I was chatting to a friend the other day. She's got boyfriend problems. They've been going out for years, but he wants to live near his work and she doesn't want to give up her house, so they have a fairly long distance relationship which doesn't really seem to be working for her. You'd have thought things might have sorted themselves out when she retired from her job a year or more ago, but they haven't. "You've got the relationship issues of a twenty-something," I said. Yes, she acknowledged, she had.
Perhaps it's my age. Over the years I've met so many people, from the aforementioned twenty-somethings to well into their sixties, or maybe older, who manage to mess up their relationships by what the wonderful Bridget Jones used to call emotional fuckwittery. That's on top of the serial noncommitters, always convinced that this one is Mr Right and explaining to me a few months later why he wasn't; the adulterers (the time we passed Tammy’s office late at night to see two people emerge, desperately not catching her eye, was entertaining for us, but not them); and the genuinely sad – the nervous breakdowns and the sudden deaths.
I feel that, on the whole, our friends have fairly normal emotional lives. Surely everybody knows people like this? Perhaps it's my belief in the mundanity of romantic complexity that means that I often struggle to enjoy romantic novels. Girl meets boy; girl decides she can't possibly love boy for whatever reason; girl and boy hang out a lot; girl decides she really does love boy; happy ending. Life presents us with this "story arc" often enough without searching for it in literature. The only difference is that it is a convention of the romantic genre that there must be a happy ending while in life that so often is not the case. The frequency of tragic endings is sad for those involved, but does often make for a more interesting narrative. Happy endings, as Tolstoy didn't quite say, are boring as hell, but unhappy endings do make a good story.
Why, then, do so many writers produce so many words in the genre? The short answer is that lots of people read them, possibly because they don't pay enough attention to what their colleagues are getting up to in the office late at night. Or perhaps it is the comforting knowledge that it will all end in a happy resolution without crying children, suicidal spouses and financially crippling divorce settlements. Whatever the reason, the tide of romantic fiction rushes ever inward, lapping against my feet with, it seems, increasing frequency. Many are by hack writers with clichéd characters and unconvincing dialogue but what's interesting is when a talented novelist decides to move into the field.
So, finally, to Redemption Song by Laura Wilkinson. Full disclosure: I know Laura, and I like her – though whether she will like me by the end of this post is a moot point. Redemption Song is set in North Wales, in a lightly fictionalised Llandudno. Girl (Saffron) meets boy (Joe) when he comes to her rescue after her car breaks down. They clearly fancy the pants off each other but both are suffering from Tragic Pasts (i.e. emotional fuckwittery), so they insist to themselves that they have no real interest in romance at all. Unfortunately, this being a small Welsh town, their paths keep crossing, until one night, fuelled by alcohol, she kisses him. After that, it’s just a matter of each admitting the secrets of their (not really that) Tragic Pasts to each other and then, eventually, true love can find a way.
What redeems (sorry, pun totally not intended) this book is the sense of place and the quality of the characterisation. The people (especially the minor characters) are beautifully realised and the secondary romance (between Saffron’s mildly religiously manic mother and a seaside rock manufacturer) is, to my mind, much more interesting than that between Saffron and Joe. Because our hero and heroine have to have Tragic Pasts they can’t quite develop naturally as people because people’s pasts aren't actually Tragic, just upsetting and messy and mildly guilt inducing and thus, it seems, not really suitable for Romantic Novels. Which is a shame, because Saffron’s mum (whose greatest tragedy is being saddled with the name Rain by hippy parents) has a past that is mildly messed up like a real person has. And she over-reacts to it until one day she has a good cry and starts to come to terms with it and move on and that sounds so mundane that it would be easy to be snide but, honestly, that’s what real life is like and I really sympathise with Rain (wretched name and all) and I believe in her and I want things to work out for her and I just wish the story had been about her and not her tragic heroine (or, as Bridget Jones would say, emotional fucktard) of a daughter. Interestingly, the relationship between Rain and her rock-seller isn't neatly tidied up and tied off, yet another way in which the romantic sub-plot is just so much better than the main story.
Other, even more peripheral, characters are a joy to read. Mrs Evans, who runs the local department store, is a treat. She carries the values of the 1950s that still live in small Welsh towns and stores like Wynne’s (loving the apostrophe) with its “tightly packed rails of cheap blouses, skirts, and jeans, and a wall of footwear”. No wonder her god-daughter, Ceri, rebels, wearing unsuitable clothes, getting drunk and swearing even more than me. But Mrs Evans (does she even have a first name?) and Ceri are both, we instinctively know, lovely people and Saffron’s eventual “redemption” owes at least as much to Ceri as to the uncertain power of Love.
It says a lot for Laura's characters that I can care about them so much when the main narrative is so ploddingly predictable. The dialogue is convincing and the writing generally fluid. I am left with the impression that here is a writer of undoubted power and ability, frittering away her considerable talents in a genre that doesn't deserve them. Still, if you like romantic novels, this one is definitely worth a read.