In teaching and libraries, we use a term called Mirrors and Windows to describe books. Mirrors are books which reflect your own experience back to you – the character shares your race, your gender identity, your ethnicity, etc. Windows are books which allow you to see into another person’s experience. Perhaps you are a Christian reading about Muslims, or an able-bodied person reading about a disability.
Obviously, most of the time, it’s the overall quality of the book that determines whether or not I’ll enjoy it, not the mirror or window. I’ve read and enjoyed books featuring characters who do and don’t share my sexuality, who do and don’t share my race, who do and don’t share my geographic location, etc.
But a few mirrors and windows are very highly correlated with whether or not I’ll like the book – and the reason is rooted in my experience, not the book’s quality.
Depressed protagonists are mirrors for me, and reading them is never a pleasant experience. When I read a character with depression, I channel all of the self-loathing I have for myself onto the character with depression: “What do you mean you ‘can’t get up?’ Did someone break your legs? There are people in prison with COVID-19 and you’re ‘depressed,’ you self-indulgent twerp?” I KNOW this is not the right reaction to depression, and I KNOW this is not healthy – and I KNOW I’m better off just not reading these books.
One exception: the nonfiction mind-bogglingly brilliant Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh, which will make you cry not just for its hilarity but for the feeling that finally, finally, someone understands.
By contrast, athlete heroines are completely unlike what I see in the mirror, but I adore them. I come from a long line of un-sporty women (my mother famously earned exactly one A in PE, when she fell asleep on the gym floor during the relaxation unit). And yet I LOVE reading about athlete heroines. These heroines tend to have wonderful relationships with their bodies, and it’s so nice to read about women who love their builds and revel in the feeling of their bodies pushing the limits of their capabilities. I also put well-executed dancer characters in this category, because when it comes to body mastery, dancers may take the top prize. I love how their partners admire the bodies that they’ve worked for, not bodies that just happen to look a certain way from birth. As Ainslie Paton’s hero muses about his pole-dancer heroine in Offensive Behavior, “what he craved, what made him almost sick with desire was the iron discipline, the determination and single-mindedness that led her to master these skills.” UGH SO SEXY.
Basically, if romance is an escape, I love to escape into a world where I have the self-discipline to get myself into the state of fitness where my body can do whatever I ask of it. Even if I ask something more difficult than falling asleep on the floor (which, by the way, I am a BOSS at).
Here are a few of the romances I love with this window: Offensive Behavior by Ainslie Paton, Remember Summer by Elizabeth Lowell – the book on the whole isn’t strong but the horseback riding scenes are everything I dreamed of when I was twelve, Pas de Deux by Lynn Turner, Take the Lead by Alexis Daria, Summer’s End by Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Kiss and Cry by Mina V. Esguerra, Summer is for Lovers by Jennifer McQuiston (historical with an athlete heroine!).
What about you? Are there some windows and mirrors that you gravitate towards or away from because of your personal experiences? Can you think of a depression romance which might work for me, or an athlete heroine I haven’t read yet and should try?