Learning to Love Romance

As I’m writing this post, I have the James Cameron-helmed Titanic playing in the background. I already knew I was going to write about romance as a genre, but I didn’t make the connection to my choice in films until I was already partway through.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about romance, specifically of the paranormal variety. The piece that I’m currently thinking the hardest about is quickly shaping up to be a paranormal romance despite, initially, all efforts to work against that. I was so determined to avoid falling into that genre that I kept referring to it as “slice of life” and other terms to sound experimental and therefore artistic. Besides, the characters don’t end up in a relationship at all during the story, let alone the end. The struggle is more about my leading man’s health and emotional crises than his thoughts and feelings for his friend/love interest: sure, sometimes they collide, but the story isn’t a romance. That, and paranormal romance is “in,” and I don’t want to be trendy.

Don’t give up on me just yet, because I’m about to tell you how I learned better. Everyone loves a good story about someone being proven wrong, right?

Romance has never been one of my favorite genres. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be one of yours, or that romance is bad or romance authors need to move on to other things, it’s just not my proverbial cup of tea. I was that high schooler that rolled my eyes when my peers would squeal about Twilight and its sequels, and I grew into an English major that groaned whenever we had to read a Jane Austen novel. I like watching romantic movies of all subgenres, and I even have a few favorites, but for the most part I end up watching them if nothing else is on or if I’m doing something else and need background noise that doesn’t require paying much attention.

What I suspect my problem with the romance genre (and even unruly romantic subplots) was is that the end-all, be-all of the plot was the culmination of a relationship between two (conventionally attractive, cisgender, straight) people. Romances are great and everything (I’m married, after all), but I never understood the appeal of having a story about just the relationship, especially because most romances have a forgone conclusion: either boy and girl get together, or boy and girl break up until the next installment in the series. Yes, relationships are important, but putting so much emphasis on the relationship makes it seem that the relationship is the only thing in their lives, which feels unnatural at best and unhealthy at worst.

The plots are about the journey, not the destination, and I really do find some of these journeys compelling, but as a reader I find higher stakes more appealing. The relationships in the Harry Potter book series did develop the characters, but they never overshadowed whatever evil was attacking campus this time (I’m not of the opinion that this translated into the movies very well, but no movie adaptation is perfect). The relationship in My Big Fat Greek Wedding was very sweet, but the comedy and the plot at large were derived from the family drama and cultural collisions, which is why it’s one of my favorite rom-coms. In Titanic, I felt more drawn to Rose’s plight as a rich woman trapped by circumstance and society than I did the romance between her and Jack. It’s not that there was nothing compelling about their relationship, but I just found other things about the characters and plot more interesting. And really, all of those things are still true. I still feel that way.

But I met a woman by the name of Charlotte Brontë who changed the way I think about the genre itself.

To be more specific, I read Jane Eyre a few months back as part of a reading challenge to scratch off the “classic romance” category. I wasn’t looking forward to it, because, at the time, I didn’t think I would like it. It was nearly five hundred pages long (not in itself a deal-breaker, but in the case of a non-preferred genre a definite deterrent) and the back jacket promised a story about a plain, penniless woman who falls in love with her tall, dark, and handsome employer and the scandals that threaten to drive them apart. WHAT WOULD THEY EVER DO? I couldn’t wait to get it over with.

Well… I was wrong. And I’m really, really glad about it.

One of the criticisms that I hear about Jane Eyre is that it’s hundreds of pages of nothing with a mediocre-at-best love story loosely attached. On the other end of the spectrum are the readers who finish it and say that Mr. Rochester is so sexy and they’d love to have him for their very own. I thought it was good, even though I wouldn’t want a Rochester of my own, so I almost feel like that lumps me in with the former group, but in on the positive side of the y-axis (because I can’t just have a spectrum be a line segment, now can I?). I loved all of the stuff that wasn’t contributing to the romance because it contributed to the characters. Jane is up there among my favorite literary heroines: she’s interesting, independent, and very invested in her own agency and self-improvement rather than husband-hunting. When she finally does get married to Rochester (we’re still in the romance genre, after all), it doesn’t feel like either partner is settling or becoming different people for each other: they’ve had time away from each other to grow, and the timing happened to be right for them. It felt like a female coming-of-age story dressed up as a romance novel.

I can understand why people wouldn’t think that it’s a romance novel, but I can assure you that it is absolutely a love story. It has a romantic pair that needs to overcome challenges to be together, but it happens that a lot of these challenges are internal and don’t involve many throes of passion. It’s a love story in the sense that the characters have to learn to love themselves and grow into the people they’re supposed to before they make that commitment to each other.

Realizing that helped me have a bit of an epiphany about the genre. It’s escapism, yes. It’s a foregone conclusion, yes. It’s the journey, not the destination, absolutely. But it’s the psychological, internal journey that’s the main plot of the romance, not the fact of boy and girl living happily ever after. I was looking in the right place, but treating it as an accidental occurrence rather than the main plot.

And frankly, I felt a little silly about only just realizing that.

So, romance authors: I’m sorry about all the cynicism at your expense. I really am. And now that I have a pair of characters who seem to be headed toward a romance, I get it. I have a bit of a learning curve ahead of me, but I think this way of thinking about it will help get me out of my self-imposed rut. I’ll learn from you guys what I can, and I’ll give Jane Austen the chance she deserves now that she isn’t required reading. Brontë taught me that I can learn to love something unexpected that has more depth than it may appear, after all.