I have a theory that everyone remembers the first romance they ever read, the one that made them realize how truly amazing romance storytelling can be and possibly changed a long-held negative opinion about the genre.
Often, not only do people remember which book, but also who gave it to them. It might have been their mother, aunt or grandmother, as a sort of rite of passage. It might have been a friend who issued a literary invitation to be as shocked and curious about all the explicit parts. Or, it might have been a totally chance discovery. Regardless of how the introduction came about, romance readers who are enthusiastic about their reading very frequently remember the very first romance they ever read.
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Mine, as I've written about many times, was a very old-skool romance: Midsummer Magic by Catherine Coulter.
I reviewed this book on SBTB in 2007 when I went back to reread it after several years. I wondered if the favorable opinion I had of it was based on the ever-flattering patina of nostalgia and not on the actual book itself. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it just as much, even as I acknowledged some of the dastardly and rather crapful things the hero does to the heroine in the course of the story.
In Midsummer Magic, Hawk (yes, that's a nickname) is told he must journey to Scotland (where Hawk does not want to go) to meet an old family friend of his father's (whom Hawk has never met) and while there, must select one of that man's daughters to marry (which Hawk has zero interest in doing presently or in the future). But because Hawk's father makes this directive/request on his deathbed, Hawk is compelled to honor his father's arrangement and goes to Scotland. He's not expecting much, and he wants his life to change as little as possible.
When he arrives, his father's friend is very glad to see him, and the three daughters are indeed present, unmarried and mostly attractive. Two are beautiful, and one, Frances, has disguised herself as a dowdy, nearsighted bore in order to keep Hawk from even looking twice at her as an option. Frances' plan backfires, as Hawk decides a quiet, boring, dowdy wife will be the perfect wife for him since he plans to dump her in the country after marrying her and head on back to London where his mistress and his very happy life await him.
Hawk's plan also backfires, of course, because Frances endures the consummation of the marriage, waits for him to leave, and once he's gone, stops using her disguise, determined to make the best of her new life. Once Hawk and Frances see each other clearly, the arguments and fierce attraction begins.
Their courtship is miserable in the beginning, and there are times when Hawk is a total douchebag to Frances. Regardless of how badly he acts, though, I felt sympathy for him—and have every time I read the book—because I know why he's doing what he's doing, how unwilling he is despite having to do his duty to his father. Even though he doesn't want to be married to Frances, or to anyone, and even though he knows she's not interested in going to bed with him, he feels their marriage must be consummated, and he tries to be sensitive to her. Unfortunately, that small bit of sensitivity highlights how insensitive and blind Hawk is in other areas where Frances is concerned.
The author, Coulter, wrote many chapters from Hawk's point of view, allowing the reader to understand his motivations, his feelings and his reasons for choosing the course that makes the beginning of the story. Once the reader gets to know Frances, being so familiar with both charters and how at odds they are in personality, serves to increase the anticipation of these two individuals battling each other.
What I find interesting is how that first romance can shape one's reading impression of the books that come after it. I know that for me, reading Midsummer Magic first meant that I learned early in my romance reading that I like to know both characters’ viewpoints. The books that I found afterward often featured the heroine's point of view alone, leaving the hero to be a somewhat mysterious and often menacing figure (this was the early ’90s, and there were still a good number of menacing, mysterious douchebag alphole heroes in historicals at that time).
Even now, more than 20 years later, I'm always surprised at myself when I enjoy a book that features only one point of view. My preferences were probably not so much shaped as identified by Midsummer Magic, and I'm still glad that was my first romance.
What was your first romance novel? Do you remember it? Do you still like reading it? How has it shaped your preferences for romance since then?
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.