Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Bedding the Boss

Books with the Bedding the Boss trope:
The Blundering Billionaire by Chace Verity
Calhoun by Diana Palmer
Seducing the Billionaire by Allie Winters
Luna and the Lie by Mariana Zapata
Pink Slip by Katrina Jackson
Reviews coming this week!

Bottom line: Do you like the bedding the boss trope?

Holly: Don’t tell HR, but I kind of do. 

Erin: I used to really like it, but I think I read too many similarly toned billionaire boss romances last year and now I’m kind of “meh.” But I don’t not like it! I mean, the first book I ever finished writing has this trope.

Holly: And maybe someday, if I bug you enough, you’ll actually publish it! 

(Note to readers: I have to live my romance author dreams vicariously through Erin because the act of writing fiction does not actually bring me joy. Criticism on the other hand…)

Ingrid: I love it. It’s a real weakness.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as bedding the boss trope?

Holly: The protagonists have to work together, and one has to be in a position of power over the other. This frequently plays out in an executive/secretary dynamic, but I would argue that the Governess Trope in historical romance is a subcategory of bedding the boss romance. 

I would further argue that this trope generally comes with some element of explicit power play between the characters as well as a side-helping of angst.

Erin: All of that. In particular I think there needs to be a workplace setting, even if they’re working away from the office, otherwise the tension of the boss/employee power dynamic doesn’t really pull through. 

Oh, also it’s not just the governess trope in histrom. The nanny/parent dynamic in contemporary does this, too!

Ingrid: I agree. Power dynamics, paychecks, and pleasure. HELLO.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It relies on a natural forced proximity that’s really easy to buy. Even if someone hasn’t had an office crush, a platonic work spouse isn’t uncommon because people tend to be social creatures. It also plays with a little taboo, which is scintillating. Sneaking around because we really shouldn’t, but we just can’t stop?! Pining because it’ll never happen and then it does?! Yum, yum, yum.

Holly: When done well, the tension is just delicious. I think I prefer historical romance because there is often a built-in societal pressure keeping the characters apart, and often, in contemporary romance, there isn’t really a reason for the characters not to be together, so the characters fabricate one. But office romances don’t have that problem! They are just chock full of real social reasons that characters can’t be together and I am all about it. 

Ingrid: I feel like all of the above is true. You’re stuck with this person and you’re dependent on your work for whatever reason…the stakes are high and so is the tension.

What do you find problematic about the trope? 

Holly: So here’s the thing. All of these secretaries are ingenues who learn so much about the *real world* from their hot older executive bosses, but in my experience, if you want shit done, you talk to the secretary. Secretaries are the ones that actually keep everything running smoothly. Probably more hot executives should learn about the *real world* from their middle-aged secretaries who manage everything with an iron fist. Where’s my romance about that dynamic?

NOTE: I don’t actually want to read that romance, not because I’m not into older-woman romance, or competent female characters, but these bad-ass women deserve better than the man babies they take care of at work all day. (See for example: Two Weeks Notice.) 

Erin: I used to be a manager at a law firm, so I get super hung up on some HR nightmare scenarios. I don’t know why people think lawsuits waiting to happen are sexy. Not all authors thumb their noses at the power dynamics issues central to this trope, but when they do, I start to sweat. 

Also, how often would an admin be like, “Oh, yes, my unreasonable and possibly abusive boss with no boundaries is very good looking so instead of rage quitting I will have sex with them”?

Ingrid: I’m going to throw down and say that this trope has perhaps the most potential to be both the best and worst in show. When it’s done well, it’s just delicious…but when it’s done poorly, it can really get your skin crawling.

Given that this trope frequently features one protagonist in a position of power over the other, do you think that books with this trope do a good job of discussing power dynamics?

Erin: This seems to go three ways. 

1. The power dynamic is largely ignored. In this case it might technically fall under the bedding the boss trope umbrella, but it isn’t true to the tension that the trope is meant to evoke. 

