July 17. 2005
Wilmington Star News

The heroes could be Fabio’s father. The heroines have hot flashes. Still, they find love.
New romance novels put a wrinkle in the notion that life’s later years can’t include love, adventure, and yes, even sex
By Ben Steelman

So, whatever happened to the sunset over the tropical beach, the tempestuous minx and the long-haired guy with the pectoral muscles bursting out of his shirt?

Well, the guy still has pecs, but he might be hitting the Grecian Formula and maybe the Cialis, too. And the location might be a little more down to earth. A new generation of romance novels seeks to assure Baby Boomers that, just because there’s snow on the roof, the fire can still be torrid in the furnace.

In Sandwiched by Jennifer Archer, a recent divorcee of the “Sandwich Generation” ends up living with her elderly mother and her 17-year-old daughter.

In There’s Always Plan B, by Susan Mallery, a divorcee, putting her life back together, helps her mother run a haunted bed-and-breakfast.
Then there’s Riggs Park, by Wilmington resident Ellyn Bache. Its heroine, divorcee Barbara Cohen, has to deal with a grown daughter (a workaholic who’s going through a bitter divorce of her own), help an old friend who’s facing a recurrence of cancer and come to terms with ghosts from her own past.

These novels are the debut titles in “Harlequin Next,” a new line of novels from the venerable publisher of paperback romances that target women readers aged 35 and older.

“There’s the life you planned,” proclaim advertisements for the books. “And there’s what comes next.”

“This is entertainment for the woman who’s going into the next stage of her life,” said Tara Gavin, the New York-based editorial director for Harlequin Next. “She’s built her career, she’s had her first love, she’s built her family. Now she’s saying to herself, ‘OK, I’ve been there, I’ve done that. What’s next?’ ”

Not everything has changed on Planet Harlequin, though. The heroines of Sandwiched and There’s Always Plan B still find Mr. Right. In Riggs Park, Barbara’s already found him – Jon, her old high school sweetheart, graying but still buff. Through much of the novel, though, she has to struggle to hold onto him.

Ms. Bache – whose other novels include The Activist’s Daughter, Festival in Fire Season and Safe Passage, which was made into a movie with Susan Sarandon and Sam Shepard – didn’t set out to write a Harlequin novel. Instead, her agent thought the manuscript would be ideal for the new “Next” series.

“I was surprised,” she said. “I didn’t see my books as Harlequin kinds of books.”

Editors at Harlequin apparently thought otherwise.

According to the publisher’s guidelines for writers, typical Next plots might involve anything “from that first baby at 45 to the first date after divorce or widowhood, from that first day at college – accompanied by your freshman daughter! – to dealing with three generations living in the same house.”

“These are women who are contemplating their lives, women who are re-evaluating their relationships,” Ms. Gavin said. “They’re looking to move further.”

Research and focus groups convinced Harlequin that it needed to appeal to more mature readers. So did statistics: Women 35-54 make up 29 percent of the American population, up 4 percent since 1990, the 2000 U.S. Census found.

“You know, the first Baby Boomers turn 60 in 2006,” said Ms. Bache, a widow and grandmother.

Nor is Harlequin alone in discovering this demographic blip.

“Publishers are certainly aware of the Red Hats and the active book club scene,” said New Hanover County librarian Dorothy Hodder, “and they’re trying to reach them any way they can.”

“They’ve even got a term for it – ‘Matron Lit,’»” said Nicki Leone, manager of Bristol Books. “I hate that label.”

Still, she added, it highlights the distinction between these titles and the craze for “Chick Lit,” the umbrella term for such novels as Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City or Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada.

Matron Lit books “are novels where the central characters are older, wise women,” Ms. Leone said, “where brand names aren’t sprinkled liberally throughout the text.”

Among the better examples of the genre, she added, are North Carolina resident Joan Medlicott “Ladies of Covington” novels – beginning with The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love – about three 60-something friends who move South to set up housekeeping in a rundown North Carolina farmhouse.

There’s also Kris Radish’s The Elegant Gathering of White Snows, about eight women, all 40 or older, who meet each week. When one of the gang faces a personal crisis, the whole group sets out on foot, in the middle of the night, on a pilgrimage of personal discovery.

“It’s like the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” Ms. Leone said, “but this book is much better than that.”

Ms. Hodder noted the “Miss Julia” books by another Tar Heel author, Ann B. Ross, – beginning with Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind – about a conventional small-town widow who ends up raising her late husband’s young illegitimate son and the boy’s feckless mother as well.

For Ms. Bache, the discovery of the older woman reader could not have come soon enough.

“I used to see this glass ceiling,” she said. “There was only so old your heroine, your protagonist could be.

“Now, finally, you can write about mature women! It’s fun to read about women your own age.”

Even better, she noted, is the demolition of stereotypes. “If you’re a mature women, you’re not just a little gray mouse,” she said. “You can still be a blonde on the inside.”

Riggs Park’s action covers five decades and stretches from the District of Columbia to Wrightsville Beach, but its theme is close to Baby Boomer’s heart. Barbara, the heroine, has to come to terms with the consequences of choices faced by young women who came of age in the early 1960s.

“You were expected to get an education, to go to college,” Ms. Bache said, “but after you went to college, the opportunities weren’t there.”

As a result, the goal was finding a husband. Looks were overemphasized, Ms. Bache said. (Barbara and her best friend, who happen to be Jewish, both have nose jobs as soon as they possibly can.)

Young women also had to cope with a sexual double standard – and Heaven help the girl who wound up stuck with a “loose” reputation.
Harlequin Next plans to release four Next novels per month, and it’s pricing them at $5.50, a dollar or two below the usual price for a mass-market paperback.

The publisher is also experimenting with formats. Some Next novels are coming out in “Tall” editions, the same width as a regular paperback, but slightly longer, which Harlequin hopes readers will find easier to handle, Ms. Gavin said.

Ms. Bache has already submitted a second Harlequin Next novel, Daughters of the Sea, about coastal residents and “dowsers,” . who find water by psychic means, using devices such as divining rods. powers. It should be in stores in October. A third novel is already in the works.

“I actually saw my book in Target the other day,” she said, grinning. “Target – that’s never happened to me before.”

The only problem: “My children get a little upset at scenes they think are a little too risque for me.”

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