My first form-specific look at a past RITA award winner: The Bride, by Julie Garwood. First off, I must explain that this is one of the first romance novels I read growing up. And it is definitely the one I've reread most often: probably upwards of a hundred times, easily. There are scenes and sentences here that are now part of the physical makeup of my brain.
So learning that it was a RITA winner was a delight, but no surprise. What's more, the book holds up surprisingly well considering it's now old enough to order alcohol (should the book decide it wants a cocktail). But I'm not here to review the book -- I'm here to look at how it's written.
In the forward to my copy, a reissue, Garwood explains that "experts" advised her to leave the humor out of her story: "I had tried my best to follow their advice for a couple of books, but with The Bride, I simply couldn't help myself . . . I finally gave in to the urge and wrote the story as I saw it."
Nor is this the only writers' rule that Garwood breaks in the book. How well do I remember the switches of POV (point-of-view, for you rookies out there) that drive not only the humor, but the developing romance. Like so, when our heroine Jamie learns at the last minute that she is to marry Scottish laird Alex Kincaid at the king's behest. We begin with our hero:
She still hadn't caught on. Alec sighed. "Change your gown, Jamie, if that's your inclination. I prefer white. Now go and do my bidding. The hour grows late and we must be on our way."
He'd deliberately lengthened his speech, giving her time to react to his announcement. He thought he was being most considerate.
She thought he was demented.
Jamie was, at first, too stunned to do more than stare in horror at the warlord. When she finally gained her voice, she shouted, "It will be a frigid day in heaven before I marry you, milord, a frigid day indeed."
"You've just described the Highlands in winter, lass. And you will marry me."
Exactly one hour later, Lady Jamison was wed to Alec Kincaid.
According to the hundreds of writing how-to guides out there, this is wrong. Supposedly, to jump from one character's POV to another is confusing and leads to the reader gripping their head in pain and yelling AARGH and throwing the book against a wall and who will give you royalties then, hmm?
But I love and remember and admire the passage above, and every other similar passage in the book. Romances written entirely from one character's perspective (in the vein of a lot of the novels of Georgette Heyer godsavethequeen) aren't as appealing to modern readers. We like being in the hero's head; we like it when he's not some giant impenetrable mystery figure. We want him to be a person, with thoughts and worries and emotions, like the heroine is and has always been.
At some point, if you are writing a romance novel, you are going to have to switch POV. Mostly this happens between scenes, and the general rule is that once you start a scene in one character's POV you stick with that character until the scene break. But if you do it mid-scene, like Garwood, if the reader sees what the heroine above is thinking while the hero's thoughts are still echoing in the reader's -- oh, who am I kidding -- in her memory, you get a moment where it feels like there is a point of contact between the mind of the hero and the mind of the heroine. A moment where Alec's and Jamie's experiences seem to touch, unbeknownst to them, through the medium of the reader.
This is a powerful tool, and it is clear that the reason the how-to guides recommend against it is because such power could spin out of control in the hands of a novice writer. The POV switch is a tool to be used with restraint -- like garlic. Delicious, even occasionally necessary, but repellent when overdone.
The switches in The Bride are primarily used to jump between the hero and the heroine, but not exclusively. Secondary characters get a lot of play, too, which is a neat way of solving the perennial problem of the Infodump. By the time we get a few chapters in, we know how our main characters think about themselves, and about each other, and we also know how they seem to the other people around them. Handy for things like physical description and background info, but for the romance it's just as important to know that Jamie's view of herself as capable and talented is borne out by the opinions of several people around her, even when Alec himself hasn't been convinced yet.
In fact, because Garwood allows us to flit from one character's consciousness to another, she has the luxury of beginning from the POV of Jamie's father:
They said he killed his first wife.
Papa said maybe she needed killing. It was a most unfortunate remark for a father to make in front of his daughters, and Baron Jamison realized his blunder as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He was, of course, immediately made sorry for blurting out his unkind comment.
As a side note, beginning with a secondary character before proceeding to the hero/heroine is a technique frequently used by Jane Austen, most notably in Pride and Prejudice (Mrs. Bennet), Persuasion (Sir Walter Elliot). Garwood's opening technique has a sterling literary pedigree.
Lesson Learned: Rules are made to be broken.