Summer Reading Roundup: Writing Women’s Lives

Summer is just the time for lovely, doorstop-sized biographies of wonderful women writers. Some of these aren’t that recent, but still good reads nonetheless. For your long sunny hours at the pool or beach, femmeliterate recommends:

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, by Tracy Daugherty

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, by Tracy Daugherty

As the LA Times review concedes, the best biographer of Joan Didion is Joan Didion. But for those who want an overview and some connective tissue between her nonfiction and fiction, a behind-the-scenes look at the writing of A Star is Born, and funny stories about those times that Harrison Ford came to work on the house, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song is a worthwhile read.






Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin

Ruth Franklin makes a page-turning narrative out of the life of Shirley Jackson, who, when she wasn’t writing spine-tingling horror stories, was tossing off excellent and hilarious observations on motherhood and parenting for Good Housekeeping and places like it. Franklin is perceptive, generous, and a wonderful reader of Jackson’s early novels and stories, going beyond biographical parallels between the life and the work to explore Jackson’s favorite themes, obsessions, interests, and fears. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life is entirely engrossing.




Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Therese Svodoba

Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Therese Svodoba

In addition to a history lesson and an insight into a now-overlooked force on the literary scene, Therese Svodoba gives wonderful force and insight into her reading of the poetry of Lola Ridge in Anything That Burns You. Given the many recognizable names and memorable events—both literary and historical—that pepper every page, it’s remarkable that Lola Ridge isn’t more well know. It will take a dedicated fan or a very determined curious person to make it through the whole book, but reading is an education in itself, and Ridge’s poetry is powerful and haunting.





Coming of Age: The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead, by Deborah Beatriz Blum

Coming of Age: The Sexual Awakening of Margaret Mead, by Deborah Beatriz Blum

This biography of Mead’s early life is an account, more than anything, of how she got to Samoa; the process of writing of the work that made this early anthropologist famous is unfortunately sketched over in this book, and replaced with accounts of logistical difficulty and the weather. However, it’s made beautiful by the time and care given to Mead’s dearest friends and lovers, who are written as point-of-view characters, and gives wonderful glimpses into their lives and motivations as they are interwoven with (and left behind by) Mead’s restless spirit and relentless ambition. Coming of Age explores a new dimension of this American icon and adventurer.




Never enough Charlotte Brontë

The Secret History of Jane Eyre, by John Pfordfresher

Here’s a two-fer: The Secret History of Jane Eyre offers a thoughtful exploration of the events of Charlotte Brontë’s life that infused her famous novel with such power and depth. Hardcore fans will enjoy seeing the book brought to life by the Charlotte seen through her letters and other writings, from the devotion to her family, the love of the wild place where she lived, and her painfully doomed love for Constantin Heger.

Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harman

For true biography, however, turn to Claire Harman’s A Fiery Heart for a narrative of Charlotte’s life written in prose almost as luminous and beautiful as her own.






Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, by Wayne Flynt

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, by Wayne Flynt

And if you’re looking for a slimmer read that offers a slighter but no less lovely insight into the mind of a beloved author, take a peek at Wayne Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs. His correspondence with Harper Lee, though it finds her late in life and much concerned with things like illness and where they shall go to lunch, is a wonderful reflection on Lee’s relationship with her fame and the remarkable legacy of her very remarkable book.

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The Bitch is Back (and hooray for that!)

A few years ago, when in the span of about four years I got a Ph.D., got a real job as an assistant professor, moved across the country to a part of the world I’d never inhabited with a man I’d known and loved for about a year, then married that man and shortly after that had a tiny perfect daughter who was more beautiful than anything I could ever have imagined, and then left my wonderful and fulfilling job to move our young family closer to our other family and subsequently add to that family by the addition of a perfect young son (WHEW!), I was as a stay-at-home/work-from-home mother more lost, lonely, unmoored, and unmentored than I ever had been in my life. My inner circle was seven hours away by car; my social life consisted of my MOPS group, which met once a month. I had no one to talk to, complain to, or just sigh with exasperation and weariness and outrage to, and when I did try to edge toward Real Feelings with my inner circle, I just upset them, resulting in the insistence that I had to put the kids in the car and drive straight north that minute so they could rescue me.

