Women who run, and the readers who resent them

During my recent re-read of A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness’s huge bestseller from 2011, I noticed something that hadn’t struck me as forcefully the first time around.

Man, that Diana Bishop runs a lot.

Oh, to be sure, there’s an explanation for why her fanatical running routines get such prominence in the story. Diana’s a spell-bound witch, you see, which means that she has a huge store of power inside her that she can’t access and use via magic. All that back-up¬† results in an excess of adrenaline, and to release it, Diana runs. Constantly. And rows. Up and down the river, in the fog, occasionally with her eyes closed, but you get the point. That woman MOVES.

Earlier this year, I read Ocean’s Touch, an erotic story by Denise Townsend centered on a lonely widow and the sexy selkie who reawakens her to the possibilities of life and love. (Yes, I said sexy selkie. Deal with it.) ¬†Meredith is smart, sad, responsible… and she runs. A lot. Miles at a time.

And there’s more. It seems like every other book I read lately features a strong, sexy, intelligent woman with an intense, highly demanding fitness routine. A couple months back, I read the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, in which the heroine is a car mechanic, a shape-shifter, and a highly trained expert in a specialized martial arts discipline.

Even in the supremely silly Austenland by Shannon Hale, the Darcy-obsessed main character is so stymied by her faux-Regency immersion vacation that she must sneak outside for an early morning run in the gardens, corset and all. (Lesson learned: Corsets are not appropriate activewear. Invest in yoga pants instead).

Leaving aside Austenland, whose lead character simply cannot be taken seriously, the running and exercise habits of fictional women seem to be a sort of short-hand to denote certain character traits: intensity, intelligence, fierce independence, determination to go it alone. In the first three examples I mentioned, Diana, Meredith and Mercy start their stories as talented women who are walled off from their passions. When I read about a woman who’s a serious runner or other type of athlete, I generally know what to expect — this is a woman to be reckoned with, and often someone with issues to work out.

And where does that leave all of us, we the readers? If you’re like me, a low-to-moderate achiever on the scale of devotion to fitness, it’s a bit tough to take sometimes. Not only is Diana Bishop a Yale professor and a powerful witch, but she runs ten miles a day! Not only can Mercy fix a VW with her eyes closed, she can also kick your butt! Thank you, dear authors, for yet another reason to feel inadequate.

Perhaps this factors into why I love Jane True so very much. Jane is the creation of Nicole Peeler, and is the hilarious heroine of Tempest Rising and four other books (so far). Jane reads, works in a bookstore, and her appetite for hot sex is matched only by her appetite for delicious food. (Okay, to be fair, Jane also swims in the ocean on a daily basis, but that’s just to recharge her magical mojo… too much to explain here, but in Jane’s case, the exercise is part of her magic, not just a piece of her perfect fitness regimen.) Besides the fact that end I up laughing out loud whenever I read these books, I think I love Jane because if I met her in real life, I wouldn’t be intimidated by her perfectly toned abs and her runner’s legs — I’d be too busy pouring the hot chocolate and cutting up some pie to go with.

A final glimpse of the world of Jane True, in which our heroine finds herself confronting some hard choices in a diner with her would-be lover:

I wanted them all, but I also knew I was being greedy. Then Anyan’s deep voice rumbled from next to me.

“Why don’t I get the three-sausages and mash with the special sausages, and you get the same thing with the traditional ones, and the vegetarian, and we can share?”

At his words, I nearly choked on my emotions. You’re perfect, I thought…