When You’re Shaken to the Core of Your Being, Grab a Romance

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.

Happy Place
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!

Post head-shaving party. Reenacting the 2007 meltdown of a heroine for our times, Ms. Britney Spears.

Post head-shaving party. Reenacting the 2007 meltdown of a heroine for our times, Ms. Britney Spears.

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.

AmyAtWorkThank 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.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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15 Responses to When You’re Shaken to the Core of Your Being, Grab a Romance

  1. Cara McKenna says:

    Amy—I’m so, so grateful you were willing to share your experience. I remember when I was in Chicago for RT a couple years ago, and you met me for lunch amid the chaos of hundreds and hundreds of romance readers and authors and bloggers in the conference hotel restaurant… In the crazy brainspace of the trip, all I could think was, “She’s a beautiful, stylish, single, twentysomething art director living in a hip city. She IS a romance heroine!” And you read so many of my books before anyone else—and before they made much sense, especially that whackadoodle first one with the Ambien withdrawal and the mudslide and all angry frenching—and you’re in so many of my dedications. I don’t know where I’m going with this comment, by the way. I just want to say thanks, again. We’re all authors on here, so we don’t often come at romance from the pure POV of the reader in our posts. But I want to hear stories like this (much as I never wanted to get that news, in January.) It makes me want to start asking readers not “What kinds of romance do you read?” but “Why do you read romance?”

    In fact I’d pose that to readers in these comments—why romance?

    • Amy says:

      Aww, Cara! It’s been a pleasure to even peripherally come along for your amazing writing adventure. Here’s to many, many more of your books for my Kindle. :)

  2. Andrea T says:

    Thank you, Amy, for sharing. I’m a reader too, and romance novels got me through the fear of my dad’s cancer diagnosis along with two surgeries and lengthy hospital stays. So many nights, I chose to hunker down with a novel rather than completely lose my mind.

    I’m sending you the best of wishes!

    • Amy says:

      Thank you, Andrea. :) I’m glad that romances were there for you, too, and likewise I wish your Dad well. Happy reading!

  3. Ana says:


    Thanks for sharing your story. I think it is so interesting to see what appeals to us and how it changes when our life changes.

    I actually wrote about this when I first started blogging romance reviews. This is what I wrote:

    “Why I am reading Romance?

    The Romance genre is preoccupied with human relationships, friendship and love, and one of the official library subject headings often associated with Romance is “Interpersonal relationships”. From the time I first read Austen I have sought out books where the central struggle or conflict is a personal one. In Romance novels the focus is on love: discovering it, nourishing it , and persevering in it against internal or external conflict. I dove into the Romance genre about two years ago, when we were going through an extremely stressful time in our home. My husband was facing a lot of stress at work, and the uncertainty led to him suffering from anxiety and depression. I had to hold things together and keep us going. I had to step away from reading yet another dystopian YA novel. The happily-ever-afters (HEA) in Romance novels were incredibly necessary to my life then. I had enough bleakness in my real life thank you very much. I will happily cry and struggle right along with a character, but reading romance will always leave me with a bit of hope. Since then, life has improved greatly. We are both happy and comfortable in our home and work lives again, but I am still loving Romance novels, instead of leaving the genre behind I have shifted from reading primarily Historical Romances to Contemporary ones. I have also discovered a community of readers and authors through Twitter and blogs like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Dear Author and Wonk-o-mance where I find smart discussion on feminism, relationships and the craft of writing.”

    So like Amy, I say Thank you to all you who gives us great stories to lose and find ourselves in.

  4. Lammie says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your cancer diagnosis, and I wish you all good health. Reading, particularly in romance where a happy ending is guaranteed often made it possible for me to continue living in very unhappy circumstances. In my youth I read to escape. In my young adulthood and later, I couldn’t always read as often as I wanted and did not do a lot of it. Now in my late middle age I have more time and have rediscovered the joys of romance novels. There was a lot to catch up on, and I have been gorging myself. I think my younger self would be horrified at what I enjoy now – the erotic nature definitely would have shocked younger me. However, my first romance was The Flame and the Flower (which I reread countless times) and reading it now I can’t stand the rapeyness of it. Why didn’t my younger self care about things like consent?

    I think I read romance now for the adventure of it. Choices early in my life were rather narrow because of my circumstances. I like living vicariously through romance heroines, seeing the array of choices they get to make. I probably wouldn’t enjoy meeting a real vampire, but the Black Daggar boys do appeal to me. I also loved After Hours, but I think a man like Kelly Roback would terrify me in real life. Reading for me is pure escapism and fantasy wish fulfillment.

    I too worked at a library in my youth – shelf reading and shelving were the best ways to find good books! Not only romance, but movie star autobiographies (which did not have a lot of happy endings). My tastes have changed over the years, but I guess my reasons have not – when I read romance I get to live that exciting, happy life that real life has sometimes denied me.

