From the very first lines of the very first romance novel I ever read in 1977 (Shanna, by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss), I was hooked: “Night gripped the city with cold, misty darkness… The miserable night masked the passage of a carriage that careened through the narrow streets as if it fled from some terrible disaster.”
I remember trying to tell my dad what the novel was about, and after about 10 minutes, he said, “25 words or less!” Impossible, simply impossible. Or is it? A girl forced into marriage by her father hatches a plot to marry a condemned man with a good name. Trouble (and love) ensues. Twenty-four!
Well, that was the beginning. And over the years, I’ve learned some stuff from the many romance novels I’ve read. Here’s a summary of those life lessons:
1. Reading is fun. Seriously, when you’re a kid and you’ve read all the Nancy Drew books, what’s left? These are books that take you away, possess your mind, and cause you to dream of a better life and greater possibilities. And yes, that is why they are dangerous.
2. I am normal. From the sex scenes to the simple thoughts of longing and feelings of inadequacy that are overcome, these stories show us the interior lives of others and make use feel connected, safe, and part of a whole bigger story. We’re not alone in our feelings—we’re all a part of the lovely mess of humanity.
3. How to be the captain of my own ship. Oh, I love a good pirate romance (The Pirate Lord by Sabrina Jeffries is my favorite). And one of the reasons is that I am enamored of the idea of sailing on a big ship (the kind with sails) and I’ve been able to not just learn about it, but also to feel it and apply it to my life and how I manage people and things. It’s been super helpful.
4. How to defend a castle. No shit. And let’s put it this way—I’ve had to do this multiple times in real life. And if it weren’t for the inspiration in romance novels, I might not have survived or succeeded at doing it.
5. I can survive through hardship. Yes, I know it’s fiction, but I also know truth can be stranger than fiction. And putting yourself into someone else’s mind and heart while he or she is imprisoned or stranded or completely down on his or her luck can be very empowering. It gives me a sense that whatever comes my way I can handle it.
6. Love is challenging and transformative. People who don’t read romances think it’s always about a fantasy of perfection. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The whole point of a romance is getting engrossed in how other people solve the challenges in their relationships and lives in order to transform them for the better.
7. There will be “black moments.” “Black moments” are the industry term for those moments when all seems lost, impossible, or gone forever. There will always be black moments in all our lives…and in all good stories. What life and romance stories show us over and over is that usually those black moments are just the beginning of something wonderful.
8. Strong and powerful woman are ultimately loveable. Trust me, this one is key. Romance heroines are hardly ever shrinking violets (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And many women (especially us older ladies) were raised with the idea that men can’t handle that. That we have to shrink ourselves in order to appease the fragile male ego. In romance novels, that never happens, and as a result, everyone grows!
9. Heroes come in all different shapes, sizes, and forms. What makes a hero? Honor and integrity. Heroes (and heroines) are everywhere around us! One story’s villain is another’s hero. A hero is a way of being, not a way of looking. We all have the opportunities to be heroes, and reading romances show us what that is like.
10. We are all soul mates. OK, this is a radical idea. I feel sorry for all the people who say there’s no such thing as soul mates or true love. I see it all over the opinion pages and social media. But what if we look at it differently for a minute? I’m a firm believer in the theory that everything is connected. That means we are all connected. And that means, in theory, that we are all soul mates! (Or as one of my favorite soul mates calls it soul “M8s”).
OK, that doesn’t mean we should hop into bed with every person we meet. But it does mean that true love takes on a different meaning. It’s not something dependent on one-ness; it’s something dependent on inclusiveness. So just like being a hero, true love is a way of being, not a way of looking. True love is a daily practice, not a destination. I didn’t learn this just from romance novels, but I couldn’t have understood it without them.
And we all lived happily ever after.
It’s romance novel week here Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen! This week, my mom has let me (Maya Rodale) and my romance-writing friends take over the blog to share personal stories about how these books have transformed our lives. They’re best known for the naughty bits, but romance novels have so much to teach and inspire us about love, self-acceptance, hope, and HAPPINESS—all ideas I examine in my new book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, which looks at the secret history of why these books have been scorned, but also why they’ve been the salvation for millions of women readers.