It started as these things usually do, I guess. A Susan Johnson paperback left out at the home where I was babysitting. A friend’s mother with a subscription to Harlequin Temptations that she kept in the top left hand section of her book shelf. She noticed my fixation, the way I couldn’t walk past that shelf without slowing down to a crawl. She loaned me one and that one led to…this.
My bookshelf was under my bed. (It still is.) And at that time, with my McNaught’s and Garwood’s I also had the Stephen King starter kit: Salem’s Lot, Pet Cemetery and It; the first three books in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and a tear-stained copy of Ordinary People.
What I’m trying to say is I wasn’t genre-specifc.
And then my sophomore year of high school, my best friend’s boyfriend committed suicide. My world fell apart. In every possible way. And I couldn’t fix anything. Nothing made sense. Except those romance novels under my bed. I dove deep into those Happily Ever Afters. The heavy, wild and hard emotions that all got tied up at the end gave me some closure at a time I could not find any of my own. They gave me a safe place to experience my grief and my guilt and fear.
When I went on to college my box of books came with me and slipped under the bed in my first dorm room and then again in my first apartment off campus. My sophomore year of college (honestly, what is with sophomore years) a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver. And again, I dove deep. Thank you, Elizabeth Lowell, for getting me through that time.
Romance would have my undying devotion for getting me through those two years alone.
I would look back at it fondly, if I’d somehow left it behind. But I didn’t. Romance has grown up with me. College graduation, my year abroad, negotiating a long distance relationship and then a marriage that we can’t say WASN’T begun for immigration purposes. My parents. My brother. Unemployment, first jobs. Pregnancy. Babies. Toddlers. Musical beds. Sleepless nights. Bullying. Etc… etc… etc…
There was always and without fail a romance novel illuminating something powerful about the experience I was in. Even if it was just hope for an easier tomorrow.
Romance has comforted me and excited me. It has eased my boredom (which let’s not pretend that’s not a HUGE deal in those days at home with a baby) and kept me up nights with its drama. It’s walked me through thorny parenthood problems and made me a better friend. A better wife.
And I could make some winky joke about sex, here. But that’s far too easy. And romance deserves so much better.
The romance authors I love are like deep-sea explorers, sending their submersibles down into the murky deep only to return with their hands full of language for things that are all too often considered unimportant. Or trivial. They show me – over and over again, how important nuance and specificity are to describing how we feel so we can understand what what we feel.
(If you don’t think that is a big deal I would argue that maybe you’ve never suffered from anxiety or post-partum depression or even something as mundane as shame. Or fear.)
Guilt is a very big word. And so is love. And fear. And desire. And my favorite authors show me time and time again the far reaches of all those emotions, where everything overlaps. And we’re all just humans trying our best and sometimes screwing it up. And, perhaps the real gift is that those romance novels have shown me that we are all deserving of love. And happily-ever-afters. And forgiveness. And orgasms.
I don’t know what I would do without romance novels. And if you’re curious… these are the best I’ve ever had:
Elizabeth Lowell: Only You, Only Mine, Only Him, Only LoveJudith McNaught: Something Wonderful, Once and AlwaysLaura Kinsale: Everything she wrote, ever.Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Dream a Little DreamJR Ward: The Black Dagger Brotherhood SeriesMegan Hart: Broken
The hashtag trends. A status, copied and pasted, is shared: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Soon, the status is altered – “women” becomes “people” to be more inclusive. Depending on your platform, depending on your connections, sometimes the message is simple. Sometimes people customize with a personal story, an identifying detail. Some are explicit. Some call out names. A spreadsheet circulates, disappears, and reappears. A blot of mold blooms. The stomach roils.
Amidst the outpouring of #MeToo, some women begin to talk about why they don’t hashtag, why they don’t share. Even though they are in the #MeToo (who isn’t, they wonder?) – what does or doesn’t count as serious enough to stand up and claim your space? One woman writes in to an advice column that #MeToo is triggering, an additional reminder of her rape everywhere she goes. Some people are private about certain parts of their lives, and even a cause like #MeToo isn’t likely to fundamentally change the way they use social media, especially with a part of their lives they’ve held soft and dear, cocooned close, and told very few.
In fairy tales, the wolf is never really a wolf, and no matter what he says, “hungry” isn’t quite what he means. If a man kisses you when you’re sleeping or dead, he thinks you’re beautiful and you’re meant to be together. If you want love, give up your voice for legs: you can either call out, or run – but not both. Who needs either anyway . . . it looks like a handsome prince is headed your way. Perhaps fairy tales are an archaic and covert version of #MeToo.
