What it’s like to read romance novels while you’re in love

In the last month I’ve read fourteen romance novels, and it’s a bit odd to be reading romance while you’re engaged. Right now I am actively in love. This is the span of my own life that would be covered by a romance novel (except that my love has been so dull and easy that there’s no way it’d fill an entire book).

The experience of finding and falling in love is centered in our society to a startling degree. But, if anything, it’s actually more prevalent in popular culture than it is in life. Most people find love, of a sort, at some point in their life, and then afterward they stop looking. Even during our single years, most of the time we’re not actively yearning for love. Yet our desire to read and hear about it is endless, and to a large degree it seems to be disconnected from our actual experience of being in love. People who’re trying to find someone don’t necessarily consume more romantic narratives than do people who’re not looking or who’ve already found their person.

Not that this is unique to us. In India, ninety-five percent of people have arranged marriages, but all the films and the songs are still about falling in love. There, most people know that the thing they’re seeing is something they will never experience (at least not in precisely that way).*

It’s odd for me too as a writer to read about love. Lately I’ve been wanting to write much more straightforwardly about love. The love story in my first (still unpublished) YA novel was about lust and longing and it turned tragic. The love story in Enter Title Here was a subplot, and to some extent I only put it in because finding a guy and falling in love with him seemed like an easy way to move the plot of the book along. But my latest contemporary YA is a love story. At it’s core that’s what it is. And when I think about books I want to write in the future, they’re often love stories.

I can’t say whether the world needs any more love stories, and I certainly can’t say why I want to write them. My feeling is that it has to do with what I’ve written about: capturing the heart of longing. There’s nothing more nakedly accessible to us than our desire to love and to be loved in return. I think what love stories offer, even more than the vicarious experience of falling in love, is the feeling of loneliness and longing. When we read a love story, we remember what it was like to be alone. But the feeling is made safe. In real life, loneliness is a pit, and falling into it is a lot easier than climbing out. But in a romance novel, we know that all of this suffering comes out worthwhile in the end.

In my own life, I’ve felt a lot of loneliness and hopelessness. Probably not more of it than most people, but still, it was a predominant emotion for vast swathes of my life (sometimes it still is), and when I was single and tried to write about it, the books were too despairing. I was unable to grasp hold of the emotion without letting it bite me. Now it’s different. I have a little more perspective. That though to me is the thing that’s worth writing about. Not love; loneliness. To me, love is most worthwhile, within a story, because it represents hope. No person can be fully lost to despair so long as they continue to hope for love.

*Note, there are Bollywood movies that deal with falling in love after marriage, but those form only a minority of the romantic narratives that Bollywood offers.

Am reading romance novels

41nnwjz0al-_sy344_bo1204203200_I still don’t know how I’ve been enlisted in this unofficial book club, but my friend Erin Summerill has been giving me romance novels to read and then grilling me on my reactions. I’m actually not unhappy with this. I’ve always wanted to get into reading romance, because it feels a bit silly to have no familiarity with the genre that accounts for roughly half of all novel sales in the US. But because it’s such a big genre, it can be hard to find the good stuff. With Erin’s help I’ve been moving through, and I haven’t encountered a bad one yet.

However, of all the novels she’s made me read, the best was the most recent: Tracy Garvis-Graves’s On The Island.

This is a book that I guarantee will produce a wince from everybody who reads the synopsis. It’s about a thirty year old woman, a high school teacher, who gets stranded on a deserted tropical island, after a plane crash. Her only companion? The 16 year old boy she was supposed to tutor that summer.

So yes, the book does have a taboo element. They don’t get together until the kid is 18, but still, you’re like, hmmm there is something off about this. However, it’s also really compelling and really hot. Here you have two people who’re fighting for their lives. They’re threatened by sharks, by hunger, by disease, and by thirst. Everything is a struggle. They’re never safe. They never reach a comfortable Robinson Crusoe style equilibrium. They’re always in danger of dying.

And, throughout, it becomes so clear that if it wasn’t for the other person, they’d already have died long ago. Before you’ve gone too far in the book, they’re already relying on each other emotionally.

But you’re still left wondering: when are they gonna get together? How’s it gonna happen?

It’s a simple premise, but because the stakes feel so sky-high (I mean what happens if things don’t work out between two people trapped together on an island), I was just so on board for the ride.

The book is also astonishingly well written. It’s a straight-up good book. One of the best I’ve read this year. I mean I certainly don’t think I’ve read another book this year that’s pulled me through with such raw force.