Why Do I Read Romances, and What the Heck is a Romance, Anyway?

By Poison Ivy,

Despite a complete lack of encouragement from my family, or from my social and educational milieu, I was drawn to romance novels in my early teens. My acquaintances were reading serious literature. Really, they were. I had more than a passing familiarity with serious literature and high culture, but I was drawn to stories about girls and women. And most stories about girls and women, beyond children’s books, had romantic elements. Although they often were in disguise. Then one day I saw a novel that did not take me on a pirate adventure on the high seas. It did not solve a Gothic mystery in an old mansion. It did not educate me about some notable figure in history. It was simply about a young man and a young woman who met and fell in love, and encountered obstacles before they came to a happy ending, including a marriage proposal. I loved it. I sought out all similar books. Eventually, I discovered that most romances never got near a public library. But they had a long publishing history and were flourishing as paperback originals. Thus the beginning of my huge personal library of paperback books. Even when I eventually found some romances in hardcover, I preferred to own them in paperback, to match what I already had.

Why was I drawn to romances? Maybe because they always had a happy ending. Which was ironic because the major romance I knew about was Romeo and Juliet, a story that ends with everybody dead. And what’s so darn special about romance, anyway? Start with the basic premise: The heroine meets someone whom she comes to value, who excites her because he represents new possibilities in life, who inspires her to emulate his courage, and more. And then the heroine must overcome obstacles to be with this person, and grow in the process. Finally, the heroine’s quest is successful. The man she thought would never look at her loves her, the man who scorned her has come to admire her and admit he cares, the man at her side in a battle, or on the other side, has proved his worth to be by her side the rest of her life. I think of this as a very uplifting storyline.

I like romances even though today our view of romantic behavior is not the simple one of a teen age virgin marrying and having babies (and dying young) as the be-all of her existence, as life so commonly was in the past. Many of us have serial romances, getting deeply involved with several people before we commit to one indefinitely. Or, losing a committed relationship through death or divorce, and seeking a new one. And we often have complex careers, or complex problems to overcome; women are more and more the actors in their own lives, not mere reactors. But the notion of true love persists, even though the likelihood of spending one’s entire adult life with one person in wedded bliss with no problems at all is small. I still like it. The romantic ideal still appeals to me. And so I read romances.

Oh, and there’s the optimism thing. Romances don’t typically end with dead bodies, or the main characters going to prison, or people falling into depraved and self-destructive habits. They don’t end with the bad guys winning. They don’t end with a question mark, as if the writer has simply given up on trying to find a solution to all the problems besetting the characters. Romances might start with negativity, but they inevitably vector to the positive. I like that. A romance doesn’t focus on the decay of a heroine, but on her striving to become a better, happier person, sometimes by fighting others, and sometimes by fighting herself. When a romance is written honestly, it’s impossible not to root for the heroine and hero, and be happy that by the end they find happiness together.

But after a long period of there being lots of straightforward romances, we have entered another confusing stage in publishing. There still are plenty of romances being published. But now there is a wide range of novels with female protagonists that may or may not have strong romantic elements. Plus, the definition of what is a romance is ever shifting to accommodate new trends.

For instance, The Touch of Twilight, an urban fantasy novel by Vicki Pettersson. Is it a romance? It doesn’t look like one, and there’s nothing to suggest a romance in the back cover blurb. But who knows? There might be some romance inside. We can see from the cover that it stars a female. Who has a knife in her hand. Cool. Then there’s Veil of Midnight, by Lara Adrian. Similar kind of title, but this one is called a paranormal romance on the spine, and a man and woman are embracing on the cover, which is a universal signal that this story contains romance. But how much romance? On the other hand, Cursed, by Jamie Leigh Hansen, just has a man on the cover. But it too is billed as a paranormal romance. Which of these three books from three different publishers is the most romantic? We’ll have to read all three to find out.

Or, what about 8 Sandpiper Way, by Debbie Macomber, which is billed simply as a novel, a nod to her bestseller status? The blurb at least suggests that the story is about some marital concerns and includes a reunion for another romantic pair. Is it a romance? I’m not sure. Is No Good Girls, by Jean Marie Pierson, a romance or chick lit, in other words, a quest story involving several young urban women? And what about Unlacing Lilly, by Gail Ranstrom? It contains a strong skullduggery plot in period costume, and at one point, the hero gives the heroine the 19th century version of the Vulcan nerve pinch. There’s sex in this book and a happy ever after, but is it a romance? And so it goes. I’m back to sifting my way through novels again, looking for the romantic themes that interest me.

But the good stuff is out there. And bottom line, all romances are inspirational. They show that a woman can find the person who is right for her, as well as solve big problems or win a battle against difficult odds. Or just get lucky. Romances end happily. Although there is a well-defined school of social thought that claims that in real life most stories end in failure, romances presume success. In a nation whose byword is success, it makes sense that these novels are popular. Romances are book-length affirmations that goodness exists, that true love exists, that evil can be defeated, and more. Read a romance today. Or whatever it’s being billed as by the publisher. It might help you find the strength to make a positive difference in your world.