In 1990 I was a senior in high school, and I was friends with my music teacher. It was one of those odd things I never understood how it happened, though I think it started when the drama teacher cast me for the lead in Fiddler on the Roof but I couldn’t sing. (That’s a long, weird story. Don’t ask.) She was charged with fixing that minor detail, which led to a lot of before and after school private lessons. At this point of my life things were starting to come seriously apart. I’d weathered some very personal and not-at-all nice things that hadn’t resolved. My parents were mere seconds away from their divorce, and we were all living in the basement of an unfinished house. Probably this is why she was friendly to me, and undoubtedly this is why one day she handed me a paperback with a red cover and a metal gauntlet on the cover holding a rose over a bed of silk. “Here,” she said. “You should read this. You should have this.”
I remember being a little dubious, but didn’t want to disappoint her, so I tried to at least start it so I could fake it. I don’t have a specific memory of reading A Knight in Shining Armor for the first time, but I remember the feeling of something important blooming inside me, something huge and powerful and true. I thanked the music teacher, and she promptly fed me a zillion romances, many of which I didn’t actually like, but many of which I did. None were ever what that first one was, though. I ended up reading every single Jude Deveraux book up until sometime in grad school, eventually getting to the point where I purchased the hardcovers as they came out. I bought a lot of romance novels, a lot, but Deveraux was always a must.
What I remember about reading AKISH for the first time was that it was a good, satisfying story with a happy ending, which I needed at that point of my life more than water. The part that really resonated with me, however, were that these people were having sex. Good sex. Yummy, tingly sex that made neurons light up in ways that were a lot more than just a Beavis and Butthead snigger. Part of me had always been very sexual, very aware of sex and its power and confused by the shame that had to go with it. I’d also had some not-so-nice things happen centered around sex. Now here was this book that was fun, easy to read but not simple, light but not worthless, happy but not without struggle—and there was sex. Strawberry ice cream, bitches.
The sex was there and real but so elegant, so alive and yet so classy. I never felt the need to blush. Deveraux made a safe place for me to enjoy sex, to explore. Reading AKISH healed me, reminded me of what I should be looking for in a lover. Deveraux made it okay to like sex. I remember really liking that Dougless had been sexually active and that her first several times were not great. That was so important to me, after having so many firsts ruined and messed up, but feeling like I could still be okay, because Dougless was. I felt in so many ways like Dougless, like no matter what I did, no matter how nice I was or how hard I tried, everything went to crap around me. Not while I read this book.
As the years went by and I grew older, my reading tastes changed, and so did Ms. Deveraux’s writing. I would still buy her books, but they began to resonate less, and so did some of the rereads. For a long time I bought the books anyway, determined to make this relationship work, but eventually I stopped, and every time I saw a new book I would feel sad, like I’d lost something special. Every now and again I would reread old works with varying success, but eventually I deliberately stopped rereading AKISH. I couldn’t bear to ever read those words and find anything but perfection, so if I simply relied on my memory, I’d be fine.
Some of this falling out I can now attribute to my muses trying to get my head on straight with my own writing–I had been writing stories all this time, though with no attempts to be published until 1998. By the time I hit 2005, I could read almost no romances no matter who wrote them. In 2007, I stopped reading them entirely. I went on a strange scavenger hunt through the library for any books that had anything to do with gay heroes, especially ones in a relationship, but those were very, very hard to come by. The barest crumbs were a feast. This was also the period in my life when I shut off the internet for a year and wrote like the devil. What would come out of that time would be my first two published novels, for a genre I didn’t even know existed as I wrote them.
Once I discovered the gay romance explosion, I devoured everything I could grab. I began to read lesbian romance as well. Lately I’ve started reading heterosexual romance again, though as of the beginning of April I had not gone back to reread the romances of my roots. Mostly I feared I wouldn’t like them. I can be a real reading snob, so pouty and impatient about what I want in a book, and I didn’t want to do that to my firsts.
