Enjoy reading this story from Nichole Perkin’s at February’s Tenx9 Nashville, a story of falling in love with romance novels.
MuhDeah, my great-grandmother, was a domestic worker, and as such, her employers would often give her things they no longer wanted but thought she’d be grateful to have. They’d once given her a breakfront filled with books. MuhDeah couldn’t read but I guess she kept the books as is for company’s sake. She passed away when I was around 8 or 9, and my mother inherited the china cabinet.
We tucked it into our hallway, and I was fascinated by it and its contents. Behind the glass was a picture of my mother from her high school graduation—not quite black and white, not quite sepia. My mother used to be young! I stared at her face several times a day, searching for pieces of myself. I looked like my father and had reached a point where I was tired of people telling me that, but that’s a story for another time.
By the time I was 8 or 9, staring at the picture and the books in the breakfront, I was already a voracious reader. The cabinet held hardback books from Reader’s Digest. Their multicolored spines with gold writing were hard to resist, but I only remember two books with any specificity. The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall, sparked my interest in poetry and taught me parts of my heritage I’d never get from school. And the second book was The Flame and the Flower, a historical romance novel by Kathleen Woodiwiss that launched a lifetime obsession with love stories.
Let me give you a summary. Heather Simmons is an English country beauty who’s being raised by a greedy aunt and henpecked uncle. The aunt’s brother takes her into the city to give her a job at his dress-design shop, but on the first night in town, he tries to force himself on her. Heather stabs him, and, thinking he’s dead, runs away and gets lost near the docks. A sailor mistakes her for a prostitute, as you do, and takes her to his captain, the strapping American Brandon Birmingham. Heather thinks Brandon is a magistrate who will punish her for her crimes. Always respectful of authority figures, Heather submits to Brandon’s close inspection until he moves her to his bunk. Heather begins to fight, but it’s useless. He has his way with her, all the while thinking she’s a lady of the night. After Brandon falls into a sated sleep, Heather escapes and returns home.
Fast forward about 6-8 weeks. Heather’s aunt notices some unmistakable changes in Heather’s body and demands to know who’s responsible. Somehow she tracks down Brandon and forces them to marry. The two set sail for Brandon’s home in Charleston, South Carolina, where Brandon is a business tycoon with a plantation full of slaves who love him for his caring and generous treatment. You see- Brandon may have raped Heather but he’s handsome, smart, resourceful, and kind. Brandon thinks she’s a gold-digging wench, working in cahoots with her manipulative aunt to catch a rich man, but she’s so delicate, so feminine, so beautiful. Maybe the two of them will be able to find love in each other after all.
This book, The Flame and the Flower, was published in 1972 and is considered groundbreaking for its explicit sex scenes, including rape. And please don’t think I’m making light of such a heinous act. For a long time, the only way women were able to enjoy sexual situations in literature, without guilt, was to portray the heroine as a victim first then have her grow to adore the man who victimized her. This particular book is also seen as the godmother of contemporary romance novels, and there I was, 9 years old, reading it with wide eyes. As a child, I didn’t fully understand how awful the start of this love story was. It fell in line with the soap operas of the time, from Young and the Restless to Dynasty, which showed men and women slapping each other before falling to the floor in a fit of passion, but I’d never come across anything like it in print. I even went so far as to do a book report on it, and when my teacher pulled me aside and told me to stick with subject matter more suited to children, I was even more hooked. I’ve been reading romance novels ever since, and for a long time, I was ashamed. I used to keep all of my Serious Literature showcased on my living room bookshelves but keep the romances tucked away in a closet or on shelves in my bedroom.
I’m a feminist. I want equal rights for all people in all things, but reading about men who risk their lives to save the women they love just fills me up. And I felt so girly, so foolish, but as I grew older, I discovered more and more women with secret addictions to romances. I felt safe to be more vocal about my own love for them. My tastes in romances have changed over the years. I tend to avoid historical romances that feature women of unparalleled, feminine beauty or men who force women. Now I read thrillers and paranormal romances that showcase women who kick ass, who often have to save their men, and men who… well, the men have pretty much stayed the same- catlike reflexes, strong, broody, possessive, and magnetic.
So what happens in a romance? Well, the two main characters meet and are instantly attracted to each other but don’t want to be. Maybe it’s because they already have a past where one left the other or maybe someone has a smart mouth and is a jerk. Regardless, somehow they’re forced to work together, either to solve a series of crimes or because they’re trapped in a snowstorm with no cell service. Something happens to bring them in close, personal contact. His eyes… her eyes… They’re interrupted before things get too serious but now the air is charged between them. Soon there’s another layer of danger. The criminal they’re hunting gets too close. Someone from the past shows up. Someone gets hurt. Someone gets jealous. As the other person tends to the wounds,- of the flesh or of the pride- they both decide to give in. Then there’s the hot sex. The man always goes down on the woman first and it’s amazing. She’s never experienced anything like this before. She doesn’t even have to reciprocate before he’s putting on a condom he just happened to have even in dire circumstances and giving her yet another series of earth-shattering orgasms that unlock her heart. And he realizes he’s in serious trouble because loving her only puts them both in danger. He has to protect her. He can’t be distracted by love. They catch the bad guy or escape the snow cabin from hell and now what? Was this all the result of adrenaline and danger? Of course not. Their love is real. The book ends with a kiss or a smile.
So that’s it. The meet-not-so-cute, the adventure, the sex, the resolution, the declaration, the happily-ever-after. Why am I a sucker for this formula? I have no idea. I know I don’t really want most of this to happen to me in real life. I mean- I’ll take the great orgasms, sure, but I get stuck in some kind of demon attack in order to find the great love of my life. Love is risk enough as is. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading romance novels, and I’ll no longer hide them. Just like me, werewolves and FBI agents need love, too.