More From the TBR Shelf

One of the books that languished on my To Be Read bookcase, in advance copy form, until after the third book came out was A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne. I think when I started reading it, back when it was still ahead of publication, I was afraid it was more intense than I was up for at that time. So it went on the shelf until I decided I really needed to read it a few weeks ago. I suppose it is intense in places, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’s definitely not cozy, but it’s not grimdark, either.

This book has a really interesting narrative structure. There’s a framing story about the aftermath of a barely averted invasion of a city by a strange race of giant-like creatures. The city is now full of refugees from places where the invasion wasn’t averted. A bard from a nearby land shows up, saying he has news that may be able to explain something about the invasion and he has reports from other lands. Our first-person narrator is a scholar who gets assigned to work with the bard to help him and record his stories (and also figure out if he’s a spy or enemy agent). Each night, the bard regales the crowd with stories of what happened in the other lands, and he has magic that allows him to “become” the people whose stories he’s telling, looking and sounding like them. Most of the book is these other people’s first-hand accounts. To keep the audience eager to come back each night, he tends to stop each person’s story on a cliffhanger and move on to a different person’s story. We get bits and pieces of a greater story that eventually comes together. In between these stories, our narrator tries to figure out what’s going on with the bard while also dealing with the impact of living in the aftermath of the attempted invasion.

I love it when a story is told a bit out of order, limited to the perceptions of just one person at a time when those people don’t have the big picture, and it’s up to me to put the pieces together and find the patterns, so I found this to be really engaging reading. Writing something like that is on my literary bucket list, but I don’t yet have the right story to tell that way. The magic in this world is also interesting. Each of the lands has its own “kenning” or form of magic that allows some people to manipulate a particular part of nature. To get this power, a person has to go through a particular ordeal that will either kill them or give them power, and there’s no way of knowing which one it will be. But then using the power drains the person’s life force. In small amounts, it’s barely noticeable, but if they have to go all-out, they may age decades. That means that there are real stakes in the use of magic.

Now that I’ve finally read the first book, I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, as we don’t yet know everything about what’s going on with these giants, and the threat isn’t over yet.


A Pandemic, but with Dragons

I’m trying to read as much as possible from my To Be Read bookcase so I can clear out the ones that I want to read but don’t necessarily want to keep. And, yes, I have a whole bookcase, plus a couple of boxes. One of the fun things about being a writer is that when you go to writing conferences, they give you free books! Publishers give away books to writers because they know that writers talk about books, so they’re a good way to get buzz going about a book. My first few conferences, I got a bit excited about it and eagerly scooped up All The Books. I eventually realized that most of them went unread, so I tried to limit myself to ones that I thought I might actually read. Even then, I find that there’s a difference between my eagerness to read books I bought for myself and books I got for free (though there are books I bought that are on the bookcase, too). I think part of the reason is that, aside from things like special sales or used bookstore finds and the occasional booksigning for a writer friend, I generally buy a book because I want to read that particular book at that particular time. The giveaways may be things I might have bought, but they weren’t what I was looking for at the time I obtained them.

I’m afraid I’m mostly useless for building buzz because it can take me years past publication to get around to reading an advance copy. I just read an advance copy for book one of a series, and book three is about to come out. I may post something about it, and maybe that will help book three. I’m ashamed to admit that I got an advance copy of A Game of Thrones but didn’t read it until after the TV series came out. Actually, I did start reading it before publication, but I got it at a romance writers conference (not sure why they thought that was a good place to promote that book) and was therefore expecting it to be a romantic fantasy, so it wasn’t at all what I wanted it to be and I put it aside after a few chapters.

But there are some books I don’t remember obtaining. For instance, the book I just finished reading is an old hardcover copy of a book published in 1983. It looks like it was used, but I don’t remember buying it. Maybe someone else bought it and gave it to me. Although it was published in 1983, it eerily reflects some recent events. In fact, if not for the very 1980s graphic design on the cover and the copyright date (and the fact that the author has been dead for more than a decade), if you gave this book to someone to read now, they’d probably think it was a COVID-inspired book.

The book is Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, one of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. This series straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy. It’s technically science fiction because it’s about a distant world colonized by human settlers. After the colony was established, they learned that every so often the world gets attacked by these spores they call Thread that destroy life. They genetically engineered some of the local life forms to be dragons they could fly around on and shoot down this thread. But because the society reverts to being pre-industrial and there are dragons, it reads like fantasy. If you want to start a debate among science fiction and fantasy readers, throw out the “is Pern science fiction or fantasy?” topic. I read the main part of the series when I was a teenager. This appears to be a standalone prequel. I don’t think I’ve carried this book around since then, but I may have picked it up at a library sale.

This particular book is about an epidemic that hits at a very bad time, and it pretty much sounds like the COVID pandemic with dragons. There’s social distancing, the search for a vaccine, the people who resist the efforts to stop the spread of the disease, the people who think the rules don’t apply to them, the strain on healthcare workers, etc. Even most of the symptoms sound kind of COVID-like. The book is really interesting, up until the ending, which I pretty much hated. It was almost like she’d reached her contracted word count and was nearing her deadline, so she just ended it and then wrote an epilogue to tie up the loose ends without actually resolving anything. It was really abrupt. Since it’s a prequel, it’s possible that this was some element of that world’s history mentioned in the earlier books (which are but a dim memory for me) and that ending was already set in stone.

