It’s TBR Challenge time again! This month’s theme was “Kickin’ it Old School”, which is most definitely not a problem for me as the vast majority of my TBR pile is acquired via used bookstores and thrift stores and it would be a rare book that isn’t more than ten years old. So I literally picked a random category off the stack and got to it.
What I ended up with was Roses Have Thorns by Karen Leabo, a Silhouette Romance from 1989. I couldn’t even find it on Amazon. I bought it in a thrift shop in the Shenandoah Valley. I’ve mentioned during TBR Challenge posts before that I really like old category romances. They’re little 50,000 word snapshot of the progress of women’s rights, romance novel history and changing social mores. I find them fascinating. But I’ve veered wildly between relatively recent Harlequin Blaze books and 1970s Harlequin Presents in the past. This may even have been my first Silhouette and I seem to have found another waypoint in the development of the modern romance novel with the 1989 publication date.
When I read 1970s category romances, I know what to expect. It will be third-person limited perspective in the mind of the heroine. The hero will usually be mysterious, rich and opaque. There will be an interfering old relative who will eventually die and leave the heroine all their (sometimes questionable, sometimes considerable) wealth. There will be limited kissing, but no other sexual contact. This is all good. This is what I expect. But clearly sometime between 1979 and now, the contemporary category romance acquired, well, LOVIN’.
In Roses Have Thorns, Rosalie DiMarco is a pastry chef in a fancy French restaurant when food critic Max Callaghan comes to do a review. When she appears at his table to make crepes suzette, she remembers, but he does not, that she once dropped a plate of lasagna in his lap while working as a server in her uncle’s restaurant. She was forced to quit her job and her close-knit Italian family still bears a grudge against the man who “almost ruined” her uncle’s business. Her and her family’s resentment make up pretty much the entire conflict of the book. And it’s a perfectly well-constructed, plausible plot. You might not think so if you’re not Italian, but trust me, there isn’t a thing that happens in this book that I couldn’t see happening on the Italian side of my own family. All in all, though, it’s not terribly angsty or remarkable. It’s just a plot.
The interesting elements of Roses Have Thorns come from its moment in romance history. First, the book is hopelessly dated through no fault of its own. With references to answering machines, yellow pages, rented beepers and something called a VDT that Max uses in his job (a computer thing? a printer thing? I really don’t know.), the out-dated technology actually makes this book seem more dated than some of the 1970s categories I’ve read, just because those are largely technology-avoidant. Second, the perspective is updated here. We get inside the heads of both hero and heroine, sometimes within a couple paragraphs of each other (hello, head-hopping), but it does end up reading in a more modern way than earlier books, which are always confined to just heroine-perspective.
But the biggest difference, and what surprised me most, was that there wasn’t any sex in the book at all. There was some kissing, for sure. And more than in earlier category romances. But one touch of the hero’s hand to the heroine’s nipple sends them both scurrying for the hills. Even post-engagement, where I might have expected a brief, but sweet fade-to-black scene? Nothing. There are no allusions to sex being had at all except in the hero’s attitude, which is that he must be emotionally involved with a woman before engaging in that level of physical intimacy. I don’t get the impression that either of them are necessarily virgins, but neither does the book explicitly state one way or the other. The thing is, the whole question of sex feels like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the entire novel for this modern reader. I found myself thinking, “Now? Wait, no. Oh, now then? No. After the engagement party? No. Hm.”
This is entirely down to my own expectations and no fault of the author’s, I’m sure. I’m almost certainly bumping up against some sharp transition in the way romances were conceived and written, possibly just within Silhouette’s line, but also possibly an actual transition time? I don’t know. I’m glad I read this for TBR Challenge though, where some real category romance experts may be able to help me out with an answer.
Roses Have Thorns was a perfectly accept sweet romance with a well-plotted story and two characters with interestingly-complex family relationships. I don’t know that I’d necessarily say run right out and get it, but if you’re interested in a survey marker in the map of modern romance, it’s a fine book with nothing problematic or objectionable in it.
But please put my out of my misery! Just what was going on with the sex at Silhouette in 1989?
Practically from the first page of Roses Have Thorns, I knew I’d be making lasagna for this review. I mean, the flashback to Rose accidentally dumping an entire plate of lasagna in Max’s lap the first time they met? That’s just priceless.
Plus, a couple months ago, I shared my family recipe for homemade tomato sauce and this is agreat way to use a bunch of it. You don’t have to use homemade here of course though. A large jar of store-bought will work just fine and that’s honestly what I do normally.
And speaking of my family, this recipe is pretty funny because even though I’m a quarter Italian, this isn’t a family recipe. Somehow I acquired this recipe from my college roommate, who is Canadian and a second-generation immigrant from Southern China. Her mother is the best cook ever, but she only cooks Chinese food. So I texted my roommate to find out where she got this recipe and it turns out that it came from her Baltimore Jew college ex-boyfriend who grew up in Baltimore’s Little Italy. How the world turns.
I’ve put my own spin on it over the years though. The homemade sauce isn’t anything we ever did in school, nor is the fresh mozzarella. And at the time, neither one of us cared for ricotta cheese so we usually used cottage cheese. That seems strange now as we both developed a taste for really good cheese of all types while living in DC during college via a little French bistro we liked to visit. And we frequently made a veggie version that substituted drained frozen spinach and sliced zucchini for the ground beef. I still do that sometimes at the height of summer. And if you want to do the cottage cheese substitution for more protein and less fat, you can use the same amount, just drain it well first.
And try really, really hard not to dump it in anyone’s lap.
Makes: 12 servings
Time: 1 hour
12 lasagna noodles
generous pinch salt
1 pound ground beef
32 ounces tomato sauce (either homemade or store-bought from a jar)
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
15 ounces ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
additional tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese (optional)
1. Bring a large pot of water and the salt to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the lasagna noodles and cook according to package directions. If there is a range of times (i.e. 9-11 minutes), use the shorter time. When cooked, drain noodles in a colander and leave until cool enough to handle.
2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and spray a 9×13 inch pan with cooking spray.
3. Over medium-heat heat, brown the ground beef (until no pink remains), about 6 minutes, draining off any fat that accumulates. Turn off heat. Add the tomato sauce and stir to combine.
4. In the prepared pan, put down a super thin layer of tomato sauce, just a 1/4 cup or so. Add the first layer of 4 noodles, overlapping the edges slightly. Cover with half the ricotta, then a third of the sauce, then a third of the mozzarella. Add the next layer of noodles, remaining ricotta, another third of the sauce and third of the mozzarella. Add the final layer of noodles, the remaining sauce, the remaining mozzarella and the grated Parmesan.
5. Bake in a preheated oven for 20 minutes or until cheese is all melted and the sides are bubbling. Allow to rest of 10 minutes before slicing and serving, topping with additional tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese, if desired.