Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Subgenres: Rom-Coms

Bottom line: Do you like Rom-coms?

Holly: If a rom-com is done well, there’s nothing better. The problem is finding the ones that are done well.

Erin: I do really love them, but I typically don’t seek them out because the marketing is often so spectacularly bad for the label. 

Ingrid: I probably seek out rom-coms more than anything else, but I’ll also admit that I DNF these the most. With rom-coms, either the humor and romance are BOTH crackling, or it just doesn’t work.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a Rom-com?

Holly: It needs to be a romance, and it needs to be funny. 

That sounds simple, but it isn’t always. For example, books by Jenny Holiday, Lucy Parker, and Kate Clayborn are sometimes called rom-coms—and they all have funny bits and excellent romance, but they also feature characters dealing with serious issues like grief, illness, or trauma. I do laugh when I read books by these authors, but I also cry buckets. 

Erin: My expectation is similar to Holly’s. When we were looking at what to read for this week, I reviewed several lists, and I’d already read most of the books included in them, and I would not have categorized them as rom-coms. The levity must outweigh the serious issues, so either the issues aren’t super heavy serious (think The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa) or the issues are presented in a humorous or sardonic way (think Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall).

Ingrid: I think both Erin and Holly make excellent points. And, I’ll admit that in retrospect some of the titles that moved me the most were rom-coms that elicited a very broad range of emotions.

What do you think is fun about the subgenre?

Erin: It’s specifically designed to evoke laughter and spark joy. Theoretically I suppose all romance – with all the happy and optimistic endings – should spark joy, but romantic comedies are designed to do so in a way that other stories are not. The catharsis of getting through an angsty book fills one emotional need, but the laughter that we get from rom-coms fills a completely different one. Which is why it’s such a bummer when the label isn’t right.

Ingrid: Well, laughing releases a lot of happy hormones the same way reading about love does. So I think rom-coms tend to really fill the reader up with a bubbly happiness that lingers, and I find that absolutely wonderful.

What do you find problematic about the subgenre?

Holly: This is not about the books in and of themselves, but rather about marketing. It seems like every contemporary romance is marketed as a “rom-com,” regardless of content. Part of this is that humor is really personal, so what one person finds humorous, another will find cringeworthy. Another is that people have different thresholds for how much humor is needed for a book to be a comedy. Should I be rolling on the floor laughing the whole time? Can it also deal with serious topics? How much seriousness can balance the levity before a book becomes more a contemporary romance with some jokes than a rom-com? 

To give a specific example, I picked up Three Little Words by Jenny Holiday because all of the cover blurbs talk about how funny this book is. Imagine how shocked I was to discover that the heroine had an eating disorder and the hero was a recovering drug addict who was estranged from his parents. Let’s just say this book was not all sunshine and rainbows and I felt very lied to. (It was still an excellent book.)

Erin: This is also not specifically problematic as such (though it can certainly veer into that space), but as Holly mentioned, the humor is subjective, and sometimes that doesn’t jive with the reader. Maybe the book is completely absurd, and the reader has no patience for that, so they say it’s not funny. Maybe it’s full of banter, and the reader doesn’t enjoy it, so they say it’s not funny. I often fall into a category where I don’t think that the behavior of the characters is particularly amusing because their maturity levels don’t seem to match whatever my expectations are for them. OR – and this is where the actually problematic stuff comes in – maybe the jokes are made at the expense of others in order to get a laugh, and that’s just not cool. 

Holly: Erin’s totally right. I definitely DNFed a book marketed as a rom-com because all the jokes were of the Men are from Mars / Women are from Venus school of thought, with a sprinkling of fat-shaming thrown in for good measure. (It was Hot Winter Nights by Jill Shalvis.)

Ingrid: YES. I can pretty easily skate right past jokes that just don’t land with me, but nothing makes me walk away from rooting for a relationship like watching a hero or a heroine crack jokes at someone else’s expense, or play up tired and hurtful stereotypes. And I love banter, but when it’s just constant one-upmanship, that’s gets very old as well.