Anyway, aside from the ending it was interesting reading, and it kind of made me want to revisit that series. I’m not entirely sure I’d recommend it, unless you want to read about fictional pandemics. It will probably go in the box that’s getting donated for the library book sale because I don’t imagine I’ll be reading it again, but I’m glad I did read it.

Books, movies

Why I Love LOTR

Last weekend, I rewatched the Lord of the Rings movies. I reread the books a few years ago, and this was my first time to watch the movies after refreshing myself on the books (and when I reread the books last, it was the first time to read them after seeing the movies). One thing I found interesting was that I seem to have mapped some of the imagery from the movies onto the books, so I was mostly seeing the movie characters and settings in my head as I read (unless I ran into a strong image that remained from previous reads), even in the parts that weren’t in the films. As a result, I had scenes in my head involving the movie imagery that it turned out weren’t actually in the movies, so I was surprised when they didn’t come up. That was a little disconcerting.

Of course, now I want to reread the books again, but I don’t really have time for that right now. I’m trying to read through my to-be-read bookcase as part of a book purge in preparation for a possible move. So no rereading, just reading the books that have been waiting for me to get around to them. Maybe next fall or winter. They feel like fall/winter books to me, the sort of thing you read while snuggled under a blanket, maybe next to a fire.

I’m no book purist. There are book scenes I miss in the movies, but I can also see why they were left out of the films. Even with the regular release (I don’t have the extended editions), they’re very long movies, and these bits would mess up the pacing. But it would be kind of fun to have a whole movie of my favorite part of the whole series, the beginning up to Rivendell. I love so many of the parts that were left out, like the dinner party in the woods with the elves and Tom Bombadil (I know that’s controversial, but that part is basically cozy fantasy). That section of the first book is all about being in this other world and experiencing enchanting things before it gets serious with all the battles. I get bored with the battle scenes in the movies, when it’s all just orcs swarming all over the place. On this viewing, I got distracted by spotting when Orlando Bloom was and wasn’t wearing the blue contact lenses during one of the battle scenes because that was more engaging to me than all the hacking and slashing.

It’s the character stuff I love — Sam finding the strength and courage he always had but that came out when he was put to the test, Pippin growing up right before our eyes (you can actually see on his face the moment when all the illusions shatter), Eowyn being a badass warrior woman without ever being Not Like Other Girls, Aragorn finally accepting and claiming his heritage, the growing friendship between Gimli and Legolas. Gandalf’s gentle fondness for hobbits. I just really love all these people, and I think that’s a big key to the enduring success of these stories.

The ending is always a bit bittersweet for me. On the one hand, I’m usually tired from making it through the whole thing, but on the other I’m a little reluctant to leave that world and return to reality.

Incidentally, I’ve decided that my ideal home might be a hobbit hole in Rivendell. I like the coziness of Bilbo’s house, but I also love the airiness of the elven homes and I like the general setup and aesthetic of Rivendell. Maybe an elven house with an attached hobbit hole for a cozy nook. Incidentally, the movie depiction of Rivendell is one place where I can’t make the movie version fit what I see in my head when I read.

Maybe next time I read/watch, I’ll do it back-to-back or around the same time so I can do a real comparison between books and movies.


Steampunk Fairies

While I’m on the subject of things that might remind you of some of my books, I’ve been watching Carnival Row on Amazon, and it’s kind of like a mix of my Fairy Tale series and my Rebels series. It’s a steampunk world with the fae in it.

I’m not entirely sure I like it. It’s interesting and I want to see what happens, but I’m not really enjoying watching it. In fact, I have to be doing something else like knitting or working puzzles while I’m watching because it’s a bit unpleasant to just watch. I’d compare it to A Game of Thrones in tone. It’s got that same grim grayness to the look of it, and almost all the characters are pretty awful people. The “good guys” are just less awful than everyone else. In fact, the “hero” has what I guess is meant to be a “save the cat” moment early in the pilot in which he does something reasonably good, and it stands out as unusual in this world although it’s really just basic decency. He’s not totally terrible, yay. There is a character who gets a surprisingly satisfying growth arc and there’s another character I’m hoping will get his act together, though where I am now in the story he’s pretty hate-worthy. I think part of the problem is that the writers focused so much on creating horrible, complex antagonists that they forgot to make the main characters interesting. There’s only so much Orlando Bloom can do with a character who mostly just mopes a lot, and he’s grubby enough that he’s not even that pretty in this.

But the world is pretty fascinating. From what I can tell (I’m still not entirely clear on the backstory, even though I’ve started season 2), there was some kind of war in the world of the fae, and refugees have come to the human world, where they’re treated the way refugees generally are, especially if they’re seen as different (not so well). It’s a kind of Dickensian Victorian world, very steampunky, though the war stuff has a World War I look. There are airships.

The first season is essentially a police procedural set against a lot of political maneuvering. There’s a serial killer, and there doesn’t seem to be a link between the victims—until our hero the police detective finds a surprising link. Meanwhile, there are social issues involving the fae in human society, a politician’s wife scheming for power, and a snobbish sister and brother dealing with a wealthy fae who’s moved into their neighborhood, much to their dismay. In the middle of this is the newly arrived fae woman who thinks her former lover, the police detective, has been dead for years.

