Monday, October 31, 2005

SBD: How Harlequins saved my soul and other confessions...

It's Smart Bitches day once again, and I have a confession to make.

I know I often pick on category romances, making snide comments about their titles and subject matter (I mean, really, how many secret babies and royal men are running around out there? I have yet to meet a Duke. Basketball player: yes. Duke: no. Unless that player’s name was Duke…must look into this), but I do it out of love. You see, I used to be a rabid reader of Harlequin Presents.

Yes, Harlequin Presents.

I read them all. The sexist of the sexist. You know, the ones where you’re sitting there reading the book with the knowledge that if some guy ever acted this way with you, you’d slap him with a sexual harassment suit so fast that his head would spin. Sure, they’re short, often sound the same, and the men (oh those foreign men) tend to use endearments in other languages that don’t always translate well (In fact, I’m pretty sure one author was using the Wicked Greek book. Note: this is perhaps not the best source material, although it does tell you how to say “I am a Goddess, worship me,” which is something a girl should know in every language. Hmmm. I need to find that book again.), still I loved them.

Despite the secret babies, and men trying to make their woman into the perfect mistress (because he doesn’t want to admit that he’s in love with her because she fell into bed with him right away, which makes her a total slut even though she might have been a virgin, and Hey! Where’s that hymen located anyway?), they saved my soul during a very dark time in my life: the Year of Organic Chemistry.

What it feels like to be take Organic Chemistry, for those of you who never had to suffer through the horror, can best be defined by dipping your eyes in Hydrochloric Acid. As it eats away your nerves on its way to your brain, the sensation can be equated to how it feels to look at a chemical interaction that makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE! Sure, the molecules had names and rules of behavior, but they didn’t follow them, or they did something weird in the middle of a reaction and suddenly you’re sitting there in lab wondering why you have mashed potatoes when everyone else has a clear liquid, and why, dear God why, did you think you wanted to go into medical school because if it’s several more years like this you are going to end up using a broken beaker to commit suicide…or to go for the throat of your T.A.

It’s not pretty. I witnessed more panic attacks in that class (and verged on having them myself) than any other in my four years of undergrad. It wasn’t that the teacher was bad—I loved him—but that the manner in which Organic is taught does not equate to real world usage (a.k.a. the biology of it all). And it was first thing in the morning, eight o’clock, leaving us to stumble out afterwards into the bright sunshine blinking myopic eyes (from taking millions of cramped little notes), completely disorientated. The rest of the day molecules would dart across you version, hinting at an SN2 reaction or an E1, tantalizing you with some sort of understanding, only to slide away before full comprehension could take place.

The horrible, migraine inducing knowledge imparted by that class could only be fought with one thing: Harlequin Presents.

Logic, you want logic? I’d cackle to my brain as it tried to puzzle through some reaction. Try figuring out why Rosaline sleeps with Santos even though she knows that he thinks she’s sleeping with his brother, huh? Or why they didn’t use protection even though the brother is a man whore?

I’ll tell you why. ‘Cause it’s love, Holmes, and it’s got the power to moooooove you.

How’s that for logic?

But, but, but, my brain would stutter until I anesthetized it even more, pouring book after book on its neurons. But that doesn’t make sense! He’s a sexist pig!

Sexist pig or not, I’d reply, love will find a way.

And it did, find a way that is. As did the Harlequins, which gradually moved from my apartment to that of the next girl in Organic, and from there to the next. I became a bit of a dealer, doing the embarrassing work of actually buying the product, and then passing it on to my customers. Late at night there would be a knock on my door, and standing there would be some poor, worn soul, wrinkles and ink etched into her skin from where she passed out against the pages of her text, begging for some relief.

“One, I just need one,” she’d say, hands shaking. “I just need one to get me through the next test. You understand, right? Just a little one, something Italian, maybe?”

“But this is the third time this month,” I’d reply while scanning my bookshelves for the perfect dose of mindlessness. “Are you sure you’ll be okay if you take one?”

“I’ve gotta do something,” she’d reply. “Just help me. I’m desperate.”

How could I deny her the sweet, sweet relief?

So off she’d go with Allesandro’s Secret Love Child, or the Millionaire’s Mistress, her steps a bit lighter.

It was only after Organic was over that I began to slow down on my Harlequin consumption, ease back from my dosage of Dukes and Italians. I didn’t need them as much, or perhaps I had just overdosed on them in that short time period: either way they didn’t bring the same mindless relief. Now that I’m done with the sciences I rarely look at them at all, except to chuckle over the back copy and play the cover game, which I will now teach all of you out there in cyberspace.

