Ed note: This post is from Aarya, whose writing you might have read over the past few weeks. She’s joining us as a reviewer (yay!) and this post is her introduction to the community, and is about her introduction to romance as a genre. We hope you enjoy!
(And please note: if you applied to join us, we are still working through all the applications. There were so many, and we are incredibly thankful for your interest. Thank you for your patience!)
In the Romancelandia online community, I’ve noticed that a popular discussion topic is a reader’s first romance: the book/author that introduced or made them fall in love with the genre. A less common discussion topic is the person who gave them their first romance novel. Perhaps you discovered romance novels by yourself, but more likely someone recommended a book to you – your mom, your sister, or a friend.
Books are everything to me, not just because of the words on the page, but because the relationships in my life are defined by books. This essay is about how how my sister gave me my first romance novel. I’m not prone to walks down Nostalgia Lane, but perhaps a stroll is inevitable considering that I’m at a crossroads in my life. On April 22, I turned in my senior honors thesis. I graduated with an undergraduate degree on May 26.
In my thesis acknowledgements page, I included the following paragraph:
I could not have made it this far without my older sister [redacted sister name]. I don’t know what I did in my former life to deserve such a patient, helpful, and loving sister, but I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Thank you for instilling a lifelong love of reading. I owe you for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling and page 342 of The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey. Finally, I’m sorry for kicking you in the stomach in the stairwell of our Singapore home. It’s been over seventeen years, but I may as well extend a formal apology in writing since I refused to apologize at the time of the crime. I love you, [redacted sister name] Akka.*
* Akka is the Tamil word for older sister. I am going to refer to her as Bumpy in this essay because it is her childhood nickname (her feet have an above-average number of bumps).
I couldn’t elaborate in the thesis due to space constraints and because I couldn’t let professors read the explanation of how my sister made me read my first sex scene!
There are three untold stories here:
- how I was a little brat who punctured skin like a bloodthirsty vampire and kicked anyone who annoyed me
- how Bumpy is the reason why I love reading
- how Bumpy is the reason why I love romance novels.
I’m only going to talk about stories #2 and #3 (I’m sure your vivid imagination can conjure up an accurate representation of #1!).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling, or why I’m contrary enough to make myself miserable
I hated reading for years. Hated it. English isn’t my mother tongue, and my family moved to the United States when I was six. In my first grade class, I felt horribly conscious of my accent and dreaded reading lessons with my teacher Ms. Carroll. She made us sit in a circle and practice reading aloud. I’d make silly pronunciation errors and Ms. Carroll (God, I still hate her) always corrected me the most. I eventually started stammering, too, just because I was so afraid of being called out in front of my peers. Even though my non-verbal reading comprehension skills were perfectly fine, I associated reading with the terror of Ms. Carroll’s lessons and refused to voluntarily pick up a book for two years.
My sister was horrified. She was the kind of child who went to the library every Saturday, checked out ten books, and finished those books by Monday. We had our differences, but she couldn’t fathom my hatred of reading because
a) I was missing out on the most amazing adventures and…
b) if I didn’t read, who would she talk books with?
For two years I held firm: no Harry Potter, no Animorphs, no Tamora Pierce, no Roald Dahl, no Enid Blyton. No, no, no. My stubbornness can be a curse at times.
My memory gets foggy at this point: I can’t remember why, but Bumpy finally managed to make me promise that I would try one of her recommendations. I went with Harry Potter because I had seen the movies and figured that I could skim and pretend to have read the whole thing.
Remember how I said I was a little stubborn little brat? Well, I couldn’t let her get everything she wanted. I decided to torment her and read out of order with book #3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. You can guess what happens next. My genius plan to skim Prisoner of Azkaban backfired spectacularly. To absolutely no one’s surprise, I loved it.
My life can be split into two eras: Before Prisoner of Azkaban and After Prisoner of Azkaban. Before, I regarded books as a plague to be avoided at all costs. After, I simply couldn’t get enough of them. I must have read six hundred books that first year (special thanks to my poor mother who ferried us to the library three times a week).
The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey, or why I became a voracious romance reader at age eleven
I know what you’re thinking: perhaps eleven is a bit young to be reading romances like Harlequin Presents, Judith McNaught, Lisa Kleypas, and Nora Roberts. You’re probably right, even though I wouldn’t have had it any other way. In my defense, this whole thing is Bumpy’s fault so we can rest the blame on her feet.
This story is a continuation of the previous one. My sister was ecstatic at my new love of reading. Bumpy dragged me to the library, picked out her favorites, made me read them, and then organized book clubs. The books I read had more mature content, mostly because my sister was four years older and gave me books that weren’t always suitable for my age range. But I didn’t care. I loved every book she gave me, appropriate or not. And that’s where this story begins.
