Wednesday, March 9, 2011

When is adultery romance

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a divorced mother. On discovering I was a romance novelist, she proceeded to provide me unsolicited ideas for my next novel. One of her ideas involved a military wife who falls in love with a man on base while her husband was involved in covert ops somewhere overseas.

I shook my head and said, “If I do that, I’ll have to make her husband pretty despicable and probably abusive. Readers don’t think of adultery as romance.”

As I pondered the scenario, the writer in me wondered, “When is adultery romance?”

Romance novels have clear guidelines. The leading character (especially the woman) should not be involved in a relationship at the time the romance begins. Beyond the guidelines, I have my own religious views, which do not condone adultery in any form or fashion. But as an artist, my mind was already thinking of scenarios that would work.

One scenario that would justify the new relationship is an abusive controlling philandering spouse. But what if that spouse was actually a nice person?

A few years back I was at a party when a friend of mine told the story of her friend, Jane, who called her in the middle of the night. Jane was driving aimlessly frustrated with no clear plan except that she was leaving her live-in boyfriend. Everybody in the group gasped. The consensus: he was such a nice man. He cooked, he cleaned, he took care of the bills and he was committed. But according to my friend, that was the problem. He took care of everything but he was a dud. Jane was emotionally frustrated and bored to insanity because her boyfriend offered no excitement or romance. He just took care of business.

I of course didn’t know the man and was only slightly acquainted with Jane. A few parties later I met Jane and I understood why she was dissatisfied. She wanted the kind of romance I write about in the novels, where the man wines and dines her and offers emotional excitement. She wanted someone who made her heart throb and her palms sweaty every time he came near. I could imagine in a situation like that, Jane would be vulnerable enough to leave her boyfriend (or have a steamy affair) for someone more exciting who can meet her emotional needs. Could we make that adulterous affair into a romance story that readers would enjoy and even root for?
Needless to say, Jane did return to her boyfriend, trading the excitement of the novels for the everyday mundane of a steady, comfortable, secure relationship. I have no doubt she had a laundry list of changes she would like to implement. But my question still stands: could we really make adultery so romantic that readers are rooting for the adulterous relationship, even though the spouse is a nice, committed person?

What do you think? What scenarios would work ?


Charles Gramlich said...

I'd realy have a hard time with such a story line. I think. The husband, or wife, would realy have to be pretty dispicable.

Liane Spicer said...

If the spouse is a normal person it won't work for me. If he or she is truly hateful/abusive, such as the husband in Sleeping With the Enemy, then it just might work.

KeVin K. said...

There are several studies about phenotypes that document the dichotomy between what traits people find sexually attractive and what traits they look for in a life partner.

Numerous studies (and I just went into information overload trying to find a few good links, Google it yourself) have shown that when asked to categorize men as either sexy or good husbands/fathers based on portrait photos alone -- no full body to see how they're built or what they're wearing -- women found very few men to be both sexy and good partner material. To oversimplify: strong lines and angles are sexy, George Clooney, for example, while those with rounded or square features are usually perceived as life partners, like (and it's a comment on the eye-candy mentality of Hollywood that I have to go to an animated film for this) Carl in "Up." In other words, in real life women keep romance and real life in different boxes. (Show of hands: how many of you know a woman who married a sexy man with the intent of "fixing his flaws" to make him a good husband? Did you tell her in advance that the "flaws" were what made him him? Did she listen?)

Of course there are some men women place in both categories. Nick Cage comes to mind, especially in It Could Happen to You or City of Angels or even Guarding Tess; Windtalkers is the only war movie Valerie ever sat through. (I dread the day he gives her a call.)

None of which has anything to do with your question. Something to do with Jane, though. Adultery is a question of culture, and celebrating adultery is a pretty standard trope for a whole school of "exotic" historical romances. Don't believe me? A beautiful, passionate, heroine, probably called "raven haired" to indicate non-Teutonic while not explicitly declaring non-Caucasian) is rescued by the dashing stranger while fleeing a loveless arranged marriage -- before it was consummated, of course. Most modern western readers would applaud the hero as he thwarts her family's (and husband's) minions and carries her to freedom. And see nothing wrong with their adventure leading to unspeakable passion (assuming it's a sweet romance and not a sweat romance, in which case it would be excruciatingly detailed passion). For something over five of the world's seven billion people, that's a tale of adultery. A happy ending would require her family and husband to rescue her from the unprincipled mongrel who's preying on her. Not going to see that on the romance aisle anytime soon.

You mentioned faith, and it's in the Christian romances you'll most often find adultery -- in the form of temptation. The prospect of a passionate affair causing the lead to reexamine the nature of love and commitment. Stories of that type will find markets in every culture. (With local adjustments as to why commitment is important, of course.)

Liane Spicer said...

I'd put Nick Cage in neither category: he looks downright pervy to me. George Clooney looks like a pussycat. Now give me Ralph Fiennes (he made adultery irresistible and romantic in The English Patient) or that other angled dude, Daniel Day-Lewis. (I seem to have a Brit thing going on.) KeVin is dead on target: the sexiest men tend to have a wild, dangerous, hard edge to them (Viggo Mortenson can kidnap me anytime) and are not good marriage prospects. I suspect it's the same with men and the women they find sexiest.

The problem arises when we aren't mature or experienced enough to know what to look for in a marriage partner and end up marrying the sexy, slightly (or very) dangerous (or unreliable, or uncommitted) Mr. Hot.

