…and I’m here to offer my comprehensive, well-informed assessment of the entire genre.
But first a bit of background.
I picked up a few romance novels as a teenager, mostly to laugh. My sister had a crush on Fabio for a while and had a copy of Pirate, a novel that he actually wrote (though when he appeared on Jay Leno to discuss the plot of the book it was clear he knew absolutely nothing about it). I flipped through the occasional copy of some Harlequin paperbacks in bookstores and at friend’s houses, mostly to look for the sex scenes at a time when actual sex was still a bit of a mystery.
I was never a devotee, though. From a pretty young age I could recognize shitty writing, and most of those books were, well, mediocre at best, horribly written at worst. When it came to literary titillation I usually preferred Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, which contained little or no actual sex but made me very, very curious about the smoldering glances traded between male vampires. And then there were V.C. Andrews and Jean M. Auel, who I’ve written about before and who left very little to the imagination when it came to descriptions of sex.
As an adult I’ve never bothered much with romance novels because a) I imagined they were repetitive and dull, and life is too short to read bad / dull books, b) the dominant guy / simpering virginal girl stories that I remembered from my teenage years were now a big turnoff, and c) if I wanted titillation I had a wealth of well-written erotic literature to choose from, never mind all the plotty stuff about corsets and dukes and horses.
But then a few years ago I stumbled onto Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and the Tumblr Romance Club. I started reading commentary on contemporary romance novels and the idea that anything that’s loved by large numbers of women tends to be written off as fluffy or dumb. (Granted, there’s plenty of criticism aimed at novels that men AND women love–Dan Brown, anyone?–but there’s a unique level of vitriol reserved for “chick lit” and “chick flicks.”) Mostly, though, I started reading some of the reviews on both of the above websites, many of which were really damn funny. Sure, when it comes to humor romance novels are low-hanging fruit, but it takes a certain amount of skill to skewer them really well. I recommend Melinda’s review of Larkspur on tumblr (Rajah is not a rapey dragon) and Sarah’s review of The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl on SBTB (Kaliq dismounted with the same speed and grace as he would remove himself from the body of a woman he had just made love to.) Oh, and did you know there’s a whole subgenre of romance novels devoted to pregnant amnesiacs? And one of those novels is actually called Pregnesia?
While laughing at the really bad ones I also started to re-think my dismissal of romance novels. Maybe they’d undergone a bit of a renaissance since I was a teenager. Commenters on SBTB and tumblr spoke repeatedly of how the heroines were now a lot more kick-ass and the relationships a lot more equal. So I pored over lists of recommendations for newbies and finally downloaded two books to my Kindle.
The first one I read was Zoe Archer’s Warrior, the first in a series called Blades of the Rose (I cannot write that without giggling). Zoe Archer got a lot of love on a lot of different romance-related websites for depicting racial diversity, creating detailed and interesting worlds, and always featuring confident, intelligent heroines. So my expectations were a bit high.
Sadly, they weren’t really met. The book wasn’t AWFUL, it just wasn’t very good. It was set in Mongolia, which I guess was supposed to be exotic but just felt sort of like a Hollywood version of Mongolia. The bad guys were 100% bad and the good guys were 100% good (yes, I know that technically the male lead was supposed to be a ruffian-turned-decent-guy, but his flaws were essentially scratches on a Ferrari). The sex scenes were fun, but they didn’t really excite me.
I think this is my fundamental problem with most romance novels–when you know for sure that two people are going to get it on (repeatedly and in a lot of different locations, often with a baby and marriage in the end), there’s just not much excitement or anticipation. I like my romance to appear in the background of a good story, not be the center of it. Lin and Isaac from Perdido Street Station. Jamisia Capra and the snake-headed alien she ALMOST had sex with in This Alien Shore. It’s more fun when you don’t know for sure if they will or they won’t, or if their relationship isn’t the whole foundation of the novel.
I made it all the way through Warrior and really needed a decent helping of China Mieville or Cormac McCarthy, but I decided that I should give the romance genre at least one more shot. So I tried Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, who also gets a lot of praise on romance novel websites.
And…damn. This one was good.
The writing was crisp, clever, and engaging–the prologue alone is a very solid little mini Gothic novel. The book didn’t take itself too seriously and was witty without being cloying. The main characters were complicated and appealing, and even though you knew they were going to end up together, it wasn’t exactly clear how. The supporting characters could have used a little more fleshing out, but that didn’t really bother me.
And the sex was actually hot. Loretta Chase did a good job of building things up slowly–a grasped hand here, a rough embrace there. But once the characters got their clothes off the writing definitely wasn’t shy.
I kind of wish that the novel hadn’t ended with (spoiler alert!) wedded bliss and a baby, but again, that’s kind of a minor criticism. I really liked this book.
The verdict, then? I’m not rushing out to download a dozen more romance novels–I tend to want a little more to chew on when I read. But sometimes I just want to have a bit of fun with a book. And I definitely think I dismissed the whole romance genre way too quickly. Something tells me there are plenty more books and authors out there that I might want to check out. So if you’re a bit of a book snob and are embarrassed to be seen reading a romance novel in public, get yourself an e-reader and just give them a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.