What I learnt from paperback romances
This writer's passion for paperback romances has survived scorn, bad writing and reality
I read my first romance novel at 12. It was a Barbara Cartland. The heroine was a chef who cooked peacocks and wore empire-line gowns. The hero, a duke, wore boots shined with champagne and rescued the heroine from hard times. They kissed twice. It was almost too carnal.
I soon graduated to Mills & Boon. You know, with the real sex. Breasts were mentioned. And strong thighs. From the ages of 15 to 18, I was averaging two Mills & Boons a day. Some days I read four. Sometimes five. I later graduated from those, too, to the bigger, wider world of romance. Historical romances and bodice-rippers, romantic suspense and romances set in the future. I had my favourite Mills & Boon, Silhouette and Harlequin authors, and followed some of them to their novels: Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, Linda Howard. I read a smorgasbord of other writers as well, but a ‘proper’ romance pretty much every day. I couldn’t wait to fall in love — the chase, the cheesy-yet-strangely-arousing metaphors, the assured happy ending.
Then, some 15 years into my connoisseurship of romances (I could tell by the cover which year an M&B had been published), Mills & Boon started to put out books titled The Millionaire’s Blackmailed Mistress, The Italian’s Virgin Secretary and Back In The Brazilian’s Bed. Quite so did romance fade, taking characterisation, scene-building and story with it. The new formula had five chapters of sex, three of reconciliation at the end and four to wrap up what was left of the story.
These were hard going, and soon, faster than you could say ‘He moved with feline grace’, I had stopped reading them. I wanted to publish my own romance, but Mills & Boon rejected it. (Gallingly, their letter suggested my characterisation and story needed work.) Since then, I reach for the old favourites lurking on my Kindle and in my library, maybe twice a year. But like for the abstaining smoker, those few times are far too pleasurable for me to ever quite kick the habit. Besides, they taught me so many important lessons — good, bad and embarrassing.
Uncool = freedom
The next time someone asks you what you read, say romance and watch them struggle to stay polite. It’s the literary equivalent of Hello Kitty. Uncool central. Social suicide. Once you’ve told the world, though, it also becomes easier to say you don’t like rock music, actually listen to Bollywood countdowns and read film magazines cover to cover every month. The truth is that most things we really enjoy are the kinds of things we wouldn’t necessarily crow about. Admitting to doing them helps you enjoy them with abandon, and builds enough discomfort muscle that you can courageously confess to loving Facebook next time.
Weird stuff may turn you on
Romances have sub-genres, like sci-fi, medical drama (urgh), Amish (too spare), amnesia, Sheikhs. For me, humour always does it. Followed closely by secret baby (the man learns of his illegitimate child 10 years later style of thing), a good mystery, or either protagonist possessing paranormal abilities. Don’t ask why, just go with it.
You’ll know a crinoline from a bustle
Western costume history was laid bare through historical romances. You know, the ones in which a fair maiden, always a virgin and covered in layers of petticoats, is married off to the forbiddingly powerful man. I credit much of my fashion knowledge of the 18th and 19th centuries to Barbara Cartland, who spent more time on clothes than on dialogue; and she wasn’t the only one. There’s love and misunderstanding in every century, and so here I am, handily equipped to spot a pannier or leg of mutton sleeves. Helpful when you work in fashion (think Dior S/S 2014). Always good to know a codpiece from stuffed breeches, I say.
The heroine looks like you
I was 12 when I grew a streak of white hair. A bit early, I thought. Then, at 15, I read a Mills & Boon where the protagonist had just such a streak. And it made her totally distinctive. I could live with that. There’s a heroine for every kind of complex you carry about yourself. Too thin, too fat, big bottom, small boobs, pudgy stomach, crazy hair. Cancer, divorce, single motherhood, cheating boyfriend, losing a job… there’s no other place with such variety and numbers of women protagonists, and if one of them could offer some comfort or help you accept yourself, then yay.
Love is (not) 80 per cent telepathy
Apart from being tall, dark and handsome, the perfect man is also the only one who moves the plot forward. He takes the first step, pursues persistently and says I love you first. It’s a handy guide to follow… and get nowhere. I grew up telling myself I could do anything a man could, from changing light bulbs to moving countries on my own to getting rid of lizards. Until it came to actually finding a man. Then I turned into the good old-fashioned M&B heroine — waiting to be sought while I shied away and gave no encouragement. How very odd that men took ‘not interested’ to mean not interested. Being with someone didn’t help, either. In a romance, when you’ve played the martyr long enough, there’s some satisfying grovelling from the hero at the end. But making proper three-to-five page apologies is not that popular among men, it turns out. Worst of all, if you don’t say what you want, nobody reads your mind and does what you want them to! It’s shocking.
Men have no feelings (except they do)
Except anger and some jealousy, which obviously leads to crazy monkey sex. Men are described just enough that we can fill in the rest with our imagination till they look like our ultimate fantasy. Then you meet them in real life: they’re insecure, vulnerable, unhappy, proud — but never Colin Firth. And the whopper: you can hurt them.
Multiple orgasms are a given (ha ha lolz)
Some authors do it better than others, but regardless, all romances have one thing in common. The woman is bound to have at least one orgasm, the average is two (if you’re reading Linda Howard, we’re looking at four), every time she has sex. Imagine my disbelief when a college friend back in the day revealed she hadn’t yet had the pleasure, despite a few months of having done the deed. “He tries really hard,” she said. No! No trying. Just delivering. Because, you know, how many men go around saying she tried really hard? Romance novels know this, and they spread the word well.
You can easily write one yourself (you can’t)
Who hasn’t read a Mills & Boon and thought they could write better? I did. And just as quickly, I didn’t. Romance writing is hard work. Those light-as-air-scenes, the sexual tension, the cool witticisms, none of these just write themselves. Even if you were to succeed, you would never be legitimised by the literary community. Take Nora Roberts, one of my favourite authors, with 192 best-sellers and counting on The New York Times list — reviewed once.
Love will find you by your thirties (sigh)
When I was in my early thirties, I found myself unusually antsy. The reason, I finally figured, was that I had internalised one message from years of reading romance. There would be a point in my early 30s (no later than 32) when I would fall in love. I would no longer need to worry about singledom, money or the future. It would be the beginning of a fabulous new, designerwear-clad affair. I would be fulfilled and complete. Then it finally dawned on me — there was going to be no new chapter writ by falling in love. This was as good as it got. If I wanted more, I would have to reach for it myself. Terrifying. I’d pick the tycoon any day, thanks very much ç I’m ready to be The Greek’s Convenient Wife.
You will live happily ever after
We all want a happy ending. And yes, we know life doesn’t work like that, but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to read it in a good story. And just as often, in a bad one.
Fatima is the author of romance novel Seriously, Sitara? (Hachette India)
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