Monday, February 14, 2011

This Kiss

Happy Valentine’s Day! Cynicism about this holiday has become common, and many see February 14 as just another excuse to empty the pockets of consumers, who annually spend more than $16 billion on cards, flowers, chocolates, and other gifts. I’m still enough of a romantic to find the day a charming tradition, even though  my favorite valentines in 2011 are under 12. Still, the day has me thinking about kisses. Ever since I read a particular romance novel a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about a blog on osculation. What better time to consider kisses than a holiday that celebrates love and lovers?
 A kiss, of course, can mean many things from simple affection to bitter betrayal, but it is the romantic/erotic kiss that most fascinates. The ancients believed that in mouth-to-mouth kisses, lovers exchanged the breath of life and mingled souls. The Roman poet Catullus (84BC?- 54BC) inspired poets such as Robert Herrick, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Lord Byron with his explicit demand: "Kiss me now a thousand times and still a hundred more and then a hundred and a thousand more again till with so many hundred thousand kisses you and I lose count." Herrick’s “To Anthea (III)” utilizes Catullus’s math and adds a challenge:

Give me a kiss, and to that kiss a score;
Then to that twenty add a hundred more:
A thousand to that hundred: so kiss on,
To make that thousand up a million.
Treble that million, and when that is done
Let's kiss afresh, as when we first begun.

Poets are not the only artists who find material in kisses. Rodin’s Kiss sculpture, inspired by Paolo and Francesca, the eternally entwined lovers in circle 2 of Dante’s Inferno, still attracts visitors to the Tate Gallery in London, and photographs of kissing couples in Paris and Times Square are internationally famous. Movie kisses have come in for their fair share of attention as well. Googling “best movie kisses” yields more than 8 million results, and “favorite movie kisses” is a favorite topic among romance fiction bloggers. My own favorites are from older movies such as those between Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life and between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man.  Viewing several movie versions of Pride and Prejudice consecutively makes one aware of the distance between Jane Austen’s discreet description (“He [Darcy] expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man in violent love can be supposed to.) and the eight minutes of moonlit lip locks added to the U.S. version of the 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen film.

I thought the kisses exchanged by Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty were pretty hot when I first saw Splendor in the Grass in 1961, but I didn’t know then that the first screen French kiss in that movie would lead to increasingly sensual screen kisses to the point that such scenes today more often seem to be about voyeurism than about romance. But then scholars tell us that the kisses art gives us are voyeuristic. Social convention leads us to avert our eyes from the intimacy if we happen to see a couple kissing in real life, but art encourages us to gaze at the osculatory exchange that can express both physical and emotional intimacy. I maintain that those who draw up lists of the best fictional kisses do a disservice to their audience by ignoring the kissing scenes in romance fiction. No other writers possess the awareness of all that a kiss can express that the authors of the best in romance fiction can claim. Here are my candidates for ten of the best kisses in Romancelandia (listed chronologically by publication date):

This is no less true of fiction than of the visual arts. Long before the no-holds-barred sex that can be found in both popular and literary fiction, the kiss was used as a metaphor for orgasm. In Portrait of a Lady, in a scene written from his heroine's point of view, Henry James wrote: "His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again . . . his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession." In June 2008, The Guardian published a list of ten of the best literary kisses. They ranged from the kiss shortly after first meeting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the invasive kiss endured by an unwilling bride in Ian McEwan’s 2007 novel On Chesil Beach.

1. Derek kisses Sara in the garden.
Dreaming of You (1994), Lisa Kleypas

The I’m-not-good-enough-but-I-can’t resist-her kiss:

“Without meaning to, he reached her in three strides and snatched her in his arms. Her joyous laugh tickled his ear as he lifted her off his feet. Urgently his mouth roved across her face with rough kisses that stung her cheek, her chin, her forehead.”

2. Jessica kisses Dain in the rain.

Lord of Scoundrels (1995), Loretta Chase

The hero-as-helpless-and-needy-kiss:

“He melted under that maidenly ardor as though it were rain and he a pillar of salt.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“He stood, helpless in the driving rain, unable to rule his needy mouth, his restless hands, while, within, his heart beat out the mortifying truth.
Ho bisogno di ti.
I need you.

