My love and addiction for all things romance began when I was fourteen years old, at my first job. I was a shelver at my local library and suddenly, all these new books I had never bothered to discover were at my very fingertips. As a teen, I mostly skipped over the teen books of the time. I read Sweet Valley when I was eight or nine and then moved along into more complex adult novels, but not necessarily romance. Let me tell you, my mind was blown.
I clearly remember the first romance book I checked out. Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught was my introduction to the historical romance genre and I was hooked, no doubt about it. I loved the chemistry between Whitney and Clayton, the Duke of Westmoreland. I thought he was simply divine and I developed my own crush on him. I re-read that book many, many times, eventually buying my own copy. He gave me the shivers and I couldn't ever imagine how Whitney had resisted him for so long. Of course, I was a somewhat naive and very shy teenager so his domineering personality and take-charge attitude worked for me. He chased the girl; I liked that, plain and simple. Unfortunately, this is not a book that has stood the test of time for me.
When Alea kindly asked me to blog about my love for romance, I initially declined, now knowing what to talk about. But then it hit me and while I know it is not a new idea by any means, it's something I've been hoping to express for a long time. My tastes in romance have changed and grown so much since I was fourteen years old. What seemed sexy and romantic to me then is not the same anymore. In preparation for writing this post, I checked Whitney, My Love out of the library (oh the memories.) I started reading. And, I was not impressed which was why I have probably avoided this book for many, many years.
Clayton is not sexy and let me tell you, he is not romantic. He is pretty much a jerk and a rapist to boot. There is nothing remotely sexy about that, nothing lovey dovey about forcing yourself on your intended because you think she has been with someone else. There is nothing romantic in deciding you're going to get a mistress to pay back your wife for her treachery. And there is nothing whatsoever passionate or sensual about cruelty. Nothing, whatsoever. Here are a few choice excerpts from Clayton where he expresses his disgust with Whitney.
Abruptly the hand tightened and with one sharp tug he split the thin garment in two, flinging it away from her body. "Get into the bed," he ordered coldly.
Desperate to hide her nakedness, Whitney fled to the big fourposter and quickly pulled the sheets up to her chin, as if they could protect her from him. In a blur of unreality, she saw Clayton strip off his jacket. He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off, and she stared blindly at the rippling muscles of his powerful shoulders and arms then she twisted her head toward the wall and squeezed her eyes closed. His footsteps bore down on the bed, and she opened her eyes to see him towering menacingly above her.
"Don't cover yourself from me!" He caught the sheet and tore it from her clenched fists. "I want to see what I paid so handsomely for!" Pain slashed across his features as his gaze swept over her naked body, then his jaw hardened.
So romantic right?? Not at all. Tore, menacingly, bore down. Not exactly setting the scene for a passionate and equal love scene or relationship.
When he believes Whitney has been unfaithful to him yet again, but this time she is pregnant, he decides:
If she was going to bear a child, and he as going to have to give it his name, then by God he wasn't going to have to look at it and wonder whose it was! He'd send the brat away from his sight. But not right away. First he would let her keep the child for a year or two until she was deeply attached to it; then he would wrench the babe away from her.
Nice guy! Of course, Whitney finally seems to realize what he is doing.
He had done it again! Just what he had done the awful night he had dragged her here. He had accused her of something in his mind, tried and convicted and sentenced her, without ever telling her what crime she was accused of committing. Without ever giving her an opportunity to explain! And now--and now--he actually believed he could just set her aside, move to another wing of the house and pretend that their marriage was as dead as if it had never existed.
Clayton finally acknowledges his jackassery but it is way, way too late.
He wasn't worthy. Twice in their lives now he had treated her with a brutal viciousness of which he'd never known he was capable. God! She was nurturing his child within her womb and never once had he even asked how she was feeling. How could one slender girl bear the weight of such cruelty without hating him as he deserved?
Indeed. While I don't berate myself for liking these books as a young teen, I am glad I've grown enough to the point where I recognize that this is not romance, at least, not the kind of romance I want to read about.
Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if Whitney, while not a total doormat, isn't exactly the smartest romance heroine I've read. At the time, I thought she was a great character. Upon a more recent re-read, my opinion has definitely been revised. She's young for her age, no doubt, and the time period does give her some restrictions, but she takes what Clayton gives out, and she goes back to him. Not once, but twice. Theirs is not a relationship of equality and companionship, but a relationship of unequal power. And in my late twenties, that does not work for me any longer. Nor in fact do the Catherine Coulter, Sandra Brown, or Diana Palmer books I once devoured. While I feel a certain nostalgia for these authors, I do not buy their new material, I haven't in recent years re-read any of my old favorites. I've moved on to stories where the females are taking control of their relationship, where the power is not a struggle but more like a flowing current, and it is never, never used against the female in anger.
Some of my current favorite romance authors writing today are Victoria Dahl, Susan Mallery, Lisa Kleypas, Julie James, and Brenda Novak. I like it when my romance characters, particularly the females, are intelligent, when they are totally unashamed of their sexuality and femininity, and when the romance itself is not an argumentative falling in love, as in many romances of my early years. I need conversation, compromise, hope, and humor. Plenty of humor in fact because I love a snarky comment or a sarcastic retort.
I still like my men to be pretty much alpha heroes but they cannot be cruel or heck, I'd go so far as to say misogynistic at times as in Whitney, My Love. When I think of great male characters, Chase from Victoria Dahl's Lead Me On comes instantly to mind. He is sexy as hell but he is also a really genuine and caring guy. He is smart, is more than happy to show Jane how he feels about her, and he accepts everything about her. It's a rare combination sometimes in romance land.
Another favorite romance, After the Night by Linda Howard features a couple who give and take with passion and wit. Gray definitely bends towards the arrogant side of the male spectrum but Faith has no trouble putting him in his place. These two have a rocky courtship but as adults, they are able to find a more equitable and very fun relationship.
I still like to try new authors with my romances but I'm quicker to turn away from a writer for many reasons. My reading time has become much more important to me so I have to focus on romances that leave me happy and not pulling out my hair basically.
So while I'll perhaps always have a certain fondness for Judith McNaught, more out of nostalgia than anything else, she is not an author I plan on picking up any time soon, either for new books or re-reads.
If you're looking for a few great romance reads, with characters that are basically all kinds of awesome, I highly recommend reading any of the following titles: Catch of the Day by Kristan Higgins, Blue-Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas, Going Too Far by Jennifer Echols, Wicked All Day by Liz Carlyle, Nalini Singh's Psy/Changeling series starting with Slave to Sensation.
These are stories with emotion and heart, with passion for sure, but they lack the cruelty that made up my teenage romance reading. I'm impressed with the direction romance writers are going with their characters and I think this is a change for the better.
So, that's been my romance journey so far. Has there been a romance book that has affected you in one way or another? That you can no longer read or that has grown on you? And if you haven't started reading romance yet, I hope you'll give it a try!