Once upon a time, many years ago, I was stuck in a frightening, cruel, and heartless place. It was called HIGH SCHOOL.
Now I’ve heard rumors about this place called High School. I’ve heard that it’s a teenage paradise. I’ve heard that people learn a lot there and that they date there. I’ve even heard unsubstantiated rumors that some people think those are the best years of your life. But for me this was not the case. For me high school was a never-ending cave of psychological torture from which there was no escape. I was bullied, I was excluded, and I never got any attention from the boys.
Jess proceeded to slide a well-worn paperback into my hands. On the front of its dog-eared cover were a man and a woman, locked in a fierce embrace. The hero was bulgy in all the right places, his hair thick and windswept. The heroine’s dress was falling off. She looked as though she would collapse entirely, but the hero held her in a possessive embrace. Her tousled hair not only begged the question “which direction is the wind coming from anyhow?”, it spoke of passion, freedom, love.
“Dude, there is no way my mom is going to let me read this,” I said to Jess, even though the book beckoned to me.
“It’s okay,” Jess assured me. “Just put it inside of another book and she’ll never know. Or read it when you’re alone in your room.”
Well I am a teenager, I thought. I’m alone in my room a lot. “Okay,” I said. “Hand it over.”
I don’t remember the name of that first romance novel, but I do remember that it had pirates in it. And sex. Lots of vividly described sex.
Now to put this in context, I was raised by a single mom. She was the sweetest, meekest, most selfless and wonderful woman to ever walk this earth. She was also one of the shiest, particularly when it came to talking about sex. In fact, our big conversation about the birds and the bees went something like this:
Mom: Did they show you that video in school today? Me: Yep. Mom: Do you have any questions? Me: Nope.
So there I was, devouring the pages full of pirate adventures with passionate kisses and scandalous embraces, when all of a sudden, OH MY GOSH, HE PUT HIS WHAT WHERE???
Well, I was hooked. I mean, who can resist a well-written and completely over the top love scene? With pirates! Yes, I, Merry Farmer, got the bulk of my sexual education from romance novels.
But I also got something else. Because the world that is depicted in romance novels is pretty much the polar opposite of high school, or at least my experience of it. I’d spent so long lost in a world where young people were cruel to each other because they had just discovered what cruelty was and needed to test out their new powers. To then turn around and discover a world in which the hero and heroine always get together at the end and have a happy ending? With sex? Well!
After that first book, Jess loaned me a few others. Pirates seemed to be a major theme for me in those early years of romance novel reading. I think they must have been really in back in the late 80s and early 90s. When I’d exhausted Jess’s supply of tales of love on the high seas she shared another secret with me. She took me to this delightful little used book store … where they had (and have) thousands and thousands of romance novels just waiting to be devoured!Well that was pretty much the second most awesome day of my life. (The first most awesome, incidentally, was when I realized I didn’t have to wait for the teacher to assign a creative writing project to write something) I’d discovered my world, my passion, my calling.
There are a lot of people out there who would try to tell you that romance novels are cheesy or inferior or cheap. People call them chick porn or trashy books. And yeah, there’s a bit of truth to that, but mostly I just take offense to the oversimplification of the genre. Because at its very essence, Romance is about love. It’s about overcoming obstacles to find life-long love.
That was a message I very much needed to hear as a teenager. I was dealing with bullying at school, a broken home, and anxiety disorders. Romance novels came along at exactly the right point in my life. When things looked blackest, here were these amazing stories. They pulled me out of what could have otherwise been a period of total misery. They gave me hope.
And they had sex in them!
So next time you’re tempted to poo-poo the genre as being trashy, just remember…. Contained within those pages, sealed behind that half naked hero and busty heroine, love awaits. It’s a love that can save a lonely teenager’s sense of sanity and inspire her to create even more where that came from.