Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Catholicism in Romance: The Lady of Royale Street and Too Hard to Forget

Today's review is a little different -- it's a bit of a discussion and a bit of a review, covering two romances, from two different authors. The connection (besides both being awesome, of course!)? Their inclusion of Catholicism in the story/characters.

romance novel covers, contemporary romance, The Lady of Royale Street by Thea de Salle
The Lady of Royale Street by Thea de Salle
Publisher: Pocket Star (August 21, 2017)
Series: NOLA Nights, 3
Genre: Contemporary Romance

From the New York Times bestselling author of the NOLA Nights series comes a rollicking, sexy tale of opposites attracting in the midst of wedding planning.

Alex DuMont is everything his brother Sol isn’t: regimented, serious, and devout. Between twelve-hour workdays, service to the church, punishing daily workouts, and bi-weekly therapy sessions, Alex is, as Sol once put it, “a kettle perpetually whistling as it boils itself to death.” So when Sol announces his marriage to Arianna Barrington, heiress and society sweetheart, Alex is the absolute worst choice to be his best man. Sol asks anyway and Alex reluctantly agrees. It’s only a week, after all, and Alex should be able to stop himself from throttling his big brother for a meager seven days. Probably. Maybe.

Theresa Ivarson is Arianna’s best friend and the maid of honor. A decorated photojournalist who interrupts her globetrotting to stand beside her friend, Theresa is beautiful, witty, and unafraid to speak her mind. So when she is faced with working with the best man from Hell, a Viking who doesn’t know how to smile, is bossy, and about as pleasant as a cactus, the sparks are bound to fly—and not in the good way. To make matters worse, Sol and Rain's wedding planner was hit by a bus the week before their special day, and Alex and Theresa find themselves at the center of a list-ditch effort to pull the wedding together. But when you can’t decide if you want to kiss or kill someone, something’s bound to break.

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romance novel covers, contemporary romance, Royal Pick, Too Hard to Forget by Tessa Bailey
Too Hard to Forget by Tessa Bailey
Publisher: Forever (April 25, 2017)
Series: Romancing the Clarksons, 3
Genre: Contemporary Romance

This time, she's calling the shots.

Peggy Clarkson is returning to her alma mater with one goal in mind: confront Elliott Brooks, the man who ruined her for all others, and remind him of what he's been missing. Even after three years, seeing him again is like a punch in the gut, but Peggy's determined to stick to her plan. Maybe then, once she has the upper hand, she'll finally be able to move on.

In the years since Peggy left Cincinnati, Elliott has kept his focus on football. No distractions and no complications. But when Peggy walks back onto his practice field and into his life, he knows she could unravel everything in his carefully controlled world. Because the girl who was hard to forget is now a woman impossible to resist. 

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Other Bailey Reviews:

Raw Redemption
Too Close to Call
Too Hard to Forget
Too Hot to Handle
Too Wild to Tame
Worked Up
Wound Tight

Jen's Review/Discussion:

Last month during the #RomBookLove bonanza, one of Jennifer Porter’s topics asked for suggestions about something they’d like to see in romance. One of the most interesting answers was Tamsen Parker saying she wanted more “people of faith” in romance, and not just inspies. A follow-up tweet from Jennifer Porter sparked some further conversation about this idea. I thought, “Nah” and moved on. And then, lo and behold, two of my autobuy authors released books with very Catholic heroes. What we will do for our favorite writers!

A Brief Overview of the Books

The first book is The Lady of Royale Street by Thea De Salle. I loved The King of Bourbon Street and was excited to read this third book in the series, featuring Sol’s brother and Rain’s best friend. Alex and Theresa meet in the week leading up to Sol and Rain’s wedding. The plot of this one was a little contrived. The paparazzi is mobbing the wedding venues, and Alex and Theresa are sent out on a variety of errands to help prepare for the big day. Given how filthy rich those families are, I never for a second believed that the Best Man and Maid of Honor (My BFF and I prefer the term “Best Woman.” Feel free to adopt for your own usage, please.) would be hustling all over Louisiana completing such menial tasks. Alex and Theresa are attracted to each other and spend a lot of time trapped in a car that’s too small for them, and the sexual tension is thick. Their affair is sizzling, but Alex’s rigid Catholicism is an impediment to their happiness.