I should warn that it’s at about the sex/violence language of Game of Thrones. Very graphic violence, a lot of nudity (especially female), some fairly graphic sex scenes, R-rated language. Not family-friendly entertainment. But if you like stories about the fae and the steampunk aesthetic, give it a shot.

One other link to my books is that one of the writing staff members was going to be the head writer for one of the attempts to make an Enchanted, Inc. TV series. I wish that project had worked out because she really grasped the concept. We had a conference call in which she gave me the pitch they were going to give to networks and production companies, and she nailed it, really capturing the spirit of the books. It’s nice to see that she landed somewhere else when that didn’t work out.

Speaking of stories about the fae, I’m participating in a group promo of books about the fae. You can find a whole collection to browse here. This is my first time to try one of these group promo thingies, and it would really help me if you click on the link because then I get credit for sharing it and have a better chance of getting into future promos where we all share each other’s books. Check it out and see if there’s something that looks interesting.

Books, movies

Kind of Like Enchanted Inc.

The main thing that sparked me to write the book that became Enchanted, Inc. was that it was the sort of thing I wanted to read but couldn’t find. I wanted something kind of like the “girl in the city” chick lit books that were popular at that time, but with some magic. I wanted something kind of like the Harry Potter books, but about adults and in the working world rather than about kids at school. A mix of magic and the real world with some humor and whimsy that were about life situations I could relate to as an adult. It didn’t seem to exist, so I had to write it myself.

Last weekend, I watched a movie that in some respects was a British, gender-flipped Enchanted, Inc., The Portable Door (it’s on Amazon). A young man trying to make his way in London gets a mysterious job offer at what turns out to be a magical company. He’s initially assigned to a tedious job with a mercurial boss, but then he comes to the attention of the company’s top executive, who assigns him to a special project. And he has a crush on his magically gifted coworker who’s on the fast track at the company. Beyond that, though, it goes off in very different directions. The company is different, the relationship is different, the assignments are different, the plot is different, the villains are different. It’s a different story entirely other than that basic framework.

But it turns out this movie is based on a book by Tom Holt that was initially published in 2003, so around the time I was writing Enchanted, Inc. I think it may have only been published in Britain at that time because the editions I can find from US publishers were from the 2010s. I certainly hadn’t heard of it until I saw the movie. It never came up as a comparable title when Enchanted, Inc. was on submission. If I’d known about it, it would have been easier to position my book. I wonder if there was something in the ether around that time or if it came from a similar place (Harry Potter, but in the corporate world). It’s even possible that if I’d found this book, I might not have gotten around to writing my book because I would have found what I wanted to read, but I suspect that by the time this book was published I’d already gone far enough in developing my own story that I still would have wanted to write mine.

I haven’t read the books (it’s a series), but I did enjoy the movie. It had all the stuff I was looking for when I came up with the idea that became Enchanted, Inc. It’s got humor, action, and a bit of romance. There’s a satisfying comeuppance for the villain and some good growth for the hero. My one quibble with the movie is that I’m not sure what audience they were aiming for. It falls into the category of “four-quadrant” entertainment, so it’s the sort of thing a whole family can watch together. There’s nothing unsuitable for children in it (it’s solidly PG), nothing parents would be uncomfortable watching with kids (or nothing kids would be uncomfortable watching with parents), but nothing really child-friendly, either. I would suspect that younger kids who aren’t yet of the age to be dreaming of the adult world they may one day inhabit would be mostly bored. But then toward the end it veers into the kiddie film territory. Just when the action gets pretty tense, the villains turn the ham up to 11 and they become like something out of one of the cheesier rubber suit Doctor Who episodes or a children’s film. It’s a big tonal shift, like they’re suddenly trying to appeal to kids or make the tense part be less scary for the children who’ve probably already wandered off in boredom. The books aren’t published as YA, so I’m not sure what they were trying to do here. The Jim Henson Company was among the producers, so maybe they were turning the Muppet people loose at the end. I still enjoyed it, but it was weird.

Now I need to find and read the books, but my library doesn’t have them. Apparently, this author also writes as K.J. Parker, who has titles like A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, and some of the reviews compare him to Terry Pratchett.


Everything Everywhere

I know I’m late to the game, but I finally got around to watching Everything Everywhere All at Once last weekend, and my mind is still spinning. I’m going to need some time to process it, and I may need to watch it again.

Just the fact that a movie like this could get made and be successful seems like a good sign. It’s not like anything else. It’s not a franchise, a sequel, or based on something else. It’s wildly original and creative, simultaneously silly and profound. I hope that Hollywood learns something from this and is more open to things that are totally different.

It’s hard to describe, but it’s basically the story of a middle-aged immigrant woman whose life is kind of a mess with a failing business and failing relationships with her husband and daughter who finds out during an IRS audit meeting that the fate of the multiverse relies on her. She has to connect with other versions of herself in universes where things worked out differently to learn the things she needs to know to save the multiverse (while doing a lot of martial arts in an office building).

I’ve seen a lot of commentary about this being about the generation gap and relationships between parents and children, but to me it was largely about midlife crisis, reaching the age when you realize that most of your choices have already been made and some opportunities are gone forever. Even if you started now and worked really hard, you’d never be able to do or be some of the things you dreamed of. The idea of being able to visit a universe where you actually did those things and you can see how your life would have worked out if you had is fascinating. I’ve always loved “what if” stories. In a weird way, this is like Sliding Doors on steroids and a whole lot of mind-altering substances, only our heroine is conscious of all the parallel timelines as she jumps in and out of them.

