I’ve always thought of myself as someone who will read anything, as long as it speaks to me somehow. But that wasn’t really true until recently. There was one genre that I would not touch because I deemed it lesser: Romance.
I had never read a single Romance novel, so I didn’t have any actual evidence. I just knew the covers looked silly, the plots sounded boring, I’d always been told they weren’t worth my time, and I never bothered to see if my impressions were born out in fact.
As years passed, I started to realize that more and more of my friends read romance novels. People I liked and respected. And as I got more involved with the book world, I found more and more people I admired who admitted proudly that they were Romance readers.
The honest truth is that most of us have opinions about Romance that have much more to do with the industry a few decades ago than they do now. (I found this article really fascinating now that I’m a little more in the know.)
Eventually I decided the time had come. I needed to tackle Romance for myself and see what it was all about.
To start, I did one very important thing: I asked for recommendations from people I trusted. Many romance authors write several novels and you can often start in the middle of a series so what I needed was which authors I should try first to get a feel for things. Many thanks to Amanda for helping me get started.
Here’s what happened on my adventures.
Romance Novel #1: First Time in Forever by Sarah Morgan. Contemporary Romance
Luckily Morgan was just starting a new series, Puffin Island, so the timing was right for me to try the first book. The book is published by HQN, a Harlequin imprint that publishes all subgenres of Romance. This was actually my least favorite of all the books I tried, it did what I expected, it relied heavily on familiar tropes and plot twists. And yet. I was relaxed when I read it. I wasn’t rushed. I wasn’t worried. I just went with it and let the book take me along. It was pleasant, it was nice, and I found the male lead attractive even if he seemed too perfect. What’s wrong with perfect? What’s wrong with happy endings? Especially since my life these days feels pretty far from the kind of perfect you find in this book.
Romance Novel #2: Shoulda Been a Cowboy by Maisey Yates. Contemporary Romance
Another HQN book and another book at the beginning of a series, and actually a novella rather than a novel, I admit my expectations for this book were low. My first try had been pretty predictable, and this book had the word “cowboy” in the title so I was kind of worried. But there weren’t actually any real cowboys in this book. There was a ranch that the characters visited a couple of times, but no horses, no lassos, no rodeos. Not only that, I realized I like Maisey Yates. She’s got a sense of humor that’s zippy and fun, the dialogue between her characters was strong and witty. The backstory she set up between “bad boy” Jake and “nice girl” Cassie gave them real emotional depth and set up legitimate obstacles for the plot to move forward. They felt like real people, not the perfect people I’d found in First Time in Forever, who seemed to have plenty of money, plenty of options, plenty of everything. These lives were complicated, the choices weren’t easy, and the things that made life hard weren’t things that only seemed that way in their heads. I liked it. I requested Yates’ next two books in the Copper Ridge series.
By this point if you’re not a Romance reader you’re probably wondering: yes, but what about the sex? The funny thing is that there’s not that much more than you see in a lot of mass market fiction. Characters think about it more, they pay attention to what people look like and what they do, but it actually feels pretty natural a lot of the time. It was not what I’d long been told Romance was, and a lot of the scenes were better written and sexier than many other sex scenes I’ve read in non-Romance books. (Honestly? There’s a reason there’s a Bad Sex Award for literature.)
Romance #3: Love in the Time of Scandal by Caroline Linden.
This one was a big change and I worried it might be the point where I abandoned ship. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, and this was a novel with a swooning woman and a rakish man on the cover in period garb. Plus it’s the third in a series so I thought I may feel confused. Turns out, I dug it. It had the biggest plot of the bunch, with intrigue to spare and a subplot that’s left unresolved that I assume will be addressed in the next novel in the series. There was blackmail, marriages of convenience, violence, inheritance, all that stuff. And, being a romance novel, there was a secret erotic serial novel that the characters read on the sly. There was more exposition than usual, revealing the plot of the previous book in large chunks here and there, but it was a minor annoyance. It turned out, I kind of liked the way the historical romance subverted most of the expectations of propriety that you get in most novels written or set at the same time. I liked it for many of the same reasons I like Sarah Waters’ historical novels like Tipping the Velvet.
Special bonus: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan.
I actually read this book before my foray into Romance but realized after the fact that it’s totally a Romance even if it’s not marketed as one. It skews more “chick lit” but it’s a distinction without much of a difference here. Bex meets dashing Prince Nicholas, known to his friends as Nick, while off doing a semester study abroad at Oxford. They go from will-they-won’t-they to secret lovers to dealing with the paparazzi over the course of the book. The authors, also known as the Fug Girls, are whip smart and make Bex and Nick both feel real. Mostly, though, they excel at the media frenzy (which is how they make their living, after all). If you’re looking for a little princess wish fulfillment with plenty of real life drama, it’s a great and speedy pick.
You know that saying, Don’t judge a book by its cover? I get that now more than I ever did before. Because I never picked up these books because of their covers (among other reasons) but I’ve learned my lesson, even if it took me an awfully long time to learn it.
I still haven’t quite solved the problem of how to figure out which ones to pick up. For now I’m relying on recommendations and watching what other people like. The Romance genre can start to look alike from a distance, even if it’s very different close up. But I’m adding Romance to my list, along with all the other genres that I read when I feel in the mood for it. And I admit, it feels pretty good to say I really do read what works for me rather than what I think I should. That’s been my reading philosophy for a few years now and there’s really no better way.