Some time in middle school, a family friend dropped off a huge box of books and I proceeded to read nearly all of them in a summer. The only age appropriate ones I remember are By the Great Horn Spoon!, which is a sheer delight full of cleverness, boxing butlers, and the California gold rush, and The Once and Future King, which had some parts that were still outside my grasp. Though the Arthurian legend in general is emotionally fraught, containing incest, patricide, and the weird situation of loving one’s wife while also loving the guy she’s cheating on you with – I don’t blame myself.
This box also provided The Age of Innocence, which taught me about love and conforming, and that a gentleman can be thrilled when a lady’s eagle feather fan brushes his knee. It also taught me that after a lifetime of mooning about someone, said same gentleman could decline to see her because, “She’s more real to me this way.” WTF, dude?
The worst offender was a book whose title I can’t remember, but I do remember one of the main characters weeping when her lover gives her a negligee as a gift because she was his mistress and the negligee just looked so mistressy. Her brother later takes her to an abortion clinic and gets shit from people in the waiting room because they think the baby is his. That was a messed up book, and I devoured it. (If this book sounds familiar let me know. I’d like to read it again with more life experience than I had at 12. But who knows? Maybe it’s more real to me this way.)
When I plucked my first romance novel out of the box, Something Wonderful (what a sappy title!) by Judith McNaught, the only thing that seemed inappropriate for my age were the sex scenes, which was actually a step up all things considered. This book is currently at my parents’ house and in tatters, the covering having fallen off after multiple readings by both me and my sister. Yes, this book extremely sentimental and falls into many of the tired tropes that romance relies on, but it also provided some decent lessons besides questionable things like love conquerors all.
Lesson 1: Befriend the Dowager
The heroine of Something Wonderful is Alexandra, and for a good quarter or so of the book, her love interest is missing and she befriends his chilly, imposing grandmother who is the dowager of his estate. The dowager is BAMF and throws her weight around when necessary to protect people she cares about. I think that this a lesson that too often falls by the wayside. Whenever you have the opportunity, befriend the dowager.
Lesson 2: Feminists are Fascinating Non-Conformists and Anyone Who Says Otherwise is a Fuddy-Duddy
I’m pretty sure the book is set pre-Seneca Falls, but Alexandra is an independent, educated, smart mouth. She finds one of her best friends after laughing at the mild misfortune that befalls a pompous mansplainer and talking about his incorrect citations. Alexandra has detractors in her social circle, but they are rigid, mean-spirited, and anxious. The way social roles play out certainly aren’t perfect in the book (it’s still a romance novel), but it does take steps to show how being empowered makes women happier.
Lesson 3: Enthusiastic, Continued Consent Makes Sex Better
Now this is something that I would not have been able to explicitly (heh) explain when I first read Something Wonderful. But after reading other depictions of sex and sexuality in books, Judith McNaught does a lot of things right that many authors don’t. For all the overblown language and the effort to make a sex scene romantic as opposed to say, gross or clinical, there are some pretty good basics that were completely left out of any sex ed I had. Things like, tell your partner what you want, have conversations about sex outside the bedroom, be attentive to your partner’s responses and desires, and of course, make sure both people are completely, enthusiastically into it through out the entire process. Sure, it’s a romance novel so some things are still magical and unrealistic, but kudos to McNaught for modeling enthusiastic consent as a contributor, not a detractor, of great sex.
There were other romance novels in that box, and yes, I read them. Though they were often entertaining*, they usually lacked substantial female friendships and had a lot of sex scenes where characters just magically knew what to do with nary a word spoken. Plus, these heroines often had a certain flatness to them. How could anyone so boring get into these weird situations?
Honestly, I almost never reach for anything remotely resembling a romance novel. Too often, they end up boring, sexist, and/or poorly written. There are probably more good ones out there, but if I’m being perfectly honest, the covers are too embarrassing for me to try and find them. However, how Romance is a much maligned genre, sometimes unfairly, is post for another day.
*The winner of silliest plot was some hot FBI agent going undercover by pretending to be a priest in a town on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and the heroine is a missionary or something. The climax (heh) of the novel is when the hero and heroine help people illegally cross the Rio Grande into the U.S.
The image at top is from The World of Longmire; I highly recommending see all the covers submitted.