A Guest Post by Amy
Amy and I met in 2007, when we were both downy fledgling designers in the same Boston office. In 2008 I started writing, and I’d poked perhaps one shaking toe out of the romance closet when all of my initial jitters were swallowed by Amy’s voice, shouting, “I LOVE romance novels!” And at that moment, we suddenly had so much more to talk about than our fantasy stock photo boyfriends. And I had my first beta reader! Fast forward seven years—I’m a romance writer, and Amy’s in Chicago, having risen through the design ranks to Art Director. And around New Year’s, I got an email that flipped my tidy perceptions of how life and fairness are supposed to work, and I asked Amy if she’d share her experience here…
I lost my romance novel virginity one lovely summer day in my thirteenth year. Much like an untouched Regency heroine, I found the experience rapturous from beginning to end. My partner was Julie Garwood’s “The Wedding”, stolen from my mom’s library pile. I hunkered down with the book in our backyard and OMG, was it more enlightening than the clinical sex ed classes or parental chats I’d had thus far.
Seventeen years later, I remain utterly devoted to romances, although my tastes have changed over time. In high school, my after-school job in the town library allowed me to hide in the stacks and tear through Bertrice Small (purple prose being NO problem for a teen girl) and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. In college I was introduced to SEALs courtesy of Suzanne Brockmann. More recently I’ve gravitated toward smart and unusual heroines of any time period, many of whom have been written by the illustrious authors on this blog [blatant fan-girling here].
Romances have been with me through highs and lows: city relocations, making friends/saying-goodbye-to friends, apartment joys/nightmares, meeting the guy/breaking up with the guy, winning that job/losing that job…and lately my romances have been working overtime, giving me a pick-me-up through breast cancer.
Oh boy, you guys, I know. I dropped the “C” word. But stick with me! I promise this won’t be too rough.
When Cara asked me if I’d like to post, I thought for a while about why I’ve doubled down on romance therapy in recent months. It came down to two reasons. The biggest reason, one that I am sure many readers can relate to, is that romances take me to a happy place where characters successfully hurdle all obstacles on the way to that HEA finish line. The other reason is just a very specific subset of that first reason: romance’s old trope of the barren heroine’s miracle baby. (Wow, that sounds like a good Harlequin title, doesn’t it? “The Barren Heroine’s Miracle Baby”. You’re welcome, authors!) More on that second reason in a minute.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, but neither do otherwise healthy thirty-year-olds expect to randomly feel a lump. A cancer diagnosis is an intensely personal experience, especially in the sense that each patient deals with it in his or her own way. If the high school job in a library and love of reading didn’t clue you in, I have introverted tendencies which only intensified after cancer. My way of handling the unexpected was to withdraw into my own quiet headspace. And in that happy place…stacks of books!
Reading in general has always functioned as an escape for me, but only romances can do the job when I’m at my bluest. It has everything to do with the almost guaranteed happy ending and the hope of characters overcoming long odds to find their bliss. When I’m stressed and unsure of what’s going to happen in my reality, it’s reassuring to know that if I pick up a romance these two characters WILL get together and they WILL be in love. I just have to read to find out how they manage it. Even though the scenarios are fictional, such certainty is cathartic.
Or, if the promise of a couple riding into the sunset fails to pick up one’s spirits, then often there is a chance to feel better about a real, crappy situation by comparing your problem to the melodramatic backstories of the characters in Romance Land—especially if you’re into historicals. What’s that? The evil Baron next door burned down your castle and murdered your father before your eyes? Now you have to escape, injured, across a freezing moor on horseback or else succumb to his lascivious intent? Welp, cancer is no treat but at least my dad’s alive and my neighbor isn’t trying to pillage me.
The Barren Heroine
The thing that’s made me most angry about cancer is that it wrested control of choices that I had assumed would remain open to me for a long time. Being a single lady, I had no immediate plans for children, but always thought, “Yes, someday that’d be swell!” Within weeks of diagnosis it became clear that chemo would be in my near future, and that along with my hair, it would likely do a number on my fertility. Through the miracle of modern science, I took advantage of fertility preservation. Although that process turned out to be rather hellish. I’ve had to face my reproductive limitations very suddenly and that’s morphed my casual but generally confident attitude about potential children into something a lot more complicated. That complicated view has spilled over into my reading choices. I’ve started to look for heroines who reflect a slightly messier “reality.”
For years I’ve read romances which cap off the happily ever after in an epilogue that hints at a bundle of joy for the new couple or toddlers already bouncing at mom and dad’s feet. These offspring are a manifestation of how compatible and fruitful the hero and heroine are. And that’s great! I’m probably always going to enjoy a good epilogue with babies. Of course there are particular tropes that make me slightly eye-rolly these days, such as the previously mentioned miracle children.
We’ve all read this heroine. The one who’s repeatedly mentioned her barrenness only to magically discover at the end of the novel that the hero’s super sperm has defied the laws of nature and impregnated her. I recently reread “Ain’t She Sweet” by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and though I do adore that novel, it’s a primo example of this conceit.
Far more interesting and awesome is a newer trend of heroes and heroines where the author determines that they will NOT ever be having children but have a happy ending just the same. I’m thinking of, “The Countess Conspiracy” by Courtney Milan, “Not Quite a Husband” by Sherry Thomas, and “A Gentleman Undone” by Cecelia Grant. Whereas a fictional couple’s progeny used to not make much of an impact on me other than, “Oh good, that’s nice for them,” now children, or lack thereof, triggers a little something different. It feels refreshing to read characters that have an “alt” lifestyle when romance is concerned…where I’m actively pulling for these two to be happy with each other and their own limits rather than a magical and unlikely resolution.
Thank You, Thank You
That said there are scads of romances on the bookshelves that don’t bring up kids at all and simply focus on the hero, heroine, and the infinite ways two people can meet and overcome barriers to their happiness. That’s the beauty of romance; there is a story out there for every sort of reader. This post is really my open letter to say, “Thank you, romance writers of the world!” Thank you for writing all those sexy, interesting characters whose worlds I can visit when my own is too frustrating. Thank you for stories with women of different backgrounds and difficult circumstances who manage to get the guy but keep sight of who they are and maybe learn something about themselves. Reading romance has always been a simple pleasure for me and never more so than now. When the going gets rough, therapy is only an Amazon One-Click away.
Final Note: I want to thank Cara for inviting me to guest post. Cara and I were once upon a time both graphic designers at Ye Olde Publishing Company. If you had told either of us seven years ago that in the future one of us would be a full-time romance writer and would invite the other to write about her IRL cancer diagnosis, I think we both would have said that sounded a bit fantastical. Like, well, something out of a romance novel.