This is sort of a compilation and reworking of a variety of Twitter threads generally on this topic — so if you were following along live, you’ve heard most of this story.
When I was in high school I read Silhouette Romances by the stack. The Incredibly Patient Mother didn’t have very many restrictions on what I read but she did draw the line at “Books with Fabio on the cover” — mostly because she knew a lot of the problematic issues of 80s-90s romance books with clinch covers. I missed out on a few sheiks and pirate captains but since I can still access Beverly Jenkins’ back catalog, I don’t think I was overly deprived.
But the Silhouettes, with their white covers, short story lines, quick resolutions with a happily ever after — those I know I checked out a half dozen at a time, probably more. I’d gotten past the Sweet Valley Highs and these were sort of that grown up? Yes, the library I frequented had a “teen” section — but I can only think of 3-4 books I read from it entirely? The IPM will have to be consulted.
Most of the books I dashed through faded quickly, these were books I was consuming like candy, with only the occasional memory sticking out. But there were 2 books I specifically remembered…
The first, I’m pretty sure I went on an adventure to find it before and I’m 90% certain there’s a copy of it somewhere here in the house. At least 15 boxes of my books are still packed (the story of acquiring bookcases will have to stand by for another day) and it’s in there somewhere. That one wasn’t truly the one of interest.
It was Book 2 — and I say that in a couple ways. First it was the second “impactful Silhouette story” — by which I mean I could remember any details at all. And second, it was the second book in a two book pairing. The hero was a jilted guy from Book 1. I could remember that, that he was some kind of doctor or dentist?, that he ended up with Book 1’s Bride’s Best Friend, and he was “very controlled and perfectionist — except in the bedroom.”
It wasn’t much to go on and I’d done the usual trawling through Goodreads, Amazon, checked with Smart Bitches, Trash Romance. And then, in late May, I discovered fictiondb.com — who has the entire publication run of Silhouette *in publication order.* (They also have Zebra Regencies….)
I went to high school in the back half of the 90s and my public library at the time probably wouldn’t have kept these books around extraordinarily long, so I had a pretty good idea that it was published between say 1990-2000. And so I started through, one book at a time, looking for a nearly forgotten read.
I read every single abstract — though some got a more cursory read than others — I knew that the book a) wasn’t a Western and b) no one already had children. This would speedily eliminate A LOT of the books. But some notes I made as I live tweeted through my tabs…
Trends of the Plot Summaries
- So many white people. By the end of 1990, I’d noticed that there had been zero main characters who weren’t white. This trend continued — though by 1993 we’d had two Native American men and one sheikh. See the Outcomes section below for final counts.
- In addition to Many Many Widows and Widowers, there are also an alarming number of “X relation (usually aunt/uncle) must have an emergency wedding in order to keep their nibling(s)” books. I don’t think family court has changed That Much where they wouldn’t be rather worried about hasty weddings?
- And if they weren’t instant weddings for raising children– it was because they Had To Be Married for either a grandparent’s will or to impress a business client. I’m sure there are still some of those manipulative grands and or aging clients but I do hope that’s rare.
- Problematic Male Bosses! So many of them! Women who wish to just do their jobs and the High Power Men who can’t leave them alone! It’s still a commonly used trope but it surprised me just how much of it I saw.
- Also a lot of “to keep him, she’ll have to sabotage her job, do a totally unethical thing, never be able to practice [law, medicine, other expensive degree] again because she’ll have screwed up so much” — and… no, no we are not tossing our careers in the trash for this dude we met three weeks ago.
- A number of common tropes showing up — Manic Pixie Dream girls, “she’s old at 29 but he’s an ageless vampire”, a couple time travel books, one apparently based on the Nanny TV show, oh, and amnesia for everyone!
- Also, so many of these are “X years ago they were Y. Now she’s/he’s back and etc etc. ” — Though I suppose the story doesn’t hold up if “she came back and he’s an obnoxious misogynist who has been divorced twice and still is living his high school glory days”
And there were exceptional levels of Whhhhhhhhhat? or Ewwwwwwwwww!
- The “he was a Dream Researcher and she was the perfect Research subject” and gross, ew, someone notify the IRB, conflict of interest, yuuuuck.
- There was one where the storyline apparently was central around the fact she owned a pet hamster. Yes, truly. Other pet storylines included a Great Dane and a kidnapped cat (unclear of breed).
- The one where the summary of the book was from the perspective of the *newborn* who is apparently delivered on page 1. “She knows he’ll keep her and her mother safe.”
- Multiple books where “he needs ANY WOMAN” because of a newborn. Because apparently all women ever can jus instantly handle an infant?
- “fell in love with my best friend/brother/other close male person’s wife and now he’s dead and now’s my chance.” — After finding ~20 of these over the decade, I will admit to being grateful that the Philosopher is in good health and all of his besties are all in pretty happy relationships for themselves.
