How Reading More Romance Novels Changed the Way I Think About Love (For Good)

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Sydney Stam

“By dismissing romance novels as ‘fake’ or ‘naive,’ we miss these examples of what love and romance really could (and should) be.” (Graphic by Sydney Stam | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Jacqueline Mumford, Managing Editor

 

In my romance book club, we have a tongue-in-cheek catchphrase: “It’s obvious that this man was written by a woman.” It’s a common criticism of the genre — the “unrealistic expectations” for not only men, but love in general — with the blame often placed on women.

The Reputation of Romance Novels

Here’s the thing: the disparity of representation, at least by gender, is kind of… true. Women are overwhelmingly the authors and readers of romance novels: from romantic comedies to erotica, the genre and its subgenres. 

There are many men making waves in the romance genre: John Green (“The Fault in Our Stars”) and Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook”) immediately come to mind. Still, the idea that a man could write a love story, or even a story about love, remains culturally unusual — to the point that some male authors use feminine pseudonyms to publish romance.

There’s a clear line drawn in the sand for pop culture: these stories are written mainly by women, for women and are therefore swept up in silly and improbable ideas of the world — primarily that people, regardless of gender, can love each other openly and genuinely. That argument is an entirely different article (one I wrote already, right here) but is important to consider while talking about the strengths and takeaways novels within the category offer.

While there are plenty of romance novels that fall into the stereotype of easy, manufactured love (“50 Shades of Grey,” “Twilight” and other self-insert books, for example) there are so many more books that have challenged the way I think and talk about all kinds of love. 

Challenging My Thinking About Grief, Abuse and Recovery

I’ve read stories of loss, grief, domestic abuse and suffering in many genres, from many different kinds of authors. However, in the past year, I was struck by the handling of these themes in two romance novels, “The Flatshare” by Beth O’Leary and “The Two Lives of Lydia Bird” by Josie Silver.

“The Flatshare”

Tiffy and Leon “live together” — meaning Leon sleeps in his bed during the daytime and Tiffy sleeps there at night. They’ve never met, but, of course, they’re going to fall in love.

The book centers around themes of abuse and recovery, notably through Tiffy, as she enters and exits an abusive relationship with an ex-boyfriend. While the romance between Tiffy and Leon is incredibly heartwarming, the best part of this book is following Tiffy as she, step by step, recognizes her ex’s abuse, tries to confront it, identifies and receives support, and, eventually, is able to fall in love again. 

Leon’s reaction to Tiffy’s trauma was my biggest takeaway. He is patient, understanding, and, when he asks questions, he then listens to Tiffy’s answers. My knee-jerk reaction was to write this off (“It’s obvious that this man was written by a woman”) before I remembered that, wait… this doesn’t have to be (and isn’t) a fantasy. Maybe, just maybe, I could (and should) expect this sort of reaction from my romantic partner? Seeing Leon offer that space to Tiffy made me think I could ask for that, too.

The book isn’t about violence or terror as much as it is really about Tiffy and Leon, and that’s what really makes it stand out to me: the characters are people, not props for the themes.

“The Two Lives of Lydia Bird”

I have never read such a gut-wrenching book about grief, and I doubt I’ll ever find anything else like it. Lydia Bird loses her fiancé within the first 10 pages, and, through sleeping pills (or maybe some kind of magic) lives the life she would have had with him. We oscillate between “asleep” and “awake” as Lydia gets married in her dream world and grieves in the real one. 

Loss is not a single event, but a continuous one that follows the griever into every future relationship, and Silver illustrates this beautifully. Just like “The Flatshare,” this novel manages to weave specific pain points of grief and loss into a larger narrative about a person, and her growth stages in ways that romance novels are predisposed to handle.

Challenging My Thinking About Gender and Sexuality

“Beach Read” by Emily Henry and “Red, White & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston are two of the best romance novels about gender and sexuality, respectively, that I’ve read recently.

“Beach Read”

January and Gus are both authors — January writes “women’s fiction” (whatever that is) and Gus writes “literary fiction” (very good, widely respected.) While these enemies try to put a finger on why they like each other so much, Henry offers loads of commentary on sexism within the publishing industry, and the importance of romance novels both in pop culture and in everyday relationships. January and Gus’ love story is the perfect setting for conversations like this to take place, giving the reader context and educating them about these issues alongside funny, smart characters.

“Red, White & Royal Blue”

If you’ve been on Twitter in the last year, you’ve read something about this book. The son of the President of the United States, Alex, falls head over heels in love with his mortal enemy, the heir to the British throne, Prince Henry. 

The reader learns along with Alex that he’s bisexual. McQuiston’s storytelling is poignant, smart and swoon-worthy. This book is an aid to coming out — Alex’s honest, confusing and ultimately successful journey to understanding himself is one that resonates easily.

Challenging My Thinking About the Fluctuations of Romantic Love

My favorite thing I have learned from romance novels is that love can and should look different among different people. While you can see this in literary fiction, sure, or thrillers, memoirs and other kinds of books, romance really gets at the heart (ha) of the concept. There’s something about a book that focuses on that love, those changes and these characters that makes the message “love looks like whatever you want it to” more clear.

In Sarah Hogle’s “You Deserve Each Other,” an engaged couple’s stagnant love quickly turns into hatred. They spend the majority of the book trying to get the other to call off the marriage. It’s that classic friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers trope that had my book club talking for hours about the process of falling out of and back into love again.

In Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl,” Kath, a twin at her first year in college, starts to fall in love with her roommate’s ex-boyfriend, Levi. Kath has never been kissed, much less dated anyone. Watching her slowly identify her feelings for Levi was really validating. What was even better? As she eases into the idea of love, he supports her at her own pace. It’s yet another instance of me thinking “no way, that’s not real,” and then, “wait, I can ask for that? I should probably ask for that.”

Why Not Ask for a Happy Ending?

All of the main characters in the books I’ve referenced and in many, many other romance novels, arrive at the same romance trope: a happy ending. However “unrealistic” these male characters are for feeling butterflies or falling into long-lasting romantic love, romance novels are most often written off for their joyous and triumphant third acts. 

My response to the idea that happy endings are improbable at best and, at worse, impossible, is: so what? What about that “reality” stops us from asking for them anyway? Why do we assume that relationships can’t be healthy and safe havens for everyone involved? Why don’t we ask more often for patience as we process grief and pain — for an understanding of our traumas? Why don’t we make more space in our relationships for conversations about identity, or consider the impact of time and stage of life on romantic love? 

By dismissing romance novels as “fake” or “naive,” we miss these examples of what love and romance really could (and should) be. When we see what’s actually possible, we can ask for it and give it to those we love.

 

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@jacqmumford