HelenKay: Just as there are old standards in romance songs – think Sinatra – there are some old standards in romance novels. These are the patterns and situations authors use over and over to push the romance where they want it to go. The unfaithful fiancee who drives the heroine into the arms of the hero. The marriage of convenience. The domineering family that rules the adult child’s life through a series of threats and enticements. The hero who loves dogs. Actually, that last one might be okay in any book.
Sometimes these elements, alone or together in some combination, work. The reader jumps on for the ride, just happy to be on board. Other times, the reader shuts down from the repetitive scenarios. It’s a fine line, one usually separated by a strong author voice, writing that shines and characters that feel full despite the recycled storyline. When the author falls on the right side of the line, the been-there-done-that feeling is forgiven. When, as here, those old romance standards combine with a too-good hero, a weak heroine and an odd run to Vegas, those been-there-done-that feelings become flaws and the forgiving doesn’t come easy.
Tess Sommerville spends the night before her wedding at a bar with her best friend. In walks Will Tremere, the British hottie and former exchange student Tess met years ago as a teen. Tess didn’t seem to know she was harboring the years-old crush on Will until he walked into the bar to say hello and the lightbulb above her head blared to life. Once their eyes meet again, both feel something – something strong that, for reasons unknown, hasn’t surfaced in years.
Hot off seeing Will, Tess finds out her fiancee is carrying on with the Reverend’s daughter – the fiancee’s former flame – behind Tess’s back. The “find out” here consists of Tess walking in on said cheating fiancee and his sidechick in mid-sex session (that last part is the “carrying on”). This all takes place in the community room of the church where Tess and the fiancee are to get married the next day. Tess, who already is experiencing a heavy dose of anxiety about the wedding her stepmother has been planning for her, and a different kind of butterfly-in-the-stomach feel about the reappearance of Will, decides to call off the wedding.
Well, sort of. She decides she doesn’t want to marry the cheater but is afraid to face the cheater – who, at this point, is only a loser not an abuser, but later morphs into both – as well as her father and stepmother who want this marriage because it’s a good social match. No one who knows Tess believes she can withstand the promises and manipulation of the cheater. It is feared the cheater will contend Tess caused him to cheat, and Tess will buy into the argument. So, her friends plot to reveal the cheater’s escapades at the wedding and pretend to be Tess to pull it off. Then, because no one believes Tess will stay away from the cheater (Note: still protecting Tess from her own bad judgment here), she is packed off with Will to travel across country while he delivers a truck and dog to a friend of his and returns home to Los Angeles. Will keeps Tess’s cell phone away from her so that Tess is tempted or forced to talk to the cheater or her stepmother (Note: the protecting Tess from her own bad judgment continunes here). When the cheater hunts down Tess, Will and Tess’s friends decide that Tess should arrange to meet the cheater in Las Vegas (Note: the protecting continues). There, Will decides he will propose and marry Tess to “protect” her from the cheater and from being dragged back across the country to complete the wedding with the cheater (Note: still…oh, you get the point).
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Tess is not infirm, incompetent, incapacitated or 11 years old. She’s a grown woman. A twenty-something. And, quite possibly, one of the weakest contemporary heroines on the shelves. She talks about not wanting to be protected or coddled or anything else that would suggest that she needs to be protected from her own vulnerability. Yet, the entire plot of the book is based on the idea of shielding Tess from making bad choices because she, one assumes, isn’t smart enough or strong enough to see that she should walk away from a guy who cheated on her in the wedding chapel and who has been cheating on her throughout their courtship.
And then there’s Will. Will isn’t upset by crying women. Will can handle a woman vomiting and huddling beneath the bed covers in shock. He falls in love at first sight. Marries on a whim. Doesn’t appear to be disturbed by the idea that the woman he is contemplating spending the rest of his life with – after seeing her again for only a few hours after all those years apart – could go back to the cheater unless prevented from doing so. While “good” guys in real life are good for long-term commitments – overly “good” guys in romance novels tend to come off as weak. Will is no exception. He falls squarely into the too-good-to-be-true pile of heroes. Unfortunately, this leaves him feeling unrealistic and one-dimensional. There isn’t anywhere for Will to go or anyway for him to grow because he starts off near-perfect. His actions don’t play as real, geniune or particularly guy-ish.
One of the frustrations with the book is that there is a charming and enjoyable voice leading the stale plot. There are flashes of charm and wit, but they never rise to a level that would overcome the otherwise overused plot devices and surface treatment of Tess and Will. This is one of those books you want to love – Will is nice to dogs, for heaven’s sake – but the wanting is not enough.