2. The power dynamic is part of what revs the protagonists’ up. I mean this in the context of those CEOs who get off on their assistants being extremely competent and also basically insubordinate. This method ignores real conversations about the power dynamic because it simply uses the dynamic as foreplay while the characters can’t be together.

3. The characters actually process the challenges of the power dynamics in play beyond simply an “HR would be so mad if they found out!” way and negotiate ways to be together that do not compromise their integrity. 

The books that fall in the #3 category are probably the most interesting and thoughtful, but I would argue that the majority of books in this trope fall more in the #2 category.

Holly: Books in category #2 are still really fun to read!

Ingrid: I’m not sure it’s that easy to simplify. Some do, and a lot don’t. I think we’re going to have to watch the genre for a while too, because as a society we have reached this new level of awareness and clarity where I think we can really start to pinpoint where these dynamics aren’t fun to read. I think the genre will come up with sexy ways to rise to the occasion.

Holly: Ingrid makes a good point—I too am curious to see how this trope morphs as the labor force continues to change and evolve. 

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: I take it back, I freaking LOVE this trope. I started going through my read books list to find one for this question and I found so many that delighted and entertained me.

So the most recent read that just totally made me have all the little feels was Thorned Heart by Eden Finley. Band manager has been secretly in love with lead guitarist for two years. Novella. Totally worked for me.

BUT while I have plenty of books tagged as “Bedding the Boss” on my list, I would argue that the ones that really work the best with this trope include the prospect of bedding the boss being a point of conflict or secrecy in the romance. Bypassing that makes the trope fall a bit flat. So if you’re looking for that bossy tension, Karina Halle nailed it in A Nordic King. If that’s not the driving desire for you, then I can’t recommend Nalini Singh enough, and I’ll suggest Cherish Hard because Sailor and Isa 4ever! 

See me not choosing one book again? Sorry Holly and Ingrid. 

Ingrid: All I can say is By a Thread by Lucy Score. This book is like the winner of the whole dang trope. 

Holly: If you want an excellent histrom example, Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt is excellent. This one is definitely a case of power dynamic #2, where Val, the Sinful Duke, is absolutely revved up by his hyper competent and also insubordinate housekeeper. He’s also a toxic boss, but this book is so fun to read. 

If you’re looking for a bedding the boss romance where the characters thoughtfully navigate the power dynamic inherent in their relationship, Swing Batter Swing by Zaida Polanco is very sexy and very deliberate in how it interrogates power imbalances. 


Books we mentioned in this discussion






Love workplace romances? Absolutely despise them? Have a favorite you think we should read? Let us know in the comments!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Morality Chain

Morality Chain books we’ll be reviewing this week

Bottom line: Do you like the morality chain trope?

Erin: PUT IT IN MY VEINS

Ingrid: I have found that I really did like a lot of books that follow this trope, yes.

Holly: We are having this whole week focusing on morality chain romances because every time Erin is like, “REC ME SOME MORALITY CHAIN!” I’m like “What’s that again? Remind me.” I’ll get back to you after I do my research reading. 

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as morality chain trope?

Erin: Okay, so because these are my jam, I will go first. The basic definition is that protagonist one is the reason that protagonist two is good. It might be like the most extreme version of grumpy/sunshine you can imagine, but I typically think of it more like one is ruthlessly pragmatic and jaded while the other refuses to bend any principles, even when it might be, like, life-saving to do so. 

In a lot of speculative romance (read: sci-fi and fantasy) it’s often waaaaaaay obvious, with a dystopian world and a protagonist who is essentially an emotionless husk, and then the other protagonist who is sensitive and nurturing. Typically these even go so far as to require no emotional change in the amoral character except that the amoral protagonist will not take certain actions because they know it would upset the love interest (please see: Kaleb Krychek). But if we step away from the very clear-cut characterization that we often get in those stories, there’s still room for this trope in other sub-genres. In that case, the trope might not be quite so glaringly obvious, but the basics are the same: ruthless protagonist refuses to see the humanity in themselves or the world around them while the love interest forces the issue. 

