Partway through 101 Reykjavík, I got fed up with Hlynur Björn. I had to take a break from him, so I picked up Tawna Fenske’s latest release, Frisky Business. It was just the playful thing to break up the sludge of Hlynur’s misanthropic world, and delivered all the goodies that I’ve come to expect from Fenske’s books.
The scenario: Personal experience has convinced Marley that rich men only care about money, and she’s determined her next relationship will be with someone down-to-earth with depth of character. Unfortunately, she has shallowly defined such a man as one with a working-class income. Enter leading man, William, down-to-earth, open-minded charity-worker and super-hottie, who happens to be filthy rich. Also, he is her new boss at an organization with a no-fraternizing policy. Humorous and heated hi-jinks ensue.
Fenske’s books are usually set in small, nameless Oregon towns that strongly resemble her own home of Bend (which, let’s face it, is kind of a perfect setting for romance). Frisky Business is set in Bend, and Fenske gets to drag a lot of her day job promoting Bend as a tourist destination into the story, trumpeting the appeal of local sites and activities so successfully that her boss is unlikely to worry about the town’s involvement in smut, despite a number of work-place make-out sessions in the book. Purely fictional, after all.
One of the reasons I like Fenske’s books is the dialogue. Most fiction writers say that dialogue is the hardest thing to write. Fenske does believably awkward conversations hilariously, and can makes dialogue as snappy as an old Hollywood movie (although in Frisky Business, she mostly focuses her verbal wit on creative euphemisms for sex). Another reason I enjoy her books when I want to throw other romances at the wall is her characters. She does not write simpering 20-something virgins. Her heroines are actual adults, with exes and job histories. They stick up for themselves in non-futile ways; there’s no angry banging of tiny fists against brawny chest before collapsing upon said pecs in tears. But her heroines are also deeply flawed, often irrational, and usually have hang ups – just not the sexual kind. In other words, they are interesting people you might actually want to know.
A quick survey of websites delineating the hero character types in romance novels confirms that Fenske’s heroes are also a little too three-dimensional for the genre. They come closest to the Beta/Friend type because, you know, they aren’t complete misogynist assholes. But they are never actually “just friends.” Her heroes are hot from the beginning. They have imperfections besides the single flaw that serves as a plot device to keep the lovers apart. A chef with great arms is a little soft around the middle in one book; a Marine has PTSD; Frisky Business’ William has mismatched eyes that weird out the heroine. These heroes make pretty good sparring partners in calling out the heroine’s bad choices (also the wrestling kind). In other words, they are the kind of men you’d actually like to end up with yourself (unless you’re a straight male, then you should probably be taking notes).
At the end of a Fenske novel, the hero and heroine always own up to their flaws and vow to each other that they will work on improving them. It’s a little corny, but not as corny as the standard romance trope of ending with wedding vows. It’s a more romantic to leave the door open a little at the end. The initial obstacles to being together have been overcome means the book is finished, but that doesn’t mean the story’s over.
Some people might think these changes take all the romance out of a romance. I’ve heard people make the argument that romance is fantasy, not a public service announcement. But I’ve also heard women confess that they had to outgrow the false expectations instilled by reading a lot of romance. Romance can be an escape from reality. But a good writer can make imperfect characters attractive and she can keep a safe-sex scene hot. Instead of an escape from real life, romance can be a reminder of how romantic and sexy real life can be. Or it can be an escape from the weight of serious literature. Either way.