Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: The One-Sided Courtship

Bottom line: Do you like the One-Sided Courtship trope?

Erin: There are times when it gets icky (like, take no for an answer, dude), but for the most part it is a trope I really do enjoy. 

Holly: I don’t love it. But I don’t hate it either. 

Ingrid: I don’t love it. I also feel like when it works it’s paired with a sub-trope and that’s why it works.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a one-sided courtship trope?

Erin: I usually read this really broadly, so to me a one-sided courtship involves a protagonist pursuing a relationship because of feelings (no relationships-of-convenience allowed!) while the other(s) is/are more standoffish. My favorite instances tend to be the ones where the (hero) has one interaction with the (heroine), decides (she’s) the one, and is all in from the word “go.” Which isn’t necessarily insta-love…usually it’s more like insta-horny, and it takes a while for the love to be acknowledged. But I would also include here stories in which there is insta-love but one protagonist is standoffish while the other is more accepting of the feeling and is more willing to pursue it. 

Holly: I don’t even think it has to involve deep feelings on the part of the pursuer. Maybe the pursuer just wants to date the other person, and the other person has too much stuff going on right now, or thinks that the pursuer isn’t right (too young for me, too hot for me, too…much for me). 

I would also argue that Seducing My Spouse is closely related, or perhaps a sub-trope, of one-sided courtship, and that there is space in a marriage (of convenience or otherwise) for this dynamic to play out. 

Ingrid: I agree with Erin and Holly here…only I would argue that in order for it to not be icky it almost exclusively has to slide into a secondary trope.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: I am simply delighted by a protagonist coming to a realization that they’ve found exactly what they maybe weren’t even aware they were looking for and then cunningly setting about convincing the lover(s) that there’s no just fighting the feelings. Plus I suppose it taps into a fantasy of being desirable enough that someone is bound and determined to pursue oneself, and it’s always nice to be wanted…within reason.

Holly: It can lead to some great tension as the relationship dynamic changes from casual / friendship to romantic interest to love. I especially appreciate when the reluctant character is emotionally invested in the pursuer, but not ready or willing to date for whatever reason, and the slow and persistent courtship therefore becomes a way of learning to trust. 

Ingrid: I mean, deep down there’s something really validating when you see someone who just never gave up on “that person and only that person” find happiness.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: As a fantasy idea for putting people together on page, I don’t think it’s particularly problematic. That said, it is pretty easy for this to slide into Nice Guy™ or bully wont-take-no-for-an-answer territory, which is both problematic and not attractive. 

Holly: “Please date me.”

“No thanks.”

“But I really like you.”

“No thanks.” 

“I’m pretty sure you like me too.”

“No thanks.”

“Ok, I’ll pick you up at 8.” 

Duuuuuuuude. Learn some boundaries. It’s not cute. 

Ingrid: I have nothing to add here. That’s the problem 100% of the time.

Are there specific sub-genres that you believe work best for this trope?

Erin: It certainly could be applied in any sub-genre, but there seems to be less space for accepting it – at least in the form of “doesn’t take no” action – in regular old contemporary romance, where we see more of a trend away from hints of domineering behavior. It seems to be more popular in books that feature darker material, like Biker, Mafia, or other criminal archetypes, though I’ve certainly read it in historical romance (as in Slightly Dangerous or The Double Wager by Mary Balogh or in Indigo by Beverly Jenkins) and also in paranormal (sci-fi or fantasy) romance in which fated mates is not a factor (I’m thinking along the lines of Connor Rogan’s behavior in Hidden Legacy’s Nevada Baylor trilogy). In short, I would argue that it does work anywhere but the ways it might be applied and/or received by an audience vary by sub-genre.

Holly: Erin’s response is interesting, because I primarily associate the one-sided courtship with paranormal fated mates books for some reason. Like, one person knows it’s a fated-mates situation (“Her blood smells sooooo delicious!”) and then pursues the object of his affections relentlessly until she gives in. 

I don’t know why I think that, given that, when I look back through my reading, I see that I have reviewed literally zero paranormal one-sided courtship books in the past three years. 

