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!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Cinderella Romance

Bottom line: Do you like Cinderella romances?

Erin: They pretty much always make me want to pull out all my hair.

Holly: I have to admit that I don’t think I’ve read that many Cinderella romances? BUT! I have read approximately 1000 different versions of the Cinderella story – I used to teach a seminar on fairy tales and we spent an entire week on Cinderella – so I have a lot of thoughts. The short version: I think the Cinderella story is fascinating in its malleability and what it can reveal about who retells it. She contains multitudes! In terms of romance, I think my biggest disappointment is when authors don’t do more with it, but rather just stick to the beats of Disney, because that is BO-RING. Where are my magic trees?

Ingrid: I do! Obviously some can be a little stressful, but I think they tend to have a lot of potential.

What defines a “Cinderella” romance for you? 

Erin: I would expect to see a poor protagonist living with an unwelcoming family who meets the other protagonist in some kind of misunderstanding/deception situation, after which the protagonists are separated and come back together when the truth is found out. Fairy godmothers, magic pumpkins, and talking mice optional.

Holly: **cracks knuckles** Ok guys, I’m going to nerd out now. At its heart, Cinderella is about crossing class boundaries. And this movement is a huge source of anxiety – who gets to move up, and who is in danger of moving down. So one could make the argument that any rags-to-riches or unequal match story is a Cinderella romance, but I think that for it to really be a true Cinderella retelling there has to be some back and forth across class lines. When Cinderella goes to the ball, she’s pretending to be wealthy (or, at least, mistaken for someone who is wealthy); the real magic happens when the prince finds out that she’s just a nobody, and recognizes her anyway as The One. This was a long-winded way of saying that I agree with Erin, except I think you can have a Cinderella story without the evil step-sisters. (Speaking in terms of literary devices, they are evil because they fail at doing what Cinderella does successfully.) She just has to be poor. 

Ingrid: I feel Holly on this one, but I also feel like a lot of Cinderella romance expands on each character’s value system–for example, obviously the Evil Step-family values status above all else. The Prince wants someone “real”. Cinderella wants someone to see her and choose her. So I guess I have found that the whole “your true values will be seen and rewarded accordingly” thing to be what defines a “Cinderella romance” for me. 

What do you find fun about Cinderella romances?

Erin: I like that Cinderella is finally able to get out of a bad situation. I would not say that I find them particularly “fun.”

Holly: I think the fantasy of dressing up and pretending to be someone else and escaping your life for just a little bit – and then escaping your life for real – is really powerful. 

Ingrid: It’s just a classic rooting for the underdog situation. You know she’s the real gem here, and it feels so satisfying to see her appreciated and rewarded for being a good human.

What do you find problematic about Cinderella romances?

Erin: I am almost always made fantastically anxious or uncomfortable by the unnecessary cruelty of Cinderella’s family, and I don’t like that Cinderella was put in the position to live this way. She also has never seemed to me to have much agency, as she’s very much subjected to a cruel family and rescued by Prince Charming. Things are always happening to her, she is not making things happen for her, which is not something I am good at tolerating in a protagonist. 

Holly: First, I disagree that Cinderella necessarily has to be passive – though that does seem to happen a lot. (Again, why is Disney our go-to metric when there is so much other Cinderella material to work with?) There is definitely a sense of, “only a man with money can fix my woes” instead of, I dunno, “I found a decent man and we’ll work it out together and have a modest life full of love and laughter.” But that’s not the trope, so if I have problems with fantasies about obscene wealth, then these are not the books for me. 

Ingrid: So, I don’t particularly love the “he’s the only one who sees her worth” vibe. In Ever After with Drew Barrymore, I found that they portrayed the Cinderella character as almost crackling with strength and wit and she certainly had people staunchly in her corner, so I don’t think that dynamic is a given in these stories.

Do Cinderella stories work better for you in a specific sub-genre or time period?

