You know how no matter how old you are, your family still likes to remind you of your more embarrassing childhood escapades? Even if, in retrospect, they aren’t that terrible? In my family, it’s the Mystery of the Missing Flashlight (along with The Watch that Only Got Reset by 24 Minutes at Daylight Savings Time, but that’s another story).
One evening, my dad was looking for a flashlight. Before he could make it to the cupboard where the flashlight should have been, I volunteered to “find” it for him. My parents, suspicious of my overly energetic offer, followed me to my room to see me pull the flashlight from under my pillow. Before they could even ask why it was there, I babbled something about being afraid of the dark after watching an episode of Rescue 911. They might have bought it if I hadn’t dislodged the book that was also tucked securely under my pillow. One narrow-eyed look from my mom, and I broke like the fat kid in Goonies spilling all his dirtiest secrets. Of course, I sneaked the flashlight in to my room to read under the covers past bedtime. In adulthood, I learned this was not a terribly uncommon misdeed, especially among the bookish crew I hang with.
As an avid reader at an early age, I wasn’t very discerning. For example, in order to win the prize for reading the most pages in fourth grade, I checked Grimms’ Fairy Tales out of the library simply because it was the biggest book I could find.
It was my reading experience the following year in school that set me on the romance path. Our class read Where the Red Fern Grows, and not a month later, after I’d finally stopped crying myself to sleep, I read Bridge to Teribithia on my own. I was traumatized. Obviously, I am not the only person with a Grand Canyon-esque capacity for suspending disbelief who has this problem. Witness the hundreds of some-e-cards on Pinterest regarding forming emotional attachments to fictional characters.
However, as an impressionable and sensitive young woman, I decided the best course of action for my emotional stability was to avoid sad endings at all costs. Shortly after this momentous decision, my family moved to Montana in close to proximity to my grandparents. My grandmother, a minister’s wife, had shelves full of books. Harlequin books. Harlequin books originally printed in the 70’s and 80’s when kissing was as steamy as it got. And so it began.
I started by taking just a couple every month. I’d bring them home, read them casually, and return them on the next visit. Soon, I found myself craving more. I enjoyed the suave heroes the foreign dialogue (“colour” and “grey” counted as foreign, even with Canada just a few hundred miles away). So I started grabbing five or six off the shelf, and I quickly hit a one or two a week pace. For a while, it was invigorating. I loved the scent of the paper every time I cracked a new one. I loved the feel of those slim volumes in my hands. I loved the pastel rainbow on the spines and the way they looked lined up on my own little bookshelf.
Soon, I was inventing reasons to visit the grandparents and swap out books. Shopping bags full. And then the Harlequin novels weren’t enough. I was burning through them too fast. I needed more. So I moved up a shelf to find the Harlequin Super Romance. These novels were a whole new breed. Longer. Spicier. Full of action and intrigue. And a lot more educational. I learned about hunting for sunken treasure and setting traps for Russian spies and protecting beautiful informants from Mafia hitmen. (What, you were expecting some other kind of education? Naughty.)
My hunger was satisfied for another year or two. But then I went to a bookstore and wandered into the romance section. It was my first time experiencing the full and dizzying selection available in the mainstream market. I was dazzled and overwhelmed. After an hour or two, I walked out with my first purchase clutched to my chest. Once a Princess by Johanna Lindsey. Which began my obsessive consumption of every book ever written by Johanna Lindsey. And it spiraled from there. Linda Howard. Julie Garwood. Judith McNaught. Bettina Krahn. Linda Lael Miller. Nora Roberts. Lisa Kleypas. Teresa Medeiros. Kinley MacGregor. Kelsey Michaels. Suzanne Brockman. Christie Ridgway. Hundreds of authors. Thousands of books.
Throughout high school and college, I read whatever I was assigned in class, including the sad books. The only thing that helped me keep a clinical detachment from those devastation-bound fictional characters was the knowledge that soon I’d have a new hunky hero to fall in love with and a guaranteed happily ever after. Romance novels kept me emotionally stable. Without the light at the end of the dark, treacherous tunnel that was Of Mice and Men, I may have faced institutionalization.
That pattern shapes my life to this day. Every once in a while, I try to read a “real” literary book. Usually, about 20 pages and/or 10 heart-wrenchingly sad scenes later, I give up. I’m not sure why literature has to be doused in tragedy and hopelessness, but I’m not built to sustain that type of emotional beating. Romance novels, with their fun, flirty nature and soothing happy endings help me balance the often messy and sometimes tragic nature of real life with my innate desire to see things wrapped in a tidy package and stamped with smiley faces. Romance novels will forever be the flashlight under my pillow, keeping me up past my bedtime and giving me a much-needed escape from reality.