is going to rescue you from your life of toil. But maybe the fantasy is that things could have been different for me if I had made a different choice. 

Erin: I totally get that fantasy. 

Maybe the next question is: I, because I’m dealing with the social media pages, tend to see a lot of “what’s our responsibility in terms of, basically, ethics and morals in the community, in terms of presenting romance that is not potentially harmful?” And I think that in and of itself a second chance story is not necessarily harmful, but let’s take another look at the two different directions for any given protagonist: it’s either “I hate you” or “you’re the one who got away.”

I mean, “the one who got away” is considered by…people who give advice to be harmful because it perpetuates a thought process that there WAS one to get away and that, had that person done things differently, then the relationship would have succeeded, when that is not a healthy way to look at relationships. Yes, there’s work and compromise that goes into relationships, but trying to make something work that doesn’t shouldn’t result in a “he’s the one that got away”, it should result in a “that’s a relationship that didn’t work for us.” 

Conversely, you’ve got the enemies aspect of it where there was a problem that was bad enough to cause a breakup, and in that case is it harmful to perpetuate a notion that someone should give additional chances to a person they believe to have harmed themselves in the past? It’s not healthy. And the reason I’m asking this is because there’s this whole conversation about “how responsible is it” to have all these stories about billionaires when billionaires are…kind of terrible.

Holly: I will say I find this hilarious coming from you, miss “I’m going to read every motorcycle, mafia romance I can get my hands on” – 

Erin: Hey, I am not the one making arguments on social media about what is harmful in romance. Give a girl a fantasy! 

Holly: In terms of ethics, telling people that this person you thought was your one true love when you were 18 is your one true love maybe isn’t that healthy. And I don’t believe that there’s one true love for everybody, but according to the world of romance, I am wrong because according to the world of romance there is one true love for everybody and you will find your one person! So it’s a slippery slope, and if you want to make that argument you have to extend it to many other romance tropes. But I’ll give it to you, because, fine.

However, in terms of creating a well-crafted dramatic arc, there’s a lot of potential in a SCR because you have these two parties coming together and they’re working at cross-purposes, and you can build the sexual tension, like “I’m attracted to you but I’m still carrying all this baggage,” and you can build up to the moment when they finally trust each other enough again to talk about what happened, and you can have these really dramatic moments that are really satisfying as a reader.

Can I talk about some specific books? Two books I read recently that I thought had really satisfying SCR things going on are Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev, and Hate Crush by Angelina M. Lopez. Both books have the dual dynamic going on, where the woman is like, “Ten years ago, you betrayed me in the worst way that can ever be imagined, and I will hate you forever”, and the guy is like, “Oh, I finally have a chance to see her again under these constrained circumstances, like we have to be together for PR reasons, and I think that I can win her back because we really had a deep connection.” It’s very extreme, especially in the Lopez, in which he’s very much like, “She’s the one who got away!” and she’s like, “Nah, bro, I will hate you forever.” 

And I think maybe these books are exceptional in that they are not easy, and they have these tropes but then are forcing their characters to actually interrogate what’s going on and also share really key missing pieces of information. In the really dramatic SCRs, usually the breakup involves not only miscommunication but a really huge piece missing information that makes the betrayal seem so much worse for one party than for the other, for example. So, I don’t really know where I’m going with this because I can’t spoil it because it’s the big dramatic reveal! 

Erin: I think what you talked about in terms of what you enjoyed, I probably would not have enjoyed as much because one of the things I really struggle with in this trope is that missing piece of information that, now that we’ve had a conversation about it, we can understand each other better. And maybe it took 10 years for us to mature enough to have this conversation. I get that intellectually about people, but I think my other problem with this trope, based on what you have described, is that, if you think this person is your one true love, but you couldn’t take the time to sit down and talk through this problem, I’m not sure you deserve a second chance!

Holly: Come on!

Erin: No, no! That’s what gets me. I bet that both of those books you read were wonderfully well executed, and I bet I still would have disliked them, even being able to say that these books were well written. 

Holly: Can we pause so I can tell you what happens?

[Pause to discuss major plot points of Dev book.]

Erin: So, Holly just described what happened in Recipe for Persuasion, and that’s something that I think I would accept, honestly, as something that’s coming from an emotional place that’s pretty messed up. 

Holly: Well that’s the thing! A lot of them involve a conflict around something really messy or deeply emotional, like cheating or baby related or death in the family or – going with your romantic suspense thing, you’re being hunted by the mafia. Right? There are a lot of reasons you couldn’t have the conversation then but you can have it now. 

Erin: Yeah, so both of the SCRs that I read recently — in the one case was the Rushdan, which was suspense, and basically the reason they didn’t see each other is because he faked his death because he was being chased by the mob because of a mistake that she made, but there were extenuating circumstances, in combination with her having made some bad decisions. But then the second one was the Sarah MacLean, the final book in her Bareknuckle Bastards trilogy, which came out at the end of last month, and is essentially a SCR. But I think the reason that I bought that one is because, yes there’s a piece of information missing, but you as the reader knew it was missing from the beginning. And it’s very easy to understand why the hero made the choices he made, because without having done so, he would not have succeeded in achieving his goals, which in this case were to save the people he cared about. So they think he’s trying to kill them, and they’ve been hiding from him for 20 years — but then I’m also like, BUT IT’S BEEN 20 YEARS! And in this case they were like, 15 or 13 or whatever, so okay fine, they’re not super old, but at the same time it’s like, what a waste of 20 years! You know?

Holly: Well okay, so then part of it is that there’s all this time in between that they could have talked after three years and had all this love time together.


Holly: But, you know, you have other life experiences. Even if you’re pining after the one who got away, you’re not spending every minute of every day thinking about this person. You can have a good life, and then still have – like, love is all the sweeter for having waited for it. But Erin, I think the key point for me is about the dramatic arc. I think the trope lends itself to a really well-constructed story. And it’s like, we were separated for Reasons, some in our control and some not in our control, and after many intervening years we’ve come back together and we’ve realized that there’s still a chance for us to be happy. We don’t have to continue to be separated. I don’t know, I think it’s just satisfying. 

Ingrid: What I’m hearing is that Erin thinks that this particular trope can naturally create some pretty huge plot holes that can be difficult to overcome in order to get a satisfying ending. But what I’m hearing from Holly is that, in fact, the messiness of the separation lends itself to an even more satisfying conclusion when they are able to overcome their issues. 

Holly: I would agree with that assessment, with the caveat that I acknowledge that if it’s done lazily it would not be satisfying. 

Ingrid: I hear that. And also I think the main takeaway here is that, if you do marry an [Erin’s husband] after meeting him at 15, this will be a difficult trope for you. 

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