Women’s Romance vs Men’s Romance

February 8, 2008

I rarely feel the need to hurl a book across the room, but I was sorely tempted last weekend. The book was Nicholas Sparks’ MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE. Now don’t get me wrong. Mr. Sparks is a great writer. His prose is specific and immediate, sometimes lyrical. His characters breathe on their own.

No, my beef with MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE is more organic. It’s about the difference in the way men and women are wired. It’s about what we each see as romantic. He thinks his story ends with a grand romantic gesture. I think it’s the most moronic passive/agressive move of all time. Let me explain (and for those of you who haven’t read MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE and intend to, I’ll warn you–THIS POST IS A SPOILER.)

The premise is charming. A divorced journalist, Theresa, is jogging along the rocky beach on Cape Anne (Massachusett’s other Cape) and finds a corked bottle with a note inside. It’s a letter written by a heartsick man to his dead wife. Since Theresa’s ex cheated on her, she’s intrigued by a man who can love so deeply and so faithfully.

OK. It’s sort of a low-tech play on Sleepless in Seattle, but Sparks has hooked me.

Her editor, who’s a cross between the all-wise Merlin and a fairy-godmother, urges her to use the letter in her column. Through her journalistic connections, Theresa is able to uncover the letter writer’s identity. Garth, a diving instructor who runs his own boat out of Wilmington. She has a couple weeks while her son is visiting his dad, so she goes to find Garth.

And they connect. Their courtship is sweet and hopeful. These are two genuinely nice people and I find myself cheering for them. Of course, they carry baggage with them. He’s guilty over learning to love again. She’s afraid to trust after having been hurt so badly by her ex. Good. These are compelling, meaty issues for them to deal with. But they seem to break through those deep inner conflicts enough to commit to loving each other.

Then things start going south, which I completely understand. As a fiction writer, it is my bounden duty to torture my characters for the delight of my readers and Sparks proceeds to do so. She has a high-powered career in Boston. He owns his own business in Wilmington. How will they be together? This is a outer conflict that’s a no brainer as far as I’m concerned. If they love each other, who cares?

I’ve followed my husband to nine different states. He’s always asked me if it’s ok each time he gets another job offer, but he knows my answer. I love him. I’ll live ANYWHERE with that man. And if ever I make enough money for us to live on, he’s promised to happily retire and live with me as my boy-toy on Maui. Where we are doesn’t signify in the least as long as we’re together.

So Sparks is starting to lose me in the petty bickering he puts Theresa and Garth through. Then finally, Garth send Theresa a package (a message in a bottle saying he’s going to sell his business and move to Boston to be with her) but he has one more thing to do first.

One more stupid, idiotic, passive-agressive, boyish, junior-high gesture. He takes his boat out–later than he should and he knows better. He’s an accomplished sailor. There’s a squall on the horizon, but he thinks he can beat it. He has to sail out far further than usual, so this last letter to his dead wife will make it all the way to Europe–as though he’ll ever know one way or the other if it does or not. And long story short, the boat sinks. The guy drowns needlessly.

At this point, I was ready to consign MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE to the ninth circle of Hell. This is NOT romantic. It’s stupid. The guy had a second chance to build a meaningful life with a woman who loves him and whom he claims to love in return and he literally threw it away.  Theresa is once again cheated on by a man she trusted. I totally DO NOT GET IT!

However, I’m willing to entertain other opinions. Can you explain to me why men seem to need bitter-sweet, (or in this case just plain bitter-stupid) endings to their romances, i.e. THE HORSE WHISPERER and BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY? Isn’t there enough angst in life without dragging it into our escapist fantasies? What about happily ever after is so hard to understand? 

Please, enlighten me.




12 Responses to “Women’s Romance vs Men’s Romance”

  1. I’d bet anything Sparks doesn’t claim MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE is a (Horrors!) Romance. BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and MESSAGE… were probably advertised as mainstream. I don’t recall. I think the Romance tags came with movie production.

    As for the difference in men’s and women’s views about what Romance is… I think that may change for men as they age. My guy has grown more sentimental or sees romance in more ways than he did when we first married.

    So do I, for that matter.

    Personally, if a story is to be considered a romance, I believe it must lead to or leave the impression of a happily-ever-after. We do have bonified male romance writers. Don’t think they kill off either protagonist.