In my novella, Girling, girls grow up in the contemporary world, but the narrative is undergirded with a reflexive use of fairy tales. They navigate their own desires, but those wishes and dreams have been planted, dusted into the characters’ psyches by the world-as-it-is. The two main characters, Kate and Ann, best friends and almost-sisters, meet wolves and princes and try to discern which is which; they are disobedient girls, and princesses, and evil stepsisters all at once. Kate and Ann realize that fairy tales re-tell these same stories over and over; the hardest part is becoming a queen, which is why there are so few fairy tales that tell a story after marriage –they’ll learn this too.
In one chapter of the novella, Kate and Ann are spending an adolescent summer in Acapulco. They are both fourteen, the time of transformation. Sirens appear. Multiple versions of The Little Mermaid appear. Older Kate intrudes with a line from Eliot. Older Ann’s husband appears to rush around trying to show Kate a manatee. In that summer of fourteen, Kate is exploring her transformation to womanhood, wishing childhood would be quickly done. She’s snuck a bikini into her luggage (something her father wouldn’t allow her to wear at home) – and when they visit the resort hotels, she escapes to the bar and pretends she belongs there. Ann holds on a little more tightly to the child she still is, not quite ready to shed that potentially protective skin. Ann is also protected by her unwillingness to be seen, a glamour of awkwardness. Kate thinks she finds a Prince, but ends up on a pebbled beach, with an insistent frog who never turns into the stuff of young girls’ dreams. Later, Kate will try to tell her mother about this: about desire and shame and what’s she’s learned about their twining.
Kate would be hashtag conflicted. She would worry that her experiences aren’t serious enough for a #MeToo. Sure, there was that thing when she was little, but they were both kids really, so does that count? Sure, there was that thing when she was fourteen and he didn’t listen when she said No, but they were pretty close and maybe he didn’t hear her, or couldn’t stop? There was another time that would absolutely count, but nothing happened in the end, because . . . well, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Anyway, she’s fine. She’s lucky really. She worries more about Ann’s daughter, Luna; she worries about her.
I’ll be teaching contemporary women’s literature this spring, and I’m preparing my book order: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once upon a River.
I was talking with a colleague the other day, and he asked if I ever give a trigger warning for this class. These three novels all have at their center the rape of a child; the last time I taught this class, on the first day, I pointed that out to all the students. I told them why I chose these novels, why we needed to talk about these issues, and that I completely understood if they wanted to drop the class. That was a few years ago, the season of #YesAllWomen.
My colleague said, “But it’s a women’s literature class – do you really have to tell them you’ll be addressing the lives of women?”
It was Campbell’s Once upon a River that inspired me to write fiction in the first place, to try my hand at storytelling, moving from the forms of poetry, from the lyric and episodic, to the narrative.
In River, I met Margo Crane, a young female protagonist who survives, who stakes out on her own, learning to make her own way in the dangerous world, negotiating beast-men who could be alternatingly kind and cruel. If a woman’s love can turn a beast into a man, the tales suggest the opposite is also true. In that women’s literature class, I asked students to trace the underpinnings of fairy tales that moved through Margo’s story.
When my best friend, Carmen, to whom Girling is dedicated, had her daughter, I was driving in the car with her and her husband. They were talking about something – clothes, or toys, decorations, readying for her birthday party, and I was reading Cristina Bacchilega’s Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. “‘Girling’is a continual process,” I said, looking out the window, their baby asleep in the car seat. Her husband looked at me blinking; Carmen laughed a little – I was always saying things like that, apropos of nothing it seemed. Later, I tried to explain. Girling is my fuller attempt to explain.
At the end of that women’s literature class, I asked students to reflect on the three novels we’d read together. The class was mostly women, only a few men. The women allowed as to how they’d been glad to read all three novels, Allison especially, although that had been a difficult read. A necessarily difficult read. It was beautiful and brutal. The men were mostly quiet in this discussion. During that season of #YesAllWomen, a hashtag had answered back: #NotAllMen.
In this season, some have begun to use #HowIWillChange to respond to #MeToo. Many men have pledged to call out harassment, to challenge sexist jokes, to demand better of their friends, to listen when women tell their stories. The hope is that #MeToo isn’t just a conversation among women, because we’ve been having that conversation for a very long time. Perhaps someone –some friend, brother, father, beloved (whether he imagines himself a prince, dwarf, or beast) saw a woman he cared about post #MeToo and thought: I had no idea. Really? Her? Her Too?