I do not consider a book to be morality chain when the amoral protagonist isn’t actually amoral but instead is simply really grumpy or selfish but has a good heart deep down. If the good heart is readily apparent to the reader at the outset, the trope is not morality chain. Also, protagonists who are just jerks (please see: alpha-holes) also do not usually count for morality chain because they usually…stay jerks. 

Ingrid: Yes, so what Erin said. It’s like a darkness and light situation.

Holly: A small addendum: there might be some gender essentialism going on with this trope. The amoral character is almost always male, and the empathetic / humanizing character is almost always female. 

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: If I really dig deep and consider this, the draw for me probably stems from the fact that the amoral protagonist doesn’t actually have to change as such. They simply change their behavior because they have learned that their actions have more impact than just the bottom line. Nalini Singh has some great morality chain stories in which the amoral protagonists don’t change their personalities or understanding of the world much at all, but learn to check themselves. (I already mentioned Kaleb Krychek, who’s in Heart of Obsidian, but also there’s Raphael in Angel’s Blood and Zaira in Shards of Hope.) But also sometimes it’s a charming growth opportunity for the emotionless husk. I’m an equal opportunity morality chain reader. 

Ingrid: I mean, let’s be real here—this is essentially the foil to “you can’t change him!” Right? And we all want to be the exception, so it’s a very satisfying vicarious situation.

Holly: Sometimes the villain is sexier than the hero. Just sayin’. 

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: I mean. I guess it makes assholes sexy. Like, “Ooo, look! The partner had the magic something that finally made that person not terrible! #RelationshipGoals!” Which in real life is not a great mentality, but I do enjoy it in my fiction. 

Ingrid: Well, being the person who is responsible for pulling someone else up out of darkness seems like a pretty dangerous job, and a relationship that’s built on one person being the moral foundation is…likely imbalanced and unhealthy. To say the least. But that doesn’t mean it’s not some good, good reading.

Holly: What Ingrid said. Taming the monster might be fun and sexy, but being someone’s moral compass for years and years and years? Let’s not think about what happens after the story ends. 

Erin: (I usually think of it in terms of the Kaleb Krycheck/Sahara dynamic where at the end of the day she’s like, “You’re so cute, you think you’re bad. I’m not going to play that game because it’s a crock,” which is slightly less bad than “I will keep the darkness at bay for you.” Slightly.)

Let’s talk about this gender essentialism.

Holly: So, Erin sent me a list of morality chain books because I like it when other people do my research for me, and the only one on the list with a female “dark” character was Shards of Hope, which is book eleventy-million in the Psy-Changeling series, so I haven’t read it. So it seems like pretty much all of the people in need of moral guidance are the male main characters. 

And of course, there are lots of tropes that apply to members of one gender more frequently than another, but let’s unpack this a little bit. What it really boils down to are these are stories about women doing outsized levels of emotional labor because the men in their lives are *incapable* of doing so (and in the paranormal romances, they are *genetically* incapable of doing so). 

Erin: This seems to tie in to the question of “what are we reading for?” because y’all make a good point above that in real life the prospect of being a moral anchor for another person is not a healthy relationship dynamic and likely would be exhausting. 

Anyway, Holly sent me this absolutely hilarious review of Shards of Hope, and TL;DR the reviewer hated Zaira. I went back and checked to see if the same reviewer had rated Heart of Obsidian, and – Hello! – she loved Kaleb. Both books are by Nalini Singh, who has a really consistent writing style, both are morality chain with Psy protagonists who have no moral anchor except their one emotional connection. It’s been a while since I read them, but I think the only big differences from a characterization standpoint are that Kaleb is more broody/angsty and a man, while Zaira is angry/angsty and a woman. (And Kaleb did get built up for 10 books first, which does matter, but let’s just say for the sake of argument…) 

Having a woman protagonist as the amoral character in this trope seems to run into the “unlikeable heroine” problem, and if readers are trying to tap into a pleasure center with a story about a woman who can tame a man, it makes sense that the opposite dynamic wouldn’t be quite as popular or as saleable. Personally, I enjoyed Zaira’s characterization, and I’d like to see more stories that play with this trope (like some queer rep would be fun, yes?), but I also wonder if the writers who would play with it also maybe don’t care for the trope because it involves the emotional and power dynamics issues discussed above.