Wendy: For whatever reason, the fine and hardworking people who make decisions regarding copyright law, long ago declared that titles couldn’t be copyrighted. Therefore equally fine and hardworking readers could, conceivably, venture into bookstores and purchase Jaws as not written by Peter Benchley or Gone With The Wind by some Jane Q. Author as opposed to Margaret Mitchell. All right, those examples aren’t conceivable; publishers are too savvy to recycle the titles of behemoth best sellers. It would seem then, that titles recognizable for their notoriety more so than the time they spent on Best Seller lists would also be verboten. After Toni Bentley’s The Surrender, what sweet and tender romance would want to go by the same title as a memoir dedicated to anal sex? Likely none. So who then was asleep at the wheel and allowed Elda Minger’s new novel to share a title with the notorious Kathryn Harrison memoir The Kiss?
The Minger title is further confounding because the title doesn’t refer to a noteworthy happening in the book. Yes, there is a kiss. It signals the end of the story. Sadly, it’s not a turning point or a crucial plot element. Therefore, another title—any other title, in fact—would have worked just as well, better even, and wouldn’t have invited comparisons to a memoir that deals with the squirm-worthy topic of consensual adult incest.
Thankfully, the plotline of Minger’s The Kiss is a bit different. On the eve of her wedding, Tess Sommerville, goes to the church where her wedding is to take place, to pray for a “super obvious” sign to let her know if marrying her fiancé, Paul, is the right thing to do. Tess gets her sign: she finds Paul and his high school girlfriend shtupping in the church’s community center. She takes that to mean: No, you aren’t supposed to marry him; and then leaves town to let her best friend deal with canceling the wedding, telling all the invited guests, and oh yeah, letting the groom know he won’t be a groom anytime soon.
Conveniently, Tess’ teenage crush Will Tremere is in town for the first time in years and he plans to drive from the Midwest to Los Angeles on the morning of what would have been Tess and Paul’s wedding. Despite the fact that Tess was too shy to actually speak to the teenage version of Will and despite the fact that she hasn’t seen him in some fifteen years, she and her dog hop into Will’s van and head out of town with him.
Heroines who find their husbands/boyfriends/fiancés having sex with other women is a familiar and worn out construct for romance. To Minger’s credit she doesn’t compound the been-there-done-that issue by allowing her heroine to miraculously recover from such a serious blow. Tess spends a lot of time hurting. And crying. And vomiting. And questioning herself. While it’s refreshing to follow a heroine who grieves, not for the philandering ex, but for herself, that grieving process comes at the expense of the romance.
Will is a noble sort. He knows early that Tess is the one for him and is therefore willing to wait until she’ll ready. He waits while they drive through state after state. He waits while Tess takes one step forward, only to take two back. He waits while they share hotel rooms, and meals, and watch movies, and play with the dogs traveling with them. He waits through an improbable marry-me-to-get-your-ex-to-leave-you-alone-but-I’m-really-in-love-with-you marriage. He waits through the whole of the novel. The waiting weighs on the story because it doesn’t allow for an active romance.
One of the many disappoints with this book is the disparity between the packaging and the work. Of course, it’s understood that authors have little to no say over the appearance of their books; that’s someone else’s department. But, for the reader the cover, the title, the jacket copy, and the novel inside are all part of the experience. In the case of The Kiss the cover is light and airy with retro images often associated with humorous stories; the plot summary is equally light. The story, however, isn’t light, it isn’t airy, and it isn’t humorous. It is nearly three hundred pages of the heroine’s depression and soul searching as she deconstructs her life to rebuild. That’s a fine premise. Simply not the one promised in the packaging.
In the end, The Kiss too often juxtaposes farce with heart heavy matters and fails to place conflict between the hero and heroine versus simply around them. Even without the burden of sharing a title with a notorious memoir, The Kiss simply fails to rise above the constructs of its plot or the depression of its heroine.
HelenKay’s Question: One of the weaknesses here for me was the perfect-in-every-way character of Will. Tess cries, vomits, and gets all emotional, and he takes it in stride. Not so much as a flinch. Then there’s the rich, famous and charming angle. Can a hero be too good? Does a hero need a flaw or two, or a demanding streak to feel real and relatable? I can’t think of a romance with a perfect hero that I would recommend, can you?
Wendy’s Response: Recommend? I can’t even think of a romance with a perfect hero that I liked. Let’s remember my favorite hero is Cash Boudreaux. He’s a guy with flaws to numerable to name. In this case, Will is understanding, patient, giving; everything one might look for in a real life partner, but real life doesn’t make for good fiction. All those qualities lend themselves to smooth relationship sailing. Here again, smooth sailing makes for terrible fiction. Conflict is the meat of any story, without it, without those obstacles that keep characters from achieving their goals, there’s nothing of interest. But a flawed character, great big sigh, a flawed character will create obstacles, generate conflict, and be interesting to read. Just think if Will had challenged Tess, had created conflict between them, then maybe this book could have been about Will and Tess and not Tess and her tears.
HelenKay’s Final Thoughts: An unrealistic plot and flat characters prevent what should be a light and fun romantic comedy from getting off the ground.
Wendy’s Final Thoughts: Don’t bother puckering up.