My mother made that face when I showed her the book I wanted. We were in a thrift store, and the hardback nearly pristine copy of Katherine Woodiwiss’s Everlasting was all of a dollar. I was a young teenager, maybe fourteen.
“Fine,” she said, in that way that mothers expel the monosyllabic word with bitter portent. “But I don’t want you to develop unrealistic expectations. That’s not how it really happens.”
I’d wanted to know whether she meant sex or romance. Or both.
At the risk of not getting the book I wanted, I’d assured her, “It’s fiction. I know it’s not like real life.”
Over a decade later, having digested countless other romance novels, I’m still trying to puzzle out exactly what she was referring to as unrealistic: the sex or the romance? At the time I’d thought my mother had a near-perfect marriage—so demonstrated by their physical affection and expensive gifts—but their recent divorce has unpeeled regrets and dissatisfaction. Was she voicing disillusionment and cynicism even then?
In Everlasting, Raven pursues his heroine until, through unavoidable circumstances, being found in a compromising situation forces them to marry. He’s ecstatic to have won her. She feels like chattel. On their wedding night, he seduces his virgin bride into being a “willing” participant, but immediately after, she bursts into tears. After the second night Raven vows not to seduce her again. (The offended woman in me thinks he was a cad for having his way with her in the first place, even though “historical” context demanded that Raven consummate his precarious marriage.) Eventually she recognizes him as honorable and reciprocates both his love and sexual ardor.
Unrealistic romance? Of course the events and characters are dramatic and over-the-top, as a romance of this genre is expected to be. As I’d told my mother then, I understand it’s fiction.
Unrealistic sex? I find it hard to believe someone could kiss the back of my knees so amazingly that I’d forget my qualms and become mindlessly aroused. Then again, admittedly, I’ve yet to experience great sexual passion.
Unrealistic love? Say it isn’t so. Raven makes his way through a siege to return to his love, setting a high bar if I developed expectations based on the hero. But what I already know to be true, and perhaps had faith in as a semi-emo teen, was that someone would brave the odds for the sake of powerful love, regardless of beauty, sexy Scottish brogues, and sword-fights.