Nora Roberts has stated that she prefers "romances that deal with a partnership, a meeting of minds and hearts" (Mussell 1997, 159). Within such a context, protagonists are likely to behave in the manner described by bell hooks and summarised by Catherine Roach:
As a true love, I must be willing to act [...] in ways that are caring, affectionate, and respectful, in order to nurture my beloved’s growth. Such true love also implies that, as I nurture my lover’s growth, I nurture my own as well. We cannot, do not, love another truly if we abandon the duty to love ourselves and to act in our own best interests. True love, in other words, does not make one into a martyr or a doormat. If such loss of self happens—if I extend myself to the extent of loss of self—the relationship is not true love. (2016, 127)
Zack demonstrates his status as a “true love” with regards to Nell in part because he “wanted her for who she was, and not who he could mold her to be” (Dance 213). Robert’s trilogy suggests that strong individuals, by supporting each other in a nurturing way which is respectful of the other’s identity, further increase their strength: a “true love” couple “help each other find the best you can be” (Heaven 247), ensuring they are “stronger together than [...] apart” (Heaven 304).
This conception of how love’s goodness is made manifest is not restricted to romantic relationships, however. Indeed, the series stresses the importance of non-romantic, yet loving, connections. In both the past and present “The three [witches of Three Sisters Island] are very strong when linked” (Heaven 107); although Mia is “the strongest” (Heaven 343) in the present day, even “she, so long a solitary witch, couldn’t do what needed to be done alone” (Dance 285). Together, Nell, Ripley and Mia create “The circle of three. […] A link, mind to mind to mind” (Heaven 107) which months later can still be detected by the paranormal researcher Dr. MacAllister Booke as
almost pure positive energy [that] encompasses an area of twelve feet, in a perfect circle. Most rites of paranormal origin involve protective circles. This is the most powerful I’ve found. (Heaven 84)
The strength provided by standing with others is emotional as well as magical: when Mia insists that Nell will have to “recognize your own power [...] I’ll help you find it. I’ll teach you” (Dance 95-96) she is, on a literal level referring to Nell’s magical gifts but her offer of assistance is accompanied by the emotional advice that Nell should never
forget who and what you are. You’re an intelligent woman with spine enough to make a life for herself. With a gift [...] in the kitchen. I admire you. [...] You had the courage to strike out on your own. To come to a strange place and make yourself part of it.” (95)
Mia is one of the first people Nell encounters on the island; her practical support gives Nell a place to live and work and her encouragement helps Nell grow in confidence.
As its name suggests, the series places great emphasis on female friendship but the male protagonists are not limited to relating to others solely through romantic relationships with women: Zack is Ripley’s biological brother, becomes Mac’s brother-in-law, and the two men, along with the three female witches form a “close-knit group [...] these were five people who’d bonded like glue” (Face 124). Their network of friendships is almost tangible to Sam as he observes them interacting: it is evident
in the way Mia warmed when she spoke to or listened to Mac, the amused affection on her face. It was love he saw there, not the sort that sprang from passion, but something deep and true.
He saw byplay like that all around the table.
Nell scooped up a second helping for Mac before he’d asked for one. Zack tore off a hunk of bread and passed it to Mia while he continued to hold a heated debate with his sister on the pitching depth of the Red Sox. (Face 124)
Even Sam, at this point something of an outsider to the group, shares with Zack an “uncomplicated affection and bone-deep bond that had sprung from childhood” (Face 18) and later, after he has confronted the “demon wolf from hell” (Face 156), he calls on his “men friends” (Face 157) Mac and Zack to ask for their advice.
In this context, each member of a couple is far from dependent solely upon the other for happiness: rather, as Ralph Crane and Lisa Fletcher have observed
the protagonists increasingly figure their shared lives [...] as a set of intersecting concentric circles. Each heroine occupies her own innermost circle, an intimate space, which is both a point on a circle connecting the three witches and which expands to embrace the hero as their personal love plot progresses. Furthermore, each couple co-inhabits an "invisible bubble" within a larger circle containing and protecting the central group of characters; this core group is supported in the next band by their close friends and family, most importantly Lulu, Mia's childhood guardian. (121)
The presence of Lulu, in particular, emphasises the value and strength of non-traditional lifestyles and non-biological bonds. As a former “freewheeling, free-loving hippie” (Dance 274) who “likes her own space” (Face 312) and lives alone, Lulu stands in contrast to her much more conventional sister, Sylvia, who has a “husband, [...] kids” and a “life in the suburbs” (Dance 275). While Sylvia insists that “a woman isn’t a woman unless she has a husband and children” (Dance 274), Lulu is a divorcee who was employed to “mind” (Dance 276) another woman’s child and never bore one of her own. Nonetheless, when the demon attempts to convince Lulu that “You’ve got nobody, do you, Lu? No man, no kid, no family. Nobody to give a rat’s ass about you” (Face 65) she knows it is “wrong about that [...]. She had family. She had a child” (Face 101). This is because Lulu had felt that Mia’s grandmother, Mrs. Devlin, “was more family to me than my own blood” (Face 118) and the night Mia’s parents brought their infant home for the first time
they went down to the hotel to have dinner, and Mrs. Devlin took me into the nursery. Mia was a beautiful baby—red-headed, bright-eyed. Long arms and legs. Mrs. Devlin, she picked her up out of the crib, cuddled her for a minute, then she held her out to me. [...] I knew she was giving her to me, and nothing would ever be the same for me again. […] ‘Take her,’ she said to me. ‘She needs love and care, and a firm hand. They won’t give it to her, they can’t. And when I’m gone, she’ll only have you.’ [...] and before I knew it, I was taking her. Mrs. Devlin stepped back. ‘She’s yours now.’ (Face 119-120)
There is, therefore, as Mac has observes, a “close, familial relationship between Lulu and Mia” (Heaven 154) and when Sam asks Mia about her family it “took her a moment [...] to realize he meant her parents and not Lulu, or Ripley and Nell” (Face 222). Since Lulu is much closer to Mia than her biological parents, and Mia, Ripley and Nell are bonded through their magic like “sisters” (Face 218), when Nell’s pregnancy is revealed, Lulu quickly responds, declaring that she’ll “have to knit some booties. A blanket. [...] Somebody has to step in and play grandma” (Face 195-196): Lulu is clearly more than willing, and able, to fill that role.
