- by Vanessa Kelly
Or is it lust? One of the most enduring tropes in romance fiction is that of the hero and heroine clapping eyes on each other and falling instantly in love, usually to the sound of swelling violins and an angel’s over-wrought harp. When I was young—and I’m not going to tell you how young—I used to be ok with that. In fact, I don’t think it ever occurred to me to question whether love at first sight was even possible. Romance was all about the impossible, and not letting commonsense or realism intrude on the story.
But most romance readers today are sceptical of that trope, and rightly so. After all, love—real and enduring love—has to build itself on a solid foundation composed of many things, including mutual respect, honesty, intellectual and moral compatibility, and a desire to share everything life throws your way, good and bad. Still, in romance novels something electrifying must happen when the hero and heroine meet—something so strong and visceral that it seems like love at first sight. In many cases, though, I think what is depicted is lust at first sight. That’s a good thing since lust, or sexual attraction, physical desire, or whatever you want to call it, is a pretty powerful force that can bind the hero and heroine and keep them together through all the ups and downs of the story until they fall in love, surmount their obstacles, and reach their HEA.
In my first book, Mastering The Marquess, my hero, Stephen, and my heroine, Meredith, have that immediate, visceral reaction to each other. When Stephen first sets eyes on Meredith this is how he describes her:
“He felt as if he had been nailed to the floor, so captivated was he by the sight of the feminine whirlwind who had swept into their midst…more than anything, her eyes captured him by surprise. They were extraordinary: large under straight, determined brows and framed by thick black lashes…it occurred to him that she looked like a young goddess, magnificent and full or righteous anger…”
Well, you get the drift.
Now here’s Meredith’s description of Stephen:
“But then she turned and saw him and thought she had stepped into a fairy tale or an ancient legend. Her overactive imagination had decided on the spot that the golden-haired man looked exactly like a valiant knight of old.”
The reader might be forgiven for thinking that I was indulging in that age-old trope, love at first sight. But read on a bit more and you’ll find that’s not the case. Both Meredith and Stephen react to each other very strongly, but it’s mostly on the physical level. Just a few short passages after her initial description of Stephen, Meredith notes with irritation that when he smiled at her, her knees actually wobbled. And when Stephen reflects later on his first encounter with Meredith, what he most remembers is how she looks, and that “she exuded a subtle yet powerful sensuality that promised a myriad of delights to the man lucky enough to bed her.”
That’s not love, that’s good, old-fashioned lust—on both their parts. And that’s ok. There are other qualities they recognize in each other, even in that first meet, but there are many obstacles that stand between them. That intense physical attraction—particularly for Stephen—is partly what pulls them together in the initial stages of the story and gives them the opportunity to develop a romantic relationship. And isn’t this often the case in real life, especially for guys? Women may find other, more ephemeral qualities attractive when they first meet a man, but for most guys I know, physical attraction is a very powerful motivator. And to my mind that’s fine, as long as the romance doesn’t begin and end there. Lust is a basis on which relationships can build and develop into real love, one that is both physically, intellectually, and emotionally grounded. That’s the kind of story I like to write, and that’s the kind of story I like to read.
But not all readers are comfortable with an honest depiction of lust, and can express real discomfort with the word itself. They see it as negative, and essentially antithetical to love and romance. Others simply affix the label “female pornography” to sensual romance. Whatever turns your crank, I guess, but as both a reader and writer I prefer my escapist fiction to have some grounding in reality, and that grounding includes relationships that start where most relationships start—with sexual attraction. Bringing these “earthier” characteristics to my writing is an important part of what I do to create a world that my readers can recognize, respond to, and enjoy.