In our ongoing series about our first encounters reading adult books, reviewer Amy Cheney discusses many of her favorites as a young teen, but offers a special shout out to the power of Harlequin Romances. For more thoughts on Romance novels, check out this fascinating article from The Atlantic, discussing the genre’s ongoing interaction with feminism. Now, here’s Amy:
As a teen growing up the adults books I remember reading are I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Crime and Punishment, and others by Dostoevsky. I also read a ton of Harlequin Romances, as a guilty pleasure. But my overall favorite writer was John Steinbeck. Knowing he was dead, I knew exactly how many books he had written, and stopped myself from reading them all in two months as I wanted to have some to read later. I savored his books. My favorite Steinbeck was East of Eden; I recommend this title to teen readers today. Interestingly, the teens I serve are not a bit interested in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I don’t think I’ve gotten one girl to read that book the entire 13 years I’ve worked with girls in detention. Dostoevsky either. All of the adult books I read as a teen have a profound impact on me today. I feel connected to both Steinbeck and Angelou, I can relate to Dostoevsky, and what I do in the world is intimately connected to these three writers.
As for Harlequin Romances, these have also impacted my work as a librarian. I would say I judged Harlequins as “trashy novels” which I saw as useful for fun and not much else. Then I read Infidel, a memoir by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who grew up in a strict Muslim country where books were rarely available. She credits Harlequins for awakening her to a dangerous and empowering concept, even a feminist one. This opened my mind up to the power of books and reading in a way that I hadn’t been open to before. Ali says:
…the allure of romance called to us from the pages of books. In school we read good books, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, and Daphne du Maurier; out of school, Halwa’s sisters kept us supplied with cheap Harlequins. These were trashy soap opera-like novels, but they were exciting – sexually exciting. And buried in all of these books was a message: women had a choice. Heroines fell in love, they fought off family obstacles and questions of wealth and status, and they married the man they chose.
Most of my Muslim classmates were steeped in these cheap paperbacks, and they made us all unhappy. We, too, wanted to fall in love, with men we imagined in our bed at night. Nobody wanted to get married to a stranger chosen by her father. But we knew that the best we could was simply stave off the inevitable.
Ali goes on to do a lot more than stave off the inevitable – she refutes the entire notion of arranged marriage and becomes an Infidel. The power of Harlequins read as a teen!