The Romance Trap by Cindy Rizzo

Romance is a genre that makes some unbreakable promises to its readers. There’s two people. They meet or they meet again, and we know in our heart of hearts that they belong together. But, there are obstacles or problems or tensions, or all three. Like they hate one another, or one of them is clueless about the other, or they were together long ago and someone got hurt. There are many roadblocks, including family baggage, past trauma, old lovers that made them swear off new relationships. The list is endless, though I’ll admit some plot devices (fake relationships, deceased partners, boss-employee) or settings (animal shelters, Hollywood) seem to come in waves.

Watching how our two main characters overcome these obstacles, grow in the process and finally get their Happy Ever After (or Happy for Now) is why we read romance. And for some of us, there’s the added bonus of the sex. If you want a lot of the sex without sacrificing the love part, you can read erotic romance. If you want a few good sex scenes and a larger dose of love, then contemporary, historical, paranormal romance or romantic intrigue might suit you better.

It’s all pretty wonderful, especially if it’s so well written that you yourself end up falling in love with one or both of the characters. (Cue Robyn Ward from And Playing the Role of Herself.)

But what if one of them does something you can’t forgive, even if there’s growth and redemption in the end? What if you just can’t get past your own concept of morality so that, even if the book is a good—or even a great—one, you just can’t.

We all have our own moral codes, and by and large, I believe we have to respect one another’s. But also there are times when we have to ask each other questions. Recently I read a book and then a number of reviews of that book, that raised some questions I need to ask.

In Erin Dutton’s Planning for Love, the book opens when Rachel, who is going to be the maid of honor at her straight best friend’s wedding, walks through the unlocked door of the best friend’s home only to find said friend naked on the couch with Faith, her female wedding planner. Clearly, we know from this scene and from the book’s blurb that Rachel and Faith will be our couple, and Dutton goes on to write a slow burn twist on the enemies-to-lovers romance trope.

But many of the reader-reviewers on Goodreads were not letting Faith off the hook.

“I can’t give it more than three stars because of the morality aspect.”

“[I]t’s so wrong!!! I’ll admit it put me in a downer for the rest of the book.”

“Some of the other reviews mentioned they thought Rachel was a little mean to Faith… Not me, I thought she wasn’t mean enough.”

It’s true. Faith has a practice of sleeping with some of the brides she works with. But it’s clear that she’s no homewrecker. These are one-time flings, a kind of sendoff if you will, not a whole lot different than what some grooms-to-be do at their bachelor parties.

And what of the brides? There’s very little judgment about them in the reviews, even though they’re the ones cheating. It’s not like Faith is taking anyone to bed (or to couch) against their will.

My concern here is that if we are so bent out of shape about the consensual sexual actions of a main character in a romance novel, however imperfect, then how does that show up in our real lives? Do we shun people who make different sexual choices than we do? Does everybody have to fit into the monogamous couple mode of the romance novels we read? Are we unable to forgive the actions, however imperfect, of others to the point where we don’t think they deserve happiness?

There’s a lot that we get from reading these books. We escape to interesting locations, meet fascinating people and watch them rise to their greatest potential. But we shouldn’t fall into the romance trap.

Those of us whose inept choices might not meet everyone’s strict morale code still deserve, in the words of Paul Simon, “a shot of redemption.” And those who aren’t interested in the romance novel version of a perfect ending still deserve their own version of Happy Ever After. It is not the case nor should it be that these books offer everyone an airtight template for how to live their lives.

Cindy Rizzo is the author of three lesbian romance novels (Exception to the Rule, Love Is Enough, and Getting Back) and a number of short stories and essays. She has over 300 lesfic romance novels on her Kindle and about 100 paperbacks on the shelves of the New York City apartment she shares with her wife and their three cats.

She can be found online at:

Twitter: @cindyrizzo


  1. Cindy, you raise great points, and this might have been written to me. I read sometimes of things I don’t forgive and it ruins the book for me. I’m not saying I’m right or the author is wrong. I know I have to work on forgiveness.

