Today, I’m sitting on an aqua loveseat in my living room, wrapped in a soft gray and white blanket. Snow covers the street and houses outside. I can hear the tree branches scraping against each other in the wind. One of my roommates is working quietly on her laptop, surrounded by blankets and pillows on another couch. And I’m cozy and deep into a copy of How to Fail at Flirting by Denise Williams. Fifteen years ago, I never would have believed I’d find myself reading a romance book out in the open. But then again, 15 years ago was right about when the spark was catching and my love for romance was about to burst into flame.
Sense and Sensibility and Not Enough Smooches
As a child, there were bright sunny summer days dedicated to devouring Anne of Green Gables and all the rest of the series by L. M. Montgomery. Many nights were spent realizing that the Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility films I’d grown up reading were preceded by even better novels. And of course, there was my childhood heartbreak while reading The Land by Mildred Taylor.
Amongst the classics, I found documented a scorching kiss here, a gaze of longing there. These were the moments I simply had to return to for a second, third, millionth read. Why did everyone back in the day have to wait until the end of each tale to make out, if not at all, I wondered agonizingly. Must I be tortured so?
And then one day, in middle school, a friend led me to a life changing discovery: there was such a thing as Amish fiction. Even better? Amish romance.
The Lord of the Rings or the Lord of Romance
Growing up with five brothers and three sisters, I fought to find who I was amongst them. Was one brother impressed when I victoriously ripped off my Barbie’s head to prove to him I’d rather play with G.I. Joe dolls? No. (I later mourned her loss and tried to glue her head back on. She looked at the world crookedly from there on.) Was there a roaring outcry from every child in my family during any onscreen kiss? Of course. Was I accused of having a crush on every boy? Naturally. (And was I guilty as charged? I’ll save that for another essay.)
I was needlessly torn; I relished wearing my brother’s castoff army jacket and ran barefoot through the woods imagining I was slaying orcs. But I also held elegant pastel tea parties and was proud of my stroller that could hold a real baby. Could I both love being a wild child and love love? I was talkative, confident, and brash.
And yet when it came to reading romance, I was so afraid of what people would think of me. When I realized that Beverly Lewis wrote books like The Preacher’s Daughter that were categorized as Christian romance, I thought, “I can do this! If one of the boys accidentally opens to a page, they won’t find anything too scandalous…” And in I dove, gleefully.
Bread and Barns and Boys with Beards
Amish romance was unlike anything I had ever read. First off, there was no need to wade through lazy rivers of dry battle recaps and Napoleonic politics (sorry, War and Peace) to arrive at a plot centered on love. Instead, the waters were rushing and things got as spicy as they possibly could during fictional bread sales and barn raisings in the close-knit Pennsylvania villages. My little heart was pleased to bear the burden of love amongst family drama and the peace of the countryside. Secondly, although there were likely only ten possible surnames for all the characters and five plot lines to choose from, the happy endings proved endlessly satisfying. There was peace throughout the land!
When it came to reading, I was completely head over heels for any and all things Amish. Then I moved onto historical romance and realized that Amish fiction was perhaps just the tip of the romance iceberg. Steamy tales of love amongst steam engines and dustbowls? Ranchers fighting both dust and lust? Debutantes hiding their true selves beneath scandals and layers of petticoats?
Needless to say, I maxed out my library card and had to cart my assorted romance books home in cardboard boxes provided by the librarians.
It was all bliss to a girl who was craving swoony material, but felt too shy to commit to anything labeled with a heart sticker and the word “romance” on its spine. And I wasn’t alone. Many of my friends in middle school and early high school knew which series or authors were the best. One of my closest friendships to this day was cemented during whispered confessions in her basement that we both secretly loved reading romance.
Bridgerton and All the Buns
Eventually, I was brave enough to peek beneath the covers of actual romance books. Did I browse the bodice ripper titles in the paperback section while shelving during my library shifts? Of course. Did I unabashedly recommend my coworker watch Bridgerton months before it was released? Yes, though not without some regret — in my defense, I had no idea about all the well-sculpted bums that would be on display.
Now, my bookcase and all flat surfaces in my bedroom can be found strewn with the hottest — pun intended — romance titles , from Slightly Married by Mary Balogh, to First Comes Like by Alisha Rai, to You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria. A friend and I recently had an earnest conversation lamenting not being able to define the word “vee” in a sentence without referencing some half-dressed man — with water sluicing down his chest or something of the like — from something we’d read. I even create quizzes that recommend romantic YA books.
Although I no longer enjoy the pleasure of reading about the Pennsylvania countryside and the fictional Amish folks, I owe much of my joy in reading to Beverly Lewis. As I sit here reading a delightfully scandalous story about a stressed college professor finally letting loose, I have to raise a glass to all the books and authors that led me here today.
So here’s to you, Bev: to friendship, honesty, and love! All these years later.