Thursday, May 28, 2009

Valid Plot Device or Gimmick

I just finished Lauren Willig's The Masque of the Black Tulip. I really enjoyed her first novel in the series, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, though it might be telling that it took me quite a while to get around to reading this second novel. Willig's already written the next three in the series, so I'm now a bit behind.

Black Tulip ended with a delightfully lengthy happy ending. Having struggled with savoring the shorter and shorter happy endings in modern romances and paranormal romances, it was happily refreshing to get pages of amorous joy and lingering matrimonial happiness between one set of main characters toward the end of the story—the historical pair. The contemporary characters predictably didn't get the same happy ending, but I'd already had the savory ending of the other main characters, so I was willing to let it pass. A good ending typically makes me far more favorable of an entire novel just by default, but I would have classified this novel as a good one by the sheer number of lines that made me chuckle.

In fact, were it not for the more discerning eye of a friend, I probably would have chalked this one up to a great novel and called it a day. However, after I finished reading the Pink Carnation, the friend who let me borrow it pointed out that the modern plot interwoven with the historical romance was basically unnecessary.

Which meant I was hyperaware of it as I read this book. I found myself looking for justifiable reasons for the author to have selected a first-person narrative of a modern-day female historian researching what ends up being the third-person historical romance tale. The question I kept asking myself was whether this plot device was warranted or just a gimmick.

Sadly, I've concluded it felt more like a gimmick. The actual modern story didn't make a complete story arc. Although I think this is intentional on Willig's part, making the modern plot arc over several novels in the series, it feels like Willig threw the modern parts in simply to make her historical romances stand out from other historical romances on the shelves (it can now be called literature, not "just" romance) and to give a lingering feeling at the end of each novel to pull the reader into the next. However, many authors write very popular romantic series that feature a rotating cast (the protagonists become secondary characters in the next novel, secondary characters become protagonists) without the need of a heavy-handed second story imposed over everything to tie them together.

To make it work for me, more would have needed to happen in the modern plot and Willig would have had to use the two plots more to her advantage to build suspense along two storylines.
Will I read her next novel? Probably—but I won't buy it new, and I won't hunt for it. If it happens to land on my shelves, I'll get around to reading it.

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