What kind of humor do you look for in a Rom-com?

Holly: I think that rom-coms come in a couple of distinct flavors. There are banter rom-coms, where the humor comes from really sharp dialogue; think Julia Quinn. There are voice rom-coms, where the humor comes from a strong narrative voice, usually told in 1st POV; think Mia Sosa. And then there are situational or slapstick rom-coms; think Pippa Grant

If I’m reading something purely for the humor, I tend to prefer voice rom-coms. I can buy a lot more snark as a character’s internal voice than as part of their dialogue with others. Too much banter just makes me tired.

Erin: I also love a strong narrative voice (both Mia Sosa and Alexis Hall have this), but I also find situational humor funny. When one thing after another went wrong for the protagonists in I Think I Might Love You by Christina C. Jones, it totally made the book. The beats were all just perfect and nothing felt forced. Actually, in all three of the books I’ve mentioned so far, it was probably the combination of voice PLUS situational humor that made me laugh out loud over and over again.

Ingrid: I feel like I tend to binge a bunch of one type, tire of it, find a new schtick, love it, read everything that hits like that, tire of it…etc. I read it all, and I just cycle right on through.

What’s one rom-com you loved? What’s so great about this book and why is it so funny?

Erin: Y’all, I’m still selling Boyfriend Material to anyone who will buy it. I laughed so hard I cried reading it more than once. As in, more than one instance the first time I read it, and also more than once because I’ve read it several times. In the first place, Luc is completely ridiculous and he knows it, but also he’s got co-workers that interact with him in just the funniest ways, and now I think I want to read it again… (Alex Twaddle 4eva!)

Ingrid: The last series that got me going was the Leveling Up series by K.F. Breene. Unfortunately, the series isn’t done. And Holly said she didn’t laugh as hard as I did…but I really, REALLY laughed with that one.

Holly: My go-to rom-com that I’ve been recommending for years is A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare. However, I haven’t read it since it came out, uh, ten years ago, so maybe I should reread it and see if it still stands up as my platonic ideal of a historical rom-com?


Books we mentioned in this discussion:

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Archetypes: Merpersons

When we made our 2022 Smut Resolutions, Ingrid requested that we take a closer look at smut with merfolk. So here we are, kicking off a full week of nothing but mermaids.

Bottom line: Do you like the merperson archetype?

Holly: I am the right age and temperament where Disney’s The Little Mermaid was my number one favorite movie of all time growing up. So I have a soft spot for merfolk, which is ironic because the idea of being on (or even worse, in) the ocean scares the bejeezus out of me. Also, now that I come to think of it, I can’t say that I’ve read all that much mer-smut.

Erin: Ingrid and I totally pretended to be mermaids in the pool when we were kids, AND I grew out my bangs so they could be like Ariel’s (spoiler, they never actually were), AND I have advanced open water diver certification, but I have never sought out mer smut and it’s not really one on my list of “Gotta try, this is gonna be bananas!”

Ingrid: I actually suggested we do a mermaid deep dive (see what I did there) because I was feeling sassy and didn’t think there was mer-smut. I was so very mistaken. I mean, Erin’s right—we were obsessed with mermaids and although I have since found Ariel’s age to be a bit off putting I was very curious once we actually started digging in.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as merperson romance?

Holly: One of the MCs has to have a fish tail and live underwater. Shapeshifting is allowed, but not required.

Erin: Yeah that’s pretty much it.

Ingrid: Yup.

What do you think is fun about the archetype?

Holly: There’s a lot of space for angst because the MCs are literally from different habitats. To quote Tevye, “A bird may love a fish, but where would they make their home?” So authors can explore ideas of how really different people can make a relationship work. 

Erin: I mean, sure, what Holly said. OR they have to figure out how sex works because there’s a tail there. 

Ingrid: I want to say my mind went straight to Tevye and philosophy like Holly but actually I’m with Erin. 

What do you find problematic about the archetype?