Then came the Romantic Times 2013 convention.
Jude Deveraux would be there, I saw in the program notes, and as the time for the con grew closer, as I made my own frantic author preparations, the battered high school girl who had been saved by romance lifted her head and began to whisper that she’d kind of like to meet her hero. I worried about that. I worried maybe Ms. Deveraux wouldn’t receive me well. I had no reason to except that this is actually something I always fear, especially when something is important to me, and because Jude Deveraux is associated with such a vulnerable time in my life, it seemed a bit of a nasty risk to meet her. So much so that though I’d planned to bring my paperback copy of AKISH—yes, that one from 1990—I ended up forgetting it. My husband offered to express it with some swag that had come late, but I said no. No, it wasn’t a big deal. It was just a book. She’d be mobbed, and when would I have time to get it signed? And again, I worried, what if she turned up her nose at me? I couldn’t stand the thought.
In the middle of the night, my inner high schooler hijacked my phone and texted Dan, “Express the book.” He did. It arrived on Thursday of the conference.
I began to let myself be excited. You can ask almost anyone who saw me at RT how I got all bubbly and stupid giddy whenever I talked about meeting her. I showed the book to anyone who would give me ten seconds, and sometimes I had that horrible sense I was boring them or making them uncomfortable, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was like now that she was unleashed, that high school girl would not be stopped. When I saw that Jude Deveraux was on a panel with Julie Garwood on Friday morning, I ditched the Samhain panel I’d meant to attend (sorry my favorite publisher, I still love you) and arrived early to the Deveraux-Garwood Legends of Romance event. I sat in the front row and vibrated with anticipation.
Everyone in the room for that panel describes it as having been in either a rock concert or church or both at the same time. Sarah Wendell says she had to cross her legs so she didn’t pee her pants while she stood to ask a question. I sat in my seat and wept openly, feeling foolish and awkward yet unable to stop myself. She was there. They were both there, but she was there, and like something sleeping, that girl inside me sat up and basked in the presence of the woman who had set her free in so many ways.
Deveraux was wonderful. A little reserved, but charming and eloquent and articulate, and basically she was everything I’d ever wanted her to be. Garwood was gregarious and friendly, but I kind of liked that my hero was almost godlike, this sacred woman I could simply bask in. I wanted to stay and get my book signed, but there was a crush and we weren’t supposed to be there anyway, so I left. I told myself I would get my book signed the next day at the big signing. If I had to leave my own table for a length of time, I’d do it. At this point my inner high school girl would go nuclear if I didn’t let her drive this bus.
I helped set up for the big signing, and I saw where she would be sitting. I saw her books to sign get set out. I got my battered copy stamped, and the woman who did it was charmed by the age of my copy. I went up to Ms. Deveraux’s and brought Marie with me to take a photo.
I told myself not to cry or break into crazy hysterics. I had rehearsed what I would say to her, what I felt I had to say, and I sort of tunneled-out the rest of the conference so it was just my hero and that table and me, and wifey with my phone for the picture.
I clutched my book with sweaty hands, and I stood before Jude Deveraux and told her my story, how my music teacher had given me her book, this very book in my hands and how it changed my life. How she was my first romance novel and how much it altered everything about me, what I read and eventually what I wrote. I told her the reason I was about to go sit at my table and sign for my own fans was because of the book in my hands, and I thanked her for being an important part of my life.
Or that was what I hope I said. I really don’t remember. I just remember standing there and feeling like this hugely important person was there, not laughing at me, but in fact looking politely charmed, and I tried not to combust. Or pee my pants.
I asked if I could have a picture, and she said yes. Her eyes ended up being closed, but that’s okay. I remember her eyes. I remember the sound of her voice. I remember the way she smiled at me, and I won’t forget that any more than I will forget her book.
And now my copy is signed.
(I know I just put both those pics in my RT recap post, but how could I not include them here?)
