2020 has not been a good year. It has been a year of increased polarisation, of a sad downward spiral when it comes to common decency in prominent politicians. It has been a year of pandemic and fear. It has been a year when some governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to permanently erode their citizens’ democratic rights. It is a year when those who are supposed to be our leaders, the visionaries we need to carry us through this dark time, have shown themselves to be lacking in inspiring qualities and just as deficient when it comes to the courage required to step up to the plate. There are some exceptions, notably Mr Macron in France and (of course) Mrs Merkel in Germany. Some governments must be applauded for keeping calm and consistent throughout, like Finland’s, led by the rather impressive (and very young) Ms Marin.
No, dear peeps, 2020 is not a good year. It is a year when lock-down measures have had domestic violence exploding through the roof, when isolation and fear have increased mental ill-health. Truth be told, it is a year best forgotten, a year I, at least, never want to experience a repeat on. And what do I do when the world is mostly dark and scary? I submerge myself in the world of romance, my very own escapist addiction.
They say that romance is one of the most popular literary genres out there, together with suspense/thrillers. Romance is a huge genre, covering everything from dark and suspenseful to futuristic romance. It can be set in the past, in the present. It can feature tall, blue-skinned aliens as the male protagonists. It can also have rogues, dukes, firemen, knights, pirates, accountants as the male heartthrob. Many times, said heartthrob in contemporary romance is relatively young, studly and a billionaire, capable of giving the lady of his heart everything she may desire. Talk about the stuff of dreams, hey?
The heroines are as varied as the heroes. Many of them tend to have red hair and the temperament to match. We like feisty, it would seem. They are also determined and brave, are surprisingly good at handling what life throws at them while hiding the scars left behind. Most of them are young. Some of them do very stupid things to save those they love, creating that dangerous situation from which our dashing hero has to save them. Others just have the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but said hero is fortunately around on those occasions as well. And yes, there are romances in which it is the heroine who saves the hero.
These days, there are also romances featuring two male or female protagonists, or three or more protagonists. Some are erotically very explicit, some include a substantial thriller component. And hey, as long as it is consensual and loving (and well-written) I happily read it all.
No matter how varied, how intricate, all good romances have one thing in common: the Happily Ever After, abbreviated HEA. Let me tell you, in this year of pandemic and other stuff that rarely ends in an HEA, it is rather wonderful to sink into novels that guarantee you a happy fuzzy feeling at the end.
Many romance readers are women in my age group, i.e. +50. Many romance writers are also +50. Very, very few of the protagonists are +40. This has me wondering what it is a reader like me actually want from their romance. Obviously, self-identification is hard when the protagonist is younger than your own children.
In my case, I think losing myself in a romance is also losing myself in the pretence that life still lies before me, the world my as yet very own and unexplored oyster. In reality, that is obviously not the case. As my second son said some months ago, “it is depressing to realise that already at the age of twenty-seven you’ve made so many choices that have inadvertently closed the door on so many other alternative choices.” Huh. If that’s the case at twenty-seven, let me tell you it is much, much more so when you’re plus fifty. So, when I pick up that romance featuring the bright-eyed and optimistic young woman whose whole life is shortly to be turned totally upside-down, for a minute there I can pretend I haven’t made any choices. Yet.
Another reason why me and all my other fellow +50 romance readers are OK with the young-enough-to-be-our-kids protagonists is that this means the HEA can include the pitter-patter of small feet. There is something comforting in there being the potential for a family at the end, an opportunity for our happy couple to raise children with love and affection. God knows we all need love and affection to grow into decent human beings!
Plus, of course, there is no denying the fact that the horizontal action is likely more vigorous if our hero is under fifty than above. (The same does not quite apply to us ladies, but I am thinking this is a sensitive topic best left for another day ? )
Having said that, there are some romance writers who write excellent romances featuring characters who are well into middle-age and still very hot for each other. Still: in the majority of the books in this genre, the middle-aged are the parents of the heroine or hero. Mind you, sometimes things flare up for the middle-aged mum as well, which is always a nice little bonus.
I write romance. In one of my series, we follow the protagonists through life and in the latest instalment they are both plus sixty and still very much in love, but mostly my characters are much much younger than me. This is something of a challenge, because if I am writing in the POV of a nineteen-year-old I have to somehow dig dip and rediscover the teenaged me. That is not as hard as it sounds as most of us are still very much the same person we were when we were young, especially if we dig under the layers of experience life has layered us with. What is hard is to ignore the wisdom (hmm) experience and years have given us. The teenaged me made stupid choices my present me would never make. My teenaged character must therefore at times also do foolish things because she doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight.
One of the benefits of being older (and wiser and somewhat more wrinkled) when writing romance is that life has given us a better understanding of the human condition. We’ve experienced pain and loss, disappointments and broken hearts. We’ve understood just how complicated relationships are and how fragile they can be—at times, a couple of words spoken in haste may cause permanent damage. All of that comes in handy when writing about love and heartache.
Whether I write it or read it, romance is something of an addiction. It wraps around me like a comfort blanket and for a while there the world outside is no longer dark and brooding but shimmers instead in pink and red. It makes me happy. It makes me feel as if there is a future for humanity, for the world, because love, dear peeps, love is a powerful, powerful force.
Maybe the solution to all those uninspiring and self-centred leaders that presently plague the world is to sit them down in an armchair and hand them a stack of romances. Who knows, maybe all those romantic heroes will rub off on them, and have them emerge from their romance submersion as somewhat bigger of heart and courage. Or maybe that just me being a silly romantic. Again.
Whatever the case, I will continue to energise myself by devouring stories of love. Or writing them. And yes, I want that Happily Ever After, I want to sigh happily when I get to the end, relieved that the characters whose journey I have followed through thick and thin, through dangers and adventures, through heartbreak and grief, finally reach safe harbour. With each other. As I write this, hubby is leaning over my shoulder, reading. Right now, his arms tighten round me, his breath warm on my cheek and he whispers. “Like us.”
Yes. Like us. Am I lucky or am I lucky?