When I saw the title A Whole Lotta Love, I didn’t think much. But then I noticed four names listed as authors. A novel written by four women? How interesting, I thought. Collaboration, I thought. My feminist antennae went up. Imagine, then, the disappointment when I opened a box to find a pepto-bismol pink, cheap paperback romance containing four stories by four different women. Okay, I thought, you can’t judge a book by its cover, maybe A Whole Lotta Love, buxom black woman drawn on the cover notwithstanding, will be a collection of good romance novellas, well-written and interesting.
So much for the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, the sole mission of A Whole Lotta Love seems to be to prove that what tall, chiseled, successful men really want is women with some meat on their bones. Which is not a bad goal given the culture that surrounds us. Also, people turn to romance tales as a form of escapism, pleasant fantasy. And there’s nothing wrong with a little fantasy fulfillment at the end of a long day, but is it too much to hope that the fantasies wouldn’t all look exactly the same?
Admittedly, a book reviewer is not necessarily the ideal audience for this book. A person who devotes her professional life to searching for excellence in literature, if only so that she won’t have to read most of the garbage out there, isn’t wont to curl up with the tale of Jessica Morgan, a frumpy Harlem restaurant owner with an unrequited crush on Russell McDaniels, the hottest fashion photographer in New York, who whisks this successful, sensible woman out of her ordinary life to become a top plus-size model just so that he can show her he loves her, too. (Don’t groan. I already did that for you.) That is, in a nutshell, the plot of the first story in this collection, “Over the Rainbow,” by Donna Hill. The other three have equally challenging narratives.
That said, the romance genre, especially in its current incarnation—if this book is any indication of the general trend—offers an opportunity to consider some salient elements of American culture.
As with other genre-fiction—thrillers, say—the quality of the writing in romance stories is entirely beside the point. It’s all plot in these types of books, so frankly shoddy writing often slips by unnoticed, or at the very least not commented upon. But this leads to some problems for the reader, the most glaring of which is that it is writing that helps differentiate characters. Francis Ray, whose story, the cleverly titled, “The Wright Woman,” is the most adept of the contributors and so her characters, stock though they are, have the most individuality to them.
This is quite literally a skin-deep issue: all the women—large, African-American beauties with flawless skin and killer curves—could be the same woman, and all the men—about six-foot-three, with chiseled features—could be one man. In life outside the pages of a romance novel, not all large women can be reduced to one paradigm; that’s the beauty of actual humanity. But the stated goal of these stories is to show that women who don’t fit the current standard of feminine beauty—starved, celery-eating and utterly devoid of hunger—are passionate and capable and alluring, and how effective can the book be when the women, despite being the products of four different imaginations, are cardboard cut-outs of one another?
I suppose the point is that any woman could put herself into any of these fictional women’s shoes and so the characters have to be generally similar, but it is curious to see what the authors consider ideal traits in a woman: modesty, but not so much that she is not willing to take her clothes off and become a model in a pinch, and certainly not so much that she’d actually be modest when it comes to sex; and entrepreneurial: if she doesn’t yet own her own wildly successful business, she soon will. Past that, the authors seem to value intelligence, a sense of humor and warmth, but we only know that because the men say it: “He’d never met a woman so…” The women don’t necessarily have to display these qualities, because after all, they’ve been described that way. The stories all rely on expository writing to do the job that artistry should do.
And what’s true of the characters is true of the dramas. Each story depends, as all narratives do, on conflict. That’s what drives story along. But the conflicts here ring hollow, spoken about more than enacted, as is Ms. Ray’s story, which focuses around the fact that Stephanie, the budding clothing store owner, abhors lying of any kind, while Michael has been hurt too many times by women who want him only for his money and so he doesn’t tell her that he owns the landscaping company and is not just one of its employees. By the time he comes clean, the device is no longer believable. It shows itself as only a device.
And then there’s the writing about sex. It is famously hard to write a sex scene that is neither pornographic nor clichéd, so it must be said that romance writers take upon themselves a difficult task. But, oh, the euphemisms! The term “feminine core” (or just “core” once) came up enough times that I wanted to scream, “for the love of God, it’s called a vagina.” Only one writer had the decency to write “clit,” which may not be the most gorgeous use of anatomical language, but at least it’s accurate. At the same time, the writers go out of the way to show the men using condoms without being asked, which, as far as I am concerned, is where the heart of the fantasy really lies.
To be fair, each of the stories represented in A Whole Lotta Love contains at least one moment of beautiful or evocative writing. Donna Hill, for example, writes of “old Mr. and Mrs. James, who held hands every morning on their way to the one-time storefront that was now the Truly Saved and Delivered Baptist Church,” and Monica Jackson, who contributed “When Wishes Come True,” has an ear for feisty dialogue, especially in totally improbable situations—the kinds of situations we all find ourselves in and wish we could utter the kinds of put-downs Ms. Jackson’s characters do with such impunity.
What was most interesting to me was how marriage-driven all these narratives are. All of the protagonists marry their hunky men, as if that’s the only “happily ever after” that a story can achieve. Interestingly, they all marry immediately, while still in the throes of infatuation. They’ve just fallen in love, and that’s an amazingly powerful state, whether in the pages of a romance or out in the real world. Most people, though, do not commit themselves to another person for the rest of their lives while in that state. Romeo and Juliet did that, and look what happened to them. They died. Of course, they also became the models for romances since, only somewhere along the line, writers couldn’t make themselves kill off their impetuous protagonists anymore.
A piece of fiction can end wherever the writer chooses, of course. The fantasy of the stories could be complete without the “epilogues” that the writers tack on, letting us know (thank God!) that the couples have made it, that the story ended as it was supposed to. But, for whatever reason (and that reason often has to do with publishing guidelines), this brand of romance tale demands the respectability that only marriage can impart: all that electricity, all that hot sex would somehow, these stories imply, be less legitimate if the couples engaged in them didn’t make their condition permanent.
Which is in the end, what I find so odd about the stories. Or maybe sad is the right word. It’s sad that even in fantasy, women are writing and reading about legitimacy. Fantasy isn’t supposed to be legitimate; it’s supposed to break boundaries, skirt offensiveness, be something we have to keep secret from all but our lovers because it’s so out of the ordinary, so idiosyncratic. Alas, idiosyncrasy is not, apparently, what people who turn to romance novels look for, which does not speak very highly for American culture, no matter what size it comes in.