Erin: Maybe they work a little better in a historical context where women were more socially and economically vulnerable than men due to their legal standing. I can’t really think of any adult romance Cinderella stories off the top of my head, but I feel like I’d probably rage at a contemporary heroine who hasn’t worked to get herself out of a bad situation without the help of a Prince Charming. I think any other sub-genre or period would lead me to expect that the heroine should do more to rescue herself before she ever even meets the Prince.

Holly: Wanting to improve your lot in life and maybe being a bit sneaky about doing it transcends time and place. 

Ingrid: I feel like half the fun of the Cinderella story is flipping it around and trying it out in new ways. I don’t think any particular way works better because I think it’s pretty versatile!

What’s one book you loved that featured this trope? What’s so great about this book and how it handled that trope?

Erin: Eloisa James’s A Kiss at Midnight probably gets just far away enough from full-blown Cinderella that I enjoyed the story. Things don’t just happen to Kate, Kate makes things happen. And Gabriel has his own problems to wade through before he can finally start making the right choices. So there’s some good drama here instead of a lot of infuriating drama. 

Holly: Ok, I’m going to be bad, and pick a movie. Because Ever After is the most satisfying Cinderella retelling. 

Ingrid: I’m sorry, but I agree with Holly. Ever After made it almost impossible to focus in school for about 4 months after it came out. Plus he has that accent and the scowl and really it kind of overlaps into Grumpy/Sunshine, which everyone knows is the best trope.


Are you Team Erin, and find Cinderella stories incredibly stressful? Are you Team Ingrid, and love seeing people’s true values revealed and rewarded? Or are you Team Holly, and you’re just gonna be a nerd and spend an hour trolling through this database of different Cinderella folktale retellings? Let us know in the comments!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Road Trip Romances

This week, we’ll be featuring romances that are all about the road trip. To get us in the mood, we chatted briefly about the trope and our own experiences on the road.

A preview of the books we’ll be reviewing this week

Bottom line: Do you like the Road Trip Trope?

Erin: To be honest, I was kind of surprised when I realized it’s a trope that I need to categorize, so I guess I never paid much attention to it. 

Holly: I LOVE it. It’s my favorite type of forced proximity. 

Ingrid: I haven’t read too many road-trip books but then I did…and I really liked it.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It’s a playful trope. An author can take any pair of characters, from enemies to strangers to old acquaintances and put them together for a journey in which they kind of need to figure out how to be together or have a terrible time. Plus, it’s a perfectly reasonable forced proximity situation, whatever the excuses were to get in the vehicle together in the first place, so there can be plenty of opportunities for misadventures and tension that don’t feel like the author is putting the characters together unnaturally.

Holly: So many things! Sometimes the set up for forced proximity stories feels like there’s too much emphasis on the “forced” – but not road trips. You have to get where you’re going, so why not travel together? Road trip stories work in basically any location or time period. Spending a lot of time in a car or carriage is a great excuse to have deep conversations with someone, so the characters developing a connection by sharing confidences is believable. And since you’re traveling, there are plenty of opportunities for shenanigans. Oh no, there’s ONLY ONE BED at the hotel! Oh no, we were just attacked by bandits! This trope is just so versatile. 

Ingrid: I think it sets the characters up for just exactly the right amount of drama. You’re stuck together and things are going to go wrong. And you’ll see things that take your breath away. And you’re also stuck in a box within hand distance of a person you’re attracted to. What’s not fun about that?

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: I don’t think it’s particularly problematic at all, but typically a road trip doesn’t last a very long time, so maybe it isn’t for people who don’t enjoy stories with a fast-paced romance that happens over only a few days. 

Holly: Nothing. There is nothing problematic about this trope. I mean, obviously, sometimes the execution works better, and sometimes a book featuring a road trip doesn’t work for me, but not because of the trope. Maybe if your worry about global warming extends into all areas of your fiction reading adventures, you’d be like, “Man, all that time they’re spending in the car is creating a lot of pollution.”

Ingrid: I guess the only thing I can think of is that it’s kind of unusual having a mobile setting? Secondary characters end up being more in the far periphery than in a book with a more fixed setting. But while that might create challenges for the author I’m not sure I’d call it problematic for the reader…

What’s the most epic road trip you’ve taken? Have your own road trip experiences influenced the way you read road trip romances?

