So much chatter about romance novels in mainstream America comes from people who have never read one. Common misconceptions accuse them of generating unrealistic expectations, condition women to await Prince Charming’s rescue, or suggest romance novels contain nothing but smut. The reality is starkly different. Strip away the covers of heaving bosoms and the sometimes over-wrought cover quotations, and you usually have a novel that reflects traditional values and celebrates the strength of women. I would have no concerns about sharing romance novels with impressionable young women, because I think if a young reader embraces the themes that are common to romance novels, they will do well in life.
Here are a handful of things I learned from reading romance:
1) You can’t judge a book by its cover. Romance novels have a regrettable history of cringe-inducing covers, but if you crack one open, you are likely to find stories of amazing poignancy, insight, and courage. Thankfully, most covers of romance novels have gotten much better in recent years, but the rush to judge something, or someone, by appearance is a universal problem. The plots of some of the most famous romances of all time feature characters who also jumped to famously poor conclusions. Didn’t Elizabeth Bennett dismiss Mr. Darcy before she truly knew him? Time and again we see the heroes underestimate the heroine due to meaningless surface details like her appearance, her parentage, the way she speaks. Always the characters are wiser by the end.
2) No Heroine Should Expect to be Rescued. Any heroine who waits for a rescue will never get the respect of the reader. Novelist Barbara Dawson Smith said, “Unlike other forms of fiction, romance novels spotlight a woman who struggles but always wins in the end.” The heroines of romance novels almost always have something they cherish, and will fight any odds to protect it. Remember Scarlett O’Hara slogging through the Georgia countryside to get back to Tara? For every flailing heroine who occasionally appears in a romance novel, she is dwarfed by the hundreds of women who have the backbone, fortitude, and resilience to weather any storm. Frankly, the Damsel in Distress is not a very attractive character unless she is doing something about her plight. She is rarely seen in romance novels.
3) If you Don’t Treat Your Man Well, Someone Else Will! Back to Scarlett O’Hara. Time and again she snubs Rhett, driving him straight into the attentive arms of Belle Watling. Many romance novels feature a wicked Other Woman who is waiting in the wings. She is usually portrayed as a dazzling, amoral creature who is sending out lures to trap the unsuspecting hero. Rarely in fiction, but sadly in real life, she is simply a soft place to land after the heroine has been tossing a load of guff at the hero. That was who Belle Watling was for Rhett. She is far more dangerous than the cardboard caricature of the wickedly evil woman, and a smart heroine needs to be on the lookout for her. There is a certain amount of routine maintenance that goes into a great relationship. Men don’t like being taken for granted any more than women do.
4) Judge your man by his actions, rather than his words. Heroes in romance novels tend to do extraordinary things on behalf of the heroine. They take risks, slay dragons, cross a raging sea on her behalf. One thing they aren’t so good at is delivering the perfect turn of phrase. That is because men are hard-wired to be doers, rather than talkers. Ironically, it is usually the villain who is good with words. He is the man who will tell the heroine what she wants to hear, but when it comes time to deliver, he is nowhere to be found. I think most teenaged girls would be well-served if they learned to stop listening to what boys tell them, and simply observe their actions.
5) Falling in Love involves Risk. For a relationship to take root and flourish, both sides need to open up, share their deepest thoughts, vulnerabilities, fears and aspirations. This is scary. When you lay your heart on the line, there is always the danger that it is going to get stomped on. The characters in a romance novel will learn how to overcome embarrassment, the risk of rejection, and become vulnerable enough to fall in love. That is huge. Some people go through their entire lives and never learn how to do it, but not so in a romance novel.