Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading a lot of what would have been called “chick lit,” though I suppose that term is anathema in publishing right now, and the more recent stuff is an evolution of what was around in the early 2000s rather than being much like it (far less urban, less shopping, less sex). I’ve been in a frame of mind when I didn’t want a lot of tension, and that makes it a lot more pleasant to read something in which the stakes are more like “will she ever get together with that cute guy and make her bakery/shop a success?” than like “will they escape the Death Knights in time to stop the encroaching Darkness before the evil sorcerer ends the world?” I think I’d maxed out on fantasy and needed a break.
As I’ve read the mostly British stuff — since American publishers don’t seem to be publishing it, other than re-publishing the more successful British authors — I’ve noticed a couple of key tropes that are popping up all over the place. There are books without these, but not many.
One is the “I’m scrapping my life in the city and moving to a quaint village in the Cotswolds/Scotland/the Cornish coast to start that cafe/bakery/bookstore/boutique I’ve always dreamed of” story. Usually, it’s kicked off by the heroine losing (or quitting) her job and/or breaking up with her boyfriend, and so she goes to start a new life. She may struggle in the new environment but also meets some charming local guy.
The other is what I guess you could call the “stars aligning” plot. It’s when two people meet and really hit it off, but there’s some external obstacle keeping them from getting together at that time — one (or both) is in a relationship, one of them lives elsewhere and is just passing through, or one of them is about to start a job far away. Then a year or so later, they run into each other again, and while that obstacle is no longer an issue, there’s another one. Repeat for however many years until the stars finally align and they end up together. So, in meeting #1, she’s intrigued, then learns he’s dating someone. In meeting #2, he’s available, but she’s just about to start a new job in New York. Meeting #3, he’s married. Meeting #4, his wife has just died tragically, so he’s not even thinking about dating. Meeting #5, he’s ready to move on, but she’s dating someone. Etc. If you’re the wife in one of these books, you’re better off if you’re an absolute witch who cheats on him (thereby justifying the divorce) because if you’re a nice person, you’re going to die tragically either in a car crash or of a fast-acting cancer.
I wonder if these are particularly British fantasies or if it’s just that this sort of book doesn’t get published in the US right now. In general, if the heroine is younger, it’s published as more of a straightforward romance. I don’t read a lot of those now, but I do recall the “moving to a small town and starting a business” plot was fairly common in category romance. The difference is that in these books, the business plot is more the main plot with the romance as something that happens along the way. For women’s fiction, where the other life stuff is the focus, in American books it seems to be more about older women, so the standard plot is that the middle-aged woman gets dumped or cheated on by her husband and moves back to her home town with her teenage kid, where she reunites with her first love, who is conveniently available.
I suppose it could also be a selection bias, where I tend to be drawn to these plots, though I don’t recall picking books on this basis. I’m usually drawn to some other aspect, then find that they’re also one of these stories. I’ll admit, the whole “chuck everything and go live in the Cotswolds” thing is really appealing because I love that area. I wouldn’t start a bakery or bookstore, though. I’d be that mysterious and reclusive American author who rents a cottage in the village to work on a book and gradually gets drawn into village life.
I haven’t really had that stars aligning problem with relationships, though I did go through a phase in my early to mid-20s in which everyone I met and found interesting or went out with ended up getting a job somewhere else. It got to be such a pattern that it became a joke. There was the guy who visited the church singles department for the first time on the same Sunday I did, so we ended up sitting together and hanging out, and I found him very promising. At a party the next weekend, he saw me when he arrived and made a beeline to come sit with me. Things were going well, and then he announced that he was moving to Malaysia the next week for a year (he was a petroleum engineer). I had all kinds of hopes for what might happen when he moved back, but if he did, he didn’t come back to that church. Then there was the guy I probably had the most fun date I’ve ever had with, who announced the following week that he and his friends had decided to move to Colorado together. And the guy I was just starting to hit it off well with who then went to grad school (actually, he was in grad school and living in Dallas while working on his dissertation, but he had to move to the university he was attending for a semester to be “in residence” to get his degree, though I don’t know when/if he came back to town). And there was the boyfriend who applied to the FBI soon after we started dating and was surprised to get called in for the exam, and then passed the exam and went on to the more serious interview phase (he subsequently vanished, so I have no idea if he got into the academy or became an FBI agent).
I never ran into any of these guys again, with or without a complication, so I guess the stars didn’t align for us, but I can see why that might be fun for me to read about. I finally realized that maybe this was all a sign I was supposed to stay single, if everyone I was interested in was immediately moved out of range.
And, sadly, even the middle-aged moms moving back home after their marriages fall apart are younger than I am now. Yikes.
Hmm, I wonder what it would take to rent a cottage in the Cotswolds. I think you can stay up to six months on a tourist visa.