When I got home from Kansas City, I kept the book on my desk for awhile, and I thought about rereading it, but I was scared. At this point I was scared to touch the book—it’s old and yellowed and rough, and now it has her signature in the front. I put it away instead. Then, like the universe was angling at me, someone tweeted that AKISH was on sale on kindle, and in a dream-state I clicked “buy now.” For over a week it sat on my kindle, untouched, because I was still afraid. How awful would it be if I reread it now after all this time, after meeting her and having all my catharsis and joy, and I didn’t care for it? I ignored it utterly, and then on Mother’s Day I got my Paperwhite, and suddenly there was that cover every time I turned it on. Not my cover, not the right cover, but it was still the book, and I knew I was going to read it soon. I kept coming up with reasons to put it off, until yesterday the high school girl got very tired of me and I was reading. Then suddenly it was today, and I was done.
It was better this time than any other time I have ever read it.
I’m so glad I put it away for so long, because it was both familiar and fresh. It has a gorgeous patina about it now, dated by its publication date and yet more intense because of its timelessness. When I closed the kindle cover this afternoon, my first thought was that it is so much better than any romance novel I have read in a long, long time, and I believe I will now elevate it to my top four books, a non-ranked quartet of Going Postal, American Gods, Tom Jones, and now A Knight in Shining Armor. Everything was there, as wonderful as it was and yet somehow better. For now as I read I could see where my own roots began, could feel how some of those moments, some of her choices and her voices were always resonating within me every time I write. I found Dougless as powerful and pure as she had ever been. I found Nicolas as charming and handsome and infuriating and flawed and utterly romantic as any hero I have ever read or penned, more so because he is the first, he is the best, he is the center from which they all began.
I learned from my reread as well. I was reminded about stakes, about pacing, about choices, about vulnerabilities and identifications between the reader and the character. I felt the breathlessness of Nicolas’s devotion, his vows of love across time. I felt Dougless’s weakness and strength balanced so expertly, so delicately and yet so easily. I noticed this time as I never have the incredible grace and skill it takes to make a book so strong and sure and yet so fluid it seems as if it is the creamiest chocolate drink in the world, not too sweet, just a bit of spice. As one drinks this story in, one feels good and happy and sated. It is a book of healing, of hope, of happiness.
And then I turned the last page AND THERE WAS BONUS MATERIAL.
Deveraux had written an afterward, talking about writing it fourteen years ago so it’s been some time now since even that addition was put in, but it was new to me, and now when I read it I heard her voice in my head saying the words. I think I’ll read it about a zillion more times just to soak it all in. I highly recommend you find a copy with this afterward in it and read through it at least once, especially if you love the book.
If you’ve never read it, please go do so now. I promise you won’t be sorry.
I feel like I’ve closed a circle in my life, and it feels very good. The high school girl inside me is very happy, very at peace. She’s also really looking forward to buying every last one of the books on kindle and rereading them, and discovering new ones. She’s thinking about the old Garwood novels too, all of which I’d given away when I was the high school teacher. In fact, I have very very few romance novels left, having given them away because of moving or because of space and now because books are a great place for my allergies to fester.
When I imagined writing this review, I thought I would comb through the book and find highlighted bits and talk about it eloquently as a work of art, as an influential piece of fiction, as the ideal romance novel. I find now that I cannot. Not this book. It is all those things, but first and foremost for me this book is magic. This book is medicine. This book is bedrock in my soul and in my own writing. I can no more elegantly speak of it than I could sit down and have a casual dinner with Jude Deveraux. I couldn’t ever. She’s not human to me, not completely, and this book is not just a book.
So this story, this abject adoration is my review. This book I am realizing has always been my compass, and I feel so much better for finding it firmly in my hand again. I have no aspirations to write a book which is this for another reader. I simply wish to pilot my waters with it in my hand, because now more than ever I am convinced it will only lead me to good things.
What more than this could I ever aspire to? A journey without end, heading always toward hope and happily ever after. And sex.
Thank you, Jude Deveraux. For literally everything.