Lessons from a First Time Nora Roberts Reader

Monday, November 21, 2016
Hello ducklings, this is a bit of a new format for APR as I'm combining a discussion with mini-reviews of three very different books by one author.

I've commented a few times on how I became a romance reader late in life. My grandmother is a die hard Danielle Steel/Nora Roberts/Luanne Rice reader. She lived with us for the summers of the first ten years of my life and those years revolved around weekly sojourns to the public library for six Babysitters' Club books for me and three thick romantic-y women's lits for her. Unfortunately, my grandfather also lived with us. There's a lot to unpack in regards to my love for him despite his racism and sexism and this certainly isn't the place, but suffice to say I grew up with my grandmother loving romance while everyone around her disparaged it. So while I've come to adore the traditional romance formula - they of the 350 pages, two to four sex scenes, one big mis, and a HEA - I never dove into their longer, thicker brethren of my youth.

Until now. And that's where my confession comes in, ducklings. I didn't know who was buying them all, but no one really reads Nora Roberts - definitely not me and my fellow millennials. NR was for old people who probably couldn't accept the 80s are over. But then something weird happened. Over the summer, I noticed my friends, who I trust, were talking about Nora a lot more frequently. It culminated in Angie writing an awesome NR primer. My interest was piqued by Montana Sky and Tribute, so I added them to my GR. And suddenly, every woman I know was blowing up my twitter with her own recommendations, like a secret Nora Roberts fan club just waiting to burst into the open. And the crazy, interesting thing because of her giant back list? No one recommended the same two Nora Roberts' books. Pretty much everyone agreed I should start with Montana Sky, but from there? Meg suggested Sweet Revenge, about a princess and dueling cat-burglars. Jess sent me links to three series about witches and their families. Real life friend Robin exclaimed over Hot Ice. And these are all so different! So I sent in some library requests and I've now read Tribute, Sweet Revenge, Montana Sky (which took forever to come in because apparently everyone's reading that one,) and I've started Captivated, the first in The Donovan Legacy and I'm ready to talk about Nora, expectations, and how the market has changed in the last 30 years.

The covers only get worse.
I started with Tribute because it was the first available at my library. It's also by far the newest of any of the books I was recommended, being published in 2008. Cilla McGowan is the granddaughter of a fictional, famous 40s movie star who rose from a small town girl to Hollywood icon and died of a drug overdose at the height of her fame. (It's Marilyn Monroe. You all got that, right?) Cilla's mother followed in her footsteps and even as she's more tabloid star than leading lady, she still has the Hollywood bug. Cilla does not. She did several seasons as the adorable daughter on a sitcom, some teen slasher flicks, and an ill-advised duet album with her mom and now she's ready to trade in the West coast for the East. Cilla's passion is restoring old homes, like Nicole Curtis and Rehab Addict, two years before that show debuted. She's bought her grandmother's farm, famous for lavish parties and skinny dipping with Steve MacQueen, and is setting out to remove 50 years of neglect. There she meets sexy cartoonist neighbor, Ford Sawyer, (Nora Roberts has no idea how to name a character,) and is thrust into a mystery decades in the making as it turns out Grandma may not have OD'd after all.

At 451 pages, Tribute is a lot longer than the romance novels I generally read. It has a lot of side plots, something that continued in the other books, as well as a general suspenseful, mysterious nature. I would not classify it as romantic suspense, though. As Cilla's renovating the house and falling in love with Ford, she's dealing with a half-sister she barely knows and her parents, difficult mom ready for a comeback on Broadway, and steady, reliable dad who can only connect with Cilla by painting the house. Ford's writing a new book staring Cilla as a Norse goddess and tabloids run amok and Cilla's having magic dreams of Grandma and then there's the attempted murder of Cilla's ex-husband. I actually thought it could have been parsed down a lot because I was having trouble keeping track of Cilla's family and Ford's family and Ford's best friend's family and the angry neighbor and his family and the carpenter who remembers Grandma and... Too many players muddied the waters and made the final reveal less impactful because I could barely remember who the killer was.

Content wise, there's nothing terribly objectionable, just a general feeling that the book could be more progressive. It's published just the year before Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan came on the scene, but it could exist anytime in the ten years previous. I did love that Cilla was the carpenter, hauling lumber and hanging drywall, while Ford is a complete tool dunce, instead drawing pictures of a strong, lithe Cilla basked in sunlight. That little flip in gender roles really meant something to me. There is violence against women in the 50s flashbacks, but it's not out of line with other women's lit titles I've read.