I can see why so many of the actors involved won Oscars because they’re all playing multiple versions of their characters who are distinctly different and yet still fundamentally the same, and all the while they have to remain human enough to ground this crazy story. I love that it resurrected Ke Huy Quan’s acting career. Even as a kid, he had so much potential, and it’s sad that he wasn’t able to find good roles. He’s so moving in this movie while also being hilarious.

I see a lot of movies that make me feel like I could have come up with that story (or have come up with a story like that), but I could never in a million years have imagined coming up with this.


Relationship Power Dynamics

When I was talking about relationship power dynamics a couple of weeks ago, the example that came to mind while I was mentally processing it was Pride and Prejudice. That whole book boils down to people who are trying to hold on to all their power, which is impossible if you want to start a relationship. There has to be some kind of vulnerability in order to connect with another person. You’ve eventually got to let them know you care. Of course, my brain wouldn’t let it go, since if it’s worth analyzing, it’s worth overanalyzing. So, here’s a look at the relationship power dynamics in Pride and Prejudice. Spoilers ahead, but the book is 200 years old.

To start with, Darcy has a lot of the power, in every sense. He’s got wealth and status and is considered a desirable marriage prospect. He can probably get just about any woman he wants. And yet he has to try to pile on the power by making it clear he’s not interested in any of the local women, especially not Lizzie. His offhand remark about her eyes is a hint that he might actually have some attraction to her, but he’s making an effort to avoid giving up any of the power that having any interest in her would take away.

Meanwhile, Lizzie is well aware that she has zero power here. She may be a member of the gentry, but her family is on the poor end of things, and she’s not going to inherit much. She has no wealth, and while she has status in this immediate community, she’d be a nobody elsewhere. Even in this community, her parents are embarrassing. Someone is going to have to like her a lot as a person or have some other motivation to want to marry her, and she’s acutely conscious of this. She doesn’t even feel like she’s a beauty. It’s her sister who’s considered the pretty one. Her way of clawing back some power in all this is to decide she has zero interest in Darcy, even if he is considered quite a catch. She loses that bit of power when he says he’s not interested in her.

So, she regains the sense of having the upper hand by first taking every opportunity to snub and insult him, then later by getting the dirt on him from Wickham. When she comes to believe based on Wickham’s stories that Darcy is a terrible person, Lizzie achieves the ultimate in relationship power: she no longer cares what he thinks or if he likes her. That helps her retain the upper hand when she runs into Darcy again. She can easily chat with him and tease him because she just doesn’t care.

Pride and Prejudice Meme
Darcy (Colin Firth) says "I love you"
Lizzie says "Go jump in a lake" 
Picture of Darcy diving into a lakeMeanwhile, Darcy has realized he’s in love with her, but his first effort at proposing is a total failure because he tries to do so without giving up any of his power. Yes, there’s the vulnerability of admitting he admires and loves her and wants to marry her, but he wraps it up in power displays by pointing out how unsuitable she is, how awful her family is, how she really has nothing going on for her. So, he may like her, but she’s lucky he does so because there’s not a lot there to like.

It’s only when he gets the shock of realizing that she doesn’t find his attitude all that appealing that he finally realizes he’s going to have to give a little if he wants her, and that’s when he writes the letter explaining all to her, making himself utterly vulnerable. He gives her a lot of power over him, since she could ruin his sister if she decided to spread the story publicly.

The next time they see each other, it’s with a very different dynamic. It’s interesting that the 1995 TV version adds even more vulnerability to him when he finds her at his home by having him in his wet shirt after his swim (in that era, a shirt was essentially considered underwear). That’s not in the book, so it’s Lizzie who’s feeling more powerless in having been caught touring his home, with his vulnerability coming from the fact that it’s the first time that he’s seen her since he poured all his thoughts out in the letter. When they come to each other from a place of vulnerability, without trying to cling to their power, they actually manage to connect.

Then he gives up the opportunity to gain power when he rescues her sister from being a shamed social outcast without getting credit for it, which would have made her obligated to him. He’s willing to not take power that he’s owed. She’s the one who finds out and then makes her “offering” of letting him know she knows. There’s give and take, and this is when they’re able to finally get together for good.

I think this is one reason for the enduring popularity of this story. It’s nice to see a story about people getting over themselves and being able to admit they were wrong, and the relationship power dynamics end up being pretty balanced. They both have to give and take, and you get the sense that this relationship is going to work.


The Rom-Com Test

As you may have noticed or guessed, I’m a big fan of romantic comedies, though mostly in movies. I’m a bit pickier in books because I like the way movies do romance and am less fond of the conventions of American romance novels. I tend to prefer what was called “chick lit” back in the day, which is more like rom-com movies than like romance novels, and I like the British rom-com books, which are more chick lit/women’s fiction.

As for whether or not I like a rom-com, book or movie, I have a very simple test: Is it funny, and is it romantic?

