Since I last blogged here I have written a post about motivating yourself using a reward system over at YAvengers, written approximately 13,000 words of The Quiet Ones (Draft III), totally redesigned my Tumblr, and read some books. I also went to a visit day at Newnham, which has helped motivate me further to follow through on my decision to prioritise my exams – even if it’s easier said than done!
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Recently, I’ve grown frustrated at the number of books where a romance subplot seems to be forced in to tick a box, fulfil a criterion etc, but it doesn’t need to be there. Books that are otherwise brilliant, fast-paced stories about growing up, making decisions, and becoming your own person. And yes, I’m kind of talking about Divergent and Insurgent – I haven’t read the third book yet, because I can’t afford it until it comes out in paperback. So I thought I’d talk about the thing that really disappointed me.
I know that a lot of people adore the relationship between Four and Tris. I also know some people who don’t. Though my reasons might be different to theirs, I’m in the latter camp. I mean, admittedly, it’s very rare for me to care about a romance with a novel that has a perfectly functioning plot, but it happens. (See: Alek and Deryn in Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and James and Nuala in Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater). So when these subplots turn up, I tend to roll my eyes and skim past it.
For me, it’s symptomatic of this idea that every YA novel has to have a romance plot, that we can’t cope unless it does. You know what these romance subplots nearly all have in common?
- They’re straight.
- They revolve around physical contact and feeling weak at the knees when touched.
- There’s a great deal of codependence within the relationship.
- One character is older than the other, sometimes significantly so.
- The book functions perfectly well without them.
Okay, well, we all know why the first item on that list bothers me, because I’ve talked before about representation. Number two is frustrating, and it bothers me because it suggests that working relationships can be built entirely on lust and physical feelings, as well as leading to far too many kissing scenes for my liking. But if the relationship isn’t built on lust…
… well, it’s built on the idea that one can’t survive without the other. And you know, in moderation, this works. If somebody repeatedly saves your life, you’re likely to feel deep affection for them, and that might work out as being in love with them. But it also encourages the idea of depending so fully on someone else that you can’t live if they’re not in your life, which is dangerous.
This comes across even more when there’s an age gap and one character becomes the protector and teacher as well as the lover. In some scenarios, this isn’t a major factor. In Divergent, for example, I didn’t get why they kept going on about the fact that Four is two years older than Tris. Two years is nothing. Five years is more significant, and more than that – common in paranormal romance when one’s immortal – can lead to a dangerous power balance.
When the older person in the relationship has the knowledge, experience and skills to protect and teach the younger one, this places them in a position of power that they could easily abuse. It makes it really hard for the younger one to be their own person, and all their decisions revolve around what the other person can do for them, creating a scenario of manipulation and inequality. We shouldn’t be promoting that to young people.
In some books, it’s crucial to the plot. In Leviathan and its sequels, the relationship between Alek and Deryn is integral to the decisions the two characters make, even when it’s still an unrequited, one-sided situation. It drives the story, as well as being totally adorable and incredibly slow-building, which makes it a lot more realistic and fun.
In Ballad, the relationship between Nuala and James also drives their arcs. It puts James in a position to make really hard choices (his best friend or the girl he loves?), as well as helping him move on from being dull and unrequited. Meanwhile, it forces Nuala to make a decision she’d never have made otherwise (become human), and she goes against everything in her nature to protect James.
In The Hunger Games, I’d be the first to argue that the way the media focuses on the love triangle instead of the death and commentary on society is weirdly Capitol-esque and there’s a lot more to the story than that, but the way the relationship evolves under pressure from the cameras that follow them, its origins in just trying to survive, and the way it impacts upon every alliance and survival technique throughout the trilogy, make it incredibly crucial to the plot.
Divergent? Well, this isn’t a review, but don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed Insurgent possibly even more. I like dystopia, I like rebellion. I thought the world-building was great and the plot well-developed. I just didn’t say why any sort of romance was necessary.
Yes, it contributes to the ‘alliances’ that form throughout the text, and it’s true that Four’s help allows Tris to thrive where she would otherwise have struggled, but that would have worked just as well if they’d been friends. If she’d met this guy and they’d bonded platonically. It would have been a lot more believable, too, and would have made the book stand out.
See, in Divergent I didn’t mind their relationship, but in Insurgent … well, they’re lying to each other an increasing amount, manipulating each other’s situations for their own ends, and while there’s still a degree of co-dependency and rescuing and all that stuff, it just felt forced. It felt like physicality triumphed over logic.
(There’s one point – no spoilers – where Tris is mad at Four and yet somehow they start kissing and everything’s fine. THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS.)
I’m glad that they got a relationship where they actively discuss things like sex because that sets a good example to young people: you have to talk about those issues, not just ignore them. I’m glad that Roth acknowledged the idea that some people aren’t instantly ready for physical intimacy.
But I’d much rather that happened to a minor character or something, because it didn’t need to be such a huge part of the book. It was distracting. I felt like they were only together because she was the protagonist and he was the mysterious tormentor-turned-protector and honestly? The book would have worked just as well, if not better, without it.
Gosh, I’m gonna get hate mail for this. I know a lot of people think they’re adorable and hey, they have their moments. But it felt unnecessary.
I think we need more books without romance at all. I know I often fall into the trap of having characters randomly fall in love without intending to (though the percentage who are straight is very, very small), but I also believe in writing books about friendship and care that doesn’t turn into romantic love. I believe in sending the message that platonic love is just as important.
And it goes without saying that we need more queer characters including asexual characters, because not everybody wants a relationship of that sort at all.
Maybe I’m just a killjoy who hates romance, but I’m bored to tears of books that want me to care about seemingly pointless heteronormative romantic subplots for no reason whatsoever. By all means, have meaningful relationships between characters, but either make it relevant, interesting and unusual, or relegate so far to the background that it doesn’t interfere. Please.
Am I being overly harsh? Or do you agree? Let me know in the comments!
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I feel like it’s just as well Insurgent didn’t arrive last week, or you’d have got this post on Valentine’s Day, and that’d have been going overboard.