4.3 Reconciling

Romance novels model not just individuals and their behaviours, but also relationships between individuals. As such, they may be deemed to perform the function of “reconciling” when they seek “to re-establish broken relationships” (Clebsch and Jaekle 9). It must, however, be acknowledged that some romance novels depict unhealthy communication and do not provide realistic models for reconciliation. Daniela Kramer and Michael Moore were concerned about the patterns of communication they found in Harlequin Mills & Boon novels from the 1990s and therefore stressed that

Free-flowing, congruent communication is a basic necessity for every healthy society, and its lack is a symptom of pathology. Small, primary groups, such as the family, are especially sensitive in this respect: Intimacy is fed by open communication, as if it were a lifeline. When romantic fiction's heroes and heroines lie to and insult each other [...] and actively hide their thoughts and emotions from the one person on earth with whom they will purportedly spend the rest of their life, they do more than just present a bad example: They spread the myth that this is how it is, that discommunication can serve as the ground for a lasting relationship. (35)

Kramer and Moore recognise that “there is an implication in these novels [...] that ‘things will get better’ after the wedding” (35), and that a "corollary of this belief" is the belief “that love changes people, and that this change is for the better” (37) but this only leads them to warn that “It is hard to exaggerate the potential damage of such an unrealistic expectation from spousehood” (35). It should not be assumed, however, that all readers who believe in love’s transformative power have unrealistic expectations and therefore anticipate witnessing such dramatic transformations in their own lives. Indeed, a lack of realism may be signalled to the reader in various ways: the metaphor of devilishness, for example, may be deployed to describe one of the protagonists (as in many of the novels discussed in Chapter 9), or explicit allusions may be made to a fairy tale such as Beauty and the Beast, which Kramer and Moore recognised as a template for roughly a third of the novels in their sample (37). Such romances can be considered to depict miracles of love: they portray risky, unlikely scenarios and are best read theologically, as parables about the power of love, rather than as models for behaviour.

Romances can, nonetheless, help readers with their own relationships. In 1997 practicing psychotherapist Victoria L. Badik wrote that she had used genre fiction, including romance novels, to assist in the process of reconciliation:

Many of the problems seen in a typical therapist’s practice are essentially communication problems. Phrases like “He just doesn’t understand!” or “She doesn’t get it!” are heard all too often. By introducing clients to novels that deal with similar issues you allow them to step back from their conflicts and reappraise their situation. (242)

Author Vicki Essex has also expressed an awareness of romance’s potential in this area:

I think when you look at the whole genre and you realize [...] that healthy communication is part of a healthy relationship, that's what you're going to take from romance [...]. That is what is so important. (Toronto Public Library).

Among the romances which model healthy communication are some which attempt to promote reconciliation in a realistic and pastorally appropriate manner. Debbie Macomber, for example,

has examined relationship repair tools in many of her books, most notably Hannah's List:

"In my book, there's a couple, Winter and Pierre, who have gotten into a routine of fighting, separating, and then breaking up again. It's a pattern that's continued for years. They're in love, but they can't seem to get along. Another character suggests that Winter make a list of everything Pierre does that irritates her and then write down her reaction to that behavior.

When she sees how she's nagged and pouted and exploded at him, she recognizes her own part in their troubled relationship. She persuades Pierre to do the same thing, and once they see what's happening to them they're able to resolve their problems [...]. A reader wrote to tell me she'd used the same technique in dealing with a situation in her marriage, and it helped her and her husband tremendously. ["] (Wendell 192-193)

Jennie Gallant’s Lady Hathaway’s House Party (1980) similarly suggests how to effect a reconciliation, in this case for a couple who have become estranged through a lack of dialogue. As the novel opens, Oliver and Belle, the Duke and Duchess of Avondale, have "been estranged for ten months, after a whirlwind romance and marriage" (3). They meet again at a house party organised by Lady Hathaway, who is of the opinion that

A young couple needed advice starting out, and there had been no one to give it. Belle with no mother, and a father too far away to give her a hand, and Oliver with no living immediate family.

Marriage was hard enough for any two people [...]. Add twelve years age difference [...] add the disparity in their backgrounds and the hopes for success dwindled toward zero. (3-4)

She therefore attempts to offer some advice indirectly by recounting that in the early days of her own marriage her husband

was a great ninny, and I not much better [...]. The two of us keeping all our troubles to ourselves, instead of talking them out, yet we both wanted the same things. I was trying to please him, and he in his stupid way was trying to please me too—or show off to me what a dashing buck he was anyway, which amounts to the same thing, I suppose. (77)

Lady Hathaway's narrative is designed to promote reconciliation, as are others, offered to Oliver by "two happily married men" (89), who craft their stories so that they appear to be merely part of "an innocent discussion. Avondale would not welcome advice, but a discussion of wives in general might pass." One may therefore suppose that the novel which contains these accounts can also be read this way, should any of its readers find themselves in a similar situation to Belle and Oliver's.

If romances can reconcile, this should not invariably be assumed to be a mere fortunate side-effect of their focus on successful relationships. Vicki Lewis Thompson, for instance, appears to have deliberately set out to promote reconciliation in her readers' lives. A short description of the author included at the beginning of her second novel, Promise Me Sunshine (1984), states that as a "perennial optimist, Vicki likes to share her outlook with her readers, showing how barriers can be broken down through loving communication" (2). Thompson’s “outlook” was certainly shared with her readers in this novel: the most significant barrier to the heroine’s happiness is her nine-year-old daughter, who is resolutely opposed to her mother’s new relationship. However, as the heroine acknowledges, “Once I let her know what I wanted, that I have needs, too, she began to change…” (213-214). Love in romances is not limited to romantic love, and its attempts at reconciliation may therefore extend beyond relationships like those of the central protagonists, to family and others in the protagonists' communities.