Comedy is a fairly personal thing. What’s funny to one person may not be funny to another, and that’s why comedy is so hard and why just about every designated “romantic comedy” line Harlequin tried to start failed. If you promote something as funny and the audience doesn’t find it amusing, the audience sees it as a failure, even if they otherwise enjoyed it. I personally am not fond of humiliation humor, where most of the humor comes from the characters having bad things happen to them — the slipping on the banana peel sort of thing. A character who bumps into things a lot is not funny to me, unless there’s something else going on. I’m also not fond of the related category, what I think of as idiot humor — situations that arise out of a character doing things that anyone with two functioning brain cells would know not to do. One of the main reason I turn off a Christmas rom-com within the first ten minutes is the now-standard scene of the city girl arriving in the small town/rural area and doing a lot of falling down because she’s teetering around on stiletto heels in snow and ice. They have ice and snow in cities, too, and even city people would know that walking on ice in stiletto heels is a bad idea. Maybe someone who’s always lived in LA seeing snow for the first time wouldn’t know better, but I’ve generally found that people going to northern places for the first time are more likely to go overboard with the cold-weather gear. That would be the person who shows up in newly-purchased snow boots while the locals are in sneakers or even flip-flops (because it isn’t “real” snow until it’s up to your knees).

But where romantic comedy stories are more likely to fail for me is in the romance part. I break that down into a couple of tests.

1) Is there any reason why these people might actually like each other, aside from physical attractiveness?
Screenwriting guru Michael Hauge calls this “I love you because we’re in this movie together.” This tends to happen when the writers are so focused on the conflict keeping the couple apart until the happy ending that they forget to establish why they would even want to overcome that conflict. It’s like the story brainstorming is all about how much this couple thrown together in a wacky situation hates each other or how much the couple has to overcome to be together, and they totally forget the part about why they would want to be together. What do they see in each other? Do they have anything in common? What will they talk about and do after they get together? Can you imagine this relationship lasting?

Sometimes there’s outright animosity, where they’re jerks to each other. That’s my problem with the movie Leap Year. It almost squeaks by on an outstanding cast and pretty scenery, but I’m still baffled that this screenplay ever sold because on paper these are horrible, idiotic people who are terrible to each other, sometimes for no good reason, and often in ways that actually hurt themselves. They’re instantly at odds because the script says they have to be (plus a lot of idiot and humiliation humor). The actors manage to sell them falling for each other, but we never really know why they’re falling in love. We don’t know what they have in common, what they would talk about, what they want out of life. They mostly fall in love because they’re the main characters in a rom-com who look like Matthew Goode and Amy Adams.

Not to keep harping on Four Weddings and a Funeral, but the only thing that keeps the main romance there going is the fact that she’s alluring and elusive. For most of the movie he can’t have her (though he kind of does, anyway) because she’s getting married to someone else. Her taste seems to be very different from his. What would they talk about? What would they do outside the bedroom? Would she be that appealing to him if he saw her all the time and there was nothing stopping him from being with her?

Or most of the couples in Love Actually. Aside from the movie stand-ins, who have real conversations and get to know each other, it’s actually a plot point for most of them that they haven’t actually ever talked to each other. Some of them go to extremes to be able to be with this other person they’ve never really talked to and know almost nothing about.

Now I’m trying to think of favorite movies that actually pass this test, and it’s hard. The best I can generally come up with is movies in which the characters seem to get each other, they encourage each other, and make each other laugh. I guess it’s hard to show common interests or what they’d talk about when they’re not in the wacky situation that gives them conflict. I might not like the ending, but I guess Notting Hill works here, where we see their conversations while she’s hiding out at his place, and it’s like getting a glimpse into what their life together might be like. The couple in While You Were Sleeping is mostly having “getting to know you” conversations, but they support each other’s dreams. She urges him to take his furniture-making business full-time and he gives her the snowglobe of Florence to encourage her to finally take that trip and get a stamp in her passport.

As much as I love When Harry Met Sally, I have to admit that I have a hard time imagining that relationship working. It’s mostly about them being total opposites. They’re hanging out because they run into each other again at a time when they’re both at loose ends after ending relationships and they can commiserate. Most of their conversations are about their past relationships and their dating woes. I don’t know what they’d talk about after they’re married, but they do at least make each other laugh and enjoy spending time together.

2) Do I actually want them to end up together?
This one is as personal as what a person considers funny. Sometimes I can see that there’s a reason for the couple to fall in love, and yet I’m still not sure they’re good for each other. That’s where I am on Notting Hill. I can see why they fall for each other, but I’m not sure I like them together, especially given the way the story is resolved. The relationship is too unbalanced and that’s never fixed. I’m not all that sure why he’s into her other than the fact that she’s a beautiful, wealthy movie star. If a more “ordinary” woman treated him the way she does I’m not sure he’d be interested, even if she made him laugh and they both enjoyed secret gardens. And if she weren’t a movie star who enjoys feeling “normal,” would she be into him? But I guess since this is the situation, it does seem to work. I’m just not totally happy with the resolution.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is a lot of fun (both book and movie), but I’m not super keen on the relationship. Bridget and Mark end up together because it’s a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice and that couple ended up together, but Bridget is no Lizzie. She’s kind of an idiot. She’s rather shallow and uninformed, in spite of working in news (not entirely unrealistic — I had to explain the issues around a situation to a TV reporter when I was a college student intern at a TV station) while he’s very keen on global affairs. There’s something a little patronizing about his attraction to her, kind of an “aren’t you adorable, bless your little heart” attitude. Not that I blame him, but I don’t imagine a lot of success for a relationship that’s essentially got a parent/child (or pet owner/goofball cat) dynamic.

