birthdaycakecandles Back in July of 2006, Robin Uncapher wrote an At the Back Fence column (#232) that is so timely for me as to be kind of eerie. She discussed the role age plays on romance novels: in who buys them, in how the age of the heroine is perceived, in what is considered acceptable versus creepy…well, just go read the article because I’m not doing it justice.

This particular topic is timely because next week I will celebrate my birthday. I’ll confess that this particular one shifts me closer to fifty than to forty, and if I think on it too long, I tend to get a big panicky. I know I’m still in the prime of my life, hopefully with at least another four or five decades to go. To call myself ‘old’ is as insulting and ridiculous as the size 2 supermodel calling herself fat.

Even so, the truth of it is that the idea of turning 50 scares me silly. See, fiftysomething is the age I think of as my grandmother’s generation. In my head – and heart – my dearly departed Granny is in her fifties and I’m barely even twenty. I may have all the trappings of an adult – mortgage, children, utility bills and a minivan in the shop – but I’m still just a teenager inside.

Which leads me to Robin’s column. I admit – albeit shamefully – to a great deal of ageism when it comes to the types of heroines I prefer.

When I first began reading romance novels, I though nothing at all of drastic age differences between the hero and heroine. An 18-year-old ingenue paired with a 30-plus hero seemed only natural. Not in the least bit strange or off. Of course, I mostly read historicals then, but in my young mind, 18 was certainly mature enough to be engaging in a Serious Relationship with Hot Sex. Since most of the 18-year-old guys I knew were far from sexy and mature, it also made sense that an older hero step in to educate the young lass. I couldn’t imagine any of my guy friends in such a sexy, dashing role.

As I’ve aged, not only does such a wide age gap between hero and heroine raise the ick-factor flag (pedophilia is in no way sexy or acceptable), the idea of an 18-year-old as a mature character becomes laughable. What in the heck does a person less than two decades old know about real love and commitment and what it takes to make a life together? Sure, young nubile bodies make for pretty mental images when reading those sex scenes, but women that age should be attending frat parties/cotillions/boarding school, not crossing verbal swords and exchanging bodily fluids with a man old enough to be her…much older brother.

So I entered the phase in my life when the ideal age for a heroine became something in her low twenties. Young enough for all the parts to still be firm and high, yet old enough to pass the jail-bait test. Certainly people who are over 20 are no longer kids.

Except then I got older and wiser. Although girls at 20, 21 and even 22 are technically not teenagers, I identify those ages with my own college years. I certainly wasn’t all that grown-up when I was in college, despite the fact that I could stay out all night. If you can’t buy a drink in a bar legally, you certainly shouldn’t be allowed to star in a romance novel. Once upon a time, 22 seemed very adult. Now, not so much.

Which led me to the perfect age of a heroine to be her late twenties or early thirties. Old enough for the shock of reality to have settled, for some heartbreak to soften the edges, and for the inkling of what relationships require to blossom. Young enough that good health is taken for granted.

And I would have expected as I slide down the hill into my sixth decade on Earth, I would be ready for heroines in their forties and maybe even fifties. Ladies I could identify with, who shared the same amount of life experiences I have. Oddly, though, I find that not to be the case. I seem to have hit my romance novel heroine age limit, and I find that I balk at stories which feature heroines older than their late thirties.

This may be mostly due to my inability to completely divorce myself from reality. At my age, the likelihood I will meet a dashing ex-Navy SEAL/cowboy/millionaire and he will take me away after learning that I’m a spy/repressed librarian/immediately orgasming virgin is about on par with my chances of getting struck by lightning after having bought a winning billion dollar payout lottery ticket. I no longer can imagine myself in the romance-novel scenario, so I’m unable to accept heroines who are my age contemporaries as the stars of such. Rather, I need my heroines to be young enough that such a possibility is…well, possible, in order for me to lose myself in the story.

I don’t know how I’ll feel when I hit 50 or 60 or 70. There’s a good chance I’ll look back fondly on my forties – the decade when my kids truly became independent – and think of it as the time in my life when I was the sexiest and most alive. I’ll perhaps want to read stories about 40 year-old divorcees finding love a second time around.

Now, though, I need my reading to take me away from my reality. I need to come to terms with my own aging before I can come to terms with the aging of fictional characters. No, I’ll never be able to lose myself in stories where the heroine is barely graduated high school unless they are Young Adult in nature, in which I don’t even try to identify with the heroine but rather enjoy remembering the experiences she is undergoing. But I’m not far enough away from my twenties and thirties to think of those ages as too young yet. I’m not ready to mentally age even if my body won’t stop getting older every single year.

Do you have trouble reading about characters of a certain age? If so, why? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

– Jenna Harper