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Book of the Week — Random Passions

“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope… I have loved none but you.”
― Jane Austen, Persuasion

Random Passions
By Karen Hanmer
Glenview, Illinois: Karen Hanmer, 2008
N7433.4 H357 R34 2008

Karen Hanmer’s Random Passions reveals couples traced from the covers of romance novels. The simple line drawings emerge in new combinations, exploiting both materials (transparent paper) and format (the codex) to create a celebration of embracing figures. Though this ode to romance is devoid of text, it alludes to centuries of stories about passionate love, separation, and triumph. 

According to Pamela Regis, author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, a romance novel can be defined as “a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.” However, depending on who you ask, the word “romance” may mean very different things. For antiquarian bibliophiles romance alludes to a certain subset of medieval literature, while a contemporary bookstore clerk may send you down the aisle of titles from the likes of Stephanie Meyer, Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts, and E.L. James. They are not entirely distinct, for the broader definition of romance stories can include those of Greek romance, medieval romance, nineteenth century Gothic romance, and the mass-produced romance fictions of our contemporary culture. One thing is certain, the conventions of the romance novel are quite stable; the basic tenets of the story have not really changed. 

To be considered romance a novel must include eight essential narrative elements, as defined in A Natural History. Romance novels must always depict the following: the initial state of society in which the protagonists court, the meeting between the protagonists, the barrier of their union, the attraction, the declaration of love, the point of ritual death, the recognition, or the means to overcome the barrier, and finally, the betrothal. These are essential. Additionally, there are optional elements that might be included, such as scenes depicting a scapegoat exiled, bad characters converted to goodness, and the wedding, dance, or party. 

The beginning of the romance novel must always set the scene and define the society in which our protagonists live. This society is in some way flawed, it may be incomplete, corrupt, or old-fashioned. In all cases, the society imparts a form of oppression on the protagonists and may sometimes evolve into the barrier that drives them apart. The beginning of the novel may also present the meeting of the two protagonists, often foreshadowing future conflicts that will drive the plot. 

The barrier is depicted in a series of scenes scattered throughout the novel which establish the reason, or reasons, that the two protagonists cannot be together. The barrier can be external, such as the setting, the society in power, family conflicts, economic situations, or mere coincidence. The barrier can also be internal, such as a circumstance that comes from within the mind of either protagonist, or both. The barrier is juxtaposed with a scene or a series of scenes that establish the reason, or reasons, why the couple must be together. This attraction keeps the protagonists involved long enough to overcome the barrier and move on to the next stage. Attraction can evolve through a combination of sexual chemistry, friendship, shared goals or feelings toward each other or toward society’s expectations. 

No romance novel is complete without a scene in which the protagonists declare their love for one another (often, there is a separate declaration scene for each protagonist). The declaration scene can occur anywhere in the narrative but, depending on its placement, can drive the plot in a variety of ways. If the declaration scene occurs early on, coinciding with the meeting, the narrative shifts to a love-at-first-sight situation. If the declaration scene occurs toward the end of the novel, it might signal that the barrier has finally been overcome and the couple can now have a happy ending. 

But the declaration can be interrupted by the point of ritual death — a scene which marks the moment in the narrative when the union between the two protagonists now seems utterly impossible. There is no hope, no resolution, and no way to overcome the conflicts. At this point the happy ending is most in jeopardy. That is until the recognition — a scene or scenes that reveal important new information. In older romance novels where the barrier is society or family, that might mean the hero is revealed to have noble parentage, thus becoming worthy to marry the heroine. Other times, it is the heroine’s true lineage that is revealed, such as in some of Shakespeare’s comedies.  In either case, the protagonists are recognized for who they are, and this recognition removes the remaining barrier and permits the betrothal to go forward. For romance novels from the last quarter of the twentieth century, marriage is no longer necessary, as long as it is clear the protagonists will live happily ever after. 

Random Passions is laser printed on translucent paper. Pamphlet in case binding. Covered with red velvet finish book cloth. Hot stamped title. Printed in an edition of one hundred copies.

Suggested Reading: 
A Natural History of the Romance Novel
Pamela Regis
Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007


  • Julie Myers
    Posted at 17:05h, 11 February Reply

    What a lovely book to commemorate Valentines Day. I think I like the traced versions of the romance novel covers better than the illustrated covers. Lets one set themselves in the arms of an imagined lover. Very good description of how a romance novel plot evolves. Makes sense to me.

    I love this blog so much. Thank you for sharing with us.

  • Julie Baugnet
    Posted at 00:31h, 15 February Reply

    What an excellent visual story! I love the simplicity.

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