Reading romance novels is bad for you. I read that in graduate school. Actually, I read a whole book to that effect. (Don’t worry. I love the genre. This isn’t a polemic.) To be fair, the study I read looked at heterosexual women. Nonetheless, one can draw some comparisons.
The classic romance novel pairs two flawlessly beautiful people in an exotic setting where, despite the fact that they are ostensibly wrong for each other, they have sex so fantastic it changes the PH of their blood. They get up in each other’s business starting on page twenty, then enjoy 300 pages of erotic courtship in which no one ever has to clean the sink trap, go to the doctor, or figure out what the cat has disemboweled on the back porch. No wonder readers’ lives pale by comparison.
Looking Through Windows by Caren Werlinger tells the story of Emily, a young teaching assistant grieving the death of her girlfriend, and Ann, a Peace Corp volunteer, finally back in the United States and wondering why heterosexual relationships leave her unfulfilled. The story charts their blossoming friendship and love and the challenges placed in the way of their relationship.
I knew Looking Through Windows was not going to be a standard romance when Ann and Emily admit their mutual attraction and then decide not to act on it because neither of them is emotionally ready.
What? No! I thought. They are supposed to melt into a pool of viscous lust, not make an emotionally intelligent choice that honors their friendship and supports the possibility of a deeper, healthier relationship in the future.
Therein lies the strength of Werlinger’s book. This isn’t escapist fiction. This is a realistic portrayal of – surprise! – mature love. This is not to say the book is without drama. Actually, it has a lot more than I expected given the leisurely pace of the first half of the story.
[spoiler, highlight to read] When Emily loses Ann (temporarily) and then loses her leg to cancer, my heart wrenched. When Ann sees Emily in the hospital – emaciated from chemo, bald, amputated, and vomiting in a basin – there is no way to mistake this for a Harlequin Romance. That’s a good thing. [end spoiler]
Unlike the classic romance that – studies show – leaves the reader wondering why don’t I live in Barbados and have abs like sculpted granite? Looking Through Windows will make the reader appreciate the things that truly make for good relationships. I finished the book and hugged my wife, thankful for our beautiful life that does not happen in Barbados and does involve cleaning the sink trap and identifying the bottom half of whatever it was the cat killed on the porch. Two thumbs up!
Now, I wouldn’t be true to my profession, if I did not offer a little constructive criticism. Perhaps because Werlinger’s book was a realistic portrait of life, not a fantasy, some parts move slowly. Unlike the average romance, the heroines in Looking Through Windows have jobs, exams, friends, families, landlords, chores, and conversations with people who are only tangentially related to the romantic storyline. On the flip side, when tragedy strikes, it strikes quickly and unexpectedly (rather like it does in real life), giving the second half of the book a much different feel than the first.
Incidentally, one of the really nice features of this book is the cast of sympathetic supporting characters. There are bad guys, but there are also a lot of kind people who try their best. It makes Looking Through Windows a very hopeful story, even as it deals with some difficult themes.
If you are looking for the quintessential romance novel, complete with butch-femme sports-bodice ripping, this is not it. If you are looking for a good drama that makes you hold your own loved ones a little closer, I recommend Looking Through Windows. Buy it for that friend who is always messing up her love life. There is a lot to learn here.
I am also pleased to report that Caren Werlinger’s long anticipated novel In This Small Spot is soon to be released by Corgyn Publishing. I look forward to following Werlinger’s career as she definitely has a lot to offer the lesbian community.
By Karelia Stetz-Waters