True or false: The protagonists in the most popular romance novel of the 21st century are a teenage girl and a very elderly gentleman who stalks her.
Stumped? You probably don't have a teen-aged girl in the house.
Almost any of them could tell you the saga of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, the star-crossed lovers in the "Twilight" series.
I hate to criticize anything that gets kids reading, but there's something cringe-worthy about this epic romance. "It's creepy," my 17-year-old daughter said. "He's hundreds of years old, and he stalked her and he's obsessed with her. He doesn't want anyone else to have her, and he does turn her into a vampire."
Piqua, Ohio, novelist Rachel Francis, 26, also was troubled by what she saw as the unhealthy romantic model of novelist Stephenie Meyer's series. "Lots of young women are looking at Bella and Edward as incredibly romantic because they can't live without each other," she said. "It's demeaning, because she has nothing but Edward, and she can't go anywhere without his constant presence. He is very, very possessive and he sneaks into her room. It's an addiction rather than a healthy love."
For many readers, she knows, this is harmless escapist fiction, but not for all. "I personally heard young women taking examples from 'Twilight' and saying, 'If you really loved me you would do this for me because Edward would,"' Francis said. "The result is that some young women are having unrealistic expectations. How do you expect to be happy with a regular guy when you have this immortal guy with unlimited wealth?"
Francis -- whose first novel was a paranormal fantasy -- decided to go in entirely different direction with the second, "Proper Secrets," designed to be an antidote to the "Twilight" vision of romance. In an homage to Jane Austen, Francis tells the tale of Emily Worthing, a strong-minded, practical country lass determined to stay unmarried in an effort to protect her independence. Her resolve is challenged when she meets the charming and aristocratic Elijah Wingrave in an imaginary countryside inspired by Regency England.
Francis said she wanted to create a love story that balances emotion with common sense, much like Austen's beloved "Pride and Prejudice." "I wanted to create a sensible heroine, one somewhat like Elizabeth Bennet, who could illustrate the value of love rooted in trust," she said.
Emily Worthing is an avid reader like Bella Swan, but the similarity ends there. Francis said: "Emily is extremely strong-minded. She does what she does and if you don't like it, that's too bad. She's beautiful and she's afraid of being married, or of a man marrying her for her face. Our bodies are what we drive around in and they change over time. Your personality and your mind are what hold you together as a couple, and she wants someone to be attracted to her for that."
Her own path to true love proved a circuitous one. Francis graduated from Piqua High School in 2005, married young, had two kids. After her divorce, she became reacquainted with Brice Francis, her high school boyfriend. "We parted because of immaturity, but later on we realized that what we had was very special," she said.
Francis writes at home, when she's not busy with her kids, now 4 and 5. "It can be pretty difficult," she acknowledges, "but I try not to stress out about it." Her novels are self-published and available through Amazon.com. "I don't like the atmosphere of today's publishing world, and I'd rather own my own work."
She wonders whether Jane Austen's work, with its intelligent romance and small observations about human relationships, would find a ready market in today's world. She hopes her own kids will stock up on the classics and avoid trendy bestsellers.
But she won't forbid them from reading "Twilight," she said, "as long as they look at it as fantasy and escape, and not something to take into the real world. I'll tell them that real, true love isn't going to feel like an addiction. It's going to feel like freedom."
Mary McCarty, Dayton Daily News: mmccarty@DaytonDailyNews.com.