Fireside, 2009, 291 pages, C$19.99 pb, ISBN 978-1-4165-7122-3
I don’t read a lot of romance fiction, but I don’t look at the genre unsympathetically: What little I have read in the genre was entertaining, and given my affection for a number of other literary genres from science-fiction to thrillers, I tend to see dedicated romance readers as kindred spirits: they read what they like, I read what I like, and the combined sales figures of popular fiction genres are good enough to puncture the pretentions of those who think that fiction ends at the literary aisle. So you could say that I was receptive to the idea of an irreverent guide to romance novels, and I couldn’t have dared hope for a better one than Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosom: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels.
Wendell and Tan are minor internet celebrities for writing the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog, which covers romantic fiction in a way that makes some cheer and others blush. Their hip, intelligent and foul-mouthed commentary on romance fiction is one of the many reasons why the web is fostering one of the golden eras of reviewing: This is contemporary commentary on fiction being written now, and it’s as entertaining as it is brutally honest.
With Beyond Heaving Bosoms, they get to go beyond quick blog posts and make a sweeping judgement about the entire field. Part introduction to the field, part affectionate satire, part advocacy in favour of the genre, this guide packs the romance genre between two covers and tells you why you should pay attention. I read it as a complete outsider and got in three hundred pages the accumulated wisdom of years of genre reading. New-skool/old-skool divide; typical characteristics of the protagonists; cover illustration analysis; familiar plot devices; bad sex clichés: Wendell and Tan have it all figured out, so pay attention.
Not that you’ll have any trouble staying interested: Fighting for eyeballs in an oversaturated web of review blogs, our authors have staked themselves a place as the genre’s irreverent hipsters. Their foul-mouthed style is as frank as it’s hilarious, and it definitely makes romance look far more contemporary than its sometimes-stodgy reputation would suggest. It helps that the authors are passionate about their subject: they love romance while recognizing its faults, and their passion for the material shines though. So much so, in fact, that the chapter dedicated to explaining why smart people would love romance ends up feeling oddly defensive when the rest of the book is such an eloquent illustration of why the genre is worth so much to its readers.
The best part of Beyond Heaving Bosoms is how quickly its blend of insights and snark leads to a compulsively readable experience. In attempting to explain the core of romance, the authors provide a helpful flowchart to help readers decide whether they’re reading old or new-skool romance (“Does the hero ever rape the heroine?” [P.14]), a list of thirteen ways for a heroine to be virginal before meeting the hero, a “Big Misunderstanding” board game, a revealing interview with a real male cover model (along with a prototypical “Ultimate Cover”) and a pick-your-own-romance adventure that keeps its funniest payoff for its last entry.
Smart and funny, Beyond Heaving Bosoms has something to offer to fans, foes and bystanders of romance. It’s a successful and entertaining overview of a genre that doesn’t get nearly enough respect, and it does a fine job at discussing romance’s clichés without losing touch with what makes it so compelling… and does so in a way that should convince even newcomers. I’d like to see a similar approach to other genres. How about a Smart Bastards’ Guide to Thriller Novels? Can I interest any publisher in the Smart Nerd’s Guide to Science-Fiction Novels?