One movie that worked out romantically exactly the way I wanted it to was Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The couple in While You Were Sleeping seems good (though I’d have preferred them not to jump so quickly to marriage).

I need to give my collection another look to see what other films pass my test. There are plenty that are “almosts” but that I still enjoy for other reasons. I think this may be why I’m not super keen on plain romance. If that’s all that’s going on in a book or movie, odds are that I won’t want the couple to get together or don’t like the relationship, and then there’s nothing for me to like. At least in a good comedy I can find it amusing, even if I don’t like the romance part. In a fantasy, mystery, or other crossover there’s a plot and setting that I like, aside from the relationship. In women’s fiction or chick lit, there’s usually some kind of community-building and/or a “get your act together” plot, with the relationship being secondary. In general, I prefer romance as a seasoning/side dish rather than as the main part of the main course.


Infatuation vs. Love

While I was binging romantic comedies in the week after Christmas, I revisited an old favorite, While You Were Sleeping. I hadn’t seen it in ages, and it was particularly interesting right after watching Four Weddings and a Funeral, since it was basically a rebuttal to the kind of relationships Four Weddings depicts. In fact, the whole movie is essentially an exploration of infatuation vs. love.

There will be spoilers, since it’s hard to discuss what makes the story work without giving away some of the twists, and I also want to discuss something that comes up at the end. The movie is currently on Disney+ if you haven’t seen it, and I do recommend it as one of the great rom-coms.

First, a quick summary: Lucy (a very young Sandra Bullock) works at an El station in Chicago and falls in love with Peter (Peter Gallagher), a handsome man she sees every day at the station. On Christmas morning, he gets mugged at the station. She manages to chase away the muggers, but Peter is injured and knocked onto the tracks. She saves him before he’s hit by a train, but he’s unconscious. When she follows the ambulance to the hospital and sighs, “I was going to marry him,” as he’s taken into the emergency room, a nurse gets the wrong idea and introduces Lucy to Peter’s family as his fiancee when they arrive. In all the chaos, she never manages to correct the misunderstanding, then when they invite her to their Christmas dinner, she’s so lonely and depressed that she can’t resist. But then Peter’s younger brother Jack (Bill Pullman) is suspicious because Lucy is not Peter’s type. While Peter’s in a coma, Jack sets out to figure out what’s going on with Lucy, which means spending time together and getting to know each other. That leads to them falling in love, but he thinks she’s engaged to his brother, and she’s afraid if she confesses the truth she’ll lose him and his family. Things get even more complicated when Peter comes out of the coma.

Lucy’s feelings for Peter are pretty much like all the relationships in Four Weddings. She sees him, likes the looks of him, and she considers that to be love. She knows absolutely nothing about him other than that he’s attractive, has a nice smile, and she notices he sometimes gives up his seat on the train. She’s never spoken to him at all. As the movie progresses, we see that Peter would be all wrong for her. She loves his big, loving Irish Catholic family, but he seems to have distanced himself enough from them that they’re not too surprised to learn he was engaged and they didn’t know (and they don’t know about the woman he’s actually engaged to). Lucy is warm and down-to-earth and Peter is cool and superficial. She loves the wooden furniture Jack makes, but Peter’s apartment is all glass and chrome. Late in the movie, we learn that even his slick nice-guy facade is a lie. He’s actually kind of a sleazy jerk, so not only is she wrong to think she’s in love with him, but she’s wrong about the kind of person she thinks he must be. She wouldn’t have been interested in him if she’d actually known him.

In contrast, her relationship with Jack looks more like the foundation for something that could be real love. They have long conversations in which they discuss their backgrounds and families, their current lives, and their hopes, dreams, and plans. They have similar values. They make each other laugh. She meets his family, with whom he’s close, and fits in well with them. They encourage each other to follow their dreams and do the things they’ve always wanted to do. I still think it’s early to consider it love, since they don’t even know each other for two weeks during the course of the movie, but in rom-com time, that’s practically an eternity.

What I find interesting is that the movie never actually comes out and specifically addresses this thesis. It’s all show vs. tell, strictly showing and never telling. The audience sees the interactions between Lucy and Jack and later between Lucy and Peter and we learn about Peter and how wrong about him she was because she knew nothing about him. But no one ever says, “I guess that was just infatuation but this is real love.”

The other thing that’s an interesting contrast to Four Weddings and even more so to Love Actually is the way they deal with falling in love with a person who’s in a committed relationship. Movies so often have this attitude that every thought or feeling must be expressed, so if you’re in love with someone, you have to tell them, even if they’re engaged or even married, or else you’ll regret it. Showing up at someone’s wedding to tell them you love them is perfectly okay — and screenwriters seem to have taken that as the ultimate ticking clock and raised stakes. I think this is terrible. Someone who would dump someone else just because you expressed your interest has all kinds of red flags. If you’re in a relationship and you’d leave that person if you found out that another person was interested and available, then you’re not very committed to the relationship you’re in. A person should stay in or leave a relationship on the merits of that relationship/person, not because of whether or not another person they might like better becomes available.

