Our First Time: The Books That Made Us Romance Readers

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Nikki VanRy

Contributing Editor

Nikki VanRy is a proud resident of Arizona, where she gets to indulge her love of tacos, desert storms, and tank tops. She also writes for the Tucson Festival of Books, loves anything sci-fi/fantasy/historical, drinks too much chai, and will spend all day in bed reading thankyouverymuch. Follow her on Instagram @nikki.vanry.

I read romance and erotica novels. I love ’em.

Like many romance and erotica readers, though, this was a statement that took a long time for me to say out loud. I had always maintained that romances weren’t good books. “Trashy” even. (That terrible word you’ll see come up over and over again below.)

But, like any good romance, once I was able to get my past myself, the infatuation started. Slowly. A hidden book here, a clinch cover there. And also, like any good affair, there came a moment that changed me and made me the true sucker for romances that I am today. It was the book that made me finally say f**k it and fall insanely head over heels for romances.

You’ll find that other Rioters had similar experiences. They share their firsts below. With all, you’ll see some shared themes: stacks of hidden books, that terrible word “trash,” and surprisingly, grandfathers.

(I also vote today that we ban that word “trash” to ever use near or around romance novels. Yes? Yes. My thoughts on why we use that word to refer to romances could fill an entire post in itself, so I’ll just send you to Maya Rodale’s stupendous Dangerous Books for Girls instead.)

Here’s my first, other Rioters chime in below, and then we want to hear about what book changed you in the comments. It doesn’t have to be your favorite romance or the most essential read–it does have to be the one that made you fall in love with the genre.

Slave to Sensation by Nalini Singh 

How I Became a Romance Reader: Slowly, Then All At Once | BookRiot.comOne of my earliest memories is going through my mom’s romances and flipping back and forth between the front, tamer covers and the inner stepback. I couldn’t get over the colors, the drama, the loveliness, the cut-out reveal. I thought they were beautiful.

And then, sometime between that memory around five and sophomore year of high school, I learned that romance novels were a thing to be shamed. “Trashy” books, or in the very least, certainly not literary. At that point, I found my mom’s romances again and took one to school for the express purpose of reading the naughty bits aloud and laughing with my friends about it. It was deserved because these books were so absurd, cliché, and ridiculous, right? (When I finished that Nora Roberts book, though, I certainly didn’t tell my friends about it.)

Finally, when I was in college, a friend recommended Singh’s Slave to Sensation. Since I was a self-professed fantasy junkie I figured I could handle this one, even if there was some smooching. It had fantastical elements. I would be fine. I wouldn’t read it for the romance. But, I fell hard. The book was so unapologetic and daring. I mean, Slave to Sensation? The title still makes me grin like a lunatic. I loved the characters–one a passionate changeling, the other an ice-cold, rational Psy. I loved the way my heart seized up for them and how I cheered them on towards their happily-ever-after. And now, I try to be just as unapologetic about my romances–Regency, Western, contemporary, erotica, I love ’em all.

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

How I Became a Romance Reader: Slowly, Then All At Once | BookRiot.comThis book was recommended to me specifically in an attempt to get me to enjoy romance novels — and it worked. The plot revolved around a heroine who wasn’t a supermodel, who loved donuts (RELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS), and who was sharp and smart and not afraid to get angry, as well as able to do that whole “falling in love” thing. And while I primarily read paranormals and historicals (much like my non-romance fiction reading), I will never forget that first contemporary that changed everything for me. – Jenn Northington




Stranger In My Arms by Lisa Kleypas

How I Became a Romance Reader: Slowly, Then All At Once | BookRiot.comThe year was 1998. The time, summer vacation. The place, my grandparents’ house. I was bored out of my mind and didn’t have a book with me, so I decided to kill an hour or two by skimming through one of my grandfather’s romance novels. I picked up Stranger In My Arms because it was the only one without a clinch cover. I had read a few romance novels here and there previously, and was not impressed or interested in the least, but Stranger In My Arms completely turned me around.

