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Back to Old School: It Was Contemporary Week

Night Whispers by Judith McNaught (1998)

Heat Factor: No foreplay.

Character Chemistry: Sex so good you’ll forget all of your police training. (But they’re definitely gonna get divorced.)

Plot: Cop goes undercover to investigate her estranged family.

Overall: That’s a nope.


versus


Sea Swept by Nora Roberts (1998)

Heat Factor: Fighting is foreplay.

Character Chemistry: Sex so good you’ll forget the ethics of your very sensitive job.

Plot: Three brothers have to honor their father’s last wish by rearranging their lives and taking care of their newly adopted ten-year-old brother. And the social worker is really hot.

Overall: Rough seas ahead.


What’s one key piece of information you think a reader should know before getting Night Whispers?

Erin: It’s very 90s. And it has quite a bit of objectionable framing and content from a modern viewpoint. Also the most interesting stuff is in the last third. Why are there so many words in this book?

Holly: Structurally it’s kinda weird. You don’t meet the hero until 30% in, it’s marketed as a police thriller but there’s no policing until 70% in. You think we’re opening with a villain POV but actually that creepy POV is not a villain but rather the heroine’s future work partner. And that’s not a spoiler, you find that out in chapter five. So the TL;DR here is that I had no idea what was going on at any point in this story whatsoever.

Ingrid: It was so bad. If you want to feel anywhere between mildly to majorly offended just observing the happenings of a book then this is the book for you. It’s just gross all the time. It’s bananas but not in a fun way. It’s like getting stuck on a merry-go-round with no hot dog for two hours. When I finished, I was 100% committed to this couple getting divorced.


What’s one key piece of information you think a reader should know before getting Sea Swept?

Ingrid: I didn’t actually finish this one, but I hated this one too. I am…let me verify…too far—more than halfway through—and Cam is a disgusting creep who is a borderline terrible person, and I don’t want him to have a HEA. I don’t. He’s a leech. Literally all he cares about is getting what he wants from other people. 

AND! YOU CAN’T SLEEP WITH YOUR SOCIAL WORKER! That’s how gross Cam is, that I didn’t lead with this bit of information. And the social worker is like, “We shouldn’t do this,” but she does it anyway. Do you like your job? The moment when the kid falls off the roof and she gets offended when the men close ranks, that’s not a them problem, that’s a her problem. She has muddied the lines so much that she feels uncomfortable and that means she’s put herself in a bad situation.

Erin: See, Holly, this is the problem with the argument at the end!

Ingrid: If the argument was because she got fired for fucking up her job and putting a child at risk, then I’d buy it—but I also wouldn’t want her to have a HEA.

Erin: So my key piece of information is this is also very 90s? But in a slightly different way. And it’s also more focused on the through-line mystery of the entire trilogy than on just Cam and Anna’s relationship, which is extremely messy and crosses many boundaries as Ingrid has already described. And it romanticizes small town waterman life.

Holly: Small town waterman life is dead and/or dying, and since we’re familiar with the Chesapeake region I feel that we can say that. What I would say about this book is that this is much more Cam’s story than Anna’s story. This is a hero-centric romance, which differs from Night Whispers, which is a heroine-centered romance. And, man…the whole first half of this book was very slow for me. It was very hard to get through.


What is the influence of bodice rippers? How do these books fit in the romance landscape of the other books we’ve read this month?

Holly: I think one thing we can see, and I’ve had this experience reading other Nora Roberts books—is that I struggle more with older contemporaries than I do with older historicals. It really highlights the changes in how we think about relationships and sex and just general cultural mores. In historicals it’s like a fantasy, and in contemporaries there’s this veneer of reality that makes it a bit eyebrow raising.