Ingrid: I would argue that in contemporary romance you might see this trope paired with a sudden shift in enemies to lovers or in friends to lovers. Also seducing my spouse. So although I would say that paranormal and historical are the heavy-hitters in this category, it certainly makes a showing in others.

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: Yeah, so, that’s not happening. One book? Please. (This is a terrible question. I always struggle to choose one book.) 

Off the top of my head, Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley is a good one. It begins with Tyra falling for Tack at first sight, but he doesn’t reciprocate and is a total jerk. Then Tack sees some of the personality he missed that first night, and he realizes that he’s all in while she’s no longer so sure about him. So there’s a lot of back and forth between them, but it’s also all on the table, not hidden, the whole courtship. It’s a messy one, and better suited to readers who are comfortable with messy characters and anti-hero archetypes. 

If you’d like better behaved protagonists, I’d suggest Love Hard by Nalini Singh (have I recced this book enough yet?) It doesn’t happen instantly for Jake, but once he realizes that Juliet is perfect for him, he’s totally zoned in on getting her to agree without any subterfuge or manipulation, which is more unusual for this trope (especially the older the pub date). It’s so gentle and so romantic. 

And, just for funsies, if you’d like to change things up and have the woman being the pursuer, then Marrying the Billionaire by Allie Winters was a great read. 

Holly: How about a histrom? I cannot recommend The Widow of Rose House enough. Sam thinks Alva is just great, but Alva’s now-dead husband was abusive, so she’s not too keen on the whole romance thing. So while Sam definitely pursues Alva, he’s also careful with her, and that balance is really nice to read. 

Ingrid: I’ve been reading a ton of KF Breene, and in her Demigod of San Francisco series I think she kind of skirts this trope because Kieran chases Lexi for her mad magical skills pretty aggressively and it’s obviously not totally a professional interest. But obviously because it IS presented as such it’s pretty funny and it shifts in such a satisfying way!


Do you love one-sided courtship books? Hate them? Wildly indifferent? Have a rec for one you loved? Let us know in the comments!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Ménage Romances

This week at TSR, we’re focusing on ménage romances, mainly because Holly and Erin both read a bunch back to back sort of by accident. What can we say? We’re having a Very Sexy January! To kick things off, we had a discussion about ménage romances – the good, the bad, and the sexy.

Books we’ll be reviewing this week

Bottom line: Do you like the ménage à trois trope?

Holly: I do. I mean, it’s not my #1 go-to, but I think that ménage romances open up all kinds of possibilities – and not just for different bedroom configurations. There is double the possibility for misunderstanding and drama and angst, but also double the possibility for showing what different kinds of love and joy and compatibility can look like. 

Erin: Yep! I started reading them periodically because they’re hot, but as I’ve read more I really appreciate when I find the nuanced approach of three protagonists figuring out their feelings as they figure out the relationship dynamic. These stories really demonstrate trust in a partner, which is beautiful.

Ingrid: It’s definitely not my first choice. I love a good dose of messy in my characters, and I have no logical explanation for why this trope stresses me out, but it really does! Maybe because it feels like the potential for complications and heartbreak increases exponentially? Obviously, it’s romance, so I’m proven wrong every time…but the journey from start to HEA is still a nail-biter for me every time.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: I think it’s hot. Like, “Ooo, think about what two mouths and four hands could do!” So it safely taps into that fantasy for readers who probably are not going to engage in their own ménage. (Though that makes me wonder… Statistically how many people DO have threesomes?) But I also really love to read poly throuples finding a HEA – they have to deal with a lot more than an average couple – when monogamy still is widely considered the ultimate relationship goal. I think reading the trope in that context opens doors outside one’s own experience. Or, maybe more importantly, provides representation to people who don’t always see themselves represented on page.

Ingrid: I love that it’s yet another example of how humans just seem to have an endless capacity to create their own way of love and happiness–and of course, the erotic component can be very fun. I have been seeing more and more examples that really unpack what it means to fairly negotiate a relationship between three people and although I find that it’s not for me generally-speaking, it brings up a lot of interesting clarity about romantic relationships, period. How much happier would some monogamous people be if they were forced to negotiate and discuss the terms of their arrangement the way a ménage does? Because for a true HEA, that’s what’s required in these cases. And I find that incredibly refreshing.

