Pocahontas may be one of my least favourite animated Disney films, but there is one quote from it that has stayed in my mind. When the heroine's father tells her that the noble warrior Kocoum wants to marry her, her not-too-thrilled reaction is "Kocoum? But he's so serious." The same words are later echoed by the Wise Tree Woman - for which one is grateful, because normally Wise Tree Women tend to be a bit over-serious themselves.
What makes me think of poor Kocoum's objectionable seriousness are books written in an unremitting solemn tone, with hardly a joke on the way. In my opinion, any book benefits from some humour now and again, even if it is of the grimmer sort. My favourite authors - Dickens, say - tend to have a sense of humour, or a least an enjoyably wry way with words. I find po-facedness hard to bear, and especially in light entertainment genres. Recently, I started a romance of the same type as The Memory Garden and gave up after only thirty pages or so. The main reasons were 1) the pervading seriousness of the style 2) the over-sized trauma of the heroine. And that's another thing that riles me: those "I'm serious, me"-themes threaded into just about any romance or chick-lit novel you come across. It's not enough, apparently, to offer your readers a touch of escapism: the authors must needs add a spoonful of medicine to the sugar, just to show they're not as shallow as all that. They can do sorrow.
It's all right, of course, if it's all part of a strong and important storyline - I'm not saying any book, whatever the genre, has to be all sweetness and light (unless it's a P.G. Wodehouse pastiche). But often the seriousness feels pasted on. In some cases, as in the romance above, the solemn theme is simply too much - it threatens to unbalance the whole plot. The heroine was alone and vulnerable because she had lost her husband and a child in an accident (I didn't read long enough to find out exactly what happened).
I accept the husband. Spouses and parents must be allowed to die, even in the lightest of fictional concoctions (though preferably their death will be several months in the past and off-stage). But a kid? How are we supposed to care whether the heroine bags the ex-lord of the manor or not when she's carrying that kind of burden? A mournful theme like that, I imagine, requires another kind of book. If you're in mood for a romance, you don't want to read about how the loss of a child affects a woman. If for some reason you feel like a bracing, therapeutic read about loss, surely you don't want it served up in a romance?
I'm not sure I'm doing very well out of the romance genre altogether, at least not the kind with titles like "The Deserted Greenhouse" or "The Ruined Cottage" (made-up titles: apologies to any book that's actually called this). I have only recently discovered that there appears to be a whole romance sub-genre of quite thick volumes with flowers-over-a-wall-and-an-old-garden-folly covers, where there's one plot taking place in the present, concerning a heroine who for some reason has difficulty finding love, and one taking place in the past. It sounds dandy, doesn't it? Historical fiction with a bit of modern identification thrown in? The problem is that the Kocoum factor in these books is considerable. While chick lit at least tries to be funny, even if it often fails, ruined-cottage romance authors seem to be a worryingly earnest bunch. Even so, the formula is enticing: I probably should give the genre at least one other go.