The internet helped me locate the very first genre romance I ever read as an adolescent, a book that made such a strong impression on me, I still can't use the word “chiffon” in a crossword puzzle without thinking of it. (You never forget your first heroine's dress with usefully inconvenient tiny buttons down the back...)
The book was The Romantic Spirit by Glenna Finley, a prolific author in the '70s and '80s who is now pretty obscure. I've never seen a mention of her in the last eight years or so I've hung out in online Romancelandia; her GoodReads ratings are high, yet there are only two short reviews. Rereading this book now, it doesn't seem surprising that her books haven't lasted: it is very much a product of its time, yet in a way that already seemed dated to me when I first read it, around a year after it was published. With its superficial descriptions of the counter-culture, coupled with the heroine's extreme prudishness about sex, it reads like the last gasp of a fading world; the main character is a wide-eyed tourist, not just in California, but in society at large:
Maggie shook her head wonderingly as they passed a teen-aged twosome where the coloring of the girl's tie-dyed jeans resembled the many-shaded bleach job in her hair. Her escort had his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail as he strode along in a garment that looked like a Moroccan caftan except for the Wild West fringe on the bottom.
'If I didn't know better, I'd swear this was a “Come as you are” party,' Maggie murmured to John.
Yet it's not a bad book. Local color was Finley's big selling point and it's well done, even if I had to snort when the heroine finds a convenient parking spot in San Francisco. The writing is crisp and professional, the description are vivid, and the banter can be charming:
'We simply went to another woman and had our fortunes told in tea leaves.'
John chuckled. 'A real scientific approach.
'Absolutely. She said I'd meet someone interesting in the water, so I started hanging around the swimming pool on campus.'
'Nothing?' he prompted.
'Nothing. Since I was in the girls' gym swimming pool, it wasn't surprising, but I didn't figure that out for several weeks.'
I was curious about how my memories of the book would hold up. I discovered with my reread of Anne Mather's The Waterfalls of the Moon, another early favorite, that I had remembered the dramatic highlights of the plot, but got most of the details completely wrong. In this case, I largely remembered dialogue, and was intrigued to find that I had in fact got much of it word for word. What stuck with me was the meet-cute when Maggie drops a wrench on John's foot (complete with his curse, “God damn it to hell!) and their angsty moment involving the difficult chiffon dress.
But I completely forgot the plot, the suspenseful and vaguely paranormal elements, and the pun in the title. There's a vivid scene in which Maggie is attacked, and it startles me that none of it stuck in my memory:
Frantically she tried to fight back but her resistance was hopeless against the other's superior strength. Her startled, painful whimper was [unreadable] off ruthlessly when his fingers tightened their grip. Only her labored breathing rasped in the silence as she writhed in that suffocating grasp.
The agony was prolonged for an instant that seemed like a lifetime and her lungs were at the bursting point before darkness mercifully shuttered her senses. She was totally unconscious by the time her attacker released his grip and callously dumped her limp body on the floor.
Yow! Reading that now, it's quite terrifying.
Comparing my memories of this book and others from that same first bout of romance reading, I think this book must have been the match set to tinder that was already laid, setting off a passionate love for romantic drama. The relationship is staid by the standards of later books, or even contemporaneous Harlequin Presents: a bit of uncertainty, a bit of jealousy, a bit of kissing, leading directly to marriage. The conflict could not be more dated: Maggie needs help undoing her dress, John thinks she's coming on to him (which instantly makes her ”a carbon copy of all the other women he had known — charming, superficial and conveniently available“) and Maggie is shocked and outraged.
His voice roughened. 'Come off your high horse, Maggie. Let's not play any more games.' He pulled her close against him suddenly, and she felt his strong fingers on the bare skin at her back. At the same time, his head bent to nuzzle the soft hollow of her shoulder. 'You had me fooled,” he was murmuring against her satiny skin. 'I was playing on a different set of rules. I didn't think you were the type.'
Spoken as softly as they were, his words penetrated Maggie with hurricane force. Her eyes widened with shock. Dear God, he'd though she'd been angling for something like this ever since she'd knocked on his door. It was merely an excuse to fall into his arms.
It may be the nostalgia talking, but I still find that scene pretty hot. Strong fingers and nuzzling and misunderstandings... it's the stuff romance is made of.
Have you revisited your first romance? How did it hold up?