Holly: So, with the caveat that I haven’t read much mermaid smut in mind, there is definitely the opportunity for some self-sacrificial nonsense. Going back to my girl Ariel, there is a strong case of “I will give up everything I know, including my body, for love.” 

Erin: I’ve been trying to think of something else that would be uniquely problematic for this archetype, but I really can’t. Changing your entire world and your body for love is pretty huge. 

Ingrid: Why don’t they have gills? They never have gills. 

Holly: They definitely have gills!!! At least in all the books I read for this week they do. Sometimes they even have gills in human form.

Ingrid: whaaaaaaat…

How might merfolk romances differ from other types of paranormal romances? 

Holly: I suspect that merfolk romances are less codified than vampire or shifter romances, for two reasons. First, because there are fewer of them, so there hasn’t been time for a genre standard to develop. Second, there are three really different strands of mermaid lore in the widely-known source material. There’s the little mermaid, who sacrifices her life under the sea to live on land for true love. There are sirens, who lure unwary sailors to their underwater deaths. And there is Mami Wata of African and Caribbean folklore, who, like the sirens, is associated with sex, but is much more powerful.

If you’re writing a vampire romance you’re part of a larger conversation with the tons of vampire romances already written; you’re probably referencing Dracula or Interview with a Vampire, at least obliquely. When I pick up a vampire romance, I know that there’s going to be blood and guilt—or that the author will be explicitly playing with (and potentially rejecting) those conventions. In contrast, when I pick up a mermaid romance, I really don’t know what to expect.

Ingrid: Well, my first thought is that these romances would take place underwater. And then, you know…what Holly said.

Holly: Jumping back in to say that there seems to be an explosion of mermaid smut happening, so the archetype might solidify a bit more as it becomes more popular. We’ll find out!

Erin: I don’t have much to add except that I’d prefer it if they weren’t just shifters like every other shifter—having to make difficult choices to completely physically change (for any reason, not just love) gives the merfolk certain high stakes. 

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

Holly: So I think I’d only read two mer-smuts, like, ever before I started reading for this week. One was the short story Marine Biology by G.L. Carriger, and one was the Daughters of Arianne series by Joey W. Hill (review coming on Friday). A lot of the action takes place on land in these books, and we don’t see a lot of the merfolk society—the Carriger is too short to get into a lot of details beyond the immediate plot, and the mermaids in the Hill books are isolated from the larger underwater society for various reasons. I’m not sure if that’s common in mermaid stories—again, hearkening back to Disney’s Ariel and her sense of isolation from life under the sea—but it makes it hard for me to really get a handle on the archetype. No recs, sorry. 

Ingrid: I haven’t read a single one prior to the novella I just reviewed (which doesn’t really count because she was just role playing as a mermaid). So I’m going in with a pretty open mind and very few preconceived ideas of what mermaid smut should or could be like! It’s going to be fun…

Erin: I think I’ve read one? I’ve DNFed a few. But what with shifters in play, I can tangentially recommend Ocean’s Light by Nalini Singh because the DarkSea pack is super interesting and almost the whole book takes place underwater. Or, now that Holly mentioned sirens, Catalina Baylor really comes into her badass boss prime self in Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews. Neither book ACTUALLY includes any merfolk, though, sorry.


Books mentioned in this discussion:


Have you read much mer-romance? What do you think of the merperson archetype? Have any recommendations for us?

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Grumpy Sunshine

Hello and welcome to Scrooge week. Ingrid wanted to talk about the Grumpy/Sunshine trope this year, and what better time to do it than during the week between Christmas and New Year when everything just seems to lapse into torpor until January 2nd?

Sad puppy with grumpy/sunshine.

Book covers of:
Proper Scoundrels by Allie Therin
Promising Love by Sara Ohlin
At Attention by Annabeth Albert
Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Reviews coming this week!

Bottom line: Do you like the grumpy/sunshine trope?

Erin: What’s not to like?

Ingrid: It’s my favorite.