Erin: Well I was going to say that my most epic road trip was my around the world trip, or at least going overland from Nairobi to Johannesburg all over southern Africa, but then my husband said that doesn’t count as a road trip, which bummed me out. In which case I guess it was even we were really not smart in our mid-20s and (twice!) drove all night to get to Titusville, Florida in order to watch a shuttle launch spur-of-the-moment. So for me road trips have often been times of quiet and reflection or dedicated times that I have been removed from any other kind of responsibility. Other than that round-the-world trip, my road trips have all been pretty uneventful and low-key, so sometimes I might roll my eyes when the protagonists hit road bumps that seem like stock problems. But also I’m the “That didn’t go as planned, I guess we’re having an adventure!” to my husband’s “Everything is falling apart, this is a disaster!” so I love finding that sort of grumpy/sunshine dynamic in road trip books.

Holly: Most epic road trip is a tough one. Maybe the time my sister and I borrowed Grandma’s giant Buick and drove around the Southwest for two weeks. This was pre-smartphone, but post-Mapquest, so we had printed out directions for our route every day. Not all of them were entirely accurate. Also, it rained while we were in Vegas, so the one day we stayed in a fancy hotel instead of camping, the pool was closed. Lame! 

However, my reading of road trip romances is probably more heavily shaped by the many times my husband and I drove from Chicago to the East Coast, because we were those people who got a dog and then had to bring him everywhere with us. All of our trips included hours of just talking and checking in with each other. (And listening to the Savage Lovecast.) So the idea of a road trip as a time set apart from real life, where you can build connections in ways that aren’t usually possible – I completely believe it.

Ingrid: Well, I bailed on Maryland after living abroad and decided to move to Colorado on a bit of a whim. I drove myself all alone the whole way, my car had no air conditioning, and I was stung by a stowaway bee while driving. I think I made it there with $200 to my name. But it was liberating to be that alone, and I loved it. I think road trip romances maybe feature one person too many, based on that experience!! 

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: The best book for this trope has got to be A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare. Other books are also great, sure sure, but Colin is a whole mess, and Minerva pretty much kidnaps him so she can go to a geology convention in Scotland. There’s a lot of that standard rake/bluestocking histrom business in this book, but Dare plays with it in ways that are light and fun, so the whole book is just delightful.

Holly: Good rec, Erin! A Week to be Wicked is hands down my favorite Tessa Dare book. But road trips work in all time periods, so how about a Western? The Gunslinger’s Vow by Amy Sandas is excellent, in part because the perils of the road allow the heroine to reveal herself – both to the hero, and to herself.

Ingrid: Well, Hairpin Curves was absolutely delightful because it took estranged best friends and provided a really gradual but tense unfolding of what went wrong while new romantic tension was building. It felt like a lot of emotional and sexual development at once, which I think makes sense in a road trip—it’s a lot of time to think and talk, and you’re so physically close!! 


What do you think? Do you love the road trip trope? Is there something about it you hate that you’re dying to tell us about? What’s you’re favorite road trip book? Let us know in the comments!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Best Friend’s Sibling

This week we’re doing a bit of housekeeping by focusing only on the Best Friend’s Sibling trope. What that means is, Erin read a bunch of books and wrote a bunch of reviews, but we all keep reading new books and writing reviews, so a little binge is in order. Why not use a little theme week for a trope Erin finds it hard to resist?

To begin, all of the Smut Reporters share their thoughts on Best Friend’s Sibling…

Bottom line: Do you like the Best Friend’s Sibling Trope?

Erin: I am a total sucker for this trope, even though it’s usually ridiculously predictably tropey. More so for the men being besties than for the women being besties. Much more drama that way.

Holly: I can take it or leave it. It’s not a trope I actively seek out, but I’ll happily read a book that features it.

Ingrid: I have a serious soft spot for it…selectively.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It’s an excellent melting pot for a scoop of angst (I shouldn’t! But I want to!), a splash of seduction (Let’s succumb to this burning desire!), a pinch of sneaking around (Sibling can’t find out!), and a healthy dose of she’s-worth-fighting-for (not gonna lie, I need it sometimes).

