I’m not the only forty-something woman who got a big chunk of her early sex- ed from her mom’s Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon novels.
Swiping those paperbacks and giggling at the sexy parts was practically a rite of passage in the ’90s. I wonder how many other young women later gave up on the genre like I did when I realized real life wasn’t as sweet and sexy as those books led us to believe.
As I entered my teens, Danielle Steel’s plot lines were believable because anything seemed possible.
Within a few years, my dysfunctional home life obliterated any benefits of reading romance novels that brought a belief I’d held that two people could end up together forever.
I was twelve when my mother and I snuck out of the house where we had both suffered abuse from her second husband. We moved right in with a man my mother had dated when I was a toddler, they had reconnected months earlier and covertly planned this move.
This new man’s ex-wife didn’t take kindly to him creating a new family. Her relentless harassment lasted years. It was then that I understood love can turn to hate, and the lengths someone might be willing to go to for revenge.
Do the little-known benefits of reading romance novels fade with maturity?
Sappy Danielle Steel wasn’t believable anymore. I devoured Anne Rice and Mary Higgins Clark, their darkness and depraved characters better matched what I’d come to see as real life. Stephen King’s Misery made sense to me after living with threats of violence from strangers.
In hindsight, my mother’s undiagnosed mental illness was responsible for the instability and abuse she inflicted upon me.
During arguments, she’d mock me, “Why do you always have to have a boyfriend?” In the next breath she’d taunt, “No man would ever want you.” Her mixed messages led me to get involved with guys I wasn’t interested in simply because they were interested in me. Any boyfriend was better than none.
At fifteen, I met my on-and-off boyfriend of five years and started my first real job. My boss passed me books often, which is how I read Dean Koontz, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton. Their gritty suspense widened my reading world even more and distracted me during heartbreak.
In my twenties, I was married for less than three years to an apathetic man who eventually told me he shouldn’t have married me, and wasn’t sure he had ever loved me to begin with. While my marriage was dissolving, I discovered essayist David Sedaris.
I returned to his snarky pieces over and over, copying favorite lines into my journal. He made me laugh, and inspired me to start looking for humor in unexpected places.
Is there a need to change the prejudice against those who read romance novels as weak?
While I was quick to read any book with a best seller label, I shunned romance novels through adulthood. I made assumptions about the women who read them.
To me, they were weak and foolish, waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming.
Or unmarried virgins who would never feel the touch of a man. I couldn’t understand what an intelligent woman with real world experience could see in those books. I was proud to be a “book snob.”
I still felt this way when I met Jessica at my favorite indie bookstore, where she is the event manager. Six of us sat in a circle on the cozy upper level at the start of 2019, discussing what we’d read the previous year.
Conversation turned to romance novels, and I inwardly cringed. I’d reluctantly read one for a different reading challenge prompt. It was A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev, and I was surprised to discover I enjoyed a story involving an arranged marriage.
Since it was set in a different culture, I considered it a fluke. I didn’t speak up and admit to having read it.
Does the world need more romance novels?
As Jessica gushed about her favorites in the genre, she probably recognized the look on my face as one she’d seen before, from patrons who thought they were too good/smart/whatever for a romance novel.
When she exclaimed with a clap, “The world needs romance novels now more than ever,” I was taken aback. Because she worked at a bookstore, and wore glasses similar to my own, I’d pegged her for an “intellectual” reader like myself. To consider someone like us could see romance novels as legitimate writing was mind-boggling.
Yet, I was intrigued, and that line hooked me. I questioned Jessica in front of the group, “What’s so great about them?” She talked about diversity, equality, and feminism in the genre. I was listening, still skeptical.
As she emphasized the value in a happy ending, because everyone is deserving of love, I sat up straight. One phrase and suddenly I was doubting everything I’d come to believe about romance novels.
I ruminated on the possibility of reading romance again as an adult. It seemed silly.
I was a book blogger, I wanted to be taken seriously. I was writing a memoir! Yet whenever I revisited the concept that everyone deserves to be loved, it felt like a poke to my sternum.
The reason why the critic in me reignited the curiosity for love of romance novels
At that point I was four years into my second marriage. I was in a place in life I hadn’t believed was possible, having made a home with someone who loved me unconditionally. Yet I struggled to believe I deserved this life, this partner. I couldn’t see what I did to earn it. In my wedding vows, I told my husband, No one has ever loved me like you do, not even my own mother.
Years of therapy led me to see my mother’s love has always been entirely transactional, a thing she wields and withdraws to meet her own needs. It’s embarrassing to admit a romantic relationship finally made me feel whole.