Holly: I 100% agree with Ingrid here (except for the bit about it not being for me, because, as we’ve established, I really enjoy reading ménage romances). 

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: It’s a super sexy fantasy, so it’s fun to read the sexy rumpus versions of ménage, but at the same time, if that’s a person’s only expectation of how a ménage works, it ends up sort of perpetuating ideas that polyamory isn’t…I don’t know. Isn’t a real, meaningful, emotionally engaged relationship that the characters really choose to work at. 

I also don’t love it when one of the closed triad is reduced to a secondary status in the relationship. Like, if there’s an ending with marriage and everyone agrees that the legal marriage will be one way but there’s clearly an agreement among everyone that they’re all equally married, that’s fine, but a couple having a permanent plaything is…not my jam.

Ingrid: The early examples I read definitely seemed more stereotyped. Somewhat shallow, almost exclusively sexually-based encounters. It seems like this is one trope that has historically tended to either represent the relationship in either its dysfunction or its ideal–but as I said before, I would anticipate more thoughtful and romantic examples of this trope emerging in the future.

Holly: I think this is really about expectations. If you’re reading ménages because you want to see thoughtful portrayals of poly relationships, well, you need to choose wisely. But is the idea of two best friends deciding they want to share a woman inherently problematic? No.

What does the story need to accomplish in order for you to believe in the HEA/HFN?

Holly: Here’s the thing. I would categorize ménage romances into two broad categories: “let’s work out how our polyamorous relationship is going to work” and “sexy rumpus, double the fun”. If I’m reading a sexy rumpus book, then I just need to buy that these guys are compatible in the sack. 

But if I’m reading a ménage book that takes poly seriously then I want to see the characters actually talk about the logistics of how their relationship will work. Some of the questions I might want them to talk about include: Who, if anyone, will be legally married? Where will they live? Are all three on the same footing, or is one couple dominant and the third person is secondary to the relationship? 

Note: this is not to say that some sexy rumpus books don’t also address questions like this – just that I don’t necessarily need them to to be satisfied with the ending. 

Erin: So, I don’t need all of what Holly is expecting from a poly romance, because I feel like all of the ones I read involve a throuple exploring poly for the first time, and it’s not like this book takes place over the course of a year or multiple years. So what I expect is that the characters are roughly equally represented and equally well-rounded so that I can believe that they love each other in some equivalency that makes it reasonable that trust and respect and love is all present and accounted for. And then for their HEA what I’d be looking for is honestly what I’m looking for in a lot of contemporary romance, because most of the ones I read end not with an epilogue with marriage and kids but with the protagonists overcoming whatever the problem was and agreeing that they want to work on being together because that’s what’s important to them now.

Ingrid: I actually agree with Holly here–I need to understand what the desired outcome is for all parties involved or it’s very difficult for me to buy in and relax enough to enjoy the story.

Erin and Holly looked at their ménage romance reading and Erin whipped out the handy-chart-o-matic! Also known as Excel. So let’s look at some trends we’ve noticed. 

Here’s the distribution of the 15 books we included from our tracked reading:

And from these, we found the following breakdown of things that felt like trends while we were reading:

Holly: First, some points of clarification. The question, “is it polyamory?” refers to the dichotomy I mentioned earlier, about whether a book grapples with polyamory or is just about having a sexy rumpus. Also, the N/A in that category is a book where the protagonists are grappling with what polyamory might mean, but the book ends with a monogamous dyad because one of the triad suuuuuuucks and gets dumped. (My full review is here. I talk about penises a lot. Sorry for the spoiler.) 

Now, obviously 15 books is not a huge sample, but a couple of things strike me. The biggest is that there seems to be a dearth of FFM menage (at least in our reading lists), so I would appreciate some recommendations of good ones, please and thank you. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though, given how much more popular M/M romance than F/F romance seems to be. The other thing that is striking to me is how many books we’ve actually read where the protagonists actually do grapple with what polyamory would mean for them as a throuple – and I am all about this trend. 

