Jun 16 2014 12:00pm

You Never Forget Your First: Rereading Your First Romance Novels

Book with bookmark by flossyflotsam via Flickr Creative CommonsThe 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.'

The Waterfalls of the Moon by Anne MatherI 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?

Book with bookmark image courtesy of flossyflotsam via Flickr


Willaful has been diligently reading and reviewing romance for the past seven years, but for some reason just can't seem to catch up. She blogs at A Willful Woman and Karen Knows Best.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Tamarw
I still have a bunch of Glenna Finley's books in boxes at my parents house. I took a few out for rereads for the first time in over 30 years. lol
2. Scarlettleigh
I think I read Glenna Finley's books too. . . at least the name sounds vaguely familar.

I not sure what book I would consider my first romance book? I remember reading teen books, and the heroine always had a romantic interest . . then I graduated to Georgette Heyer, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart and Harlequin, and then from there to the historicals of the day.

My grandmother even had some Grace Livington Hill books, and some Emily Loring books and I read those.
3. keen23
I read a few Harlequin novels, probably late 1970's, early 1980's. One I know was about a group of beach wreckers and the young girl who saves a man (a duke or earl of course) from being killed by the blood thirsty wreckers. But, the novel that stands out to me as my first true romance novel is Whitney, My Love by Judith McNaught. It does NOT hold up well in current times, being rather rapey. But, I still fondly remember it and I do re-read it once every 2-3 years.
4. willaful
I can't see reading more of Finley's books without the nostalgia factor, but it was fun to revisit this one.

Right after I wrote this piece I read Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner, and was so amused to run into another buttons-down-the-back scene!
Jennifer Proffitt
5. JenniferProffitt
The first romance I read where I realized it was actually a romance--there were teen years when I didn't realize I was reading genre fiction and desperately searched the "Fiction" shelves at B&N for Patti Berg and couldn't find her--was Julia Quinn's The Viscount Who Loved Me. It was my first and so held up for me, both as how fondly I remembered it and how well it was written. However, it was a book from the late 2000s so the culture of the romance novel had changed quite a lot from the romances of the '70s and '80s and therefore I didn't have to worry about that element when I reread it.
6. willaful
I ignored the big fat historicals when I was reading romance in the 70s, so I managed to miss most of that stuff. The one time I ran into a rapey HP hero still sticks in my memory, though I have yet to track down the book.
Barbara Wilmot
7. miadevlin
I used to read Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonriders of Pern" books so I looked in the library for other books she'd written. I read one of her romance titles called "Ring of Fear" and I remember, as a very naive teenager, being shocked at the sex scenes.

Many years later I bought it to re-read and it is very much of its time (1971). The hero doesn't believe that no means no in bed because he knows what's best for the heroine and there is a scene that always makes me think of the Shangri-Las song "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)".

Again, the depiction of the counterculture is fairly excruciating and the trendy fashions sound awful but there's still something about it that keeps it on my bookshelf and makes me read it every couple of years.
8. Kareni
Is this where I confess that I had over 100 Barbara Cartland novels at one time?

Glenna Finley's books look familiar, but I know that I read many books by Anne Mather.

I'm afraid to reread any of them!
Carmen Pinzon
9. bungluna
I started reading category romances (and Barbara Cartland too!) to learn English. I don't remember the first one I got my hands on, though. I still have 2 boxes of Mills & Boom and Signet books that travel with me: Ann Mathers, Charlotte Lamb, Margaret Way, Lora Leigh and Betty Neels to name a few authors in the "contemporary" section; Mary Balogh, Laura London, Joan Wolf and Catherine Coulter in the historical.
10. willaful
My first historical was Cartland -- Bewitched -- and I read hundreds of them! I'm planning to reread it too, though I'm also scared!
Susan Scherzlein
11. Susan Scherzlein
I stumbled onto the good stuff right away -- Georgette Heyer novels were my first romance books, back in high school, many many years ago. I don't remember which one I read first, but I loved them all and read them all and still love them all and reread them about once a year. And like Bungaluna I used them to learn a foreign language -- when I moved to Germany, the first book I bought in German was a translation of a Heyer novel that I had to read about 10 times before I knew all the words.
12. willaful
Heyer was the only genre romance author I let myself read for years. It didn't count. ;-)
13. Angel67
If my memory serves me well, my first romance novels must have been Shanna by K. Woodiwiss and A Gentle Feuding by J. Lindsey....
Both authors definitively hooked me straight onto historical romance novels... I still like rereading both of them today...
14. Helva715
Since my mother and aunts all read the Georgette Heyer books (they started in the 40's), I grew up with those. Started reading them when I was about 10-12. Then moved to Phillis Whitney, and others of that era once I was a bit older. One book I still have is Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. This was the first "tortured, yet brave heroine" story I ever read. I count this as my first real romance and day-dreamed about being that heroic and loved. Must have been about ten at the time, but then got diverted into the Walter Farley Black Stallion books soon after, and didn't return to the new "romance" until the bodice burners of the mid-70's. Interestingly emough, many of the science fiction that I read in the 60's, such as all the Dragons of Pern books, crossed the line into what I would also call romances, just as many books do, today. Where does B & N have Patricia Briggs located? Both in SF and Romance. And many others, as we all well know.
15. BookOnyx
The first romance novel I read as a pre-teen had as the main character a woman named Tracy. She was an attorney and she fell in love with a fellow attorney named Jed. I've Googled it until my eyes crossed to no avail. Most likely it's out of print. By the time I hit 14 or 15 I was sick of romance novels. They were all the same: boy meets girl, boy/girl fall in love admist some kind of angst, boy/girl solve angst, boy/girl live happily ever after...boring.
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