What I Read As A Teen (It wasn't all F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Honestly, I don’t remember “young adult literature” from my time spent inhabiting that demographic. It was the early nineties, before the genre was even properly defined. I was too busy reading The Great Gatsby to death in English class and writing papers about the significance of the green light at the end of the dock.  Then there was the copious required summer reading, which included Death Be Not Proud-- the devastating memoir of a dad losing his beloved son to cancer. That book was beautiful. I can see that now, from the remove of many years and personal losses later. But at the time, it shattered me. It ruined every single day that it took me to read it, the pall of death dimming the summer sun. Every page was a heartbreak, and by the end I was seething with rage that I was forced to witness such horrendous pain as a tender, self-absorbed fifteen year-old.

This is not to say that I wasn’t reading beyond my academic requirements, but only that when moments of literary leisure presented themselves (usually around eleven p.m., after I was finished with homework, but before I’d found a way to manage my insomnia), I reached for something very different. You see, I come by my bookworm genes honestly. My mother was an English major in college, then an editor, and remains one of the most voracious readers I have ever known. She endured many more years of enforced reading lists than I, analyzing her way through most of the classics. She has had hundreds of Gatsbys and green lights in her past, and this is her justification for the contents of her personal library.  These days, it consists almost entirely of true crime novels and murder mysteries, but when I was in high school, her book stash was one hundred percent bodice-rippers.

Mom kept her historical romances stacked at her chairside, bedside, in the cabinets in the study, and in boxes down in the basement. I was given unfettered access, and the supply was endless. Authors like Johanna Lindsay and Catherine Coulter were my favorites. Their heroines were smart, feisty, and adventurous, and always in possession of some notable skill, like healing people with herbs or spear-throwing (despite the uniformly enormous size of their breasts). The heroes would usually start out as icy aristocrats or swashbuckling pirates. Rogues all, until a good woman’s love made them as docile as newborn kittens. 

I would stay up until three a.m. to finish “just one more chapter”, willing to suffer the gritty eyes and foggy brain of a sleepless night to find out how each story would end. It didn’t matter that they all ended the same. I needed to be there. I blew through three or four of these novels a week-- more during vacations. I would bring the well-thumbed volumes to school once I’d finished and pass them on to my friends, going from one book to the next like a hamster pushing a lever for pellets. The only cure for the despond that came with watching my beloved characters ride off into the sunset without me was another book. And then another and another.

As I write this, the sheer mass of historical romance that I consumed during high school strikes me anew. These were formative years. Years during which I was indoctrinated by books with covers featuring Fabio in various guises. Given that I attended an all-girls high school, there were certain assumptions about the nature of male-female relations that went unchecked for an astounding length of time. For example, it was a while before I realized that sex did not have to happen under the cover of night in the stable behind a grand English manor house or down in the cramped hold of a storm-tossed ship. Clothes could simply be removed and placed neatly to the side rather than torn off in the throes of passion. My mouth could be gently kissed rather than “ravaged hungrily”, and love could bloom without having been first threatened by international intrigue, feuding families, or a murderous marquis.

I have since learned to love the books that break my heart, like Death Be Not Proud, and others that win prizes for the beauty of their prose or the insight of their commentary. But historical romances still hold a special place in my heart. They kept me company on the island of my angsty teenhood, and prevented me from kissing too many frogs on my way to becoming a woman. (What adolescent boy could compare to Fabio dressed like an aristocrat disguising himself as a pirate?)  They taught me how to lose myself in a book until everything around me disappeared, and planted the seed of a thought that maybe someday writing could feel the same way.