The Story of Oh!

How bodice-rippers taught me to love reading.


When I was 10 years old, I fell in love with the bodice-rippers my mother read in the kitchen every night.

Fat paperbacks with titles like Tender Fury or Captive Passions, their stories were all the same: The heroine, a changeling/gypsy/orphan who really comes from royalty, does battle with the ghosts/offspring/stepmother of her dark past, suffers/fights/enjoys a deflowering, and emerges with name/wealth/heart restored by a stable-boy-slash-count with a similar history.

The best stories spanned Tolstoy-esque generations, each one trying to avenge the last.

I. Could. Not. Get. Enough.

I plowed through these books as quickly as my mother discarded them. I can still see the cover of Phyllis A. Whitney's 1976 masterpiece, Spindrift. A Bardot-haired woman runs through crashing waves toward the reader, a Breakers-like mansion in the background. She wears opera-length white gloves, a robin's-egg-blue dress, and a look of ladylike distress.

"A headlong novel of romance, mystery, and suspense set in the fabled world of Newport where the very rich played at their very private games," reads the teaser.

While my contemporaries were trading in Judy Blume, my understanding of sex was limited to the pages of these gothic romance novels. Here, the heroine, all flowing hair and heaving chest, pressed against a slab of throbbing manhood until she gushed forth like a raging mountain stream. 

When streams weren't gushing, ocean waves were crashing, flower petals were unfurling, and honey was dripping. As a sheltered girl from the suburbs, these nature-based euphemisms were lost on me.

In lending me those purple pages, my mother was providing more than an unintentional lesson in the birds and bees. Through her guilty pleasures, she was imparting a true passion for reading. She eventually moved on to William Kennedy, Philip Roth, and Richard Ford, and I followed suit, devouring whatever she left scattered around the house like breadcrumbs.

The other day, I found my 8-year-old son, Leo, reading Gore Vidal's Palimpsest. Was Gore's dishy memoir too mature for a third-grader? Probably. Did he get to the part with Anais Nin yet? More than likely. Was I worried that Gore would provide Leo with his own brand of bodice ripper?

Absolutely not.

I recalled the time when my mother's friend found me engrossed in a copy of Anne Mather's Leopard in the Snow. I remember the look on her face, a weave of shock and disdain.

"Isn't she a bit young for that?" she asked, her question more of an accusation.

"I'm just happy she's reading," replied my mother with a smile.

Like mother, like daughter, like son.

[Editor's note: Have any topics you'd like Cathy to cover? Email her at cathy@cathyalter.com.]

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and author of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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