On worldbuilding: Susan Mallery and the rich world of Fool’s Gold, California

2018 was the year I got hooked on romance novels.

I don’t know about you, but I was raised with a general attitude of scorn towards all things romance-novel-y. My mom called them “bodice-rippers” and wouldn’t have been caught dead reading one, so, even though I’m a grown-ass woman who can (surely!) make up her own mind about these things (right?), I still felt a mixture of shame and defiance when I found myself whipping through a solid dozen or so of Susan Mallery’s Fool’s Gold series over the past several months.

I would be lying if I said that the books were masterpieces of high literature. They’re not. But they’re really fun, zippy reads (and seriously, how boring would life be if EVERY book HAD to be high literature? Yawn). Yes, the plots are fairly predictable: man arrives in/returns to town, man and woman feel an instant attraction but there’s some reason why it couldn’t possibly work, man and woman hook up anyway and (usually) have lots of sex while determined not to fall in love, one of them falls in love (guess which one), man freaks out and leaves, man realizes he’s a dumbass and comes back, they get engaged, the end. Yes, the books are heteronormative and (as far as I can tell) whitewashed. Yes, there are soooooo many gender norms it perpetuates that it is slightly nauseating…

…Actually, after that list I kind of wonder why I’m still reading them, but there it is. At least I know the issues, I guess…

But my actual point is that, while they’re problematic, they keep me coming back (to the library app, which is the best way to read books you’re secretly ashamed of reading. God bless total anonymity!). And I’ll tell you why: worldbuilding.

I mean it: the Fool’s Gold series is a masterclass in worldbuilding. In each book new characters are briefly introduced and you have a chance to get interested in them—interested enough that you remember their names when they (inevitably) show up as the protagonist in a subsequent book. Often, the soon-to-be-main-character mentions a problem they’re having or a dream that they want to fulfill. Patience is tired of being a hairdresser and longs to open a coffee shop. Bailey is newly widowed and trying to find a job in a new town. One of the Hendricks triplets comes to work sobbing in one book and ends up going home for the day. In the next book you learn that she found out she can’t have kids. Except, spoiler alert…

…she totally can and does in the next book, in which she’s the main character. You get the idea.

And you don’t lose sight of past characters, either. Protagonists from previous books stroll into subsequent books. Every time a woman gets her heart broken, the ladies of Fool’s Gold gather to stuff her full of booze, junk food, and sympathy, and you see the entire cast of characters from all the previous books. Babies are born and grow, and you see snapshots of them as their moms wander past whoever is the main focus of the book you’re reading. (As an aside, the labour and delivery department of the Fool’s Gold hospital must be a frigging madhouse! SO MANY BABIES!). Older women like the mayor (who is awesome and possibly magical) pop up in almost every book, just to remind you they’re there. You see businesses that were mere dreams in earlier books (see Patience and the coffee shop above, for instance) grow and thrive. Each book builds on the next until you have this town that’s almost-entirely populated with people you practically know.

Anyway, there. Now you know my shameful secret. I’m a fool for Fool’s Gold. I’m also a fool for writing that last sentence instead of thinking it in my head and rejecting it, but what else are blogs for? At least I recognize that it’s awful, right? Right? Where was I?

Oh, right. Worldbuilding. It’s important. It’s what makes these books actually-pretty-good-if-I’m-being-honest. That’s my point.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find out whether Bailey and Kenny get together in the end (just kidding…I already know that they do).

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