Trope-tastic Musicals

Elisabeth Lane (who has started a fantastic YouTube romance channel!) initiated a conversation on Twitter recently about the books that converted you to genre romance. Not necessarily the first romances you read, but the ones that convinced you that romance was awesome. I hazarded some guesses when she asked it, but as I pondered her question more, I wondered whether my Ur-romances were books at all.

I was in my late 20s when I started reading romance. Romance novels were so precisely what I needed at that moment, I inhaled them by the bushel. It felt as if I’d been reading around romance my entire life, and now I had finally discovered the good stuff, a genre that could deliver the purest version of what I’d been seeking. But maybe the sense of familiarity, of ah, at last, that I felt when I started reading romance came from the overlap between the tropes in romance and those in movie musicals.

As a child, I’d been as devoted to musicals as I am to genre romance today. Musicals taught me about introspection, harmony, and female friends with whom you can dance in your bloomers if you’re ever carried off by a family of mountain men (see below). They’re unabashedly sentimental, almost always have happy endings, and frequently contain a (or sometimes several) central romance(s).

This list isn’t a best of or even a set of recommendations. It’s skewed by what I watched and listened to as a kid in the early to mid 90s. It’s very white, almost entirely heteronormative, and more than a few of these films are seriously problematic. But putting it together convinced me that my origins as a reader and writer of romance are in Hollywood movie musicals.

Spoilers ahead.

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Romance on Television: Friday Night Lights

There’s a long-running truism about romance on TV: writers shouldn’t have the will-they-or-won’t-they couple get together because doing so ruins shows. It’s known as the Moonlighting Rule, and many smart critics have dismantled it (see here). But in my opinion, the best evidence that contravenes the Moonlighting Rule is the show with the most effective and most intimate portrait of an American marriage: Friday Night Lights.

Of the series I’ve talked about so far, Mozart in the Jungle and Grey’s Anatomy, this is no doubt the hardest sell because it’s all about football and small-town Texas.

Okay, yes, I could hear the record scratch noise there. For years, I refused to watch Friday Night Lights too, but when I finally gave in, immediately before the fifth and final season aired, what I found was a sprawling and novelistic portrait of a community and the violent sport that serves as its organizing principle.

It’s fundamentally an optimistic show, though it also believes that to understand someone, you have to know where they come from. For romance fans, it not only has many compelling stories of young love, but the main draw is the mature and complex marriage between the coach and his wife.

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Romance on Television: Grey’s Anatomy

I didn’t intend for this to be a series, but after writing about Mozart in the Jungle, I have more things to say about the long-form romances that play out on TV. This fascinating profile of Ellen Pompeo from The Hollywood Reporter gave me thinky thoughts about Grey’s Anatomy.

In the piece, Pompeo makes an unapologetic case for why she’s the highest-paid actress in primetime–and of course it’s the kind of argument I’ve never heard an actor have to make. She’s remarkably clear eyed about her career and thoughtful about what it means to make art long-term and still keep your work exciting and meaningful.

The profile reminded me of my rewatch of the first three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy a few months ago. I continue to find it odd that Grey’s is often omitted from conversations about peak TV. It’s not included in Alan Sepinwall’s (admittedly still interesting) The Revolution Was Televised, for example. While Shonda Rhimes herself often gets shout outs as a powerful showrunner (see here), it’s often as if she’s interesting in spite of the television she makes not because of it.

My own history with Grey’s is complicated. I started watching during the second season, quit a few episodes into the fourth, and then got reeled in again during season six/early season seven.

I’m not watching it right now, and I definitely don’t think it’s a perfect show. But when it’s good, Grey’s can be so good. It can also fail and falter and be preachy and reductive and go to some wacky bad places. The romantic drama in the first 2.5 seasons, however, was top notch, and I want to talk about what I think the show does well.

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Recommendation Club: Space Race History

On social media and over email, I’ve fielded several questions about what someone should read to learn more about the space race. While writing the Fly Me to the Moon series, I’ve inhaled dozes and dozens of space histories. So for prosperity’s sake, here’s what I recommend.

A few caveats: my list is focused on the period between Sputnik and Apollo 11 (or 1957 to 1969) and on US/Soviet crewed space flight. If you’re interested in rocketry, for example, that would be a whole other list and it would start a lot sooner.

Also, I’m not a scientist or engineer. So while I’m interested in the history of technology, I prefer books pitched to a general audience.

I do have a PhD in American studies, so my bias is for new history that is intersectional, considers the economic and social factors that create institutions, and includes marginalized voices.

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Romance on Television: Mozart in the Jungle

I want to recommend you consider watching a thing, a thing that I think has one of the most interesting romances on the small screen. Plus if you take me up on this, you’ll get to listen great classical music and consider artistic union-management politics. I have a lot of caveats as you’ll see below, but here’s the trailer for the forthcoming season.

