Weighing romance's options

There's nothing small about this novel approach

— "She cringed inside as she saw the way they looked at her. She could see surprise, disgust, and even pity on some of the faces. Kathy almost ran, but she made herself smile and continue around the table of food."
� from "Vacation of a Lifetime," by Abigail Sommers

Her first novel was about a fat ex-prostitute in Brooklyn who falls for a cop. Her second had an overweight 38-year-old virgin who travels to Europe to find love. In the third, a chubby college grad discovers more bounce per ounce in the forgiving darkness of an Egyptian pyramid.

In her otherwise thin romance novels, Abigail Sommers writes adipose prose about full-figured women desperately seeking love. Louisa May Alcott wrote "Little Women"; Sommers writes Big Women.

"It's not that I'm a big proponent of being fat, but the main thing is that wherever you are in your life, you should feel that you can be loved as you are," says Joanne Morse, the grandmotherly author behind the pen name Abigail Sommers. "Looks should have nothing to do with it."

Sipping iced tea and awaiting a grilled sirloin salad at the Old Salt Ponds Angler's Club overlooking a Chesapeake Bay inlet, Morse wears an old-fashioned, white soft-brimmed picture hat with a black bow and black snood. Her ankle-length, black-and-white-layered broomstick dress recalls romance novel covers illustrated with size-6 damsels in the muscular arms of shirtless heroes. Morse, 5 feet 6 inches, 200 pounds, wears a size 22.

"Oh, please! This is big," she protests faintly at a suggestion that she doesn't appear to be so overweight. "I am fat. I really am. Dresses hide a lot."

Larger than life

Morse grew weary of proportionately perfect heroines about seven years ago. Instead of a larger-than-life heroine, Morse made her passionate protagonists simply larger.

"In reading a romance, you have two obstacles: You not only have to fantasize some man falling in love with you, you have to fantasize that you look like a perfect '10' to have it happen," says Morse, 59, founder of Rubenesque Romances, a home-based publishing firm whose 15-book line by nine authors focuses on the weight issue. Its publishing guidelines state that the heroine must be "significantly overweight," that her weight must be an obstacle to romance, "even if only in the woman's mind," that the heroine must be a sympathetic character that the reader will like and root for, and the book must have a happy ending � but never because the heroine loses a single pound. No diet-did-it love stories here.

"Some women don't like the word 'fat.' You can use whatever word you want to use � pleasantly plump, full-figured. I just say fat," says Morse, whose day job is professor of anatomy and computer science at nearby Hampton University. "I'm overweight. That's life."

Beyond tipping the scales, Morse's art tends to imitate her life in other ways. Take Kathy, the plucky and plump heroine in "Vacation of a Lifetime." She engages in what Morse says preoccupies many overweight women-nagging introspection:

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She stood in front of her mirror as she debated with herself. "You would think by now that you would stop letting the 'skinny ninnies' get you down. After all, you've had to put up with them for 38 years," she told herself in a disgusted tone. But her image just looked back at her with that hurt look on its face.

She sighed once and then again before she got herself together. "For once in your life, just ignore the people around you if they're staring. Why punish yourself because you're fat?"

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But not all women feel the same way about weight.

"There are some overweight women who feel quite comfortable with themselves and that's how it should be," Morse says. "In some of the stories, the heroines are quite comfortable. Some of the other books, they have problems with it. I don't want them to all be devastated because they are fat. � Who is to decide where that overweight line is drawn anyway? A lot of it is culture. Women have to realize they can exercise and eat well and still be large. Why should they have to worry about it?"

Cultural experiences

Morse didn't worry when she took her own jaunt through Europe that inspired the book. "When you write, your life experiences are poured into it. It is never 100-percent fiction," says Morse, who was then 44, had been previously married and was finishing her post-doctorate in neuroscience at Duke University. "I had been at a point in my life where I felt that men ignored me. I had friends, but to have a man look at you and think he'd like to ask you out? Didn't happen. I went to Europe and I had all these men looking at me."

Her first day in Baden, Germany, she visited a spa where nude sunbathing was de rigueur. "I wrote a postcard home to my mother saying, 'First day in Europe and nude already.' My second postcard to my mother said something like, 'I've been in Europe three days now and I have been kissed by nine men.'"

Identifying with readers

At the lakefront town house she shares with her excitable mutt Lucky and ferrets Bandit and Bullwinkle, Morse oversees her publishing niche. Bookshelves are filled with books bearing the Rubenesque Romance logo � Peter Paul Rubens' sketch of three paunchy dancing women, "The Three Graces," to which Morse sketched in skimpy bikini tops and thongs.

"Ninety percent of our readers are women, so the books are geared toward women," says Morse, adding that if the biggest rule in romance writing is that your reader identifies with the heroine, what better than fat heroines? "How many overweight people are there in this country? There are nearly 50 million overweight women in America alone. And I have orders coming from � around the world."

The novels she's printed the past two years (at a cost of $16,000) are selling well despite the fact that she markets them only via her Web site � www.rubenesqueromances.com � and a toll-free number.

But with a full-time job, a science-fiction trilogy soon to be published, her fourth romance in the final stages, a historical novel complete, two children's books ready and various short stories in the works, Morse says her plate is full. "I just wish I could get a publishing house to take on the publishing end, like an imprint, so I could just do the writing," she sighs.

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