I started reading romance novels as a freshman in high school. In retrospect, it probably wasn't my best move. Before I started dating and before anyone explained the facts of life to me (not the birds and the bees, but the realities of male/female interaction), I was influenced in by Fern Michaels, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Johanna Lindsey in this arena. Unfortunately, I took the lessons of these wonderful authors to heart and had an extremely warped view of romantic relationships and how romantic love should be expressed. I thought the fantasy was truth. And while you know I believe in truth in fantasy, I missed the memo in my teens and drank the Kool-Aid without any discernment or analysis at all (although I'm trying hard to make up for it now). It must be said that the historical romances I devoured in the 1980s didn't have much in common with the paranormal romances I enjoy today or anything in common with my favorite urban fantasy books. The historical romances I enjoyed featured ultra masculine heroes and beautifully feminine heroines who, according to the formula, don't like each other much and who work hard to fight their mutual attraction and overcome the many obstacles to their love, only to succumb to the inevitable and realize that they are soul mates as they achieve their happily ever after.
The power dynamic was always in favor of the male who always ends up rescuing the woman in some form or other—although, in the same way Julia Roberts assures Richard Gere that the beautiful princess at the end of the story turns around and saves the prince who first saved her—the female protagonist in my romance novels always succeeded in making her man a better person, a la Helen Hunt and the inappropriately older Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets. Given the mutual salvation, one could avoid thinking that these novels might have been written by Bobby Riggs. By the same token, no one would inadvertently credit their authorship to Billie Jean King, either.
My love of reading brainwashed me at an early age to expect, erroneously, that real men—the kind to whom a young woman like me would be attracted—didn't always want to acknowledge or act on their hidden love for the young woman in question. I also expected that there would be impediments to our love and that it was okay to be involved in relationships with extreme power imbalances where I was always in the weaker position. I read it in bestselling books, after all.
I made some abysmally poor choices based partially on these romance-novel-inspired beliefs. But at least these books were straightforward and explicit in the messages they promulgated: women need men to save them or complete them and to just cuddle with them. No man = no happily ever after. And I didn’t want my life to be a losing equation. Clearly, these authors were unaware of the new paradigm where a woman needs a man as much as a fish needs a bicycle. Apparently, those fish are in serious need of some pedal pushers.
Fast forward to about six years ago, when I fist discovered Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire world. I fell in love with Sookie and her fierce independence. I loved that she didn't just melt at the feet of the first vampire who came a’ calling. She remained her own person and stayed true to her values and beliefs. Sookie was my hero. Then I was introduced to Anita Blake, and while it may not have been love at first sight, our relationship grew into a strong and lasting one (at least on my side). Anita kicked butt and took names. She was glorious.
But there was one small problem—while Sookie and Anita were busy being themselves and resisting the temptation to become the willing love slaves of Vampire Bill and Eric Northman or Richard and Jean-Luc, I was berating my poor husband for not being more like my fantasy lovers—Bill, Eric, and Jean-Luc (I was never on Team Richard, sorry, he was way too conflicted—I have more than enough angst for all of us). Instead of internalizing the best way to maintain my own power in potentially imbalanced relationships, or how to be true to myself despite being head-over-heels in lust/love, or aspiring to strap knives to my wrists and thighs, I was pining for males who do not and cannot exist outside the pages of my next generation romances. Wow, I guess I missed the memo again.
Not to mention that my husband got rightly and truly annoyed by my constant comparisons of him to males who aren't real. He did not appreciate being forced to read Dark Lover by J.R. Ward and encouraged to take notes so that he could learn how I wanted to be treated (I still think that J.R. Ward, Kresley Cole, Thea Harrison and Nalini Singh should be required reading for all men with female partners, as I've written about here, but I digress). He reminded me, none too gently (although it's possible I may have deserved the brusque delivery), that it's easy to be perfect within the pages of a book, for the finite amount of time I will spend with my fantasy lover (which of course reminds me of the memorable novel, Fantasy Lover, by Sherilyn Kenyon, where the male protagonist literally comes to life from a book and exists only to pleasure the woman who called him forth—but we can talk about that later – during my husband’s next trip).
I know my husband is right though, and it seems impossible that these protagonists not only get their happily ever after, but that their HEAs last for hundreds or thousands of years, as all of these characters are immortal. In my real marriage, with my real (and wonderfully amazing, saint-like) husband, it's been a challenge to keep the spark alive for only two decades. I cannot imagine the effort required within a monogamous relationship that last centuries. More power to 'em, but my expectations may have been just a tiny bit inflated by reading about these fabulous vampires, werewolves and faeries at such an impressionable age (like, say, 45).
So the take-away here is that perhaps I'm too susceptible to the truth in the fantasy books I read—or maybe it’s the fantasy I’m a sucker for. I certainly was when I was 15, and apparently I still am at 50. I'm a bit more self-aware these days, but I need to stay on my guard. Because I want my HEA, the hell with my MTV.