In high school I thought about writing my English independent study project on Harlequin romances. I intended to argue that there were only six plots, all of which took their origin in a Jane Austen novel:
- The Instant Antagonism Plot (Pride and Prejudice): Demure young nun meets stern ex-naval captain and their immediate mutual antipathy is a sure indication that they are in fact highly compatible soul mates.
- The Previous Engagement Plot (Sense and Sensibility): (Paris, 1940) Handsome young man meets lovely young lady but a previous commitment gets in the way.
- The Wallflower Plot (Mansfield Park): Nice young man gets distracted by dashing, clever, beautiful woman while painfully shy heroine suffers in silence (or, occasionally, attracts the notice of dashing, clever, but ruthless cad).
- The Foolish Misunderstanding Plot (Northanger Abbey): Naïve and heedless lovers are nearly parted by their shared inability to communicate clearly or divulge important information in a timely manner.
- The Just-a-Friend Plot (Emma): Highly compatible couple is unable to recognize their love because they are under the impression that they are just friends.
- The Blast from the Past Plot (Persuasion): Old flame returns to town, rekindles old passion.
The Persuasion plot was always a favourite of mine, back in my Harlequin-reading days. One problem with the Harlequin formula is that it requires every interaction between hero and heroine to be a relationship-advancing event. There’s nothing worse than reading about a romantic date between two people who like each other and spend their time learning about one another through conversation about their hobbies and past relationships. In a romance novel, couples learn about one another through accidental discoveries, and their conversations take the form of sparring matches, each interaction heightening the sexual tension and raising the stakes. Unfortunately, there’s a finite number of relationship-advancing events that can occur in any given relationship: (1) first impression (positive); (2) creation of antipathy; (3) initial expression of romantic interest; (4) misunderstanding; (5) resolution of misunderstanding (sex); (6) uncertainty about level of commitment; (7) resolution of uncertainty about level of commitment (The End). Hence the two-week time period covered by most Harlequins – it’s simply impossible to keep fictional characters from getting engaged for any longer than seven interactions. And as skilled as I am in the suspension of disbelief, as a romance reader I always felt a bit troubled by this rush into matrimony. I found it much more reassuring when characters had a long, buried history that they could unravel and resolve in that two-week period.
Inexplicably, my English teacher discouraged me from my Harlequin/Austen project, directing me instead toward a rather dry analysis of war novels written from the home front perspective. But I was reminded of my list last night after watching The Devil Wears Prada, a film that employs a newly ubiquitous chick-lit plot not covered by my supposedly exhaustive list. The happy ending of a good old-fashioned romantic comedy is the union of hero and heroine, but in these novels (and their film adaptations) the happy ending is the heroine’s break-up with her significant other: her job. From The Undomestic Goddess to I Don’t Know How She Does It to Something Borrowed and Something Blue, novels employing this plot depict women in the grip of an abusive workplace from which they must escape by (a) moving away from the city, (b) wearing comfortable clothes, and (c) having a baby/learning to cook/writing a novel.
And here’s the cue for my startlingly incisive analysis of the corporate culture that has produced this trend and the post-feminist backlash these novels perpetuate – except that I don’t really know why this plot gets written again and again, or even why I find it so strangely compelling. Do I like these stories because they affirm my own career decisions (to live in a small city, to slide onto the mommy track)? Plausible, but somehow I don’t think so. The Devil Wears Prada is full of eye-candy – it’s a tantalizing glimpse into a lifestyle enjoyed by very few, a lifestyle of catching yellow cabs in the big city, wearing stilettos and hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. And yet envy is always kept firmly at bay in these stories by the comforting moral that the life of an ambitious, successful lawyer/financier/journalist is ultimately soul-crushing and empty, that the price is paid at home in the divorces and custody battles. What could be more tantalizing fare for four moms out for a rare night at the movies than a wish-fulfillment fantasy that ultimately tells us we already have it all?