Perhaps because mid-February is the time when people, weary of winter, begin to turn their thoughts toward spring and a hope for new beginnings, the light-hearted holiday known as Valentine’s Day has come to symbolize a time for hearts to turn toward new beginnings in love and romance.  That makes February a good time to look at the romance novel.

LDS fiction has been accused by some of being nothing more than romance novels that are therefore beneath the notice of discerning readers.  This is a sad error.

The romance genre is where some of the best writing has always taken place, and this holds true in the LDS version of the genre.  Unfortunately, it is also where some of the worst writing occurs as well. Too often general market romance novels resort to explicit sensuality because it is easier to understand and write about than real love. LDS romance novels also have crutches such as childish dialog, soap opera melodrama, and overblown use of inspiration.

Because of the emphasis the Church places on eternal marriage and the relationships between men and women, this subject is a natural for LDS novelists.  Anyone who considers erotica and pornography to be the definition of a romance novel doesn’t know anything about real love and certainly nothing about the courtships of men and women who are striving to live gospel principles.  Those who dismiss LDS romance novels as beneath their notice lack a good grasp of what defines the genre.

Basically a “romance novel” is one where girl meets boy and some obstacle gets in the way of the natural progression of their relationship (which must be resolved before they can confess their feelings for each other).  Once the crisis is dealt with, a permanent commitment is established. Usually a hot-topic social issue enters into the equation, and the reader becomes emotionally involved in the situation depicted, which is played to elicit maximum empathy. This is an over-simplification, but is the general format. 

Beneath this umbrella are many sub-genres. Most novels have some elements of the romance.  Even Louis L’Amour admitted, every novel needs a hint of romance (even though he didn’t consider women as important as horses in his books).

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Winter Fire by Rachel Ann Nunes is an example of the straight forward, almost classical romance.  Amanda Huntington at twenty-five has been hurt by a relationship that didn’t work out for her and is now leery of involvement with the opposite sex.  Then she meets Blake Simmons, who hasn’t fared well in the love department either – having being dumped because of his low level job and his commitment to his cousin’s two small children.  Some might see Amanda, a schoolteacher, as a bit of a snob, but others will see her as realistic in desiring a husband who is her intellectual and academic equal.  Pride keeps Blake from admitting he is pursuing a college degree, and he allows Amanda to believe he is content being a repairman and working for his brother.  Being a foster parent to two neglected, possibly abused, young relatives puts limits on Blake’s ability to socialize and provides the vehicle for Amanda and Blake to see each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Nunes draws on firsthand experience to paint a picture of the heart-tugging ups and downs that accompanies caring for foster children who may or may not have a permanent role in their caretakers’ lives.

In this type of romance, the building relationship between the main characters is the primary focus of the story.  It is also the type of romance millions of people all over the world, mostly women, are looking for.  It’s escapist, but isn’t most fiction?  Nunes does an exemplary job of creating a believable relationship within the framework of LDS moral standards that leads to commitment.  Her many fans will be pleased with this offering, though some will be disappointed because, though it is precisely what they have come to expect from her, it lacks the brilliance of her first novel, Ariana.

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Out of the Shadows  …  is an example of romantic suspense, a sub-genre that has established itself as the “romance of choice” for millions of readers, men and women alike.  In fact many will deny it is even a romance because the emphasis is on the suspense.  Salima does a masterful job of drawing the reader into the suspense from page one, when the reader learns a child has been kidnapped by the protagonist’s ex-husband.  The author skillfully draws in the harsh realities of a Wyoming winter to add to the drama that unfolds when a U.S. Marshal, Slade Taggart, appears on Caroline Duncan’s doorstep during a blizzard.  He informs Caroline that federal agents are closing in on her ex-husband and the son she hasn’t seen for three years.  The plot grows complicated when Todd Duncan and his son slip through the net and are suspected of heading west toward the ranch.  Law enforcement agents are not the only ones in pursuit.  A plane wreck, murder, hypothermia, a Gadianton-style cult, and plenty of emotional baggage add edge-of-your-seat twists.  Still the romance is there, skillfully woven into the various elements of the suspenseful plot. 

Romantic suspense probably surpasses classic romance as the fastest growing genre in LDS fiction, possibly because of its broader appeal to men as well as women.  Though the use of inspiration is a little overdone, it is handled tastefully and does not detract from the story as it might with a less skilled writer.  Sister Salima has aptly earned a position of rank among LDS romantic suspense writers with this novel.

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Wake Me When It’s Over is an excellent example of the humorous romance, in this case the humorous romantic suspense.  Wells would quite likely insist his novel is humor, not romance, though all the romantic elements are there, as are the suspense elements.  The greatest difference is the writer is male and the story is told predominantly from the male protagonist’s point of view and it’s told for maximum humor rather than to be taken seriously.  As in most good humor, the line is very thin between tragedy and comedy.  The action is heart-stopping and the poor reader is left at times uncertain whether to laugh or cry.  It is the hilarious tale of a young college student, Eric, who falls madly in love but is content to admire his love from afar until circumstances force him to take action.  His heart and his faith are in the right place as he bumbles and fumbles his way through trying to rescue Rebekah from the man who abducts her.  He is a hero with a broken wrist, wending his way through hair-raising chase scenes, vicious kidnappers, and a mysterious woman who seems to know who he is and where he is a little too well.

  Still it is the story of a young couple who meet awkwardly and proceed clumsily to get to know each other through unusual circumstances and eventually discover something special in their relationship.

Wells is rapidly establishing himself as a writer with a gift for humor, but in this novel he also proves he knows something of the human heart and the part faith and fidelity to gospel principles plays in LDS character-building and in relationships between men and women.

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Forget Me Not is anything but a classical romance, yet it is an extraordinary love story – a sequel to Bell’s 2003 Timeless Moments.  Paige and Dalton are married and though the relationship between their daughter, Sky, started out positive, it has deteriorated.  As the three of them plan a trip to Vietnam in hopes of bringing closure to the nightmare experience Dalton suffered there as a POW and to search out Sky’s maternal family, Paige senses that her stepdaughter doesn’t want her to be part of the journey into the past.  Though bowing out of the trip is a crushing decision for Paige, and not what Dalton wants either, she makes the decision out of love and respect for the two of them and their memories of Dalton’s first wife (who was Sky’s mother).  After Dalton and Sky arrive in Vietnam, it doesn’t take long for Sky, a thoroughly American teenager in spite of her Asian appearance, to realize how much both she and her father need Paige’s steadying influence to see them through their tumultuous quest in a land where being American is not a positive attribute.  When Paige joins them at Sky’s request, they set out on a journey filled with poor accommodations, unfamiliar customs, and both physical and emotional danger.  Bell brings a sensitivity to the relationship between Paige and Dalton and between Paige and Sky that rings true and touches the reader’s heart.  The research behind this story is impressive.

Instead of the falling-in-love romance, Bell once again explores aspects of ongoing love, with warm insights into what keeps romance alive and moves the relationship toward an enduring relationship that goes beyond initial commitment to eternal love.  She gives us an enthralling plot, but it is the level of sacrifice and respect the couple achieve that gives Forget Me Not an edge over most other modern love stories.

Not every romance appeals to every reader.  Most readers develop favorite sub-genres, but I would encourage readers, especially those who are skeptics of the genre, to give at least one of these outstanding novels a try.  With the vital role love, or the lack of love, plays in our lives we can’t explore the subject too much.  Reading LDS novels, including the romances, may prove to be only entertainment for some, but for others it may also provide that moment of enlightenment that increases faith and lends insight into our own relationships.