“My idea of a hero is not someone who comes and sweeps the woman off her feet and turns her into a princess, but a man who cares about what a woman has to say, who listens to her, who pays attention to her needs and wants,” Guillory said when we recently spoke over the phone, adding that the ideal romantic lead would also then ask “what she wants, just to make sure that he’s right” in his assessment.
Fisher, with his arrogant belief that Nik ought to be thrilled by his attention, clearly didn’t meet that mark. But Guillory is particularly skilled at writing the men who woo her novels’ female protagonists with compassion and empathy. Men like Fisher serve as foils to the characters who most compellingly animate the author’s books. Guillory’s male leads aren’t perfect, but they’re unwavering in their respect for the women at the center of these stories.
Purposefully written consent shows up repeatedly in Guillory’s work—not just in The Proposal, but also in her January debut, The Wedding Date. The latter follows Alexa Monroe, a municipal employee in Berkeley, California, who winds up stuck in an elevator with the Los Angeles–based doctor Drew Nichols, who’s come up to the Bay for an ex’s nuptials. When Drew begs Alexa to be his date—and fake girlfriend—the two must set clear rules and boundaries for their pretend relationship. Alexa is not swept into Drew’s life the moment he lays eyes on her. Of course, things go pleasantly awry, but each recalibration of the pair’s relationship occurs not as a negotiation, but as a dialogue.
Guillory fell into writing romance unexpectedly. She began writing professionally about eight years ago, and didn’t imagine at the time that the genre would capture her attention. But after a health crisis made her pause a different project—and left her with lots of time to read—Guillory found herself drawn to the comfort provided by the predictability of romance’s hallmark: the happy ending.
“I discovered that when you’re going through something difficult and there’s a lot of uncertainty in life, romance is really great,” she said. “You know, going in, everything’s going to be okay at the end of this book. And that’s exactly what I needed at that time.”
While many romance novels woo readers with the guarantee of a happy ending, the genre has a fraught relationship with how exactly its characters end up there. The most infamous subcategory of romance, so-called bodice-rippers, first gained massive popularity during the 1970s with stories of helpless women saved from the tedium of their lives by the love—and overpowering libido—of lustful, virile men.
Read: Beyond bodice-rippers: How romance novels came to embrace feminism
Kathleen Woodiwiss’s 1972 novel, The Flame and the Flower, is one of the earliest and most influential books of the trend, which continued through the ’80s. Set in 1799, the book follows 17-year-old Heather Simmons, who is nearly raped by one man in London, only to later be serially raped by another because he confuses her for a sex worker. This second man is the novel’s male lead, 35-year-old Captain Brandon Birmingham. Woodiwiss writes the captain as a powerful, domineering figure so overcome by his attraction to Heather’s “high-curved breasts” and “rosy butt” that he must have her, even as she sleeps. Eventually, Heather falls for the man who had thus far been her rapist—and the two set sail for America to, well, live happily ever after.