So one of those lost summers, when I picked up The Bitch in the House from the public library, and read it as swiftly and greedily as I could, I laughed and cried and shouted with tears of joy, “YES! FINALLY someone has said what I have been thinking! I’m not so terribly, awfully, desperately alone!” Well, physically I was, but I wasn’t alone, or awful, and no longer quite so desperate in what I was feeling. Every thread of that book—all the rage, hope, humor, love, effort, passion, and bewilderment—hit me right where I felt it. (And also made me think, what can’t I/didn’t I write something like that? I started to fall in love with the personal essay.)

When I saw The Bitch is Back at my new public library, I fell upon it with the delight of welcoming a wise old friend and mentor to my coffee table. And was not disappointed. The critics are right: there’s not quite so much rage in this one. Have we all mellowed because we’re older and wiser and have more coping skills? I don’t think that’s the case. Some of the contributors are from the original volume, but some are new, and add to the varied perspectives. Very few (in fact, I can think of only one) verge on the self-congratulatory look-at-me-and-my-great-life sweep aside of the curtain; most of them are frank, honest, funny, poignant verging on heart-breaking, and just simply, beautifully, wise.

Because anger and helplessness and aloneness and abandonment are not the focus anymore; the focus of these women is by and large on themselves, what they’ve learned about themselves in and out of relationship, and how they’ve come to their own philosophies about feminism, love, sex, art, work, life, and domesticity. They are the voices of women who have looked at themselves and examined their choices, learned to laugh at themselves and remedy their mistakes. They are the voices of women who have struggled through difficult times and learned to find balance. They are the voices (again, I can think of only that one exception) who are reaching out a hand across the coffee table to say, sister, I’ve been there, I feel you; here’s my take on that.

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, the first book to identify me to myself as a bitch, and inform me that it was okay to be one.

I want to sit down in this room full of women and listen to them talk for hours. But more than that, their honesty and clarity and forthrightness and sheer grit has encouraged me to look at myself a little more sternly and figure out where my pressure points are. And rather than falling into the rage/bewilderment/hopeless loneliness/self-pity cycle, I ask myself: what can I do?

Besides which, it’s summer, and therefore my writing time. Yes, I am sending my kids to daycare in the summer (summer!) so that I have a few hours a day to write. As my supervisor at the Writing Center said (she’s a published author, too), writing is your job. You need to set aside time to do it. And I am, with full friendly-bitch-face, protecting that time to the utmost. Yes, I still struggle to find the balance—to give my spiritual growth, paying work, fulfilling relationships, community service, children and husband and housework and family all the proper time and attention those segments of my life need to thrive. But I learned a valuable lesson from those days of blasted loneliness: if I let the creative part of me wither, every single other slice of the pie gets poisoned by the blight. So, in this house also, the bitch is back, and doggone am I happy to see her.

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Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia captures all her best provocations, smoke bombs, and sturdy anti-establishmentarianism in this collection of essays, opening with excerpts from her hefty and admittedly groundbreaking Sexual Personae (1990) and ending with recent publications on affirming her stance on abortion and the sadomasochism of high heels.

As usual, Paglia prides herself on being strident, combative, and anti-mainstream, advocating her personal brand of “dissident,” “Amazonian feminism” and promising she is the “60s come back to haunt the present.” At some points it begins to feel like Paglia’s counter-culturalism has become a sheer reflex. If it’s a majority opinion, she’s going to refute it, and pride herself that her combative instincts (gifted her, she suggests, by her Italian-American descent) have guided her to a truth that the myopic, misguided, spineless crowd is too duped to see or too dim to understand.

Book cover sexual personaeThe relentless self-satisfaction and feelings of superiority aside, Paglia’s intellectual endeavors of the past 27 years are full of striking common sense. Abortion, she declares, should be legal on the sheer fact of constitutional rights. She’ll concede pro-lifers the moral high ground, given their feelings about the sanctity of life, but she comes down staunchly libertarian on this political spectrum. Madonna, she noticed early on, is a “real” feminist: “She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive, and funny—all at the same time” (50).