You see, I’ve always believe that the Harlequin Presents covers can be used either to a.) make one weird blackmail note, or b.) summarize a whole new plot for the upcoming month. To do this one must first collect six Harlequin Presents. For our example we’ll use the six that came out for the month of November:

Pregnancy of Revenge by Jacqueline Baird
The Italian Doctor’s Mistress by Catherine Spencer
Bound by Blackmail by Kate Walker
Disobedient Virgin by Sandra Marton
Sale or Return Bride by Sarah Morgan
The Greek’s Bought Wife by Helen Bianchin

Do not try to make sense out of the titles. I don’t know what the Sale or Return Bride means either; it doesn’t matter. You are now going to rearrange these titles so they make a sentence (or a couple of sentences). Feel free to add in important linking words like (if, then, and, or longer phrases). Your result may look like so:

"Although Bound by Blackmail, the Disobedient Virgin refused to be the Italian Doctor’s Mistress and instead chose to be The Greek’s Bought Wife. Even though he considered her to be his Sale or Return Bride, she would carry his Pregnancy of Revenge with love."

That’s right, kids, we’ve just generated our own Harlequin Present’s plot. Now if you can just produce 250 pages on the subject, you’re set.

I play this game whenever a new batch comes into the store, and I’m stripping the covers of the old. Sometimes I’m hit with a wave of nostalgia, and I have to sit down and just flip through one, reliving the jealous man and clueless (but sexy in a very unconscious about it way) woman and their relationship trials and triumphs. It’s a bit like cotton candy: good for a bite or two to remind you of what it was like to go to the fair when you were a kid, but acting like a glutton will only make you sick. It makes me think about the other girls, though, the ones who stuck with medicine and are now in Med school.

Who’s dealing the romance to them now? Do they even have time to indulge? Has their habit gotten worse?

I also wonder if Harlequin Presents realizes its importance to the scientific community. I’d write them about it, but somehow I don’t think they’d believe me.

We were all very good at hiding our addictions.


Kate R said...

That is such a great SBD . . . Plus it contains the seeds of a great meme that I'm stealing.

Kate R said...

The title game is such a great idea that the smart bitches borrrowed it at the same time I did (in case you missed their entry)

Candy said...

I gave you props on SBTB, and I gave you props on Beth's site, then I realized: How fucking retarded am I? I haven't actually commented in the actual entry on your blog.

Anyway, I don't know whether to thank you or curse you for coming up with a new distraction.

Bookseller Chick said...

Thank me, I hope. And I caught your props on Beth's blog, I figured you were just distracted by the little pipe cleaner chickens on mine. They do that to people.

Anonymous said...

Bookseller chick, I loved your article! In college we would pass around romance novels too, which were a rare sight, and for some reason, I always loved the ones where the guy thinks the heroine is a complete slut.

Since you've read lots of Harlequin Presents, would you maybe have any recollections of a book I'm trying to find? --A girl gets together with a guy in a van during a snowstorm. They are complete strangers. To keep warm, they may or may not have sex. Through most of the book, he thinks she is all too promiscuous. This tortures him. Of course she is actually a bookworm and introvert. He just happens to see her a second time after she has just had a makeover and is wearing a form-fitting sweater.

The cover features a brunette wearing a yellow sweater and maybe a plaid skirt. It's a plain white background. Published before 1996 I believe but newer than the early 80s ones where nothing happens before marriage. Can you help? Thanks for reading.

Bookseller Chick said...

Anonymous, I tried my hardest, searching amazon, google, Romantic Times, B&N, and Borders. I'm still going to give the Powell's site a try but they're not big fans of romance (they're literary don'cha know), so I don't know how much luck I'll have. I am going to post your question on an upcoming entry though and see if some of my minions (I have very few, so again, don't hold your breath) can come up with something. I, personally, am intrigued by the plot enough that I would kind of like to read it. Snowstorms and warm cuddling in vans aren't used enough in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

The book from the recent 'anonymous' post may be out of the night by penny jordan. published as a harlequin presents in dec '91. it has many similar details [plus the standard hp ones]: snowstorm, van, man concludes woman is a frivolous tart since she is wear her sister's clothing, impetuous sex in the van, later meeting, intense longing, misunderstandings, eventual happy ending. woman is bookish, lives with and works for her stodgy uncle. man is a professor who stays at her uncle's house. hope this helps.