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. . . . . )