I was born in 1994, with my Pluto, Venus, and Mars in Scorpio. For those of you who don’t believe in or aren’t versed in the language of astrology, this means that I’m pure water, emotional and volatile and inclined to hold onto things long after I should give them up. I think about love a lot, platonic love and filial love obviously, but obsessively, chronically about romantic love. I’m not theoretically inclined to be obsessed with marriage, since I’m a Modern WomanTM, I’m educated and well brought up and definitely going to work for a living. But when I lay in bed at night, I think about love- who loves me and who I love, the people I used to love and the people that used to love me. Do they still love me? Why did they love me in the first place, what about me was intrinsically lovable? Why do I love the people, or rather the person whom I love? Why, for all his numerous faults and fallacies do I still love him? I’m a reader of diverse books, of memoirs and fiction and of science fiction even, but lately, I’ve been reading Romance novels, of the kind that make it on the Best Romances of 2015 list on Goodreads. The last book I read was “Kulti” by Mariana Zapata and it made me think about the ultimate question is: why do we read Romance?
As I said, I’m not inclined towards gushing about the beauty of love and marriage. I’m rational in the stereotypical way, I don’t doodle boys’ names in my journal and I never did, I wear flowery dresses but I counteract it with coding in Java and Python and C# because that’s the way I have to be in order to keep myself balanced and sane. The reason I disapproved of Romance novels for so long, reading them in secret under my covers, is manifold. First, I was embarrassed about the sex in them because young women aren’t taught to enjoy healthy expressions of sexuality in media. Not that all the depictions of sex are ideal in Romance, but on the whole, they are catered to the female gaze in a way sex scenes in mainstream media are not, focused on the mutual pleasure of both partners. The men regularly go down on the women, bringing them through orgasm with their hands and their mouths, and the women reciprocate obviously because that’s the expectation in mutually beneficial relationships, but it doesn’t feel like an expectation or an obligation. Plus, of course, romance is a typically female dominated genre, and like everything that women love, it’s scorned as pathetic, disingenuous, and inherently inferior. “It’s not real literature”, “Why do women read porn?”, “Anybody could write it so only dumb people would read it.”
“Kulti” is about sports, quite possibly my least favorite topic in the universe. I’m the kind of girl who snapchats her best guy friend if basketball is the sport with the touchdowns almost 100% genuinely, who refuses Superbowl parties in order to get my nails done in bright gold because I’m a real life Disney princess or something, who told my ex-boyfriend I would go to a baseball game with him if he attended a Fashion Week show, complete with black tie after party. But I liked “Kulti” because it was about people who characterized their sports rather than sports that characterized people. There’s a reason as a human race we’re invested in sports, in our fraternities, in our unions- they unite us and bring forth the most elemental characteristics we possess, teamwork, responsibility for others, and the quest for individuality while attempting to bolster a team. Sal and Kulti were both multidimensional characters and not in the way that was contrived, constructed to further a plot or to give the reader some juicy scenes. The progression of their relationship felt natural and their romance felt realistic because it wasn’t really a love story; it was a story about love in life, a life story if you must call it that.
Often in romance novels, the plot is sidelined in order to overemphasize the innate sexuality of the protagonists, their dashing good looks, their long, long legs and perfect faces, but doing so often entirely misses the point of why people, women to be more exact, read romance novels. I might be generalizing and attributing my own qualities to the masses but I don’t read romance novels for the sex, for the fantasy. I’m not represented in these novels, my 5’2” 90 something pound self who worries about breaking nails and self-describes as neurotic and not in the sexy way where I relax and let go through orgasm with some generic looking guy, and for the moment, I’m okay with that- I’ve learned to compromise with the media I consume. I read romance novels for the belief that things will turn out all right, that there’s hope for me to find true love, the kind people write about in the books and immortalize in sonnets and sketches, despite and because of my flaws, and I want proof that happy endings exist. The world is a terrible, miserable place, so I smile when I see things like that imam in Turkey who opened up his mosque to cats because it gives me hope that people are kinder and smarter and more loving than I ever expected in my 21 years of being let down, and romance novels give me that feeling. The sex is simply a bonus. I liked “Kulti” because the novel wasn’t intent on rendering perfect people in a perfect relationship, who go rom bickering sexually to fucking on sheets of Egyptian cotton in 200 pages or less. It was a longer book, over 700 pages and I wasn’t bored with the progression of Kulti’s and Sal’s relationship, from enmity to reluctant friendship to genuine affection to love because I felt validated and rewarded in their romance.
I think love is weird because it’s so miraculous in its very being, the concept that two entirely different people can come together and feel such unity and respect for each other. It requires maturity and understanding and nobody can define or designate it except for the parties involved. I look at the declaration of love in “Kulti” and I feel the same way I do when I listen to “Holy Ground” by Taylor Swift: “Spinning like a girl in a brand new dress/We had this big wide city all to ourselves”: hopeful and young again because I feel ancient in the way only 21 year olds who feel like 40 something divorcees do, and I revel in it.
“What would I gain from telling you the first moment I realized you were meant to be mine? Nothing. You’re supposed to protect what you love, Sal. You taught me that. I didn’t wake up one day and know I didn’t want to live without your horrible temper. I saw so much of me in you at first, but you aren’t like me at all. You’re you, and I will go to my grave before I let anyone change any part of you. I know that without a doubt in my mind. This,” he pointed between us. “This is what matters.”
Love is beautiful, and it’s everywhere if you know where to look for it. I maintain that romantic love is like a unicorn, that it can eradicate any evil in this world if it’s honest and true, and it’s beautiful and people lose their minds over it which is obviously unhealthy, but I’m understanding more and more why they do it. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie once said that only real romantic love can remove racism and that it barely exists and I don’t know if I agree with her but that won’t prevent me from eternally being on the lookout for it. I believe in love, I believe in genuine affection and respect, and I believe that I’m deserving and worthy of it and that’s due in part to my vociferous reading of romance novels.