As for Girling, I hope some friends, brothers, fathers, beloved princes, and beasts will read the book. They may find themselves there.
From the moment I started reading young adult literature, I enjoyed many things about the genre.
I liked how there were subgenres like fantasy, contemporary, and verse novels (i.e., books written in poems that tell a story). I liked reading about teenagers who save the world. I liked seeing teenagers experiencing real-life issues that no one wants to talk about, like mental illness and feeling out of place. Yet I eventually noticed that some of the stories involving black characters only revolved around personal and socioeconomic issues.
As I mentioned in my discussion of Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything, it was rare for me to find stories of black teenagers in romantic bliss. Although I felt somewhat validated reading young adult books as a teen, they also gave me the impression I had nothing happy to look forward to. I felt like my entire teenage experience would be defined by suffering because I never read about a black teen who was in a happy relationship or confident in themselves. I wanted black characters who were actual characters that felt a wide range of emotions and lived different experiences. Most importantly, I wanted black girl nerds.
When you think of nerdy girls in young adult literature, there is a certain type of girl that comes to mind. They are usually white and gorgeous or white and awkward. Not to mention, they might be so troubled that they need a guy to save them by instantly falling in love with them. After reading so many young adult books with nerdy white female protagonists, I was starting to think that there would never be one with a black female lead. Then I read The Unforgettables by G. L. Thomas and felt validated in more ways than one.
The major reason The Unforgettables appealed to me so much was because of Felicia Abelard, one of the main characters of the book. She is a Haitian American teenager who lives in a culturally rich home and loves comics, Japanese anime, and cosplaying. She is confident in herself to the point where she wears her kinky hair big despite her mother’s wanting her to straighten it. Yet she is also afraid to stand out too much due to strict parents and being bullied. Felicia Abelard is one of the most complex black female characters I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and also the most relatable.
Not only was Felicia Abelard’s nerdiness appealing, but it also broke the mold for what a nerdy female character was supposed to be. In many young adult books and coming-of-age films, the nerdy girl is relegated to what is known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. According to the website TV Tropes, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a quirky, childlike girl whose purpose is to give a male lead character a better outlook on life. In young adult literature, characters who fit this trope include Sam from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dulcie from Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, and Alaska in John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Although some books deconstruct the trope, its pervasiveness in young adult literature and film suggest an unhealthy appeal.
In The Unforgettables, the other main character is Paul Hiroshima, a biracial Japanese teenage boy. Prior to reading the book, I was concerned that Felicia Abelard would become Paul’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. However, the moment I read their very first encounter, I knew I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. When the two first meet, a yard sale is going on at one of their neighbors’ houses. When the two spy a collection of rare comics called Hit Boy and Slash Girl, they quiz each other on the comics to see who will get to have them. Felicia’s passion for the comics makes Paul realize that she would enjoy the comics more than him, so he lets her take the comics home.
In this first meeting, the stage is set for a friendship as well as romantic attraction between the characters. Yet Felicia Abelard never becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because her life doesn’t revolve around Paul and vice versa. Instead, Felicia Abelard is just a girl who learns not to be afraid of living her best life while being friends with a guy she has feelings for. Although Felicia considers Paul an awesome guy, she also wants to play forward on her soccer team, survive her junior year of high school, and get a little more freedom from her parents. Meanwhile, Paul wants to adjust to moving to a new town and school, apply to art school, and survive his senior year. Although their feelings for each other start to change their friendship, Felicia and Paul still manage to be there for each other while living their own lives.
Through her grounded life, her unabashed love of nerdy things, and her complicated friendship with Paul, Felicia Abelard’s character arc becomes a poignant story to watch unfold. Felicia calls herself “Sidekick Supreme” to Paul’s “The 8th Wonder,” and together they call themselves “The Unforgettables.” Despite her heroic moniker, she is not a sidekick in Paul’s life, but she is one in her own life due to her fears. Initially, her fear of being bullied by her peers keeps her from playing forward on the soccer team. Furthermore, her fear of her parents’ disapproval keeps her from admitting her feelings for Paul. Finally, her fear of losing Paul as a friend keeps her from sustaining their friendship when things get muddled.
Meanwhile, Paul is afraid of not being able to adjust to his new home and not being able to go to art school. Although he and Felicia have different fears, they hide from them behind masks both metaphorical and literal. For Felicia’s sixteen birthday, Paul makes her a superhero mask to go with her identity as “Sidekick Supreme” as well as one for his identity as “The 8th Wonder.” Since superhero masks are usually used by superheroes to hide their civilian identity from others, it makes sense that Felicia and Paul’s masks symbolize their need to hide from themselves and others.
