By Misa Ramirez
Have you read Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert? It’s not really a romance, and it’s coming up on being close to 200 years old, so unless you’re into classics or majored in English in college, a lot of people probably haven’t read this book. Heck, I know a few women (ehem…angels) who haven’t read Gone With the Wind, and that has an award winning movie to go with it. (Actually, so does Madame Bovary, but it’s not as widely acclaimed)
So Madame Bovary? Not getting a lot of face time outside of college lit and masochistic reading groups (like mine!). But the fact is, Madame Bovary is often described as a work of utter realism (at least that’s how one of my lit professors referred to in way back when I was in college. Was it realistic in the mid 1800s? Probably, but only in a closeted sort of way. People certainly didn’t admit to having affairs back then, and though rakes and the like are glorified in our historical romances, they likely didn’t enjoy quite the same honor back in the day).
Realism. What does that mean?
Well, the book is about-gasp!-adultery. And not the “acceptable” adultery of a married man, but the adultery of-double gasp!-a married woman! We suffer the same gender inequities today, the same double-standards, that Gustav Flaubert suffered through the attack of his ‘masterpiece’. How dare a woman behave as Emma Bovary did? How dare a woman be dissatisfied with her lot in life, her provincial life, her banal existence? Isn’t her duty to suffer? After all, she made her bed, now she should have to lie in it-miserably. (Truth is, Emma Bovary is an example of an early feminist.)
Aren’t these the same questions we ask ourselves about our own heroes and heroines? We justify their actions, create conflict that drives the characters on their journeys and propels the story forward, but in the end, while Flaubert made Emma and her husband Charles suffer, we must make our heroes and heroines come out of the abyss and be admirable and honorable. We cannot have readers question their actions or their intentions, or if their actions or intentions are questioned, those questions must be resolved and the characters understood by the end of the novel.
That’s the difference between realism and romance. That pesky happily ever after. I won’t spoil Madame Bovary for you by revealing how the 500 pages unfold or how the story ends in case you decide to read it, but suffice it to say that it’s not your modern (or historical) romance with the afore mentioned HEA. In fact, it’s widely purported to be one of the top two novels of all time (along with Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy, another novel about-gasp!-a woman’s infidelity. What was it with these classic novelists and their dirty minds?) and it’s because of that realism that it still enjoys this reputation so many years later.
We can learn from Flaubert and his realism. Our characters need to be real. Seems obvious, right? But so often, I read books where the characters don’t seem real because of the need to keep them not too scarred. But they can’t be too real. They need to be balanced. Our heroines can’t be too needy, or too kick-ass, or too independent. They certainly can’t be too dissatisfied with their lives to where they have affairs and make choices that the reader can’t forgive. Do we forgive Emma Bovary? You’d have to read to answer that question for yourself, but I think we all would feel sorry for her, and for Charles, and for the end result of their choices.
Romances need to make us feel like Madame Bovary makes us feel, but they also need to leave us with hope and a sense of renewal and the concept that love conquers all. Realism? It has it’s place, but if you’re writing romance, it’s got to be tempered with that happily ever after. Wouldn’t it have been lovely if Charles and Emma discovered their true love for each other? That ending wouldn’t make the book one of the all time best ever, but it would have made us smile, and I’ll take that smile any day of the week.
Misa Ramirez is the author of the Lola Cruz mystery series: Living the Vida Lola (January ’09) and Hasta la Vista, Lola! (2010) from St. Martin’s Minotaur. A former middle and high school teacher, and current CEO and CFO for La Familia Ramirez, this blonde-haired, green-eyed, proud to be Latina-by-Marriage girl loves following Lola on her many adventures. Whether it’s contemplating belly button piercings or visiting nudist resorts, she’s always up for the challenge. Misa is hard at work on a new women’s fiction novel, is published in Woman’s World Magazine and Romance Writers Report, and has a children’s book published.
Article Source: Romance Writing – Learning From the Classics