Paglia is a big fan of “independence, self-reliance, personal responsibility, and not blaming other people for your problems” (67).  She is an unabashed follower of Dionysus and the ideals of beauty and pleasure, preferring de Sade to Rousseau, Freud to Lacan, Wilde to Wollstonecraft. She likes the aggression and athleticism of American football, admires the aesthetic of gay men, and appreciates pornography for its celebration of sexual impulse and its melding of danger and eroticism. Sex is dangerous, Paglia asserts, and danger is sexy. That she pointed out this self-evident truth is why, she seems to think, everybody got on her case over S.P.

book cover vamps and trampsPaglia gets less pleasure out of celebrating the things she does like, however, than she does out of bashing the things she hates. Paglia’s praise is warm but mild, but her glee when she holds the sledgehammer is glorious to behold. Most of the book is a strident and, by the end, well-rehearsed tirade against the same set of targets: mainstream Western feminism (“Infirmary Feminism”) and feminists, with their “moldy neuroses,” women’s studies centers, poststructuralist theory (oh, how Paglia loathes poststructuralism! she trots out her best insults on this rampage), and the Victorian coddling of college students over date rape.

book cover break blow burnLibertarian as she is, as noted, Paglia fails to see how a good dose of bucking up, showing some backbone, slinging insults, and—in the case of real women leaders, like female presidential candidates—maybe have a little military training can not immediately solve the problems women have created for themselves by being born into a world where men have invented technology, culture, government, sports, and fashion. Paglia might be more persuasive if she were more inclined to negotiate, consider all sides, explore, rethink, and potentially compromise—best seen in her lecture at MIT, when she howls with outrage over a presentation she had to sit through with a feminist scholar critiquing fashion photography. Beauty is all! Paglia says, not ever considering how a young and impressionable girl might be led to decades of hating and disfiguring her own body because she doesn’t live up to these highly managed and curated images. But Paglia is having too much fun to put down the sledgehammer, and besides, she hates sissies.

Though her running patter on the history of second wave feminism, her antipathy for Gloria Steinem, her admiration for women like Amelia Earhart and Katherine Hepburn and Germaine Greer, and her John-the-Baptist sense of being the prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness start to feel worn and well-used by their last iterations (though one has to admire Paglia for her consistency), this book is still a must-read for anyone who calls themselves a feminist. For one thing, her history of feminism, though highly condensed, is highly useful, especially where she finds it infused with nineteenth century utilitarianism and eighteenth century Romanticism.

book cover sex art and american cultureFor another, Paglia’s critique of women’s studies programs and the way academic feminists train other academic feminists deserves some serious consideration. Her plea to inject some self-possession and some real common sense—and some basic knowledge of science, including biology—into mainstream feminism should be taken seriously, too. Last but not least, her prose, even when she’s at her most insulting, has a spare, lithe, powerful beauty. The book is simply fun to read, occasional howlers aside.

And her ultimate call—that feminism create a path for real, tangible equality for all genders, no matter what they are—is, after all, femmeliterate’s goal, too. So on that—even though I suspect Paglia would consign me and this site as party to the sniveling, vegetable-crisper School of Feminism—I’m on her side. I wish I were teaching a gender studies class next semester so that I could assign this book.

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Divided We Stand, by Marjorie J. Spruill

Divided We Stand by Marjorie SpruillDepending on how you look at it, feminism has either become more acceptable and mainstream, or it continues to be perceived by most young women as a radical dogma that requires one to forego personal grooming and to revile men. Feminism is either strong, better, more pervasive than ever before, or it’s been hijacked into a marketing ploy that “liberates” young women by insisting they express themselves by the clothes, make-up, and accessories they buy and wear. Second-wave feminism is dead but third- and fourth-wave feminism are thriving. Wave feminism is archaic and waveless feminism is the thing. Feminism is a global cause or Western feminists have to be very careful about how they try to foist their imperialistic views on others. Feminists are still mainly white and ignorant of the battles of their less privileged sisters. Intersectionality is where it’s at. The future face of feminism is young, multi-colored, and somewhere outside the restrictive gender binary. Feminism is everywhere. Feminism is you.

I think all these discussions are delightful. I love reading about them and participating in them. But sometimes, one feels like the ground is ever-shifting. What does feminism even mean these days? What does it signal if I identify as a feminist? What does it require of me? Can I march for my sisters, or do I need to let my sisters speak for themselves? Do I need to feel ashamed of my white, upper-middle-class, highly-educated privilege? Do I need to rebuke the women standing in the same echelon who say they don’t need to march because they don’t see inequality? That if women are being held back, it’s their own choice?

Okay, that last one is easy. I think a rebuke is definitely called for in the last instance. Better yet, I will direct the privileged sister to read Dina Leygerman’s great blog post, “You Are Not Equal, I’m Sorry,” captured on Medium. You don’t have to march, she’s saying, but a polite “thank you” to the women who suffered and fought so you could be ignorant of your own privilege and the forces still holding back other women is not out of line.

And for those who are wondering how, if the fight has been going on for over 40 years, we’re not further along in the spectrum toward equality for all genders, there is an excellent explanation offered in historian Marjorie J. Spruill’s new book, Divided We Stand.

