I read my first romance novel when I was 12. I was a pretty eclectic reader even then, and I'd already dispatched Gone With the Wind, Nicholas and Alexandra and Peppermints in the Parlor. I saw the book — The Fortunes of Love by Caroline Courtney — in a library, and I was hooked by the cover. Something about that man and that woman — his enigmatic hover, her sideways glance — spoke to me. This was a couple who was meant to be together but hadn't figured it out yet. They were attracted but distrustful. There was a story there. I was intrigued.
I checked it out and read it in one sitting, breathless to the end. So this was a romance. A novel for me, the girl who loved old-time, unabashedly sentimental movies, like Gidget, The Sound of Music and Singin' in the Rain. The girl who skimmed Nancy Drew books to find the scenes where Ned Nickerson kissed her. This book was what I'd been looking for, a glimpse into the commingled elation and vulnerability of falling in love, losing that love, regaining it. It was emotional and sweet and scary, and the moment those characters admitted their love for each other in the end, after everything, in spite of everything — because of everything — I felt such bittersweet joy. They were together, happy, in love. It was a romantic rush, but the book was over — so I went to find another one.
My mom, a teacher, thought romances were beneath me. My school librarian gave me her disapproving look when I checked out more romances from the bookmobile. And my best friend's mother told me I should be ashamed for reading such trash.
In fact, I was fascinated. By the road-to-love storylines, and the psychological metamorphoses that had to take place in order to overcome internal and external conflicts, so that these two people could earn their happily ever after (the HEA, as romance readers call it). To me, those were every bit as interesting as my mother's whodunnits or my sister's sci-fi and fantasy excursions — and far more touching!
But I was also ashamed, because all of those people made me feel like I should be.
As an honors student in high school, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time, which, let's face it, is a romance novel. Elegantly written, and delightfully sly about manners and social classes, of course — but please, there's a reason we swoon over Mr. Darcy (inspired Colin Firth casting aside). We love the way he and Elizabeth Bennett are attracted to one another but don't really like each other much. How he moves from jerk to hero in just under 400 pages.
Most romance arcs follow Elizabeth and Darcy's lead — they start with conflict and lead to mutual understanding. Yes, generally, the initial attraction is physical, but still, by the end, you understand that these people love each other because of who they are, and that they bring out the best in one another. Also, to deserve that HEA, those characters have to change, to grow. They have to develop into people who are worthy of each other, who are ready and willing to risk everything to earn the love, respect and admiration of this person they love.
Why is our devotion to this lovely, affirming storytelling something we should hide, or apologize for? Why this intellectual idea that romance is something to look down on? We know that many intelligent, educated women read it. They must: Romance continues to dominate the publishing industry, accounting for nearly $1.4 billion in sales in 2011, a full 14.3 percent of all consumer book sales.
Romance may not interest you. I get that — though I highly recommend that you at least give it a try; you can find some recommendations at the bottom of the page. I've decided to stop apologizing, though, and I'm no longer ashamed. And women, even if you don't read romances, there's a lot to be proud of in a successful industry that is so dominated and influenced by women. In romance, we are the creators, the intended audience and the receptive consumer, showing our appreciation through astronomical sales. Female writers writing for female readers about traditionally female interests.
Hi, my name's Bobbi. I am smart, well-educated and well-read — and I am very proud to say that I love romance.
More Romantic Reads
Ready to give romance a try? Check out NPR's roundups here and here. Hungry for more? The following authors are the cream of the crop, so almost anything you read by them will be top-notch, but these titles are among their best:
Historical: My personal favorite is Eva Ibbotson, most known for her children's books. She's a more lyrical, literary romance novelist, and her romances were re-released as Young Adult a few years ago — try A Countess Below Stairs or A Company of Swans.
Contemporary: You simply can't beat Susan Elizabeth Phillips (try Match Me If You Can) or Jennifer Crusie (Bet Me) for great romance that will make you laugh and cry in the same book.
Paranormal: Long before Twilight, romance novels were exploring the supernatural world to unprecedented success. Try Sherrilyn Kenyon (her wildly popular Dark Hunter series begins with Fantasy Lover) or Thea Harrison (Dragon Bound).
Bobbi Dumas is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis. She mostly reviews for Kirkus Media, and is a founding contributing editor of the writing resource website HowToWriteShop.com. A very eclectic reader, she honestly likes romance and women's fiction best.