Romance heroes have always had a touch of danger—the rakes with a bad reputation in Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, for example. Dig further back and you’ll end up at Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, where the heroine triumphs over her kidnapper and would-be rapist by the power of her innocence, virtue, and intelligence. And of course there’s also the classic fairytale of Beauty and the Beast—which, coincidentally, first saw print around the same time as Pamela: another tale in which the goodness of the heroine literally transforms her savage paramour into a handsome prince.
Paranormal romance raises the stakes of this classic trope by making the bad-boy hero a werewolf or a vampire, to be loved and eventually redeemed by the love of a good woman—who, it’s worth noting, usually hasn’t got any supernatural powers herself (or, if she does, they’re unknown even to her until her true destiny—bound up with her lover’s—is revealed). Award-winning fantasy writer Sharon Shinn doesn’t deviate from this enduring formula much in The Shape of Desire, but she does make use of it in an entertaining and engaging way.
Our narrator-heroine is Maria Devane, a thirtysomething career woman with a secret. Since college, she’s been in love with the dashingly-named Dante Romano (his siblings are William and Christina; their mother had a thing for the Rosettis), and over the years has had a passionate relationship with him marred largely by the fact that he spends most days out of any given month in the shape of an animal. He has little control over his transformations—when they occur, what he transforms into. But in the monthly handful of days where he gets sustained time in human shape, he spends all that time with Maria.
As if the course of true love were not sufficiently disrupted by this, Maria eventually starts hearing disturbing reports of mysterious, vicious murders in the parks around her home town of St Louis—murders that take place when Dante is away from her, and which appear to have the marks of some kind of wild animal. It’s not long before Maria is forced to confront what she does and doesn’t know about Dante and his family, and what they may be capable of.
It’s a story that could easily have melted into a mass of clichés, but Shinn is a talented storyteller and a good writer, giving Maria a likable personality and voice and surrounding her with a solid supporting cast. A subplot with Maria’s coworker Kathleen gets off to an awkward start; Kathleen is abused by her husband, and Maria and her friend Ellen want to try to help her out of the relationship before something terrible happens. However, once past their initial hamfisted overtures to her, Kathleen’s story plays out in counterpoint to Maria and her growing concern about what Dante does when he’s not around her, and how much potential for violence there may be hiding under his handsome exterior. Maria’s friendships with women and her relationships with the women in her family provide a valuable balance to the romantic storyline—Dante may quicken her blood and make her heart race, and by her own admission she’d be devastated without him, but it’s the women in her life who see the most of her, and who give her the strength and stability to be what her shapeshifter boyfriend needs.
Although she does seem to let the world take advantage of her generous nature at times, Maria ultimately earns her happy ending and learns to be honest with her friends, with Dante, and with herself about what she fears, wants, and needs. She’s still the classic “good woman,, whose love provides the anchor for Dante’s humanity; little new ground is being broken here. (I’m still looking for a paranormal romance where the girl is the supernatural one and the boy is normal; the closest I’ve come up with so far is the film Splash, and that one goes back to the old selkie and crane-wife folktakes…) Nevertheless, Shinn’s use of paranormal romance tropes is effective and notably better than many other writers working in this genre, so if you like this sort of thing, add The Shape of Desire to your bag for a summer beach read.