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How Romance Novels Saved My Life

I needed a heroine who, faced with daunting odds, had lost faith in herself but through courage, tenacity and a great dollop of humor rallied to turn her situation around and find happiness.
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By Suzanne Donahue for Off the Shelf

When I was newly divorced and an abruptly single mother of five-year-old twins I needed something to fill the hours between my daughters' bedtime and my own. I couldn't get sloppy drunk, though I wanted to, because I had to be a grown-up and take care of my kids. I probably could have eaten bowls of ice cream but I didn't seem to have an appetite and, ironically, I did not have the attention span to watch TV. What I wanted was a book. I needed a big juicy read to take me out of my life for a while. A Gone with the Wind or An Unsuitable Boy kind of book that would suck me out of New York to a different place and time. What I found on the shelf in the hallway outside my office was a mass market copy of To Pleasure a Prince by Sabrina Jeffries. I had never read a romance novel but the first page hooked me and I took it home.

That night I was introduced to the wonderful world of clever feisty women whose intelligence and prickly independence are attractive and desirable traits that draw equally intelligent, handsome, sexy men to them. The characters were wonderfully complex and Jeffries wrote a tense compelling story that completely swept me into the world of Regency England and the rambunctious courtship of Viscount Draker, bastard son of the Prince of Wales and Lady Regina Tremaine, who has decided she can never marry. How could you not love the bastard son of a rogue Prince and a woman who believes she is unloveable? In addition to a clever plot all the characters -- even the impoverished ones -- seemed to live on impossibly large estates and have another house in town (just in case) that were full of trusted servants, constant port and brandy, comfy warm beds and fantastic horses. No one gets sick, unless it's a plot device, has to do homework, or deal with a morning commute or a truculent boss. It was exactly what I was looking for.

Reading romances is like watching a great romantic comedy on TCM or a period drama on PBS- yes, there is a formula as old as the hills but the formula is elevated to art in the hands of a good writer and cast. Each great romance writer has her own individual style, her favorite locale (Regency England, the Highlands of Scotland) and her own way of building characters and story. Some are time travel books, some have a mystery at the heart, some are intricate family dramas. It doesn't hurt that every hero is absolutely gorgeous with not an ounce of extra flesh on his powerfully muscled body, has as a warm heart beating below his gruff exterior and a keen eye for the unusual woman. But what I like the most is that all of the heroines are clever, strong and fearless. And no matter their travails, they always come out on top. That was what I needed when I picked up Ms. Jeffries book and didn't even know it. I needed a heroine who, faced with daunting odds, had lost faith in herself but through courage, tenacity and a great dollop of humor rallied to turn her situation around and find happiness.

I kept reading after that first book, it was so much fun to discover a new author or series. I have loved every book I have read by Julie London, Mary Balogh, Karen Hawkins and Stephanie Laurens and sometimes have followed authors out of the genre into non-fiction as I did with Eloisa James' Paris in Love but my favorite author is still Sabrina Jeffries; she has a way with a story (and love scene) that really gets to me. And I have to thank her for being on that shelf the day I was looking for a good book and being exactly the good book I needed to read.

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