Ingrid: I agree with Erin, in that I feel like from a societal standpoint we tend to accommodate or even celebrate masculine characters lacking a moral anchor but when it’s a feminine one they become more unlikeable. Which, is like the literary equivalent of “you should smile more” and we should cut that crap right on out of here.

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: Ugh this one book thing again. A lot of morality chain books are part of a series (I cannot wait to read Lothaire, but I am being very good and I have to read nine other books first!), which I think makes it challenging to simply throw one out there. For a gentle classic, I’d suggest Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas. Evie is initially so unassuming but refuses to bend on what’s important to her, and St. Vincent is a selfish man-child who only cares about what’s important to him, and there’s a sex deal, and St. Vincent gets the shit kicked out of him by love (to borrow the immortal words of that little kid from Love, Actually)

If we’re cool with possibly committing to a series without committing to 12-20 books, I would totally recommend the Nevada Baylor trilogy from Ilona Andrews’s Hidden Legacy series. In the first book, Burn for Me, Nevada is not totally sure if Connor is, in fact, a sociopath. As the series continues, we get more three-dimensional views of Connor, but in the first book he is totally willing to use his magic however he can to get the most efficient desired outcome. This includes, at one point, dropping a building on a person. The world building is magnificent, and the action is *chef’s kiss.*

Holly: Movies are allowed now, so I’m going with Lady and the Tramp

Erin: I’ve opened a can of worms. 

Ingrid: Well, if we’re going to do that look no further than Dexter. Romance wise…

Holly: No, but seriously, Lady and the Tramp is just a stepping stone for the story that the right woman can tame the bad boy—and that he won’t necessarily stop being bad (so he’s still sexy), but will control his urges to chase chickens or flirt with the other lady dogs because they hurt his partner. 

Addendum: Now that I’ve done my research reading, I also would like to recommend Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt because Valentine Napier is so delightfully villainous and has literally no concept of absolute morality. (I’ll squee some more about this one in a review later this week.) 


Books we mention in our discussion:




Have a favorite morality chain book? Know of any morality chain books featuring queer couples or female main characters in need of redemption? Want to talk about how villains are sexy? Leave us a note in the comments!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Men of God

This week, we’re reading books featuring Men of God, coinciding with the release of Andie J. Christopher’s Hot Under His Collar, which we buddy-read and had a LOT of thoughts about. (Review coming tomorrow!) To get us started, we had a chat about the Man of God archetype in romance, and the kind of work is does.

Book covers for:
Hot Under His Collar by Andie J. Christopher
The Lord I Left by Scarlett Peckham
The Wicked Lady by Mary Lancaster
Hot Rabbi by Aviva Blakeman
The books we’ll be reading this week.

Bottom line: Do you like the Man of God archetype?

Holly: I don’t not like it. 

Erin: You know, I really don’t. Which is not something I expected to say, actually. 

Ingrid: I do not, generally. No.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a Man of God archetype?

Holly: One of the main characters is a professional religious person. Usually, it’s a male main character. (I can think of one single book where the Man of God was a female nun.)

That’s it.

But that’s actually a huge category of people with really different types of relationships to the divine—and different views on and rules about interpersonal relationships. So should we really count Catholic Priest/Nun books, where the archetype is about the taboo and stealing the person away from God, as within the same archetype as Protestant Minister / Jewish Rabbi books, where the main character has a job that’s also a calling, but where relationships are not a big deal? I’m not sure. 