Holly: It can be fun, but I don’t go out of my way to look for them. 

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as the grumpy/sunshine trope?

Erin: When I think grumpy/sunshine, I think of the sunshine character as being really sunny and optimistic, and I feel like often that’s more limited than others use the tag. Grumps are pretty easy to find, but a really sunny protagonist is not so common. More often it seems like grumpy/well adjusted. 

Ingrid: Someone is grumpy and finds themselves being inconveniently drawn to a **GASP** sunny person!!!! Fight it! Fight the urge!! (I melt! I swoon!) (Hello, Sound of Music)

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It’s such a gentle way to do opposites attract. The grumpy one gets to be themself but can also be soft for the sunshine one, and the sunshine one, who is probably more socially likable in general, can see the beauty in the probably less socially likable grump. HOW DOES THAT NOT INSPIRE HEART EYES?

Ingrid: There are SO many ways to do this. My favorite is romantic comedy, but you can cross all moods and tones, really. It’s flexible, it’s fun, and I adore that it showcases different people falling for each other the way they are. (Hello, Bridget Jones’ Diary)

Holly: Oh hey, Ingrid’s example makes me realize that Pride and Prejudice is the original grumpy-sunshine book, and I do love me some Pride and Prejudice retellings, so maybe I have to readjust my thoughts about this trope. The P&P connection just highlights how flexible the trope really is—it works in any romance subgenre, and combines well with other tropes.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: NOTHING. IT IS AN EXCELLENT TROPE!

Ingrid: That there are not more of them?

Erin: I suppose… There is an argument to be made, depending on the characterization, that the grumpy character doesn’t treat the sunshine character well and the sunshine character just puts up with it. Or maybe sometimes the sunshine character doesn’t respect the grumpy character’s boundaries. But generally this doesn’t seem to be a trope fraught with a baseline that should cause concern.

Holly: Ok guys, I’m gonna say it. The gender dynamics of this trope kind of rub me the wrong way.

Before I get started, obviously, #NotAllGrumpySunshineBooks. But the vast majority of grumpy-sunshine pairings are grumpy hero, sunshine heroine. And I just wonder what this says about our collective socialization that we (readers) love to see women who are just perky and happy and bring joy to everyone around them. 

Maybe I’m irked because the only book I’ve read that was specifically marketed as a grumpy heroine / sunshine hero didn’t actually have a sunshine hero who was a ball of optimism and joy, but rather a sad, lonely hero who put on a socially acceptable front.

Erin: This is a good point. Grumpy heroines seem to be very popular right now, though. Readers who are Very Much Online certainly get excited about them.

That said, what Holly’s saying about the sunshine hero’s characterization also speaks to my earlier point that often grumpy/sunshine isn’t really always grumpy/sunshine but is maybe wounded/sunshine or grumpy/sociable or grumpy/well adjusted or anti-social/social and grumpy/sunshine has simply become a catch-all for a certain kind of opposites attract dynamic. For example, people often cite Managed as a great Grumpy/Sunshine book and while I could see Scottie as maybe being grumpy (more uptight than grumpy though, tbh), I didn’t find Sophie to be particularly sunshiney. 

Also I’ve been reading a ton of M/M romance, so the gender dynamics of this trope haven’t been so apparent to me. Highly recommend.

Let’s talk more about the gender dynamics and how characterizations impact the trope. 

Erin: I was very much struck by Holly’s point re: heroines being the vast majority of sunshiney protagonists. I am fully in the camp of “give me emotionally constipated (and preferably also pining) hero,” so it’s not a characterization I’m bothered by when reading for fun, but I can see that it does tap into the Unlikeable Heroine problem. We’re more likely to be critical of a heroine’s reason for being grumpy or prickly or otherwise Unlikeable. I’m totally prepared to argue that it’s probably better for there not to be an underlying reason for a character to be grumpy because then the reader can’t be critical of that, it’s simply the way that character is. 

