In a year of reading romance novels, I have learned a lot about the genre. First, and most importantly, I enjoy it so much that I usually read an entire novel within a single twenty-four hour period. Another thing that I have noticed—something that threatens to temper that enjoyment from time to time—is how often romance plots revolve around class differences and wealth. Romance, it turns out, often costs money. Considering one of the main conventions of the romance genre is the grand gesture, that should be no surprise. Most of the time I can overlook this pesky intrusion of reality, but I was less successful in doing so while I was reading Alexandria Bellefleur’s latest, The Fiancée Farce (2023).
Before getting into The Fiancée Farce, I want to talk about Bellefleur’s previous three novels: Written in the Stars (2020), Hang the Moon (2021), and Count Your Lucky Stars (2022). These three Seattle-based novels share a cast of characters who I very much wish were real people with whom I could be friends. As someone who wishes she still had her Rainbow Brite doll, I am partial to Elle, one of the main characters of Written in the Stars. Darcy, the grumpy to Elle’s sunshine, is a great combination of ice and red hair. I could also easily see myself as Annie, the protagonist of Hang the Moon, who has found herself directionless and alone. She comes to visit her best friend Darcy in Seattle and meets Brendon, the man who wants to sweep her off of her feet.
Okay, so the M/F romance in Hang the Moon was definitely my least favorite part of these three novels. My second least favorite part, though, was Brendon’s obsession with grand romantic gestures. The convention of the grand gesture bothers me on some level because I don’t really think that it proves much of anything about one’s feelings for another person. Indeed, to me, it proves access to wealth and/or resources, which is why it should be no surprise that Brendon is the CEO of a matchmaking app company. Now, don’t get me wrong—Bellefleur approaches issues of class much more effectively in Count Your Lucky Stars. And, yes, I know that romances are escapist. Still, give me J.Lo’s “My Love Don’t Cost a Thing” over Richard Gere at the end of Pretty Woman any day.
Another potentially expensive romance trope is the marriage contract trope. While I understand the convention of money changing hands in a fake dating/marriage contract situation, six million dollars is quite a lot of money. That is how much Tansy Adams needs to keep her stepmother from selling her father’s beloved independent bookstore, above which she lives in an apartment filled with memories of her deceased parents. The novel begins with the culmination of a six-month-long deception, the purpose of which is to mollify her overbearing family. According to Tansy, she has been dating a woman named Gemma. Except Gemma isn’t real. Well, that isn’t entirely true—Gemma is real, but she is a romance cover model who Tansy has never met. Well, that also isn’t entirely true—Tansy hadn’t met Gemma until she arrived at her cousin’s wedding. The same wedding where Tansy had just inadvertently caught the bouquet.
The Fiancée Farce exists in the same Seattle as Bellefleur’s previous three novels. If Bellefleur is not on the city of Seattle’s payroll yet, she should be, because I have never seen a better advertisement for the Emerald City than her novels. Of course, the reality of living in Seattle requires a cost-of-living conversation, a conversation that lives at the heart of The Fiancée Farce. Ultimately, the plot of the novel revolves too closely around the exchange of money to capture the whimsy of Bellefleur’s previous three novels. Gemma’s family, the van Dalens, as well as her friends (who have clearly spent some time with Rory Gilmore and Logan Huntzberger in the Life and Death Brigade) too persistently hammer in the trope of immoral wealth. There is also a subplot involving Tucker van Dalen that I could have lived without. We get it—rich people often don’t behave well.
Bellefleur creates a cast of awful family and eccentric friends to show that Gemma van Dalen is not like them. The reader, though, is ready to believe that from her first appearance, not to mention that half the book is from her point of view. If Gemma didn’t have a heart of gold, how could she possibly earn the love of down-to-earth and delightful Tansy? I think the answer to that question is what I have taken away the most from a year of reading romance novels: the delight in reading these novels is that I know what is going to happen, and it makes me happy. The author’s main responsibilities are to create characters who I’d like to meet in real life and to ensure the delight of predictability. Of the four novels by Alexandria Bellefleur that I have read in the past month, The Fiancée Farce is the one that sparked the least delight. Tansy is adorable, and Gemma indeed has charm—but I hope that Bellefleur will dump the rest of the van Dalen family into the Puget Sound in her next novel.
Content Warning: revenge porn
Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.