Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels

Sarah Wendell

Part 8

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"It's OK to be traumatized. It's OK to have PTSD. It's OK to have flashbacks. It's OK to be broken. It's OK to be afraid of life. And it's OK to not be able to change these things on your own. It's OK to question your motivation for loving another person. It's OK to question why that person loves you."-TESHARA, A READER

You'd think all the happily-ever-after would be irritating to those facing or witnessing divorce, but Lyra isn't the only one who has used romances to face painful separations. Zisu writes, "In my teens, romance novels helped me deal with my disappointment in and sadness surrounding my parents' divorce and continued unpleasant relationship. They helped me believe in the possibility of an HEA, and escape from the disaster-EA I was part of."

Jessi credits romances with giving her a happy fantasy that contrasted enough with the painful reality of her parents' divorce that she was able to recognize potentially destructive habits: "My parents were divorced when I was five, and from that time on, every influential person in my life was divorced and excessively bitter. I also had some pretty extensive daddy issues due to my own father's frequent absences. However, I started reading romance when I was probably eleven or twelve (in secret, of course) and I truly believe that my obsession with the genre helped build my own belief in love and in the fact that not all men are d.i.c.ks who should die a painful and prolonged death.

"Romance novels not only gave me comfort during these awful times [after my divorce]; I think they helped shield me from becoming cynical about love and thinking that all guys will eventually betray me."-ALPHA LYRA, A READER

"Romance novels allowed me to imagine being loved by a man and thus to begin to see value in myself and demand that others see it as well. I grew up in a small town and almost all of my friends got married very early and now have lots of kids and a good number are divorced. I have managed to escape that life, find a profession that I love and which I am amazing at (I'm a librarian), and find the love of my life (we've been together eight years now). I attribute my success, my faith in myself, and my faith in love to my rabid reading habits in general and to the romance genre in particular. A little imagination goes a long way in overcoming most of life's problems."

Eloisa James has also written about how painful it can be to truly get to know someone intimately: "In my Affair Before Christmas, the young married couple are estranged because they simply don't understand each other in bed at all. And neither one has been totally honest with each other. I had to untangle a lot of family history in order to get them to a place where they could not only be in love, but make love. I think the key there was that the hero simply decided he loved his wife so much that he would be faithful to her, even if he never had s.e.x again. That kind of faithfulness gave her the ability to trust him-and then to fall truly in love with him.

"Romance novels allowed me to imagine being loved by a man and thus to begin to see value in myself and demand that others see it as well."-JESSI, A READER

"One thing that people don't do all that often is talk about male virgins. In When the Duke Returns, both the hero and heroine are virgins. Their first time, and second, aren't great. Because s.e.x isn't all that great in the beginning. I got loads of funny mail about this, some of which was from women who'd slept with virgins (one had slept with four virgins, as I recall)."

While it's not always possible to cure jealous or suspicious men of their insecurities, it is possible to see that people can change and escape, for a time, people who do more harm than good, even without meaning to. James received a fan letter from a writer who said that one of her favorite parts of writing romance is that she is able to "repair those toxic people and relationships-even if it's only on paper."

Anna Campbell agrees: "Actually one of the things I love about a great romance is that it offers hope for overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles." Seeing those obstacles in other people's lives can also help create appreciation of the strengths of one's own relationships when they are tested: "I suspect romance has contributed to my belief that if respect is lacking between me and my other, the relationship has no hope. Does that come from romance novels or from parents who brought me up to value myself? Who knows? It's certainly a good principle!"

Interestingly, Campbell's books include characters who start off on the opposite side of that spectrum-they usually believe themselves undeserving of happiness at all: "I think all my books include either a hero or a heroine, and sometimes both, who believe themselves unable to sustain a healthy relationship. Lone wolves lured back to the warmth of the campfire proliferate in Campbellandia. For example, in Captive of Sin, Sir Gideon Trevithick is convinced he's condemned to a life of pain, madness, and solitude. A normal life is forever out of reach. But when he enters a marriage of convenience with Charis Weston to save her from her greedy, vicious stepbrothers, she drags him kicking and screaming back into the human race."

Campbell has much better fan mail than Eloisa James, I'm amazed to say: "I've had several emails from readers kidnapped by Scottish dukes who have thanked me for my advice."