Now, I am also thinking of gender in the cis M/M romance I’ve been reading voraciously. As I recall, the sunshine characters are not more femme (or at least less…burly?) than the grumpy characters, but I can acknowledge that a lumberjack-type character is more likely to be the grump in the relationship. At least, I’m pretty sure I haven’t read a M/M g/s with the lumberjack type as the sunshine. I recently listened to an Esther Perel podcast where she discussed how people perceive the world – I’m alone vs. I will always find people – so I’ve been thinking of this dynamic more in those terms. One protagonist feels completely alone while the other feels that there is a community that can be relied on, and without the other social input re differing gender of the characters, it doesn’t get so complicated. 

Holly: Building on my grump about the gendered dynamic, I feel like sometimes it can go as far as infantilizing the female/sunshine character. Like “This heroine is so naive” or “Look at this silly heroine who loves sunshine and rainbows and unicorns.” The best grumpy-sunshine books play with this dynamic in interesting ways, but there are plenty of books that…don’t.

Ingrid: I think I can grudgingly admit to this premise. It kind of goes hand in hand with my romance theory that we often like to see the scenarios that don’t often work out in real life play out on the page. In some of these books we have a truly grumpy stick-in-the-mud who is miraculously transformed by his love for the sunshine–and I think some of us do like the idea that we can love someone so perfectly they’ll be transformed by that. Which is just…so unlikely in real life. 

What happens when the grumps aren’t really grumpy and the sunshines aren’t really sunshiney?

Holly: I think that Erin’s earlier point that grumpy-sunshine has kind of become a catch-all for a certain type of opposites-attract dynamic is right. With that said, however, I am not such a stickler for the rules that I don’t think of all these books as grumpy-sunshine books. When grumps are only sort of grumpy and sunshines are only sort of sunshiney, for me it just means that the extremes between their characterization is less pronounced, but you still see the same basic beats. 

(My irritation about the grumpy heroine I mentioned before was more that I wanted some himbo action and didn’t get it, rather than that the dynamic between the characters wasn’t enough of an opposites-attract situation. The book is His Grumpy Childhood Friend by Jackie Lau.)

Erin: If I’m really hungry for a grumpy/sunshine read, what I want in that read is for the grump to be my very most favoritest emotionally inaccessible grumpy sort of hero who needs a metric ton of sunshine fiber to get over that emotional constipation. And I want that grump to be inexplicably and reluctantly gooey cinnamon roll soft for the sunshine character that is ruthlessly upending their life. And I also want the sunshiney character to not be fully moored in emotional trauma and angst and simply using an outwardly sunny personality to mask their true feelings. 

So, for me, when I see an advert for grumpy/sunshine and that dynamic is less pronounced, as Holly described, I might not disagree that it still can qualify as grumpy/sunshine; however, my enjoyment of that particular trope in that particular narrative will probably not be what I wanted it to be. At the end of the day it’s an expectations issue. Just because something might technically be categorized in this trope doesn’t mean it’s going to be a satisfying version thereof. 

Ingrid: Well, I think having this trope be a slight spectrum is fine–what is grumpy to one may be perfectly pleasant to someone else. In some of these, we almost border on enemies-to-lovers–if the first interaction is really awful and antagonistic, the reader is going to need to see some work being done by the grump in order to buy in to that romance. And honestly, I’m ok with that, too. So I just feel like I have enough love in my heart for all KINDS of grumpy sunshine books.

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: Well crap. Okay. Role Model by Rachel Reid. Troy is miserable and unpleasant because his whole life has been unraveled. Harris is a walking ball of sunshine. Troy feels safe with and admires Harris, and Harris sees underneath all the noise to realize that Troy is struggling. So many warm fuzzies.

But also, like, if you haven’t read Managed by Kristen Callihan, you really should. Scottie!!!

Holly: Glitterland by Alexis Hall. I fully identified with misanthropic Ash, who went from disdaining Darian’s beautiful sunshine energy to discovering that he actually loved it. Plus the writing is just phenomenal. 

