Today (Friday) I finished reading a romantic novel featuring a heroine who finds love over a summer in Italy. Classic escapist romance. It’s not a genre I read much—more on that later—but this one was from an author I admire and I hadn’t read any of her books for a while.
So it was timely. And I enjoyed the story very much.
There are, as you probably know, loads of books in this genre. But my reading got me thinking and asking questions.
Why are they so popular?
And why are they mostly set in Italy or Greece?
Aren’t there other places for a heroine to find love?
Research your escapist settings before you put finger to blog?
At this point, you may be yelling at your screen that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
- 13 set in Italy
- 11 set in France
- 7 set in Greece
- 3 set in Spain/Portugal
- 7 set in Cornwall
- 5 set in Scotland
OK. Maybe I was wrong in saying summer escapist books are “mostly” set in Italy or Greece. But a lot of them are. On my count above, it’s one-third for the two together. I also have to admit that a lot are set in France, often on the French Riviera. But that’s almost Italy, isn’t it?
I should also have realised how popular Cornwall has become. Fair enough. But Scotland? As a Scot in exile, I can’t forget the midges and the rain, though I admit the scenery is spectacular and, when the sun shines, I’d say there’s nowhere better on earth. (And here’s one of my own pics to prove it.)
I tried Amazon again with the search term “summer fiction”. In the first 25 books, Italian settings scored 8, Greek settings 6, Scotland a measly 1. France and Cornwall got none at all. So in that second sample, Italy + Greece did account for more than half. See, I was sort of right after all. (And no, I didn’t fiddle the searches to get the answer i wanted. Honest.)
Escapist romance needs the right setting
As we sit here in the UK, in February, in the rain (mostly, but sometimes snow), and with dark mornings and evenings, it’s easy to see the lure of warmth and sunshine and the kind of outdoor life that’s difficult this far north.
Bars and cafés and restaurants spilling onto the street as a matter of course because everyone knows it won’t rain? People sitting around in shorts and t-shirts or going for a leisurely promenade in the cool of the evening? Warm azure sea to swim in? (Cornwall may be OK on that front in high summer—I haven’t tried—but I can assure you, from freezing experience, that Scotland definitely isn’t.)
This weekend, the temperature here in the Midlands is forecast to reach a high of 14º, very warm for the time of year. But it’s grey and it keeps raining, on and off.
In Italy (Rome) it’s likely to be 20º without a cloud in the sky. Same, or hotter, in Seville in Spain. Corfu, in Greece, will be cooler, maybe 16º, but cloudless skies are forecast there too.
So, even in winter, those Mediterranean settings have something attractive to recommend them. (And the Acropolis is always worth a visit, even if it’s got snow on it, as shown in the image above. Note the cheerily bright blue sky.)
The essentials of an escapist romance?
As I said at the start, I don’t read all that many escapist romances because, if I’m honest, I find them too predictable.
Pause for thought here. Why am I saying that? After all, I used to write Regency romances for Mills & Boon and they were pretty predictable, too. In all these (m/f) romances, it’s heroine meets hero, attraction happens, conflicts keep them apart, then conflicts are resolved and we get a HEA.
So being too predictable is a pretty lame excuse on my part. Not good enough, Joanna. Try again.
My second reason for not reading many is that I often find it difficult to empathise with the characters. The hero is (usually) to die for. Not only gorgeous to look at, but also kind, sympathetic, understanding, rich enough to live a good life, etc etc. He’s probably even a great cook! How many men like that have you met recently? No, me neither, so I find it difficult to believe in him. (More about him later.)
The heroine is (usually) blonde, slim and very attractive but with some kind of trauma in her immediate past (like a bad divorce) that has brought her to a crossroads in her life. Faced with that choice, she decides to make a fresh start in a new country far away from the grim old UK.
And in spite of the fact that she probably speaks barely a word of the language, she makes a success of it, finding the dishy hero along the way. It takes a really good writer to make me believe in a heroine like that, too. (And I want to slap her on the language laziness.)
That exotic location again?
Add in the relatively exotic location and it can begin to feel like pure fantasy. Sunshine, blue sea etc. It never seems to get so hot that hero or heroine start wilting, does it? (When I was in southern Spain last year, it was about 40º and even the locals were wilting.) In escapist romance, it’s always picture postcard perfection, like this image of Samos, in Greece:
And mentioning Spain led me to wonder why so few escapist romances are set there. It has beaches, and tavernas, and sun too, doesn’t it? My good friend Sophie, of this parish, may have provided the answer there. It’s the Benidorm factor, we decided. Although loads of Spain is nothing like Benidorm and it has lots of wonderfully romantic settings, many Brits do think of Benidorm-type resorts when they think of Spain. And that image may not be helpful for escapist romance.
Italy and Greece, on the other hand, don’t generally suffer from the Benidorm factor (or local equivalent). For both of them, Brits tend to think of small resorts with tavernas on the beach (like Samos, above) and cosy little hotels or villas to rent where escaping heroines can relax freely and find a new life. (They may also think of glamorous and upmarket cities like Rome or Venice or Athens where an escaping heroine might be swept off her feet by a droolworthy hero.)
Nothing against Italy and Greece, but I love Spain and I’d say that it deserves a revival in the escapist romance arena. Up in the mountains, or in some of its glorious cities, maybe, like Toledo, or Cordoba, or Seville?
The hero in escapist romance is…?
Back to our hero, as promised.
He’s hot, of course. Usually with dark-eyed, dark-haired, smouldering good looks. Sometimes with a hint of menace or leashed power.
And charisma by the bucketload.
I do find myself wondering, though, why these hot and desirable heroes have reached the age of 30 or 35 without getting hitched.
Cynics might say that it’s the Mamma syndrome, that these gorgeous men are so pampered by their doting Mammas (cooking for them, doing the laundry, generally waiting on them hand and foot) that no other female will be good enough. So said heroes stay at home and live the easy life with Mamma. Makes them a bit less droolworthy, maybe…?
When one of my author friends attended a real honest-to-goodness Greek wedding, she was rash enough to mention the “Greek hero” trope to some of the younger guests. After they had stopped laughing—and it took quite a while—they gently disabused her. No, Greek men weren’t like that at all. They were not all that different from British men, apparently.
The same is probably true of smouldering Italian heroes. (Or at least the ones who get away from Mamma.) Do they smoulder? One gets the impression that [some] Italian men like to think they ooze sex-appeal.
I am reminded of the sidekick, Mimí, in Camilleri’s Montalbano books and TV series, set in Sicily. The TV Mimí (who fits the dark-haired, dark-eyed pattern) seems to be able to seduce almost any woman, though to my mind his looks are nothing special. How does he do it?
Sadly, we never really get to find out. Though he does seem to have a good line in chat.
Like the Greek Lothario in Shirley Valentine whose chat-up lines are so well honed that he uses them regularly on incoming female tourists like Shirley? Not a true escapist romance, that one. Love and trust? I don’t think so. And that’s another question mark over the hot Greek or Italian hero.
Then again, Rudolph Valentino was Italian so maybe he proves the smouldering rule?
More research needed?
I think I probably need to shell out on a fair few more escapist romances in order to find out the truth about the genre. But you may have different views?
Do you love them?
Do tell me where I’m going wrong.
Late PS: Forgot to say, in the blog, that even Libertà indulges in escapist fiction sometimes. For fun and laughter on the English riviera—in Little Piddling no less—try the 6 novellas in our Beach Hut Surprise, available as an ebook here.
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