Friday, July 10, 2009

Romance Novels

I'm a huge fan of Jane Austen, historical fiction, romance novels - any glimpse of that alternate reality where love trumps everything and couples don't have to bother with the messy details of normal life. (I always loved how Elinor Dashwood's family was considered poor because they only had two full time servants.) I also collect vintage novels from 1900-1930, which are a wonderful glimpse at social customs and fashions - and in which the virginal heroines are oblivious to boys, other than as friends, until true love hits them and they marry the men of their dreams. And the modern-day beach novel is always a fun escape - characters in Judith Krantz and Nora Roberts books are always 'flame-haired slender beauties' who never have to diet because they're too busy jet-setting to polo matches and international conferences.

The modern romance novel, according to Wikipedia, was officially born in 1972 with a book called Flame & Flower, the first 'category romance' to be published in paperback. Since then, romance has become big business. Harlequin sells 4 books per SECOND! (which is an awful lot of windswept cliffs, heaving bosoms, and manly chests). But I beg to differ - I recently discovered a vintage novel from 1921, The Sheik, which I'd read was the inspiration for the Rudolph Valentino silent movies (as well as the inspiration for an attempted early morning romp with husband 2.0 - but that's another story).

Reading the book today is a hoot - Diana, our intrepid heroine, is immune to love and prefers big game hunting and exotic travel. Against everyone's advice, she sets out to explore the Saharan desert, but before she left, her stunning beauty caught the eye of a wealthy Sheik, who decides to bribe her caravan leader so he can capture Diana for his harem. Diana is astounded to find that Ahmed is surprisingly clean for a heathen (she comments several times on his manicured nails), and his large tent is sumptuously appointed with silk divans, priceless rugs, and a fully equipped bathroom. Still, she resists him and loathes him until one day she loves him. After a brief interlude where she is captured by a rival sheik and rescued, Ahmed turns out to be an English nobleman who was adopted by a sheik. So now it's okay for Diana to confess her love and they end up living happily ever after in the oasis, with occasional visits to their country estate. (Oh, and although the Sheik forced Diana to share his boudoir for several weeks, apparently all he'd taken from her was her dignity and a bunch of passionate embraces, so she didn't suffer 'the ultimate humiliation' until they were properly wed. Yeah, right.)

The Sheik has all the elements of classic romance novels - the characters are sublimely attractive yet unaware of their charms, they discover deep, abiding passion despite the obstacles, and the plot is about as realistic as my appearing on Dancing With the Stars. And, like those Harlequin best-sellers, it's a great escape from the hassles and annoyances of modern life - although in the case of the Sheik, part of the fun was that I kept cracking up. (The book is full of overwrought prose, lines like "The touch of his scorching lips, the clasp of his warm strong body, robbed her of all power of resistance" - it makes Jackie Collins look like Evelyn Waugh!)

Turns out, the Sheik was also the predecessor of modern romance novels' popularity. (When I get used books, I always flip eagerly to the page before the title page, to see if I've lucked into a first edition - this one was up to the 34th printing in only 9 months!) It was daring, and scandalous, and started a whole sheik/vamp fad that had a huge influence on the flapper era - so really, my fascination with The Sheik isn't about the romance, the seduction, and the Rudy Valentino fantasies, I'm just interested in the historical aspect. (Sure, and my brother snuck my uncle's Playboy magazines for the articles. . . . . )

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Mommy playdates

It's been years since I was on the preschool 'playdate' circuit, where I scheduled my kids' social interactions, but I still remember one of the best perks, which was when I discovered a mom with whom I clicked. I'd go over to retrieve my kid, and we'd end up chatting for another hour, thrilled to find someone to talk to in complete sentences. At that age, the kids were young enough that they'd play with just about anyone, so it was easy to make most of their playdates with kids whose moms I enjoyed.

One of those preschool moms has become one of my dearest friends, so yesterday we met for a quick lunch at the Nordstrom Cafe, where we used to meet when our older boys were in preschool and our 2nd kids were in strollers. We reminisced about those 'good old days', remembering where Hannah (her perfect little girl) charmed the grandmother at the next table, or looking at the dent in the chair I'm sure was left by Ben (my rambunctious one). And we fretted that as our schedules (and kids' lives) have gotten more complicated, we no longer have those long, leisurely playground outings and Burger King lunches.

And then this morning I read an article (in the New York Times, so you know it's got to be true!) about how unstructured play time is good not just for kids' developing minds, but for over-stressed adults, specifically those raising teenagers. It was as if the article were written just for me - how did the author know I was play-deprived? We all get so loaded with work deadlines, household chores, kids to drive, volunteer commitments, and the idea of doing something just because it's fun has become alien - these days, my 'fun' tends to be a few stolen moments doing a computer jigsaw puzzle (which I hide the minute the kids come in the room since I told them I needed the computer for work).

Now that I know my stress is aggravated by being recreationally deprived, I finally have an excuse to schedule some play dates for myself. I just emailed my flute-playing friend about scheduling some time to play piano-flute duets (which I used to do with my best friend in 5th grade), and I'm meeting another friend for late afternoon tea. And I even decided married couples need play time. I'd just read a vintage copy of The Sheik, the hugely popular novel from 1921 which inspired all those romantic Rudolph Valentino movies, so I made Husband 2.0 get up earlier than the kids this morning to attempt a harem-fantasy-based quickie. (Unfortunately, his 'sheik' impression made me laugh so much that we ran out of time . . . but it was still fun! Plus I have scientific proof that play does reduce stress - this was the first morning in weeks that my not-a-morning-person-teenager's grouchiness didn't make me snap back!)

Now I'm remembering that although raising toddlers was incredibly stressful, we had all that mommy play time to help us cope, and I've missed it! I know how easy it is for us all to become 'mommy-martyrs', but now we have scientific proof that denying ourselves isn't good for us, or for our kids. So after I finish up some work, I'm going to email a couple of friends about getting together, then I'll go get a pedicure - not for me, but for the good of my family!