In all, I liked Tribute less some quibbles and I was eager to continue on my Nora binge.

Sweet Revenge came next and it had the plot I was most excited for. As Meg described it, secret cat-burglar princess falls in love with another cat-burglar when they reluctantly team up and ALL THE BANTER. Uh, sign me the fuck up.

Oh boy is 1988 all over this book.

So, if you don't know your history, there was (is) an extremely problematic subgenre of romances that tended to really crop up every decade or so. I am of course speaking of the "sheikh romance," a trope where a white woman ends up in a fictitious Middle-Eastern country and falls in love with, (and joins the harem of,) a sheikh. They seem to have started with Blue Jasmine pub'd by Harlequin in 1969, but they didn't become a trend until the late 70s. They died off again until the mid-late 80s, probably in response to the Iraq-Iran war. The releases were low but steady through the 90s until Silhouette decided they were a bonified money-maker in 1999 and started releasing them as a monthly title. Where am I going with this?

Sweet Revenge is something of an anti-sheikh title. Adrianne is the daughter of a sheikh and his American, movie-star wife. Phoebe fell so in love with the king during a whirlwind courtship, she left Hollywood and traveled to Jaquir to be his wife. The magazines likened it to Princess Grace. In another romance she would struggle briefly with her American sensibilities versus his conservative religious views before they made love in a yurt in the middle of the desert and he released his harem and devoted himself to the progress of his country. In Sweet Revenge, Phoebe is abused and raped, (on screen,) in the name of Islam. Let's pump the brakes right there. Phoebe's debasement first at the hands of her husband and then her manager once she escapes back to America serves only to give Addy motivation for the second half. It is super gross and unnecessary, particularly the scene where a young Addy is hiding under the bed during the attack. The manager also assaults an underage Adrianne, just so we know he's truly scum of the earth and to give Addy trust issues in adulthood. I would say the romance and cat-burglaring don't even start until the 150 page mark.

Phillip Chamberlain, (can you tell Nora was just desperate to call him Charming?) was one of the most successful cat-burglars of his age, however, with Interpol closing in on him, Phillip took a deal instead. He'll reenact the plot of White Collar and work for the feds as a consultant in exchange for immunity. His contact at Interpol is desperate to get his hands on a burglar named "The Shadow", famous for absconding with the jewels of the rich and famous. He never takes cash or art, just plucks necklaces out of safes and disappears. As I'm sure you've figured out, The Shadow is a grown Adrianne. They move in the same upper-crust scenes by day and then trade banter, (and ways to disarm alarms,) by night.

I gave Sweet Revenge three stars, even though I'm extremely bothered by the Islamophobia, because I love Phillip and Addy together. Dueling cat-burglars with banter is as good as Meg said. Once they start working together on the plans to steal Addy's father's prize necklace? Chemistry, tension, and so much excellent dialogue. They're both top of their game, and while it take Phillip a little while to truly acknowledge Addy's skill, it's Adrianne's plan and would be completed with or without Phillip. Now Phillip does have some alpha control issues, which I expect in a romance from the 80s. He's decided Addy's getting out of the game and joining him at Interpol and there are no ifs ands or buts. But I felt he respected Adrianne and wanted her to be safe and to make good decisions, rather than completely overriding her, so I was ok with it.

One thing I haven't mentioned in either of the books so far is the sex. Nora Roberts sex scenes are like amorphous blobs rubbing against each other in a bed of clouds. I have no idea what's going on. Who's on top? What's in where? I don't know's on third. It's dreamy and floaty and not actually sexy, (at least to me.)  There is hope, though! Even in 1988, she understood what and where a hymen is.

The hardcover is even worse.
Montana Sky finally came in just as I was finishing Sweet Revenge. Where Tribute revolves around small town secrets and Sweet Revenge is set in a series of eye-popping playgrounds of the rich and famous, Montana Sky is precisely what it says on the box - an ode to country and the ranchers dedicated to it.

We open with the funeral of Jack Mercy, a son of a bitch with the best cattle in Montana. Attending his funeral are each of his three daughters - none of whom have ever met. Tessa, the oldest and a Hollywood screenwriter; Lily, a teacher running from an abusive ex; and finally Willa, the only one who grew up on the ranch, albeit raised by the housekeeper and foreman. They're looking forward to quickly parting ways, but a wrench is thrown in their plans when Nate, cowboy lawyer and future love interest, reveals the terms of the will. All three women must stay and run the ranch for one year, supervised by Nate and neighbor Ben, future love interest #2, or they will each receive $100 and the ranch will be sold to a development company.

