Of doe-eyed women

PRESTEL - The Art of Romance

I am begrudgingly saying goodbye to my weekend—an amazing weekend that has involved one of my favorite people, a blessed silence from my office-issued phone, an unhealthy amount of Tetris, some good eating (including a way-past-midnight run for some mango crepe), and what-reading-I-can in the midst of all that awesome.

I’m checking in tonight, though, to tide me over in the blogging department; here’s a picture-heavy post of a stunning art book I read a couple of days ago: The Art of Romance: Mills & Bon and Harlequin Cover Designs—and some whining at the end. Below, some of my favorites (don’t ask me what my standards are) from the book:


It got really painful in the end, no? Anyway. To be a killjoy about this visually stunning baby: For all the oohs and aahs it delivers, the book nonetheless feels like a missed opportunity. There’s a woefully short token introduction written by the editors, Joanna Bowring and Margaret O’Brien, which describes Mills & Boon’s beginnings as a free-for-all publisher: Gaining much traction and popularity during the Second World War, taking its cue from all the women-in-the-workforce who suddenly need something to take them away from the drudgery of work and at-home (not to mention, hello, the actual war), and basically just dipping in and out of the trends as time wore on. And, of course, there’s some talk about the awesomeness of the genre—I do admit to the little squee when I realized there’s no condescension when it talks about the genre’s popularity and overall appeal; it’s all just matter-of-factly stated.

For a book that’s focused on such a big player in romance, there’s very little of how Harlequin was instrumental to the growth of the industry, if it was at all; a good retrospective would have been nice. There’s a nod to some of the tropes employed—sure, if only in the context of the cover art; plus a teensy little glimpse into how our attitude toward sexuality has evolved, but, again, it’s discussed in how people can now kiss on the covers of paperbacks and whathaveyou. Authors are mentioned in the introduction, some books are quoted and summarized, cover aesthetics are given a cursory rundown (with a cross-reference to the featured covers to come).

The introduction itself is great—but it becomes a little bleep when you realize that’s all the background you’ll get. Because then it’s on to a gallery of choice covers from the 1930s to the early 2000s—each sample disappointingly short of detail and back story. Yes, there’s the cover itself, there’s the author and the date it was published. Occasionally, the cover artist is mentioned. But that’s it. A scan of the cover, and all those paltry details we could’ve gotten from the cover itself.

I would have appreciated a more sprawling examination of the art. Basically, I wanted more information about the covers themselves and the books they clothed. Because that’s what this book seems to forget: The relationship between the physicality of the book and what they held within their pages. Tell me more about this book! Tell me the provenance of this cover—what influences did this style draw from, does it have anything to do with what’s inside, why the hell does Sylvia Sark’s Take Me! Break Me! have a lion on its cover stalking two star-crossed lovers! More covers from the 90s onward would have helped—that’s a lot of wtfuckery gone unexplored here.

Dost the lady demand too much? Sigh. This is a great volume to have in a romance-reader’s shelf, in an art-lover’s stack of coffee table books. But I wanted it to be an invaluable book—and a little more effort, a lot more digging through the stacks, a lot more reading of the actual books featured, would have made it thus.


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