Those historical romances are a riot. Our modern western conditioning induces us to abhor the arranged marriage and cast the woman as a victim. Those stories also have blushing maidens fall in love with the men who rape them. Pure escapist fantasy and a far cry from contemporary romances that at least try for a bit of realism. And the reality is: we don't empathize with an adulterer unless there are extreme mitigating circumstances.

Terence Taylor said...

Personally, I think the only way you can keep a character sympathetic in adultery is to lead them back to reaffirming what they had and asking forgiveness, or contemplating adultery and backing off at the last minute to go back to the mate. I think Tyler Perry has played that card a few times...

I love these people, male and female, who complain of faithful devoted spouses as boring. I'd be thrilled to have a steady boring beau who fed me, treated me well and spooned nightly.

I don't think I could stand having someone constantly "surprising" me or romancing me. I only have so much energy. If your relationship is dull, remember it takes two to tango -- spring something n him or her, and see how they respond -- if you romance your mate, I kind of think they'll return the favor... ;)

Jewel Amethyst said...

I agree with you Terrence. The temptation of adultery (and I would refrain from the actual committing of adultery) would be the impetus for her or him to return to the relationship with renewed vigor. The spouse would indeed have to make an attempt to woo the partner contemplating adultery, and somehow offer her the emotional (and other) excitement she craves.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles and Liane, you are right,for it to work and for people to feel comfortable that spouse has to be pretty dispicable and I personally would prefer that that person be widowed (you know the accidental death or the sudden illness that take them really fast).

Though I've seen quite a few films that make it work, and one of Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" he makes the adulterous relationship work to the point that you were rooting for the relationship. The husband was impotent and had tricked the wife into marriage, though she was in love with another. The husband was also pretty dispicable. But it wasn't a genre "romance" novel. I also saw Daniel Steele make it work by having the wife (ca 1940's) trick the man into marriage claiming she was pregnant when she had in actual fact had a hysterectomy and was a closet lesbian.

Jewel Amethyst said...

KeVin, that's quite an interesting bit of stats. I definitely have to look it up. It seems to focus a lot on women perception of men, did they deal with the men's perception of women also?

Lynn Emery said...

Adultery as romance- no. The whole lying, deceit, not dealing honestly with the other person and instead sneaking around thing makes it a dealbreaker in terms of sympathy for the woman/man. At least not in genre romance. Even in mainstream fiction it would be hard, because I'd think - geez, have the guts to be upfront. I'd admire the person who does the hard, but honest road of divorce. Then root for them as they fight against backlash.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Still thinking of scenarios, Lynn, what if the husband hires a hitman to off the wife, and somehow the wife and the hitman fall in love and he is unable to complete the mission.

This is a scene that has been played out in movies over and over again, yet inspite of moral dilemma people find themselves rooting for the adulterous relationship.

The thing is, I would probably not write a story of that nature. But the artist in me likes a challenge, and a tough sell, a difficult storyline that takes me out of my comfort zone definitely appeals to my inner artist.

Lynn Emery said...

Yeah, I've seen those movies where you end up liking the hitman more than the intended victim :)

I've written two bad girls in novels, and then turned around and made them heroines in their own stories. I might have said once that I didn't like a challenge, but redeeming those two appealed to me. So I did it. Now I could seriously see writing a story just like you. I managed to sell Soulful Strut, heroine went to prison in one book. Her story opens with her getting out. And the first time I wrote her she was bad LOL Same thing with the current book. Having fun. Hmm, re-thinking the whole adultery as romance thing LOL

Steve Malley said...

'Work' is something of a subjective term: The English Patient, Henry and June, Tropic of Cancer, Sexus and The Sun Also Rises are just a few novels and movies that manage the trick.

None of them are exactly going to win the hearts of your average mainstream romance fan.

Do they work in that particular market? No. Do they work as compelling stories? Absolutely.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Lynn, have fun with it. I love stories of bad guys turning good. I guess I'm a sucker for redemption stories. Paul on the road to Damascus is one of my all time favorite Bible stories. Go Figure.

Steve, I haven't read any of those books, but the movie the English Patient was a big hit with the mainstream romance fans, or so I think.

Carol Mitchell said...

My first instinct was that it would only work if, like your friend at the party, she sees the light and goes back to her husband. On the other hand, the reality is that a nice guy may not be the right guy for you and many women have the struggle - should you live your life dissatisfied with a man just because he has not hit you or cheated on you. Of course, the right thing for a woman in that situation to do is to make a decision to move on from the marriage before becoming involved with someone else. So that's the approach that I would take - adultery, but the husband and wife are separated at the time.

That said, I know someone who committed adultery in that scenario. I guessed what was going on and I wrote something inspired on it, (how else would I communicate?) but in the story, things go really wrong for the woman the guy she goes out with turns out to be a bad guy. Not really fodder for a main stream romance.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Interesting premise for a novel, just not a mainstream romance one. Sounds like something Sydney Sheldon would write, and he holds nothing back when he writes.

I would prefer for the husband and wife to have been already divorced, even if he was still a part of her life. In fact, I know of couples who were divorced but circumstances beyond their control had them still living in the same home, and one ex-spouse decides it's time to move on and date others, much to the chagrin of the other ex-spouse. That however, is not adultery in that respect.

We Started Out as Friends... said...

If it was a person from her/his past. Their one true love. That may work. Like in The Notebook. Although in that movie the woman wasn't married yet, she was engaged. I think the audience still rooted for the old flame.