PRECEDENT was established this week when a self-published ebook became a New York Times bestseller. Wait for You is a “new adult” romance written under the pen name J. Lynn by Jennifer L. Armentrout.
Those of us in the ebook trade must wonder what is required to capture a New York Times best-seller spot, and no one familiar even to a slight degree with the book trade can be surprised that a romance for twenty-something year-olds has taken the prize. You may find hundreds of reviews of the work, near all of them effervescent, across the Internet. What follows is less a review of the book then a general observation of the genre drawn from this and other romance novels I have read.
Needless to say, forty-seven year-old men are not the target audience for this book, and I doubt that more than a few dozen men are ever going to read it. This is a shame, since the entire category of one-sitting, candy coated light reading is really quite interesting. There is no kind of writing I avoid, and indeed much which is as a rule considered mere fluff fascinates me.
Indeed, some of my favorite ways to spend an idle fifteen minutes are in perusing religious tracts, Marxist-Leninist polemic, women’s magazines, pulp novels, conspiracy theory websites, and end-of-times prophecy. Invariably one gets a glimpse into the shadow life of our species, the anxieties and aspirations and psychological machinery which informs so much of our behavior.
The essential ingredient of a romance novel is credible characters with emotions that strike one as authentic. The narrative form of romance is made entirely of convention, but this is the case of every genre, otherwise there would be no meaning to the idea of genre itself. Ninety-seven percent of the story must concern sexual tension founded on misunderstanding and a lack of self-realization, and in every romance the principal imperative is to put off the sexual act as long as possible. But of course the sexual aspect of the story will never be far from view.
Such is the case in Wait for You, the story of nineteen year-old Avery Morgansten and Cameron (Cam) Hamilton. The story is told from Avery’s point-of-view, at the centre of which is a gradually disclosed trauma of five years earlier. An awakening/coming-of-age narrative, the story on its surface underscores the conventional notion that we are made better through love — the knight in shining armour theme, in other words — but also that in love one can find her inner, and indeed innate, strength.
Whether this is a complementary or contradictory formulation is uncertain, but it is the case that romance is not simply about, as it is often accused by critics, being rescued. Of course Wait for You features a tall and dark-haired triangle man with thick curls, deep azure eyes and a six-pack. He is funny and cute and smart, and always his breath (even after an evening of drinking) smells faintly of mint, or in one instance of sweet chocolate. And, as required by the genre, he is endowed with a few conventionally “feminine” qualities, chief among them the ability to bake.
Both Avery and Cameron come from money. The former has a trust fund (the source of which is important to the story) but doesn’t need it, having made enough money in some undisclosed manner to be self-supporting. The latter lives in a mansion of sorts, with an auxiliary garage the size of a typical ranch house. The Morgansten parents are doctor and lawyer, and the Hamilton family is headed by a lawyer father and a stay-at-home wife. The Morganstens spend most of their time travelling about, so that at holidays a house servant has often prepared Avery’s Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
All of these details occur at the margins of the story, in passing, and are not exactly central to the narative except to establish the frigidity of the Morganstens and its antipode in the warm WASPY Hamiltons. We are told that the Morganstens have humble origins in Ohio and have climbed their way, lord knows how, into the Ivy League and Texas high society. The aspiration they wish to impress on their daughter is Yale, but she chooses instead Shepherd University, in West Virginia, a lesser school but in a usefully charming and comfortable town — useful because it serves to invoke the college dorm nostalgia which is not uncommon among twenty-something readers.
Matters of social and economic class are mostly within the shadows of the story, but I have noticed the importance of such things in even the most candidly pulpy fiction. Rarely are the main characters of a romance of the lower or even middle classes. Upper middle WASPs are common, and I therefore was intrigued by the choice of the name Morgansten, which is a relatively rare variant of Morganstern. The idea that the family is of assimilated Jews who are laboring to “pass” in what is arguably the most evangelical Protestant state of the union seems quite consistent with other details of the family character. A more skilled author would necessarily address this striking detail, but in this instance the author has nothing to say.
Occupation of a certain economic and social level liberates the characters from material pressures and allows the author to focus on essentially personal, emotional problems. It would of course be possible to begin in a working class or even impoverished milieu, but in this case the story would have to be of the rags-to-riches variety, for the simple reason that romance — both literary and real-world — can hardly be expected to survive poverty. It is well known that lack of money is the chief cause of domestic strife, and therefore an emotionally and dramatically credible romance set in conditions of unyielding material struggle would be unreadable. It would necessarily have to be in the tragic mode, from which it follows that every sexual romance is by definition a socio-economic romance, if not an outright economic fantasy.
Every fiction being an instance of vicarious living, romance invites us to imagine what it would be like to have a hard body, fabulous good looks, a keen and smart sense of humor, and scads of money. The pleasure of romance subsists in a deferral: with all of these material and physical endowments in place, their enjoyment is put off for a time as the main character labors under a sense of personal unworthiness. Then love, in the form of the aforementioned triangle man, comes around, and the temporary obstacle to enjoyment of this spoil of riches is finally removed. All along we are given to think that the primary tension is sexual, but it is not. Waiting in the wings are the trust fund, entry into the Club, and the enjoyment of beauty, society, and the privileges of a pampered class. Ah, the sweet romance.
2 thoughts on “No Story for Old Men: Reading Jennifer L. Armentrout’s “Wait for You””
Believe me, I’m well aware of that. I like escape fiction and movies too, and I also like to think sometimes about things most people dismiss becasue they are light reading. It can be interesting – for me at least. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I do appreciate it.
I promise you put waaaay more thought into this whole situation than anybody reading a romance novel, which was in large part your point. I appreciated your analysis.
When I occasionally pick up a novel of this genre, it is usually a purely escapist practice. My marriage is great, but there are dirty dishes in the sink and bills to be paid, so (as you suggested) it is fun to escape into a world where only what you feel or wish to experience can be “real” for a while. I modern society, money=escape.