Hours after the Senate Ethics Committee released its 68-page report on former Sen. John Ensign's affair with his best friend's wife, one analysis of the saga has emerged: that the whole thing is like "a bad romance novel." Teagan Goddard noticed this meme, with the Las Vegas Sun, Washington Post, and Las Vegas Review Journal all describing the tawdry events detailed in terms like "juicy drugstore paperback." Well, the meme is wrong. The Ensign drama is nothing like a romance novel.
Romance novels are derided as a formulaic, as though it were an accident of bad writing. But romance authors follow a very particular formula on purpose, as outlined by the Romance Writers of America. Two characters fall in love, face an obstacle, and at the end are rewarded with "emotional justice."
If the Ensign drama were a romance novel, Cynthia Hampton would have been deeply in love with the Senator–instead, she says she kept seeing him because she was afraid he'd fire her and her husband. (Doug Hampton worked in Ensign's Senate office, Cynthia worked for his political action committees.) Ensign would be "dashing" or "handsome" or, at the very least, "trim." And finally, the affair would have been neatly wrapped up in an emotionally just bow, with the pure-hearted lovers together at least, and, oh, maybe a presidential campaign. But the Ensign affair in no way provides emotional justice. Cynthia Hampton was humiliated. And though Doug Hampton was indicted on federal ethics charges; the feds dropped their probe of Ensign.
Romance novels offer their 90 percent female audience with an escape from the crushing banalities of real life by giving the heroes a happy ending (and by allowing the existence of heroes). In the Ensign story, everyone behaves realistically (terribly) and the ending is sad. You know, like "good" novels.