In part two of our reminiscences about our first experiences with romance novels, AAR staffers are here to share more of our stories about our first romances, when we read them, who we read them with and what, ultimately, made us fall in love with the genre.
My mom and grandmother were both romance readers, almost exclusively, and used to trade paperbacks they’d read by the bag full. Our bookshelves were always full of my mom’s romances of choice, westerns, with a few Regency and contemporary titles. I was only ten or eleven when I stole Hawke’s Pride by Norah Hess from the shelf and started my own romance obsession. (I actually still have that original stolen copy at my own home. Sorry Mom!) I used to take a book, shuffle the others around to the cover the gap, and then read it in secret in my room. Later on, I got bold enough to start keeping my favorites under my bed and in my window seat. There were a lot of books by Johanna Lindsay, Jodi Thomas, Nora Roberts, and Sandra Brown in my stash.
I got caught reading one after about a year of this. My mom shouted at me and threatened to hide all her books. I didn’t stop; I just got sneakier. I would hide the books in bags and purses in my closet. I don’t know how many times my stash was found and moved over the years. Finally by sixteen, I was driving and had a job, so I would go to the store to purchase my own books, and I told her she needed to let up about it and allow me to read what I wanted. She didn’t take that well, but eventually it became an issue we just ignored. If I ever accomplish my goal of publishing my own romance novel, I wonder if she’ll read it or be ashamed that I wrote a sexy book (which is still the only type of book she likes to read).
I very clearly remember the first romance story I read, when I was a very precocious ten or eleven year old. Although I can’t remember the author, it was a very well written book about the real life romance between Prince Rudolf of Austria and Maria Vetsera, titled Mayerling. That was the name of the royal holiday palace where the historically famous events took place. The telling of the romance was fairly accurate to reality, and I remember the cover pictured the actor Omar Sharif (a hero of my mother’s) on the cover and French actress Catherine Deneuve. I cried my young hormonal eyes out over this book, and it made me want to find other books which could bring forth similar feelings. I had found Mayerling in the senior common room of my school, and it was obviously a fairly old copy. I got into quite a bit of trouble sneaking into the senior girls’ common room to hunt for romances, but luckily, I did find a few Mills & Boon there.
When I left school at sixteen (much to my parents dismay), I used to commute by train to my job in London every day. The trip was approximately forty-five minutes each way, long enough to read the two Mills & Boon romances I bought at the station. I’m afraid those books rather turned me off romances for quite a while. A constant diet of violet-eyed heroines and men with sardonic expressions and raised eyebrows, usually wealthy and /or dukes, was sugar overload. I then switched to Georgette Heyer, Brontës, Austen, but it wasn’t till later, when I finally started university studying English Literature and English Studies for ten years, that I rediscovered my love of heterosexual romance in postmodern fiction. Until that discovery though, I stayed with my first love, mythology, and found a wealth of non-judgmental romance and gender diversity in that genre that pointed me towards today’s queer romances and queer fiction.
I became a romance reader on the first day of sixth grade, when Tiger Mom declared that TV would now be off-limits on weekdays. Feeling bored, I begged my mom to drive me to our local library that afternoon and picked up my first Silhouette Romance. I have long since forgotten the name of the book, but what I do remember is the way my face became heated when I got to the part where the hero took off the heroine’s bra. I’m sure that scene was quite tame by today’s standards, but for a twelve-year-old who didn’t even know the mechanics of sex, what he was doing to her was quite shocking. And when my mom hollered at me to come out of my room for dinner at the exact moment he managed to unclasp her jeans, I guiltily stuffed the book under my pillow and did not pick it up again for two days.
From there, I quickly graduated to other category romances and eventually authors like Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, and Heather Graham. I can’t say that I exactly loved those books – even as an adolescent, I was often frustrated by the plethora of damsels in distress that often populated those bodice-rippers – but something in those books kept me reading. And when I picked up a copy of Judith McNaught’s Kingdom of Dreams from the library one afternoon, I officially became a romance lover, not just a romance reader.
To this day, I can’t help but smile when I think about how spectacularly my mom’s plan backfired. The purpose of banning TV was so that I’d devote more time to homework, studying, and reading. Having just immigrated to the U.S. a year before that, my mom believed that reading would help enhance my English language skills. But if she had known the type of reading materials I ended up selecting at the tender age of twelve, she probably would have preferred that I watch TV.
