Warning: Here Be Spoilers
To be considered a romance, a book must have a happy ending, just as every detective novel must include a mystery to solve. That’s the only rule for the genre.
Some older romances played fast and loose with expectations, especially ones published during the bodice ripper heyday. In the past, some novels–and even many today–attempted to defy that inviolable law. Doing so inevitably angers readers because if there’s one thing writers are not supposed to mess with, it’s The Happy Ending.
Not all romances end with the couple–or whatever permutation–married with a dozen babies. Regardless, there’s an expectation of a committed relationship that will last the test of time.
But what about those romances that broke the HEA rule? What are those books, and what is their legacy? Let’s examine some pre-2000s novels that did the unthinkable.
Jennifer Wilde’s Marietta Danvers Trilogy
Jennifer Wilde broke the romance rules all the time, never quite letting the reader know who the book’s hero was until almost the end. Her first book, Love’s Tender Fury, definitively had Marietta Danvers ending up with Derek. But in the second book, she spends a lot of time with a new man, Jeremy Bond. By the denouement, it’s revealed that Derek is a no-good-nick, already married to a pregnant wife! He still wants Marietta as his sidepiece, though. Love Me, Marietta has a cliffhanger ending as she rides in a carriage, racing to reunite with Jeremy.
When Love Commands will have Marietta engage with other sexual partners. In the end, she does settle down with one man.
Roberta Gellis: The Roselynde Chronicles
Roberta Gellis was a stickler for being historically accurate. The young heroine, Alinor, of her novel Roselynde is married to Ian, a man 30 years her senior, which isn’t unusual for a medieval setting. In romance novels, sometimes we overlook issues caused by age differences, like the much older partner leaving his partner widowed while she’s still young. That’s what happens in the second book of the series, Alinor.
Playboy Press had initially pitched the Roselynde series as an “Angelique” type series set in the middle ages. The heroine would find romance with a new man in each book. Fortunately, the publishers limited the idea to only two novels. The rest of the books in the series deal with Alinor’s many children finding love.
Elaine Barbieri’s Amber Series
In Elaine Barbieri’s Amber trilogy, the first book, Amber Fire, seems like a typical bodice ripper. Melanie has various men in her life as lovers and husbands. The first book culminates with Melanie finding happiness with Simon. However, Simon passes away in book two. Then Amber finds consolation with his best friend, Worth. Their love story is told in Amber Treasure and concludes in the final installment, Amber Passion.
Aleen Malcolm’s Cameron Trilogy
Aleen’s Malcolm wrote a fierce yet tender bodice ripper romance with her first outing, The Taming. Free-spirited, 15-year-old Cameron became the handfasted bride of the older Alexander Sinclair. Ride Out the Storm, its follow-up, needlessly separated the young heroine from her stubborn husband for years.
What occurred in the third book, Daughters of Cameron, floored me. Far from having had many years of happy marriage together, Alex and Cameron are separated by war as Alex fights in the American Revolution. When he returns home, he finds his wife is bone-thin and suffering from consumption. Cameron dies early on in the book, before the age of 40. The rest of the novel is about her two daughters, Kestrel and Rue, finding love. Alex remains a widower, remembering his short time with Cameron fondly.
The Pirate’s Captive by Dana Ransom
The Pirate’s Captive by Dana Ransom is a romance I’ve been putting off reading for years. Why? Because I accidentally read its sequel, Alexandra’s Ecstasy, first. In Alexandra’s Ecstasy, I discovered that the main couple from The Pirate’s Captive only had a few happy years together before tragedy struck. That book’s heroine, Merry, died soon after giving birth to a son, who also passed away.
Nicolas, the hero of The Pirate’s Captive, spends Alexandra’s Ecstasy in perpetual mourning for his lost young bride and son. He’s also emotionally distant with his and Merry’s daughter, Alexandra. Nicolas finally gets to be reunited with Merry in the ever-after when enemy pirates murder him.
Ena Halliday’s Marielle, Lysette, and Delphine Series
Ena Halliday is a pseudonym for an author whose works I adore, Louisa Rawlings, aka Sylvia Baumgarten. I’ve loved almost all her books. Even the best writers can create stories that displease their fans, however.
Not only did she break romance’s hard-and-fast rule by denying her protagonists a happily-ever-after-ending. She also gave the hero another woman to love! In Marielle–which had the privilege of being Tapestry romance #1–the heroine of the same name is imprisoned during the reign of Louix XIII. Marielle is a gentle woman who endures much hardship. To her delight, she is paired with her hero, Andre, supposedly for a long life of happiness.
Book two of the trilogy, Lysette, stars an anti-heroine who has eyes for Marielle’s husband. Before she falls in love with her man, Lysette does her best to destroy Marielle’s & Andre’s marriage.
Finally, poor Marielle passes away a year before the beginning of book 3, Delphine. Her husband Andre finds it hard to move on, but indeed he does, with Delphine. Delphine is 19 years old to Andre’s 43.
That’s not a happy conclusion to a trilogy. It’s a wonder why the author chose this route.
Mary Gillgannon’s Dragon Duo
Mary Gillgannon did something similar in her Dragon series. The first two books focused on a Gaelic King. In Dragon of the Island, the hero Maelgwn the Great is a feared warrior fighting against the Romans. The Welsh warlord enters into a marriage of convenience with Aurora.
She is dead by the book’s sequel, Dragon’s Dream. Maelgwn has become a recluse in a monastery, mourning her loss. Then he finds love again with a new bride, Rhiannon, a Celtic princess.
Maelgwn’s love life is based on actual events. The author wanted to tell two tales of romance while being historically accurate. The books have received much praise, especially the second entry. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that the Pinnacle editors allowed Gillgannon to take such a risk with her series.
Sandra Brown’s Coleman Saga
Sandra Brown’s Coleman saga are rather gritty westerns. In Sunset Embrace, Lydia Bryant finds love with Ross Coleman on a wagon train ride out West. He has a motherless son who needs a wet nurse. Lydia is a childless mother who can help his son. Ross is rough, cruel man, but Lydia wins him over with her grace and grit.
In it’s sequel Another Dawn Banner Coleman, their daughter, engages in a love affair with Jake Langston, a longtime family friend. Jake has had a longing for Lydia for many years. Yup, he goes from wanting the mom to getting it on with the daughter. What makes this book particularly egregious is that ruins Sunset Embrace‘s happy ending by prematurely killing of that book’s hero, Ross.
Anne Stuart’s Maggie Bennett Series
Anne Stuart broke all sorts of romance rules with her Maggie Bennett series. Book one in the romantic suspense series has the eponymous heroine finding love with Mack. They get married. However, Mack is murdered in the opening of book two, Darkness Before Dawn. In this new chapter, Maggie teams up with Randall to discover who’s sold out national security secrets. Frustratingly enough, book #2 doesn’t end happily ever after, either. You have to wait to read At The Edge of the Sun to find out if Maggie will finally ride off into the sunset with her forever man.
There are a few other novels and series that play partner-switcheroo or kill off the hero or heroine before they reach old age. This always causes controversy.
When the romance genre only has that sole requirement, it’s curious to discuss why a writer would break that rule. Why do you think the authors made that decision? Does it ruin your reading experience when you know the HEA is not guaranteed to last long?
As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance.