Yesterday we held a conversation about redemption and reparation in the genre. Today we talk about the book redemptions that worked or didn’t work for us.
Janine: What are some examples of books where redemption or reparation felt sincere, meaningful and satisfying? What are examples of books where you felt all the apologies in the world wouldn’t make something okay, or where you didn’t understand how character X could take character Y back after all they’d done?
Janine: Mary Balogh has a controversial oldie, Dancing with Clara, in which Clara offers to pay off Freddie’s gambling debts if he’ll marry her. He does, but he’s addicted to gambling as well as an alcoholic, and soon he abandons her in the country to engage in in these activities as well as to cheat on her. Every time Freddie does visit Clara, he apologizes and promises he’ll do better, but he doesn’t. At the end, when he finally gets it and decides he has to make it up to her, he doesn’t apologize or make promises; he moves to the country to live with her.
For me that worked—because he’d made so many false promises in the past, the fact that this time, he made the promise to himself, not to Clara, showed me that it was genuine, that he was changing his behavior and was going to take it one day at a time, as many recovering addicts do. But a lot of readers were incensed by the absence of a verbalized commitment.
Sirius: The m/m romance where redemption storyline worked really well for me was Song of the Navigator by Astrid Amara. One of the leads is actually very hurt in the beginning of the story and actions of the other lead definitely are the reason why the other guy was hurt.
But the lead who contributed to the pain of the other main character did not want / did not anticipate that certain things will take place. It still happened and he does try to correct the situation, and does that despite the fact that on the larger scale he had plenty reasons to take some actions. I know I am being cryptic, but in case people may want to read it I don’t want to reveal much. You can read my review too :).
Layla: In Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star— a troubling book that I nevertheless find very romantic — Samuel has sex with heroine Leda when they are not married. I know some read this scene as a nonconsensual— I don’t! But the whole rest of the book is about him atoning. There is never a really big I’m sorry scene but his actions and behavior show that he’s sorry. I also find it realistic in that book at least, that that type of guy— repressed a product of childhood abuse and trauma, that he’s not that verbal and in touch with his feelings. So his I’m sorry is in his actions which I find romantic.
Rose: A book where the redemption arc felt sincere and meaningful was Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London. Felix was really horrible and he deserved whatever he got from Louisa, but to me it seemed clear that he reflected on what he did and set out to make things right between them by making things better for her in whatever way he could. I know some readers disagree ;). However, if the things he’d done had ended up hurting other people – as they could have – I’m not sure it would have been enough for me. I did appreciate that Louisa didn’t immediately forgive him; in too many books, everything is resolved in a matter of days.
As a redemption and atonement story, Ain’t She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips also worked for me. Sugar Beth was young and selfish and hurt other people; what she did could have ruined Colin’s life. But it’s clear that everything she’s been through, and a lot of personal reflection, has made her not a *different* person, but a better one. She’s a good person, and it’s a matter of others being able to see it.
Janine: I liked that book a lot but by the end of it I felt that Colin and especially Sugar Beth’s sister Winnie were the ones in need of redemption. Sugar Beth didn’t come close to deserving all the revenge they heaped on her.
Kaetrin: Ain’t She Sweet is my least fave SEP. I did not think Sugar Beth deserved as much forgiveness as she got tbh. I’m team opposite on this one. LOL.
Jayne: With regard to Ain’t She Sweet, I’m definitely on #TeamSugarBeth. She did some wrong but what was heaped onto her head was out of proportion and went on too long, IMO.
I remember one book with atonement as a major element. Lady Gallant by Suzanne Robinson caused a lot of discussion as people debated what the hero *deliberately* does to hurt her, the cruelty he inflicts, and whether or not he redeems himself as he ultimately tries to win back her love. Despite initially shying away given these descriptions, I wound up reading it and the grovel won me over – then. I’ve sometimes wondered if it would still work for me today.
Janine: I never liked Christian from Lady Gallant. He was a royal asshat and on top of that, his reasons for believing Nora were a traitor were nonsensical.
Layla: In Caroline Linden’s When the Marquess was Mine, Georgiana lies to Rob who’s had a head injury and lost his memory. When the truth is revealed he’s very understanding and because he’s fallen in love with her he forgives her. Also all along the writer makes a case for why she did and shows her extreme guilt at the deception.
Another great scene is the one in Pride and Prejudice— And here it’s Elizabeth who has to say I’m sorry to Darcy for misunderstanding and misreading him. He’s also sorry for the manner in which he declares his feelings— but his actions subsequently show her his remorse but also his love. I find that deeply romantic and I like that it’s equal— she’s sorry too.
Forgiveness for Relatives
Rose: KJ Charles has several books in which characters come from awful families and it’s clear that those relationships do not need to be repaired in order for them to be happy. Guy and Amanda telling off their awful aunt in Band Sinister is just what that book called for. In Gilded Cage, when Susan tells James not to gladden his father’s declining year’s, it’s because Lord Dickie deserves it and then some.
An example in which the family reconciliation worked and was needed is Kate Canterbary’s Walsh series and specifically The Spire. For those unfamiliar with it, the Walsh siblings lost their mother as children. Their father then abused them in different ways throughout the rest of their childhood, and remained verbally and physically abusive when they were adults, until his death. His actions leave a mark on all of them, and lead to a lot of unhealthy personal and interpersonal dynamics. Five of them work together in the family’s sustainable architecture firm, while the youngest sister, Erin, is estranged from the family after a massive blowup with the other sister, Shannon, when Erin was a teenager. As the series progresses, readers learn more about the Shannon-Erin relationship, including Shannon’s perspective in The Cornerstone.
In The Spire, the main source of tension between Erin and her love interest is her refusal to have anything beyond a long-distance relationship with her brothers, and none with her sister. The separation deprives her of love and support from people who care for her and understand what she survived; in my opinion, that book could not have had an HEA without Erin finding her way back to her family in a healthy way. The sisters’ books are my favorites in that series, and are Canterbary’s best work by far (especially The Cornerstone).
Janine: In Mary Balogh’s A Secret Affair, Hannah’s backstory is that ten years earlier she caught her fiancé and her sister (anachronistically named Dawn) having sex in the rosebushes. Neither apologized, and her fiancé actually told her that for him this was a lucky escape–her beauty was only skin deep and he was glad he’d seen that for himself before he married her.
A decade later Hannah invites them to her wedding to Con. Dawn, who also befriended Hannah’s friends and undermined Hannah’s friendships with them until they ended, says she doesn’t feel guilty for the past. Hannah landed on her feet, didn’t she? After all this Hannah still welcomes Dawn (and her husband) back into her life. I recoiled from this. What good is there to having such toxic people in your life in the future? It’s one thing to let go of the past but another to give people who have harmed carte blanche to harm you more.
Rose: A book in which a teenager did something harmful is Rachel Grant’s Cold Evidence, and here there could have been severe repercussions for the other party. By the time they are thrown together again twelve years later, what happened between them has significantly altered their professional and personal lives. Because this is a romantic suspense title, less space was given to their reconciliation – Undine had already recognized that what she did was wrong and has found a way to personally atone for it, but I felt Luke moved on even though they barely discussed it, and didn’t fully trust that it wouldn’t be a subject for future conflict (of course they show up as a happy couple in subsequent books in the series). I still enjoyed Cold Evidence, but it could have been much better.
Layla: I can’t think of a romance I’ve enjoyed where the hero did something truly bad to heroine or vice versa. I mean are there romances where the hero has hit a heroine or taken money or cheated willfully? I guess I wouldn’t find that romantic.
Janine: Yes, definitely. Mary Jo Putney wrote a contemporary romance, The Burning Point, where the hero and heroine married young and had a history with domestic abuse. He hit her. Years later, after he’s had therapy, they reunite. With this one I couldn’t get past the wife beating. Jo Beverley had a book where the hero struck the heroine but I’ve never read it.
Kaetrin: I actually liked The Burning Point. I’m one of the few who did I think. Admittedly it was a long time ago that I read it and my view may be different were I to read it again now. I believed the MMC had done the work (IIRC they spent a long time apart, he took full responsibility and he had been in therapy for some time by the time they started making their way back together), had a handle on his anger issues and would not hit the FMC ever again. At least, I did way back when, when I read it. What he did was wrong wrong wrong—to be clear, I never thought his actions were okay. Just, at the time, I believed he had been successfully redeemed by the author. And like I say, I’m very much in the minority there.
Rose: Maybe someday an author will come along who will manage to write a reparation/atonement story involving past domestic abuse that will work for me, but at the moment I just can’t see that happening. I’m also very happy to leave the rapey heroes in the bodice rippers of old (and in the dark romances I don’t read.)
Janine: Cheating—it really depends. Sometimes it’s worked for me, and sometimes not. I mentioned Balogh’s Dancing with Clara as an example where it worked for me, and there have been others, but not many.
LaVyrle Spencer wrote a few books with cheating. Home Song really did not work for me. Here pre-wedding jitters result in a secret baby. When Tom and Claire find out (something like eighteen years later) that he has a son from that one-night stand, the truth about the cheating also comes out and they separate, which also affects their kids. That book pissed me off because I felt Spencer was harsher on Claire than she was on Tom, portraying her reaction as irrational. On top of that she also criticized Claire for not being a better homemaker! Ugh.
Spencer had another book, Bitter Sweet, with a different angle on infidelity. ERic is married not to Maggie but to another woman. Eric and Maggie were high school sweethearts. Maggie is widowed and Eric’s marriage is falling apart when they meet again and eventually fall back in love, despite the fact that Eric is married. I recall feeling this book would have been lovely if Spencer hadn’t seen fit to completely demonize Eric’s wife.
Rose: Cheating I can deal with if it has meaningful consequences and time for the characters to process what happened and rebuild their relationship. Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas is an example of how to do this right. I recently read Broken Play by Alison Rhymes on KU, and that one was a definite nope for me – Drew’s cheating was extensive, with multiple women and one long-term relationship, and the reasons for it were flimsy. While I liked some of June’s development after finding out, Drew had just gone too far for me, and even if he hadn’t, his growth and atonement needed to be shown more than told. Also, I’d rather not have a threesome as part of the resolution in a book like this. Even if the heroine is into it.
Even smaller transgressions can reach a point where I can’t get past what happened. In Helen Hoang’s The Heart Principle, Anna lied a lot to protect herself from criticism and rejection. That’s something I can relate to up to a point. But it went on so long and to such lengths here. She lied to every significant character in the book, including herself, deceived and hurt Quan, whom she supposedly loved, as well as another, very vulnerable, person to protect herself. No matter how much self-protection she needed, for me it ended up boiling down to the fact that she put her own needs first for the entire book. Ultimately, my issue wasn’t so much that I couldn’t forgive her as that I couldn’t understand why the Quan would be able to place his trust in her again. Anna wasn’t a bad person, but she was cowardly I didn’t trust that she wouldn’t put her fears ahead of other people again, so I also couldn’t trust in Quan’s future happiness.
I had a similar issue with Beth O’Leary’s The Road Trip, a reunion story. Dylan and Addie, along with a small group that includes Dylan’s friend Marcus, are stuck in a car together driving to the wedding of a mutual friend. Marcus did all he could to break up Addie and Dylan and eventually succeeded (a few years earlier). Yet despite this, Dylan doesn’t drop Marcus even at the end of the book, yet Addie takes Dylan back after all the awful things Marcus did to her. Marcus supposedly reformed during her separation from Dylan, but only recently. Before that he spent two years making it his mission to ruin Addie’s life, and isn’t the nicest person even at the beginning of the trip (two days before the resolution of the romance). I couldn’t forgive Dylan for his spineless disloyalty and didn’t understand why Addie would take him back. Maybe (maybe) Marcus deserved forgiveness, but Addie certainly didn’t deserve to have him in her life. That was not a happy ending for me.
Sirius: Even the most wonderfully written redemption storyline does not work for me sometimes. I marveled at how good of the writers Ilona Andrews duo was when I was reading attempt at redeeming Hugh D’Ambray. They went through every single horrible thing he did and tried to explain it away and I am like oh it works, sort of but after I finished, my memory of those things as they were written in Kate Daniels’ books was still alive for me and now couple years after, all I do when I think of redeemed Hugh is mentally roll my eyes.
I guess what I am saying that I love redemption stories, but not everyone needs to be redeemed for me, some villains should just stay such IMO.
We’d love to hear from all of you about your favorite fictional redemptions and reparations, and about the ones that didn’t work for you. And if you’ve read any of the books we’ve mentioned above, what did you think of the reparations and grovels in them—were they enough or not enough for you?
Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven novels in romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Examples include novels by Ilona Andrews, Mary Balogh, Aster Glenn Gray, Helen Hoang, Piper Huguley, Lisa Kleypas, Jeannie Lin, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Naomi Novik, Nalini Singh, and Megan Whalen Turner. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.