The Most Alluring Body Part

Current wisdom among romance writers holds that if the hero and heroine only have to have a Big Talk at the end of the book to clear the way for their happily ever after, then the book lacks sufficient conflict.

I’m not sure I agree, and anybody who’s read and enjoyed Sherry Thomas’, “Ravishing the Heiress” might also hesitate to agree. (Spoiler alert—plot summary to follow.) He and she have been cordially married for eight years. Her social climbing papa wanted his little girl to have a title; His family had run through all their wealth and an heiress was his duty. Husband and Wife agree to wait eight years to consummate their union because she’s quite young at the time they marry. She also learns that he loves somebody else, and can’t abide the thought of forcing him to dutiful intimacies with a wife he resents.

The eight years go by, and it’s time to get busy securing the succession, but lo, his old love reappears at the same time, now available for a relationship with him. The dilemma exists almost exclusively in the hero’s head: Should he stay with his wife or go to his old flame? That’s the conflict in the book, and we read every word of 300 pages to learn how the couple (mostly the Husband) solves it.

There’s no saving the ranch, foiling the overthrow of the government, finding the long lost uncle, or other external problem to solve. There’s just a complicated, long term relationship between two people who don’t both realize they’ve fallen in love with each other. I cannot imagine how the book would have been improved by gluing on one of those supposedly indispensable external conflicts.

Why does this book work?

I think it works for two reasons. First, Sherry Thomas is a highly skilled writer. Character, setting, sexual tension, and every other aspect of craft is handled masterfully. The second reason is that most of us who’ve been through any relationship more substantial than a prepubescent crush realize that the most alluring organ possessed by either gender is the functional ear.

When life is pitching curve balls at us, when we’re down and tired of feeling down, when we’re at a cross roads and all of our options feel fraught, what we want is not so much a crystal ball or a light sword, we want somebody to listen to us. We want a friend who will not judge us in our fear and indecision, our resentfulness and uncertainty. We want a compassionate, honest hearing, one that seeks to support and understand rather than argue and judge.

The big talk at the end of the romance novel ought to be called a Big Listen. It’s that moment when He and She are brave enough, and invested in each other enough, that they can hear each others’ truths and—no matter how difficult those truths—respond with respect, honesty and an attempt to find common ground. THAT is why the happily ever can follow, not because they’re gorgeous, intelligent, clever people who’ve run up the page count.

They’re brave, honest people who’ve done the hard work of learning how to listen to each other, even when it’s inconvenient, scary, and contrary to their self interests—maybe especially then. There’s no happily ever after without acquiring this skill, not for the characters in a romance novel, and I suspect not for the rest of us, either.

Who listens to you? Who expects you to always listen to them? Where did you learn to listen?

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of the Toby Stephens version of “Jane Eyre.”

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12 comments on “The Most Alluring Body Part

  1. People have always told me that I’m a good listener. I don’t think it’s something I learned, it’s just that face to face, I’m really shy and hate talking about myself, except to my closest friends. I’d much rather hear others talk about their lives. However, there is a certain anonymity in blogs that loosens up the lips at times. (I already have all the versions of Jane, except for that version referenced by Mary Balogh, and the Charlton Heston version.) I do love my Jane Eyre.

    • Bonnie, I can’t find Mary’s version. It supposedly still exists in the BBC archives, but queries to Beeb’s haven’t yielded a promise to make it commercially available.
      I’m murderously shy in person too, to the point that when I first pitched my editor, I could not look her in the eye, could not keep my heroines straight, and could not–at the age of fifty, for cryin’ inna bucket–stop blushing.

  2. I have friends that listen to me, but for the most part I’m quiet. I have two small kids that are always talking, yelling, showing….. When they go to sleep the quiet is blissful.

    • I like quiet too, Lisa, but I have a couple friends who will pull out of me the things I didn’t realize I needed to talk about. I’m so used to being emotionally self-sufficient (maybe it’s a mom thing?) that I forget the pleasure of a sympathetic ear.

  3. I learned to listen from my mother. I am one of nine siblings so alone time with Mom was at a premium. However, I learned that Mom liked to talk while cooking dinner for us. I would sit at the end of the counter and listen as long as she would talk. This is how I learned many things about life and living. She taught me about “empathy” and sympathy and the difference. She taught me so many wonderful things but mostly I learned about my mother and what it means to be a mother. I used those lessons to develop a relationship with my own son and daughter. Listening is a very valuable skill.

    • Betty, my mom had to cook for almost as many as your mom, though she had a tiny kitchen, and was mostly concerned somebody would come to harm if they got in her way when she cooked.
      I believe that when we create, whether it’s preparing food, painting a bedroom, or writing a book, our emotional state gets into the results. Your mom was cooking up not just corn on the cob, but wisdom and other forms of nurturing. Wonderful!

  4. Listening is a huge part of marriage. At least my marriage. I certainly do more of the talking. But I listen to him when he talks as well. Nice writing, good message, Grace!
    But my mind is still wandering with the most alluring body part being broad strong shoulders. hehe
    Hope you have a great time in Anaheim!

    • Lisa, I hope I do too. I haven’t found my balance yet with the whole conference schtick as a published author. I want to sit in on workshops about plotting, right? Nope, time to sign something, or meet with the editor, or have lunch with somebody. I figure we’re all still learning how to write, but I get the sense I’m in the minority on that one… hmmm.

  5. What a great post 😀

    I learned to listen from my maternal Grandmother. She was a great listener and always had great advice to give (she had to e, had 10 kids). I have to say my DH is a saint! He is very patient with me (when I talk, I’m talking a mile-a-minute and am very animated) and he is a very good listener (and he definitely expects me to listen to him), and I think that I am very good at listening 9to a point that as I listen, I react, either with my eyes, or noises I make-I was told that, I don’t remember that part)….

    Mel

    • Spousal communication takes on its own dialect. Parents learn to have entire dialogues their children can’t detect, and I think that’s marvelous. My mom is all but deaf, but my dad says after sixty-five years together, they can almost read each others’ minds. Mom didn’t exactly disagree with him, either.

  6. I really hate to admit this, but I am Not a good listener. I interrupt with a question and I’m apt to share a similar situation. My mind is ahead of the tale, wondering about the next part of the tale. That said, I have had many friends that tell me I point out a good solution..But sometimes people just want you to listen and Shut up. I’m sure that is my biggest failing. Can’t blame it on anyone. And Drat it, I’m opinionated! I am also going to enjoy The Heir (Again). Looking forward to next offerings. Thank you, Peggy.

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