I’m certain my first encounter with romance novels came during my childhood. My grandmother had what appeared to be hundreds of Harlequin romances all over the house. I picked one up every once in a while but never read any all the way through. The old paperbacks just held no appeal to me. Too grown up, too unfamiliar.
Quite possibly the closest I came to reading romance during my adolescence was V.C. Andrews, who technically isn’t romance. Perhaps that’s what made it palatable to me as I often spent most of my youth in an “ewww romance!” phase. As a whole, the genre just didn’t interest me, not even after I let go of Andrews for good.
Or so I thought. During my last years of high school and first years of college, I belonged to a couple of paperback bookclubs and expanded not only my book collection but also my tastes in genre. I read a book called Renee and Jay that I very much enjoyed even after I found out the author was a white male with a Black wife. The book was entertaining and I enjoyed the tone of it, written from the perspective of the Black female protagonist. Yet at that point I still would not have called myself a romance fan even though I acquired other books such as the anthology The Bluelight Corner and continued dipping my toe in the romance waters every once in a while.
Around my first or second year of grad school, I read Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance. It was one of those texts that helped me get over my preconceived notions of romance as a genre. I still did not intentionally seek out works in the romance genre although I was more receptive to it. Films like The Truth About Cats and Dogs also helped me see a value in romance where I had missed it before.
But my official foray into romance would not come until after 2006 and I’d left grad school. With no money for books, I found myself taking up various offers for free e-books no matter the genre or author. One of those offers came in 16 free e-books from the name synonymous with romance itself, Harlequin. This was the first time I learned that the publisher had several imprints catering to niche targets including a Nascar imprint. I read all 16 of these books and even found a favorite with Harlequin Historical selection.
This would probably be when I began taking romance seriously as its own genre. It might also be where I found the reason I had never been eager to embrace the genre: I did not identify very much with the characters. It’s difficult to look for yourself in works that give absolutely no regard to your existence and often treats it as an afterthought when you are included. Slowly over the years, networking has introduced me to various authors whose works take us beyond the predominantly lily white world of romance.
One of those authors is Rebekah Weatherspoon. Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a couple of her trilogies: the Fit trilogy and the Sugar Baby trilogy. Of the two, I favor the Sugar Baby series. And just this past week, she released the third novella of the series, So For Real.
With this series, Weatherspoon finishes the story of Kayla Davis and Michael Bradbury who meet through the unlikeliest of circumstances. Without giving away any spoilers, I will say that I think I enjoy this series so much because I relate to the need of this type of fantasy in my life right now.
However, my own personal preference is secondary here. There are many reasons Weatherspoon’s work stands out in a genre that somehow seems to think that only cishet white women read romance. However, not only does this work include women of color, particularly Black women, at its center, but it also centers queer women of color and women of size. She goes beyond vanilla sex to explore different types of sexual pleasure in mutual, consensual settings.
Yet one of the biggest pleasures of her work is that the obstacles of romance do not focus on the marginalizations included in the characters’ identities. Rather, they face obstacles such as work, insecurities, backstabbing and other people’s problems in their love lives. While factors such as race, size and sexual orientation are present, they are not the obstacles to happiness. But they are important aspects of the characters.
This is much of the appeal of Kayla and Michael; they’re perfect for each other. As the reader, you get to be happy with their journey without the tension of will they or won’t they. There’s a pleasure in knowing they will overcome, but they get curveballs thrown at them that remind them that they live in a world outside the cozy one they’ve created for themselves. And yes the fantasy of jetsetting with a billionaire doesn’t hurt either.
Oh and yes there are plenty of sex scenes not for the faint of heart or vanilla. Seriously, there’s no kinkshaming here.
The last book in the series, So For Real, keeps the tone and pacing of its predecessors So Sweet and So Right. It’s the perfect ending for those of us who have grown to love Kayla and Michael over the past year. As a romance, it might not be a spoiler to say that this one is awesome for anyone who likes happy endings of the happily ever after variety. The ride is in seeing what speedbump has thrown itself in Kayla and Michael’s way and how will this offbeat pair handle it.
Unfortunately, those of us who are not white and cishet still have trouble finding romance that speaks to our experiences and desires. Fortunately, there are a growing number of writers who are more boldly proclaiming that romance comes in more flavors than vanilla in more than one way. Authors such as Weatherspoon create characters previously ignored and maligned in romance and shows that they have their romantic inclinations just as anyone else. Everyone deserves their romance.