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Love at first sight

Victoria Neumark swoons amid the romantic fiction shelves.

And Then their Hearts Stood Still, By Mary Cadogan, Macmillan Pounds 20. 0 333 56486 3.

When life is treating you badly, what better than a nice cup of tea, a box of chocs and a sloppy, steamy read of romantic fiction? If your answer is a slug of whisky, an Indian takeaway and a violent action movie, then you are probably a man. We of the frailer sex are so far inclined to fantasy love-fulfilment that Mary Cadogan, in her appreciative assessment of 20th-century romantic fiction identifies no fewer than 13 main types of romance.

From its roots in Victorian Governess and Gothic, derived from Mrs Radclyffe and Charlotte Bront , down to the raunchy airport sagas of Sex and Shopping a la Shirley Conran and Judith Krantz, Mary Cadogan has munched her way through the biggest box of assorted nonsense that woman's heart could desire.

In her breezy and likable way she offers precis of literally hundreds of best-sellers. Her chapter headings indicate the typology she has used, with Piety and Passion for those uniquely sanctimonious thrills of clergymen inflamed with lust for God and Pure Woman churned out at the turn of the century; Regency Romps and Nursing Angels pointing to costume sub-sets of the genre; Still Smiling Through, from Sahara Sands to Shangri-La and Ruritanian Romances taking in the Wars and foreign parts (ah! those tall, dark - or possibly shining blond - foreigners!); and more, if not very, realistic approaches subsumed under The Great Husband Hunt. You can browse in the bookstall of the discontented heart.

Yet these categories are somewhat arbitrary. Two of the early chapters, on Stronger-minded Heroines and Taming the Beast could easily apply to anything from Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester to Barbara Cartland and Janet Dailey (no relation to The Times columnist). One chapter heading's catch-all, Against the Tide, covers everything from The Well of Loneliness to Sleeping with the Enemy, from same-sex romance to female revenge.

A bit hard to see what Oscar Moore's A Matter of Life and Sex is doing in this company. Even harder to see how Joanna Trollope ends up sharing the sheets with Jackie Collins under the rubric of Sex, Shopping and Social Responsibility. Why not involve D H Lawrence and write about Sex, Gardening and Nature?

Mention of Lawrence, or of any "real" novel, points to the hollow at the heart of the romantic genre and, unfortunately, of this book. The problem is that the book mirrors the fiction of which it speaks. It is bereft of analysis, so much so that there is no index. It has no thesis to pursue through all the century's sickly wedges of narrative, no aim save to identify characters and situations as in some sense archetypical - but only within the genre of romantic fiction.

The odd passing remark, such as the suggestion that growing sexual explicitness in this literature mirrors that in society at large, hardly qualifies as a theme and yet without a theme it is hard going through 320 pages of romantic plots.

If only all this research could have been put to the service of insights about sexual relations or feminist rage at the patriarchy of literary criticism which would examine just how Jane Eyre is a million times more significant than a Virginia Andrews heroine.

As it is, we close the book, take our cup out to the kitchen and reflect that that is another evening gone. Back to real life, whatever that is.

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