Eventually, Felicia ends up shedding her mask to express her feelings for Paul. In turn, this inspires Paul to come clean to his parents about applying to art school. Although the two aren’t able to become a couple, Felicia and Paul rekindle their friendship and move on with their lives. After being asked out by a senior classmate, Felicia goes to the senior prom. Meanwhile, Paul goes to the prom with a friend and ends up attending a summer session at an art school.
By shedding their masks, Felicia and Paul allow themselves to get more out of life and appreciate each other more. This makes Felicia her own hero as well as hero to Paul. In fact, Paul comes to appreciate Felicia so much that he gives her a painting of herself as well as a hand-made comic book that features them as The Unforgettables. The comic book contains a bonus comic that has The 8th Wonder becoming a solo hero called Felicia Fantastic. At the end of the comic, there is a note from Paul says, “You were never my sidekick. You were always my hero.”
Although she fights personal fears instead of bad guys, Felicia Abelard is still a hero in her own right. She is a hero for Paul and herself by learning to face her fears. Most of all, she is a hero to me for being her nerdy, beautiful brown self. In a sea of suffering black protagonists and white Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she is Felicia Fantastic, and she is unforgettable.
As a teen, I had a soft spot for contemporary YA romance. I especially enjoyed the romance in The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares. I liked these books because the female characters showed me that even if you had personal issues, you could still find love. However, at some point, I found myself asking, “Why can’t black girls have a YA romance?”
Carmen Lowell, a half Puerto Rican character from the Traveling Pants series, was one of the few women of color I read in YA romance. I enjoyed reading about her because she was caring toward her family and friends and pursued a romantic relationship despite her confidence issues. However, by the end of the final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, she is the only one not in a relationship. Although she is very satisfied with her life, it bothered me that she couldn’t be married or dating someone when she is the only lead of color.
In addition to being one of the few women of color in YA romance, Carmen Lowell was the only female character of color I read who had happy romances. Other books like Sharon M. Draper’s Romiette and Julio and Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly had black female romantic leads, but their relationships also involved social issues. Both Romiette and Julio and If You Come Softly dealt with the racism that came with being in interracial relationships. While I was impressed by both authors’ takes on this important issue, part of me also wanted a book with a romance free of social tension.
Last year, I discovered Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything when it became a New York Times bestseller. After doing some research, I discovered that this book not only had black female lead but was also written by a black author. After waiting several months, I borrowed a copy from my local library to read and was totally enamored by the book. If this book were food, it would be cotton candy, filled with fluffy, sugary sweet moments that melted on my heart.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the main character, Madeline Whittler. Even though she is isolated from the world, she isn’t portrayed in a negative light. Instead, she is a quirky young girl who loves books and board games and yearns to experience life more fully. She spoke to my teen self, the me that had a hard time fitting in. In addition, Maddie being African American and Japanese gave me the long awaited representation I wanted as a black and Vietnamese person. As someone who rarely saw biracial characters who were black and Asian, this was very validating.
In addition to enjoying Maddie’s character, I liked that her romance happened gradually. Maddie Whittler can’t touch anyone or go outside the house because she has a rare disease that makes her allergic to everything. As a result, she has to communicate with Olly online and through each other’s windows. (They use mirror writing.) For a time, she is also allowed to have quarantined visits from him as long as they don’t touch each other. This makes the moments when they can interact in person all the more precious.
Out of all my favorite moments between Maddie and Ollie, my favorite is when they kiss for the very first time. At this point, they’ve only touched once before without anyone knowing. Maddie and Ollie’s feelings for each other have grown to the point where they can’t keep it to themselves anymore. They need to touch each other and express their feelings to validate them. The kiss is so beautiful and special, and Maddy savors it.
By the time I had finished the book, I had been thoroughly entertained and even taught a few lessons. The most important lesson is summed up in the quote, “Love is worth everything, everything.” This book shows that whether it is romantic love or familial love, it is worth experiencing and fighting for. It is a simple yet relatable message that makes the book memorable.
In addition to being ecstatic about the book itself, I am also excited for the movie adaptation, which will star Amandla Sternberg and Nick Robinson. When I heard this news, I was so thankful. Black YA leads in films are just as rare as black YA romance leads, and people have been craving this. Last year, Twitter user Mariah started the hashtag #WOCforAlaskaYoung in response to the casting call for the YA film Looking for Alaska. She and many others tweeted that they wanted Alaska to be played by a woman of color. Even John Green, the author of the book being adapted, stated that he supported the campaign.
Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything shows that black girls can have a happy young adult romance. It provides some much-needed representation on the page and tells a beautiful story of love. If the movie is as successful as the book, then hopefully we can get more books and movies with black female leads. Right now, Everything, Everything is everything I always wanted in a YA romance, and that is amazing.
Central to Anne Stuart’s 1991 contemporary Southern Gothic romance, The Night of the Phantom are kidnappings, violence, fanaticism, revenge. There’s also attempted suicide, ableism and perhaps appropriative and exploitative depictions of race. Frankly, I lost count of possible issues one might have with this book because I got sucked in.
Let this serve as a warning.
On the eve of upstanding executive Megan Carey’s departure for a European sabbatical, she finds her construction-mogul father in his office pointing a gun at his head.
Reese Carey is threatened with exposure by reclusive, genius architect Ethan Winslowe, who has proof that Megan’s father knowingly ignored the specs and used shoddy materials in his projects causing the deaths of several people after a building collapse. At the time, flaws in Ethan’s intricate design were blamed and now Ethan wants Reese to show up at his isolated Arkansas home and beg for mercy.
Reese maneuvers his daughter to go in his place to negotiate with Ethan. Megan agrees, even after realizing that her father never intended to go through with suicide (the gun isn’t loaded and her father has already made travel arrangements for her). She arrives in Oak Grove, Arkansas, a creepy, unfriendly small town whose residents are prone to gnomic and menacing pronouncements about reclusive hometown boy, Ethan.
Megan finds her plans to plead for clemency for Reese and to move on with her European trip derailed. Her rental car is trapped in the mud. Ethan has no telephone. (?!?) And, oh yes, through his henchman, Salvatore, the mysterious architect demands that Megan stay on in his labyrinthine estate in place of Reese.
Ethan is rumored to be severely disfigured or ill, or kept alive on ventilators. In reality, he is not sickly; in fact, he’s prone to running miles and miles on his indoor track and hefting fainting ladies around his vast maze-like home. (A robust-looking Fabio stares skeptically out from the original Harlequin American Romance cover, perhaps doubting his fitness to play the lean and agonized Ethan.) His so-called disfigurement consists of (spoiler) a dark birthmark which bisects his face and chest. (I spent some time before re-reading trying to remember where the birthmark ended and—uh—whether it split Ethan’s ween. It does not.) When he does finally meet Megan, he has her escorted to the bowels of his home and he speaks to her from the shadows. She’s moved to a succession of theme rooms every night: a tower room with a pallet, a Roman room featuring lewd frescoes, an angular, ultramodern pad—basically the worst fantasy honeymoon hotel in the world. He outfits her in diaphanous, low cut caftans and spies on her via video camera. Because of course he’s fascinated with her and she with him.
The story is a little Beauty and the Beast, a little Phantom of the Opera. Ethan sits at the center of it all, orchestrating a series of convoluted revenge plots against Megan’s father, against the town’s white-hooded, cross-burning religious fanatics who he blames for his father’s death. A gentle but bossy garden ghost counsels Megan. And she and Ethan grow closer and more obsessed with each other until an angry fanatical mob descends on his house.
Phantom first was passed on to me in a box of Harlequins someone gave my parents in the early 1990s. I was 22 or 23.
Among the books was also a novel about a virginal Englishwoman who falls in love with the renowned Italian portraitist, and a romantic comedy about a crusty computer engineer who gets to know her boss via a proto online forum. I’d be interested in finding these novels again, but I don’t recall the names or the authors. I didn’t remember Anne Stuart’s name either, but Phantom is the one I managed to come across again years later—entirely by accident—while systematically (and obsessively) attempting (and failing) to read all of the New York Public Library’s romance e-books.
Phantom was part of a collection of re-issues, called appropriate enough Out of Print Gems, put out by Stuart herself. I began reading, and as Reese Carey started talking about his reclusive genius architect that recognition—and joy!—dawned.
I remembered this book. I remembered it because I devoured it greedily. And because this book was completely banana sandwiches.
Anne Stuart herself knows it. According to the introduction in Out of Print Gems, “I threw everything I had into the book, going completely over the top and holding nothing back.”
Phantom was popular and controversial enough to inspire the Silhouette Shadows line.
