I haven’t read an overwhelming number of novellas, and at least one which you lovely folks seem to love has been on hold at my library FOREVER. So, in my limited experience, I’ve found them to be, mostly, pleasantly diverting but lacking true staying power. There are two — Courtney Milan’s A Kiss for Midwinter and Unlocked that I have liked a lot, but otherwise I’ve felt that the stores suffer from their shortened length. We lose characterization, or the conclusion feels rushed, or the driving conflict is either underdeveloped or overwrought, in either case leading to dissatisfaction with the characters’ managing of the situation.
For instance: in Tessa Dare’s Once Upon a Winter’s Eve (fair warning: I’m probably going to spoil the books in some measure, inasmuch as obvious HEAs can be spoiled) the hero mysteriously arrives, sopping wet and injured, at a ball and throws himself at the feet of the heroine. He’s speaking some esoteric foreign tongue, and only the heroine can understand him. It turns out, there is a reason for this: they know each other, have had intimate relations, and he knows that she has a talent for languages. He has a reason for wanting to keep his identity a secret that seems sensible upon first explanation, but the more that I thought about it, the less sense it actually made. He is certain he would be charged with treason if his identity was revealed, a charge that relies on the certainty that there is not a single other person in all of English society who would recognize him — a lord and son of a duke — and that his “employer” wouldn’t vouch for him, for reasons. Maybe there is something here I am missing, but if not, the whole thing that keeps them apart seems to be contrived out of thin air. That’s not to say that it’s not still an enjoyable read, because it is, but it’s an example of a core tenet of romance — the Misunderstanding, or the Relationship Wedge — running up against the shorter-length format of a novella. Because by design, the Misunderstanding or Wedge needs to be significant enough to keep them apart, but not so significant that it can’t be solved in a book 20-50% shorter than a traditional romance. This Wedge, once the pageantry was stripped away, hardly seemed important enough to separate these two characters who were obviously in love.
Likewise, in How to Catch a Wild Viscount, the hero and heroine also knew each other and had a Moment of Passion before the hero went off to war for several years. Also similarly, the heroine held a torch for him the whole time, and upon his return had all sorts of confusion about whether he still thought of her. He, of course, does, but holds her at arm’s length because he doesn’t feel right after the war and believes he would tarnish her with his base animal side that he’s so very in touch with now. So how could he know that in romance parlance, “base instincts” are sexy, not scary, and she still wants him as much as ever? Well, she tells him as much. Repeatedly. And though he admits to his wanting her just as much, and in fact, that thinking of her was his motivation through war, he continues to tell her to forget him, to marry a “safe” man, because he’s just a dirty dog and no good for her. This isn’t an uncommon plotline even in longer books, but the difference in a longer story might be that the heroine believes him. Or that she is hurt by his callousness and so once he realizes he’s made a mistake, he needs to spend time making it up to her. None of that is really to my taste, either, and it’s not any less cliche, but I bring it up because that at least makes some manner of sense: both characters enforce the Misunderstanding. Here, both characters — on multiple occasions — make their feelings and intentions known, only for the hero to call retreat at the last minute and throw his wall back up. There’s just no reason for it, other than to superficially make 100 pages out of 20 (a sex and wedding scene.)
Switching gears, Cara McKenna’s Her Best Laid Plans worked better for me. Reading it on the heels of the other two, the starkest comparison is that the conflict was much more believable, and particularly so because, as a contemporary novella, it’s a concept with which I can empathize strongly. Here’s the rub: Jamie, the heroine, is an America student who just broke up with her long-term boyfriend. She had put her life on hold for him, pausing her studies, moving across the country, and working to support them while he was in med school. After the breakup, she takes a solo trip to Ireland to clear her mind and experience something new. She, of course, meets a dreamy and sensitive Irish guy with whom she unexpectedly makes a great physical and emotional connection, but they both know throughout their whirlwind courtship that she’s only staying there for 10 days. It’s just a vacation, and he’s just a fling. As their feelings deepen though, she starts thinking about the possibility of moving to Ireland, but realizes that she’d just be re-arranging her life around a guy again, and she can’t do it twice. So, see what I mean? If you can get on board with two people falling in love in ten days — which isn’t an uncommon leap of faith in romances — then you can definitely understand why this is a real conflict. It particularly helps that Cara McKenna’s writing style perfectly captures the New Adult mentality without being overly twee or making the characters into modern superheroes. They’re both normal people whose conversations are completely believable. So, in fact, this one I do recommend without reservations. It was a very quick read with a great payoff.
If you’ve read Tessa Dare, you know that one thing she always has going for her even in the face of other potential faults is exceptional smolder. These two novellas exemplify that. McKenna’s novella is also very sexy (it’s a Cosmo Red-Hot read!), and again, in a refreshingly real-life way: no tearing of clothes or overly creative descriptions of genitalia. So all three were great mood-stabilizers (or mood enhancers, if you will.) But if these were all of the examples of Tessa Dare I had read, I don’t know if I would go out of my way to find more; conversely, I will now be seeking more Cara McKenna because I really enjoyed her style and I’d like to try a full-length of hers. Also, Ireland. It seems… nice.