Sep 26, 2016
Ruthie Knox’s ‘Making It Last’ Gives You The Happily Ever After You Crave
There’s a reason that we’ve all seen 90% of all Law & Order episodes: we cherish the formula that allows us to understand the narrative even if we get up to go get tortilla chips and miss a part of the show while eating said chips over the sink.
This is true for romance novels, too. I’m not going to go all “defensive romance reader” mode and spend a lot of time explaining why people should just stop trashing on people who like to read romance novels. You’re welcome because I could do this for, like, the next two days. But a short answer for our love of romance novels is the formulaic pattern of these narratives.
And nothing is more powerful in this formula that the Happily Ever After aka HEA. We read and watch mysteries because we expect there to be a tidy bow wrapped around a motive at the end, along with a means and a perpetrator (I see you, Jessica Fletcher!). The same is true in romance except that bow holds together a partnership (or a triad or quintuple, whatever) glued together by true love and, often, really good sex.
One of my favorite romance novelists, Ruthie Knox, uses the formula of the known HEA and the reader’s expectation of its appearance to do one of my favorite things: push the storyline into spaces that you may not want to go normally, but with the knowledge that you’ll feel good at the end. Basically, you begrudgingly go in your trust of the author and the guaranteed HEA formula.
In Making It Last,Knox revisits the relationship of her protagonists Amber and Tony, first introduced in another novella, How to Misbehave.It’s 10 years later, they have three children, money is tight and their relationship is strained by work and parenting commitments. And their romance has fizzled. At one point early on, Amber is thinking of all things that have gone wrong in her marriage and chastises herself for it:
And then she hated herself for being such a bitter old hag.
Hated that the thought made her want to cry even more, and that there wasn’t any place or any time for her to cry. Not for hours and hours.
She hated that she’d become the kind of woman who looked forward to the next time she could be alone to cry.
No, YOU’RE relating very intimately with this moment, crying into the tissue you have bunched in your sweaty palm.
Amber has lost her way, lost herself, and is desperate to know herself again. Her husband. Tony, knew it. “Amber was getting smaller. Taking up less and less space inside the house, inside herself.” A feeling most women can relate to in their lowest moments, in the moments when they have given themselves to someone or something so completely that they are almost eaten up by it. On top of it, Amber and Tony “didn’t have the kind of problem that could be fixed with a gesture or a glorious truth delivered at exactly the right moment,” Knox tells us. “They had a dead ember. A light that had gone out.”
So, when Amber and Tony find themselves in Jamaica for a family wedding, he tells her that he wants her to stay on by herself for a few days because she deserves a break from their life. He leaves with the kids. And she’s alone again. While home, though, Tony realizes how bad things have deteriorated and decides to return to Jamaica to surprise his wife.
When he arrives, he pretends to be someone new and to allow her that luxury and allows them a brand new start alone at a resort in Jamaica. The results are hot but also difficult. They have the sex that has been missing from their relationship but then have hard conversations later about why it’s been missing. In a devastating, yet powerful scene, Amber admits that she masturbates in her empty house when her husband’s at work and in her head she admits she does it to be defiant to her life: “‘Fuck you,’ she said to the house, with her hand between her legs. ‘Fuck Tony for not being home, ever. Fuck this house for being such an endless source of work that I’m supposed to enjoy just because I chose my life, I chose the carpet and the couch. Fuck fear, fuck death. Fuck it.”
It’s an emotional ride, and one that might be difficult to get through. You can likelly see yourself in both characters, recognizing the struggle to (and the messiness of) maintaining a long-term relationship. You might quit reading if you didn’t know that Knox was driving us all toward a happy ending. These are the books we read for escape, not soul-searching. Your trust in the formulaic genre allows you to push through in moments when the plot and the feelings were too close to home, too personal. You need the resolution and you need the happy ending.
Knox delivers on her resolution. And it’s not candy-coated. It’s happy, but only relative to the emotional devastation of the rest of the novella. It is, perhaps, more a Hopeful Ever After but one I believe in.