November 24, 2005
No Religious Bias in Racy ‘Bodice Rippers’
Fess up or don't, a lot of us are reading romance novels -- otherwise known as "bodice rippers." The numbers speak for themselves, accounting for 48 percent of all popular paperback fiction published, according to the Web site of the Romance Writers of America.
And that "us" includes more than a few Jews.
While there are no statistics to prove it, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Typing "Jewish romance novel" into Google calls up dozens of bodice rippers featuring Jewish themes or characters, and not all published by small presses. And since publishers make their decisions based solely on a manuscript's marketability, the romance novel industry is as democratic as it gets. Bottom line, these Jewish-themed books are getting published because editors know there are readers who will buy them.
Just who these readers are is hard to say, according to Mark Shechner, professor of English at State University of New York at Buffalo and co-editor of "Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination" (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). Jewish-themed pulp fiction is prevalent and has a loyal following, it's just not singled out in reviews, Shechner said.
"There are even writers of Chasidic romance fiction, like Pearl Abraham, author of 'Romance Reader,'" he noted.
Recently published Jewish-themed romances include Persian Jewish writer Dora Levy Mossanen's "Harem," and her 2005 follow-up, "Courtesan"; Australian Jewish author and screenwriter Tobsha Learner's "The Witch of Cologne," and Southern Jewish writer Loraine Despres' "The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell."
The list goes on, with titles also including works that seem to be a part of an emerging genre fondly termed "biblical bodice rippers" by Abigail Yasgur, executive librarian at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles.
Anita Diamant's 1998 best seller, "The Red Tent," a fictional retelling of the biblical story of Dinah, seems to have set off the trend. Two recent releases include Eva Etzion Halevy's "The Song of Hannah" and Rebeca Kohn's "The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther," which both came out in the last two years.
A Jewish tradition of romance writing may help account for this trend, Shechner said. "The earliest Yiddish writing we have is from the early 16th century, 'Bovo of Antona,' a Yiddish translation of the Anglo-Norman romantic epic." Moreover, "there were courtly romances with names like 'Pariz un Vyene' (Paris and Vienna). There were early translations of Arthurian tales into Yiddish -- very early."
And while the genre is easy to mock, consider this before you do. Shechner believes that the Jewish culture has an intrinsic relationship with romance.
"Maybe after all, romance is one of the authentic undercurrents of the Jewish imagination," he said. "Isn't romance the underside of piety, the negative, the shadow, the suppressed yearning that follows duty and restraint around? That is how I look at it."
Three Romance Books Follow Novel Paths
"The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell" by Loraine Despres (Willaim Morrow, $23.95).
Incorrigible Belle Cantrell can't seem to help being bad -- or is it just that she's ahead of her time? Women combating social repression are a common theme of historical romance fiction, and "The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell" is no exception.
The protagonist of Loraine Despres' latest book lives in 1920s Louisiana, and whether it's fighting for women's suffrage or against the Ku Klux Klan, this Scarlett O'Hara with a sex drive always seems to be getting herself into trouble.
It doesn't help that she's fallen for a handsome Jewish Yankee with a wife back in Chicago.
Spitfire Southern girls and genteel Jewish men seem to be Despres' specialty, having written for television shows like "Dynasty" and "Dallas" -- including penning the famous "Who Shot J.R.?" episode. Despres is currently a producer living in Los Angeles, as well as a romance writer.
In 2002, she published her novel, "The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc," and has followed it up this year with a prequel, "The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell." Both feature Christian Southern belles with affections for Jewish men.
But while the protagonist of Despres' "Bad Behavior" may seem a bit of the Southern girl cliche, the book's sexy love scenes aren't too purple and should leave regular romance readers satisfied. So will a host of other kooky characters and a happily-ever-after ending.
"The Witch of Cologne" by Tobsha Learner (Forge, $14.95).
Interfaith love sits at the heart of Tobsha Learner's dark historical romance epic, "The Witch of Cologne." The starkness of mid-1600s Germany is brought into focus through the eyes of Ruth Bas Elazar Saul, a learned midwife and the daughter of the chief rabbi of the Jewish quarter of Deutz.
At 23, Ruth is still unwed, after running away to Amsterdam to escape having to marry a man she did not love. Ruth's rebellious nature also leads her to study Kabbalah and modern birthing techniques in Amsterdam.
However, her inability to live a quiet life, coupled with her maternal family's unfortunate history with an evil Spanish friar who has since become an inquisitor under the Inquisitor-General Pascual de Arragon, puts Ruth face to face with the Inquisition.
This chain of events will bring Ruth face to face with true love -- in the form of nobleman and Christian canon Detlef von Tennen -- and, ultimately, her greatest tragedy, as well.
As defined by the Romance Writers of America's Web site, this story isn't considered a romance: "In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love."
But apparently, emotional justice isn't to be had in 17th century Cologne. Still, considering this book remains in good company with other "nonromances" like the film, "Titanic," and the book, "The Bridges of Madison County," we feel fine including it just the same.
Moreover, readers who enjoy hints of magic and circles of political intrigue woven through their romances will be pleased with this choice.
"Courtesan" by Dora Levy Mossanen (Touchstone, $14).
The exotic lives of Parisian courtesans in the Belle Epoque provide the backdrop for Persian Jewish author Dora Levy Mossanen's latest novel, aptly and simply titled, "Courtesan."
Mossanen's protagonist, Simone, is yet another headstrong girl. But what's a girl to rebel against when she has been raised in a brothel by her famous grandmother, the courtesan Gabrielle?
Simone's best way to defy her grandmother, and the mother who followed in her footsteps, is to embrace what her grandmother rejected, namely a Jewish upbringing and a more conventional life.
Simone chooses to follow love, rather than follow their ways. And so she does, all the way to Persia, where she marries Cyrus, a Persian Jew and the shah's jeweler. But that is just where Simone's adventure begins, eventually taking her back to Paris and to the diamond mines of Africa.
While certainly lighter than "The Witch of Cologne," "Courtesan," to its credit, also does not provide the formulaic happy ending. However, its flowery prose is occasionally too much, and Mossanen's tendency to imbue her women's sexuality with supernatural qualities can seem silly at times.
Still, it is refreshing to find a romance that does not rely on its characters' opposing religions to provide the story's major obstacle.