3. Catherine kisses Michael after eight pages leading to consummation scene.

Shattered Rainbows (1996), Mary Jo Putney

The post-coital-bliss kiss:

“She gave him a kiss of aching sweetness, the silken fall of her hair gliding across his throat.”

4. Anna yields to Cam’s kiss.
Sea Swept (2001), Nora Roberts

The I-know-it’s-bad-for-me-but kiss:

“She gave into it, gave all to it, a moment’s madness where body ruled mind and blood roared over reason.”

5. Colin finally kisses Penelope (200+ pages into the novel).
Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (2002), Julia Quinn

The I-thought-it-would-never-happen kiss:

“He leaned forward and kissed her, slowly, reverently, no longer quite so surprised that this was happening, that he wanted her so badly.”

6. Diana and Rothgar share what they believe will be their last kiss.
Devilish (2005), Jo Beverley

The we-can-never-be-together kiss:

“Then she put her lips to his and asked for their familiar kiss. She was mistress of the art and he was her equal. It was long, and as satisfying as a favorite meal.”

7. Sydnam kisses Anne after the two have become totally vulnerable to each other.

Simply Love (2007), Mary Balogh

The tenderness-in-the-afterglow kiss:

“He kissed her temple and made sure the blanket was tucked all about her. He warmed her body with his own.”

8. Villiers gives Eleanor a promising—and public—kiss.
A Duke of Her Own (2009), Eloisa James

The I-promise-you-there’s-more kiss:

“He took her hand. Then without smiling at her, without saying a word, without doing anything other than meeting her eyes, he slowly peeled off her glove. It was utterly surprising—and scandalous.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Villiers’s kiss was slow and deliberate, giving everyone in the tent more than enough time to enjoy the spectacle.”

9. Julian and Lily share a first kiss.
Three Nights with a Scoundrel (2010), Tessa Dare

The this-is-the-real-us kiss:

“Because in that moment, neither of them moved. Neither of them breathed. They just . . . existed together. The tension melted away. And the kiss was still artless, still desperate—but only because it was real. The most honest, truthful moment they’d ever shared.”

10. Moncrieffe kisses Genevieve and finds himself in an unexpected role.
What I Did for a Duke (2011), Julie Anne Long

The I-got-more-than-I-bargained-for kiss:

“He hadn’t counted on a third option. Stealthily as a liqueur or an excellent drug, in much the same way she’d been doing for days now, Genevieve Eversea—her heat, her scent, her generosity and kindness, her devastating sensuality, entered his bloodstream. Beneath his hand, the lush, lithe give of her body just barely brushing against his chest, the hum of that passion she kept so tamped, burned through him. The invader becoming the invaded—that was the third option. He was hers now.”

What are your favorite kisses in visual art forms? In fiction, literary or genre? I'm sure there are hundreds of others that deserve to be recognized. I’ll have the Randomizer choose one commenter to receive a romance novel that’s sure to include the language of kisses.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Love Poems, Love Songs: Gifts for Valentine's Day

I’ll be back on Monday to post a special Valentine’s Day blog with a giveaway. Until then, here are five of my favorite love poems and five favorite love songs, a gift for each day from now through Valentine’s Day.

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
by e. e. cummings

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

Time in a Bottle, Jim Croce

Wild Nights – Wild Nights! (249) by Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a heart in port –
Done with the compass –
Done with the chart!

 Rowing in Eden –
 Ah, the sea!
 Might I moor – Tonight –
 In thee!

Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet 116)

by William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Dan Fogelberg, Longer

The Kiss by Stephen Dunn

She pressed her lips to mind.
                      —a typo

How many years I must have yearned
for someone’s lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.
She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
Some music was playing on its own.

Nothing like a woman who knows
to kiss the right thing at the right time,
then kisses the things she’s missed.
How had I ever settled for less?

I was thinking this is intelligence,
this is the wisest tongue
since the Oracle got into a Greek’s ear,
speaking sense. It’s the Good,

defining itself. I was out of my mind.
She was in. We married as soon as we could.