    It seemed to me that the needless death of a seasoned sailor was more contrived than need be, and Redford’s death didn’t make a damn bit of sense if he was really a HORSE WHISPERER.

  2. dianagroe4emilybryan said

    Whether they tag it a romance or not, the central theme of the story is the love that develops between the h/h, so that makes it a wannabee romance.

    It’s as though the characters are afraid of embarking on the lifelong journey of loving someone and will resort to drastic measures to avoid the challenges that come with long term loving.

    Cowards! the lot of them!

  3. dianagroe4emilybryan said

    For folks who are looking for a good happily ever after, check out Joyce Henderson’s TO THE EDGE OF THE STARS. It’s a Native American Wester and is available now. I’ve seen good reviews of it at All About Romance and RT BookReviews. Look for TO THE EDGE OF THE STARS at Amazon and B & N.

    Part of the contract with the reader in a romance is that even though things look bleak, somehow, there will be joy in the end. Melancholy musings of hope for the future is not happily ever after. Three cheers for Women’s romance.

  4. Becky said

    I’m taking a course from Mary Buckham online about “Sex Between the Pages….” She said today that:

    “Mostly because of the larger amount of the testosterone hormone in males that starts to differentiate their brain from women’s at about 13 days after conception if you look at a man’s brain and how the two halves of the brain communicate with each other it’s like looking at three super highways – very direct, very linear, very focused. Sound like a man? 🙂 Whereas a woman’s brain is like looking at a zillion secondary roads that circle back and overlap and cross over one another. Which is why women think and communicate in a circular pattern and can jump from one thing to another very easily [think shopping].”

    I think that the hero in Message in a Bottle died the way he did because that was a linear and direct way for Nicholas Sparks to end the story with some kind of emotional payoff — even if it was a negative instead of a positive one (like an HEA). Nicholas probably thought to himself: “Well, I solved that one neatly and tied up all the ends in a way that will have my readers reaching for the Kleenex.” He sees tears as tears — good for business, never mind the cause (my opinion). There is no way he would think “escape into marriage” is a way out of a book because he’s probably never shopped for curtains or changed a diaper (we’re the ones who’ve already been there, done that and need to believe that HEA exists in a literal way– that the heat can last even after the curtains fade and the baby is graduating from college). Maybe his book does end on an HEA note, however, since the heroine isn’t stuck with a quixotic dude.

    Thanks for your take on Sparks’ book. I agree with you that the hero is TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).
    a long-distance Eastside member
    from PA

  5. Beth aka Scifibookcat said

    This is a prime example of why I avoid general fiction. To me, this plot point smacks of a deliberate attempt to avoid having to actually consummate the relationship (and I don’t mean sex) that he’s spent the entire book building. It seems to be a prerequisite that in order to be considered “literature”, the author must put the characters through hell, give the readers the merest hint of hope and then savagely crush that hope in the last chapter. So give me genre fiction: Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, or Fantasy, where characterization, story and world-building deliver a satisfying read without putting the reader through unnecessary anguish.

  6. I have checked out Nicholas Sparks website some time ago and he considers himself a romance writer. I have, however noticed a lot of differences when I read romances written by men. They throw sex in when it isn’t needed because, I would guess, they want to see their hero “get some”. They definetely are handicapped by the amount of testosterone they produce. I do like men’s writing in other genres. I love John Grisham who flirts with romance and Frank Perreti, whose books have nothing to do with romance. But for me the male romance writers do seem to miss the insight needed to ” get ” the way women think.

    Oh and Diana, I loved your book “Maidensong” I didn’t want it to end. Where in the world did you come up with the idea for that story?

    I hope to read some of your other books. I graduated from Drury in May and have been trying to catch up on the reading I have been unable to do while in college. I may have put myself back into the student mode again…I just applied to MSU for the MAT program. “Master of Art in Teaching”. I hate to go back to school but I so desperatly need a job that it seems there is no other way.

  7. Maurine said

    I haven’t read Message in a Bottle and don’t intend to. I read The Notebook and decided after I finished it that I never wanted to read another book by Nicholas Sparks. The beginning was bor-ring and I only read on because I’d heard how wonderful and romantic it was, so I had to find out what made it that way.