Erin: Holly makes a good point that there’s a slight difference between what’s going on with a protagonist who’s celibate and supposed to be married to God, as it were, and the protagonist who is expected to be more pure than mere mortals but not full blown forbidden fruit. However, for me, it all boils down to the protagonist is fully committed to a religion and there are morality expectations that come into play as part of the conflict. 

I also argue that these characters are usually portrayed as gentle shepherds, not fire and brimstone preachers, with the job being “Man of God” but not really completely tied to the hierarchy and tenets of the religion or denomination in question. 

Ingrid: It’s definitely an Eve with the apple situation…usually.

What do you think is fun about the archetype?

Holly: If you like angst, there is a lot of space for angst in these books. Even in non-Catholic ones, there is usually some dynamic of “I have to behave a certain way because my career is really intrinsically tied to my identity as a good person”—and when the relationship happens, it often pushes against the man of god’s preconceived notion of what his good life would look like. If that’s not angst-inducing, I don’t know what is. 

Erin: I like it when authors push against the commonly held perceptions of who these characters are and what they represent in their greater social circles. (But if I’m being totally honest, they don’t usually go far enough for me to really get excited about them.)

Ingrid: There have absolutely been books where the developing relationship really pushes the characters to examine who they are and strip all the nonsense bare, and that is always more satisfying for me, personally.

What do you find problematic about the archetype?

Holly: I don’t love the dynamic of “I will steal him away from God.” I get it, that makes the love interest extra special, but, like, if you really believe that God is omnipresent, then maybe there’s space in the Man of God’s life for both of you? 

Erin: So… the entirety of this archetype seems to be centered on shame. It’s a good (boy) falling rather than a bad (boy) rising. The archetype is based on the notion that there is something intrinsically morally upright about the MoG character, and the conflict is that what is happening to the MoG character is directly oppositional to the expectation of what should be happening. Maybe it’s straight up sex shaming: “I should not be having these sex feelings because I am a MoG and it is wrong.” Or maybe we’re talking about some super progressive, cool, sunglasses wearing, motorcycle riding MoG man of the people who is still expected to be a pillar of the community leading by example who is thrown off course by a love interest. 

I recently read a book where the MoG had feelings for the owner of the sex shop, and part of the conflict was that she felt like he couldn’t be seen with her because what would the parishoners think. Props to the author for making him be true to himself the whole time, but also 1. this book was absolutely playing to the idea that a pastor could never be into absolutely filthy premarital sex (gasp!) and 2. it ignored the fact that MoG are called to serve and if the leadership of the parish or whatever don’t agree with how the MoG is presenting himself, they can oust him. Bottom line, the archetype is very much centered on external social expectations and the protagonist’s ability or lack thereof to meet them.

Ingrid: I mean, all of the above, really–but I bring it back to the pervasive and constant refrain that women who don’t conform will tempt men away from righteousness, and no matter how you spin it, that seems to be the bubble these books live in. 

Regarding priest and/or nun books specifically, would you say the appeal is centered on the taboo or on the thoughtful transformation of the protagonist’s changing relationship to God / religion? Does it matter if the book is thoughtfully constructed if the desire to read it is centered on the taboo?

Ingrid: Well, it’s impossible to lump all of them into one or the other category I think. And I can say what I prefer here, but ultimately the romance genre is meant to be inclusive and so while I prefer the books to thoughtfully examine the transformation of a protagonist’s relationship with God and faith, I certainly think there’s a readership for people who are really into pushing that taboo or kink, and in that case it really only matters what that reader thinks. We don’t yuck other people’s yums, man.

Erin: This question primarily came up because we buddy read Hot Under His Collar for this week, but I think it might actually be really reader dependent. A few months ago, we three were discussing how our understanding of the genre shifted when we all started reading more romance because when we read so much romance, it’s possible to see what ideas authors are trying to play with more readily than when one only sometimes reads romance. So I feel like an occasional reader might feel it’s super taboo and OMG!!!, and books like Priest tap into that, but also for someone who is more immersed in the content and thinking about it from a more literary standpoint, the taboo might be entirely secondary. 