Erin: So, I could have sworn that in the vast majority of the throuple books I’ve read, one of the three is dominant, at least in bed and possibly also in the throuple. Like the other two maybe just kind of needed a leader? Some glue? But actually the data doesn’t describe that at all, so those books must simply have been memorable. 

Holly: Just to butt in, Erin asked me about whether the ménages I’d read featured this dynamic and I was like…no. Never. So it is entirely possible that this IS the dynamic in all the throuple books that Erin’s reading. 

Erin: All the books that don’t have sword crossing are, as expected, sexy sex rather than polyamorous. And, for the record, that is significantly less fun to read than the sword-crossing variety of throuple.

Ingrid: Not to push Erin down the data rabbit hole, but I would be SO CURIOUS to take this information and track trends by pub date…I want to see how things have shifted and trended over time. 

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

Holly: I will take every opportunity to recommend She Whom I Love by Tess Bowery, partially because I never see anyone else talking about it. It’s a FFM regency romance featuring a tradesman, a maid, and an actress, and Bowery is able to explore all kinds of stuff about gender and class and power because of her choice of protagonists. Plus it’s sexy as hell. 

Erin: Three-Way Split by Elia Winters is AH-MAZE-ING. I was seriously (figuratively) concerned  that I was going to combust while I was reading the sex scenes, because HOLY WOW. But while Winters can write some sexy sex, she also does a totally exceptional job of treating polyamory with sensitivity and positivity. So if you’re looking for sex-positive poly erotic romance with a satisfying ending, just start here. 

Ingrid: I have to be honest, I can’t say that I’ve read one yet that I’d gush over–but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep looking!!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Daddy Kink

This week, we’ll be featuring romances that are all about the daddy’s. (Plus one book that is not daddy kink but does have some daddy energy.) To get us started, we chatted about paternalistic heroes and kinky sex.

Books we’ll be reviewing this week

So, how do we feel about daddy kink? 

Erin: It’s one of those things that I’m totally willing to let an author sell to me. I totally get why it would work for people.

Holly: I mean, it’s not my kink, but I’m not yucked out by it either. Basically, it just takes paternalistic heroes to their natural conclusion – and if your fantasy is about having a big strong man care for all your needs, then this would tick all the boxes. (I say this having read very little daddy kink.) 

Ingrid: It’s honestly not my preferred cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean I’d write the whole trope off.

What criteria would a book have to have for you to count it as “daddy kink”?

Holly: So Erin found this (very helpful to me) article written about practicing daddy kink in real life. I’m paraphrasing here, but the author states that daddy kink for her is a balancing act between dominance and playfulness, with a touch of taboo. A daddy is the boss in the bedroom – but not necessarily bossy, with a strong helping of praise thrown in. 

When we’re talking about books, there are books that are straight-up marketed as daddy kink (like Your Dad Will Do, which we’ll be talking about tomorrow), but then there are other books where they never use the word “daddy” (at least in the bedroom), but where there’s what I would call “daddy energy.” For example, in the DILF anthology (which I’ll be reviewing this Friday), I would say that two of the stories have daddy energy, where the hero is both dominant and gentle, and where there’s a touch of taboo (fiancé’s uncle in Sierra Simone’s story and dad’s best friend in Joanna Shupe’s story). Are these novellas daddy kink? No, probably not. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t tap into some of the same fantasies in a more roundabout way. 

Erin: I’d argue that for a book to really be daddy kink, it needs to include the protagonists engaging in the daddy role play. One protagonist calling the other protagonist “daddy” and both of them getting off on that is required. Probably many readers would go one step further and expect it to extend into the more taboo areas of age gap and/or discipline play (a daddy/brat dynamic), which is fine, and I understand why readers would want that. But limiting daddy kink to that narrow field doesn’t seem to me to differentiate it enough from other BDSM. 

