A box of free books, something I just can't walk past even in a hurry. I'd probably rummage through "take a book for free" box even if running away from a killer robot from future. So there was such a box and I picked up The Bridal Bargain by Emma Darcy, a Harlequin romance, 162 pages, happy end guaranteed.

Firstly, I know it's meant to be a pleasant and light read, to help the reader forget her worries for a few hours. But still. For me it is hard to take entirely seriously the relationship problems of people who, based on the descriptions, appear in my mind's eye as shampoo commercial models. Certainly shampoo ad models have love lives and no doubt they have fears and doubts and suffer heartbreak like everyone else, but this image gives the story a parodical air. I could do with a little less square jaws, piercingly blue eyes and luscious tumbling blonde locks etc. (Not to toot Ethel M. Dell's horn at every opportunity, but *her* characters are not model-pretty or exceptionally handsome. And in case girl protagonist is remarkably beautiful, it just complicates her life by drawing the wrong sort of man to her before the hero who of course sees through the exterior to her soul comes to the rescue.)

But yeah. This book definitely fits my theory of popular romance literature giving woman readers the satisfaction of reading about relationships, where man takes it upon himself to do most or even all the emotional labour necessary. Besides a little revenge fantasy side plot, the whole point of the book is a guy fixing a girl's emotional issue. Storyline in short is that efficient, smart and pretty Hannah begins to work in a restaurant owned by rich, determined and handsome Antonio. They are immediately physically attracted (because they both look like just stepped out of shampoo commercial). But Hannah has been badly betrayed in previous relationship and is suspicious. Antonio has a principle never to mix work and relationships, also due to past experiences. They end up in bed anyway, but Hannah proves her moral integrity, she's not going to use it to excuse inefficiency at work or for favors. Antonio proposes to marry her, but she still can't trust him completely because of her past heartbreak. He listens attentively to her worries and comes up with a plan, which finally convinces her he is serious and trustworthy: he promises to organize their wedding which will be in 5 months time. During this time she is free change her mind about them getting married at any time (free as in emotionally risk free, as he promises to ask no questions and not try to change her mind, if she decides to cancel the wedding). The guy shouldering all emotional risk of disappointment, social embarrassment, navigating the different expectations of their respective families, etc is the crucial moment of the whole book, which leads to happy end.

So far this is only anecdotal evidence, I need to go through at least a couple of dozen harlequin romances to see if this happens in most or all of them (but not right away, Hugos first!). Anyway, it seems to be a mirror image of entertainment aimed at mostly male audience, where the hero gets the girl in the end specifically without doing any emotional work. Dude meets a pretty girl, then there is danger, dude is heroic, and in the end a relationship with the girl just materializes out of thin air, without him exposing himself to emotional risks. Instead of setting himself vulnerable to emotional danger, he proves himself worthy of a relationship by facing external physical danger = zero emotional labour and none of that messy picking up cues if she likes me or not.

As big portion of entertainment comes from the US, this might have a lot to do with American dating culture, which seems to put the pressure to initiate contact and be the pursuer on the guy. And it no doubt is a satisfying fantasy to get the girl without facing the possibility of rejection and embarrassment. There's an additional category of aimed at mostly male audience entertainment, where women & romantic relationships don't feature in any way, which seems to fulfill this need as well. "Romance and relationships are so messy and taxing, I wish I did not need to stress out about them *at all*", something like that.