Jo Walton: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Romance

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Romance |

Despite being female, I didn’t grow up reading romance novels. Indeed, I grew up despising romance novels probably more than most men tend to. Romance novels were associated in my young mind with a way of performing femininity that repelled me. They seemed to be bait in a trap — offering a kind of love that isn’t possible as the only kind of love that is desirable, and offering love itself as the only worthwhile life goal for a woman. They held up passionate heterosexual romantic love as the ultimate and only possible fulfillment. Women needn’t expect to have adventures or achieve anything, they would have looooove, twoo wuv, and it would be enough.

Me too. I read a few Mills and Boon novels because they were there, and found them silly and limited – the idea of giving up the world for love and considering it well lost didn’t appeal to me at all. And I read some of those bodice-ripping historical romances, again because they were there, and found them actively unpleasant. The interminable discursive plots interspersed with bouts of weird and often violent sex just weren’t my thing. I learned the fine art of skipping when reading them.

And then I moved on, secure in my dislike, until this last year or so when a number of things happened. I found Georgette Heyer’s mystery novels (a genre I’m happy to embrace) and enjoyed them (the characters and dialogue are fun even though the mysteries are mostly pretty clunky). And, then I found people online, whose ideas about books I admire, talking about Georgette Heyer’s regency romances and Jennifer Crusie’s contemporary romances. After reading discussions in multiple places, I thought it was time to give them a try.

I started with Jennifer Crusie’s, Maybe This Time, a ghost story that reworks The Turn of the Screw. There’s food and sex and 1980’s music, tormented children, and a cast of screwy adults. It’s funny and heart-felt, and there’s some genuinely creepy haunting. And it’s very nicely written.

I’ve now read most of her books. I particularly liked Faking It, about a family of cons and artists, and Agnes and the Hitman, about a chef who gets tangled up in a series of murders. And Welcome to Temptation is fun. Crusie’s focus is the romance, but in her best books, there’s something else going on as well. She writes good children and friends and family, so that the heroines exist in a vividly realised community. And she’s funny, both the dialogue and the plots themselves are full of sharp wit.

And then I took a deep breath and plunged into Heyer’s romances. She was a prolific writer, so there are a bewildering number of titles to choose from. I followed Jo Walton’s suggestions about which ones she liked best and read my way through about 10 of the novels. They’ve blurred together a bit now, but they’re fun. Her regency world is nicely imagined and the characters are appealing, and often funny.

I’m not about to become a regular reader of romances, but those two authors were definitely worth investigating.

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5 Responses to Jo Walton: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Romance

  1. iamroewan says:

    I went through a bodice-ripper phase when I was in my 40’s, it must have been a hormonal thing. But I was very picky about which authors I would read. The books had to have interesting plots with lots of adventure, danger and unexpected twists. The heroines had to be smart and independant and capable of looking after themselves. The hero had to have some sort of flaw or problem that the heroine could fix. No children, no babies, no getting married and pregnant. The sex had to be believable and make sense in the context of the plot. And the whole thing had to be really well written. So that eliminated about 98% of the novels. I spent a lot of hours in bookstores looking for the 2%!

  2. iamroewan says:

    Oh! I just read the article you linked to. JW says “I still like romance novels best when there’s something going on besides the romance. But I also like MilSF novels best when there’s something going on besides the shooting.” This sounds like what I like. I wonder what she thinks about the Honor Harrington series by Dave Weber.

    • Janettes says:

      I was going to say that I like romances better when there’s something else happening as well, but you and JW beat me to it. The best Jennifer Crusie novels have thefts and murders and cons popping up all over while the main characters try to fall in love – much more entertaining than a straight up romance.
      You’re a braver woman than me, plunging into the romance section blind. There’s a lot of crap to deal with there. Maybe even more than in the fantasy section, and that’s saying something. I’m sticking to word of mouth or whatever the online equivalent is. It’s safer that way.
      I googled – JW likes Dave Weber and the Honor Harrington series as far as I can tell. She reads an astonishing amount and writes thoughtful, insightful, and provocative reviews for Tor at
      I don’t always like what she likes (she’s a big fan of science fiction with space ships and of military science fiction) and vice versa (she’s never gotten into Diana Wynne Jones, the horror the horror), but she’s always worthwhile.
      My “to be read” pile has grown enormously since I found her and I’ve read some great things that I would never have found otherwise.

  3. You touched a point of recognition with me when you mentioned Georgette Heyer. Although I haven’t read any of her mysteries yet, I’ve read and enjoyed about a dozen of her romances. I turned to them as the next best thing to Jane Austen, who only left us with 6 novels. I write Austenesque novels, but have alway resisted classifying them as “romance” because of the negative associations I have in my mind for that genre – such as you have discussed. Yet, for me, there does have to be some romance to hold my interest. So, while it’s true that a romance has to have “something else going on,” it’s also true that whatever the rest of the story is about, there had better be a little romance too!

    • Janettes says:

      Yes, they are Austenesque aren’t they. The Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brien is kind of Austenesque as well – although there are a few more naval battles than in Austen’s novels! And there’s some romance.
      I thought about whether I need romance in my books and I’m not sure that I do. I don’t mind it if it’s there as part of the texture of the story and sometimes I really enjoy reading about the unfolding of a relationship, but it’s not an absolute requirement.

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