Secrets of Hilltop House

A journey to the heart of the romance novel

Romance was beyond his understanding - until he spent a weekend with 100 women who could teach him its allure.

Cover Story

May 30, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | By Arthur Hirsch,sun staff

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- The Washington Romance Writers' annual spring retreat hasn't officially begun, but already the line between reality and fantasy is getting fuzzy.

It's this place, a hotel and restaurant called the Hilltop House. This place could put notions in your head, the kind you haven't considered since you crossed into curmudgeonly geezerdom and decided that the concept of the happy romantic ending should be tossed onto the same pile with those envelopes that say: "YOU MAY HAVE ALREADY WON $1 MILLION!!"

The fact is, the place sits atop a 200-plus-foot cliff overlooking the Potomac River that really is wind-swept. The fact is, the hair of those who step out to admire the splendid view of rushing water and rocky cliffs really is wind-tousled. Just as the romance novels are wont to say. And get that name: Hilltop House. Say it in a breathy voice and see if it doesn't evoke Gothic motifs. Handsome, brooding heroes with violent tendencies. Family secrets stashed in the attic. A busty heroine baring cleavage as she flees a spooky Victorian.

In such a place a person can dream. Or at least consider alternatives. The thermal currents on which turkey vultures soar all weekend in the river valley are invisible, but there they are. What else, then?

Something draws these pilgrims, and not just to the retreat this weekend. Not just these few women but women by the millions, riding invisible emotional currents real as staggering romance novel sales. Nearly half the paperbacks sold in the United States every year are romance novels. Nearly a billion dollars a year in sales. Romance Writers of America likes to trot out these numbers. And these: An avid romance reader might consume three, four books a week. These are numbers that get your attention.

On Friday afternoon of retreat weekend, a showery front has just slipped east, leaving everything behind it sunny, shuddering in the breeze. April flaunts the cruelty T.S. Eliot detected. Emotions stir, things quiver with promise. Is it true or false?

The ambiguity fits. This is a weekend to consider the romance, a literary form that seems, at a glance, to offer all the complexity of a Hallmark card. Behind the brightly painted happy-endings facade, however, something's doing. Challenges to the patriarchy, celebrations of female power, reading as act of feminist resistance.

Who knew?

I show up at Harpers Ferry with an overnight bag and a canvas briefcase. These fit in the car. The rest of the baggage -- preconceptions, value judgments, elitist literary biases, all the stuff one attends college to obtain -- suggests the need for a Mayflower van, the kind in which the Baltimore Colts skipped town.

The uneducated tourist stumbles into Romance Land bereft of foreign phrase book or Fodor's guide. The closest thing at the moment is a book stashed in the briefcase: "Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance." The introductory essay of this paean to the romance begins like this: "Few people realize how much courage it takes for a woman to open a romance novel on an airplane."

A shortage of big hair

Members of Washington Romance Writers are driving in from Maryland, Washington, Virginia; guest speakers arrive from New York, Toronto, Ohio, Colorado. Many of the attendees are taking time away from husbands and children, making it a retreat within the retreat that is the romance novel. Romance readers and writers share this connection, this space, this room of their own.

This 15th annual retreat draws more than 100 people, including editors, agents and a reviewer from Romantic Times magazine. All but five of the attendees are women, and only two of the men are writers. Most of the women appear to be between 30 and 50 years old, roughly mirroring the profile of the romance reader as supplied by such publishers as Harlequin, Fawcett and Silhouette. They're in for a weekend of discussion, speeches, networking.

During the course of the weekend, many women ask me: 1. How's it going? 2. Is it what you expected?

The responses: 1. OK, thanks. 2. Uh, well, I guess so.

Truth is, I have no idea what to expect. A romance writer's retreat? What could that entail? Perhaps a workshop: "Hair: Making It Live and Breathe for Your Reader." The anticipation of the event is mostly an exercise in withholding value judgments, as in stifling the sort of crummy attitude expressed in the previous sentence.

What to expect? In recent issues of Romantic Times, publicity photos of many established writers suggest the Midwestern political wife: poofy hair, earrings the size of light bulbs. Yet at the retreat, it's mostly sensible hair and understated attire, the sort that would suit a NOW rally.

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