How I Started Reading Romance Novels
While visiting my grandparents one summer when I was 13 years old, I found a copy of Saliee O'Brien's FAREWELL THE STRANGER in my grandparent's basement. Holy crap!! Not only did it have sex, it had betrayal, murder, mayhem a hunky frontiersman and a stalwart, brave heroine. Of course, I LOVED the book. I had read my first romance novel.
My trip down memory lane and recollection of how I started reading romance was sparked by a post at SMART BITCHES. Apparently there was a "Dear Abby" letter asking whether it was appropriate for a 14 year old to read romance novels. My initial reaction while reading the post was something like "Hmmm...14 seems kind of young to start reading romance". Then I remembered FAREWELL THE STRANGER. It took me a few minutes to figure out how old I was at the time. It's been that long, but I was sort of surprised to realize I was only 13 years old. So on reflection I commented that I don't censor my sons (16 & 19) and never have but I did always know what they were reading, watching and listening to and that I thought that was important. To talk about things with your kids.
Anyway, the shocking part about my personal reading experience at 13 wasn't so much the content of the book. It was the realization that it was in my grandparent's basement. I just couldn't wrap my mind around the idea that since the book was in the basement some adult I knew must have purchased the book to read it. But who? My ultra conservative and traditional Italian Catholic grandmother? My mother? One of my aunts? I sure couldn't picture my grandfather reading it. So at an awkward and hormonal age I began to look at the adults in my life in a new light. Sexual beings. Holy sh*t! Yeah, it's enough to almost put you off sex forever. I sure couldn't relate my parents or grandparents to the characters in the book...so I didn't. Which was better for all of us.
So I drag the book upstairs. I read the book openly. I wasn't trying to hide anything. When I picked FTS up I didn't know there was going to be sex in it. You can see from the photo above that the cover is pretty innocuous. Nothing to suggest anything sexy was going to happen between the pages. To their credit the adults in my life all thought reading itself was a great past time. None of them were avid readers, but thought it was terrific that I liked to read. Consequently, this means there was no censorship. Certainly no one asked me about the book or its contents.
I feel pretty lucky about that now. It's not what I've done with my kids. But I'm glad no one stopped me or questioned me about what I was reading. It gave me a sense of autonomy and independence. FAREWELL THE STRANGER became my first keeper. I still have it 28 years later. Which, incidentally, is how I realized no one had actually read the book. My grandparents allowed me to keep it and never once questioned my reading it. No way they would've done that if either of them had read the book.
As it turns out, the book was part of a book club my grandparents subscribed to in the late 50's and early 60's. They received several books they never read. I also got THE SCARLET LETTER by Nathaniel Hawthorne from that basement cache. That was pretty racy too. Adultery, shame, pride and a single woman's courage not to be cowed by her community. Hester suffered for her choices, but she stood up for herself and her beliefs. Pretty heady stuff for a 13 year old.
Much better than my reading experience the year before with Harold Robbins' THE CARPETBAGGERS. That book was an education let me tell you. I ended up looking up words in the dictionary that I thought were salacious and provocative. Words like larynx which I thought was another word for a woman's vagina. What can I say? I was 12. In my defense the word was in a sentence after one of the characters finds the carnage of a raid on his village and he is looking at his dead sister who had been raped. A crushed larynx...I thought it had to do with the sex bits. Imagine my surprise to find it was her throat!
Shortly following that summer, my Mom had a friend at work that was an avid reader. I was trying to find books in the library in the adult fiction section. No more kid books for me. Anyway Mom's friend read gothics, Holt, Whitney, Plaidy, Stewart. The friend (it's killing me right now because I can't remember her name!!) often had duplicates and books she didn't want and gave them to my Mom for me. A romance reader was born. Those gothics lead to my love of historicals and regencies. In my twenties I discovered Woodiwiss. I couldn't catch my breath reading SHANNA. Sex in a carriage? Wow!!
Romance reading is such a part of my life that my boys are named for romance heros. Cole after Cole Latimer in ASHES IN THE WIND by Kathleen Woodiwiss and Clayton after the Duke of Claymore in WHITNEY MY LOVE by Judith McNaught. They each have a page in their scrapbooks with the cover of the books and the story of how they got their names. They loved (not) sharing that information in second grade when you tell the class "How I got my name". They think it's funny now and are totally used to my love of reading...romance novels in particular. But when you are 8 and have to explain that your Mom got your name from a book and not your great grandfather...not so much.
My reading has gotten me through many tough times. I could escape into a book when work sucked, my Mom was sick, my brother was dying, and my kids were driving me crazy. It has provided an outlet and a respite when I dearly needed one. I can't imagine my life without reading and it just wouldn't be the same without...romance.