Would you say that all Men of God protagonists are inhabiting some level of taboo space, or is the taboo aspect limited to priests/nuns or others who have taken a vow of celibacy as part of a religious calling?

Holly: This is an interesting question. I think, given Erin’s point about moral expectations that the MoG shoulders, that I’m going to go with yes, all MoG inhabit some level of taboo space. 

Ingrid: They certainly dribble their toes in water of taboo, I think. At a minimum.

Erin: Maybe it depends on angst level. I can think of some kind of historical (or maybe Amish or something? Heartwarming Harlequin line?, but I’ll be honest, I’ve never actually read one of those) in which the gentle preacher has tender and tame interactions with the shy village maiden, and it’s all very sweet until (WHOOPS!) they’re naked in the field or whatever, and that wouldn’t have the same level of taboo as, like, Fleabag (which is very fun, BTW). Unless you just think sex is taboo in general. Which some people do, I guess.

Is this archetype always paired with a foil? Is one protagonist the Man of God and the other is some level of non-believer?

Holly: Not always! That is absolutely a dynamic that plays out frequently—but in every Catholic priest book I’ve read, the love interest has also been a devout Catholic. That way there’s double the guilt! A non-believer wouldn’t care about pulling the priest away from his vocation. 

Ingrid: Nope, not always. And I will say that I’m waiting to see what rolls out post Priest  because I bet there are some romance authors who read Priest and immediately thought, “hold my beer”, and these authors will be putting out some fresh and interesting takes on this trope in the near future.

Erin: I guess this is also a little bit context dependent. I think the temporal and geographic setting would impact the read. Not that we can’t have historical atheists, but definitely the mental framing caused by the setting changes the expectations for the protagonists’ cultures. But I do feel that, while Holly makes a good point that Catholic/Catholic pairings are double the angst, I have read a few books recently in which the more religious protagonist is somewhat challenged by a love interest who does not hold the same beliefs. I guess it adds to the drama.

What’s one book you loved that features this archetype? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the archetype?

Holly: I know Ingrid is expecting me to recommend Priest (again), just to tweak her, but I’m going to go with A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long. It was the first romance I remember reading that starred a minister (in this case, a proper English vicar), and his moral uprightness was such a breath of fresh air after years of reading nothing but degenerate rakes, as I did from approximately 2000–2012. But also, this is a book about kindness and acceptance and finding the moral high ground not through moralism but through actual morality. 

Erin: I think the best I can do is The Jezebel Files series by Deborah Wilde, which begins with Blood and Ash. Levi isn’t really a Man of God as such, but he’s the leader of the magical community, and that’s directly tied Judiasm, so religion is a focus of the narrative, though Levi’s position is more political than overtly religious. Wilde’s largely secular society was extremely grounded in religious roots, and shifting from a Christian-centric worldview to a Jewish-centric worldview makes religion’s influences on secular life more obvious.

Slash I like The Sound of Music

Holly: Then you should read It Takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian! It’s just like The Sound of Music, but queer.

Ingrid: I love a good Mary Lancaster and she has a very classic historical take on it with The Wicked Lady. 


Books we mentioned in this discussion:

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Austen Retellings

Bottom line: Do you like Austen retellings?

Holly: For some mysterious reason, I became the go-to person for Austen retellings here at TSR, so I’ve read a fair number. (This is ironic to me because Erin and Ingrid introduced me to the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, which was my very first Austen experience.) When they’re good, they’re really fun…but oh boy, are there some bad ones out there. So this one really hinges on the execution.

Erin: I tend to prefer my Austen retellings in A/V format. I think I might have been most delighted to find those Pemberley Digital serialized versions of Emma and P&P on YouTube back in the day. In books, I definitely tend to enjoy the Austen retellings more if they’re not completely invested in the original because a lot of aspects of the period don’t translate well or simply take up space in retellings.

