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Off the Shelves: First impressions about romance genre
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While there are eclectic readers out there, most of us tend to read one or two specific genres of books. Naturally we prefer certain topics and styles over others. I usually navigate towards science fiction, fantasy, mainstream fiction or biographies.

But in the last month I have been introduced to a genre into which I did not think I would ever immerse myself: romance.

As part of a project, I have been delving into the dramatic, occasionally schmaltzy, and most definitely titillating genre that is romance - in this case, historical romance. Even this sub-genre can be divided into even more precise categories, including Victorian, American Old West and Highlander (which is medieval era, commonly involving English and Scottish characters).

The reason I never looked into romance novels before was primarily because they appeared to all followed the exact same formula: the female protagonist (who gets more development and attention than the male counterpart, given that the majority of romance authors and readers are women) is a strong-willed, independent woman who refuses to be vulnerable or compromise her values for any man. Her love interest is a scarred (emotionally and sometimes physically), ridiculously handsome lone wolf who is too tough and prideful to be affected by the frivolity of love.

The two characters initially are either annoyed by one another or flat-out loathe each other, but circumstances force them together and ultimately they open up to one another, and they share the same pains and fears and they lower their defenses and this all ends up with lots of kissing and rubbing and you get the idea.

I admit, however, that I am being perhaps too jaded about the genre. After all, almost every genre follows a shared formula; science fiction and fantasy almost all follow the "heroic quest" storyline, in which a hero or heroine must seek out a sacred, magical or lost object to save the town, kingdom or world from some diabolical villain.

But I ask: must all male love interests in romance novels have dirty blonde hair and dark brooding eyes, while the female heroines have golden hair (sometimes with a tint of red, for the particularly fiery-tempered ones) and bright blue or green eyes? I know we hold a certain social consensus about what beauty is, but there can't be this many magazine cover models out there who just happen to collide into one another by chance.

I think even devoted readers of romance novels would confess that there is a certain amount of absurdity to the storytelling, but of course that's not why we read them. We all know why we read them. We hope that it will be worth weeding through the basic plot, back stories and emotional dimensions of the characters to get to what makes a romance novel ... well, a romance novel. The first question I received from someone I was talking about these books with was, "so which book has the best sex scenes?"

To be honest, though, some of the novels took me by pleasant surprise. I found engaging plots and sympathetic characters to become invested in (more so from the longer stand-alone books than the quick Harlequin monthly series), and all the elements could be woven seamlessly together rather than just being filler between the steamy moments several readers would skip ahead to.

Dare I say it, that for some of the novels, that the intimate scenes were significant, even necessary, for the characters' inner turmoil to be overcome, and not just the book's obligatory erotic fantasy? Of course, for others, it read like the story itself was just an afterthought to the typed-out role-play that the author clearly enjoyed writing the most (and no, please do not ask me which titles I am referring to).

So I have developed a better appreciation for romance, and historical romance in particular can be interesting when the author has really done her research and integrated historical fact and references into her story.

I may be more inclined to pick up a recommended book from a romance fan now, but I will still keep in mind that there will always be a level of silliness to these stories - it would seem that "Harlequin" romances are aware of their slight clownishness, after all.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on