The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

What Makes a Romance? Gray Area Books

Last month, as part of our “What Makes a Romance” series, we talked about three books that were indisputably romances and what made them work so well, despite using a range of narrative techniques to tell the stories.

This month, we want to dig in to a few “gray area” romances. In other words, these books are ones that some readers say, “oh yes, definitely a romance” and others say, “nah, that was not really a romance.” These books may more accurately be termed “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” or…some other genre. As with the books we discussed last month, we narrowed down the selection for this month’s discussion by including books that at least two of us have read. (And remembered enough to discuss.)

Before we dive in, a reminder. Our goal in this series is not to police the boundaries of the genre, but rather to explore those boundaries.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)

The Details:

Outlander is perhaps the most famous of all time travel romances. Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, our plucky, eternally competent narrator, is a nurse who, after World War II, goes on a belated honeymoon with her husband…only to mysteriously end up in 18th century Scotland. She ends up married to Jamie for reasons that are not really important right now, and the two have many adventures together. After spending approximately 800 pages trying to figure out how to get the standing stones to send her back to the 20th century, Claire decides that her love for Jamie actually transcends time and modern medicine, and decides to remain in the 18th century with him. 

Why is this book a gray area romance? 

From the description, this seems like a pretty straightforward romance, does it not? It even won a RITA for Best Romance in 1992. And to go back to Ingrid’s definition of what makes a good romance, yes, Claire and Jamie do struggle separately and together to reach their moment of happiness.

Well, the first thing to know is that Outlander is the first book in a 9 book (SO FAR) series, and, as a corollary, that Gabaldon loves to torture poor Claire and Jamie. While they might have true love together, the larger story is not very interested in the couple’s HEA, but rather in all the things that happen as their lives continue. The love might be real, but the moments of happiness are fleeting. This means that, on a structural level, the book (and especially its sequels) is constructed differently than you generally see in a genre romance. If the first book stood alone as its own book, it could be considered a romance (because the plot revolves around Claire and Jamie’s struggles as they fall in love with each other) but the subsequent books evolve into all kinds of struggles and conflicts that are only tangentially related to Claire and Jamie’s inner relationship. And those books can’t really be considered “romance novels”.

Another key piece of this is marketing: Diana Gabaldon herself does not describe her books as romances. 

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall (2021)

The Details:

Rosaline Palmer enters a televised baking contest that is definitely not The Great British Bake Off. And starts shagging one of her competitors. Except then it turns out he’s kind of a jerk? And that other competitor, who she thought was a dumb meathead, is actually pretty awesome. 

Why is this book a gray area romance?

Since we discussed a different book by Alexis Hall last month, we know that he can write a killer romance—but this one got some pushback from romance readers, who declared that it wasn’t “really” a romance. (Holly raged about that a bit in her review.) So what made this one hit differently?

Perhaps it’s the bait-and-switch love triangle. Rosaline and Alain have a total meet-cute, such that a reader might be legitimately worried that Rosaline might end up with him. Perhaps it’s the fact that Rosaline and Harry spend most of the book slowly becoming friends, but there’s not actually a lot of relationship between them. If we go back to Ingrid’s rubric, there’s not a lot of struggling together, or even a common obstacle that they are facing. Which brings us to the final perhaps: perhaps it’s the fact that this story is really about Rosaline Palmer’s journey as she deals with a lot of internalized baggage about the worth of people (including herself).

Kulti by Mariana Zapata (2015)

The Details: Sal Casillas is a professional soccer player who comes into a new season with her former childhood crush, retired soccer superstar Reiner Kulti, signed on as her new assistant coach. Kulti starts out as a pretty self-absorbed a-hole, eventually leading the usually glass-half-full Sal to all but cuss him out on the field, but after they get things sorted out, they become extremely close (if complicated) friends. 

Why is this book a gray area romance?

Look, Ingrid and Erin both consider this to be a romance, and they agree gray areas can see themselves out. But there are a few things going on here that might lead readers to consider this women’s fiction rather than a genre romance. First, it’s a single 1st POV told entirely from Sal’s viewpoint, and the limitations of the single first narration apply. Plus, Sal is heavily focused on her career, not just on her burgeoning friendship with her coach. In fact, it takes a very long time for any substantive interaction between them to even occur. Second, Kulti is slowly revealed, so he is a round and dynamic character, but not in a significant way—we don’t get much in the way of Kulti’s feelings about Sal or their relationship. And third, the book is approaching 600 pages long, and the burn is extremely slow with only the barest of hints ratcheting up the simmer until it suddenly boils over after the 85% mark. 

Taken on its own, it would be easy to look at Sal’s struggle to value herself enough to pursue the career she deserves as the overarching narrative of this story, with the romantic subplot being the impetus for her to evaluate her situation more closely. If we consider this with Ingrid’s metric in mind, however, both Sal and Kulti undergo significant change and growth both separately and together as they slowly develop into grudging colleagues, then friends, then best friends, then…a panty melting power couple. 

Girls Weekend by C.M. Nascosta (2021)

The Details:

Three women with varying degrees of friendship ties go on a weekend getaway to an Orc nudist resort, and two of them manage to find romance along the way. It’s important to note in this case that all three women are granted relatively similar page-space, so there’s not one overarching romance with additional romantic narrative threads. And for the most part, even though the book is titled Girls Weekend, the story doesn’t focus on the women’s friendships as we are often likely to find in women’s fiction.

Why is this book a gray area romance?

In the first place, it’s not aggressively marketed as romance. The blurb definitely includes romance lingo, and an added note on the blurb in the Amazon ebook page states that the book is monster romance that will end with HEAs all around by the end of the series, but the blurb also clearly states that the story is about three friends heading out for a weekend of hedonism, with no mention of romantic partners other than a brief quip about no-strings sex ending in love. 

Secondly, there are three separate storylines that run almost entirely parallel, and in a 200 page book that doesn’t provide a lot of time for three sets of MCs to have three complete narrative arcs. In a romance duology or trilogy, there’s often a cliffhanger that leaves the relationship unresolved, and that’s not exactly what we get here. In the one case, the relationship definitely ends with a solid HFN. In another, there’s no relationship at all. And in the third, the relationship does end without much resolution one way or the other. Ambiguous (maybe happy?) endings aren’t really something commonly done in romance novels.

The common theme in books that fall into a gray area is that it’s not always readily apparent that all of the protagonists are struggling to overcome obstacles separately and together. Many of the books that occupy this gray area space are single POV, and that’s likely because the quibble over the designation of the romantic thread being a central element of the story can occur more easily when the non-POV protagonist(s) don’t have an opportunity to share their own fears and motivations as the story progresses; however, that’s not the only reason that we tend to shunt books into a “romance adjacent” category. 

As we move into the next few months of this series, we’ll delve deeper into the ways that the structure and components of a narrative or relationship impact a reader’s perception of whether or not it is considered a genre romance.

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