Like the movie Sommersby, it’s based on the real-life medieval account of Martin Guerre, except it reimagines the story in a much more compelling way. It’s emotional and sexy and romantic, with super-solid historical research to back it up, and it addresses serious issues like women’s rights. Not what I’d heard was “trashy” fiction at all, but a genuinely great book! After that, I was hooked. – Tasha Brandstatter

One Good Earl Deserves a Lover by Sarah Maclean

How I Became a Romance Reader: Slowly, Then All At Once | BookRiot.comMy only experience with romance novels was finding my grandfather’s stash (yes, you read that right–he took up the genre after my grandmother died) that he hid under his sofa when company came. This is probably what cemented the idea of romance novels as somehow associated with people eternally older than I am, but two(ish?) years ago Rebecca Schinsky raved about this Sarah MacLean novel with an excellent title. I am a sucker for a good pun and trust Rebecca’s book taste completely, so I put aside my weird memories and gave it a go. It was funny, smart, feminist, roastingly hot (two years later and this book still wins for hottest love scene wherein the protagonists don’t actually touch each other), and just one of many perfectly-titled books from MacLean. I quickly read the rest of her backlist, then moved on to the must-reads of regency romance after that. I’ve also converted more than one friend who started off suspicious of romance to fans of the genre using MacLean as the intro. – Amanda Nelson 

A Woman of Passion and Such Sweet Poison by Anne Mather

How I Became a Romance Reader: Slowly, Then All At Once | BookRiot.comHarlequin and Mills and Boon novels littered my childhood, but all I can remember now are vague plot points and a hazy recollection of what the covers looked like. The first romance author whose name stuck with me is Anne Mather, and two of the titles that I remember clearly are called A Woman of Passion and Such Sweet Poison. She wrote angst-filled plots featuring alpha male romantic heroes. I think the heroines literally swooned in both of those stories? I don’t know, man. And while I would never sign off on the idea that romance is the exclusive domain of broody man-pain, something about them must have spoken to me. 

I can’t remember if the idea of romance as “lesser literature” was ever reinforced to me, though I’m sure it happened. We had an ersatz romance reading club in high school made up of honor students, and we all covertly read Johanna Lindsey and Nora Roberts novels in class by covering them with our textbooks. High school was also the period when I fell into reading slash fanfiction, which became crucial for the way I’ve engaged with popular culture ever since. Being part of the slash fandom taught me how to be critical of the source material and demand to see all sorts of relationships reflected in the stories told to me. By the time I learned feminist theory and queer theory through the Smallville fandom, there was precious little shame in my romance-reading game. – Kristel Autencio

Shoulda Been a Cowboy by Maisey Yates

How I Became a Romance Reader: Slowly, Then All At Once | BookRiot.comI was a big reader growing up, but like a lot of people, I was told that romance novels were “trash” and that smart girls didn’t read them. I had no reason to think otherwise until I started writing for Book Riot and realized that all these other people who were smart and well-read loved romance novels. They totally destroyed that stereotype for me, but the romance catalog was so overwhelming that I knew I needed help tackling it so I reached out to some romance experts for help. (If you’re getting started, I highly recommend this approach.) My first try was okay but nothing exciting. But my next book was a contemporary by Maisey Yates, Shoulda Been a Cowboy. I was skeptical. It had cowboys. COWBOYS! But I gave it a shot and to my surprise, I loved it. It was funny! And sexy! I enjoyed it thoroughly even though it had cowboys. (I went on to read the entire series.) It was a big lesson for me in not judging a book by its cover. That gave me the guts to start regency romance, which turns out to be my favorite type of romance. It gave me the guts to stop caring about covers and titles and start looking for romance writers who spoke to me. – Jessica Woodbury

A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean

How I Became a Romance Reader: Slowly, Then All At Once | BookRiot.comI grew up surrounded by romance novels. My mother and my aunt read them voraciously, and I remember stacks of them filling both their houses. But while I was a relatively early convert to genre fiction (Google “catering mysteries” then thank me on Twitter), I never fell hard for romance. That is, until earlier this year, when recommendations from my fellow Rioters and an awesome social media presence introduced me to the work of Sarah MacLean. I inhaled A Rogue by Any Other Name, and I was hooked. MacLean’s books are the perfect antidote to whatever nonsense you may have internalized about romance novels’ inferiority. They’re clever, funny, feminist, steamy, and compulsively readable. So now, when I want a break from (almost inevitably dour) literary fiction, I can turn to romance as often as I turn to catering mysteries and urban fantasy. And options, especially options as good as the ones MacLean offers, are wonderful things. – Derek Attig

We’ve shown you our firsts. What’s the novel that made you fall head over heels for romance?