Besides, it’s a real jerk move to put the moves on someone who’s involved with someone else, especially if they’re involved with your friend or family member. This was something that came up in the Cinema Therapy episode about Love Actually, in which the marriage therapist mentioned that the guy who showed up with the signs to tell his best friend’s wife that he loves her because you’re supposed to tell the truth at Christmas was putting the wife in a terrible position. If she tells her husband about this, then she’s going to put a rift between him and his best friend, but if she doesn’t tell, then it puts a rift between her and her husband because she’s hiding something from him, and if the truth ever comes out then he has reason to feel somewhat betrayed, since he’ll likely have been hanging out with his wife and friend, not knowing that his friend has feelings for his wife that she’s aware of.

In While You Were Sleeping, this kind of situation comes up, and he doesn’t tell her how he feels. Peter comes out of his coma and doesn’t remember being engaged to Lucy, though she is familiar to him, so he thinks he has amnesia. The family friend who knows the truth about Lucy but doesn’t know about Jack and Lucy gets the idea to resolve everything by convincing Peter to propose to Lucy “all over again” and marry her. On the eve of the wedding, Jack asks Lucy if she’s really going to go through with it, and she asks him if there’s a reason she shouldn’t. Clearly, she wants him to tell her not to marry his brother because he loves her, but he doesn’t say anything, leaving her hurt and thinking he doesn’t want her. But, really, that’s a copout on her part. She wants an excuse not to have to marry Peter, but it’s up to her to make that decision based on how she feels about Peter. She shouldn’t be factoring in whether or not Jack wants her. Since by this time Jack has come to believe Peter and Lucy really were engaged, he’d be a jerk to tell her not to marry his brother. And what does happen is that Lucy decides during the ceremony that she can’t go through with it and confesses all. Only then can she have a real relationship with Jack.

One thing I’ve always been impressed by with this movie is the way they make a fairly outrageous situation work. A general writing rule is that the more extreme an action you want a character to take, the stronger the motivation must be. You have to get the audience to the point of thinking they’d do the same thing in similar circumstances, or at least that they understand why the character did that thing. Pretending to be engaged to a total stranger in a coma is a pretty extreme action, and I think they do a good job of setting it up. It helps that the deception isn’t her idea. It’s a misunderstanding rather than a deliberate lie, and she does try to correct it, but no one listens to her, and then she quits trying to say anything when the grandmother has a heart episode. She’s planning to just slip away after leaving the hospital and not further the deception, but she’s so incredibly lonely, having recently lost her father and having no other family, that she can’t resist the thought of being part of a family Christmas. She’s not continuing the deception for any kind of gain. She just doesn’t want to be alone at Christmas, and she’s never had this kind of big family celebration. There’s a shot of her wistfully watching the family interact that totally sells it (and there’s definitely some future Oscar winner potential there — just thinking about the look on her face brings tears to my eyes). The neighbor/godfather/family friend knows about the deception, lets her know he knows, but endorses it as long as she doesn’t take advantage of the family. And it helps that Lucy is played by Sandra Bullock, in full “girl next door” mode, so you can’t help but like her and feel for her.

While You Were Sleeping passes my rom-com tests in that it has some genuinely funny moments and I actually like the couple and think they might be able to make it work. You can see why they like each other. You’d think that would be a bare minimum for a romantic comedy, but it’s surprising how many don’t meet this very low bar. More on that in the next post.


Sticking the Landing, Part 2

In my previous post, I discussed my issues with Four Weddings and a Funeral. Because I was in the mood for that sort of thing and curious about some patterns I was noticing, I rewatched Notting Hill, by the same screenwriter and with the same leading man. In case you’re not familiar with all the late 90s romantic comedies, that’s the one in which Hugh Grant plays a bookstore owner whose life gets turned upside down when Hollywood’s hottest star (Julia Roberts) comes into his bookstore.

I don’t remember whether or not I saw this one at the theater. I have no specific memory of the event of seeing it in a theater, though it’s the sort of thing I would have gone to a theater to see. The time I do remember seeing it was on an airplane. I was on a business trip to Washington, D.C. (a trip full of stories that I won’t get into here), and as soon as the plane for the return trip pushed away from the gate at the airport, the FAA shut down everything because of bad storms, so we sat on the tarmac to wait out the storm. They passed out food and headsets and started showing movies. This was before you got to choose from an entertainment menu. You watched what they showed you, and this was the first movie up.

For the most part, it corrects a lot of the issues with Four Weddings (which is why it’s so odd that the writer went right back to shallow and superficial in Love Actually a few years later). You can actually see why these people might like each other beyond physical attraction. Just the fact that she comes to shop in his niche specialty bookstore is a good sign that they have something in common. He makes her laugh, and they share a similar sense of humor. She meets his wacky friends (who actually do seem like real friends) and enjoys getting to feel like a normal person rather than a celebrity when she’s with him and his friends. They have long conversations about their pasts and about how they see the world. The main conflict giving them trouble is her celebrity. She can’t do anything without it getting plastered all over the tabloids, so she’s guarded and a little paranoid. One thing she enjoys about him is that he makes her feel normal, so she doesn’t want to bring him into the celebrity part of her life, but that also means she shuts him out of a huge chunk of her life, which makes him feel like he doesn’t matter to her.

All that’s great. It’s got room for romantic drama and comedy. But it falls flat for me in the way it’s resolved. Spoilers ahead, since you can’t talk about the ending without giving away the ending.