    On the other hand, I am looking for a story about two people who want real love in their lives. I haven’t read the Erin Dutton novel you mention, but it appears from what you said that the bride is deceiving her fiancé. It is consensual between the bride and Faith, but it is hurting someone. I can handle this happening a story, but to be realistic, there are consequences for deceiving people and causing pain. It isn’t a moral nothing. It happens in real life, and from what I’ve seen, it causes damage. I’d like for an author to show understanding of this…


  2. This is an interesting topic. Having grown up in a family with a cheating parent and experiencing the consequences, I do make judgments about it and about both parties, the cheater and “the other woman.” But, it can be beneficial to read such a book because it gives a different perspective which can be healing.

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  3. Genre fiction (excepting, perhaps, s/f) is comfort food. We don’t expect to be challenged by it or made to reexamine our attitudes. Literary fiction, while much of it can be fun to read, is a different beast entirely. I think that when a genre romance novelist wants to stretch the boundaries or “scare the horses” in terms of changing things up, she should label her work as “: A Novel” or “: A Romance Novel.” If the author plans to abide by the well-worn tropes, she should call it, simply, romance. That would provide a caveat emptor to potential readers so that they wouldn’t feel offended or ripped off. Either that or create a new genre of “Romance-not-by-the-rules.”

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  4. I love it that books challenge my preconceived ideas of what is acceptable, not just in love and relationships, but life in general. Perhaps I always look for some deeper meaning when I read a book, but even if it is a light-hearted, funny romance, I think that there is always something that allows me to expand out of my own little box. And maybe it is only one sentence or paragraph in the book that strikes me, but that is enough to get me to think about it even days after I finish the book. When I review a book, I definitely would not give a lower rating just because one of the main characters did something that I thought was reprehensible. If the character grew as a person, as the story progressed, for me the deeper meaning would be that no matter what we do, we have that opportunity to forgive ourselves, offer ourselves redemption, and that we deserve to have that Happy Ever After (or Happy for Now) chance at love, and allow ourselves to be forgiven (if that is a part of the story and be loved in return. Just a few of my thoughts.

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  5. Excellent points! There’s pigeonholing going on in genre fiction, but masterful storytelling and captivating character work, hopefully, can go a long way toward nudging readers out of their comfort zones and toward giving good stories a real chance.

    In my humble opinion, every book basically is a promise to the reader, which I think is: This book won’t be boring. Readers invest time, money, and emotions into reading a book and expect to be affected by it, which means not to be bored. Yes, this usually entails wanting to be affected in positive ways; yet, even terrifying the reader can be a good thing, say if she’s reading a horror novel. Reading fiction often boils down to wanting and/or needing to identify with several things in the writing, be that the romance, the emotions, the prose, the characters, the situations, the decisions at hand and the decisions made/not being made, the setting, the struggles and triumphs, and yes, sometimes the philosophies, beliefs, morals and attitudes that differ from the reader’s own but, most often, the ones that reaffirm, validate, and champion their own stances—just something that affects them.

    Writers have much leeway when it comes to what they want to make readers feel at any given moment in a story and how they accomplish that task at any given moment in a story. However, each genre of fiction is loaded with its own subset of promises that amass either goodwill or backlash from readers when kept or not. In addition to not being boring, like you’ve stated a Romance novel is generally accepted as one that has a love story central to the novel and an optimistic ending (HEA or HFN). That’s the textbook definition and, whether it’s a good or bad thing, that’s the Romance reader’s expectation cultivated by hundreds of years of love stories being supplied to the masses, and thus mingling with other aspects of life like religious belief to shape reader bias and ideals about love and subsequently how love stories should unfold (which is why some people view Romeo & Juliet as a great love story despite Shakespeare titling it as a tragedy… because, even though Romeo & Juliet’s love is not tempered by reason or common sense or knowledge of each gathered over time—and therefore through its expression against the backdrop of warring houses becomes destructive in the most tragic of manners—it still shows that love can cross divides, which many people view as a maxim about love).

