When it comes to reading, if we're honest with ourselves, it's all about the emotion. Culturally (almost across the board), it's “weak” to show emotions. For males, such behavior is often criticized as being “feminine,” and females often say “I'm so not girly or touchy-feely.” In fiction—all fiction—actions are almost always driven by emotion—the basis is simply not examined. Many readers are unwilling to admit this.
I started reading romances after I burned out on classics. Once I hit high school, I only read classics. Not many of them are very happy, and it takes a stronger person than I to read four Thomas Hardy novels in a row, especially when concluding with Jude the Obscure. I lay curled up on the floor for 40 minutes after reading it. I haven't tried rereading it since, but likely some of my reaction had to do with teenage angst and melodrama. Regardless, it's definitely a tragic story.
After that experience I went back to my childhood favorites for a bit: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madeline L'Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, etc. But there are only so many times you can reread a book. (Although I haven't hit my limit with The Witch of Blackbird Pond and I'm at 40+. Granted, Elizabeth George Speare was something of a writing genius. She won two Newberry awards!)
Anyway, I went to the library and browsed the fiction stacks. I wanted something like a classic—at least in setting—so I stuck to the historical romances. My first few choices were based solely on the covers. As in, Which ones aren't too goofy or cliché? What book cover would least embarrass me if I ran into a friend, or a friend's parent? Never mind the giant orange-and-red-heart sticker on the spine of the book. That I could hide by strategically holding the book.
One of the first romances I remember reading is The Devil's Love by Julia London. Also, Black Silk by Judith Ivory. I still love both. I also read a number of Mary Jo Putney novels, and many romances released in hardcover. I found those covers to be more restrained—and they didn't have the telling sticker on the spine! Traitorous sticker! I quickly discovered Lisa Kleypas, Christina Dodd, and Julia Quinn. Teresa Medeiros is another author I enjoyed very much, and she opened the door to paranormals with her Regency vampire novels. (That, and I'd read some of the YA books as a kid; they existed before Twilight. Think L.J. Smith. Yes, she of The Vampire Diaries fame.)
I exhausted the historical romance (with a reasonable cover) collection at my library and branched out to contemporaries. I found the Brava books, which are released in trade-sized paperbacks. And there was no going back. These days, I read every Romance sub-genre, but Romance is basically the entirety of my pleasure reading. For the past few years it worked out nicely to balance the essays and texts in college, and the casebooks in law school. But in a way, that's just how I explain my reading choices to those who don't read Romance. I love Romance, plain and simple.
I love stories full of emotion, interpersonal relationships, exploration of what motivates people, watching them change or develop, and I go with Romance novels because I love the happy endings. If I wanted something that has “only” emotion, I could read the news, or contemplate my own life. Not always tragic, but definitely without a guaranteed happy ending.
I love the payout or reward of knowing the book will end on a positive note, and that it is the start of two people's lives together, committed and in love. This is why I get so annoyed at lukewarm or vague endings in books. I can't stand the “Hey, so let's see if this works out” closing. Or the “Well, I guess I'll call you.” I suppose some think that's edgy, but to me that's skating the edge of being outside the genre. I want closure. That's the point of reading Romance, after all. The assured happy ending.
What about you? How'd you get your start in reading Romance? What draws you back time and again? Because we all have to admit that yes, many of the plots are similar, but the emotions and characters—ah, that's where the beauty lies.