Ingrid: I’m warming up to them. To be honest, I have historically had a bit of a snooty attitude about them? I guess in my head I thought, hey, the original was just fine and messing with it isn’t necessary…but just because it isn’t necessary doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun. (This is what I’m discovering.)

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as an Austen retelling? What makes for a really successful retelling of Austen’s stories?

Holly: So first, the story has to follow the basic beats of the original. It helps if some of the names are similar, so the reader can easily orient herself. (Note: I personally do not count postscript stories—you know, the continued love of Lizzie and Darcy after the wedding, such as in Death Comes to Pemberley—as strict retellings.)

However, there’s a fine line here. The story should be close enough to be recognizable, but not so close as to be a complete retread, only in a different time period or with dragons or whatever. The worst one I’ve read (which I DNFed and didn’t review) lifted whole passages of dialogue from the original, even though we were in the 1950s American South instead of 1800s England, which just didn’t work for me. 

What I think makes for a really successful Austen retelling is a deep understanding of the source material, and then a willingness to throw it away a bit, so we can really get in to these new characters and believe their path to true love is inevitable because of who they are, and not because of who they are based on. 

Erin: I’d say Holly summed it up nicely. (That’s why she’s the Austen retellings person, obvi.)

Ingrid: Holly shoots, Holly scores.

Why do you think Austen retellings are so popular (both as genre romance as literary fiction)?

Erin: Austen is literary women’s fiction romance, right? So the source material is smart and hopeful and not by men. It feels like it belongs to Romancelandia more than the sources of other retellings. Plus she created some great tension in the originals that doesn’t need to be totally reconsidered because the foibles of people are universal. (I’d say let’s just ignore the social commentary aspect of her writing (which is probably more relevant than the romance), but I don’t think we need to because there’s plenty of romance that also engages in social commentary.)

Holly: Speaking to the romance side of things, her books draw on some hugely popular ideas that have become central tropes in genre romance. Enemies to lovers? Check. Friends to lovers? Check. Second chance romance? Check. Uh…I can’t tell you if there’s a trope in Mansfield Park, so let’s stop while I’m ahead. 

Ingrid: I would also suggest that almost everyone I know stumbled across Jane Austen at about the same age or phase of maturity…so there’s this really kind of visceral Austen response people have when they connect with her at just the right time in their lives. I feel like there’s a thread of connection Austen fans share that is really kind of unique.

What do you think is fun about Austen retellings?

Erin: She’s using some really great tropes and characterizations, and those can be tinkered with and played on in ways that are still delightful.

Holly: What Erin said. Plus! Part of the fun of reading a retelling—any retelling—is recognizing the source material, and therefore knowing what to expect, but then still being surprised, and hopefully delighted, by the way the author plays with the story. 

I’ve also been thinking a lot about this thread by Bianca Hernandez-Knight—mostly her point that romance is a way to Austen for some readers. Because also, Austen is a way to romance. Genre romance is in conversation with Austen, and reading them together can open the door to different ways of thinking about love and society and how books can reflect these ideas. 

Ingrid: Austen has just layers upon layers of juicy characters, I absolutely agree. Each supporting character is just BURSTING with potential and backstory, and Austen manages to really pull these characters along for their own just desserts as well, so it’s ripe with possibilities for retellings.

What do you find problematic about Austen retellings?

Holly: Some of the tensions in the originals don’t translate well to contemporary settings—so when authors try to shoehorn a desperate “I must marry off my daughters or face penury” plot into a modern setting, I generally find it a little bit cringeworthy. 

Erin: You know I love me a Darcy, but honestly there might be too many Pride and Prejudice retellings. Collins and Wickham get shoehorned in whether they’re warranted or not, and it’s just boring. 

I think a lot of Austen retellings also want to play with the storytelling but don’t make the effort to interrogate social issues like Austen was doing. 

