In honor of Valentine’s Day, each Lily is recounting the book that first made them blush, swoon, and fall in love with romance. Happy reading, heroes! And most of all, happy Valentine’s Day! Love, Lily

It’s hard for me to pinpoint my first romance novel. I was one of those annoying kids who read every book I could get my hands on, including some that I probably wasn’t ready for. Let’s just say I discovered “The Joy of Sex” earlier than most experts would recommend. That means I read a lot of books with romantic or sexual content that weren’t necessarily romance novels. I distinctly remember feeling a thrill when Calvin kissed Meg in “A Wrinkle in Time.” I also distinctly remember listening to “Clan of the Cave Bear” with my mom and sister on a road trip, and all of us being shocked when the sex scenes began. And don’t even get me started on “Pride and Prejudice.” Darcy is totally on my list on literary ladyboners.

Despite the fact that I was frequently drawn to the romantic elements of literary and genre novels, I persisted in believing that all romance novels were crap. My (mostly male) friends considered romance novels populist dreck that only appealed to the lowest common denominator, and I agreed with them because I was 19 and an idiot. (Of course, the fantasy, sci-fi, and horror books that they loved were literary gems in disguise and totally worth appreciating … but that’s another blog post.) I was working at a book store at the time, and one of my co-workers would regularly rag on Nora Roberts because her books took up two full shelves in the romance section. I joined in because, as previously mentioned, I was an idiot, but a small seed of doubt was planted. Clearly Nora Roberts was incredibly successful. Clearly people loved her work. Maybe, just maybe, she might be worth reading.

Not long after, one of my friend’s mothers gave me a box of books she was getting rid of. In that box was “River’s End” by Nora Roberts. I thanked her politely, while inwardly sneering, and decided to hate-read it right away so I could intelligently bash it. Instead, I had a transformative reading experience that would change the course of my life.

“River’s End” is the story of Olivia, the daughter of a murdered Hollywood star who has found solace in the Pacific Northwest woods where she runs a nature hotel with her grandparents. Her life is busy and full, and she has mostly forgotten about Noah, the first love who betrayed her in her youth. Then he comes back, determined to find out what really happened to Olivia’s mother and find a way to fix the rift between them. Olivia and Noah are both strong, funny, opinionated, intelligent characters, and they have genuine conflict and chemistry. More importantly, Olivia is more than an abstract pretty face.

There’s a huge body of literature that I think of as “Heartbreak Porn,” where a male main character falls for a woman because she’s pretty and then whines about it for 500 pages. I would put “Of Human Bondage” in this category, along with “Swann’s Way” and “Norwegian Wood.” Some of these books are exquisitely written, but the female main character is hardly more than an object that the man covets. Not so in “River’s End.” Olivia is tough, complex, and imperfect. Her relationship with Noah forces her to face her demons and change for the better. I think this may have been one of the first books I ever read where love was portrayed as sustaining, rather than a source of pathos and heartbreak. Olivia and Noah had to work for their happiness, and they chose to do it together.

I read and re-read this book. Then I started to read all the Nora Roberts books I could find. I was introduced to the Stanislaskis and the MacGregors, the Templetons and the Quinns. All these wonderful, complicated characters who are good on their own but better together. And slowly, something changed in me. It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, love didn’t have to be about yearning and heartache. It might be possible that I might find love, even though I don’t have the elegant profile and consumptive air that 19th century writers seem to find so attractive. And, over the next ten years, I began to imagine that I might be able to write a book that would touch someone the way Nora Roberts has touched me.

If I could go back in time and talk to that co-worker who hated Nora Roberts, I would tell him to give her a real shot. Don’t assume that because a book has a happy ending that it doesn’t have real-life value. I like books that are about people tearing their relationships apart, but I love books that are about people finding a way to be together.

Plus, you know, sex scenes. Sex scenes are great.

River's End

Olivia’s parents were among Hollywood’s golden couples…until the night a monster came and took her mother away forever. A monster with the face of her father…

Sheltered from the truth, an older Olivia only dimly recalls her night of terror—but her recurring nightmares make her realize she must piece together the real story. Assisted by Noah Brady, the son of the police detective who found her cowering in her closet so many years before, she may have her chance. Noah wants to reconstruct the night that has become an infamous part of Hollywood history. He also wants to help Olivia and heal the longing in her lonely heart. But once the door to her past is opened, there’s no telling what’s waiting on the other side. For somewhere, not too far away, the monster walks again.

Buy it here!