Good opening sentences are like pickup lines at a bar. An author wants you to spend some pleasant time with her book. Maybe develop a lasting relationship with her characters. What can she say in that moment when your eye first meets her page? How should she start a romance with her reader, as well as a romance between her characters? Today I want to look at some of the pickup lines that helped me start a romance with some of my favorite books.
Romance is a genre created and shaped by female writers and female readers. With what is probably the most famous first line from any romance novel, Pride and Prejudice opened the door for authors like Georgette Heyer and Julia Quinn to write about the manners and morals of the Regency period.
While today’s historical romance authors bend the past to suit their needs, Jane Austen herself wrote contemporary novels. Hers was a society where women could not own property, vote, or have any real agency in the choices made about their lives. Society damsels needed husbands to get through life in a respectable manner. Good ones. Bad ones. It made little difference.
But Elizabeth Bennett, the main character in Pride and Prejudice was not some simpering maid. Never mind that her family had no money and four other daughters to find husbands for. Our Lizzie set the style for romance heroines right from the start. By being independent enough to laugh at Mr. Darcy’s starchiness and turn Mr. Collins down cold, Ms. Bennett showed she was not looking for just any old husband. She was looking for the right life partner. If she couldn’t find him, she was willing to take her chances as an old maid.
The Independent Woman
The romance heroine’s sense of independence only grew through the 145 years between Pride and Prejudice and Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting. In that time, women of Elizabeth Bennett’s class survived two world wars and the Great Depression, gained the vote, and entered the workforce.
The memory of all that shadows our heroine, Linda Martin, who comes to Paris to help a young boy from a wealthy family perfect his command of English. Aware that intrigue and betrayal might lurk beneath the sunniest of surfaces, Linda steps off her flight from London to launch a whole new genre: romantic suspense.
Smart enough to spot a plot against her new pupil’s life, Linda is also resourceful enough to help him escape over the border into Switzerland. And capture the heart of her charge’s charming cousin in the process.
The Determined Woman
With one of my favorite pickup lines, Deborah Smith takes the scrappy, independent romance heroine a giant step forward. In A Place to Call Home, five-year-old Claire Maloney violates strict social divides to befriend ten-year-old Roan Sullivan. When family tragedy drives them apart, Claire’s heart is broken. As an adult, she builds a life for herself based on the notion that, if she can’t have the man she loves, she’d rather not start a romance at all.
Claire Maloney’s determination is a bit extreme. But, when you think about it, your choice of partner is the most important choice you make as an adult. It shapes your life in every way, from where you live to the jobs you take and the children you have. Isn’t that worth fighting for?
Most contemporary romance heroines, like Annie Hewitt, aren’t really looking for a man to marry. They’re looking for what any adult wants: respect, a career, a voice, and some agency in a world dominated by wealthier, more powerful people.
In Heroes Are My Weakness, Susan Elizabeth Phillips uses Annie’s plight to spin the tropes of the classic gothic romance, as written by Daphne du Maurier and Victoria Holt, into a comedic delight. Dark family secrets and a brooding Victorian mansion? Yep. Puppets, ventriloquism, and lots of witty repartee? You betcha. There’s even a haunted clock. You need to read it.
New Voices, New Pickup Lines
Jesse Strong has plenty of pickup lines, but none of them work to start a romance with Kerry Fuller in Kwana Jackson’s novel, Real Men Knit. Nor is the “meet cute” trope the only romance novel tradition Jackson overturns. Jesse and Kerry have known each other since middle school, but form their romantic bond over their efforts to save a yarn store that has become a Harlem mainstay.
Jackson tells their story with affection for a neighborhood that is far from the dysfunctional ghetto of White stereotypes. Her characters are flawed but admirable people of color who learn that love—for family, community, and life partners—is the only thing that counts. A leader in the new wave of Black romance writers, Jackson is a vocal advocate for #WeNeedDiverseRomance. With Real Men Knit. she makes a strong case.
Ready to Start a Romance?
With so many great romance reads out there, I have to wonder. Why do people still sneer at RO-mance novels as if they are smut or trash? Are they are embarrassed by the things adults do, like fall in love and enjoy sex? Do they honestly believe the tales of war, carnage, and vigilante justice found in men’s adventure novels are intrinsically superior to stories about forming family bonds of mutual support? Why? Because they’re written by men?
Whatever the critics think, romance is the top-selling genre of adult fiction, earning $1.44 billion in 2019. That’s almost twice as much as the second-place genre, crime and mystery. Roughly four times as much as science fiction and fantasy. If you haven’t read a romance novel lately, you should pick one up. You’ll be surprised by the wonderful stories women have to tell.
See individual cutlines for more specific credits, but in general: Many thanks to Bookshop for all of the cover images used in this post. Bookshop is a great way to support small, independently-owned booksellers. Started at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, it provides a way to shop local, online. Or, if you’d rather, IndieBound supports a similar niche. We’re also grateful to 123rf and their talented photographers, for the background images. The marriages of book covers with backgrounds was the result of Jan S. Gephardt’s graphic design “matchmaking”.