    • Amy says:

      Former library workers unite! :) Oh my goodness, Lammie, here-here to tastes changing and especially in the case of “rapeyness”! Some older book just don’t hold up, do they? A few years ago I happened across a newer series by Brenda Joyce that I really enjoyed (hated the final book for plot reasons though…that’s a rant by itself). But, in investigating her other works, I decided to read a well-reviewed book of hers written in the early 90s. MY WORD. The heroine was constantly being belittled and abused by the ‘hero’. I think it was a “did not finish…erase from Kindle” situation. I’m glad that trend faded out, but why was it a trend in the first place?!

  5. Shari Slade says:

    Amy, thank you so much for sharing your story.

  6. Thank you so very much for sharing your love of romance and your life.

    I completely agree with everything you have said. I love the genre for those reasons and for the wonder of two (and sometimes 3 and 4 :) people coming together to make a joined life and mad psychology of that process.

    I lost the baby was carrying recently late in the second trimester of my pregnancy. I blessed with one wonderful son but with my age (40) and a miscarriage two years ago as well, my husband and I have elected to try no more. We may adopt but we are still in mourning currently. Reading and working on my dream of what I call my “Romance Novel Empire” provides ease.

    Romance does heal but it is also important be tender with yourself and be aware of making such a soothing place a painful one as you said.

    This is one of the reason I love to create Romance Lists so that every reader can be aware of triggers and find joy in the themes they love and bring them the most pleasure when they might need it so badly. I hooked my BFF on romance a few years go when she was in very poor health and having a terrible time and work. She thinks that this new hobby really got her through the worst of it all.

    On the not having childern heroine–I really adore Heart Choice by Robin Owens where the heroine is infertile (and nothing changes that) and the hero needs (or feels he does) childern. Of course, there is an HEA and not just for the couple. She appears in the first book in the series Heart Mate as well. And well the cats talk in this series and are ever so funny in the way that a talking cat would be.

    I wish you rest, strength, love, and good reading.

  7. Serena Bell says:

    Amy, thank you so much for sharing your story. And I love your photo!

  8. Fiona McGier says:

    You are so adorable! That twinkle in your eyes, and your sense of humor when you pretend to beat that car…you didn’t really break any windows, did you, you imp?

    I write romance because I’ve always loved reading them. A number of years ago my Dad’s colon cancer got the better of him when he had a stroke that put him into the hospital. Long story short, the hospice nurse we called in for him, pointed out to me that Mom had dementia. Sigh. Brother refused to admit anything was going on, so even though I had 4 kids and 2 p/t jobs, I had to take over both their lives and hold both of them as they took their last breaths, years apart. Tears by the bucket-load.
    I really needed a happy ending somewhere in my life. My long-suffering and totally-supportive husband and kids were tired of watching me cry. So I began to write some of the stories that had swirled in my brain for years, entertaining only me. So in a very real way, romance novels helped me through a major life crisis: becoming an orphan.

    Thanks for sharing your story and your strength, even though you might not feel strong all of the time. You are. And it feels good to think that my words might help someone else as they helped me.

    • Amy says:

      Wow, Fiona, that is a sad but lovely way to enter the world of romance writing. Thank YOU for sharing your story and thank you for your writing. Also, no car windows were harmed in the making of this blog post. ;)

  9. Cate Ellink says:

    Thank you Amy and Cara.

    Best of luck, Amy, with your cancer battle and thank you for sharing your story.

    Cate xo

  10. Christine says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Amy, it takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there like this. I started reading romance novels in grade 7, when my locker partner would sneak Harlequin presents from her mom and bring them to school and we would giggle over them. Then in the summers of Junior High and High school I would visit my grandmother in Northern Ontario for a few weeks and she lived across the street from the library – I’m sure the stack of Barbara Cartland books was never as well worn as when I was taking them out in droves. From there it spiraled into Silhouette Desire with Stephanie James being a personal favourite, then Amanda Quick, then Jayne Ann Krentz – and it took me several years to discover they were one and the same person which explained why I enjoyed the plot lines so much! Occasionally I will take a break and read something different – thrillers, fantasy, but I always am drawn back to the romance section of the library or bookstore. So I still read romance, and I read it for the emotion, for the characters, for the knowledge that everything will turn out at the end. Even though the path in the story may not be pretty, it’s the certainty of a Happy ever after, or at least a Happy for now that makes it worthy of my time. Romance books for me are a pleasant escape, something to look forward to at the end of a long, stressful day, and something I will never stop reading (hopefully words of cheer to you wonderful authors that make up the Wonk-o-mance world!)

    • Amy says:

      I love your romance author progression through time, Christine! The Barbara Cartlands and Harlequins are so rich with melodrama…perfect for teens girls, right?! ;)