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In Praise of Escapist Fantasy

Thanks to Joyce Lamb, I now know that the first romance novel I ever read was a Loveswept. It was Warm Fuzzies by Joan Elliott Pickart.

That’s Loveswept, as in Bantam Dell’s Loveswept — the same line that’s recently been revived by Random House (now the owner of Bantam Dell) as a digital-first imprint.

The same Loveswept that will be publishing my first novel next February. And then my second one, sometime in the spring.

How perfect is that? I tell you, it just gives me the warm fuzzies. And I’m not really a warm fuzzies kind of gal.

I tell a brief version of the story of how I came to read this novel — which is about a woman named Lux who makes six-foot-tall stuffed animals for a living and the wounded football player named Acer who falls head over cleats for her — in my interview with Joyce on USA Today’s Happy Ever After website today. But there’s more to the story, of course. There’s more to every story. And seeing the cover of the book that was my long-lost first brush with romance got me thinking about what romance meant to me back when I started reading it.

As I told Joyce (perhaps unwisely — is one supposed to talk about one’s teenage dating troubles on the Internet in the Age of Facebook?), I managed somehow to make it through high school without ever going on a date or kissing a boy. I feared at the time that I was too unattractive, essentially unappealing in some way I couldn’t put my finger on. My boobs were too small, maybe, or my hips were too big. Now that I’m older and wiser, I suspect the problem — to the extent that there was actually a problem beyond my being in high school, which blows regardless of who you are and how many boys ask you out — was more that I was intense. Smart, sarcastic, always reading and judging and just generally refusing to simper or be impressed by anything or anyone. Perhaps that was… not what the teenaged boys of Ohio were looking for in a homecoming date.

Anyway, I digress. The point is, romance novels reassured me at that point in my life. I had a bottomless appetite for category romance, because I craved the story it tells so well, again and again: flawed people find love. Men appreciate women for their bodies, yes, but also for their minds, their character, their essential selves. Women appreciate men for these same reasons. Lonely people find each other. Happy endings are possible.

It’s such a reassuring message. And I was smart enough to know then — just as every reader of romance I’ve ever met is smart enough to know now — that real life rarely works precisely like a romance novel. It is possible, even likely, that one’s real-life Mr. Right will not have six-pack abs, or that he won’t be capable of intuiting the Path to Multiple Orgasms the first time you ever climb into bed with him, or that he’ll be disinclined to confess his every tortured thought and reveal the secrets of his heart to you at the precise moment you want him to.

Which is to say, I knew the difference between life and fiction. I mean, duh. I read a lot of fiction. Of course I knew the difference. But I also knew the power of fiction to transport me, to buoy me and comfort me and remind me of truths I needed to be reminded of. I was fourteen, I was lonely, and romance helped. A lot.

Once I went to college, I left romance behind for several years. But when I was in grad school, I went to live in London for nine months, and it was an isolating experience. I was there to do historical research, so I lived in a small flat with a roommate who didn’t seem to like me much, and I spent forty hours a week in archives, taking notes on my laptop and talking to nobody except, occasionally, a friendly coat-check man. I spent another twelve or fourteen hours a week on trains, moving from place to place. I took up running. I went on weekend excursions. But there were still hours and hours to fill, and I checked about a dozen books out of the library every week. I rediscovered romance, as well as chick lit.

For some reason, I felt compelled to justify my decision to read these romance novels to myself. I wrote an essay at the time, reflecting on what romance had meant to me in the past and what it meant in the present. I called it “In Defense of Romance Novels.”

It included this passage:

The plot of all romance novels is the same simply because the plot is not the point. The details are the point. Romance novels are full of casual touching, heartfelt compliments, fantastic sex, the discovery of love. In every story, two strangers meet and gradually figure out how much they really like each other. They linger over dinner. They find each otherís pajamas sexy. Men brush up against women in hallways and get turned on. Women stare at menís lips and think about what it would feel like to kiss them. They laugh a lot. They talk. For a sixteen-year-old girl who had never been kissed, touched by a boy, asked to dance, or told she was sexy, the novels were reassuring. They suggested that normal women (albeit with weird names) met wonderful men all the time. Romance novel men obsess about these womenís eyes, their smiles, their hair, the curves of their hips. I had all those things. It wasnít hopeless. At least I could imagine that kind of intimacy was possible. Romance novels were elaborate fantasies that were better than the ones I could come up with on my own.

Ten years and a few lovers later, I still like to read them. I have a much more realistic sense of how rarely two people get the chance to fall in love. How depressingly like high school life can sometimes be. How even when a man tells you youíre sexy, it might be hard to believe him. How good sex can be followed by miles of awkward silence. How easy it is to misread someone. How hard it is to tell the truth. The world is full of wonderful people, but I donít know most of them. The ones I do know, I keep leaving behind, or growing tired of. I still fall asleep most nights imagining that Iím curled up in somebodyís arms. Call me incurably romantic, but Iím not stupid. Romance novels help me imagine.

I wrote that ten years ago. Gracious, I sound lonely. I was lonely. Romance novels helped.

While I was still in London, a male friend of mine came to visit, and the next thing I knew I had a boyfriend. Then I had a husband. Then I had a Ph.D., a new city, a new job, a new life. I set the romance novels aside for a while. I didn’t need them.

But then I had a son, and I breast-fed him. One of the things nobody tells you about breast-feeding is that it is So. Boring. Okay, okay, not for the first several weeks. For a while, all you want to do is stare at your beautiful baby’s beautiful face, flooded with childbirth endorphins, and sometimes perhaps cry a bit as you think about how one day, far off in the future, he’ll stop nursing, and then he’ll grow up and leave you and Oh, my baby is leaving me! *cue sobbing*

The first few months of motherhood are so over the top. But eventually, that starts to fade, and you realize that your child is nursing approximately fourteen times a day, and you spend hours and hours on the couch staring at things, except if you’re me, you’re staring at a book. But you need one hand to hold the baby, and holding up a big book like, say, the final Harry Potter†volume with one hand is difficult. And then Amazon comes out with a new version of the Kindle, and you buy it immediately, despite the fact that it is ridiculously expensive. And your life is never the same again.

When my son was eight months old, he was supposed to be sleeping through the night. Everybody said so. Instead, he was waking up six, seven, eight times every night. He had to be nursed and bounced back to sleep on a giant ball. I hadn’t slept for more than three hours in two hundred and fifty days. To make matters worse, he wouldn’t nap for more than thirty minutes straight unless you held him in your arms or hovered over his crib, waited for him to stir, and then resettled him with shushing and bouncing and songs.

I know this is ridiculous. I know. But I was strung-out and desperate and so, so tired.

That’s when I downloaded a free six-pack of books from Harlequin.

You see where this is going, right? After I finished those books, I bought one romance after another after another after another. They made me feel better, but in a different way this time. This time, I needed the purity of the escape. I craved the simplicity of the journey from meet-cute to ecstasy to disaster to happily-ever-after. I was a wreck. I needed an out, and I needed it badly. Yet I hardly ever left the house, and when I did, there was this baby who needed to be brought along. I disappeared down the rabbit hole of romance novels and emerged revived.

(Sleep training also helped.)

That was a few years ago. My relationship to romance has evolved a lot since then, both as a reader and a writer, but today was the first time it ever struck me what a positive thing romance has been for me at times in my life when I needed it. It is unfair, I think, for people who don’t read the genre to mock it as an escapist fantasy. Because there is absolutely nothing wrong with escapist fantasy.

For the person who needs to escape, it’s a gift of incalculable value.

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