This is a dense book aimed at fellow feminist historians, but it’s a huge contribution to the history of second-wave feminism in the United States, and an absolute must-read for anyone interested in how the wave got halted and the different camps, feminist vs. anti-feminist, so divisively bitter. Spruill begins with the dramatic assessment that the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, in 1977 was a dramatic watershed moment in the advance of women’s rights in the United States, and she spends the bulk of the book in a detailed inquiry of what led up to the conference, and what happened there, with the last segments devoted to a summation of what has happened for women’s rights in this country between then and now.

It takes some persuading to the see the NWC as a fundamental accomplishment, especially since Spruill, both times she talks about it–in the introductory chapter, and then in the middle chapters exploring the Houston event–spends at least as much time discussing the anti-feminist, anti-ERA rally taking place alongside, an event that seems to have been louder, better-attended, and even more self-congratulatory. For those curious about what the recent Women’s Marches following Trump’s inauguration have accomplished, this book is a good reminder that protests galvanize, provide solidarity, and develop loyalty among a group. It is also testament to the fact that, when you have two equally heated opinions that are dead-set against one another, nothing gets done beyond a lot of screaming, insult-launching, and exaggerated hyperbole.

This is best seen in the chapters devoted to the state conferences preceding the NWC, whose job it was to elect delegates to the national convention and determine a platform to submit. Here there is a tragic arc to the narrative as well. While legislative and popular support for the ERA in particular and the idea of women’s rights in particular was high in the initial stages, the conventions did what they were supposed to do: elect a diverse set of delegates and develop a platform that reflected a progressive agenda of full civil rights, including reproductive rights and non-discrimination, for the national platform that would eventually be submitted to the president. Once the anti-ERA forces got into action—the forces who passionately believed that the traditional family structure, with the woman at home dependent on the husband, were the only right model for everyone—the book becomes a wearying account of how, state by state, busloads of smug white evangelical women and their husbands descended on conventions, disrupted any fruitful discussion, congratulated themselves for being family champions, and then went back home to their safe, white houses.

Spruill doesn’t shy away from how the anti-forces deployed all sorts of others groups, including the KKK, to bulk out their protest numbers (an association Schafly always denied). In short, these chapters pound home the point learned from watching the U.S. Congress in action for the last six years: those who can make every effort available to obstruct an agenda that might mean more social justice for the broader population can usually manage to succeed. But the book also doesn’t shy away from showing the divisions within the feminist ranks—the arguments over how far to embrace LGBT rights, for example, and how to handle the abortion question—that led to factions and fissures there that generally left the middle-of-the-road feminists and the pro-life feminists with no place to go. As the more progressive voices won out, some of the middle who weren’t prepared to go that far get left behind—which is why the popular opinion still prevails among my students that feminists are strident, bra-burning, man-hating radicals, which means productive conversations about how to promote equal rights and just treatment for all genders get derailed quickly.

Spruill’s research is excellent and her prose, for the most part, is up to the task of handling the many threads of her narrative. There are some places where her overviews descend into roll calls of who was at a certain meeting or who supported a certain piece of legislation; there are other places where the narrative seems to switch back and forth in time, and one goes over ground that already felt covered. These are small drawbacks to what otherwise is a sharp, smart, very well-organized assessment of just what the feminist were fighting for, and what their opponents were fighting against. She is fair to both sides, quotes scrupulously and at length from her primary research, and also managed to interview many of the major figures on their involvement.

The major women on the scene emerge as courageous, charismatic, dedicated, impressive people, among them Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan (all pro-ERA), and Phyllis Schafly (anti). The story of how Schafly nearly single-handedly organized the resistance and halted such an enormously important piece of legislation as equal rights for all genders is awesome and—if you happen to be on the side of equal rights for women—a completely demoralizing example of how the shrill misuse of information and incitement of fear can stop any real dialogue and any positive change from happening (something we continue to see happening in the discussion on women’s rights up to this day). In this way, Spruill’s history is a revealing and explanatory account of just how the divisions between the progressives and the conservatives got so deep and the rhetoric got so heated to the point that there seems no middle ground remaining.

