I’m not supposed to enjoy reading romance. This, according to the Defenders of Serious Literature. I’m sure my former colleagues at the Lit departments where I’ve taught would agree. They might grudgingly accept works of fantasy or science fiction, or even erotica if they were hip and experimental enough. But romance?
And yet, it’s a genre that I’ve sampled over and over throughout my reading life. In high school, I stumbled upon a book whose cover and title fascinated me:Savage Thunder, by Johanna Lindsey. It was stuffed into a rickety revolving rack of paperbacks sold in a cafe that specialized in artisan fudge (I guess I should have seen the connection). I had a brief flashback to a schoolmate’s house that I had once visited for a sleepover; her mother had kept a basement full of books with covers such as these. Another forgotten memory: another classmate circulating a couple of “naughty” novels within our circle of friends. One was rather explicit, detailing the relationship of a teacher and one of his students; the other was more innocent -Forever, by Judy Blume. On impulse, I bought the Lindsey book, along with a chunk of marbled black and white fudge, and finished the novel before I had eaten the last of the fudge; certainly a first for me.
As I read, I felt torn. On the one hand, I felt -no, knew- that this was not “proper literature.” By then, I was well on my way to making literature my field of study, and had rather serious ideas about what constituted a good book. If you have ever been a self-assured high school student, you can follow my train of thought as it sped along back in those years. On the other hand, I was fascinated by Lindsey’s novel: the surly long-haired hero (I now squirm at the “half-breed” label tacked onto him, but back then it seemed just another exotic trait); the fiery English heroine who does everything possible to seduce him; the Great Misunderstanding that I would later learn is an important trope in many romance novels; and of course the HEA - Happily Ever After. Oh, and sex on horseback (as a rider, I cringe when I remember the absolute impossibility of that scene).
After Savage Thunder, I read Jude Deveraux’s Knight in Shining Armor. It had a fantasy/time travel element that I found attractive, and I loved that the ending was a not-quite-HEA. Although the heroine irritated me to no end at several moments (cycling in a miniskirt and heels to seduce the hero? WTF...), I still cried buckets at the end.
There were probably a few more books after those, before my hiatus, but these first two are the ones I remember most vividly. What had drawn me in? Quite simply: love. For a geeky wallflower who took a blind (as in arranged) date to her prom, these books held the promise that there was light at the end of the tunnel of adolescent awkwardness. That someday I, too, would know love.
So why did I stop reading romance novels, if I obviously enjoyed them? Well, partly due to the aforementioned guilt about “wasting my time” on these books. Partly, also, because these were “Old Skool Romances,” with a hero/heroine dynamic that often made me uncomfortable: damsels in distress, borderline (or not so borderline) rape scenes presented as the most romantic thing on earth... Yes, the women were often feisty and pursued their man and other life goals; but they also had moments of astounding idiocy and passivity. The heroes, though dashing and protective, were often quite brutish and insensitive, and their final redemption/change seemed forced in many cases.
And then there was this:
I simply couldn’t get over the covers. In the era before the blissful anonymity provided by ebook readers, the book you carried with you in the subway, or to cafes, was a very public accessory, like a hat or handbag. The thought of reading romance novels in public made me feel like Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. So I read a few more books, furtively, and then I was off to college and a life filled with Real Literature.
So what happened to bring me back to romance, and what do I plan to do here? Stay tuned for Part the Second of this post to find out!