Confessions of a romance novel newbie

Editor’s Note: It’s been over a year since I last posted on this blog. I’m still figuring out what I want to do with No Mans Land, or if I even want to keep doing it, but for now I may write occasionally about geeky things I’m excited about.

It was early 2020. Vaccines for Covid-19 were on the horizon, but I was still stuck at home with too much time on my hands, feeling trapped, restless, anxious, hopeless. I was in dire need of an escape, and I found it in an unexpected place. I picked up a romance novel.

In the outside world, the coronavirus pandemic raged, but inside the pages of the book, it was as if the Before Times had never ended. The characters woke up, put on their designer suits and heels, and hurried to high-powered jobs in shiny, bustling offices. They grabbed coffee together inside charming, crowded cafes. They went to bars and parties and drank and laughed. They sat shoulder to shoulder and talked face to face, unmasked. They became embroiled in dramas petty and epic. They fell madly in love. And there was always a happy ending.

For a few hours, pandemic reality slipped away and everything felt normal again, albeit covered in a layer of swoony, idyllic glitter. When I desperately needed a serotonin boost, romance novels reliably delivered. I had found my coping mechanism, my drug of choice, a welcome shot of endorphins to get me through this trying, terrifying, seemingly never-ending global ordeal.

Prior to the pandemic, I’d dabbled in the genre. I watched romantic comedies, read a bit of young adult romance, picked up the occasional Sophie Kinsella book, and delighted in the works of Jane Austen and the Brontes. My open-minded parents never censored what I read as a child, but the religious circles I grew up in viewed romance novels as suspect, forbidden, or downright sinful. By the time I was an adult, I bought into the stereotype of romance novels as trashy, sordid trifles, despite the fact that women I admired read them.

My gateway to immersion in the genre was Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, widely considered the holy grail of contemporary romance novels, and rightly so. The book – about two office mates locked in a feud that escalates from loathing to lust – is a paragon of witty banter, sharp humor, and exquisite enemies-to-lovers slow-burn romance.

Once I took the plunge, I fell headfirst down the rabbit hole of a genre that is a hundred times more fascinating and complex than I had realized. There has been much discussion of how the pandemic negatively impacted our collective reading habits. Early in the year, I had only managed to finish a couple of books. Since giving myself permission to read romance, I estimate that I’ve inhaled more than 50 titles, mostly on my Kindle. The exact number is probably much higher.

I’m still a newbie in an expansive world populated by lots of lifelong readers, so I won’t pretend to be an expert. Suffice it to say, I now know what my favorite tropes are (enemies to lovers, forced proximity, fake relationships, celebrities falling for regular folks), that I like my love scenes spicy, my masculinity nontoxic, and I can rarely resist a stern brunch daddy. I prefer contemporary romance to historical, although I enjoy exploring the genre’s wildly diverse subgenres. I have learned the meaning of terms like “HEA,” “closed door vs. open door,” and “steam level.” (Love those little chili pepper emojis.)

During my adventures in Romancelandia, I’ve discovered that reader’s tastes are highly specific and subjective, shaped by individual identities and experiences. No matter what your tastes may be, you are all but guaranteed to find flavors you’ll like. It’s one of the things I love about the genre.

So far, my favorite authors include Thorne, Emily Henry, Helen Hoang, Talia Hibbert, and Rebekah Weatherspoon. Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering crushed me with its delicate emotion and beautiful descriptions. Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments blew my mind by basically telling the story of my life in the early aughts. Sarah Kuhn’s I Love You So Mochi took me on a vivid, vicarious trip to Tokyo when I couldn’t go on a real-life vacation.

For awhile, my forays into Romancelandia were furtive. When I finally did talk about some of the books with friends, I got a few of those looks, the ones laced with bemusement or slight disapproval, but I’ve mostly stopped caring what people think. If I’m honest, reading romance appeals to the rebel in me.

One of my favorite geeky t-shirt brands, Jordandene, has a design that says, “Read Romance. Fight Patriarchy.” The meaning of this simple and accurate slogan? Reading romance is a subversive act. The genre centers women, their relationships, friendships, and concerns in a way that perhaps no other does. Romance celebrates women’s pleasure and the female gaze in a world that still largely refuses to acknowledge these things exist. Romance authors create safe spaces refreshingly devoid of toxic masculinity. They entertain, offer escape, and spark needed discussion about feminism, sexism, domestic violence, disability, body positivity, gatekeeping, and other important topics.

I also love that more and more contemporary romance writers are incorporating geek culture into their stories. It’s rare that I pick up a book that doesn’t include at least one reference to Harry Potter or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jen DeLuca’s Well Met is set at a Renaissance faire and, thus, packed with delightful nerdery. Sariah Wilson’s Seat Filler is literal Adam Driver fan fiction. Olivia Dade’s Spoiler Alert essentially depicts a scenario in which Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau falls in love with a cosplaying geologist/fan-fic writer.

I’m not going to pretend the romance genre doesn’t have its problematic moments. As we’ve seen over the last couple years, that’s true of all areas in publishing. However, when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness, the genre is gradually making progress with more #OwnVoices and LGBTQ+ writers entering the fold. There is a lot more work to be done, but I look forward to participating in the dialogue surrounding these issues.

If you’re a reader wondering where to start in Romancelandia, social media can be a helpful resource. There are many Instagram accounts that provide recommendations, information, beginner’s guides, and reviews. Thanks to @_a.book.nook_ for being this newbie’s trusted resource for learning about the genre, finding ideas for what to read next, and vetting book picks.

There are also many independently-owned, community bookstores that specialize in romance and are working to break stigmas and provide a safe physical space for readers. Romance enthusiasts in my area flock to Lil’ Book Bug, while @therippedbodice in Culver City is famous for its aesthetics and welcoming atmosphere. Look for similar shops in your community.

If you’re struggling with reading due to pandemic-induced stress and mental fog, try giving yourself permission to read what you really want to read at this moment, rather than what you feel you should be reading.

And if you are already a romance reader, hit me up with your favorite books and recommendations. I’m always on the lookout for my next escape.

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