If all the author is doing is having a dom discipline a sub but adding “Yes, daddy!”, I don’t think that fully embraces the other aspects of the daddy character. Everything a daddy (like, an actual father) notionally is – stern, sure, disciplining, sure, but also supportive, loving, encouraging, praising, caregiving – should come through in a daddy. A daddy might sweep all the problems away and provide lavish gifts a la Knight Sebring in Knight by Kristen Ashley, which we will not be reviewing this week. Or maybe he’ll provide some structured emotional support and guidance and encouragement a la Jericho McAslan in Permanent Ink, which we’ll review on Sunday (also, come on, his name is Aslan). Or maybe you’ll get big daddy vibes when he does work around her house, like your dad might very well do (if he’s handy) when you move into a new place, as Karl McCoy does in Daddy Crush, which we’ll review on Wednesday. All of this occurs outside the bedroom, but I’d argue that it forms an essential component of the daddy characterization in ways that differentiate a daddy from any other dom.

Holly: Clearly, Erin has read and thought about waaaaaay more daddy kink than I have. 

Ingrid: I’m okay with letting Erin speak for me, here.

What do you think is fun about daddy kink?

Erin: As Holly said above, it takes a paternalistic hero to a natural conclusion, and we know I love a paternalistic hero. So there’s that. But also I like that it celebrates these protagonists acknowledging this desire on both sides and then having a really awesome time playing it out and getting emotional as well as sexual satisfaction from having these needs met. Society sees daddy kink as taboo, and it’s probably really hard to find a match when it’s hard to bring up in conversation, but these protagonists do find the match and do get to enjoy the HEA that comes with getting everything.

Ingrid: I mean, in theory the whole “paternalistic” aspect speaks to a deep sense of safety and trust, plus care. So I think that this is something anyone would want in a relationship, but in this case it’s just demonstrated in a very…different way.

Holly: I want to talk about the taboo aspect a little bit more, because I think that that could be a big draw. Like this is a safe space to explore fantasies that might be a bit taboo or embarrassing to talk about with a partner in real life. 

What do you think is problematic about daddy kink?

Erin: As with so much kinky reading material, often the fantasy bypasses the conversations that make it clear that everyone is consenting and enjoying what’s happening, and that there’s a way to stop it if it gets to be too much. But also with daddy kink in particular, we often stray into a DDlg (dominant daddy/little girl) kink fantasy that includes no consent conversation combined with age gap, and the younger partner is 18-23 years old. Which means that the older partner, who’s usually 30+, is straying closer to predator status than to safe sexual partner status. And then on top of that add the discipline kink that so many people expect with daddy kink. It’s possible to write this in a non-creepy way, and having the fantasy on page is not the same as engaging in it in real life, but if that’s the first exposure a person has to daddy kink, I can totally understand why they might be leery of the whole thing. 

Ingrid: I think that what Erin said really hits the nail on the head. The grey area that is supposed to be sexy and fun can very easily shift into something predatory and unsafe without clear cut boundaries.

Holly: I would argue that sometimes the lack of clear-cut boundaries is a feature, not a bug. These questions about power and fantasy and what we want from our “problematic” romances is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. But, uh, I don’t really have clear answers yet. 

Is it possible to have a “daddy” dynamic between partners without an age gap? 

Erin: ABSOLUTELY! While it’s easy to let an age gap be the superficial thing that creates the obvious power dynamic, and while I can see how age becomes a desirable characteristic when seeking a partner in this arena, what really makes the dynamic is the desire both parties have to engage in the kink. He’s not a daddy because he’s older, he’s a daddy because he’s filling the dom role (in a specific way) and both parties are getting off on that. 

Holly: I’m sure it’s possible, but I haven’t heard of one (that was M/F, M/M daddy kink seems to lean less into the age gap aspect of it). 

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

Holly: So this is not exactly a “daddy” book, but I really liked Priest by Sierra Simone and it had many elements of daddy kink. Stern but caregiving hero. Taboo relationship. And she calls him “Father.” 

I rest my case. 

Erin: Well I do like to get into some deep dives when I take on a discussion piece like this, but honestly I probably haven’t read enough actual daddy kink to make a great recommendation. So I’ll say that for this conversation, I appreciated that Permanent Ink by Avon Gale and Piper Vaughn felt really well-rounded, delving a little bit into a lot of places. Taboo but not running all the way out into the taboo field and with good consideration of the relationship and how the relationship worked in the bigger picture of the protagonists’ lives. 

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Trope: Fated Mates

Bottom Line: Do you like the Fated Mates trope?