And since I am, by Smut Report Law, required to include a histrom in these let’s talk tropes recommendations lists, Dearest Rogue by Elizabeth Hoyt is a solid grumpy-sunshine bodyguard romance. Phoebe is one of those rare true sunshine heroines who just radiates kindness and joy to everyone—except her extremely grouchy bodyguard, who she resents (until she doesn’t). The plot is totally bonkers, but James and Phoebe are perfect in their longing for each other.

Ingrid: I realize I’m like a broken record about this book, but By a Thread by Lucy Score is a beautifully done, very steamy example of Grumpy/Sunshine. It opens with the Grumpy hero getting the heroine fired from her job, only to discover that his mother has hired the heroine to work at the publisher they own together. He’s so grumpy and it’s just so steamy and good. 


Media we mentioned in this discussion:


Love grumpy sunshine romances? All the books we’ve blogged about with grumpy and sunshine pairings can be found here.

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Secret Baby

Bottom line: Do you like the secret baby trope?

Erin: I usually get mad or wonder why these protagonists are even getting back together. It works better for me if the mom was unable to contact the dad (the concealment wasn’t intentional).

Holly: Secret baby romances are really just second chance romances with extra special sauce, right? Erin and I have already argued extensively about second chance romances, so I’m not surprised that she doesn’t like secret babies either. Even though I like second chance romances, I don’t love secret baby stories, mainly because I frequently struggle with the portrayal of the children. They are either tiny grownups or extremely twee, and the babies ALWAYS sleep through the night. Plus there’s usually some overwrought stuff about parenthood that the main characters are going through. (I have trouble with Single Parent romances for similar reasons.)

Ingrid: I really don’t, if I’m honest. I think—and it’s not always the case, of course—they tend to feature some of my least favorite relationship issues as plot devices and I just don’t dig it.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a secret baby trope?

Erin: I do not lump secret baby and accidental/surprise pregnancy together, so I am a bit of a purist with the expectation that the secret baby has already been born and (bare minimum) the pregnancy and birth has been kept from the father. More than that, I’d expect that the baby wouldn’t even be a baby anymore. More like a toddler or even older. I think the concealment of the child is essential to the trope. That said, I recently read Up In Smoke by Annabeth Albert which I would categorize as secret baby (I guess?) but the relationship occurs between the baby’s uncle (upon whom the baby has been dumped by his sister) and the baby’s father who is surprised by the arrival of both the uncle and the existence of the baby. So I’m not totally inflexible. Bottom line: I do not count surprise pregnancy as secret baby.

Holly: The name is in the trope: the baby has to be a secret. A secret baby story hinges on the concealment of the child from the biological father. (I guess it’s possible to have a secret baby story where the father steals the newborn and tells the mom it dies and then they get back together years later, but I have yet to read it.) There is frequent overlap with the accidental pregnancy trope, because if you’re in a committed relationship and trying for children something really drastic must have happened for there to also be a secret baby. 

Ingrid: Secret baby is where a baby is hidden from the father. I’m sure there are a smattering of books with fresh takes or twists on this trope, but I think that’s the basic summary.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It has a pretty solid built in conflict. “Hi, you’re a parent and you didn’t know it” is a pretty epic jumping off point for the start of a relationship that somehow already was over.

Ingrid: I think it forces the characters into a permanent and immediately serious relationship—by and large, the people in question are forever changed by the child existing, and they have to slog through a lot of really serious vulnerabilities and difficult decisions and conversations in order to do the right thing by the child. So I think they can be really deliciously messy and deep when done right.

Holly: I think Erin and Ingrid have pretty much covered it. 

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: As a uterus-having person, I am not going to be the one blindsided by a surprise child, but I always think about how angry/confused/otherwise emotional I would be if I had a child sprung on me. I’m not sure I’d go from that emotional stew to forgiveness to love in the length of a romance novel. On the other hand, if I am a uterus-having person who has withheld the existence of my child from the child’s other bio parent, then what on earth is a good enough reason for me to get over that and allow this other parent person in my life again? 

