Fabio Gets His Walking Papers: Can Harlequin Rekindle Romance in a Post-Feminist World?

Article excerpt

ON A TUESDAY MORNING IN LATE August, staffers from the New York office of Harlequin Enterprises meet in a conference room lined with romance-book jackets to discuss newly acquired or promising manuscripts. The roundtable of editors, who range in age from early thirties to mid-fifties, glance at a Xeroxed list of romances that will eventually hit bookstores, supermarkets, and pharmacies, including Midnight Choices, The Weekend Wife, and A Showgirl for Santa.

A Showgirl for Santa will be released to coincide with the holiday season. Mary-Theresa Hussey, a senior editor, rehashes the plot. "It's about a grumpy hero who hates Christmas," she explains, "He gets a job playing Santa Claus and becomes snowbound with the heroine and her two young children. The hero likes showgirls so the heroine's kids make their mom into a showgirl and show her off to get a dad."

Despite the fact that A Showgirl for Santa sounds like the most outlandish book to be offered to the reading public this year, no one laughs. The plot of Showgirl, after all, follows the proven Harlequin formula, one that sells millions of books each year. For over four decades the Harlequin heroine has been a plucky but powerless woman who needs to be rescued from poverty, widowhood, divorce, single motherhood, marauding soldiers, evil relatives, a demeaning job, or some combination of the above.

In the very first chapter of every Harlequin, a hero is introduced, usually a misanthropic but secretly kindhearted man who is himself suffering from some kind of emotional wound. Over the course of the next 300 or so pages, the two flirt, fight, finally fall in love, and marry, whereupon the man is restored to good humor, and the woman ends up financially secure and loved.

Only at the end of the meeting does another editor named Margaret O'Neill Marbury introduce a manuscript that seems to have nothing in common with the others. It's not set in Texas, there are no single mothers posing as showgirls, and even the happy ending seems in doubt. Marbury explains that she is submitting the manuscript, entitled Burning the Map, to the buying committee. "It's about three city girls from Chicago who decide to go to Rome and Greece for the summer to work out the kinks in their relationships with each other and in their personal lives," she explains. "In the case of the main character, she's about to start work at a major law firm in Chicago. The book deals with that worry that we're going to sell out and be miserable doing it but at the same time the fear of what will happen if we don't sell out."

The editors nod and smile, a reaction identical to the one for A Showgirl for Santa. But whether or not the editors acknowledge the differences between the two manuscripts, they know that Burning the Map may represent the future for Harlequin.

In November, Harlequin launched Red Dress Ink, a new imprint that is Harlequins version of "chick-lit," the single city-girl genre made popular by

the British bestseller, Bridget Jones's Diary. Unlike a Harlequin, which involves both a hero and heroine, a Red Dress book focuses exclusively on the heroine's story. While a Harlequin conjures up a fantasy of romantic love that ends with wedding bells, a Red Dress book presents a more realistic picture of single life and dating, one that ends not necessarily in marriage but self-discovery. In short, Red Dress is supposed to marry the mass-market appeal of Harlequin Romances with a contemporary sensibility that will attract 21-to-34-year old women.

It's a tough order, because it requires finding an elusive yet fairly universal formula for female happiness in a post-feminist era--one that most women haven't entirely figured out. Red Dress's struggle to find a romance formula for this new era reflects the struggles of young women to find a happy medium between love and independence without having to sacrifice too much of either.

Bodice-rippers

Last October 2000, Margaret Marbury, a 37-year-old mother of three, was tapped to head Red Dress. …