In the deepest freeze of a dismal year, I turned to Adriana Anders’ novel Whiteout (2020), the first in her Survival Instincts series. The novel has been described as “a steamy forced proximity survivalist romance.” Am I a glutton for punishment? I don’t think so. Rather, I wanted to read a story in which people encountered the elements and survived. We’re about to read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” in my American Literature class, and humans do not fare well in this classic naturalist tale. So. How to engage with this unrelenting season and feel hopeful? Because Whiteout is a romance novel, the happy ending is guaranteed. No matter what challenges Dr. Ford Cooper and Angel Smith faced, I knew they would not succumb to the cold, the evil, the underground ice tunnels—yeesh! And this kind of story, as challenging as it might be to read as the polar vortex kept us in its grip, helped me focus on the power of resilience. While I don’t usually read romantic suspense, I find that the genre engages me in a way cozy novels don’t these days. I stay up way too late reading because I have to see where the next twist turns, and I forget the brutal realities of a frozen pandemic world for a few hours.
Anders’ plot may seem a little too real. Dr. Ford Cooper is a lead researcher at the Burke-Ruhe Research Station at the South Pole, and Angel Smith is a seasonal cook who signed on for a short stint while she gathers the broken pieces of her life. Recently, the researchers have discovered a novel virus in some of the ice cores. A new team of researchers has recently joined them, and—spoiler—they are on a covert corporate and government-backed mission to steal the virus so the corporation can socially engineer the population while also profiting off of its vaccine. Oof.
Whiteout keys into compelling and timely issues like gun violence; global vulnerability to viruses; and the ways corporations, aided by allies in the government, military, and scientific communities, can prioritize profit and value some lives more than others. The novel was published in January 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to reckon with the havoc of a novel virus and a race for vaccines, but it anticipates the need for a defense of all human life in the face of powerful actors who seek to profit from catastrophe.
Some elements in the novel sound like some of the most damaging conspiracy theories, especially the alignment of those producing the vaccine with eugenic goals and profit-mindedness. At the same time, we can see evidence of similar actions throughout history. I appreciate how Anders encourages readers to think about these issues. She also balances the intimate relationship between Coop and Angel with an awareness of the greater good they are trying to protect as they save themselves and keep the virus out of the wrong hands.
Anders’ story plays to many popular romance tropes, including forced proximity/snowed in/only one bed/grumpy and sunshine. We see a tough hero who becomes tender, and a powerful heroine who resists the damsel in distress stereotype at every turn. Amidst an unforgiving and desolate landscape, Anders carves out a cozy, steamy interlude in a cabin that will satisfy those who love these tropes.
Whiteout is not a comforting read, but it’s a compelling, engaging, and thoughtful. You may wonder if it’s really a romance novel when it opens with a dying man—trust me, and trust Anders, to take you on a frozen ride you won’t forget.
On a lighter note, I picked up Alexandria Bellefleur’s debut Written in the Stars next (confession: I am about three-quarters of the way through the novel, so I don’t know exactly how the relationship blows up and is rebuilt). This #ownvoices queer rom-com features the love story of Elle Jones and Darcy Lowell, and connects to several popular romance tropes including fake relationships and opposites attract. Both Elle and Darcy have strained relationships with their families. Elle is a free spirit, an astronomy graduate who owns a digital company “Oh My Stars” that creates popular horoscopes across social media. Darcy is an actuary whose life is very scheduled, buttoned-up, and planned. I would consider the novel a steamy slow-burn, as it takes about half of the book for the women to fully act on the sparks between them, which, once ignited, explode in passion. The novel nods to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which some consider the classical romance novel in terms of structure. This conversation between Darcy and her brother Brendon is the most overt reference to Austen’s novel:
“Quit trying to marry me off like I’m some Regency spinster in one of your favorite Austen novels.”
“Your name is Darcy.”
“And I might be a single woman in possession of a good fortune, but I’m not in want of a wife.”
This direct nod to the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice signals the novel’s self-conscious awareness of its own genre lineage, and also suggests a rewriting of the classic romance narrative to include more kinds of relationships, more happy endings for more characters outside of the tightly heterosexual world that Austen crafted. Elle’s last name—Jones—and her perceived identity—hot mess—call to mind the heroine of the eponymous Bridget Jones, Helen Fielding’s adaptation of Austen that ushered in the era of chick lit on the cusp of the millennium. In addition to its sterling literary references, Written in the Stars uses soap operas as a cultural reference point (including my favorite long-defunct Passions), showing the ways that these so-called “guilty pleasures” bring joy, comfort, and escape from the trials of everyday life.
Another strength of the novel is how Elle and Darcy grapple with questions of science, intuition, and meaning. While people often scoff at Elle’s interest in astrology, she explains that her interest in astrology connects to her fascination with the cosmos and deep knowledge of astronomy. Science and other ways of knowing or explaining the world don’t have to be in conflict. Darcy, who relies on science and logic, learns to trust Elle’s intuition and, eventually, her own. Ultimately, as a woman-centered romance, Written in the Stars creates a world where women openly find meaning and joy in places that are culturally denigrated—astrology, soap operas, and dare I say, romance novels.
By Dr. Jessica Lyn Van Slooten
Jessica Lyn Van Slooten is an Associate Professor of English, Writing, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. She teaches courses on women writers, gender and popular culture, romance writing, and more. Jessica has published numerous articles on teaching and assessing gender studies courses, and popular romance fiction and film. She is currently drafting a romance novel set in a small midwestern town.