#RomBkLove Day 3 : Groveling
Groveling is a weird thing to love, right? When we were kicking around topics for #RomBkLove, groveling was the first topic that came to my mind. But it’s difficult to explain the artistry of the good grovel and why it moves me as a reader.
According to Merriam-Webster, the world’s snarkiest dictionary, groveling means to creep with the face to the ground. The secondary definition mentions abasement and this is where I’m going to disagree, at least in the context of romance. When done poorly, groveling turns into humiliation, which has meanness at its core: it’s inflicted as punishment, it’s putting someone in their place, it’s designed to shame. The kind of groveling I like to read about is different. It’s self-inflicted. Good groveling is an act of atonement that’s fueled by fear, but tinged with hope. Good groveling is about a character (usually the hero--more on that later) knowing he’s made a mistake and being willing to do anything to fix it; it’s realizing a quick burst of pride isn’t worth as much as a lifetime of love. A good grovel starts with a private “Oh shit” moment of recognition, but it often leads to acts of reparation or public declarations of love.
I hereby propose Jen’s Rules of Romance #77: In order to be satisfying, the groveling must be proportional to the fuck up in location, tone, and intensity. A public humiliation must be met by a public apology; and the more intense the fuck up, the longer the hero must grovel. Maybe Merriam-Webster is right: groveling reminds us that sometimes it’s worth it to get a little grubby for love.
The Art of the Grovel
As I started to gather up groveling books, I noticed something interesting: in romance, groveling is a very gendered activity. In M/F romance, almost all of the grovelers were men. I couldn't think of any queer romances I've read with a groveling plot, and I could only think of one book with truly memorable female groveling, Katy Regnery's The Vixen and the Vet. That heroine needed to grovel, but it was so full of self-flagellation and misery that it was hard to read. I asked a writer friend if she could think of romances where the woman grovels and she said they’re uncommon because “readers don’t like them.” But why would we? I suspect that our love of a groveling hero says something meaningful about modern womanhood. It's raising all sorts of interesting questions: Is groveling an antidote to toxic masculinity, or does it just reinforce it? Maybe women like to see men groveling because it's emotionally super-charged, and we already feel like we do most of the emotional labor? Maybe women crave men shouldering the burden of the “feelings work”? Maybe this shit is hard, complicated, and why I read romance and this post can help me figure it out.
My scientific study suggests that there are six distinct stages for a satisfying romance grovel. I’m using specific examples that are full of spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Stage One: In which the hero freak outs and fucks up
This usually plays out in one of two ways. Scenario A: Someone in the hero’s past has hurt him, and when he suspects the heroine is doing the same thing, he freaks out and accuses the heroine of betraying him. In Taking Chase by Lauren Dane, Shane’s fiancee cheated on him with his best friend years earlier. I’m sure that would be traumatic, but since Cassie has been running from a husband that raped and abused her, it was hard to feel sympathetic to Shane. Several months into their relationship, Shane sees Cassie hugging a man and assumes the worst. He immediately and loudly accuses her of being faithless. It was her brother. Shane, you dolt.
Scenario B: The hero is afraid of how vulnerable love makes him feel, so he pulls back, but he’s a real jerk about it. I think Susan Elizabeth Phillips made the mold for scenario B with the boorish behavior of Bobby Tom Denton in Heaven, Texas. He’s so freaked out about his feelings for Gracie that he publicly berates her over a microphone in front of the whole town. Not a good look, Bobby Tom.
Stage Two: In which the hero privately realizes the magnitude of the fuck up.
The most epic case of groveling in a romance just might be Sarah MacLean’s Day of the Duchess. Malcolm suffers from both scenario A and B, and freaks out when he believes that Sera trapped him into marriage. He pays her back by staging a very public act of infidelity during Sera’s pregnancy. At a garden party, she and her sisters catch him actually fucking another woman. (In this case, Malcolm is caught in book 1 of the trilogy, but readers don’t get the whole story until the 3rd book. It’s a long time for readers to hate him, making his eventual return as a hero even more improbable.) Malcolm is so caught up in his own anger, shame, and guilt that he doesn’t realize he loves Sera until she has a miscarriage. Malcom, you total fucker.
Since I make the rules, I hereby designate a MacLean Amendment to Rule 77: Groveling must be more than a realization of wrong-doing. It must forever change the way the hero operates in the world and the way he experiences his own feelings. Groveling isn’t an apology; it is change at a molecular level. I have to give Sarah MacLean credit, I believed in their HEA by the end, but it was because Malcolm knew he must be a better man.