Erin: I 100% agree with you, but I think it’s more than that. I think that the actual text that’s included, like the dialogue between the characters, the descriptions of what the characters expect out of their lives, are presented differently. Yes, in historicals we also see changes over time, but what we see is still rooted in ideas of what we think would have been possible. Like…there was some birth control in histrom times, but you wouldn’t expect your historical romance characters to opt for a child-free life because the available prophylactics were not as good or as available as they are now. (Edit to add: Slash also inheritance is a big deal in a lot of histrom.)

So, for example, there’s a scene in the opening of Night Whispers where Sloane is all gooey over babies that was striking, in part because you wouldn’t see that in a historical romance because babies are treated as more a fact of life. Or later in the very same scene it’s made clear that Sloane’s bestie, Sara, is always on the hunt for a husband, including finding a husband for Sloane, because she can’t imagine why Sloane wouldn’t want the same things as she does, and the way it’s presented is not something you’d see in a historical romance, even if two women were talking about their marital prospects. 

Ingrid: I think the main connection I’m seeing between these books and bodice rippers is it seems like with these contemporaries, the authors were like, “You know what women like about bodice rippers? Men who aren’t nice to them.” And that’s what we’re seeing, it’s just understood that that’s the way men are. There’s not any redemption in these books—the bad behavior is excused in the text. I feel like the overarching thing about these guys is that they’re damaged and they’re men, so that’s ok and that’s it.

Erin: So, Cam’s character arc is a growth arc. And in the end he does take on and acknowledge that the life he was living is no longer the life he wants…

Holly: I need to interrupt you here. He does acknowledge that he doesn’t want to be a professional racer anymore. But he doesn’t man up and learn how to mop the floor. 

Ingrid: Even the dad ghost is like, “We don’t disrespect caring for the home.” but it’s glossed over. If we’re following the three-act form, when some of the growth happens too late in the book it’s too late. I already don’t like this guy. And the mistake here is that so much of his energy is about his relationship with Seth and we’re supposed to just love him for trying with this kid that he’s already committed to, so there’s not as much focus on his own growth or his growth with Anna. Which is why I don’t think it’s a successful romance novel.

Erin: A-HEM. Since you guys both kindly interrupted me, I did not get an opportunity to finish my thought. Which is that, in several ways these do track with bodice rippers, for all these reasons that you’re stating. That is: men are men, and they do men things. Women are women, and they do women things. So there’s a lot of just gender role stuff happening here which is just icky. But I found it more striking in these books because it’s excusing a lot of the behaviors that we and the two generations before us have spent so much time trying to deconstruct. Like, say, using policeman instead of police officer. Or accepting that obviously these bachelors don’t know how to do laundry. There’s a lot of almost reinforcement of gender roles and stereotypes, and it feels more pronounced in these contemporaries than in the historical romances. But regardless of historical or contemporary, I think these old school books connect heavily to the idea of these gender roles existing at all.

Holly: Going back to the bodice ripper question, I think what we’ve said about the heroes is absolutely right, and these heroes would be just fine if we threw them back about 200 years, they’d just have different clothes. 

I think what we’re seeing is a shift in what the heroines are allowed to be doing. Sloane still feels like a goody goody innocent virginal woman, but Anna is not like that. She knows she’s sexy, and she dresses in a certain way when she wants to go out at night because she wants to be sexy in that role, and she has sex and goes after what she wants. And we don’t have to call her a loose woman for that.

Ingrid: I was absolutely floored that McNaught went out of her way to make Sloane seem virginal, even though she’s not. And the hero gets off on her being bad in bed because of her inexperience. This is why it’s gonna end in divorce, because he likes her for things that are going to change because she’s going to get more experienced in bed. There’s no foreplay. He’s literally just taking his pleasure—it’s about what he’s getting from her, it’s not about them coming together. It tracks in historical romance, but in a contemporary it’s off-putting.


Let’s talk about sexuality and purity (and how the sex is written).

