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.