The romance genre has not always gotten the recognition or respect that, in my personal opinion, it rightly deserves. At best, people who consider themselves “serious” readers think of it as a bit of fluff that women read to pass the time (mom porn is a turn of phrase popular among critics); at worst (and especially after the admittedly ridiculous 50 shades of grey trilogy was published) it has been scathingly referred to as destructive, morally questionable and responsible for the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.
A part of me is tempted to roll my eyes and tell people to relax, its just fiction, but as an aspiring writer myself I fully believe in the power of the written word. And let’s face it, some of those romance novel tropes are repugnant: sex that’s bordering on non-consensual if not outright rape, the fact that some books lead readers to believe that people really have nothing better to do than obsess about their love life all day, the way women are portrayed as overly dramatic damsels in distress and men the conquering heroes who will arrive just in time to solve our problems, usually in the form of a marriage proposal. Some of them are so badly written, its a crime that they’ve even been published.
Thanks to the new Netflix adaptation of Bridgerton, based on a series of books by Julia Quinn, I have spent the better part of the Christmas holidays reacquainting myself with romance novels. Lockdown being what it is, and being the voracious reader that I am, I’ve somehow managed to finish around 10 in a matter of days, including some of my favourites in the Bridgerton series.
It felt like a return to childhood. I can still remember hunting down secondhand copies of these books because they didn’t used to stock them regularly in the country’s only bookstore (at the time); or eagerly anticipating my aunt coming home from the US because she used to bring a whole heap of them. As I re-read old favourites on my Kindle and discovered some new ones, I found myself laughing out loud in a way I haven’t done with any book in a long long time. In addition, I was happy to find that the really good ones have more overt undertones of feminism and acceptance, reflective of the changing landscape of society, this growing belief that “women don’t owe you pretty”, and the female gender’s need to assert ourselves as equals.
Gone are the vapid, insipid, damsels in distress. These badass women save themselves. They have their own source of income, they are independent, their life is complete with or without a husband.
Gone are the perfect heroines with tiny waists and delicate constitutions. Heck, Julia Quinn’s Penelope Featherington was compared to a citrus fruit and one of Eloisa James’ characters is nicknamed The Scottish Sausage.
Needless to say, I identified with those two heroines the most.
Despite the welcome changes, love is still the first order of business. Its called a ROMANCE novel after all. And ah, how grandly and beautifully love is portrayed in these books. When I finished them, I was almost willing to believe (once again) that true love does exist, that there is such a thing as forever, despite numerous evidence suggesting otherwise. And that, i think, is what makes romance novels so widely scorned.
I think all of the genre’s purported crimes can be mostly overlooked or even forgiven were it nor for the romance novel’s greatest sin: the fact that it has the audacity to tell us that its okay to hope. In this day and age, you run the risk of being laughed at for even so much as hinting that you still believe, in your heart of hearts, buried under layers of cynicism, in knights in shining armour and fairy tale endings; for admitting that you in fact still listen (more times than you care to admit) to Disney songs proclaiming faith in some random prince that might someday come.
This is the real crime of romance novels, that it dares to ask us to BELIEVE.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read romance novels. I really don’t think I would be who I am today, for better or worse, without them being such a huge part of my formative years. I blame them for my slightly unrealistic expectations of what relationships are meant to be, and I thank them for the relentless optimism that makes me believe that things will always get better, that something wonderful is waiting just around the corner.
These days, we could all use a little hope, a little optimism, a little wonder. Its what got me through the worst year in recent history, its what’s getting me through the prospect of an extended lockdown. And if only for that reason, romance novels will always have a place in my bookshelf, and in my heart.
If you’re new to romance novels, here are a few reading suggestions that, in my opinion, are the best representation of the genre:
1. The Bridgerton Series by Julia Quinn – of course. Penelope Featherington is my ride and die.
2. How to Marry a Marquis – also by Julia Quinn and in my opinion, even better than the Bridgerton series.
3. Remembrance by Jude Deveraux – cried buckets of tears with this one.
4. The Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas – St. Vincent is one of my favourite heroes EVER. Gotta love them bad boys and reformed rakes.
5. The Key Trilogy by Nora Roberts – in my opinion she should have retired after this series…it all kinda went downhill from there.
6. Romancing The Duke by Tessa Dare – absolutely fabulous. I was smiling the whole way through. In fact, read the whole series.
7. On a Wild Night by Stephanie Laurens – she tends to be a bit long winded but I love the plot of this one.
8. Duchess By Night by Eloisa James – hilarious, poignant, one of her best works. In fact, read everything she published before 2017. It all sort of went downhill after that.
9. The Magic of You by Johanna Lindsey – the Malorys are the best. And the books in this series were less rapey than some of her other works.
10. Whitney My Love by Judith McNaught – if you’re in the mood to be a masochist, read this book and all the books connected to it. Its absolutely painful to read but ugghhh, they’re so entertaining.
I hope you enjoy reading these books as much as I once did. And may hope spring ever eternal. xx