Ingrid: Any time you take something that just works really well as it is and you try to morph it into something fresh you’re going to be taking a big risk. So there’s that, and there’s also missing all those subtleties that are in the originals. Darcy is iconic because he’s Darcy–which means he’s one way on the surface and then through the cracks of his shell the light kind of comes streaming in until he’s just radiantly dreamy. You can’t just take him and repackage him, you have to really see it and let it unfold. So I think it’s probably really easy to love Austen’s characters but it’s very difficult to take the time to unfold them the way they deserve to be unfolded.

Do you have a favorite Austen story you like to see retold?

Erin: My favorite Austen is Persuasion, which is weird because I don’t love second chance romance, but I think it’s the most romantic of her books. But I’ve never read a Persuasion retelling. So I guess in practice, with my limited options, I’ll have to choose Emma. Knightly is totally my speed.

Holly: Emma is my favorite Austen because it’s so stinking hilarious and I love me a difficult heroine. But I’ve never read an Emma retelling. Does that mean I should pick Persuasion as my favorite, for symmetry? My real answer is: please send me all the recs for Emma retellings, thanks. 

Ingrid: Emma. Second choice would actually be Pride and Prejudice, but only if it’s done RIGHT.

What’s one Austen retelling you loved? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles repackaging the source material in a new and exciting way?

Erin: Holly picked a movie for one of our prior LTT discussions, so that opened the gates and I’m going to pick Clueless. It’s so 90s and really, really ridiculous, but aww. And you can watch it and realize that yes, it is true that Paul Rudd does not appear to age at all. 

Slash also after reading Wulfric Bedwin for 5 books, Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh totally hit the spot.

Holly: Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev. Dev just absolutely nails the balance between telling a recognizable story and making it her own. 

Ingrid: What is the matter with you guys?? You’re completely ignoring the classic, Bridget Jones’s Diary. It is both a stellar book and a phenomenal movie and it has Colin Firth in it. Colin FIRTH. And he COOKS and he SMIRKS. And if you recall, he likes her just the way she is after throwing Hugh Grant across the street. We clearly need to discuss this further.

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Marriage In Trouble

“Why can’t they just freaking talk to each other?! They’re married FFS!”

Is my typical struggle with the Marriage In Trouble trope. 

While this trope seems to be really popular for (particularly married) women my age or a bit older, I personally am on record discussing how second chance romance is not my jam, and I would argue that Marriage In Trouble is a subsection of the second chance trope. Mixed in with a little seducing my spouse, perhaps? It doesn’t really matter. The point is, as with any other second chance romance, I struggle with the Marriage In Trouble because I struggle with the basic problem. Which is to say, I either think the protagonists are having the most absurd fight ever or that they shouldn’t be together at all and what are they even doing?

Isn’t the person* you marry supposed to be the person that you can talk to?

But I keep trying to understand feelings (it’s not an easy thing, so props to those of you who are good at it), and after reading a few marriage in trouble books recently, I realized that, even though one might already have made oneself really vulnerable to and opened up to one’s spouse during the initial courtship period, there are still things that might arise that are just really hard to talk about.** 

Because what if this person that you really really trust not to let you down…lets you down?

Or, I guess conversely, what if you don’t want to raise an issue because you don’t want to admit you’re struggling and let your partner down?

The idea that people can be messy for their whole lives and make some mistakes and still have love and support is a good thing to think about. We can talk plenty about how marriage is long and has ups and downs, but so much of genre romance is centered on the romantic ideal of finding the perfect partner and riding off into the romantic sunset of a happily ever after filled with the life we’ve always dreamed of (plus orgasms) that we often brush off the continuing emotional work that goes into maintaining a relationship. 

So, um. I guess I’m sorry I ever doubted those writers of the Marriage In Trouble. You do good work. Carry on. 


*I’m using singular for clarity and because most polyamorous romances I’ve read don’t get to the point of marriage, but really the argument would be the same for all spouses/life-partners in any kind of relationship.

**I’ll be honest, I was specifically thinking about asking a partner to get some kind of kinky, but I guess there can be other pressure points, too. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