Holly: I do really like it when protagonists already know each other when the book begins. What’s fun about the Best Friend’s Sibling is that they know each other already – but they get to know each other in a completely different way.

Ingrid: I love that there’s a “forbidden” element without necessarily being too…angsty. The ones I like are often rom com, and I love the whole “seeing a whole new person in someone you’ve known your whole life” thing.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: Some authors are able to create a less problematic dynamic of “Let’s not mess up important relationships with someone we both care about,” but most of the time, this trope involves mad caveman behavior on the part of the sibling, especially if it’s a man/man friend pairing. Independence, good judgement, control – they all get in the mix with caveman sibling behavior.

Holly: There are two popular iterations of this trope: the best friend’s yummy older brother who I’ve been crushing on forever, and the best friend’s pesky younger sister who is suddenly hot. The second one is more problematic for me, mainly because the best friend / older brother also gets involved and is weirdly overprotective of his sister. Bro, if your friend is too lame to date your sister, maybe he’s too lame to be your friend. Just sayin’.

Ingrid: Obviously you walk a fine problematic line of possessiveness. Ideally, the sibling should end up being really happy their two favorite people are hooking up, and those are often just…yummy. However, I absolutely detest when the older brother is a clunky, irrational caveman about the whole thing or when the hero acts like the heroine is someone who needs to be protected from her own urges. That’s gross.

Does the trope work better in a specific sub-genre or time period?

Erin: Given that the primary conflict in this trope tends to be that the sibling (brother) won’t approve, it’s a bit easier to stomach without having wayward thoughts of “wrong!” in historical romance, given that women’s rights and social understandings of equality have evolved in Western civilization over the past couple centuries. On the other hand, having a contemporary sister lay into her brother about his caveman behavior can be pretty entertaining.

Holly: Thinking about this in terms of the problematic side of things, the overprotective brother works better for me in historical romance – it feels less gross caveman and more about acknowledging the economic insecurities of unmarried women. 

Ingrid: Historical certainly takes the edge off the caveman approach, but I have enjoyed it in a historical and a contemporary context.

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 don’t know! 

Holly: Being Hospitable by Meka James. This is a sexy f/f novella where a young woman moves in with / seduces her older brother’s best friend. There’s definitely the dynamic of “Oh, yeah, you’re still the pesky young’un” that allows the characters to banter and play with the boundaries between them, but the brother is not an impediment. In fact, the heroines worry about it for a hot minute, and then Charley calls up her brother (alone – she wants to stand on her own two feet in her relationship with her family), tells him she’s dating his best friend, and…that’s the end of it. 

Ingrid: Charming as Puck, by Pippa Grant. This is the first Pippa I ever read, and I absolutely adored the way she executed the whole thing. Humorous perfection.

Dueling Review, Let's Talk Tropes

Trope Duel: Two Views on Second Chance Romance

We haven’t done any buddy reads in a while, so for this installment of Dueling Reviews, Holly and Erin share their thoughts on Second Chance Romances. Holly thinks they’re great. Erin thinks they’re nothing but nonsense. Moderated by Ingrid.

Ingrid: Let’s start this Trope Duel with a definition of the “Second Chance at Love”:

This romance trope can play out in a number of ways. Perhaps a couple breaks up only to reunite decades later. Maybe they have been deeply hurt in the past, and have spent years avoiding any kind of romantic relationship. Now they will meet and learn to give love another chance. This is a hopeful trope that readers enjoy because it enforces the theme that “it’s never too late.”

Annnnnd…GO!

Erin: Okay, so now we all have the definition … of malarky. The problem with Second Chance Romance (henceforth SCR) is that the characters have fantastically wasted huge amounts of time and then they’re coming back to a relationship that didn’t work in the first place and somehow magically whatever’s wrong is not a problem anymore, which is ridiculous because things and people don’t really change. 

Continue reading “Trope Duel: Two Views on Second Chance Romance”