I think I gravitated toward stories with romantic elements for a long time, but it wasn’t until my early teens that I read a real “romance.” It was mostly young adult books until I was fourteen, when I happened on something labeled “adult” at the library. Thinking I was mature and that a book with a harmless shoe on the cover couldn’t be too daring, I brought it home. While initially shocking, this soon led me toward other, similar books (often with less innocent covers). I secreted them away, and any time my family asked what I was reading, I would coyly reply, “A book!”
After successfully dodging questions for almost a year, I found I couldn’t resist taking along some romance novels on an extended-family vacation. Unfortunately, I failed to consider that I had nosy relatives, and while my parents allowed my habitual non-answer about my reading choices, that didn’t fly with my aunts. There was a pretty dramatic (and embarrassing) reveal to what felt like the whole world, but for all my fears of familial disapproval, I was only subject to light teasing and requests for book recommendations afterward.
I’ve long since owned up to my reading tastes, but even now, I sometimes catch myself giving that same, automatic answer when someone asks what I’m reading. It mainly amuses me, especially because it’s usually my mother hoping for a recommendation.
I can’t remember the name of the first romance I read, but if I saw its light green cover again, I would probably recognize it right away – especially if it still had the bright discount sticker. Back then, mass market paperbacks were everywhere – even in discount stores like Woolworths. I haunted those paperback racks, stumbling across anything from sci-fi to gothics. Romantic stuff made me think of the romance comics my friends swapped, like Love Diary and Heart Throbs, where the heroines wore sparkly jumpsuits, but then again, I read everything, so I decided to give the romance genre a try.
The heroine was named Tessa or something like that. And the hero was a race car driver. Just like those guys I saw on TV all the time! Better yet, nobody wore sparkly jump suits, and I’m sure there was a big misunderstanding along the way. I was new enough to romance that I worried the couple wouldn’t get together. How naive of me! This was a mild romance, and even at that age, I wasn’t afraid to let my mother borrow the book. She didn’t say, “What are you doing reading that stuff?” That was reserved for the spooky books.
However, at that time, I didn’t talk about the book with my friends. Some of them were more into Tolkien, and they looked down their noses at more “mundane” books. So I knew better than to ask them about heroines like Tessa. Yet before long, I was trading bodice rippers with my Girl Scout leader. At summer camp, I met a girl who was a huge Kathleen Woodiwiss fan, and she had memorized about every inch of Wulfgar’s body from the descriptions. At one point, it seemed a lot of us were reading Rosemary Rogers and Woodiwiss – and yes, we were the first Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews’ generation. At the same time, some of those girls gave funny looks to my sci-fi and fantasy books. (Horrid heroes and brother/sister incest are okay, but no elves!) So I learned to ignore them, and read what I wanted.
I went to college almost the same year category romance bloomed. Tessa, or whatever her name was, seemed so mild now, so I lost track of the book and latched onto Harlequin, Silhouette, Second Chance at Love, Candlelight Ecstasy, and Loveswept.
I honestly can’t remember the title of the first romance I ever read. All I can remember was that I was around thirteen and it was a Mills and Boon, possibly by Betty Neels. I can’t remember how I got it or why … I don’t come from a family of great readers, so it certainly wasn’t handed on to me by my mum. I also remember that I got my first copy of Pride and Prejudice around the same time – which was definitely the more memorable book of the two! In my teens and early twenties, I mostly read historical fiction and classics – Austen, Bronte, Dickens and Trollope (I luuurve Trollope!); I did work my way through quite a number of Georgette Heyer’s books (not all of them were in print in the mid-late eighties) and picked up the odd romance (I’ve often mentioned that I first read Stella Riley’s A Splendid Defiance back then – it’s still an all-time favourite) – but I didn’t become a real devotee of romance novels until Amazon arrived and with it, access to so many authors and books that never made an appearance in UK bookshops. Believe it or not, until around ten or twelve years ago, I’d never heard of people like Mary Balogh, Carla Kelly, Julia Quinn and so many more; even working in London’s West End – which is full of bookshops – those authors just didn’t have a shelf-presence.
The appearance of the Kindle more or less co-incided with my kids being out of the toddler phase and into the early school-going phase, which gave me a more time for reading. I think the first book I ever bought for it was Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened; I’ve always loved history and having read so much historical fiction and novels by nineteenth century authors, turning to historical romance set in that period seemed like the way to go. So I went. And stayed.
Hope you’ve enjoyed reading our stories. Do drop by to share your first experiences with romance in the comments.
~ Keira Soleore