    In my opinion, the two main characters needed to grow up and not stay apart because of stupid stuff that didn’t amount to a hill of beans. The second half of the book manipulated my emotions and I hate to have my emotions manipulated. I want the author to give me characters I can really care about (incidentally something you do very well, Diana) without making them have some kind of terrible disease (cancer, Alzhiemer’s, etc.) as Sparks did in The Notebook. There were other reasons I didn’t like the book but I’ve forgotten them as my brain can hold only so much and I’ve decided to limit that to good things.

    As I recall, I think Bridges of Madison County was billed as a romance, but Horse Whisperer was more mainstream with romantic elements. But like I said above, I try to only hold good things in my brain, so I could be wrong about this info.

    What really makes me want to hurl, though, is Writer’s Digest magazine asked Nicholas Sparks why men were more successful as romance writers than women. Excuse me? More successful? I’d like to know how they came to that conclusion.

    Sorry I didn’t enlighten you, but I’m as clueless as you are. Maybe more so. How can you have a romance if one of the main characters is dead or doesn’t remember she’s half of a twosome? The only conclusion I come to is that men can’t figure out how to create conflict in a story without being stupid. It’s just their nature. It must be in the testosterone or something.

    Maurine from Missouri

  8. dianagroe4emilybryan said

    Thanks for posting ladies. I think we’re all still mystified by the male version of romance in fiction, but I appreciate you insights. Thanks for your kind words about my work, Ruth! Bless you! Hope your schooling goes well.

    I think Beth may have really hit on something. The hero in MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE really was running from intimacy. His relationship with his dead wife was completely under his control. His memories were vivid and reinforced what he needed from the relationship. He wasn’t ready to give a real live woman his trust and to be fair, Theresa didn’t want to make the leap of leaving her comfort level either. Maybe they did deserve each other.

  9. jody said

    I totally agree with your remarks ladies. I cannot beleive that Mr, Sparks considers himself a romantic. I assume he’s married, did he not let his wife read that book before he sent it in. If a romance reader had read it first, he would have been smack up side the head with his manuscript for having such a stupidly horrendous ending.
    What is romantic about the hero dying, here is mr right, want him, nope can’t have him he’s dead. Please, give the readers a satisfying ending where two people are together, in love and happy.
    Not in mourning!
    Get a clue!

  10. dianagroe4emilybryan said

    Amen, Jody! V-8 Smack! Coulda had a happy ending!

    I remember a bleak time when almost all the movies coming out of Hollywood killed the hero at the end. Who wants to pay to see that?

    I love a good cry as much as the next girl. Many’s the time I’ve channeled Joan Wilder while I’m writing, boo-hooing over my prose like crazy. I keep tissue by my writing chair. My black moments are seriously black, but somehow–and this is the fun part!–my characters fight their way through it to find each other in the end!

  11. Lori said

    Although I’ve never read Message in a Bottle, I do quite believe that the ending is crap. Although full closure was needed on his first relationship, pitting the hero against Mother Nature when that character was supposed to be VERY knowledgeable just screams “I didn’t know how to end this book”.

    However, I do not agree with Maurine about the Notebook. (Although I have never read the book, but the movie is one of my favorites). I believe what made the Notebook successful was that the h/h did have a successful romance and life together…that’s what makes it so touching. Sickness (and unfortunately more and more these days Alzheimer’s) is a part of life and getting older. That he loved her so much to take the time every single day (regardless of what his children said) really showed how timeless their love was. Honestly, I could think of a lot worse ways to end a novel then the h/h living a long and happy life together and dying not out of stupidity, but of old age.

  12. dianagroe4emilybryan said

    I agree, Lori. Alzheimers is something beyond anyone’s control. Love that stands up to that soul-ripping disease is love indeed. I haven’t read THE NOTEBOOK or seen the movie, but I applaud its premise.

    However, back to MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE, I wonder about the whole notion of ‘closure.’ Does anyone really think after grieving as he has for 3 years that he’s somehow going to put his love for Catherine aside? I’d think less of him if he did. Rather, I wished him to realize the enormous potential of the human heart for love. Love is not a zero sum game. He doesn’t have to love the memory of his dead wife less in order to love Theresa more. (Please note the emphasis on DEAD wife. We seriously dislike those who profess to love more than one living woman at the same time!)

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