Erin: This is one of those tropes that I don’t like in my head – probably primarily because I can cite a number of books in which the use of the trope annoyed me – but when I read it in a story that’s well-planned and well-executed, it usually tickles me pink

Ingrid: I freaking love this trope. Let’s just take the whole will they/won’t they issue off the table and jump right in, shall we?

Holly: Look, when they are fated to be together because her blood smells so delicious, I just cannot deal. But sometimes, an author takes the basic idea of two people who are connected in some kind of cosmic way and does something really interesting with it. 

Can a non-paranormal romance be a fated mates story, or does it really only work with vampires / werewolves / alien parasites?

Erin: I think it’s totally possible that an author could reasonably create a characterization that includes at least one protagonist feeling like love was fated, but that’s extremely uncommon. It tends more to be represented as insta-love or love at first sight, which I don’t read the same way. When it’s used in paranormal romance, it’s leaning into the idea that the love/relationship is important/meaningful, but it happens to the protagonists rather than that the protagonists build it. This creates an interesting dynamic when the protagonists have to deal with a romance that maybe they don’t want to or that only applies to one of the two.

Ingrid: Um, totally. Besides the obvious answer (romance authors can and will do whatever they want in pursuit of a HEA), I would argue that the point of a fated mates trope is that there’s some kind of mysterious and deeply compelling reason why these two individuals are meant to be together. Frankly, I don’t even care if there’s a clear explanation of that reason. One example that comes to mind is a betrothal from birth, or two leaders whose union is “meant to be” for them and their people. I think that, thankfully, there’s a lot of fun to be had with this trope.

Holly: Absolutely! I do think that for it to really be fated mates there has to be some kind of supernatural element to it. Think prophecies or reincarnation. Being magically on the same page without the ability to communicate totally counts. 

(Hat tip to Ben Dreyfuss at Mother Jones who wrote this article and reminded me of the perfect fated mates couple.)

What do you think is fun about fated mates stories?

Erin: They’re just so ridiculous. Even when they’re intense, they often get all bodice rippery. It’s fun to explore some of these fantasies and ideas in a place that’s so removed from real life. 

Ingrid: They’re not just going to be together, their union will create and solidify something much bigger than themselves and be the catalyst for something transformative. It’s meant to be! There’s something bigger here calling the shots!! Isn’t this why people like myths and lore? So as my fellow reviewers will hear me say with great conviction, when we’re reading these we’re being asked to willingly suspend our disbelief and watch them rebel and negotiate and slowly knit together their fates. It’s not the will they/won’t they–it’s the HOW. It’s just gosh-darn fun. 

Holly: What Ingrid said, with the caveat that I think this dynamic can be really hard to pull off. 

What do you find problematic about the fated mates trope?

Erin: I often feel like it’s lazy if the romance isn’t well-planned and well-executed. This primarily (though not always) happens when both protagonists are bound by being fated mates, and the author uses this to skip relationship building in favor of other plotlines. 

Ingrid: I will agree that for this genre, the relationship building cannot be skipped. There has to be growth for the resolution to be satisfying, and I’ve read more than a handful from this trope where I’d argue the end result was almost romance-adjacent and not a true romance, because the relationship becomes secondary to the rest of the plot.

Holly: Counterpoint to Erin and Ingrid: sometimes it’s fine to get the relationship established early so you can have some ridiculous adventures and face your foes as a team! You could even be mates and then have to work on your relationship, seducing your spouse style! That could be fun! But I agree that if you’re looking for a romance and what you want is courtship and the gradual building of a relationship, then this trope is probably not the right one for you. 

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: Umm, one book? Are you for real right now? I like that Elva Birch played with ideas about consent in The Dragon Prince of Alaska. I like that Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark is this big, intense world and no one kind of immortal has exactly the same programming, but they get mixed up anyway. And I will never forget the heroine going into heat when she becomes a shifter after a lab accident in Sharp Change by Milly Taiden.

Ingrid: Look, let’s just say it–Ruby Dixon and all those little alien parasites did it right. This series takes this trope and puts together so many different ways two people (I mean, I guess two anatomically compatible organisms, but you get my point) can find their way to a fated happily-ever-after. And honestly, if you don’t find yourself reading this series and identifying with those feelings of helpless rebellion and time marching forward whether you’re ready for it or not, I will eat my hat.