For Stuart, Phantom marked her turn into writing the dark stories with sinister heroes. Now, Stuart is famous for male leads who skate on the edge of being irredeemable—some would say they are irredeemable. True to form, Ethan Winslowe is compelling, single-minded, great at sexing, the standout sociopath in a book rich with DSM-worthy personalities.
In a lot of ways, Phantom is the kind of romance novel that people who hate romance novels point to when they argue that the genre is terrible. (I love romance novels and now I write them, so these are not my people and they probably wouldn’t much care for me, either.) There is, for example, Megan and Ethan’s relationship: Ethan blackmails Megan, lies to her, locks in her room and watches her in person and on video cameras. He leaves her with nothing but Stephen King novels to read. She cracks wise and protests her captivity, but Stuart herself alludes to Megan’s lassitude in face of Ethan’s sexual power.
“She was his to do whatever he wanted with, and if she felt passive, it was an oddly, intensely erotic passivity.”
Megan and Ethan do not always model a healthy relationship. But listen, at 22—an earnest and callow 22 at that—I got that this was so not the point of this particular book.
A far more troubling element for me now is how Ethan is presented as an exotic and uncontrollable Other, more legend than reality. Even after they knock boots, Megan spends more time discussing him with other people (and a ghost) than she does talking with Ethan himself. Hand in hand with this is the possibility that Ethan Winslowe can be read as biracial—as black. This is maybe not the accepted reading—the Fabio cover probably means most readers and editors default to white—and it wasn’t obvious to me before but now it is pretty much impossible for me not to read Ethan as black. I mean, look at the townspeople’s reaction to him:
They were dressed in white. White sheets to be exact, with hoods, eye holes cut out, and there had to be at least thirty of them…. In front of them, providing illumination, was a burning cross.
And aside from the Birth of a Nation scene, there is the fact that Ethan’s body is, y’know, two colors. (And he’s the initially scapegoat when Reese Carey’s—a white man’s—building/institution literally crumbles.) And believe me I really do understand that having a two-toned face and body is not how being biracial works but we’re not exactly reading a textbook here. The hints are there. But if this reading holds true, then this book, while sympathetic to Ethan, is also troublingly exploitative of him.
I don’t quite know what to do with this. I don’t know.
I found Night of the Phantom compelling and fascinating in the 1990s and it remains so for me in 2016, but it has never been a comfortable fascination. Of course, finding pieces of pop culture, terrible, wonderful, appropriative, and enthralling—oftentimes all at the same time—is pretty much the permanent condition of living as a non-white woman in North America.
I read once that dreams aren’t really symbolic or portentous—that they’re just the place where the brain processes external stimulus.
Phantom is dreamlike in its overt use of symbols, but also in the way it processes all that cultural flotsam and jetsam, remaking stories that we’re told and re-tell, binding them together with the organizing principle of the happy ever after.
Megan wasn’t sure what she’d expected. Lon Chaney with his skeletal face in The Phantom of the Opera. Freddy Krueger, dripping blood. As Ethan Winslow turned slow to face her, she was ready to see almost anything. Except what she did see.
Stuart touches on Ethan as the Beast, or a creature of horror. At another point, Ethan gives Megan a ring with a picture of Janus, the two-faced god.
In Night of the Phantom we are given many stories. The alchemy of these elements what I respond to—this is what makes me find it compelling even while I don’t always know what to do with it, or how to find my way out. And in that refashioning lies—for me at least—some great part of romance’s power. Part of me finds its genre-ness fascinating; my mind enjoys the repetition and refinements of tropes, which are, after all, the themes and stories that propel our culture for better or for worse. Another part of me really likes the idea that these cultural stories can be re-written, that outcomes can change—that eventually I can change them.
(And other times I just like fun banter. I find that in romance, too.)
For me, romance novels serve many functions. They aren’t always escape or comfort reading, although that’s fine if they are. They don’t always reflect women’s desires, or supply role models, although sometimes they do. After all, in that box in which I found Phantom back in the 1990s was also a book about a thorny female computer engineer. I’d be writing about that book, too, if I could find it again.
I reject the notion that all romance novels are crappily written, mass-produced heteronormative mommy porn, responsible for making women long for things they can’t have and also somehow setting women back hundreds of years. But I reject the standard response to these charges: that romance is actually super-duper feminist. That peppy vision of the genre is in its own way whitewashed; that notion seriously undervalues the motivations of readers and writers. What I do accept is that the genre is vast and heterogeneous, and that our reasons for reading it can be complicated and simple, and both at once.