I read my first Higgins recently, her 2009 release, Too Good to Be True. I enjoyed it. I quickly read two others, Catch of the Day (2007) and Just One of The Guys (2008). And I’ve started — but haven’t finished (I need a break, for reasons I will explain below) Fools Rush In (2006).
You can hardly find a contemporary writer whose is more embraced by the mainstream romance community than Higgins. By my count, Kristan Higgins now has seven books in print, all with Harlequin. COTD won the RITA for best single title contemporary, as did TGTBT. The Higgins covers all feature romantic couples. Higgins books are reviewed in Romantic Times, on most romance blogs, etc.
But even though this defies all logic, I do not think Higgins writes romance novels. I think she writes women’s fiction.
Higgins novels (please understand this is the shorthand I am going to use for “the 3.5 Higgins novels I have read”) start with a heroine who is unhappily single. They are written from the heroine’s first person point of view. The heroine really wants to find (or, in cases where she has identified him already, get with) her true love, feels she is getting old, and envies her happy-with-spouse-and-children sister or brothers. She then hooks up with the wrong guy or guys — often comically, but sometimes with a fervor that takes her right into TSTL/unsympathetic territory. At the very end, she hooks up with Mr. Right.
And when I say “at the very end”, I mean it. Higgins heroes aren’t around much in her books. The heroine spends so little time even thinking about the heroes that I don’t even get a sense of who they are through the narrator’s eyes. So, for example, in TGTBT, the hero went into business with his brother, to rebuild New Orleans after Katrina, but the brother stole the money and ran, leaving the hero in debt, and in prison. In COTD, the hero had an early failed marriage and a teenaged daughter. In JOOTG, the hero had a troubled childhood, and, later, a broken engagement. These events are Very Big Deals. But the reader never gets to see, really, how these past events are overcome by the heroes. Higgins heroes have no – or almost no — character arc.
The journey to the HEA is hard to discern from the heroine’s journey toward self-acceptance, whether that means acceptance of her unorthodox or boring career choice, her unfeminine or otherwise unspectacular appearance, or something else. I believe it is this factor that has led so many to read these unquestioningly as romances. But I think it’s the heroine’s journey to self- acceptance that matters. It happens to involves, partly, a romance, but it could have involved anything else — scaling Mount Everest, fighting cancer, defeating negative influences, etc.. For me, a true romance novel convinces the reader that the ONLY way for that heroine’s character to grow was to fall in love, and specifically to fall in love with the hero.
All of the heroines have difficult families which pose the biggest barrier to their self-acceptance. These family relationships are, in my opinion, more central to the books than the romances. Higgins heroines have especially difficult relationships with their sisters. In TGTBT, the heroine’s sister actually stole her fiance. In COTD and FRI, the sister is the “beautiful/perfect” one, while the heroine feels inferior. There’s no sister in JOOTG (as the title implies), but it’s the relationships with the four brothers and the parents that delay the HEA.
One common way to define romance is to use the industry definition from RWA. According to that, first, a romance requires:
A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
In my view, there is a difference between the heroine’s search for love and “two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work.” Higgins books are about the former.
Second, a romance requires:
An Emotionally-Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.
I would say this condition is met, with reservations. As I’ve said, a lot of the Higgins books are about other relationships — the parents, the sisters, the brothers — and these are often going very, very badly. People are left at the altar, cheated on, and some of these marriages end in divorce. So while, as a reader, in feel optimistic about the hero and heroine, there is so much pessimism in the other important relationships, that it is hard to feel optimistic overall about love. This is perhaps more true to life, but less true to the spirit of the genre. I don’t know if “emotional justice” really triumphs in Higgins’ fictional worlds. In this, she reminds me of Jenny Cruisie.
So those are the formal elements of romance. But there is also a set of informal expectations readers have, to which I now turn.
One informal expectation is that contemporary romances which are not inspirational let the reader in on the developing sexual relationship of the h/h, with varying degrees of explicitness. Failing that, the reader is let in the sexual tension which builds in an unconsummated relationship. With Higgins, there is neither sexual explicitness, nor sexual tension. She closes the door on the hero and heroine when they enter the bedroom. Other writers, like Julie James, have done well with the more subtle approach to sexuality, but James excels at sexual tension, which serves just as well.
Again, while it is not a de jure requirement that the hero and heroine stop sleeping with others after they meet, it is uncommon to have, as we do in JOOTG, the heroine sleeping, regularly, with another man, and accepting his marriage proposal, 77% of the way into the book, while the hero is also sleeping with someone else, with whom he has a long term relationship. Again, in TGTBT, the heroine makes out with her former boyfriend toward the end of the book — after she has started sleeping with the hero — and kind of enjoys it. In FRI, again, the heroine is sleeping with another man regularly, well into the book, long after she has met the hero. This is probably more realistic, but less romantic.
Putting all of these things together, I contend that Higgins breaks both formal genre rules and unofficial genre expectations, and she breaks too many, all at once, to count as a romance writer.
So what is she? A women’s fiction writer.
Here is women’s fiction writer Marilyn Brant on the difference between Romance and Chick Lit:
I used to be a book reviewer for Romantic Times, and I read quite a few of both. My way of differentiating between romance and any other genre is that, in romance, there is one hero and one heroine. The protagonists may have had multiple relationships in their past, but neither of them becomes seriously involved with anyone else once they get together. The romance requires a relationship arc, which results in a happy ending, in addition to an individual character-growth arc. For chick lit or light contemporary women’s fiction, the heroine’s romantic interactions are often elements in the novel, and they may even play a major role on occasion. However, the main focus of the story is on her personal journey to greater self-understanding. Whether she ends up with a man or not is irrelevant, but she needs to have learned something from her experiences over the past 300-400 pages and, in my opinion, be in a better place (mentally, spiritually, etc.) than she had been at the beginning of the book.
For romance, the HEA is a necessary condition for everything else. In women’s fiction, while there may well be an HEA, the other elements of the book don’t require it — it’s contingent. Kristan Higgins is a very funny writer, a compelling writer, a writer I feel happy comparing to Jenny Cruise and Susan Elizabeth Phillips in certain respects. When she focuses on the romantic elements of her plots — that first kiss, the HEA — I am riveted. If she decided to write a straight romance, I am pretty sure it would be one of the best romances I ever read. But she hasn’t, in my opinion, written one yet.