I was avoiding my life in pre-Internet days, but I still knew the rules. A blond man and a brunette man would vie for the heart – et cetera – of our heroine. We orange-fingered readers would know within a couple chapters that the fair-haired man was up to no good. But wait. Maybe it was the dark fellow who was going to do her wrong. It got pretty tense, waiting to see if she'd choose correctly, and knowing, from the sweet experience of just yesterday, that she would make the right decision did not detract from the suspense, or from the subsequent relief.
But reading romance novels was a pleasure tainted with guilt. My mother was a librarian, for god's sake. There was a world map on our dining room wall, and a dictionary on the shelf. There was also a washer and dryer in this "dining room," lest you get the wrong idea, and seven chairs cluttered up against a table for four. Okay. Maybe it was meant to seat six, but it was always felt too small and, to this day, I'd really rather have a whole side to myself, thanks.
My point is that I was no more raised to read romance novels than to listen to country music, so if I ever actually enjoy either one, I feel bad about it. I feel as if I'm letting someone down – Mom, Dad, god, someone.
When I got divorced, I gave up romance novels, having lost the need to blot out the pain.
Nearly twenty years later, however, I had a co-worker who unabashedly enjoyed romances, and I realized that in my dirty little fling with that ilk, I'd never read one from the Queen Herself, Danielle Steel. So I bought one and started reading it.
I don't remember the details, but I do remember the page number. On page sixty, the blond guy said something that made me snort in derision. "There's no way he'd do that!" I tossed the book down in disgust and have never read another romance. However, that book – whatever it was – set a standard for me. I now give the author a sixty-page chance to prove herself. If I'm still heaving melodramatic sighs, rolling my eyes like a teenager, and talking out loud to the book at page sixty, I'm allowed to snap it shut and bring it to the thrift store.
So thank you, Danielle Steel, and happy sixty-fourth birthday. In a burst of meaningless coincidence, that four-year husband will also turn sixty-four – in exactly a week, as a matter of fact. Danielle has just published her ninety-seventh book. You heard me. Hell, most people don't even read that many in a lifetime. So good for her ... but I still don't like the genre.
However, there's a wonderful book with a major theme of writing romance novels, and the novel itself has romance in it, but it's not a romance novel. It's The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird. It was out of print for a while, but it's back. Go read it. It's one of my favorites. I understand that's like the waitress saying, "Good choice! That's my favorite, too!" but I don't care. Go read it anyhow.
I don't know if you were with me when I praised Hannah's Dream, a novel by Diane Hammond, but the actual Diane Hammond commented on my blog. That was embarrassing and thrilling, and it made me a bit afraid of naming names. Even so, at the risk of conjuring her, I'm going to name a fourth writer, Joyce Carol Oates. She, like Danielle Steel, is prodigiously prolific. She also has three names which, for reasons known not even to myself, I always connect with romance writers. So I avoided her like, like ... like a romance writer.
But one day I picked up one of her books and behold! She's great. Dark. Bleak. Depressing, perhaps, but hey! she writes about my home area, non-city New York. I also love how she looks, which is irrelevant and enchanting. Her sentences are perfect. No blond guy ever says something in a book he wouldn't say in Real Life. And her stories don't require assistance from Cheetos.