The other was Too Hard to Forget by Tessa Bailey. In this story, when Peggy Clarkson was a senior in college, she had a hot, heavy, and secret affair with the head football coach. It’s three years later, and Peggy blows back into town, determined to show Elliott that she’s moved on. I’ve previously established that I don’t like the “second chance at love” trope, but Tessa Bailey could write a closed-door, secret baby romance about a virgin and a billionaire tycoon in a small town and I’d fucking read it. (You may take a moment to giggle about the idea of Tessa Bailey writing a closed door romance, though.) Once again, the hero’s rigid religious beliefs cause difficulties for the couple.

The HEAs

I was raised Catholic, so I’m pretty familiar with the Church’s ideas about sex before marriage. But at the same time, it’s sort of...weird...because I think of romance as THE sex-positive genre, and reading about Alex and Elliott’s shame and regret made me both uncomfortable and angry. These are grown men well into their 30s, not teenagers fumbling around with sexual desire for the first time. For me, it’s pretty simple if you have pants feelings: act on them if the interest is mutual, have fun, use a condom, and wash up afterwards! Things are not that simple for Alex and Elliott. I know that even though fiction isn’t true, there is truth in fiction. Good books should show me the warring desires and internal struggles of characters, even if they’re things I wouldn’t feel conflicted about. And, regardless of my personal feelings, both books are a believable portrayal of characters trying to balance the demands of their Catholic faith with romantic relationships.

Of the two heroines, Peggy is far more damaged by Elliott’s guilt and self-disgust. Maybe it’s spoilery, but there is this completely devastating line late in the book where she confronts him and says, “You made me into a sin.” I gasped out loud when I read it, because it was that raw and painful. It’s not just that they have sinned, it’s that SHE is the sin. It ravaged me. It’s taken years for Peggy to understand that Elliott transferred the weight of all his shame to her and she’s still carrying it around. Only after this confrontation does Elliott understand and atone for his behavior. Which, you know, is a pretty neat narrative trick and kind of how the whole sinning thing is supposed to work out for Catholics: you sin, you confess, you do your penance, and then you’re forgiven. 

In The Lady of Royale Street, the conflict plays out differently. Theresa is also Catholic, but she doesn’t have Alex’s hang-ups about sex. In fact, she’s royally (Royale-y?!) pissed at him when he tries to bring his guilty feelings to their bed. She’s just not there for it, pushing back on Alex’s shame and recrimination. I loved Thea De Salle for making Theresa a woman of faith who doesn’t have a zero sum belief system. I could not have taken another book where the heroine bears the brunt of the faith-based emotional damage. Alex talks to quite a few folks about his confused feelings---some help him, others don’t. Ultimately, Alex has to decide how to balance dogma with his desire to win Theresa’s love.

I can’t help but end on a personal note. I left the Catholic Church because I think it’s oppressively patriarchal. And because of my history and who I am, these books were hard for me to read. Elliott and Alex were compelled to follow the rules of their faith, even if it meant personal unhappiness. There were lots of times I didn’t like them very much, and it was impossible for me not to read these books as damning examples of how that patriarchal thinking harms both men and women. Both authors show these relationships having to tackle painful, thought-provoking conflicts to reach that HEA. For me it was hard, but other readers might not have the same feelings.

Too Hard to Forget and The Lady of Royale Street both deserve good ratings for showing how complicated it is to be a person of faith in modern society. Were the writers of those original tweets wishing for these kinds of books? Do books about people of faith need to have that faith be the source of the conflict? I don’t have the answer to that, but I do know neither of these books were light, fluffy reads. Maybe the next time I hear someone talking shit about romance, I’ll tell them to read one of these books.


In the time between the writing and scheduling of this review, I shared it with a friend who had a very Christian upbringing. She responded by saying, "I don’t think I could read romance novels with that sort of guilt/shame around sex in them. Too many triggers." I think that's what I was trying to get at when I talked about how the genre is sex-positive. I didn't use the word triggering, but maybe I should have. 

For whatever reason, that comment led me to another line of thought. I tried to imagine what it would be like if the gender roles were flipped in these books. How would I have felt about a woman brining such intense feelings of shame about sex into a relationship?  Would that book have been written? It's honestly impossible for me to imagine reading that book...because that doesn't sound like a romance, it sounds like a tragedy. 

I'll be interested to hear from other readers. 

The Lady of Royale Street: 4 stars 
Too Hard to Forget: 5 Stars

4 - 5 STARS! 

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Jen received an e-ARC of TLoRS and bought THTF.

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Thanks for the reviews and thoughts on this, Jen! I don't think this is a subject we talk about enough in romance -- clearly that should change!

Remember, since this (Too Hard to Forget) is a Royal Pick, come back on August 31st for a chance to WIN an ecopy of your own!


Until Next Time,

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