Holly: You mean besides Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz in Love Actually? Bear With Me by Lucy Eden is a pretty classic fated mates bear shifter book – except for the bit where they make it clear that just because it’s fate doesn’t mean that the other details will necessarily work out. 

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: The Single Parent

Bottom line: Do you like the Single Parent Trope?

Erin: I don’t dislike it, and sometimes I even find myself drawn to blurbs because of it, but I also typically start yelling at the characters for being ridiculous about it, too.

Holly: Meh. Sometimes it’s sooo saccharine. Saccharine is not part of my brand.

Ingrid: I have liked some, but I will admit that it’s not usually my first choice.

What makes a Single Parent book a Single Parent book? What are its defining characteristics? 

Erin: The parent/child relationships need to be central and part of the conflict in the book. For example, technically Tack is a sort of single parent in Motorcycle Man, but he just has kids that Tyra needs to care about; their relationship together is not something keeping Tack and Tyra apart or pulling them together. Those kids are older teenagers, but I wouldn’t say the age of the children matters, either, because often you’ll see a single parent trope with a younger teen or tween who has an attitude problem, and the new partner comes in all Mary Poppins to save things, but you’ll also see plenty of single parents of very young children who need to work things out in different ways and have all the frazzle of children without much functional independence.

Holly: I don’t know that I agree with Erin. I think it’s enough if there is a kid who plays a significant role in the story. Not so much in terms of conflict or plot, but is the child a real character. Yes, sometimes single parent books really hinge on the three-way relationship between the parent-child-new partner, but there are also some single parent books out there where the parent-child relationship is important, but not central to the plot or the main conflict. 

Ingrid: I’d have to say that a strictly Single Parent book needs to have a fair amount of the tension stemming from one of the main characters figuring out how a new partner would fit in with the life they’ve built around their child. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be the sole focus of the book, though.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: Parents need a HEA, too! I think I’ve generally connected with this trope because when I was younger I knew I wanted to be a parent and now I am a parent, so it’s not about a lifestyle that’s foreign to me. Also most of these protagonists are not in their early 20s, which is nice. Also also, most of the time single parent stories value the existence of children, recognizing that they have a place in our culture/society.

Holly: I do like reading stories about people who are older. And sometimes the single parents are just killing it and finding a partner who loves them and loves their kid and that’s just the icing on the cake. 

Ingrid: Honestly, I feel so appreciative when I see romance novels involving people who have a little mess and a few extra years under their belts. In real life, it seems like women who have kids are completely written off as future marriage material, which is just such utter bullshit. Men with kids are virtually saints and should be snapped up immediately because of their adorable children and how BRAVE THEY ARE, but women should consider themselves lucky if someone is willing to take on their “baggage”. So when I read a single parent book and they nail it? I LOVE IT.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: Lordy, what’s not? 

  • Many of them get into this absolutely terrible “but a child needs both parents!” space that makes me totally furious. Either because it’s frustratingly heteronormative or because the ex becomes part of the reason that the protagonists are kept apart (barf). 
  • Sometimes they get into a sort of “I need to sideline my own life and happiness because I need to take care of my child,” which, okay, but also that is a recipe for a potentially messed up codependent relationship that should not be put on a child. 
  • They tend to glorify parenthood, making it harder for parents IRL to accept that loving babies might not be instantaneous or that it’s okay to get frustrated and fed up and need a break after the 5th bowl of chili gets dumped on the floor after a long day. Another way this manifests is that a parent who chooses to leave, making the other parent a single parent in the first place, is typically villainized.
  • I don’t think that I’ve ever read a single parent book in which a child who is not in need of Mary Poppinsing acts like a normal child. Obviously the Mary Poppinsing children are seeking attention in not good ways, but like, I know my kids are not calm and demure little angels, but also there are a lot of kids like my kids, and sometimes they have epic meltdowns. I have never read a normal child meltdown because little Taylor had to get a new toothbrush or was told “no” when they were tired and hungry and didn’t want to hear it in a single parent book ever

To summarize: it’s really hard to balance this narrative. 