All Willa has ever wanted was the ranch and a chance to make her father proud, so she immediately vows to do anything possible to keep her sisters around. Except be nice to them. Willa is a total boss. All three heroines are in their own ways, including a really surprising scene from generally meek Lily, but Willa, hot damn. She rides from her father's graveside to check the cattle fences without shedding a tear. Once the "suspense" part of the story kicks in, she is right in the thick, shooting bears and riding off into blizzards. She's pretty fantastic in her "down-home" manner and while I could have done without the "let's gussy her up" scene, it actually gave a fantastic piece of female bonding.

Nora is not here for your girl hate. Each book, including Captivated which I'm still reading, has a strong, but fraught relationship between the heroine and her mother as well as loving sibling dynamics and generally one kick ass best friend. Mercy's ex wives could so easily have been written as catty gold diggers, but instead Tessa and Lily's moms become friends and support their daughters through this new phase. The sisters continue to fight right up until the last chapter, but at some point it turns into a loving banter. I really love how the three come together.

While Montana Sky is less problematic than Sweet Revenge, it's from 1996 and it's got some baggage. By now, sexual and physical assault have been a factor in three backstories in three books. That's not an acceptable ratio. I can't excuse it as being part of romance's less than savory past. Likewise, the racism in Sweet Revenge is appalling, but I might be able to move past it as a relic. Adam, love interest #3, is NA and literally nicknamed in the text by one of the heroines, "The Noble Savage." God. Damn. It. Nora. I'm not going to feel comfortable rec'ing this author without a caveat. 

One final note not specific to any book, just because I find it delightful, but Nora Roberts is living a goddamn romance novel. She hired a carpenter to build her some bookshelves and married him! Like, I've read that plot. Then he opened a bookstore - an author and a bookstore owner, are you kidding me? Then they bought an inn and run it as a romantic retreat with the suites named after her famous couples. This is a trilogy, a spin-off, and a Lifetime movie. Plus Forbes and People have both listed her as one of the most philanthropic celebrities, because when you're basically a princess why not?

I told you it was worse.
So there we have it friends, three thousand words and three reviews from three decades of Nora Roberts. I like a lot of what I learned from this sojourn. Nora herself is a boss chick and she writes badass heroines. Her plots are consistently interesting. Unfortunately, I also discovered that a lot of romanclandia's problems haven't died easy. Sexist tropes are still popping up today and because of her established fanbase, it does seem like she's on the farther side of progress. 

Let's talk. Have you read Nora Roberts? Do you prefer her as J.D. Robb? Would you also leave your current spouse for a bookshelf-building bookstore owner? Most importantly, how important is it to address problematic themes in work from a previous era? Let me know in the comments. 


  1. omg, this post is uh-mah-zing! I've never read Nora Roberts but I do have a soft spot for 1990s romance-y-thriller-y things. (Like Sidney Sheldon.) Love your thoughts and comments on all of this -- going to find an NR novel to add to my TBR!

    1. oooh man, I had a major Sidney Sheldon/Mary Higgins Clark phase in high school... The nostalgia is real!

  2. I love Nora, although I do tend to love her more recent magic/fantasy/supernatural related books- the Three Sisters trilogy and Pagan Stone series are both great, and definitely while there is a romance there, there is also a great friendship and bond between all the characters in the trilogies and some fun supernatural stuff too. I've read JD Robb and find it to be a bit repetitive and overly violent.

    1. I definitely rec'd the Three Sisters books to her! Those ones are some of my very favorites :)

  3. I love that so many readers are Nora fans -- and we just never thought to ask. I am glad to see these are mostly working for you -- and I am surprised that I ended up adding several to my own TBR. (Helllooo Sweet Revenge and Montana Sky!)

  4. This is all completely accurate. I haven't read most of her early stuff since I was a kid, but the problematic themes are always noticeable. I can't wait until you really dive into her trilogies though. The Blood Brothers one is my fav.

    I love her J.D. Robb books but they are 100% formulaic. Great characters, friends who are family and the sex is hotter than most of her romances though.

    1. yeahhh... I at least like most Nora's I've read but the generic natures of her plots.... they're not exactly a hidden secret XD


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