Wide Angle

The Unbearable Banality of Romance Novel Décor

On gender, power, and the tyranny of “modern minimalism.”

A collage image depicts a condo with ocean views, a black couch, and a big TV. A man in a suit is in the background and a woman in the foreground rolls her eyes.
Ever heard of color? Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

“Sweetheart, we could strip out everything and start fresh, maintain the look outside. Go modern minimalist on the inside. White walls. Black and gray furniture. It would be so open and airy.”

Modern minimalist? Something died inside Kincaid. “You can’t be serious,” she blurted out.

Something died inside me, too, as I read these lines in Roni Loren’s romance novel The One for You. The first speaker, an Austin architect, wants to turn a gorgeous, needs-work farmhouse in Texas wine country into an urban loft. Clearly the only reasonable thing for the book’s heroine to do is buy it out from under him, protecting the house’s good bones from going the way of every fixer-upper in Waco. And thank goodness for that. I wish more characters in romance novels had Kincaid’s backbone, interiors-wise.

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Romance has a serious décor problem. Contemporary romance novels, my pandemic escape of choice, provide a wide variety of settings, pairings, relationship dynamics, and even kinks. But the world of romance has settled, it seems, on a default style of interior design for its heroes. Every time I read about yet another “modern minimalist” living room—let’s just say it kills the mood.

While most romances specify their protagonists’ hair and eye color, there’s typically a scrim of haziness about their exact appearance. That haziness allows the reader to project their own particular preferences onto the love interest. Tall, dark, and handsome means different things to different people, after all.

That vagueness sharpens to precision, though, when it comes to other character-defining matters of taste. Food romances get down to recipe-level detail about their protagonists’ gustatory preferences. In rock star and motorcycle club romances, readers are treated to detailed descriptions of the protagonists’ ink. And yet, time and again, when a protagonist walks in the door of the man’s apartment after a date, the scene is the same: one big room with a sectional, a wall-mounted TV, and a scenic view of some location-appropriate body of water.

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Drew, the object of affection in Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date, has the textbook version (he’s on the Pacific in Santa Monica):

After he opened the door, she walked inside to see big windows, white walls, chrome appliances, and black-and-white prints everywhere. She dropped her tote bag next to the gray couch and looked around for a place to put the tacos.

So does Brett, Prince Charming in K.A. Tucker’s modern day Cinderella story Until It Fades (he’s on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia):

The main area is open with a high ceiling over the living room. A loft overlooks us, with an industrial­-looking set of metal stairs leading up. Everything is light—white walls with only two pictures hanging on them, soft gray curtains to block out an impressive view of the river, should they be pulled closed. To be honest, it looks like Brett just moved in.

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So does Wes, one of the two hockey-playing leads of Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy’s gay romance, Him (he’s on the lakefront in Toronto):

I turn away from the window to study the huge open-concept room. The apartment isn’t furnished, but I can already imagine how it would look with furniture. Leather couch and massive flat screen in the living area. A dining room table. Some tall stools for the eat-in breakfast counter.

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The 1 percent version, as seen in Alexis Hall’s How to Bang a Billionaire, has more textiles but is still pretty bland (he’s on Hyde Park in London).

Holy fuck, it looked like a picture in a magazine. Beautiful in this totally unreal way. Everything was marble and granite and silk and … designed. In these somehow extravagantly muted colors, taupe and cream and pearl gray. I was lowering the value of the place just by being there. …

So much … gleaminess. And the sense of space. I think they called it lateral living or something. For people too rich for, like, rooms.

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“People too rich for, like, rooms,” as Hall’s mouthy narrator Arden St. Ives so aptly puts it, gets to the heart of romance heroes’ whole nonaesthetic aesthetic, which impresses through sprawl rather than any stamp of personality. What Roni Loren’s Kincaid and I see as a deal-breaker, far too many romance protagonists see as a challenge: If his house is chilly, he just needs me to warm up his living room—and his heart.

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The words “open concept” offer a clue as to why so many authors consider square footage sufficiently seductive. “Open concept” has its origins in Canada, where some of the most popular early HGTV renovation shows were filmed. Hosts adopted it over the American “open plan” and the term—like the gung-ho, let’s-strip-out-everything approach to renovation—spread from there. Critics have been questioning the open plan’s suitability for family life for the past couple of years; the pandemic has only put the need for rooms into starker relief.