Stage Three: In which the hero first attempts to repair the damage.
In Lady Luck by Kristen Ashley, Ty and Lexie’s fake marriage evolves into a real romance. Ty has a scenario A freak out (he thinks she’s played him), and he angrily confronts her and tells her she has an hour to get out. That’s right, he kicks her out of their home, knowing she has nowhere to go. Ty, you fool. He first realizes the magnitude of his loss when he notices Lexie didn’t take the money and jewelry that was her payment for the fake marriage deal. It takes him a few weeks to track her down, and he goes to her, trying to apologize. She refuses the apology and sends him packing. Considering so many Kristen Ashley heroines simply say “okay” when a man tells her she’s wrong, it was nice to see Lexie stand up for herself. Ty’s apology isn’t enough to remedy her pain.
Stage Four: In which the friends or family of the hero stage an intervention.
In Playing It Cool by Amy Andrews, Dex is a professional rugby player. He’s been dating Harper for a few months, but he has a scenario B fear that a more public relationship will distract him from his game. Harper believes he’s ashamed of her because she’s not a super-thin model like the other wives & girlfriends. She wants more. He refuses. She breaks up with him, and he reacts like a kicked puppy. The next time Dex sees Harper, they’re at a gala, and he’s overcome with jealousy when he sees other men admiring her beauty. Dex is just about to make a scene when his team captain drags him away for a heart to heart. I’m including a screenshot of this scene, because I think it’s one of the best intervention scenes of its kind. Pull your head out of your ass, Dex.
Stage Five: In which the hero shows his true intentions
Actions speak louder than words, and once the hero decides to win her back, a small meaningful gesture goes a long way. Sometimes, the hero gives away what he values most. In Sweet Ruin by Kresley Cole, Rune gives Jo the only personal item he had from his beloved mother as tangible proof of his love. But even better is when the hero shows he understands what she truly values. In Hardcore by Dakota Gray, Duke woos Kennedy not with flowers, but with polka dot pens engraved with her name. Swoon. Note that all is not forgiven at this point, the heroine gets to think about her own feelings. This is the stage where a heroine takes the space to think about what she want for herself and her future, with or without this man.
Stage Six: In which the hero declares his love & they live happily ever after
Gifts and trinkets aren’t enough, it must end with a conversation between the couple, and the hero must declare his love. In Where You Least Expect by Kaye Blue, Joe has a scenario B freak out, and is completely overcome by his feelings for Verna. He knows he hurt her and doesn't know how to fix it. He finally says, "I'm sorry...I sincerely apologize for what I did and hope you can forgive me...You're an amazing woman, Verna, the best I've ever known. I love you." Was that so hard, Joe?
The reader needs to believe that the hero and heroine have talked about what happened, forgive themselves and each other, and choose to move on to a better future. Groveling without a conversation in not even worth the paper (or Kindle screen) it's printed on. The conversation shows the reader that balance has been restored to the relationship. When the groveling follows these steps, it feels like an antidote to toxic masculinity, and I celebrate the HEA.
The Failed Grovel
People make mistakes. I don’t want conflict-free romances, but when a character screws up, groveling is a sign that the author knows there’s a third person in their relationship: the reader. The bigger the fuck-up, the harder it is to make readers believe in that HEA. Some behavior is too toxic to ameliorate, and not all rakes can be reformed. (A friend shared that she will never read Day of the Duchess because even though Sera forgives Malcolm, she never can.) For me, I will never read another book by Nicole Jacquelyn because I will never forgive the reading experience of Unbreak my Heart. That “hero” acted in truly appalling ways. I couldn't believe how badly he hurt her and he never atoned in any way. They just moved on. Hell, he's such a dick he probably wouldn't give her the toy out of Happy Meal. I'll never get over it.
When heroines are mistreated and stay with emotionally distant (or worse!) men I can't help but feel like I was tricked into reading an anti-romance. I want romances where women know their worth and find men who love them, not stories that reinforce patriarchal thinking and toxic masculinity. My problem with 50 Shades of Grey wasn't the poor writing, it's that Christian Grey is an unrepentant asshole who is incapable of love or partnership. That wasn't a romance, it was a tragedy.
If groveling is about who we are and how we deal with mistakes, then there's something important for the reader to learn here. The goal of a relationship--whether it be family, romance, or friendship---isn't perfection, it's loving the people in our lives enough to be vulnerable. Good groveling is a reminder to all of us that humility and love can defeat arrogance and pride, and that's a lesson we should all remember.