Today, I’d like to unpack a certain spin on the single parent trope that I’ve noticed in quite a few recent contemporary romances: where the single parent is not the father, but the Hunky Uncle. (Henceforth “Hunkle”™.*)
Here’s the deal with the Hunkle: his sibling (usually his sister) has tragically died, and he suddenly finds himself forced to ditch his bachelor lifestyle and become the guardian to one or more precious moppets. He struggles in balancing the needs of his new life. He doesn’t know how to be a parent! What will he dooooooo? Examples include: Tools of Engagement, Learned Reactions, The Twelve Dogs of Christmas, and The Story Between Us. There is also the much more rare Hunky Brother (A Princess for Christmas) and the even more rare Hunky Aunt (Big Boy), but we’ll stick with the Hunkle for now.**
Focusing on a Hunkle protagonist shifts the tenor of a single parent book in very specific ways:
- There’s no Other Woman
Result: Hunkles conveniently mean that there’s no competition for the Love Interest. No spurned first wife waiting in the corner to cause drama. No saintly dead wife who was way better with the kids than a step-mom ever could be. In fact, if the Hunkle has an ex, she left when the Hunkle took over guardianship, because she couldn’t deal with the change in his life, and is therefore a *bad person who hates kids*—no competition for the Love Interest, who is definitely good with kids and loves them and would never, ever leave if the going got tough.
The Other Woman haunting these stories is more frequently the saintly dead sister, who was a perfect mom, and whose example the Hunkle can’t live up to. Which brings me to…
- The Hunkle is unsure of his abilities as a parent
Result: A significant portion of the relationship arc is the Love Interest reassuring the Hunkle that he is, in fact, a good dad. The Hunkle may go so far as to consider relinquishing guardianship of the child to a different (female) relative, so there must be a scene where he is reassured that his saintly dead sister chose him for a reason.
Because the Hunkle is insecure about his new role as a parent, these books may also include the Love Interest stepping in to help because the Hunkle doesn’t actually know what’s up. Think scenes of the Love Interest redecorating the kid’s room, braiding the kid’s hair, or actually talking to the kid about their dead parents.
- The Orphan Child is processing a traumatic life change
Result: Frequently, the romance happens shortly after the Hunkle gains guardianship, and is still finding his feet. The Orphan Child has been recently orphaned. They are grieving for absent parents. They are adjusting to a new home, a new guardian, a new set of rules. This means that the child’s well-being plays a much larger role in the story than it usually does in single-parent romances.
All of these factors combined result in a very specific kind of single parent book.*** The heroic Hunkle is both extra-sexy (bachelor lifestyle, heyo!) and sexless (he definitely never procreated!). The Love Interest’s relationship with the child takes on outsized importance. There’s a different kind of fantasy for a built-in family here, one where you aren’t replacing a dead or absent mother, but rather building a new family from scratch, without the pesky bother of pregnancy, childbirth, or the chronic sleep-deprivation of caring for an infant.****
Since I’ve only seriously started tracking the patterns in romantic fiction in the past few years—ie, since starting the blog with Erin and Ingrid and having smut take over my life—I cannot comment on whether this is a new trend, or an ongoing one that I just happened to notice because I read a whole slew of Hunkle books over the course of six months.
Fellow smut readers, tell me your thoughts! Is this a new trend? Was I just not paying attention? Is there something else going on with all these Hunkles that I missed?
*My husband insisted that I give him co-author credit for coming up with that portmanteau. Instead, he gets an asterisk. Thanks, husband!
**The gender dynamics of mom-centered single-parent books and dad-centered single-parent is a whole other topic that I may or may not discuss in the future.
***In many ways, Hunkle books are very similar to Governess books, where the father (or sometimes, random guardian) is frequently trying to figure out what parenthood looks like in a way that many single parents in contemporary romance are not.
****Of course, many Hunkle books end with an epilogue that sees the Love Interest pregnant, because we have to further bind this family together with procreation.