- Amongst all the predatory “he can’t leave her alone” male bosses — there was one predatory female boss. Notably of course, the hero doesn’t fall for her and instead must instant-marry some “good sweet woman”
- We had at least one round of job hiring discrimination “he only wanted to hire a woman” and one where they fat-shamed a *child* in the summary. Definitely wanted to set that one on fire.
- Sister of the Bride with Brother of the Groom — okay, kinda weird but sure… The twist being the Bride and the BOG used to be engaged? Nooooope
- In 1998 they apparently ran out of ideas that weren’t Western or Has Child — so they decided that they’d just publish Westerns where Someone has A Child. There were 11 of these in that year.
- Oh, yes there was one where she was a librarian. And described as the “town’s oldest virgin” (in her late 20s). So of course the hero was only interested in her for child-bearing.
- There was one book where the aunt IIRC has taken over care for *FIVE* orphans. And somehow none of them have homework or therapy appointments or ball games? And it’s totally fine to jump them right into a new romantic relationship?
- “To the Single women in the office” — this was a series and it was like.. mass emails the heroines were sending out as the book summaries? It was very predatory and icky. Very High Women Being Mean to Other Women Energy
- In the category of most things to shove into 200 pages we had: twin swap, emergency bride and surprise baby. How he didn’t know she had a twin or didn’t recognize that she wasn’t the woman he’d slept with etc etc…
Random Phrase That Caught My Eye
- “pampered city girl” –Saw this one multiple times. Always with an eye roll. Because of course no one who ever lived in a large city ever worked hard compared to those country types. Uh huh.
- He’s “grumpy” — This got really tedious in how often it was used. He was usually especially angry if he was a farmer or rancher.
- “romantic stories of driving an eighteen wheeler” There were at least three 18-wheeler books. Which was 3 more than I expected.
- “A chaste woman of Monticellan blood”
- Hero’s name was Jeep Washington
- “fool proof armadillo traps”
- Titles that make you go O_O : “The Male Animal” and “Sheikh Daddy”
- “she’s turned 12 men into good husbands for other women” — those dozen men owe her a hell of an apology. As do their parents.
Well, okay then..
- In 1992 I found one that references the Gulf War. Military wasn’t super common in these books, so this one particularly stood out.
- In addition to the vampire mentioned above, there was one book where the heroine was an angel and another book where the hero was a genie. Good luck getting a drivers license!
- The Zodiac “subseries” — these were Scorpio Man, Libra Woman or Gemini Man, Leo Woman etc etc. Besides being horribly incorrect in sign pairing (Who puts a Libra with a Pisces?) — I didn’t get the sense anyone had actually looked at what characteristics are usually identified with various astrological signs?
- Other “subseries” were mostly about parenting, such as the Fabulous Father books. But the strangest one was just MEN! (None of these were reverse harem, Warmaiden, yes I can hear you asking.)
- In 1992 there was a rush of “flee to another continent” stories
- In the entire decade there was one couple where they were the single parents of a couple getting married. It was the only actually ‘mature’ romance I saw.
- Surrogacy and Surprise Twins where somehow the hero didn’t know about the surrogacy was very convoluted.
It was in the December 1997 summaries that I found a book that looked promising as the first half of two book series. A quick skim ahead to January 1998 found not only Book 2, for which I’d originally been searching, but also the other book that I’d remembered. Apparently spring of my junior year of high school was a meaningful moment in book reading. Book 2 is called Groom on the Loose by Christina Scott (Book 1 is “I Do? I Don’t?) The other book is Husband Next Door by Anne Ha.
I ended up reading through the end of the 1990s in search of leading characters that weren’t white. There was at least one where I honestly am not sure if it was Overuse of Suntan Spray on the White Cover Model or Intended to Look “Ethnic.” What I found (based on summaries/cover art alone)
- 5 Native Americans
- 2 Latinx Characters (maybe 3)
- 0 Black or Asian Characters
- 1 Genie, 1 Angel, 1 Princess, 4 Princes, 3 Sheiks, and a Vampire
When I initially started this, I hadn’t thought about the availability of these books beyond them being in used book piles, which is how I expected to need to reacquire the ones I was looking for. I was mildly surprised that about 50-60% of these books are available as Kindle downloads. It made sense as I considered it — they likely had the Word 95 files around and it wouldn’t have taken too much to reformat and tada, modern revenue stream.
And truly, while I spent a lot of time joking about the ludicrous nature of these stories and I now notice much more distinctly the lack of diversity, I was also putting together a list of books that I might get and read in the future. I think most of them will not at all have held up to my expectations for romance in 2022, but we shall see.
I did buy e copies of the three books (Book 2 and it’s predecessor), and Husband Next Door. We’ll see how poorly these held up soon.