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  • Writer's pictureSarah

My Mom, The Romance Reader -or- Why I Write

Written for my Mom on her birthday

(content considerations: discussion of death and absence of a parent; mention of depression and addiction)


I was about 12 years old when I learned the secret formula for romance novels—the sex happens about two-thirds of the way through.

Now, at 40, I chat with other romance writers about romance beats and where they need to happen in our stories. We look at the classic romance formulas and tropes and play with them for our own characters. We have spreadsheets and Google Docs and Scrivener and we can tell you just where we have our first kiss (30% into the manuscript), and our first full sex scene (about 70%).

But the experience then, as a kid, was purely sensory—flipping the browning pages through my thumb, the pages kicking a musty breeze up into my face. I learned through trial and error, gathering evidence and building a case as I flipped through my mom’s paperbacks. I’d go fast for the first half—nothing there but smoldering glances, maybe an illicit kiss against the mast of a ship, the kind of stuff I love now but didn't want then. In the second half I'd slow down, scanning pages as they passed, looking for the special words.

These were the 90s. These were our mothers’ romances. This was the age of the heaving bosom on the cover, and the metaphors, oh, the metaphors. The sweet flowers, the opening petals, the throbbing members. Sometimes the language was so elaborate that I struggled to grasp the mechanics, but that did nothing to dull my intrigue.

My early sex education came from my mother’s romance novels, and I know I’m not alone. And I was generous in spreading the good word. I still recall lounging on my waterbed (the 90s, remember), twirling the phone chord in my fingers on a 3-way call with friends (90s!), reading aloud to them from the thin pages, equally scandalized, amused, and excited. We giggled and screeched.

And after reading the sex, I’d skip straight to the end. To the happy ending.

As a teenager, and later, I joined the ranks of literary snobs and turned my nose up at romances. The piles of books on the cluttered table by my mom’s couch made me laugh and roll my eyes, but I allowed her her simple comforts.

I was generous like that.

My attitude didn’t discourage her. She loved her books. How many hours would she sit there, stretched on the worn fabric of our couch, a cigarette and Diet Pepsi in one hand and a romance in another? The books were worn, bent, soft. Always missing the top corner of the cover, which she folded over and over until it ripped off easily. She read the same books over and over, and still always needed more.

When she died, her house was full of romances. The hallway cabinets, where more practical people would store sheets and towels, were full of stacks of books, all missing that top corner of the cover. I don’t know why she kept so many, or what she planned to do with them eventually. I don’t know if she was waiting for me to pick one up, to thumb through it like the old days. And I’m sorry to say I don’t know what happened to them all. When my mom died, I was on the verge of turning 30, with a toddler and a newborn. The months after her death are a blur, and the fate of her romance collection is one of the details that was lost in the fog. If we don’t count the curious scrolling of an adolescent sneaking her mother’s books under her pillow, I read my first romance years later, when it was assigned in a course for library graduate school. It was an exercise for me in releasing some of my literary snobbery, and it changed my life. As I sped through it, tense and excited for what would come next, I was transported to my mother’s worn couch. I was holding an e-reader, not a worn paperback, but I venture to say that the feeling was the same—the excitement, the giddiness, the comfort.

And I was gifted with something valuable beyond measure—an opportunity at further understanding of my mom, even after her death. Because suddenly I understood the stacks of books, the collection tucked into the cabinets, and spines worn down from multiple uses. I understood what all fans of romance know, what we celebrate together when we read: the incredible power and comfort of the formula, and the great necessity in our lives for the happy ending.

My mom struggled. She had depression and anxiety and struggled with addiction—people who’ve had these struggles, or know loved ones who have, will be familiar with these cycles of mental health and self-medication, as well as the self loathing that makes breaking the cycle seem impossible.

She was a bright and amazing woman. Hers was the house where people wanted to hang out, hers the voice people turned to when they needed support. But she was stuck in the cycles, as so many are, and she never quite found her way out. It didn’t stop her from having what I hope she would have called a good life. It didn’t stop her from making friends, or finding a partner for a good portion of her life, and it certainly didn’t stop her from being an incredible mother.

She deserved those books. She deserved the escape. She deserved to read them over and over, to know them each by heart.

As children, even once we’re grown, it seems we may never fully know our parents. It’s just how it is. They aren’t ever fully human to us, just as we can’t be to our own children. We can gain insight, we can learn stories, we can even hang as friends—but some impenetrable wall remains, telling us we are different from them.

But reading that romance novel (the first of many) knocked down a bit of that wall for me. It helped me understand another part of my mom—created a tie across years and generations. It gave me solidarity with her, because while I was reading, we were connected—we were women who deserved something nice. Because life is hard. We were mothers who needed a break. Because mothering forces us to grow in each moment while also narrowing our existence down to the care of others in a society always ready to tell us we are doing it wrong.

Because the world seems to always be burning down around us.

And for all of those reasons, there are some things we just need to know—like that the characters we allow ourselves to love for 300 pages are likely to kiss at page 100, and fuck 100 pages later.

Romance saved me (is saving me, now) during the pandemic. It gave me a place to set aside my stress and grief, a place to be safe, a place to let myself feel happy.

And writing romance does so even more. It lets me invent characters knowing they’ll be okay. It allows me to explore parts of myself, and parts of the world, with the knowledge that my end goal is to bring pleasure and resolution.

It allows me to revel in the faith that things can turn out okay.

My mom will never read my book, and that hurts. Because it’s for her. Every word. And just as I take comfort in the happy endings of romances, I find comfort in an essential truth I know without a doubt—my mom would love my book. Like, LOVE it. Scream about it from the rooftops, call me to read passages aloud while I’m doing dishes, hand off print-outs to strangers on the street LOVE it.

And she would see me in it, on every page. And I hope she’d see herself, too, because she’s there. She’s in my feisty heroine who takes shit from no man, who stands up for what is good and right and takes care of people in the process. And she’s in my characters' supportive parents, who struggle to protect their children while encouraging them to open up their own wings, even as adults. And she’s on the bleachers watching baseball practice, a worn romance at her side to entertain her between innings.

I like to imagine my mom as an extra in the last scene of my book, watching the happy ending unfold, knowing I’ve always wished the very same for her, and for everyone who comes across the world I've created.

Comfort, safety, love.

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