Holly: So. We’re talking about Sloane, right? Who’s only had two other partners; she’s thirty. And she says, explicitly, that she’s just built differently than other girls because she’s just not into guys like other girls are. She never understood girls having crushes. And if we read her in modern books, something published in 2022, we’d be reading her as asexual or demisexual. But in a Judith McNaught, we’re reading her as being pure—that she’s so pure she can’t get turned on by just anyone. It has to be her one true love, someone very special.

Erin: Yeah, that’s exactly true, and it’s even more striking because if she were actually written as demisexual, she would not be immediately attracted to Noah. So it’s the combination of the notion of purity and saving herself even unknowingly for The One and knowing The One immediately. In the beginning she talks about Jess as having all the qualities she’d want in a partner and father, but he’s too desirable to other women and that’s what’s not okay with her. But really, how is Noah any different? He’s an incredibly attractive billionaire, who just doesn’t want to get married or have babies. Both men are attractive to other people, but she doesn’t even acknowledge that that’s the case—it’s a problem when it’s Jess, but it doesn’t even cross her mind with Noah.

Holly: In that scene at the beginning that you mentioned, Erin, when Sloane is going all gooey over the babies, she thinks, “But I don’t really want a partner” and doesn’t really understand what the desire of her friends is all about and doesn’t get why Jess keeps asking her out… I was wondering if Jess was going to be the love interest and it was going to be like a friends to lovers. Her characterization was weird. And it made me kind of want to go back and read the Judith McNaught historicals to see if the heroines were similar, but then I realized I didn’t actually want to do that. 

Erin: I do think McNaught heroines are largely similar with respect to being placed in a situation that they have to navigate their way out of blindly and being pure of heart and all other body parts. Even though Sloane was 30, she read like a 21 year old. She’s supposed to be a bad-ass experienced detective and she seemed like…shockingly inexperienced for a woman who has been living on her own and taking care of her mother since childhood.

Ingrid: There were two things. The thing with Sloane was interesting because it wasn’t just Jess it was also Paul-the-FBI-agent. So there were three men and THE MAN was Noah. I just find it…the author just makes Sloane seem so small and silly. She’s bought her own house and she has a career—she’s one person when she’s on her own two feet, and she’s a helpless weakling when she’s with Noah. At the end it seems like she’s given up her career as well. So Noah has this magic peen that’s made her give up her entire identity. So with Jess and Paul, she’s just not into them, but then with Noah she fights it for a second and then throws away her entire life for him. So we talk about the magic body parts and this is another case of that. 

I don’t know about the other book because I didn’t finish it, but Anna has a calling in her career. She’s very invested in it, and it’s easy for her. And yet she jeopardizes it for the magic sex with Cam. They forget who they are as people and it’s very weird.

Erin: So Holly, since you asked this question, if we’re going to compare and contrast, how does Anna fit in?

Holly: I don’t disagree that her decisions around her career are extremely suspect. But. Anna is a lot more aware of what she’s doing—she doesn’t come across as naive or that she’s throwing her personality away or what she cares about. I mean, her backstory is that she was raped, she had a destructive cycle for a few years. You could read this as trauma leads to sexual promiscuity. 

Erin: But she’s not really written that way.

Holly: She’s not really written that way. You COULD read it that way, but I don’t think that’s what Roberts is doing here. Anna’s a compartmentalizer—there’s the practical hardworking powersuit part of her, and there’s the sexy stiletto wearing part of her, and her relationship with Cam is meant to bring them together in harmony, somehow.

Erin: She is similar to Sloane though in that one of the first things we get from her is how much she wants her little house and her little family in a little town where she can have her idealized life. So even though we get more sex positivity from her character, her goodness (read: purity) is established early on. She’s a social worker AND she wants a very normal heteronormative life. So the fact that she’s dating around and having sex is part of her trying to get that life, it’s not just dating around and having sex for fun.

