I was thirteen when I got hooked on romance novels. My mom gave me The Night Child by Celeste De Blasis and I stayed up late, ignoring my pre-algebra homework to finish. Soon I was reading my way through Georgette Heyer and Jilly Cooper. In college, I spent a summer reading every single Nora Roberts romance. Back logs of Susan Elizabeth Philips, Julie Garwood, and Jennifer Crusie soon followed.
My mother had an inexhaustible collection of romance novels kept in boxes under her bed and in the closet. She had one unspoken rule—you can read any of these books, but don’t tell people about them. I broke this rule with gusto. Then, I read out sexy passages on the bus. Now, I write about them on the Internet. While my mom and I both love romance novels, we still think about them differently. I decided to interview her to learn more about why.
Alison: When did you start reading romance novels?
Her Mom: I started reading romance novels when I was fourteen. The first one I remember is Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer. I also read all of Emilie Loring’s books. My grandmother went to a used bookstore and picked them out for herself. I just read whatever she picked out. It was a simpler time, much less sex (in romance novels…not in life). I read other things too, but romance was always my favorite.
Alison: Who did you talk about them with?
Her Mom: I talked with my grandmother and my aunt. We talked about the funny language, not the romance, like men getting “foxed” or women being called “a bit of muslin.” Mainly, however, reading romance was a secret. If any of my friends were reading romance novels, they weren’t talking about it!
Alison: Why do you think you kept reading romance novels a secret from most people?
Her Mom: I was defined early as being a “good” reader for finishing The Hobbit in the third grade. I didn’t want to shake my smart girl image. Once I started reading romance, I always had a secret back up title so when people asked what I was reading, I wouldn’t have to tell the truth. Instead I’d say something like Gone with the Wind. When I got older, I still didn’t know anyone who read romance as much as me. Whenever I heard friends talking about them, they dismissed the books as “bubble gum” reads.
Alison: Who became your favorite romance novelists?
Her Mom: My number one favorite is Julie Garwood—I loved her humor. Her historical romances are pure gold, especially The Bride and the Crown’s Spies series. I also love Linda Howard, Jayne Ann Krentz, and of course Nora Roberts. Last year, I made a pilgrimage to the Inn Boonsboro, the hotel Nora Roberts owns. I didn’t spend the night, but I did buy a book at the bookstore and thought of Clare from The Next Always. Even just saying this is making me feel embarrassed, though.
Alison: How many romance novels do you think you’ve read?
Her Mom: I have no idea. It must be over 1,000 and may be closer to 2,000. I’ve been reading them for almost 45 years and probably read at least 50 a year—that would be 2,250. But I also love to reread—it is like coming home to find an old friend on your doorstep. Before the Kindle, I boxed them up (because I felt too embarrassed to put them on my shelves) and would write a date on the box when I could reread the books. I also write my goal weight for that date. I never made my goal weight, but I loved welcoming back my old books.
Alison: What do you think you like so much about romance novels?
Her Mom: I like the suspension of reality and the certainty that everything will work out in the end. I know people accuse romance novels of being too formulaic, but the formula is part of the appeal. It’s also important to me to have strong female characters solving their own problems. I have never understood the criticism that romance novels give woman unrealistic expectations. Spy novels don’t make men think they’re going to save the world by defeating an underground Nazi spy ring—so why should seeing a strong but complicated woman have a happily ever after fool women into thinking that relationships are easy?
Alison: Why do you think there is so much scorn for romance novels? Is it more about gender or sexuality?
Her Mom: I think gender. When I graduated from business school, to be successful females tried to imitate male workers. Anything that celebrated strong complicated females was derided and belittled. I think sexual freedom preceded gender freedom. In the ’70s woman were admired for the new sexual freedom, but ridiculed if they did not conform to male gender norms in the workplace.
Alison: When did you start being more open about reading romance?
Her Mom: I wouldn’t say I am that open. I still always have a secret title of a book I am reading in case someone asks—so I might be reading the new Nora Roberts but if someone asks I’ll probably say something like Nightingale. You’ve pushed me to be more open. I also follow Sarah MacLean on Twitter, and she’s helped to change my perspective. But I still don’t rate most of the romance novels I read on goodreads.
Alison: What do you think about the fact that I’m so open about reading romance novels (online and with my friends)?
Her Mom: I am proud and embarrassed. I get the “female empowerment” angle and I also get the “never apologize” angle, but there’s still part of me that wants everyone to think you are a “good” reader. It is a similar feeling I get when I try to explain to people why you love Kim Kardashian.
Alison: Thanks, Mom, for coming out as a romance reader, and I’m sorry (not sorry!) for continuing to embarrass you!
Looking for romance? Read Our First Time: The Books That Made Us Romance Readers, The One Little Romance Book That Turned Me into My Mom, or peruse all of our Romance discussions.