In the late 1970s, it was common to find romance novels featuring young and naïve women falling in love with the older and worldly heroes. The heroines were just starting out on their own and the men had experienced so much in life. The age gaps between the characters were often significant.
The role of the romance heroine has changed. She’s not expected to be sheltered, virginal and barely out of her teens. But does that mean readers today can find a flip in the age gap? Can they read sexy contemporary romances about the older and worldly heroine falling for the younger man?
Why is this? According to the Romance Writers of America, the average romance reader is a woman between the ages 35 to 39. If a reader is supposed to see a reflection of her life in romance fiction, why are the heroines still in their early twenties?
In her work “Getting Laid, Getting Old and Getting Fed: The Cultural Resistance of Jennifer Crusie’s Romance Heroines”, Kyra Kramer argues that society views mid-life women as asexual. “Simply to write a novel,” Kramer says, “especially a romance novel, with a female protagonist who is in midlife is transgressive, considering that mainstream culture wants to erase the older woman’s body from view.”
Why would books written for women continue this narrative?
Storytelling and symbolism.
In her doctoral thesis “Cougars, Grannies, Evil Stepmothers, and Menopausal Hot Flashers: Roles, Representations of Age, and the Non-traditional Romance Heroine”, Sandra A. Barletta believes that older women are not the main character in romance fiction because of procreation.
Often in the happily-ever-after, the hero and heroine are bound by marriage and children. The child is an emblem of their love.
What happens if the heroine is no longer fertile because of her age? “Whether the biological imperative is a genetic impulse or a social mandate,” Barletta says, “the viewpoint that fertility plays a role for some readers and editors in the romance fantasy does serve to highlight the problems in positioning a mature-aged woman as a romance heroine.”
While it’s not common to find romance fiction about older women, there are romance writers who tackle some of these preconceived ideas and stereotypes in their age gap love stories.
In Tools of Engagement by Tessa Bailey, Bethany has insecurities about her age difference with Wes. She has bickered with the younger man since the moment they met and she’s lost count of the cracks he made about her age. She disregarded his advances as something of a joke being played at her expense.
Bethany has such a hard time believing Wes is interested and not just amusing himself with an older woman who played hard to get. Does he want to catch her? His irreverence makes it hard to tell.
Sometimes there’s only a slight age difference between the hero and heroine. The gap is in their approach to life. In Bad Boys Do by Victoria Dahl, Jamie is trying to live down his bad boy reputation so he can assume more responsibility in the family business. He needs expert business advice from Olivia. In return, Olivia, whose ex-husband cheated on her with a much younger woman (because she was too serious and boring), wants to learn how to be more fun.
Jamie isn’t that much younger than Olivia, but she envies the man’s openness and zest for life. And as she becomes more confident and boldly goes after her postponed dreams, she knows her affair with Jamie is just temporary. The younger and sexier man couldn’t possibly want something serious with her.
The younger heroes in these stories are not virginal or naïve. If anything, they have run wild and are jaded beyond their years. They are the ones who pursue the heroine.
Joss is willing to indulge in a perfect moment, but Troy wants so much more. The cowboy never had a home life but he longs for something permanent and significant with Joss. This age gap romance is hot and wistful reminder that there’s no age limit for being crazy in love.
Learn more about the ages and stages of the romance heroine here.