Anyone who has ever watched a soap opera for more than a few episodes knows that the genre thrives on romance, on love, on sex… and also knows that there is no such thing as a happily ever after. You can have the most beautifully told, drawn-out, love story of the last five years, but unless the characters are written off into the sunset, somebody will be presumed dead, someone will have an affair, there will be at least one miscarriage, and a supervillain will hold someone hostage. Soaps operate under the veil of “happy for now,” contending that a happy couple has no conflict and conflict drives story. Nobody wants to see George and Georgina skipping through a field holding hands. (Except the George and Georgina ‘shippers, but that’s a whole different blog post.)
Books with a romantic throughline are a different story. It doesn’t matter if it’s romantic suspense, urban fantasy, or a good, old-fashioned Harlequin Presents, if it’s a single shot novel, the happily ever after is paramount. Guy must end up with girl (or guy, or guy AND girl, depending on what you’re reading); let the reader rejoice and throw confetti! The problem comes into play when you’re not working with a single shot romance, but a long-term series with multiple characters and overall arcs. It sounds like a soap opera, right? But where the resemblance between soaps and romance series’ ends is in an author’s insistence upon maintaining happiness at all costs. If George and Georgina got their HEA in their own book but continue to play key roles in books about Harry and Harriet, Patrick and Patricia, etc. they’re still going to be happy. Often nauseatingly so, and at the expense of who they were in their own arc. Cue the legion of curly-haired moppets and treacly dialogue and marital bliss, as they are held up as the poster children for true love, guiding their less fortunate friends.
I’d like to cite two different authors who write series with a romantic sensibility. They’re not straight-up bodice rippers by any means, but they still more or less follow the basic tenets of a romance novel. Suzanne Brockmann, who writes Navy SEAL and FBI-themed books, and Kelley Armstrong, who writes supernatural-themed books. Yes, they’re two of my favorite authors. But they’re also very, very different in their handling of their happy couples… which is why one author has edged out the other in my esteem. Armstrong, perhaps because she IS working with a cadre of werewolves, witches, and necromancers, has become deft at giving her protagonists a romantic payoff without sacrificing conflict. Clay and Elena, from her debut novel, Bitten, are married with twins seven books later, and yet Clay is still an antisocial, antifeminist grump and Elena still does whatever she wants. They definitely don’t skip through fields (though they do have wild sex in them). Brockmann’s approach is different: A happily ever after means all the romance novel trimmings. Rake reform, treacle, and babies, ahoy! Sam and Alyssa, one of her banner couples, have undergone a major transformation since they united in Gone Too Far. Sam, who was a prickly, foul-mouthed, unpolitically correct S.O.B., is SO nice and socially aware now he could practically be president of his local PFLAG chapter and join Kiwanis. Alyssa, thank goodness, still does whatever she wants. Similarly, Jules and Robin, who were dysfunctional and a gorgeous trainwreck before they united in the holiday novella All Through the Night became the sweet, affable, poster children for gay marriage, refurbishing their bathroom and simpering.
I’m sure a lot of people like that motif of the single shot HEA carrying over into a series, but it’s personally not to my taste. I haven’t liked a single couple that I was rooting for after Brockmann got them together. Sam and Alyssa, Gina and Max, Jules and Robin… they’re all cavity-inducing now. It’s terrible, but I would give anything for them all to go back to the push-pull and angst of their respective courtships, because that was more interesting and the conflict rang more true. I can’t say that at all about Armstrong’s pairs. Whether it’s Elena and Clay or Paige and Lucas or Jaime and Jeremy, they only grow more compelling with time. They lose no aspects of their personalities, instead gaining new ones. And, yet, nobody was presumed dead, nobody had an affair, and nobody miscarried. As for supervillains? Much ass has been kicked.
Happily ever after can exist in the long run without being boring. Married people, people with babies, they don’t all have to turn into pod people. It’s a mistake that both soaps and romances often make, and what it comes down to is being true to the characters, being organic. If George is a bit of an asshole and Georgina is a high maintenance bitch, putting them together doesn’t have to come at the expense of that.
I can’t help how I feel about the subject, how I feel about books in a series. I guess I don’t really have much of a happily ever after as a reader…just a “happy for now.”