I Was a Teen Romance Tragic


In the early 1980s, when the teen romance novel tsunami hit, I was wide open. My sisters were too old for these books, but I was the perfect age, the perfect emotional register. I found the Sweet Dreams series first. The books were cheap, and everywhere: at Angus and Robertson Bookworld, lower level Eastland, but also, in newsagents, chain stores and even milk bars. I ploughed through them. I read them while walking; at the breakfast table; in bed under torchlight. When I was finished with one, I stacked it reverently on my bookshelf with its mates in number order before scouting out the next. Imitators came thick and fast: Wildfire, Seniors, Electric High, Couples, Heartlines - I tried them all. They were not brilliant works of literature. They were challenging only in that they forced me to look at my life and acknowledge how very wrong it was. I found it hard to project onto the main character—our differences were too huge. I wasn’t looking for myself in the books, I was looking for who I might become. The stories were aspirational because they traded in transformation. Fat girls became thin; shy girls became sought after. Sometimes the heroines were fat and shy, and managed to conquer both tragedies. My teen romances were educational. I learned that Boys could be taught like a subject, that competition between girls was fierce, but for even the dorkiest of dorkgirls love might be only a new shade of eye shadow or a crocheted bikini away. 

Probably my favourite was the highly instructional The Popularity Plan (Sweet Dreams #2) It’s about Frannie, who is really nice and pretty but painfully shy. Her best friend, the savvy Charlene assigns Frannie a series of challenges - what contemporary psychologists might call Exposure Therapy -  that force her to interact with boys. She lets her pencil roll under a cute boy’s desk, and calls another one up with a list of talking points to hand. Soon Frannie is a date-beast, but it’s Ronnie, the shy guy in her art class that she really likes, and the more popular she gets the more he stays in the background. Eventually though, Frannie and Ronnie find their way, as all perfect couples do. The Popularity Plan spawned a sequel: The Popularity Summer (Sweet Dreams #20), where Frannie stays with her shy cousin Joleen and teaches her everything she knows. I loved that this was a follow-up book, because I felt like I was reading from a place of knowledge, like I could have helped Joleen too. (Don’t wear the grey sweater, girl. It really washes you out.)

I attempted Charlene’s methods but had no success. I tried to give myself grace; everyone knew that girls matured faster than boys. In my books the heroine usually had a choice of suitors, but it was slim pickings at my primary school. Seeing that hobbies might be a possible route to romance, I tried to skill up on scout knots. Maybe I was overthinking it. Or maybe all the boys in my class were dickheads.

Just when Sweet Dreams had reached oversaturation a new competitor arrived on the scene: Sweet Valley High. Every week,  a new pastel-coloured book - a whole world! I was obsessed with the Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth, five feet six, blonde-haired, turquoise-eyed, with matching golden lavalier necklaces. (What exactly was a lavalier necklace? I didn’t know or care.) Elizabeth was good. Jessica was bad. Of course I liked Jessica. I appreciated the way she wielded a lipliner and conjugated her French verbs ( “Bore, Bored, Boring”). Sweet Valley High had a massive cast. Francine Pascal (or, in reality, her stable of writers) thought of it like a soap opera. Minor characters could reappear down the track in major storylines. Anything could happen: kidnapping, comas, amnesia, cancer, shady drug-dealers called Buzz. I was drawn to the fuck-ups: fat Robin, druggie Betsy, ‘easy’ Annie. When Regina Morrow died from one bump of cocaine at Molly Hecht’s party, my eyes were opened. (On the Edge, Sweet Valley High #40). The world was indeed a dangerous place.

Grade Six was the turning point, full of tiny bombs. Classmates giving each other the finger, classmates explaining what the finger meant. Darren showing us his dad’s frangers, his mum’s contraceptive pill, someone passing around a Playboy (I remember that the centrefold’s favourite book was Slaughterhouse-Five). I couldn’t ask my parents about sex. And I didn’t want to ask my sisters. But the idea of it looming somewhere in my future made me look at my teen romance collection differently.  I realised that the books had served their purpose. There was nothing in them I didn’t already know. One day, with no ceremony, I bundled up my Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley Highs and sold them in lots in the Trading Post. I did not mourn them. I was ‘reading up’ again: my new object of desire was the bonkbuster, like Shirley Conran’s Lace, with it’s legendary opening ‘Which one of you bitches is my mother?” I haunted op shops and markets, eyes peeled for covers featuring ladies in lingerie. Other signifiers included high heels, lipstick, cocktails and cigarettes. All the mysteries of adulthood that were waiting for me. 


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