I’ve been thinking a lot about romance lately, for no particular reason, but partly due to the fact that I have a strange relationship with the romance genre. I adore love stories, admire the readership, but have not yet read a romance novel I’ve liked. In fact, I haven’t read too many love stories I’ve liked either.
I am, at heart, an incurable romantic, although it may not be very obvious to those who don’t know me well. I am moved to emotion quite easily and often cry at movies. You wouldn’t believe how much I SOBBED during Wall·E. SOBBED. And the first 10 minutes of Up. Hell, I think every Pixar film has made me cry at some point. But I digress.
I’m less sentimental when it comes to books, but it’s not like they won’t bring tears to my eyes. It’s just that I think it’s a little harder to portray earnest emotion with words than in images. Not impossible, but it’s harder for me to buy it.
This morning I went to visit the Jill Grinberg Agency with Cap’n Sweet Valley to give our pitch. We touched a little on our personal tastes–the chiefest of mine being that I’m not a fan of chick lit or romance–and I realized during the session that my aversion is due to my inability to buy into “earnestness” on the page. In movies, I’m not a fan of grandiose declarations of love; the scenes that most move me are without dialogue and filled instead with small, specific gestures. (The climax of Amèlie, for instance. Or the webcomic Chester 5000 XYV.)
But reading about it sometimes smacks too much of “telling” for me. “I love your hair, your eyes, your smile, your [insert body part here]” is less effective for me than reading the hero/ine demonstrate affection in concrete, physical ways. It’s a little hard to expand upon in a blog post, but I will try with a few examples from my own personal life.
Back when I was 16 years old, l I briefly dated a young man I met while on a youth leadership conference in DC. It was a week of intense attachment, after which I returned home to LA and he to Virginia. While we were apart, he sent me letters (letters!), written by hand, one for every day of the week. They came in batches, every Sunday, detailing his love for me. I was an angel, I was beautiful, I was this, I was that–they were filled with the stuff of my childhood romantic fantasies.
Those letters quickly cooled my ardor.
They left me feeling a little squicked out, honestly. Where was the young man who called me a “grapefruit” in French when we first met? (Pamplemousse. Still a favourite word of mine.) Where was the guy with whom I had conversations with for hours on topics mundane and extraordinary? He was nowhere evident in these letters; instead, I received pages upon pages of pretty epithets about our “love” with nothing of his self in them. And, to be frank, nothing about me either.
Eventually I wrote him a letter asking him not to place me a pedestal and that was that.
I was never the “romantic” sort to begin with and for years after that, I remained uninterested in relationships. I went about my high school life and then my college life unattached (except for the occasional casual lover with no emotional investment) before setting off to live in London for a bit in search of Albion and adventure (and Carl Barât).
I found Bear.
The process of our falling in love is cliché and dull. We were friends first, introduced by my friend and his flatmate Charlie. We went shopping for my British military redcoat. He paid for half of it. I hugged him for the first time. He went to the emergency room with me when I was sick and then spent the entire time by my side. We talked long and often. Finally (after a night of drunken hilarity culminating with me puking in the middle of our first makeout session), we started dating.
Not long after we started going out, we were taking a turn about the London streets with our other study abroad friends. My flatmate and I passed a florist’s shop which was selling bouquets of red roses.
“I love red roses,” she sighed. “They’re so romantic.”
“Eh,” I said, “I prefer the yellow ones.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because of what they stand for, I suppose,” I said.
Bear and the boys were few yards behind us and I didn’t realize he had overheard our conversation until I came back to my flat after classes and saw this.
How could I not be won over? (I already was, but that’s beside the point.) He is someone who understands White-Harp, for heaven’s sake. To understand White-Harp is to know who I am at my core self.
And I think that’s the crux of what I find truly romantic. Shared secrets and inside jokes. White-Harp is not a joke, but you get the picture. If one were to write a romance about me and Bear, one couldn’t really describe White-Harp and her unique relationship to me. One could write about it, certainly, but one can really only write about it in less direct and more abstract ways. I consider writing about Bear’s concrete act of love as an abstraction. He didn’t verbalize how he felt about me; he showed me.
Yeah, yeah, show, not tell. It’s still true, but it’s especially true in love stories and romance, when the main focus in on the relationship. That’s a lot to carry, which is why I prefer novels that are nominally “about” other things while developing a really great love story. Having the novel be “about” something else takes a little bit of the pressure off the romantic protagonists, I think.
Yes? No? What romance novels do you all like? Can you recommend any to me? I’ve read Georgette Heyer and while I like her stuff, if I wanted to read Regency novels, I would turn to Austen.