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 The love story in my first (still unpublished) YA novel was about lust and longing and it turned tragic.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.