Maybe I’m Amazed, Paul McCartney

San Antonio  by Naomi Shihab Nye

Tonight I lingered over your name,
the delicate assembly of vowels
a voice inside my head.
You were sleeping when I arrived.
I stood by your bed
and watched the sheets rise gently.
I knew what slant of light
would make you turn over.
It was then I felt
the highways slide out of my hands.
I remembered the old men
in the west side cafe,
dealing dominoes like magical charms.
It was then I knew,
like a woman looking backward,
I could not leave you,
or find anyone I loved more.

You Give Me Love, Martraca Berg (couldn't find a video for this one)

You turn around

Then you ask me behind tears of doubt
Just what do I see in you
Please don't cry
I know sometimes it seems we barely get by
But you don't see how much you do
To get me through

When the world is cold
And I need a friend to hold
You give me love ... you give me love

And when my hope is gone
And I feel I can't go on
You pick me up
You give me love give me love

I apologize
If I never told you what you are in my eyes
Oh baby,let me tell you now
Looks sweeter knowing you'll be there in every way
Now how can you say that's not enough

'Cause when the world is cold
And I need a friend to hold
You give me love give me love

And when my hope is gone
And it's feels I can't go on
You pick me up
You give me love give me

Everything my heart desires
Morning sun and midnight fires
Someone there to share my dreams
With you I have everything

When the world is cold
And I need a friend to hold
You give me love give me love

And when my hope is gone
And I feel I can't go on
You pick me up
You give me love

What are your favorite love poems? Your favorite love songs?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Good Mother: Not Exactly a Review of Susan Mallery's Already Home

I’ve heard other people complain about the lack of good mothers in romance novels, but until quite recently I’ve never thought that the number of bad or missing mothers was disproportionate. I’m speaking of mothers as secondary characters here. One would expect no less than splendid examples of motherhood from protagonists.

Certainly I was aware of nightmare mothers, but it always seemed to me that they were balanced by some pretty terrific mothers as well. Take the mothers in Nora Roberts’s books for example. There’s Maeve Concannon, mother of Maggie and Brianna in the Born in series, whose bitterness is a blight on her daughters’ lives, and the truly evil Gloria DeLauter of the Chesapeake Quartet, a selfish, sleazy bitch who sells her own son and later blackmails him. But Roberts also created characters like the delightful Nadia Stanislaski, beloved by husband, children, and grandchildren and Stella Quinn, whose presence in the lives of the three lost boys she and her husband Ray adopted remains vivid and influential years after her death. My favorite is Anna MacGregor, not only a loving mother and grandmother to the large MacGregor clan but also a strong and independent heroine in her own love story, For Now, Forever. Of course, I can’t forget Violet Bridgerton, mother of Julia Quinn’s alphabetically arranged Bridgertons. She is so beloved by romance readers that many of them have begged for her story, although they seem divided as to whether she should remain a widow devoted to her husband’s memory or have a second chance at love. As I said, the good mother/bad mother ratio seemed reasonable to me.

But that changed with my late 2010, early 2011 reading. Suddenly I seem to be reading an astonishing number of books with mothers who were dead, ineffectual, or self-centered. The mothers of the heroines in Robyn Carr’s Promise Canyon and Wild Man Creek, Eloisa James’s When Beauty Tamed the Beast, Rachel Gibson’s Any Man of Mine, and Sabrina Jeffries’s How to Woo a Reluctant Lady are dead. The mother of the heroine of Anne Mallory’s One Night Is Never Enough is weak and useless to her daughters. The heroines of My One and Only by Kristan Higgins and Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart by Sarah MacLean were abandoned by their mothers. MacLean gives her hero a bad mother too, a cold woman who values name and blood more than her children. As balance, I had only the mother in Susan Wiggs’s Marrying Daisy Bellamy. Sophie and Daisy had their problems in other books, but in this one Sophie is a loving, supportive parent to Daisy and to the children of her second marriage. I read Marrying Daisy Bellamy early in the year, so by the time I finished Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart last week, I was getting desperate to find a book with a good mother.

