Confession: I am addicted--and I mean ADDICTED--to trashy book covers. Vintage pulp. Over-the-top fantasy. Macho westerns. And of course, most especially, romance novels. Those covers are a particular weakness with their half-naked heroes with rock-hard abs and the heroines with uncooperative dresses that practically fall from their bodies. The lusty gazes. The idyllic background. It all promises, well...you know. And if there's a lusty pirate on the cover, I'm done for (what can I say? I love a good story about swash-buckling social transgression!).
I've been collecting trashy book covers for as long as I can remember. But it hasn't been until recently that I've started reading romance books in earnest, thanks to my new addiction, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which has guided me through the delicious world of these novels. Don't get me wrong, I've read plenty of paranormal stories, cozy mysteries, and fantasies with strong romantic elements, and studied courtship novels almost exclusively while earning my degree...but I'd never fully immersed myself in this genre.
Sure I've read Nora Roberts here and there or thumbed through the books I'd bought for their covers, but I hadn't completely committed to the romance. One of the big reasons is that I found it so overwhelming! There are so many books and so many authors, I didn't know where to start. And (she says shamefully), there was the whole romance novel stigma. You know, the whole, "you read THAT?!" Why yes, yes I do.
And love every minute of it. I've become partial to historical romances. They are, as Sara Wendell from Smart Bitches would say, my catnip. One of the reasons I've fallen in love with the genre is that it is about hope and all the soft, gushy feelings our society doesn't value in the way it should. Naturally, I would turn to this genre during my year of radical self-care because it reminds me how powerful pleasure is.
This is also a genre of reinvention (these stories have come so far from the early years of Fabio heroes foisting themselves upon virtuous maidens!). It encourages us to sweep off the dust of experience, heal the scrapes inflicted by a hard world, and remember what it is like to feel hope and other giddy, luscious things. And the heroines! Let's just say each and every one of them is epic in her own way but they all teach you how to cultivate romance in your own life.
When I say romance, sure, I mean chocolates and flowers and orgasms as that comes into your life; but I also mean remembering what it is like to see the world through rose-colored glasses. To know yourself and what brings you joy. To take pride in owning your capacity for pleasure in all things. And to work hard for your happiness. So without further ado, I offer you 10 life lessons I've learned from reading trashy novels.
1. It's important to nourish--and value--your internal life. We live in a world that values extroversion and concrete achievements, so much so that I often come home tired of this out-there energy and in desperate need of emotional sustenance, the kind that honors the rich nuances of the human spirit that goes beyond material accomplishments. What a treat it is then to crack open a book and read about the deep internal lives of fictional characters. Romances are delicious character-driven stories. They offer insight into how our thoughts and past experiences shape who we are now. Most of all, they show us the often intangible, but no less important value of taking the time to process the world around us. Sometimes the most profound changes and experiences are revelations that burst upon us when we create space to reflect.
2. Happy endings are real. Seriously, who doesn't need this reminder right now? Not only are they real but you have the power to make them happen. What you choose to give time and energy to can determine the quality of your life, so let go of toxic people and situations and thoughts. So yeah, happy endings real, but it takes a lot of hard work to get there! Which takes us to lesson number three...
3. Happiness is hard work. The conflict resolution never falls into the heroine's lap and true love doesn't just happen to her--she works at it, to understand herself, to resolve her situation, and to open herself up to love (of life, of herself, of the hero(ione)). Guess that whole stereotype of the hero fixing things for her is busted! In all the romance novels I've been gobbling up, never once do I see a fainting damsel in distress looking for a knight in shining armor to whisk her away from danger. She always meets trouble head on and eventually enjoys the perks of a capable hero by her side (or under or on top of her...wink wink).
4. Hope can take you a long way. Romances are about hope and letting go of a jaded worldview that limits your potential and capacity for happiness. Hope is one of those soft, gushy feelings made out of rainbows and wishes. Because it is light as a feather, it is often overlooked as unimportant or not as enlightening as darker emotions. But these stories refresh and revive and inspire hope. They remind us to dream and wonder and always, always look for the joy in the day.
5. Pleasure is powerful. Okay so I've been reading a lot about multiple orgasms and endless sweaty nights and more sexual positions than I can properly name, but...what's wrong with that? Again, just because it feels good doesn't mean we should dismiss it as not important or serious. In fact, pleasure in any form (not just the mattress-breaking kind) is one of the most profound ways we experience life and learn about the kind of life we want to cultivate.
6. Leave plenty fo room for sexy times! (See number 5.) Light beeswax candles. Wear clothes that make you feel beautiful. Cook a sumptuous dinner. Kiss. A lot. Or enjoy some quality solo time (wink wink). Watch the sun set. Watch the sun rise. Paint your nails. Walk naked around the house (wait, you don't do that?). Read a book. Do anything and everything that makes you feel sexy and vibrant.
7. A good heroine takes action. Every book I've read has a dynamic heroine who takes charge of her life. Personal chef business failing? Move to your hometown for the summer to figure out your next move. Crushing on the rakish duke? Seduce him at the masquerade. Captured by pirates? Join the crew! Even if she starts out as a doormat, she grows into an empowered woman.
8. It's never too late to reinvent yourself. This goes back to hope. Sometimes we get stuck. Sometimes we get a lot stuck. Sometimes we worry that we've gone so far down a road that we can't turn back, pull over, or blaze a new trail. We become afraid. Our vision narrows. We begin to resign ourselves to an unfulfilled life. Trashy books tell us that is the exact moment when the universe needs to shake things up. Get accidentally snowed in with an unrequited love (make sure there's plenty if mistletoe!) or win the lottery and finally live a life free from the social constraints of the marriage market. When the universe intervenes or you take matters into your own hand by quitting your terrible job to travel the world, these books remind us that we don't have to stay on the tracks we--or others--have laid out for us. We can reinvent ourselves at any time.
9. Emotions matter--trust your instincts. Ahhhhh, the whole he-should-be-perfect-for-me-but-there's-no-spark plot. Or the seems-like-a-good-guy-but-really-is-evil. It's easy to succumb to social pressures or our own convoluted ideas about what might make us happy; but if we actually stop and listen to what will bring us joy, we will find it's often not in the generic socially acceptable picture-perfect version of our life we tell ourselves we want. Real life is gritty (even in a romance novel); real life asks you to question the status quo; real life asks you to be true to yourself. The only way to do that: be brutally honest about your feelings. Not what logic tells you make sense. Your feelings. Those hard-to-quantify-oh-so-magical things that let you know when you're moving in the right direction (hint: it is towards the gentleman thief with a shadowy past and a mullet that would make any 80s rockstar envious...or whatever).
10. Value yourself. This is another important lesson. Either the heroine already understands the value of self-respect or she grows into it by the end of the story. In either case, romance novels are powerful vehicles for showing that strong women--vulnerable, emotional, capable women--have to value themselves first and foremost. Everything else comes out of this.
Bottom line: if reading romances is wrong, I don't want to be right! (Cut to me sweeping out of the ballroom--bedroom?--in my disheveled fuschia regency gown and running after said pirate...book.) We could all use a little romance in our lives. A little tenderness and hope. And if my laptop background now features scantily-clad Victorian lovers mid-tryst or a Fabio-like hunk wrapped in pink satin sheets with a woman rocking 80s bed head, then so be it.
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