Tackling Real-Life Issues in Romance Reads

In 2021, after the year we’ve all had, living life on a daily basis is all the uncertainty I can handle. When I chose a book to read, I need to know it is going to end with a happily ever after, or as we call it in the romance world, an HEA. Knowing that the books I pick up won’t end with pain and suffering allows me to settle into the book and trust the road the protagonist is traveling. But what I find comforting, others have deemed “predictable” or “boring.” By having a happy ending, some people have falsely assumed that romance novels are always light-hearted and fluff reads. When in fact, the exact opposite is true.

In the world of romance, tropes are widely used and appreciated, but no two love stories are exactly alike. While years ago, the alpha male reigned supreme, these days, a cinnamon roll hero has risen to the top, allowing for the female main character to take agency and fight her own battles. I’ve always thought that the romance genre is inherently political. An industry dominated by women, writing stories about women who get to be shown as happy, sexual, powerful beings. But beyond that, romance writers are able to take heavy topics and seamlessly weave them in between kissing and falling in love.

My series, The Playbook series, is comprised of four sports romances that have been called rom-coms on more than one occasion. In Snapped, the fourth book in the series, we meet Elliot “Elle” Reed and Quinton Howard Junior. It’s an enemies-to-lovers romance full of laugh-out-loud moments between Elle and the other football wives, drunk kisses, and sweet gestures. But beneath that, Elle is struggling with the death of her father and coming to terms with her biracial identity and the internalized racism she’s realizing is creating problems in her life. Quinton, on the other hand, decides to take a knee on the field and cover the League’s logo on his jersey to protest racism and the treatment of retired players. Quinton is fighting for football players who retired before 1993 and are struggling with the effects of brain injuries without receiving a fair pension from their former employer.

Snapped was a very personal, very scary story for me to tell. I pulled a lot of instances from my own life to highlight the struggles Elliot deals with. From common microaggressions I’ve faced about the way I do my hair or the way I speak to bigger instances of a family member shaming me for showing interest in attending an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). The topic of internalized racism is one that isn’t talked about often, but it was important to me to shine a light on this issue. Most importantly, I wanted to provide representation for someone who might be struggling with these same issues. I wanted them to know they aren’t alone, this isn’t the end, and they can be happy. They can love themselves and find someone else who loves them for who they are as well.

Let’s be honest, racism and brain injuries aren’t exactly what you think of when you hear the word romance. But I think this is what is most misconstrued about this genre. You don’t only read romance when everything in your life is perfect. Romance is the genre of hope. And this structure of struggle and heavy topics between meet-cutes and first kisses, though not always talked about, isn’t uncommon.

In Suzanne Park’s Loathe at First Sight, she hilariously delivers a story about Melody Joo who lands her dream job as a video game producer. At first glance, a rom-com that takes place in the video game industry sounds like a surface-level, light-hearted read. But once you take a deeper look, you see themes of sexism in the workplace, the dark side of the web and trolling, and even nepotism.

Beach Read, the New York Times bestseller by Emily Henry is a sweet, enemies-to-lovers romance about two authors who happen to be neighbors and challenge each other to write in a different genre. The small-town romance complete with donuts, quirky locals, and heavy make-out sessions in the car doesn’t shy away from the heavy topics of loss, grief, and betrayal.

Romance doesn’t take place in a vacuum. There are pain and hardships that happen along the way, but contrary to popular belief, the romance doesn’t take away from these lessons. If anything, it enhances them. Romance is like sneaking veggies into a meal, we add the sweetness to make the messages easier to digest. And romance authors are the ultimate chefs of a well-rounded story. Bon Appetit!

Featured Image: mikespits/Twenty20

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