I hear my mother’s voice say I should have been able to do it on my own. Now I see I needed to experience unconditional love in order to see it as something everyone has a right to. That had to come in my romantic world because it didn’t come in my family world.
I asked Jessica for recommendations and promised to give the genre a try. I started with Lady Derring Takes a Lover by Julie Ann Long, which was wayoutside my comfort zone with that title, plus being a historical romance about a widow. When Jessica handed me the little paperback, I thought, Oh no, what have I gotten myself into? I was surprised to discover I didn’t hate it.
In fact, I was humbled by how many times I had to look up words I didn’t know! The female lead was clever, witty, and not looking for a husband.
Her love interest appeared loaded up on toxic masculinity. Gradually he became self-aware and determined to change. The characters resonated with me just like ones in other fiction have. They’d made mistakes yet moved on to better themselves. I was surprised and happy to find a bit of my story among the pages of this novel I’d doubted so much.
Okay here is the real reason why we need more romance novels
A couple months later, I took Jessica out for a pancake brunch. I explained how what she’d told me about romance had gotten stuck in my head and heart. I wanted to write about that, to show other skeptics how important love stories are.
After Lady Derring, I’d flown through Jenny Haan’s three book young adult romance series starting with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. I thought I was a convert to the genre. But at the time of our brunch, I’d just started Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev and I wasn’t quite so sure anymore. The predictability of this one was annoying in a way I hadn’t noticed with the others.
“Okay, I’m not very far in and I already know which two are going to end up together, so what’s the point of reading it?” I challenged, pointing at her with my fork. This is something Jessica hears often from readers who are hesitant to reach for what they know will be a happy ending.
She asked me: What do you read for? I hadn’t considered this before. We determined I’m not a plot driven reader. I’m driven by connection with characters and want an emotional journey, which makes romance a fit for me.
Reviewing my notes after brunch, I realized I was unprepared to tackle the essay I wanted to write.
Who was I to talk about why the world needs this genre if I hadn’t read much of it? The concept of the world needing more love stories resonated with me because of my personal journey. I knew I wasn’t the only one with a wretched romantic history who came around to believing in happy endings. I needed to do more research.
The help I received from the personal experience I read
I took my self-assignment seriously, starting with more of Jessica’s recommendations, then choosing some on my own. Since I’ve met Jessica, I’ve finished fifty romance novels (that’s a surprising 19% of my total reading.) I’ve read romance novels labeled as historical, young adult, feminist, LBGTQ, and even tried Amish ones!
At first I didn’t care if the romance I read about was chaste or graphic. Now I’m disappointed if there isn’t a lot of sex! I enjoy reading steamy scenes under the covers, and I’ve realized how well written sex scenes make the love story more realistic and therefore relatable.
I wasn’t raised to see sex as healthy. After my divorce, I was slut-shamed by “friends” for looking to get laid. Reading these sex positive stories about women who aren’t ashamed to ask for sex has been liberating and helped me accept that part of myself is not “bad.” The old fashioned “bodice ripper” romance novel is outdated. While stories of all kinds exist, a lot of current writers are feminists. The lesson here, as Jessica says so well, is that we all contain multitudes. I am a strong woman and I want to be swept off my feet by romantic gestures and have steamy sex.
I was hesitant to read gay romance, and bi-sexual or non-binary authors, wondering how those stories could resonate with me, a straight woman. I was pleasantly surprised to see they landed just as heterosexual stories, because while the details are different, the message is the same. Everyone deserves love.
As I explore the genre, I text Jessica with updates. When I told her I couldn’t believe she had me reading a book known as Dirty British Romance #1, her reply made me burst out laughing: Welcome to the dark side — it’s sexy and there are cookies. I’ve become part of a community I didn’t even know existed!
Each time I see Jessica and fill her in on my reading journey, she beams and claps. I see how I’m making her proud, getting further outside my reading comfort zone. Now when I recommend a romance novel to someone else, I feel the satisfaction of encouraging someone to stretch themselves in exchange for a joyful reading experience.
People read fiction to escape reality
That’s especially true now, during this pandemic. I’m continually surprised by how much I connect with characters whose lives couldn’t be further from mine. These novels give me predictability, which is scarce right now. When readers reach for a romance novel, they need to be able trust the author to deliver what’s expected. I find comfort in knowing it’s safe to hope the characters get the love they deserve.
Since news of the coronavirus pandemic became so scary, I’ve been reading romance almost exclusively. When I’m lost in a good romance, my insides feel warm and gooey and I don’t want it to end. Sometimes the anticipation of waiting for the characters to find each other is even more yummy than when they finally do.
The world needs hope and predictability now more than ever. If that can’t be found in real life, we should take it anywhere we can find it, even if that’s in fiction.