(I originally wrote this post without mentioning specific books, thinking it was more fair to the authors. Then I realized that it’s really unfair to the readers not to mention the books, because how else can they argue with me? So be aware that while I don’t think I say anything about A Gentleman Undone that isn’t revealed early on, there is at least one spoiler here for About Last Night.)
I recently read two terrific new books which have some coincidental similarities: About Last Night by Ruthie Knox, which I reviewed here, and A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant, which I’ll review shortly. Both books feature heroines who love sex and have been around the block a time or three before they meet their heroes.
This is very daring in mainstream romance, and so pretty much automatically awesome. The unwritten genre rules make me feel so claustrophobic that I would probably welcome a hero who’s a telemarketer, or who hands out coupons while dressed as a giant pizza, just for the novelty. (Okay… maybe not a telemarketer.) But it’s especially refreshing to see heroines who don’t need to have their sexuality switched on by the hero.
That’s not the only unusual and daring similarity. Both heroines have also wound up infertile (and really infertile, not the kind that can be cured by a magic wang) as the result of failed pregnancies. This is where I started to feel a little squirrelly. It reminded me of when I was a kid and every gay teenager in YA literature, no matter how sympathetically drawn, wound up being hit by a car. (My husband points out that this dates me: it was post- they all committed suicide and pre- they all died of AIDS.)
This is a hot button. My husband and I were infertile for many years, so I know that it can hit a woman (or man) in a particularly personal, sensitizing way. Even if you don’t particularly want kids, having your body not work in that most basic of ways feels like a betrayal. When someone’s in that position, it’s very easy to get… superstitious, for lack of a better word. I remember someone on an infertility mailing list telling me that she had had two abortions and much later in life, miscarried twins. She felt it was some kind of cosmic evening of the score by God. When your body can’t do what it’s made to do, which everyone around you can apparently do with ease, and therefore you can’t have something you desperately want, it’s very easy to interpret it as some kind of punishment — even if your brain knows better.
I’m not intending to call out the authors in any way; as I said, these are excellent books and in both cases the infertility is thematically important. In About Last Night, part of the heroine’s emotional journey is to recognize that her past (which includes the most daring rule-breaking of all — she has had an abortion) “didn’t require forgiveness, because she hadn’t sinned against anyone but herself, and she’d done the best she could.”
But infertility is such a classic metaphorical punishment for sexual misbehavior that I can’t help but wonder if these books are picking up on and reflecting a cultural vibe. I really hope this isn’t a Thing. We had to wait thirty years or so to have happy gay teenagers in YA literature. Let’s not wait that long to have romance heroines who can have high sex drives and multiple partners, without suffering tragic consequences.