Holly: Look at Erin, using logic and reason against this trope! 

Ingrid: Sounds about right.

Holly: I will push back a little and say that what Erin is saying—that the problems she points out are issues people with secret-baby relationships would have that I think we all have problems with on a personal level, but are not inherently *problematic*.

Erin: All of this is making me realize that this is a very cis M/F romance dominated trope. It is relying entirely on someone who is able to be pregnant being impregnated by someone who is able to impregnate. So it’s not impossible that a queer romance could include a secret baby trope, but I bet interested readers would have to do some serious digging to find one.

Oh, and also, in historical romance the secret baby is overwhelmingly a girl, and this seems to be primarily the case so nobody has to feel bad about a little boy not being entitled to his inheritance because his parents weren’t married when he was born. Which is a whole thing.

Holly: Building on Erin’s point about the cis-hetero aspects of this trope, I would add that parenthood is frequently portrayed as an innately biological function. In other words, the logic of secret baby romances often states that the bio-dad is inherently the correct and natural father-figure for the child, that love for the child comes naturally due to genetic ties, and that alternate parenting structures are inferior to the Mother-Father-Child trifecta. 

If this is a trope that we’d struggle with in a real life context, what do you think makes it a pleasurable reading choice?

Ingrid: Well, it’s a real emotional collision. Most of the time, historically, romance novels tended to be a sweeping love story followed by marriage and babies. Turning that on its head is interesting and weaves a really tangled web for these characters to land in. Just because I’d hate it in real life doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating on the page.

Erin: I never thought about it as turning the romance timeline on its head, but I like it. 

I wonder if it’s a little bit of wishful idealism combined with some relatively predictable (not necessarily in a bad way) inborn angst? If I accept Holly’s Second Chance Romance argument that people can come back together after years and be in a better place to be in a relationship with each other, then the idea that two people who once saw something in each other can come back together and not only repair their own relationship but also create a stable and happy family relationship is really hopeful. They have the tension of working through the prior misunderstanding or one night stand that separated them, and they also have the discomfort of trying to figure out how their new family situation is going to work, but the reader knows that it’s a romance, so it’s safer to be a fly on the wall during those tense periods because, unlike with other storytelling or real life where the HEA is not guaranteed, you know that it’ll be okay in the end and everyone will go home happy.

Holly: I have nothing to add to Erin and Ingrid’s very thoughtful responses.

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: You know what? I’m going to say The Best Thing by Mariana Zapata. Lenny did try to contact Jonah, he was unreachable because he was having some personal problems, BUT he came back to find Lenny after he got himself sorted and before he knew they had a kid together. When he did find out, they worked at being great co-parents because he wanted to be a present dad, not because they needed to make themselves into a family in order to, like, do the right thing or whatever.

Holly: As the person who always recommends a bonkers historical romance when we talk tropes, Eloisa James’ Desperate Duchesses series includes a series-long subplot regarding an illegitimate child being raised by his father. It’s kind of a twist on the secret baby trope because the child’s parentage is a secret to the readers, not the parents, but its revelation to other characters drives the plot, especially in A Duke of Her Own.

Not Quite Over You by Susan Mallery also does interesting things with the trope. In this case, Drew knew that Silver got pregnant; they had broken up by this point, so Silver said she’d “take care of it,” and that was the end of the conversation. Silver did give their daughter up for adoption, but what Drew doesn’t know is that Silver remained in contact with the adoptive family and therefore has a relationship with their daughter. Is this child a secret? Not exactly, but Drew is still blindsided by her continued existence in Silver’s life. 

Ingrid: So, I really didn’t think it at the time, but A Cowboy for Keeps by Laura Drake just stuck in my mind. It’s a secret baby—but the baby was kept a secret from their families. So the father’s brother and the sister’s sister end up having to figure out custody and parenting, there’s a HUGE wealth power dynamic going on…it’s a really interesting take on this trope.


Books we mentioned in this discussion:

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!