After the last chapters, which are a fast summary of how rights for women have swung back and forth depending on whether the administration was led by a Republican or a Democrat, it’s hard to see a way forward, and Spruill doesn’t really devote herself to solutions. However, she’s laid a careful, solid, even foundation for future investigations of feminist history and women’s rights in the US. Let’s hope she’s also laid the ground for an intelligent discussion of solutions and, perhaps, even without an ERA, a national acceptance of the belief that women are in fact equal to full human, constitutional, civil rights and equal treatment under the law. I hope I live to see that day.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 21: Protesters walk during the Women’s March on Washington, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. Large crowds are attending the anti-Trump rally a day after U.S. President Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th U.S. president. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)


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Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads Colleen Hoover

Colleen Hoover's It Ends With UsThis Christmas I gave myself the best book I’ve ever or quite possibly will ever read.

In It Ends with Us, author Colleen Hoover explores the complexities of human emotion, entangled layers of relationships, chance meetings and chances missed and the break down of stereotypical black and white judgment on the taboo topic of domestic abuse.

Lily Bloom grows up hating her abusive father and wondering why her mother tolerates the abuse. She vows never to live in fear of the man she loves as her mother did. A homeless boy occupying an abandoned house in her small town Maine neighborhood gives fifteen-year-old Lily her first glimpse at how love could be. She smuggles Atlas Corrigan into her latch key home after school and on cold nights to sleep on her bedroom floor. She gives him clean clothes from her father’s closet, blankets, food and afternoons on the couch watching Ellen DeGeneres, the TV celebrity Lily bares her teenage soul to in lengthy journal entries that describe her emerging feelings for Atlas.

Although happy that her friend has found a home with a relative living in Boston, Lily grieves the loss of her first love. Atlas tells her of his plans to enlist in the military after high school graduation and promises to find her.

The years pass with no word from Atlas. Lily graduates from college, takes a job with a marketing firm in Boston, and realizes her dream of opening a florist shop, determined to put as many miles as she can between herself, her parents and a painful past. When her father dies, Lily delivers a meaningless and embarrassingly brief eulogy. That evening, she climbs to a star-gazing perch on the rooftop of a building near her Boston apartment and accidentally observes neurosurgeon Dr. Ryle Kincaid’s private tantrum sparked by the needless death of a young boy.

The turbulence of their on-again, off-again love affair and Lily’s resistance to severing the remaining emotional connection and a renewed friendship with Atlas reveal realities and emotions attached to destructive memories and motivations. The surprising “Us” in the title serves as an exclamation point on the far-reaching consequences of violence aimed at the ones we love.

My attitude toward women and men who remain with abusive partners changed after reading this book. Lily’s gut-wrenching decisions brought on by her unintended, perilous plight, along with her own revelations and forgiveness of her mother, opened my eyes to more reasons for every possible course of action or inaction. Domestic abuse isn’t only between the victim and violator. There is no absolute black and white solution or resolution.

Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in 2013. The story continued in Heartland published in 2015 and concludes with Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, published in October of this year. A freelance writer and consultant, Teresa serves on the Board of Directors of the Midwest Writing Center. The Davenport native resides in her hometown with her husband John and three rescued Husky kids.


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Susan Carroll and the Allure of the Regency Romp

I’m doing it again.

The days are shorter, the nights are longer, and there is more time to snuggle on the couch reading. I could be diving into all the wonderful new literary fiction that’s out there (just found Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed on my library’s to-read shelves). I could be reading some other Shakespearean novels I’m come across in researching my latest article (two novels I know of featuring Amelia Lanyer as Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, not to mention that Elaine Scarry has a new theory about the lovely boy of the sonnets). I could even be catching up on the stack of books by local authors I’ve acquired from doing the book tour circuit this summer and Writers on the Avenue’s fiction writing workshops this fall.

But nope, I’ve been plowing through Susan Carroll‘s backlist. Specifically, the early Regencies. Specifically, the Regency romps.

Why? That’s precisely the question I’m asking myself.

One reason is that I signed up for Susan’s novel workshop through the Midwest Writing Center this fall. Five years of graduate study in creative writing—the MA from FSU, the MFA from Cornell—and I still feel like I have so much to learn. This is in no way a reflection on the beyond-excellent instruction I received from the amazing writers at both of those schools. Rather, I think it is a reflection of how truly slow a learner I am. And also, there I was writing short stories—which I pretend to know something about—and not novels, which I am learning how to write now, with the one I’ve been working on for how many years now.

I started with The Dark Queen, the first in the series about a group of powerful women in Renaissance France who are rumored to be witches. It dovetailed with research into the other article I’m researching, on medieval magic and fairy lore, and it’s so far a terrific book. I’ve got my bookmark in it and will go back to it. But I decided that for purposes of “researching” the novel I’m writing, I would read some of Susan’s Regencies. I know she loves writing them, and I know she writes them well, and I’ve already read every single work by Georgette Heyer several times, so I’m in the market for something new.