Holly: There are a few directions this trope can go that I don’t love. First, sometimes the kids are just too much. Like, author! Have you ever interacted with a child? Second, sometimes there’s this problematic undercurrent of “my child needs a mother / father” as if a hetero-romantic partnership is the only stable way to successfully raise a child. And third, there’s the Governess trope, which is kind of a sub-category – where the new partner teaches the parent how to love again. Now, I’m kind of a sucker for governess books (maybe it’s my love of The Sound of Music coming through), but if you look at them closely there are frequently all kinds of unaddressed issues with power and consent and people being utterly terrible parents and utterly terrible romantic partners. 

Ingrid: I mean, Erin and Holly have really unpacked this nicely, but my main beef is when someone swoops in and fixes the single parent’s problems because they’re just so strong and capable, when in reality if that single parent had some money and a full-night’s sleep they probably wouldn’t need anyone to rescue them at all. Single parents are tough as hell, man. Quit making them look so weak and fragile.

Do you think that you respond to this trope in a different way now that you’re a parent? 

Erin: I mean, I like the idea that there’s a hopeful romance space that I could imagine if I were to be in this position. But mostly now I see how romanticized the parent-child relationships are, which I couldn’t understand before children, and they frustrate me a good deal more. 

Holly: The idea that your life isn’t over just because your spouse died or you got divorced or you had a child out of wedlock is so so important – and sometimes it’s hard to remember when I’m in the weeds of hanging out with my (very young) kids and feel like all the fun in my life is in my past. 

Ingrid: I have a much harder time suspending my disbelief with these books because I worry about the kids. Like, I get that you fell in love in two weeks but this hunk should not be babysitting your kids by week three. And don’t be asking her young child for permission to marry her, kids don’t need that kind of responsibility. And why is the ex always such a terrible human? I don’t know, maybe a few sessions with a nice family therapist would be a wiser way to happiness than a new man with a magic schlong who knows how to order take out. (Although, obviously I can see how that might be a tough call. I LOVE take out.)

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’ve read plenty, and enjoyed most of them (even though I probably sound like a curmudgeon above), but one that’s always stuck with me is To Sir Phillip, With Love by Julia Quinn. It’s drama, drama, drama historical romance, but it’s also sort of a hybrid between a governess book and a regular single parent book. Phillip is widowed and lonely and has twins who act out constantly, so after a correspondence he asks Eloise to marry him because he needs a partner and his kids need a mother (slash someone who’s not paid to care about them who might up and leave). She runs away from her family to see if that’s something she wants to do, and helps everyone get back to good. So it has some of that governess book flair without the iffy power imbalance of the employer/employee love story. 

Holly: If we’re going straight on Single Parent, I have to say Rafe by Rebekah Weatherspoon. Sloan is a doctor, so she has this really intense job, but she also is a great parent with a loving relationship with her kids, and she’s really careful about the way she integrates Rafe into their lives. Also, it’s about a woman banging her hot male nanny, and that is a fantasy I can 100% get behind. 

But like I said, I also am such a sucker for Governess books, where the parent is not such a great parent (let’s be real, not such a great dad) and learns to connect to his kids by opening his heart. And I said saccharine wasn’t my brand! Ha! Anyways, The Governess Game by Tessa Dare is pretty fun. It’s got the standard Marry Poppins thing going on, but Dare writes great comedy, which balances things out a bit. 

Ingrid: Fall into Temptation by Lucy Score is really well done, I think. I loved that she set up the situation so they’re in a forced proximity type situation, which allows for the kids to interact with the hero a lot earlier on and in a relaxed way. She kind of sidesteps the whole landlord/tenant power dynamic situation, but they do discuss it. I loved that it really painted the heroine as a well-adjusted, balanced, powerful woman who makes the right decisions for herself and her kids and isn’t timid or afraid to love again. She doesn’t need saving and she’s going to build a life for her little family come hell or high water, and it’s what the hero loves about her. It was really amazing and funny!


Do you like the single parent trope? What’s your favorite romance featuring a single parent? Let us know in the comments!