We shared a bedroom and she never had a chance of hiding those books from me. I knew every inch of that room and could have peeked at those books anytime. However, I also had a healthy fear of her wrath and did not dare invade her privacy.
After we went home from the library book sale one day, I realized Bumpy was attempting to hide The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey in her secret stash. I was furious. I loved Lackey’s Valdemar books (I had only read Talia’s trilogy by this time) and my sister knew this. Why on earth was she hiding this book?
When I confronted her, Bumpy told me that The Fairy Godmother was too mature for a eleven-year-old.
This was the wrong thing to say to a stubborn eleven-year-old me.
After I begged and whined, she finally gave in and told me to read it on the condition that I skip certain pages.
“Okay,” I agreed, “I can do that.”
She told me to inform her when I reached pg. 342 so that she could guide me to the next page where I could start reading again. I sincerely (ha!) promised I would do so.
If you’ve never read it, The Fairy Godmother is a wonderful fantasy romance. It’s the story of a Cinderella who doesn’t get her HEA with the prince (as he’s only a child and she’s an adult) and becomes a fairy godmother instead. Only she falls in love with an arrogant prince that she turned into a donkey.
Reader, I did not stop reading when I reached pg. 342.
I think you might have guessed what the forbidden pages were. Our heroine finally succumbs to her passion with the prince.
I had read books that referenced to sex off-the-page or had very ambiguous sex scenes where I mistakenly thought they were cuddling and wrestling (Arrow’s Flight by Mercedes Lackey. In my defense, the text is VERY AMBIGUOUS).
But The Fairy Godmother was a first. It wasn’t super explicit, but it was revolutionary. After I finished reading, I felt guilty. I loved it, but also didn’t want to lie to my sister. So I confessed my sins and prepared to be banned from reading her books anymore.
Guess what her response was?
My sister’s face began to look slightly guilty. She said, “I knew you would read it. I wanted to share my romance novels with someone, but also didn’t know if you’d like it so I told you the page number to goad you into reading it.”
Oh, silly eleven-year-old me. When have you ever successfully tricked your older sister when it comes to books? It didn’t work with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and it didn’t work with The Fairy Godmother. I don’t know why I thought I could outsmart my sister. She’s like me, but with four more years of smarts. She went through this whole arduous process because she felt guilty reccing a book with a sex scene and thought she could trick me into it.
The story doesn’t end here. My interest in romance novels did not stop her guilt. Bumpy let me read more mature fantasy, but not her Genre Romance books. She finally relented after one memorable occasion where I stole a Harlequin Presents (I think it was a Lynne Graham but not 100% positive) and read it in the bathroom at night. After that, she got over her “I’m corrupting my baby sister” complex and started reccing books in earnest.
I love romance novels. I’ve been reading them for a decade and I read over two hundred books (mostly romance novels) per year. It’s my hobby, my passion, and my method of escaping the grimness of reality because romance novels always promise a happily-ever-after.
I wanted to write this essay for two reasons:
a) I couldn’t explicitly refer to reading my first sex scene in the thesis acknowledgements (trust me, I was tempted)
b) a paragraph seemed far too lacking to express my true appreciation for Bumpy.
Books have changed my life, but that’s only one half of the story. In every measurable way, my sister has changed the course of my life and no amount of thanks can ever repay her. I love you, Bumpy.
And now, to the present day. Books are important to me because my entire relationship with my sister is based on books. When she went off to college, we formed the “Aarya” book club on Goodreads. “Aarya” is a portmanteau of our respective first names. If we wanted the other to read a certain book, we’d tag it in the “Aarya” shelf. And when I chose a pseudonym for my Twitter handle, it’s no coincidence that I chose the name Aarya. I can’t talk about romance novels without giving homage to my sister.
In discussions about a reader’s first romance novel, people usually only talk about seminal books and authors. “Oh, my first romance novel was a Julie Garwood Scottish historical.” “I love her! Mine was a Beverly Jenkins set during Reconstruction!” These discussions leave out the most important part of the story: why did you pick them up and who gave them to you? The books are only one half of the equation.
Can you remember who gave you your first romance novel and what it was? Was it your mom, your sister, or a friend? If you found romance novels on your own, do you have a memory surrounding a pivotal book in your life? And if you don’t have a specific memory to share, is there someone in your life that you have a special relationship with because of romance novels or books in general?
I took this opportunity to thank my sister for introducing books to me. Is there anyone in your life that you would like to thank? I want to hear stories about your real-life book community and how they changed your life for the better.