I love a good romantic subplot, but they generally come in only two flavors: the True Love Story, and the Fun Fling (or disastrous, ill-conceived fling, as the case may be). I’ve seen both done well and poorly, believable and far-fetched, but it occurs to me that there’s a third type of romantic plot that we rarely see, and may be more important than the other two: the Non-Romance.
One of the biggest criticisms of romance in fiction is how unrealistic it often is. Too-good-to-be-true heroes who act like women wish they would; young people whose first love turns out to be their perfect match; impossibly good-looking suitors lining up to fight over the heroine. I’m the last person to naysay young love, having married my high school sweetheart, but I think it’s important to show that there doesn’t always have to be a relationship. Not just through the absence of romance, but through consideration and rejection of it.
To explain what I mean, I’ll need to use an example. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read the first three books of Robin Hobb’s latest series, The Rain Wilds Chronicles. This may contain some spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
One of the storylines concerns a young Rain Wilder named Thymara (I think she’s sixteen). She has spent her entire life knowing she’s forbidden to mate, not only because her children would be too monstrous to survive, but also because the pregnancy and birthing might kill her. When she leaves civilization with a group of other young outsiders, she never even considers breaking that rule. She’s shocked to discover one of the other girls has been sleeping around, and outraged when the group’s self-appointed leader orders her to pick someone to keep the boys, who vastly outnumber the girls, from fighting over her.
One of the boys, Tats, is her friend from home. The perfect choice, but she refuses to choose him (or anyone else). It’s not an easy choice. She does like him. But she’s not in love with him, and she knows she’s not ready, and that she can’t afford to get pregnant (and that’s before she witnesses the other girl’s messy miscarriage).
I can’t remember the last time I actually rooted against a romantic attachment, but Hobb pulls it off here, and she does it brilliantly. Part of it is how she portrays the selfishness of the boys—not enough to make them jerks, but enough to put me off. Tats keeps pushing, accusing Thymara of teasing, of not being willing to take a small chance for him.
Her second suitor is even worse, giving her magical Elderling memories of a love affair between them (without so much as warning her), and then seducing her. He obviously thinks of it as a grand romantic gesture, but to me, it reads like date rape. Afterward, though, Thymara comes to her senses and realizes it shouldn’t happen again. She doesn’t confuse passion with love, and doesn’t let pleasure circumvent her good sense. Unfortunately, the book ended without anyone in the story recognizing what a violation it was. I will be extremely disappointed if his bad behavior gets swept under the rug.
However the story plays out, though, I know Thymara’s not going to go starry-eyed. If she ends up in a relationship, it will be based on real, lasting feelings, and no teenage boy is going to trick her into it. She’s too strong to settle for anything less—and that’s an example a lot of teens could learn from, girls and boys alike.