At first glance, you may think this post is the beginning of a romance novel. The heroine is pursued by the lost love to whom she can never commit, because he will find out her deep, dark secret–that she reads romance novels. I have to admit that I, too, share the heroine’s deep, dark secret. I read romance novels. Why does reading romance novels count as a deep dark secret? Why can’t readers of romance novels proclaim to the world their secret obsession? The answer lies within the genre itself.
Romance novels have long been maligned for being formulaic and derivative. And I have to admit they are. They start with a heroine who has some sort of secret that she doesn’t want the world to know or she is facing an overwhelming challenge on her own. She is breathtakingly gorgeous, but doesn’t know she is. She often has a deep insecurity. In walks the love interest. Muscular and irresistible, he is the answer to all her problems. He sees her for who she is and looks beyond whatever imperceptible flaws she thinks she has. He oozes self-confidence yet is deeply sensitive and she is drawn to him like a magnet. There is some sort of conflict. A mystery to solve, a life-and-death crisis, maybe even a world to save. No matter what type of twist and turn the writer tries to insert into the story, the reader can rest easy knowing that the guy will get the girl in the end and help her solve her problems.
When I was younger, I read romance novels almost exclusively. I could go home at the end of a long, unfulfilling day at work and escape into an idyllic reality. The formula of the romance had a predictable and comforting rhythm. As I grew older, however, I began to grow tired of the romances I read. The books by writers, like Christine Feehan, whom I had previously loved, began to pall. Romance novels became dull and plodding. I could barely get through them anymore. I soon gave them up for more interesting novels. I discovered Dean Koontz and Thomas Harris, Kate Atkinson and Tana French, Ilona Andrews and Patricia Briggs. I began to yearn for stories that I couldn’t predict, characters that were dynamic and who sometimes lost their battles. Slowly, the genre of romance lost its hold on me, but every now and then, I find myself yearning for a simpler story. I want to know that, at the end of the novel, the guy will get the girl, and the world will be saved. No one will die unexpectedly and everyone, except the bad guy, will end up happy.
Right now, I am reading another romance series. It was free, so I thought, Why not? The plot is mundane–paranormal shifters looking for their one true mate while they battle an evil villain. The heroine or the hero sometimes rebel against the mystical connection they have with with their mates, but somehow fate pulls them together. As I slog through each book in the series, I ask myself, Why am I still reading this? Of course, the answer is to see what will happen. I am also a stubborn reader. Once I start something, I have to see it through to the end, but, with this latest series, I realized why I have stopped loving romance. The main problem with romance is not its formulaic plot or derivative characters, but its presentation of an idyllic world that can never be achieved by a normal human being. When we read romance novels, we are duped into believing that love is easy. If we find that one perfect person, we will not need to work at creating a relationship. There will be an instant attraction and compatibility. When we come back to the real world and remember what a real relationship is like, we become disillusioned. We ask ourselves, You mean I can’t look someone in the eyes, or smell their scent or hear their voice, and just know they are the one for me? I have to get to know them? I have to find a way to look beyond their flaws to the person who lives inside their imperfect body?
While romance novels give us a brief respite from our lives, they ultimately distort our view of love and relationships. When we immerse ourselves in the romance, we lose touch with what it really means to love–to accept someone, warts and all. To see that commitment is not about a mystical bond or instant connection, but a commitment to stand together against all the disasters and problems that life throws at us. And ultimately, to stay together when life becomes boring and it seems like the spark is lost. Sometimes, it seems that, to stay with our significant other, we have to save the sparks, but sparks are meant to die. They float above the campfire and fade into the night sky. We need to focus on what the spark leaves behind. Maybe, the spark is gone, but a committed romance is sustained by the banked coals of a shared life together. It might not be as flashy as a romance or as predictable, but, in the end, it fulfills us.