My Unexpected Romance with Romance Novels

Picture this. It’s a hot summer’s day and three twenty-somethings are lying in a row on the beach. One of them is reading a collection of Indigenous short essays, another is reading Tim Winton’s classic novel, Cloudstreet. And me? I’m reading a romance novel Fight or Flight, all about two people that meet on…a flight. The remarkable thing here is that even though we’re reading incredibly different books, I don’t feel any shame about my admittedly fluffier choice of material. Take. That. Patriarchy.  

I didn’t always feel this way. For most of my life as a reader, I’ve viewed romance novels as some kind of guilty pleasure. I tried to hide them when I read them on a train or tram, and regularly referred to them as ‘trashy’. It took me a long time to understand that just because romance fiction is rarely given the respect it deserves, that doesn’t mean that I should be ashamed of loving it.

I recently found In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner in an op shop and it just got me. The characters were flawed and complex women, all with very different histories and motivations and needs. I was particularly drawn to the way Jennifer never shied away from the sexuality of her characters, and in fact, celebrated it.

I later read an article Jennifer Weiner wrote for The New York Times, We need bodice ripper sex- ed. In her piece, Jennifer outlines how reading romance can teach us to be more open in talking about sex and relationships, and in turn, elevate our discussions about consent. To drive the point home, she quotes another of my newfound loves, Leah and Bea Koch, two sisters who own a romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice in Los Angeles (which I am honestly dying to visit). Bea Koch says: “Romance novels teach readers that all partners are equal participants in a sexual relationship.”

Romance novels teach readers that all partners are equal participants in a sexual relationship.

Bea Koch

At this point, I was ready to find more romance fiction, but I didn’t fully know where to start. So thank god for social media! On Twitter, I noticed a lot of posts about a book called The Wedding Date, written by Jasmine Guillory. On further research, I saw it was also recommended by my queen, Roxane Gay. I ordered the book from my local bookshop and devoured it in two days. It was pretty close to perfect — sweet and romantic and sexy, but also smart and complex. Jasmine gives full autonomy to her characters, and it felt real and like a fantasy at the same time. When her second novel The Proposal was released, I was so excited that I accidentally ordered it twice.

From left: Fight or Flight by Samantha Young; In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner; and The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory.

In How to Write Consent in Romance Novels, written for The Atlantic, Jasmine Guillory outlines the problems with many traditional concepts of romance in a way that really resonated with me. She writes, “my idea of a hero is not someone who comes and sweeps the woman off her feet and turns her into a princess, but a man who cares about what a woman has to say, who listens to her, who pays attention to her needs and wants.” The way writers like Jasmine challenge of the status quo and our ingrained perceptions of romance — this is why I have fallen for this genre.

The final step on my romance odyssey (for now) was joining an online book club. I love the lack of pretension in this community, I love how many new authors I have discovered, and I love how diverse they are. Thanks to this network of feminist romance writers and readers, I now accept my love for romantic fiction unabashedly, and my life is richer for it.

Here’s some of my fave romance novels (in no particular order):

  • In her Shoes Jennifer Weiner
  • The Wedding date Jasmine Guillory
  • Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating Christina Lauren
  • The Kiss Quotient Helen Hoang
  • The Hating Game Sally Thorne
  • Remember Me Sophie Kinsella
  • One Day in December Josie Silver

And few of my favourite young-adult romance fiction:

  • The Sun is also A Star Nicola Yoon
  • All The Bright Places Jennifer Niven
  • The Hate U Give Angie Thomas
  • Autoboyography Christina Lauren
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Jenny Han

Jess Naylor

Jess is a volunteer at the Victorian Women’s Trust, mainly focused on the communications side of things. She graduated from Monash University in 2018 with an Arts degree majoring in politics and journalism. Jess is passionate about political engagement and education especially when it comes to helping make more people aware of inequality. When she’s not doing that, she’s mostly reading romantic novels, watching romantic comedies or trying to find the best everything bagel with cream cheese.

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