To sum it up briefly, though the whole movie, Hugh Grant’s character, William, has had to jump through hoops to be with Julia Roberts’s character, Anna. He has to use a code word to get put through to her when he calls her hotel, and when he shows up at her invitation, he gets stuck in the press junket and having to pretend to be a reporter interviewing her just to talk to her — and then has to go on and interview everyone else involved in the movie. After they’ve gone on a few dates, they come back to her hotel to find the movie star boyfriend he didn’t know she had, and he has to pretend to be a room service waiter and clear dirty dishes to cover for her. She vanishes for a while before suddenly showing up at his place when she needs refuge from a media hellstorm, but then after they spend a wonderful day and night together, really connecting, she finds the media camped out in front of his house, blames him and storms off, and has no contact with him for months. He finds out she’s shooting a movie in London, shows up on set, and she invites him to stick around and watch, but he hears her describing him as “nobody” to a castmate and leaves. On her last day in town, she shows up at his shop and gives the “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” speech that became somewhat iconic, but he says he can’t just go on with the rollercoaster of not knowing what’s going on with her and turns her down — and then he’s the one who realizes the error of his ways, does the Rom Com Run to rush to her press event before she leaves town, has to pose as a reporter again, and has to do the public apology and declaration of his feelings before they get their happy ending.

And that last part is what has me going “Seriously?” I might even have said that out loud on the airplane when I saw it (fortunately, everyone else, including my boss sitting a couple of rows ahead of me, had on headsets and the rain was hitting the plane really hard, so no one heard me).

I think I’ve finally figured out why that seemed so wrong to me, and it comes back to a concept I got from a college course on interpersonal communication and relationships that’s also key to romance writing: the balance of relationship power. Basically, the person who can most easily walk away from a relationship is the person who has the power in the relationship. That can include things like money and home, status within the community, perceived attractiveness/ability to find another partner, or caring. The person who will be less brokenhearted if the relationship ends has some power over the person who will be hurt more, as does the person whose status and security won’t be harmed. A relationship that’s not balanced seems wrong to us as an audience. When you’re in a relationship like that, it’s uncomfortable. At worst, a big power imbalance can lead to abuse — the person with power may feel free to abuse the person with less power, or a person who feels like they have less power may abuse or gaslight the other person as a way of gaining more power.

This dynamic is the main reason behind the Rom Com Run, when one of the characters runs through the streets/airport/train station and then makes the big public declaration of love and commitment. Usually, that’s the person who’s at least pretended to care less than the other person, but then that person realizes that trying to hold on to power by acting like they don’t care is going to make them lose someone they do care about, so they give up their power by making the grand gesture that shows how much they care. That’s the sort of ending we needed for Four Weddings, to show that the commitmentphobe is willing to publicly commit, but it needed to go with a better relationship and a person who deserved the commitment.

In this movie, Anna has all the power throughout. She’s incredibly wealthy and popular and could have any man she wants. She has all the agency. He can’t even contact her to communicate with her unless she gives him the code word for the hotel, so all their communication and interaction is on her terms. He’s the one who has to make huge efforts to see her, like having to pretend to be a journalist just to set a date. The power needs to be rebalanced, and yet he’s the one giving up even more power by being the one to do the Rom Com Run and make the grand gesture. She does give up some power when she shows up at his shop and asks him to love her, but when he rejects her, it’s not because he doesn’t care. It’s because he does care so much that he can’t risk letting her hurt him again. This is when she needs to show how she cares. She needs to go through some of what he’s gone through. She’s been trying to hide him and deny him in order to protect herself, but she needs to show him she’s willing to risk being hurt for his sake.

I’ve been trying to figure out a mental rewrite. It would be weird if she did some big chase through the streets after he turned her down, but maybe she could say something in an interview about how she ruined her best relationship and hurt someone she cared about by trying to protect herself without thinking about how it would make him feel. Or she could have made that “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy” speech in public after she’d done something to chase him down.

I think what the writer was going for was that William was in the wrong for turning her down because he was trying to protect himself, and therefore he had to apologize to her, but he’d been quite open to her up to that point. He only shut her down after she’d ditched him several times. Hmm, come to think of it, to get all Biblical about it, she denied him three times, so she should have had to affirm him three times. Or, to get more cynical about it, the writer figured that women would be the core audience, so the man always has to be wrong and the one to apologize, that the female audience wouldn’t want the woman to be the one to have to make the effort. I did have romance writer friends who took that view on this movie, so maybe it would have been a flop if they’d made an ending I’d like.

Still, it’s lacking in symmetry. The Rom Com Run is usually effective because it’s the person who would never do such a thing who has to drop all their barriers and pretenses to do it. It’s less effective if that person has spent the whole movie having to do that sort of thing. He’s already had to pretend to be a journalist for Horse and Hound in order to talk to her, so there’s no big moment of surprise or shock when he does it again at the end. We know he can/will do it because he has.

I do enjoy much of this movie. I love the relationship among the friends. I like the press junket bit, though it does frustrate me that she could have just told her staff who he was and got him out of it once he’d talked to her. I even like the interaction between the two main characters and much of their relationship. I can imagine that they would be happy together. I just need to fast-forward past the Rom Com Run and get to the ending montage.

Next up, I revisit a romcom that gets most things right. It’s almost a response to the kind of relationships shown in Four Weddings.