That’s when I read Already Home by Susan Mallery (Mira, March 29, 2011), a romantic women’s fiction novel that has not one but two good mothers.

Jenna Stevens has returned to her Texas hometown to build a new life for herself after a divorce from a faithless husband has left her questioning everything about the woman she thought she was. The erosion of her confidence in her culinary gifts leads her to open a cooking store rather than seek employment as a sous chef. Jenna lacks retail experience, and she makes choices about her shop that threaten its continued existence. Fortunately, she hires an assistant who possesses a creative flair and the retail knowledge Jenna lacks. With the help of this assistant and the unfaltering support of her parents, who adopted Jenna shortly after her birth, Jenna turns things around. She’s beginning to feel pride in her shop, a friendship is developing between Jenna and her assistant, Violet, and Jenna’s mother is there encouraging her and helping out in the shop.

Then one day a couple who look like aging hippies appear in the store and introduce themselves as Jenna’s birth parents. Jenna has no need for another set of parents. She sees her birth mother as a threat to her adoptive mother and wants nothing to do with this fading flower child who offers vegan recipes, messages from the Universe, and a second family, including two brothers. It is only at the urging of her adoptive mother that Jenna is even polite to her birth mother. But as she comes to know her birth mother, she grows to appreciate her and to understand that both her mothers have given her gifts that shaped her into the woman she is becoming. It is only this new understanding that prepares her heart for the man who is all she has dreamed of. The secondary plot centers on Violet—her troubled past, her determination to become more than she once thought she could be, the friendship she shares with Jenna, and the two men who enter her life.

The book is about the journeys of these two young women, and an essential part of their journeys is the relationships they have with their mothers and the mother-figures in their lives. Beth Stevens, Jenna's adoptive mother, is a conventional mother, one who loves her child devotedly and worries about her. He husband accuses her of having refined worry to an art form. Violet thinks of Beth as “the kind of woman who took in strays of all kinds,” and Beth does literally take Violet in and nurture her in ways Violet’s mother failed to do. Serenity Johnson, Jenna's birth mother, is an unconventional free spirit with a loving heart and great regret over giving her daughter up for adoption. She reared her sons with love, freedom, and “just enough rules to keep them safe.” Neither woman is perfect. Beth is illogical and surprisingly insecure, and Serenity is impulsive and sometimes insensitive.  Despite their different lifestyles and personalities, they have some important things in common. They both fell in love at a young age, and they have built long, happy marriages with their first loves and created homes filled with “laughter and conversation.” They both love their children and want to see them happy.

One of the things that keeps me reading Susan Mallery books is that her characters, even those I don’t like, seem like people I might encounter in my world. They could be the guy across the street, my cousin’s cousin, or the couple at the next table in my favorite restaurant. I feel as if I know Beth and Serenity. Like Beth, my own mother was an accomplished worrier whose hugs “never let go too soon.” And I have a friend who raises organic vegetables, cooks vegan dishes, and gave her children unusual names, although not quite as strange as Wolf and Dragon. Life has taught me that good mothers abound and that they come in very different packaging. This book reminded me of that truth, not only through Beth and Serenity but also through two very minor characters, the mother and former mother-in-law of Jenna's love interest, who prove their devotion in practical ways.

Because Already Home is women’s fiction, Jenna’s relationships with her mothers and, to a lesser degree her fathers, and her friendship with Violet play a more prominent role in the story that would be true if the novel were a contemporary romance. But there are strong romantic elements, and the story concludes with the promise of an HEA. (Jenna’s guy was definitely a keeper, but it was her brother Dragon who captured my heart.) I found this book to have the same emotional appeal and layered characters that I’ve appreciated in Mallery’s romances for years. A satisfying blend of women’s fiction and romance, readers of romance novels and readers of women's fiction should find much to like in Already Home.  Mallery has written another winner--and those good mothers make it even better.

What good--and bad--mothers from romance/women's fiction novels do you remember most vividly? Do you read women's fiction, or do you read only romance?