Yes, I’m recommending Mozart in the Jungle, which is available on Amazon Prime. It’s a strange, quirky, and sometimes uneven comedy. As I’m certain my husband would want to interject, it’s not really funny, it gets some of the details wrong, and it traffics in some tropes and stereotypes that grate, but it’s still worth your time because it takes the clash between art and commerce seriously and it builds lovely human moments in along the way.

When it’s good, Mozart in the Jungle is different from everything else on television. And when it’s bad, at least it’s short. (Seriously, the episodes are less than half an hour each. You can pretty easily blow through a season in two nights and the extant three seasons in less than a week.)

Mozart in the Jungle tells the story of a fictional New York City orchestra. In the pilot episode, the board brings in a hot new conductor, roughly modeled on Gustavo Dudamel, to shake things up and in the process, deep schisms in the orchestra grow wider and the characters are forced to clarify their relationships to the institution and to music itself.

To be more granular, more romancelandia folks should take a look because of the show’s central relationship: a slow-burn romance between the new conductor, Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), and a struggling oboist named Hailey (Lola Kirk).

On paper, Hailey sounds a bit like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s much younger than the rest of the ensemble, she’s pretty, and she drives Rodrigo’s emotional development/arc. But the character is specifically written and sympathetically portrayed. She has an inner life and her own desires, and so, for me, she transcends the trope.

Most interestingly, at least from my perspective, Hailey struggles with the question of whether she’s talented enough to achieve her dreams and as a result, as the show marches on, she tries to reimagine her life and eventually takes up conducting.

I don’t know what will happen with this storyline, but if anything, I find the show the compelling because of the female characters: Hailey; her roommate, Lizzie; her friend the cellist/union rep, Cynthia; Hailey’s rival, the first chair oboist Betty; and the president of the orchestra board, Gloria. I like the men, but they aren’t as central for me.

Since Hailey’s story is basically the one I keep writing over and over and over again, I’m smitten with the show, and I can’t wait to finally, finally see Hailey and Rodrigo together as a couple. I couldn’t be more excited for the show’s upcoming fourth season, so you should catch up so we can squee together.

That’s my spoiler-free pitch, but I’ll make a longer and more complicated one after the break.

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Buy This Book

As you probably know, my critique partner is Genevieve Turner. We’ve been working together for four years and we write books together and she’s one of my closest friends. So I’m super duper biased when it comes to her books. But you should read her Forever a Soldier, which released today. And I’m not just saying that because the cover looks like this.


The heroine is a graduate student, specifically a historian doing archival research, and her fears and worries and the details of her life are so accurate. And the hero is gruff and wounded and delicious. I absolutely loved this book.

So again, me = biased. But if you haven’t read Genevieve’s contemporaries, it’s a great place to start. I’ve dropped the blurb and the buy links below the fold.

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10 Romantic Books to Read…Because Romance is Awesome

Today, Book Riot published a piece entitled “5 Romantic Books to Read in February (even if you hate romance).”

I could rant about this (see me respond to romance trolls here and here), but I don’t want to–not because the assumptions and commentary in the Book Riot list aren’t frustrating but because I’d rather celebrate the wonderful writing that I see in genre romance.

Every book here I’ve recommended to friends and family. Many I’ve forced onto people when they insist to me, “No, I don’t like romance.” I can’t say that every one of these conversion attempts has succeeded–but these books all have sharp writing, smart plots, and fascinating characters. These are perfect for February or July or anytime; they aren’t organized in any particular order.

1.) The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley, novel with strong romantic elements

Kearsley’s prose is lovely. Anyone who thinks the writing in romance is substandard should pick her books up. From the opening page of The Winter Sea, they’ll find a strong sense of history and place and not one but two compelling romances. Once I’d started it, I could not put it down. I’ve given easily half a dozen copies as gifts, and almost everyone I’ve gifted it to has gone on to read everything Kearsley has published.

2.) The Iron Duke, Meljean Brook, steampunk
Brook writes my favorite steampunk world in the Iron Sea series and any of the books or novellas in it would be good for those individuals who think they don’t like romance. (It’s worth saying that the titular Iron Duke does something almost unforgivable in this book.) Brook’s prose is crisp and compelling, the characterizations interesting, and the world, well, riveting. If this series isn’t adapted into a film, I’ll be pissed.
3.) Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Crusie, contemporary
As far as I’m concerned, Crusie is the queen of smart, hilarious contemporary romances. This dance between grifter-adjacent Sophie Dempsey and small town mayor Phin Tucker is my favorite. The dialogue is delightful and the chemistry sizzling.

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