I recently read The Anubis Gates, a sci-fi/fantasy/time-travel book by Tim Powers involving an English professor specializing in Romantic poets being brought as a tour guide to 1810 to listen to a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who gets stuck there (err, then).
There’s a lot of stuff I could say about this book, but what I want to focus on is, the romantic (lower-case “r”) element of it. One thing I’ve noticed in the various Powers books I’ve read (Declare, Three Days to Never, The Stress of Her Regard) is that Powers isn’t particularly good at doing believable female characters or believable love stories. He gets around this in The Anubis Gates by… well, basically never having the two characters who are fated to get married (time travel, remember?) interact, or have any romantic tension, and end the book by bringing them together and implying that yes, they do fall in love and get married.
This all reminds me in some ways of Aragorn and Arwen in the Lord of the Rings – that romance is always in the background, not the foreground. It’s one way of avoiding having to portray romantic love convincingly: just say it happens off-stage.
I think it works in LotR, though, and not in The Anubis Gates. Why? I think it’s because in LotR, it’s in the background because it has to be – it’s not a particularly important part of the plot, they’re already in love when the story starts, and so it doesn’t feel like cheating when we see them get married without seeing their falling in love. (And we do see that, kinda, in the appendices.) Also, Arwen isn’t that major a character, so Aragorn is in love with someone who’s already off-stage; it’s OK to have the romance be off-stage as well.
But in The Anubis Gates, it is a major part of the plot, is talked about over and over, and is the only reason at all for one of the main character’s presence (the girl really isn’t important except because she eventually marries the guy, but she’s present throughout the book). So the two characters involved are on-stage, but the romance itself is off-stage. And not that plausible. It’s like he set up the romance, then decided it would be too hard to write it actually happening, so he didn’t try.
Ah well. I guess the lesson is, be careful about when and how you portray romances in a story. If it’s not done carefully it can be an irritating distraction, not an addition to the story.