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The Dream Girl

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He is sitting with Swift in their SoHo loft, a meticulously curated fun house of international art, animal skulls, and plastic superheroes (as if the Museum of Natural History had violently merged with Toys 'R' Us). Has he read any since?

"First and last I ever read," he says. "But I recommend the genre to male friends. They explain a lot about the female imaginary needs for manhood."

Phillips has his own theory about why his wife tears through romances like rice cakes. "She likes the best of humanity," he says. "And I mean that in a totally non-saccharine way. She doesn't want to deal with the seamy underbelly of human nature. Romance draws on such a positivist need."

Swift isn't completely buying it. "Being a romance reader," she slowly says, "I am an optimistic person by nature. I really do feel like there's a happy ending. I feel like happiness is achievable and that even finding the perfect guy is achievable. I actually found that in my husband."

Phillips smiles.

"I really do feel like there's a happy ending. I feel like happiness is achievable and that even finding the perfect guy is achievable."

"But 'the seamy underbelly of human nature . . .' " She lets the phrase hang.

"Well, it's not that you don't want to deal with it," says Phillips. "You want to undo the knot."

Many weeks later, I learn from a friend of theirs that Swift's younger sister died in a plane crash while Isabel was still in college. Two weeks after that, I learn from someone else that Marnie Hagmann, one of Swift's closest friends, died of breast cancer while both women were still in their thirties. Over the course of four interviews, Swift has never mentioned either event. The only personal upset she even hints at was her parents' divorce, to which she is reluctant to assign any significance, despite the fact that she's devoted her adult life to editing stories about finding love and lasting happiness.

It's hard not to think about it. Here is Swift, working shingle by shingle and brick by brick to build perfect, rounded illusions. Yet she, herself, must have few.

The plot for The Lone Star Country Club is getting a little hairy. "So let me get this straight," says Marbury. "We've got someone who's after the mother. And the mother is fearing for her own, and the baby's, life."

"Right," says Mary-Theresa Hussey, a senior editor. "She has gotten pregnant by Evil Guy -- "

Swift sucks in her breath. "He can't be too evil," she says. "His genes."

Everyone laughs.

"Do we want her to be a teenager?" asks Marbury.

"She's gotta be the witness to something."

"Like corruption."

"Is there something like the Mafia in Texas?"

The editors think.

"Maybe we can have someone assigned to her protection," suggests Marbury.

"We can bring in a Ranger."

"They can also be rich, and, you know, out for justice."

"But isn't that what we did with the Texas Cattlemen's Club? Isn't that what they do?"

"Yeah. They have a mission . . ."

Marbury is unfazed. "Yeah, but it's to save a foreign princess," she says. "So it's pretty different."

The first rule in romance fiction is that all stories -- all -- must have happy endings. ("What about Shakespeare in Love?" I ask. "We'd have fixed that," says Swift.) The other rule -- no exceptions! -- is that the story must spotlight just one man and one woman. No depressing, messy love triangles. No cheating. And certainly, no muddling along with the wrong man for the first 200 pages.

Swift's newest idea, which she hopes will be the next category bonanza, breaks both rules.

We want to know how you view romance and relationships in the new millennium! says a short notice Swift recently distributed at the national convention of the Romance Writers of America, inviting young authors to submit their City Girl manuscripts to Harlequin. These are books about women twenty-something and up, discovering themselves, sharing apartments, meeting men, making friends, struggling with jobs and looking for the ever-perfect diet . . . We see them meeting the wrong man -- and not recognizing Mr. Right even though he may live next door. Or maybe they meet up with Mr. He's Right For Me Now . . . and that's enough of a happy ending.

By Harlequin standards, this is an insurrectionary document, the romance equivalent of Martin Luther's 95 Theses.

No more happy endings? No more one-guy, one-girl sort of plots? And where the hell is Texas? Where are all the cowboys? Where are all the secret babies and women with amnesia and plastic surgeons falling in love with twins?

To hell with them. In England, Swift has noticed, Bridget Jones's Diary has spawned an entire school of cheap paperback knockoffs, all of which are selling smashingly well. And here, the networks can't get enough programming about single-girl discombobulation (Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, Will & Grace, etc.). "They've really tapped into something," says Swift. "Something that's very close to what we do."

Swift admits she's still not sure what the City Girl genre will look like, and actual books won't be rolling off the presses for a while yet. But she's convinced that whatever gritty realism attracted so many new young readers in England -- the cramped flats, the career anxieties, the freewheeling hook-ups -- will work the same commercial magic here too, if properly Americanized.

"It's time for a shake-up," agrees Nora Roberts, the industry's Stephen King. "I mean really: How many more cowboy, secret-baby, Texas-style novels can the reader stand?"

But there's more to Swift's inspiration than Bridget Jones. If the traditional romance format reflects, as Swift's cousin puts it, "a vicarious way for Isabel to be sentimental," then City Girl books would reflect the unsentimental part of her, the part that embraces the world's chaos and finds its own, oddball way to cope. In a very literal way, the genre would also reflect the spry, feisty Isabel Swift of years ago, the single girl who lived in a First Avenue railroad flat and wore leather miniskirts to work, and who wouldn't marry until she turned 34.

"It is a category that has resonance for me," admits Swift. "I don't even want to tell you the chapter titles that Alessandra and I gave our early dating lives -- I think one was Make Me Sick: The Paris Years. And another was But They Can Shtup the Natives . . ."

Launching the new line won't be easy. Urban women are a foreign demographic to Harlequin Enterprises -- both as readers and as writers. According to the Romance Writers of America, 60 percent of all romance readers live in towns of 50,000 people or less. Swift says a heavy concentration of her authors is in towns down South, a fact mutely confirmed by their author photos. (They all look like Bill Clinton's girlfriends -- wide smiles, teased hair, a soft casing of twenty extra pounds.)

Swift will face some near-insurmountable aesthetic challenges too. At the moment, though it may be perfectly acceptable for a Harlequin author to write "With Sebastian's mouth at her breast, she quickly became drenched and ready," it is not acceptable for her to use the word cocksucker -- which a young urban writer might occasionally feel inclined to do. "You're never going to hear fuck in a Harlequin," says Jennifer Crusie. "I don't even think they let me use shit. And definitely no blasphemy -- no goddammits. I seem to recall that I had a lot of darns."

But Swift curses. A lot, actually. Will there be cursing in City Girl novels? "I can't imagine not," she says. And will readers be willing to trade Mr. Right for Mr. Suffices-for-Now? Sounds dangerous. "I don't think they'll mind," she insists.

Alessandra Stanley is convinced Swift can pull it off. "Isabel has a nonbelligerent sort of nonconformity," she says. "For all her quirkiness," agrees Swift's friend Elizabeth Glazer, "Isabel's in charge. Ultimately, she's just like one of her heroines."


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