And now I can’t stop.

Sugar Rose by Susan CarrollWhat I like most about these Regencies (at least the ones I’ve read so far) is that each heroine has her own individual quirk. Aurelia Sinclair of The Sugar Rose is what you would call plus-size, not at all like the willowy silhouettes in fashion. She swallows her frustrations along with her chocolate bonbons, a coping tactic I know well. Predictably—for what gives these books their appeal is that we expect, nay demand a certain outcome, though we are willing to be surprised as to just how the characters achieve their HEA—the man she comes to genuinely care for is the man who likes her at any size.

The rest of the appeal, I’m coming to realize, is not the escape to a different time and place. It’s having a fantasy setting in which to work out our own modern dilemmas (like, how can women learn to love themselves within a fashion culture that is obsessed with thin, young, flawless beauty?) and get a healthy perspective on them. Or at least read about someone who deals with them more courageously (and more effectively) than we do.

In The Wooing of Miss Masters, Audra is not at all duchess material. She is a reclusive bluestocking who would rather sit next to her own fireplace and read a book than go to a ball and try to catch the attention of a duke. Of course, this being a romp, after several hilarious, aggravating, and interesting encounters, the duke will decide that he must have Miss Masters, and find a way to win her heart. Nerdy, socially inept girls CAN win the handsome jock! Hooray and huzzah!

My favorite heroine so far has to be Gwenda from Brighton Road.  She’s the author who writes thrilling Gothics for Minerva Press, has a family legendary for their madness, and does the hero a favor by critiquing the marriage proposal she accidentally overhears them making. This one had the most flavor of a Heyer (as well as the plot device about the road trip gone horribly wrong) plus several in-jokes for the authorly reader, and the hero who is first humiliated and beaten, then softened and won over, by the heroine’s winning antics.

And, because it’s Christmas and because I have reached the age where I like to celebrate the season by reading holiday-themed books, I also read Christmas Belles, which is about a family of four sisters who eventually find their HEA. Chloe, the lead, is the dreamy one who eventually has all her own dreams come true.

Is that the real appeal of books like these—they indulge the daydream of winning the affection of a handsome, attractive, capable man whose admiration and devotion will secure a girl lifelong sexual fulfillment as well as economic wealth and safety? Let’s not deny that social status as well as material comforts come in the package, as well as the hero’s sworn lifelong monogamous fascination and interest. It seems a rather adolescent fantasy, the longing for the prince as well as secure entry into the social world of rank and privilege. But it’s also a persistent one. For me the appeal of this fantasy lasted well into my 20s, and consuming romances with an insatiable appetite (a guilty pleasure I hid and denied during graduate school) was part of enjoying the excursions into Fantasy Land, rewarded with a HEA every time.

Now that I’m older, my fantasies are more about fulfilling quests, achieving career aspirations, and establishing myself in the world on my own terms, not in relation to someone else. Maybe that’s why I loved Disney’s latest animated feature Moana so much.  After growing up on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and finding a new favorite in Mulan, I finally get a Disney princess who does something useful with her talents, like save the world—which gets me exactly in the fantasy nerve at this particular moment in my life.

But there’s no denying that I return to the historical romances, and especially the Regency romps, for a particular kind of comfort, and a particular kind of joy. Sometimes I just don’t want deeply emotional sagas where tragedy strikes each generation of a family or the hero and heroine torture each other for 400 pages of the book. I don’t want to be confronted with social injustice or historical inequalities that can’t be cheerfully resolved by a plucky, insightful, determinedly upbeat heroine. Sometimes, let’s be honest, I don’t want to do with emotional and mature work of reading literary fiction and getting deeply inside the experience of another mind, another world.

Sometimes—especially when things outside are dark, the world seems overwhelming, or I feel stressed out and inadequate—I just want the sweet, easy fantasy. I want the chocolate bonbons.

So, as insurance against the winter getting too dark or too long, I’ve got Susan’s latest, Disenchanted, on pre-order. I’ll keep thinking about the romance formula and its enduring appeal, from its earliest beginnings until now. But I’ve also given myself something to look forward to in the new year. Because I can’t think of anything I love more than a book that takes a cynical, even ironic approach to the formulaic fantasy—and delivers a satisfying HEA nevertheless.

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