Holly: Right and that is very explicit at the end of the book. She and Cam have their last fight, and she runs away and then comes back, and Cam finds her getting ready for a date, and she’s stating that he’s not going to give her what she needs and wants so she’s going to keep dating to find someone who will give that to her. 

Erin: The sex writing in these was, I felt, pretty similar, and it was also somewhat different from what we get in modern romance. It was very abbreviated. They get started and then the door kinda closes but not really. It’s like halfway between purple prose and explicit.

Holly: I thought the Nora Roberts was a lot more explicit than some of the others we’ve read. 

Erin: NO WAY. 

Holly: Maybe it was just that line I sent you guys: “There was the good, healthy sound of damp flesh slapping against damp flesh.”

Erin: In terms of the books we’ve read just for this, Captured was more explicit, but it was published in 2009. But even Devil’s Bride, which was published the same year as these two, was more explicit in terms of descriptiveness. I would say the Roberts was less purple than the McNaught, but I’m thinking about what’s going on with these books in terms of where they fit in in time. They’re definitely romance novels but they’re more focused on other stuff that’s happening than the romance. When we get to the explicit sex, it has to be there because otherwise it’s “not a romance novel,” but the sex isn’t about emotional development and it’s not about titilation (for us) because we read much sexier stuff. So what’s it doing? I guess we can discuss sex in romance novels over time in our Great Smut Debate post for next month…


Are these heroes Hero Material?

Ingrid: Gross.

Erin: We already talked about them. Let’s talk about them some more. Are they sexy?

Ingrid: NO! Even in the historical bodice rippers, there are the out of nowhere, no-touch orgasms, but at least there’s some foreplay. It sounds like there was a little bit of foreplay in Sea Swept, but it seemed like terrible sex for Sloane. TERRIBLE! And when they’re making out on the lawn chair and they flop over, I knew that there was going to be terrible sex. We’ve got Noah who’s unrepentantly awful to people and very self-centered. This is the guy who runs background checks on EVERYBODY but not her…GOOGLE HER!

Holly: There’s no Google.

Ingrid: THEY HAVE INTERNET! 

Holly: It’s true that she was just on the news for being a cop hero.

Ingrid: And they live an hour apart from each other! It’s not like she was on the local news in a different state! And it didn’t occur to him to look into what kinds of interior design she’s done?!?! It just illustrates how selfish Noah is. It would have taken almost no effort to have poked holes in this stupid alibi, but he didn’t even try. 

And then CAM! In the very beginning he pushes a naked woman out into the hallway! He’s just a gross human being.

Holly: So, I want to bring something up about Noah. The book never says that he’s NOT running cocaine. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he IS running cocaine, even though he’s exonerated by the other characters. But we never find out exactly what his business is. And maybe this whole thing is that, since he got searched by the FBI and got his apology and is married to Sloane, he has his perfect cover. Seriously, what else is his business where he goes to Venezuela in his giant yacht with his fucking guns if he’s not doing something shady and drug related? That’s what I want to know!!

Erin: I thought that the big falling out was going to be something to do with his illegal dealings. But then there’s a murder!

Holly: The big falling out IS about his dealings!! The murder is incidental.

Ingrid: They never explain why his business is so fucking shady. If it looks shady and it walks shady, then it’s shady. 

Erin: I think if we’re reading through a 1998 lens and thinking about what has been attractive (?) in heroes up to this point, these guys are not far off the mark. Ingrid isn’t wrong, I wasn’t impressed with either one of these guys, but they definitely fall into a sexy womanizer who gets tamed archetype. 

Ingrid: Barely. They don’t get tamed. 

Erin: They both succumb to their women.

Ingrid: Marriage doesn’t mean tamed. Marriage means marriage.

Erin: How is that different from Devil Cynster?

Ingrid: Devil dotes on Honoria. These guys are just dicks.

Erin: I do think the historical hits different.

Ingrid: You’re right.

Holly: I think we just need to read more contemporaries from the 90’s.

Ingrid: NO! Yuck!


