Romance Keepers

By Poison Ivy,

First, I’d better explain what a keeper is. I remember how the little stack of paperback novels in my bedroom as a teenager slowly began to be a bookcase worth of books, and then another, and then another. Even though I am a lifelong library patron (currently a proud carrier of cards from five library systems), I couldn’t always find what I wanted at the library, especially the latest books out in paperback. So I bought books. And they started to pile up, and then I ran out of space to keep them. And then they went into boxes in the attic, and then…well, and then, one day I decided to de-clutter and get rid of some. But I kept a few, the best ones. Hence, keepers.

We all have to make these decisions once the volume of what we own becomes too large for the space we control. As a teenager, my only active space was my bedroom. The love of reading can populate a room fast. And I kept running out of space, which was why I resorted to putting books in the attic. Later, living in apartments, I kept adding to my collection of books. I didn’t get rid of them unless they were really awful, true disappointments, the kind of book you want to throw against the wall. By the time I moved into a house, I had so many romance paperbacks that my bookshelves were floor to ceiling around two sides of a large bedroom. By the next house, they took up three sides. And there wasn’t any more space available for my books, because the rest of the house had its own collections of books of more general interest.

Somewhere along the line, I realized what other romance readers have concluded. Many of these books were merely of the moment, and I never wanted or needed to read them again. Whatever the writer had to tell me I absorbed in one fast session. There weren’t additional layers of meaning to find on a second reading. Compare that to when I have re-read Jane Austen; I always saw something new, something I missed the first time around. That’s the difference between good literature and most popular fiction.

But not all popular fiction. There are some romances that grab me, and when I re-read them, I like them all over again. Sometimes there’s merely a scene or a mood that I liked, but I want to hold onto the book to hold onto the memory of that scene or mood. Which is why I kept this riff on the bestselling First Wives Club, called The Payback Club, by Rexanne Becnel (published in 2006). It touched a nerve about women’s experiences of being betrayed and dumped by their husbands and wanting revenge; it was a funny book; and it had a happy romantic ending.

I kept The Contestant, by Stephanie Doyle (published in 2005), because of the heroine. This story about some people stuck on a “Survivor”-type TV show island, where murder and mayhem ensue, features a heroine who was an impressive problem-solver. She knew a lot about how to save her own life. Sure, there’s a romantic hero in the book, and a happy ending. But the ultra-competent heroine was the reason this book was a keeper. Romances in the past have featured too many ridiculously incompetent women, made more so by the authors’ inability to imagine a man big enough to be a hero to a woman of ability. Sad, really. In The Contestant, the heroine was a former Olympian and she had the grit of a competitor. Cool.

Another keeper, a book that I never even think of disposing of, is Babe in the Woods, by Jackie Merritt (published in 1990). This is the Hottest Trapped-in-a-Cabin Story Ever. Okay, today I suppose there are erotica writers who have written far sexier stories. But this is a straight romance, and it is hot. Even just skimming it today while scanning it, I was caught up in the dynamic sexual tension between the super-hunky cowboy hero and the fish-out-of-water city heroine. It’s a terrific book and has stood the test of time, too.

Vanora Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman (published in 2007) is a keeper on probation. What interests me about this book is that the story was set at a key moment in Tudor times, when Henry VIII was pushing Sir Thomas More to accept his changes to the practice of religion in England. Technically, the Roman Catholic Church considers More a martyr because he was executed for his refusal. Nice, sunny romance material to keep, you’re thinking. But I find Tudor times fascinating and this book’s romance between a member of More’s household and Hans Holbein, painter of the best known portrait of Henry VIII, had a lot of atmosphere. But as I said, it’s on probation. Chiefly, I’m keeping it for the cover. And in these days of home scanning, I don’t need to hold onto an entire book just to enjoy the cover. (More on me and book covers another time.)

Today I don’t usually wait long to decide if a book is a keeper. It either goes directly to a charity donation pile, or it goes to one book shelf. After it sits on that bookshelf, if I can’t even remember why I liked it, it goes to the charity box. If I think there is some reason that I will want to read it again or read another book by that author, it goes down to the basement, where I have a wall of bookshelves filled with keepers.

If you have a garage, attic, or basement filled with boxes of books, isn’t it time you sorted through them and found the keepers? And sent the others on their way?