Romance has this thing about first times.
Everyone has their first time with a romance novel. Some of us remember them, and others don’t. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a plot trope or a particularly strange sex scene. Whenever people discuss romance together, particularly their first romance, I wonder how mine reflected the way that I read romance today—and how, invariably, reading romance ties me to those that read it before me in my life.
When I was thirteen, my mother still read a fair amount of Harlequin Intrigue novels (she’s since moved on to more suspense and single title romantic suspense), but Harlequin books were a big thing for her for years. I always got fascinated by the package that would come once a month with several books in the category line. Around this time, they also rereleased the Montana Mavericks collection, which my mother also ended up ordering on subscription. My mom would read some immediately and let others languish in her closet for weeks. This was before I realized that category authors wrote very different romances despite having a similar template, and that just reading one line could get very old, very fast.
I really wanted to read a romance. Something about the dude ranch yellows and the men in stetsons called to me. I loved the western setting, the dude ranches and flat grounds a far cry from the Pennsylvania dairy farms and forested mountains in which I grew up. So one day, I went down to the closet my mom stashed her books in and pulled out the book labeled number one in the line: Rogue Stallion by Diana Palmer.
Years later and I have not been able to return to Diana Palmer, though I will remember the description of the hero that should have put me off from the beginning. It was on the first page and included the word “Republican,” which did nothing for the liberal preparing-to-come-out queer kid that I was. But something about the hero’s extremely hairy chest made me look past his alpha hole aspects and made me go back to category romance. It was the drama, the intrigue, and the sex (though I would not recommend this book for a good example of consent.)
From there on, I borrowed Whitney, My Love and Gentle Rogue from my friend’s mom, which were traded off at school and hidden from a compartment in my backpack to the back of my double-stacked bookshelf. For those, I was a little smarter and read them with a flashlight after I went to bed. The few days I read each of those books were significantly lacking in sleep, but it was worth it. I officially loved romance.
The taboo of reading romance was doubled for me. Not only was I reading against what my mother deemed “age appropriate”, but it was “for girls.” That taboo made me determined to try out romance, and it gave me a special sort of thrill when I discovered a world that I enjoyed. A world that talked about sex between original characters intend of fan fiction, and a world where I could imagine finding a hero without anyone giving me hell for it. As bad as those taboos are, they gave me the courage to try something I thought I would love.
As a result, I always connect my first romance reading to my mother. Regardless of our myriad of differences, she made me curious and that curiosity became a new genre to love. Reading romance allowed me to feel comfortable and happy in my views of relationships. Reading it made me feel like I could have a happy ending, too. My mother still doesn’t like that I read romance novels, but I’ve long stopped hiding them. My collection is too large to stuff in the dark corner of a bookshelf. Now, I read them with pride, because romance is about finding love by being who you are, and the person I am is a romance reader.
It all makes me wonder—what were your first experiences with romance, and how did they make you the reader you are today? Were they approved of, or did you sneak the books when someone wasn’t looking? And what book was your “first”?
John is a student, reviewer, and editor with a taste for social justice. He's queer/LGBTQ and has always loved a good romance novel. A current student at Ithaca College, he is majoring in Integrated Marketing Communications and trying to pick up a creative writing minor on the side. If you observe him in the wild, you may see him reading—or find him watching reruns of The Golden Girls while sipping his first/second/third cup of coffee for the day. You can find his reviews on his blog, Dreaming in Books, and listen to his random musings on Twitter @DreamingReviews.