Duck Duck Book

63 – look of love
09.15.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

The look of love : the art of the romance novel / by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 741.64 M159L 2002; one copy, no holds]

Lots of people enjoy romance, but few people in our culture would easily admit to being lovers of the straight-up romance novel, unless they fit a particular profile.  Women can read them, but not feminists.  Girls can read them, but not boys.  You don’t read romances if you’re interested in “real” literature, and you don’t read them if you’re really smart and intellectual.  Romances are formulaic and hackneyed, they present a narrow view of marriage, of love, of a woman’s ability to have a mind and a heart at the same time, and so on.

But still, millions of people read romances, and enjoy them.  Part of the appeal, not surprisingly, is their evocative cover design — like their brethren in the rest of the pulp novel world, romances have long been sold on the strength of their beautiful illustrated covers.  The Look of Love presents a nice exhibit of some of the best, and some of the most typical romance covers from the 1930s to the 1980s, along with a short history of the genre and some discussion of trends in cover design over the years.  The explication is interesting and useful, but the covers are really the book’s reason d’être.

Some are so much of another era that it’s hard to see them as anything but arch and ironic:  Nurse on the Run (1965, page 93) features a beautiful young woman in a whirling, startled pose, with red hair spilling out from underneath her nurse’s cap.  Behind her are superimposed three calm, suave fellows, apparently the source of her turmoil (though none of them appear to have a care in the world).   And the very first Harlequin (1949, page 11) is illustrated with a painting of a woman in evening dress at the top of a curving staircase.  At the bottom is a man in a blue suit with a cap — he looks like a postal carrier to me, but here’s the title: The Manatee: Strange Loves of a Seaman.  So he must be a sea captain, not a mailman; I trust the woman is not actually the manatee.

Irony aside, however, there is a particular beauty about these illustrations.  Some of this is due to the vintage, nostalgic quality of the art, no doubt enhanced by the plain fact that these days it’s unusual for newly published books of any sort to have pulp-style hand-painted covers*, but I think the idea of love itself  is part of the appeal.  The cover evokes the feeling that the story promises to bring out in the reader.  The cover painting shows just a glimmer, a teensy frame out of the story — a longing glance at the unrequited beloved; a bit of labor shared by colleagues who maybe want to know one another better; the second two doomed lovers who are nonetheless magnetically attracted are just about to kiss.  All of these moments are worth looking at, worth fantasizing about, worth mention in life generally; even if the particular situation being described in the cover painting is highly improbable and stereotypical, and even though novel  itself might not be so great.

* Though there are counter-examples to this point — one I think of immediately is Hard Case Crime, which publishes both reprints and new novels in the mystery/crime genre, each with a specially commissioned painted cover.  I have found their books very much worth reading, as well as worth appreciating as lovely objects.


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