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But it is no coincidence that it is the male protagonists in these books that have bought into the open plan. When New York Times contributor Ronda Kaysen discussed HGTV on NPR in 2019, she revealed a reason behind the network’s devotion to kitchen-dining-living rooms: Men love demo. “Dudes will only watch HGTV if there’s sledgehammers,” she said. Big spaces are a symbol of masculinity—a representation, like that big TV and big sofa, of other things men would like you to assume are big.

In truth, all of the above are signifiers of traditional masculinity. If the man with a sledgehammer is strong, the man with the big apartment is rich. Despite the recent rise of the “cinnamon roll hero” (care-taking, gentle, and supportive), the world of romance is still rife with status professions and athletic prowess, along with fashion notes that are as basic as this type of décor. Bad boys wear leather jackets, boys next door wear henley shirts, billionaires wear bespoke. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that fantasy, as long as you’re also aware of its limitations.

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The mattress on the floor of despair is one thing, but these examples are all rich men, which makes it difficult not to read the blankness of their houses as representative of the blandness of their souls. A romance heroine, of course, would never let a low-paying job stop her from expressing herself via quirky décor. Kincaid has to sell her beloved lake cottage to save that wine country farmhouse from Fixer Upper–dom. Poppy, the waitress and single mother in Alexa Martin’s Fumbled, redoes her own kitchen with the help of Pinterest and free classes at the local Home Depot:

I found out you could fake butcher block countertops by using pine panels. Considering my kitchen is the size of a postage stamp, the grand total came to under a hundred buckaroos. Cole let me borrow his tools, and in a day? Voilà! New countertops. A few months later, I painted the top cabinets a bright white and the same mint color as our front door for the bottoms. A few months—and some very large tips—after I splurged on a white subway tile backsplash. It cost too much money and I regretted it for weeks, but now it’s my favorite part.

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These heroines, making their houses their own while making ends meet, operate a bit like manic pixie interior design girls, saving their men from lives of black-and-white photography and leather sectionals through the power of thrifting, color theory, and houseplants. In a hetero follow-up to Him, Stay, a hockey teammate falls for the co-owner of a concierge service when he hires her to redecorate his apartment:

She’s done a great job, too. The furniture and dishes are attractive but unassuming. All I sent her was a floor plan and a cry for help, and she went to town. I didn’t even know what I needed to buy, but she just handled it, including the stuff I probably would have overlooked. Like hand towels and a soap dish for each bathroom.

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He would have overlooked hand towels?! Now I’m imagining this millionaire moving a single roll of paper towels from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom until this feminine intervention.

The idea that a man can’t find his own cozy carries into male-male romances; in Hall’s and Bowen and Kennedy’s novels, the less rich partner in the couple isn’t written (thankfully) into the “female” redecorating role. Arden lives in a barely renovated industrial loft. Jamie moves in with Wes and seems perfectly happy with the leather couch and flat screen; it’s his mother who adds HIS and HIS mugs.

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One author who gets interiors right is Lily Morton. The lawyers, actors, and photojournalists in Morton’s series own some drool-worthy real estate, including a Cornish estate, a villa in the South of France, and a London houseboat. The best is the London townhouse of Asa Jacobs, the fortysomething star of a Game of Thrones–esque series, in Deal Maker. I had an “I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” moment from the first knock Jude, the book’s narrator, makes to its pink front door. Like me, he seemed confused whether to drool over Asa or his house.

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He obviously favours bold colours, because this room is painted in a warm turquoise. Floor to ceiling bookcases line three of the walls, and the other is covered in old framed playbills. A large leather sofa and two deep armchairs are positioned in front of an open fireplace, and light floods in through French windows which give a glimpse of a long garden. It’s a cosy room that invites you to curl up with a good book, and I relax slightly.

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I relaxed even further in the kitchen, where Jude finds no stainless steel and a housekeeper with a Mary Berry–esque love of cakes.

It has light oak cupboards and a gorgeous slate tiled floor, but the defining feature is the hundreds of tiny copper tiles which make the glassware sparkle.

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From the meet cute to the happily ever after, every moment in a romance novel should build intimacy. Spending time in each other’s spaces is a crucial part of that process. Scenes that start with checking out the guy’s view tend to end with checking out other things on that big sofa. Who wants to be seduced on the floor model? Why does all the charm, at least design-wise, have to be one-sided? Just as love shouldn’t be expected to fix your emotional problems, love shouldn’t be expected to retile your backsplash. There are some things you should do for yourself.

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