Lulu’s destiny is fulfilled on the island to which she was drawn, in her youth, by “dreams” (Face 116), yet that destiny did not include a permanent lover or husband and she seems content with this. When Mia asks why Lulu has “never once asked me for a spell or a charm. For luck, love, fast money” Lulu indicates that she has no need for them because “I get on well enough on my own” (Face 203). Within the series Lulu thus demonstrates that an individual can find fulfillment of what Mac lists as the “elemental human needs. Home, family, love, financial security” (Heaven 154) without romantic love.
As we saw in the previous chapter, salvation in romances can be achieved with the assistance of individuals other than a romantic partner and, as I have discussed elsewhere (Vivanco 2016, 89-109), community is an important element of many romances. Roberts is therefore far from alone in the romance genre in acknowledging that romantic love is not the only type of love, and that other forms of love can also have great power to effect positive change. While some romances exclusively depict an idealised form of romantic love, a love which is, in the words of Tenlee, the heroine of T. S. Joyce’s For the Soul of an Outlaw (2018), “all mushy and perfect and between two people,” others, like Tenlee herself, implicitly or explicitly argue that those
books had gotten it wrong. There were different kinds of love.
When she looked at Kurt [her hero], he was everything. [...] But it wasn't always perfect and easy. [...]
And then there was her love for Gunner [Kurt’s young son ...]. She wanted to [...] hug him up all the time. That wasn't in the books she'd read.
And then there was her friendships with Colt, Trigger, Karis, and Ava. That love definitely hadn't been described in the books. That love had surprised her the most. It wasn't a romantic feeling, but it held the same level of devotion that had grown inside of her for Kurt.
The presence in romance novels of close social networks imply that
it is false to imagine that the goal [or social ideal] is a free and active person completely independent of any need for other persons or society itself. The biblical story of the Exodus remains revelatory of the fundamental moral basis of human existence: liberation is from bondage into community—into a community of persons who are both free and coresponsible for one another's fates. (Hollenbach 93)
The coresponsibility of saving the community on Three Sisters Island falls primarily to Nell, Ripley and Mia, since they are the ones who are challenged directly by the demon but, as Mac states when the three meet up with their spouses and Sam, all six are “part of this, and everyone here has something to contribute” (Face 122). So, too, does the wider community, as the islanders “stick together” and “gather[...] around the cottage and in the woods,” turning their “hearts and minds [...] toward” (Face 355) Mia as she fights the demon, their lights in the darkness sending forth a “rush of energy that streamed [...] into her like love” (Face 352).
Less dramatically, day-to-day life on the island involves “enhanced sociality. As Ripley tells Nell the first time they meet: ‘You live on an island, everybody’s business is your business.’” (Crane and Fletcher 122). The “island grapevine spread [...] news fast” and although one could dismiss it as mere “gossip” (Face 30) the community’s interest in gathering details about each other’s lives is not entirely dissimilar to the observation required by Zack and Ripley’s police work and, indeed, one can inform the other, as when a
towheaded boy of about ten scrambled across [...] “[...] Sheriff, my mom said I was to come right over and tell you. The tenants in the Abbott rental are having a big fight. There’s screaming and crashing and cursing and everything. [...] Mom says it sounds like the man in there’s beating the woman something fierce.” (Dance 163)
There is no guarantee, of course, that the presence of a close knit, benevolent community would have saved either Air or Nell from domestic violence. Indeed, Nell’s community at the time did express concerns: her “mother had reservations” and “asked me to give it some time, but I wouldn’t listen” (Dance 112). However, the fact that Evan “swept me off my feet” (Dance 110) and “dazzled me, and when he asked me to marry him, I didn’t think twice. [...] We eloped” (Dance 112), perhaps suggests he knew that, had he acted less speedily, she might well have been influenced by those “reservations.”