    What’s implied by those two defining parameters of the romance novel, or rather I should say what is expected by avid readers of Romance, is that your main romantic leads will not commit acts that destroy the “sanctity of love.” So, they expect that your leads will not engage in love annihilating acts like cheating, abuse, or violence. Even if you supply an optimistic ending. Romance as an act is equated with love—it’s one mechanism by which love is attained and sustained—and if a person is “in love” or “loves someone” or “will come to love someone” or “wants love” or “needs love,” then it’s reasoned they wouldn’t do things that ultimately destroy love, like cheat. Romance denotes positivity. If a reader comes to a book for the romance, then what they really want is an exploration of love that is positive. Sometimes that blinds readers from accepting decisions in characterization that generally can be redeemed (by masterful or resonate writing) but that run counter to their desire to see only romantic elements unfold, even when those characterizations are done exactly to show how love can overcome different obstacles. How love can transform or redeem someone. A woman who cheats could conceivably never do it again, especially after meeting a woman whose more positive behavior and genuine affections influences her to make positive behavioral changes in herself—and that is one aspect love in real life; that it changes us—but some readers are inclined not to care about that type of journey, regardless of how well written or true to life, because they prefer explorations more in the way of comforting, wish fulfillment aspects and not in the way of hefty, mess-of-life portrayals.

    If you sift through reviews on Goodreads on the whole for Lesbian Romance novels, you’ll likely find that the easiest way to disappoint a Lesbian Romance reader (and consequently tank your ratings grade) is to have one of leads cheat. Interestingly enough, this usually does not extend to commitment-phobic serial daters who readers expect to reform themselves once they find the one. It’s usually just the ladies who cheat flat-out who prompt readers to lower those ratings stars (the modus operandi is: who cares if lesbians in-real-life cheat, in lesbian romance-book-life they shouldn’t). Even if those cheaters have been called out on their behavior and gone through the ringer to prove their remorse and reform their ways. Even if they are forgiven by any parties they have affronted, hurt and deceived, and are forgiven, accepted and loved by the other romantic lead. A reader somewhere will view that part of your book as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. As the development that took them out of the read. Out of the romance. Why? Again, readers have biases and expectations, and a main one of romance is not devaluing love. So, while a serial dater hasn’t given love its proper value yet, a cheater has actually devalued it. Has held its meaning in her hands and thrown it, shattering it into a million pieces. Millions of pieces that those readers can’t see as being able to be placed back together in a manner that satisfies their sensibilities. You haven’t just broke that cheating characters lover’s heart, you’ve broke the reader’s too. You’ve broke that implied romance novel promise—for that particular reader.

    I think—-and maybe this is on a subconscious level and one that only applies to some readers—the “unbreakable rules” of Lesbian Romance fiction also exist because of how marginalized lesbian lives have been in the past and present, and how there’s a dearth of positive portrayals of lesbians in mainstream media. So when avid readers of Lesbian romance comes to a novel that’s strictly lesbian romance, especially if written by a lesbian and the reader is a lesbian, they don’t expect and don’t want negative portrayals or characterizations because lesbian romance is viewed by them as a safe space. And that denotes positivity and no triggers.

    Deal-breaking thresholds that can’t be crossed differ from reader to reader. My catnip trope, the Second Chance Romance, might be seen as a not-going-there-ever-angstfest to another reader with a different trope filter. And, I just will not vibe with a story where bi/pan women who have biological kids with a man they once loved are shunned in preference for gold star/lone star lesbians who adopt/have donors or who don’t even want kids or who view motherhood as perpetuating patriarchal, heteronormative standards. Still, a writer can’t be all things to all people, nor should she try. Sometimes the best thing to do is to write the book that’s inside your head & heart, do so with an honesty and commitment to your characters and the stories they inhabit, and do that with respect to readers intelligence while writing with the overall goal of making sure things are not boring or offensive—and hope your book resonates with the majority of readers and reviewers.

    But, if you’re a writer who breaks the “promises” of Romance by having a romantic lead engage in something like cheating—even if everything is consensual, or the romantic lead is not cheating on the other romantic lead, or the cheating is done before the two romantic leads meet each other or one lead catches the other in the act as the not-so-meet-cute moment of your book—just know that you’re building a moat around your novel when it comes to Romance readers. Readers might not have the desire or the tools to build or cross a drawbridge to engage with your story. So, from your end, you absolutely must make that drawbridge as enticing as you can. That starts with giving readers several reasons to believe your character who cheated—and ultimately your love story—is worth them going on a potentially emotionally perilous journey with that character. So, your lady who cheated had better not also hate cats!

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  6. Cindy, on the strength of the insight and thoughtfulness of your post, I have read Getting Back and Love Is Enough, and I enjoyed them both…


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