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cover of The Witness showing a forest stream with a small waterfall


It's stopped surprising me that the things to snap me out of reading slumps continue to be the books and authors of my childhood. There's something about picking up a familiar author that takes me back to my bedroom, the rolling waves of my waterbed, the lamp burning until two in the morning, and all the comfort and security I felt back then. I don't feel judged. I don't feel like I'm not going to get it. I don't feel the weight of the entire genre hovering over me, judging me for not having read all books that led the author I'm currently involved with to their stories. Even when I dislike the book the familiarity of the story and the characters make me feel welcomed home.

Nora Roberts is a flawed author with a paint by numbers style that's predictable and sometimes downright offensive. I jokingly said to a friend that she's a guilty pleasure read, especially the trilogy romances that appear as often as stores are rotating out seasonal decorations. However, I started reading Roberts with her hardback dramas. Homeport was the first and I picked it up on a recommendation from the public librarian after I had exhausted the meager teen section. That section was one rotating wire rack when I was a kid, filled with Goosebumps, Babysitters Club, various levels of Sweet Valley books, a brand of romances called Love Stories and a plethora of worn Choose Your Own Adventures. Homeport looked huge and daunting and different, but the librarian loved it and was determined for me to give it a try. I was sixteen years old.

These books are hit or miss but they make me feel like that kid I was, reading about improbable scenarios that ended with love and marriage, when it seemed like my humdrum existence was both defined by and consumed with the failure of everyone around me to have happy, steady relationships. I know so often I would get mocked that I was reading porn. No, now I am reading porn (I love you, fandom). Back then I was reading these fascinating stories about people who met, melded their lives together, cared for each other, and connected with each other equitably and without hidden agendas or strings. The people in these stories did this without requiring subservience and compliance for even a hint of affection, whereas in my life the opposite was true. Sometimes there would be bonus drama in the form of a murder and a whodunit, but what I cared about was the relationship equality those stories told me about which was missing from my life.

Books give us lots of things. What Nora Roberts gave that lonely teenager, again and again, was assurance that connection was possible and could happen, even for the unlikeliest or most unlikeable people. Maybe even, one day, for her. I don't need that anymore; I've surrounded myself with people who are loyal and steadfast and don't need the constant press of drama in their relationships. But when I read these books, I can recall that feeling of reassurance like it's brand new. I feel stronger, both as a person and as a reader.

The Witness is the story of Elizabeth Fitch, her flirtation with rebellion, risk and freedom. It's a story about how her rebellion has the high price of her security and her life when she gets mixed up in organized crime and becomes a witness to a murder, both of a criminal and a new-found friend. The book isn't about her transformation from Elizabeth Fitch into Abigail Lowery in order to hide and protect herself, but it hints at the creation of the persona. Abigail is introduced to us as a person who lives in a state of stasis, in wait, alone and with no personal attachments and taking no risks so she can effectively hide. Abigail's life is generally secure and she feels safe upon her move to a quiet Arkansas town, until the sheriff, friendly, easygoing Brooks Gleason, threatens to disturb the peace Abigail hopes to find in the remote Ozarks. It's a romance and a reclamation, as Brooks enters into the safety net Abigail lives inside, and brings with him the rest of the world, and all the stresses, wonder and uncertainty of life and connection to other people.

The Witness wasn't some kind of amazing, life-changing novel. It's Nora Roberts formula, remarkably one-note and simplistic, maybe more so than usual given that the villains are immediately coded and known the whole novel and only barely humanized. Looking back, I also find the romance skeevy. It's a good thing I never really pick these things up during the reading process. But as always I find the skill with which Roberts builds the feeling of community and family enviable. Quite often I enjoy side characters more than the main characters, and that's true here, from Brooks's mother to his best friend. This isn't a particularly Southern quality; I think all small towns breed this type of close connection, an intimacy that's lost the more people get added to a place.

The romance also reminded me of Bones. The characters and their romance in it feel really, really similar to Booth and Brennan. In fact, in many places within the novel I feel like if I replaced the names, this book would have been fair to middling AU fanfiction with terrible, skimmable porn. photo of David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel as Bones and Booth Part of it was Brooks's lackadaisical style, and Abigail's social awkwardness. It went deeper than that to the ways that Brooks and Abigail interacted with others and each other, with a bonus side of organized crime and revenge. Unfortunately, Bones manages the awkward melding of these two personality types much better than The Witness does. The most startling resemblance to this dynamic is Abigail's cluelessness about interpersonal relationships and various parts of culture that can't be studied, all while being extremely educated in various topics and, hilariously, fandoms. Obviously I liked this dynamic in Bones, and would have enjoyed it here, too, but I had to break out the creeper scale for the romance.

Brooks doesn't accept no for an answer. The older I get, the more this trend in romance bothers me, where the woman is very obviously not interested and the man just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing until the woman is worn down enough to say "well, I guess" and "I can end this any time!" (yeah, that doesn't sound problematic at all!). Including this relationship of the pursuer and pursued can invoke the feeling of being desired and wanted, but the entire first half of the book I just couldn't believe that the main love interest was being lauded for not accepting the disinterest and dismissal, for forcing himself on someone who kept making her wishes clear and having them ignored. Anything else would have been better than this structure like: Brooks being a good guy who respects Abigail's wishes! Some other event throwing them together where she decides to be friends because she really does want to make a life for herself! Of course, the structure of the story casts Abigail as a hermit and semi-shut in with absolutely no wiggle room, and so really the only way to accomplish a romance is to let the love interest force their way in. It makes it even worse (or sad) that the book also features another physically abusive relationship and an emotionally abusive relationship, but presents the relationship between Brooks and Abigail as something different because of sexy times or Brooks's ability to white knight in Abigail's struggle to reclaim the world and her life.

I just want consent! Needless to say, childhood me would have loved this. Adult me is giving the whole novel and every characterization in it the side-eye.

Which is to say, this works for some people. This dynamic turns someone's crank and that's awesome, but the lack of consent, the brute force seduction, treating another person like their concerns or issues don't matter under the guise of getting to know them for friendship, dating or sexual purposes is never going to work for me.

Also, I think fandom has ruined me for sex scenes. If they're not super explicit and full of feelings and words, count me out. I have ultimately never connected with the sex in Roberts's books past my young self's confusion about the whole process, reading and rereading them to figure that shit out (those with patience to download porn on 14.4k, you have my respect, but I do not share your determination). But then again, I was sucked into fandom in 1994. Traditionally published romance novels and the sex within them never stood a chance.

This has been another episode of Renay's Literary and Porn Preferences disguised as a Serious Review. Ha.

Date: 2012-08-02 04:54 am (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
I was so surprised to see this! I have never read Nora Roberts, but I think I can identify with still finding some level of...memory and comfort in books/authors of the past.

I just couldn't believe that the main love interest was being lauded for not accepting the disinterest and dismissal, for forcing himself on someone who kept making her wishes clear and having them ignored

Sigh. This is such a hugely popular dynamic, too, it seems especially if the guy is funny and a little cocky. But don't you know? Of course the guy knows best! The poor woman just doesn't know what she wants, she needs him to enlighten her!

Date: 2012-08-02 06:20 am (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
aw I didn't mean to be shaming anyone, I just find it interesting to talk about because I probably liked it myself until someone pointed out why it's a problem. So like...I find the discussion, like the one you have here, worthwhile and interesting. (as always! You always make me think :)

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