(She's kidding. I think.) Nora Roberts also sees her own life through the lens of romance at times: "Writing romance novels has certainly helped me learn, discover, understand all sorts of angles and quirks in love, relationships, and men. While fictionalized, and by nature romanticized, a romance novel is a story about people and their emotional journeys. They can provide a great deal of insight into human nature, and the human heart.

"Honestly, every book I write, and certainly most I read and enjoy, teaches me a little bit more about relationships. How different people with different traits, backgrounds, needs, flaws, and so on come together, deal with problems, celebrate joys, handle all the ups and downs."

"Honestly, every book I write, and certainly most I read and enjoy, teaches me a little bit more about relationships. How different people with different traits, backgrounds, needs, flaws, and so on come together, deal with problems, celebrate joys, handle all the ups and downs."

-NORA ROBERTS Author Nalini Singh says that great romance is based on the idea that happiness is not impossible: "I think the crux of a great romance is the belief that nothing is impossible. I've read about traumatized heroes and heroines, and I've read about paranormal worlds torn apart by war where the characters find love-for me, it is not so much the 'impossible obstacle' that is important, but whether the writer is able to make me believe in the outcome."

Reading romances and taking them literally is definitely not the path to everlasting happiness. There are some crazy over-the-top plots that would never fly in the real world. Just listen to Courtney Milan on this: "For any men who may be reading this, I don't generally advise looking to romance novels as an ideal way to woo a woman-if you like a girl, I suggest asking her out on a date, in preference to threatening to turn her ecologically sound tourism location into a strip mall."

But believing that the happy-ever-after and the happy-right-now are possible can create a powerful motivation to creating that happiness for oneself. The belief that things will get better is self-fulfilling. In a romance novel, things will always be OK in the end, and if they're not okay, it's not the end. The same can be said of real life: there is a second chance, another day, another opportunity to try again and make everything a little bit better, because happy endings take work.

We Know How to Ask for What We Want

Without a doubt, some of the most emotionally touching and satisfying scenes in a romance novel are when one character declares how he or she feels, either through words or actions. Here are some of the favorite scenes of well-read romance fans: JUST ONE OF THE GUYS.


(HQN/Harlequin Ltd., 2008) Suggested by Diane N.

"Chast.i.ty," he says quietly. "I can't live without you for another minute."

The mike falls to the dance floor with a thunk as I cover my mouth with both hands. Tears spill out of my eyes, and I can't seem to draw a breath. The room is absolutely silent.

"I've loved you my whole life, Chas, from that first day you took me home after Mich.e.l.le died. And I'm terrified you'll leave me or you'll stop loving me or even worse, something will happen to you. But I can't be without you anymore."



(Penguin/Berkley Jove, 2001) Suggested by Megaera

"I don't want you here." She shoved at him, and her voice began to hitch. "I don't want you near me."


"Because, you moron, I'm in love with you."

He ran his hands down her arms, taking hers as he leaned over to touch his lips to her forehead.

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"Well, you idiot, I'm in love with you, too. Let's sit down and start there."

She turned to grab a couple of ice packs from the built-in cooler. "Sit."

"I said-"


He sprawled into a chair. When she wrapped the ice packs in a small towel and placed them against his ribs, he didn't protest. "What is it with men and testosterone?" she muttered, standing in the vee formed by his outstretched legs.

"I don't think you'd like us without it." He held the ice packs to his side by pinning them with his arm. "There was no need for this."

She was about to snap a comeback when she realized he'd come to her precisely because she'd fuss over him, no matter what he must've told himself to the contrary.


(Avon/HarperCollins, 2010).

Suggested by me.

"Come," she repeated, patting the bedclothes. "I want to show you my treasures..."

She opened the box and started taking them out: the packets of letters he'd written to her, the little painted wooden man-the first gift he'd sent her, the bracelet with the blue stones, the piece of alabaster... on and on. Ten years of little treasures he'd sent her. And the handkerchief with his initials she'd stolen a few weeks ago.

She looked up at him, her eyes itching and her throat aching. "I do love you," she said. "You see?"

He nodded, slowly. "I see," he said. "Yes, I see."

Asking for what you want can be very, very difficult.

In 2008, I started a regular advice column on the Smart b.i.t.c.hes website wherein relationship problems would be answered with the wit and wisdom of romance novels. In February 2010, I published the following letter, and am happy to say I have an update from the original correspondent.

Dear Smart b.i.t.c.h Sarah:.

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