Headhopping

Erin: This has been a characteristic of all the books we read this month except Captured. I had expected these books to be structured slightly differently than newer books in that the authors would use headhopping / roving POV and not necessarily in a structured way. The POV goes to whichever character it needs to be on to express the thought that needs to be expressed, and there are no separators (or the separators don’t align with the change in POV). The argument for modern books is that this “disorganization” makes them harder to read. I didn’t find these books particularly difficult to read, from that context. We’re currently (like right now in time) at a point where we’re labeling 3d person POV at the top of a chapter, which is completely unnecessary, and these books are like, “WHATEVER! IT doesn’t matter!”

Holly: I thought the headhopping was especially jumpy in these books. And The Bride. Sure, the other books had it, but we were doing a lot of hopping in the books this week. Sometimes to the point that I had to reread some paragraphs to figure out who’s POV we were in. 

From a storytelling perspective… We’ve established that these two books are more interested in other parts of the story than just the romance, and the headhopping emphasizes that, which makes these stories much bigger. Modern romance is narrower because it’s usually emphasizing the relationship between two people. In this case, the headhopping is not to serve the romantic relationship necessarily. We’re not jumping into someone else’s head to get their perspective of what’s going on between Cam and Anna, we’re jumping into these other guys’ heads to get their perspectives of what’s going on as they Three-Men-and-a-Baby it.

Ingrid: One piece of textual evidence that supports that is if we look at Night Whispers. One scene that we get that ups the tension is when we’re in the POV of the other police officers as they talk about arresting Sloane. We normally would say that distracts from the relationship between Noah and Sloane, but in this case it draws out the moment of waiting for the other shoe to drop as Sloane is in jeopardy, and it ramps up the tension as we see that Sloane’s cover is about to be blown. 


Would you recommend Night Whispers to a modern audience?

Ingrid: NO. It was clunky, not pleasant to read, I didn’t like the characters, and I’m pretty sure they’re gonna get divorced. 

Holly: So I thought Night Whispers was kind of interesting. For me it was just so unusual from a structural perspective that I was really interested in the story. I wouldn’t say the characters were likable, but I wanted to know what was going to happen. Though I have to admit I was a little disappointed by the number of loose threads at the end. Would I recommend it? I think if you’re interested in the development of romance novels, that this is an interesting piece. People who are interested in romance history, I would recommend it.

Erin: Full disclosure. I technically didn’t finish it. Do I want to? Kinda, yeah. The last third actually became more engaging. I agree with both of you—I agree with Holly that if people are interested in a snapshot of 90’s police procedural romantic suspense, it’s definitely interesting to see what’s going on. On the other hand, I was like, really grossed out by stuff that was happening. But that’s also my modern sensibilities. I was thinking about this as I read, and I think I would forgive a category romance published in ‘98 more than I forgave in this book. So that’s a thing to consider.


Would you recommend Sea Swept to a modern audience?

Ingrid: NO. It was clunky, not pleasant to read, I didn’t like the characters, and I’m pretty sure they’re gonna get divorced. On top of that, not sure he should have custody of a child, just sayin’.

Erin: In terms of characterization framing, I liked what was going on in Sea Swept better than what was going on in Night Whispers. I kind of want to know what happens with the whole trilogy, but it was so slow I don’t know if I want to invest that much time in the series. So I guess I would recommend it to people who want to read a 90’s style saga story, but similar to Night Whispers there was a lot of stuff in there that was like, blech. And I had a lot of issues with the personal/professional relationship in there, but is anyone surprised about that?

Holly: Probably not. I did think the ending, the last scene, was pretty great. But there’s a whole lot you have to slog through to get to that payoff. So, if you’re into like, Chesapeake Bay waterman porn, then yeah! Read this book! But overall, no. 


Buy Night Whispers: Amazon | Bookshop

Buy Sea Swept: Amazon | Bookshop

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