Most of us remember when we first started reading romance, who introduced us to it or how we discovered it ourselves, and – perhaps even – which book we first read. Did we read romance in secret or with a group of friends or other people? Did we hide our reading from others – did we need to? – or were we open about our choices? And overall, what made us fall in love with romance novels?
AAR staffers discuss these and other burning questions in the first of two blogs about our first experiences with romantic fiction.
My love of romance novels definitely started with reading my mom’s gothic-tinged romantic suspense novels. She loved (still loves) Phyllis Whitney’s books, and the first one I remember her giving me to read was Window on the Square. I read it when I was eleven or twelve, and I remember the dark moodiness of the story drawing me in. From that point, I was hooked and I picked up many an old gothic romance at library book sales. As a teenager, I had a serious Phyllis Whitney/Victoria Holt habit going. My romance reading interests broadened throughout high school and college, but the love of gothics and romantic suspense I shared with my mom definitely paved the way.
I honestly have no idea when I read my first romance. I think in middle school I started reading Barbara Cartlands, but I really can’t remember very much about them, except that I always fast forwarded through to the parts where the hero finally kissed the heroine… who I always thought was kind of a moron. My parents had all kinds of books in our house, including The Happy Hooker, The Joy of Sex, The Godfather, etc. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted. In fact, I don’t think my parents ever thought about policing my reading. So I really never had the experience of having to hide what I was reading from my parents. When I was thirteen, my parents hired a babysitter in her twenties. This would’ve been around 1974. Her name was Pam, and she read bodice rippers. She gave me her copy of Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rodgers, and told me – specifically — to read the scene where Steve has Ginny locked up and forces her against her will and introduces her to oral sex. I remember THAT very clearly. After that I read every bodice ripper I could get my hands on until I was fifteen, at which point I completely quit reading romance for the next twenty years. And the book that brought me back? Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning.
My first romance novel was a Catherine Coulter called The Cove that I read when I was eleven. I wandered into more inspirational romances for a while – Robin Jones Gunn, anyone?! Can we talk about Christy and Todd?! Then in grad school, Nora Roberts’ Bride Quartet turned me back into a voracious and committed member of Romancelandia.
When I first moved to Seattle a long time ago, I stayed at the YWCA downtown. There was a small library with lots of Harlequin romances. At that point, I remember having seen TV commercials advertising the books, but I scoffed at the screen. Nonetheless, I chose one book to read and was hooked. I went back the next day and grabbed a whole bunch more to read. So that was my first introduction to romance books, but by then I had also read the classics Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, which I loved.
I still have my first romance novel: An Irresistible Impulse by Billie Douglass. (Believe it or not, Barbara Delinsky was writing under an alias then!) I got that book in a bundle of books from my great aunt. I’m not sure she knew it was an explicit one, and so at roughly the age of fourteen, I was introduced to my first written love scene. By my later teens, I was devouring romances by Catherine Coulter, Heather Grahame, Beatrice Small, etc., and reading reviews from Romantic Times. My local bookshop was amazing when it came to romance stock, and I’d buy hundreds of books a year from them. The rush of emotions, the interpersonal interaction, the historical storytelling – all of them kept me reading!
As a child and young adult, I received books on cassette tape through The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. For the most part, librarians did a good job choosing age-appropriate books to send out to patrons, but one of them mailed me a copy of Velvet Angel by Jude Deveraux. I was around fourteen at the time, and I remember being utterly captivated by my very first adult romance novel. It swept me away to a time long past, and I hated to put the book aside to return to more mundane things like chores and homework. My parents were never big readers, and they never paid much attention to the books the library sent me, so I didn’t have to worry about them disapproving of the novel, and after I sped through that one, I requested a bunch more similar romances. I’m not sure why the librarians agreed to send them my way, but I’m so glad they did. Those historical romances have a special place in my heart, even though I haven’t read a Deveraux book in years.
Technically my first romance novel would’ve been Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe. The story of Lian, an English girl who travels to Argentina in the hopes of becoming a dancer, and Ricardo, a man who stands to inherit a large ranch if he can only find a bride instantly, had me glomming Harlequins during my middle school years. It was my cousin Jackie’s book, so you could say she introduced me to romance, but a part of me feels I had read romances for years before that.
Rosemary Sutcliffe was shelved in the children’s section of my library, and she had several deeply romantic historical novels such as Knight’s Fee. Margaret Leighton wrote Journey for a Princess and Judith of France, which are also romantic historicals for “children”. Another book I loved was The Sapphire Pendent by Audrey White Bryer, essentially, a Regency romance with young protagonists. Gladys Malvern wrote several that I loved, The Foreigner being my favorite, and Phyllis Whitney had many young adult novels, and all of them were what I would call romances, with Step to the Music being my favorite. Promises in the Attic by Elisabeth Hamilton Friermood was another YA romance that I loved as a young elementary school girl.
Teen and children’s books were essentially housed together in our library so I was reading romance by fourth grade or so. The Harlequins didn’t start until seventh grade, but since I had been searching for books with romantic themes since fourth grade, I never had a huge conversion moment. It was more like just finding a more grown-up source for my addiction. I’ve never been a closeted romance reader. I’m proud to read these books, love sharing them with others, and am tickled to be reviewing them for AAR.
When I think about my early days reading romance, there are two experiences that come to mind. Both occurred when I was around thirteen years old. The first was in grade 7, when I shared a locker with a friend. She would bring some of her mother’s Harlequins to school, and she let me borrow them. I remember being thoroughly shocked but intrigued by a Presents plot where a young woman was lusting after an older man who was technically her new step-brother after their parents married. Who knew it was ahead of its time, given the current craze of step-sibling romances!
During those same teenage years, I spent time during the summer at my grandparents’ house in Northern Ontario. They lived across the street from their local library, which had racks upon racks of historical romances, and with (what seemed to me) the entire collection of Barbara Cartland releases. I read as many of them as I could in the two weeks I spent there, and then, the next summer I did the same thing. I was very clever at hiding the romances I was signing out by having some other innocent looking books (like Nancy Drew) stacked on top. I’m sure my grandma knew what I was up to, but she never said anything.
I don’t recall discussing romance books with any of my friends. No one was into reading as much as I was, though we did have some favorite soap operas that we watched, where the romance storylines were clearly the most popular. With the exception of a hiatus I took when my kids were born, romances have always been a part of my life.
My first experience with romance was at the shockingly young age of ten. I sneaked it from an older teen in my neighborhood on the pretext of helping one girl to lend a book to another. It was a short category contemporary by Mills & Boon. And it shocked my tender soul. I was embarrassed that I had to ask for help with word meanings from my uncle – I was on vacation with his family – and he gave me funny looks, but dutifully explained. After that searing experience and then being teased by the older girls when I returned it, I stayed away from romance for a few years. Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades brought me back to romance in my older teen years – I still have that yellowed copy with pages that have become fragile with age – and my love of historical romances and Heyer’s books continues unabated to this day.
However, there was a time period between becoming engaged and having my first child that I didn’t read any romances. But after the birth, all this time on my hands nursing and the inevitable stress of inexperience with a newborn made me crave the comfort of romances, and I haven’t stopped reading them since. Until my recent foray into romance, I always read secretively, sharing books with a few select friends. But my resumption of romance also coincided with my entry into Romancelandia, and I started them in public, in parks and on planes. Over the years, the number of romances I have read has waxed and waned, but there has never been a year when I read none.
Hope you’ve enjoyed reading our stories – look out for more in part two! Do drop by and tell us about YOUR first experience with romance in the comments.
~ Keira Soleore