Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why We Read Romance Novels

Since starting this blog, I have been the lucky target of countless questions and puzzled remarks about why I have chosen to immerse myself in this popular, yet exceedingly misunderstood, genre of literature. Do I really believe these books are an accurate portrayal of love? What is my own romantic life like? Do I read because I long for a different family? A new career? A different life? The questions just keep on coming. And I love the questions. All of them. Because it means that people are reading. And thinking. So I decided to think too. 

I have offered a variety of reasons for my undying love of romance novels. The escape. The entertainment. The happy ending. But in the face of this onslaught of questions about what exactly it is that keeps me coming back for more, I needed to dig a little deeper. To understand what it really is about these books that keeps us constantly entertained and endlessly happy. 

And when I really stopped to think about these questions, something jumped out at me. These questions all made an assumption. That I read romance novels because I am not happy. Because I want to be different. To have something different. To be someone different. And nothing could be further from the truth. Because I am happy. I don’t want something different. I just want to be me. And live this life

In my quest for a deeper understanding of why people read romance novels, I stumbled across an article on about romance novels. The article was based on an essay from Britain’s Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care that said, among other things, that romance novels portray an idealized version of love, and that women may not be able to distinguish fact from fiction, so much so that women who read romance novels tend to suspend reality in their real relationships. No offense to the Journal, but I think that is just plain wrong. Because the women I know? They want real love. Not ideal love. And they want to be happy. And healthy. And fulfilled. And most of all, they want to be themselves. 

And these books. These delightful, thrilling and insightful books teach women that being yourself - whatever you choose to be - is something to be praised. Celebrated. Aspired to. 

Allow me to explain.

I have written extensively about 
the very first romance novel I ever read, The Stanislaski Sisters, followed shortly (read: the same day) by the sequel, The Stanislaski Brothers. There are four lead women featured in the pages of these books. Natasha, a stubborn Ukrainian beauty who owns and runs a toy store in a small West Virginia town. Her sister Rachel, a fiery New York City public defender. Sydney, an heiress who runs her family's company. Bess, a red-headed soap opera writer. Four books from the same series. Four different women. Different looks. Different jobs. Different cities. Different passions. What they all have in common? They find a great love. They have to work through hurdles to make that love work. And ultimately, finally, they settle in for the wild ride. And the happy ending. 

Love. Hard Work. Marriage. Family. Pretty good lessons if you ask me. 

My theory? When we read these books, we read because we can identify with the characters. Because the women in the books express characteristics that we both admire and aspire to have. And (sorry ABC News) we don't suspend reality in our relationships because we read romance novels. And we are certainly able to distinguish fact from fiction. We read because we enjoy the books. And the messages. And because maybe, just maybe, there is something to be learned from the pages of our favorites.

In an effort to prove my theory, I polled some romance novel 
aficionados (aka my sisters) about their favorite romance novel characters, and the reasons for their choices. 

First up, Sister K. Her choice? Parker from
Happy Ever After, the final book in Nora Roberts' Brides Quartet. Her reasons? Because Parker is a hard worker with a great family, and a beautiful home. In K's own words, "Parker just seems great." K and Parker have a lot in common. K is also a hard worker. One of the hardest I know. She is doing an admirable, enviable job of balancing her job and her new baby. And she has a wonderful family - both the family she was born into and the family she is making for herself with her amazing husband and baby girl. And recently, she and her husband bought their own dream home. And it is beautiful. I would say that she admires Parker because the qualities that Parker has are ones that K herself possesses. She sees pieces of herself there. She sees that she can have it all - job, family, and home. And she can, and does, excel at all of them. No need to suspend reality, because her reality is simply divine.

Next, Sister L. Her choice? Anna Spinelli from
Sea Swept, the first book in Nora Roberts' Quinn Brothers Quartet. Her reasons? Because Anna is both old fashioned and daring; fiercely protective with a strong sense of justice. Now L may not be old fashioned, but the other qualities certainly hit the mark. Daring? What else could you possibly call a girl who made the decision, completely on her own, to leave home at the age of 14 to attend high school in a different state? And who, upon arriving at said high school, excelled spectacularly. Fiercely protective? Definitely. In her quiet way, L is the loudest champion for the ones she loves. She is happy when we are happy. She hurts when we hurt. She is our strongest ally, and most loyal friend. She is devoted to her brand new husband, and he to her. She is watching her most precious dreams come true before her very eyes. And so are we. Proudly. Strong sense of justice? Certainly. Just ask her how she defines the word "annoying." L's favorite character is Anna because so many of the best parts of Anna lay within L. No need to believe in an idealized version of love because she lives the real thing each and every day.

My point in this long ramble is to say that women who read romance novels don't read them simply because they are gripping love stories. We read them because they are 
endlessly entertaining and often thought-provoking. Because the characters are raw and real. Because they showcase women - and couples - who remind us of ourselves. 

Each of the characters currently populating my bookshelves has her own unique story, and so do we. Lucky for us, we get to read those stories, while living our own beautiful and vivid realities. And I would say that's the best of both worlds. Wouldn't you?

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