The past several years have coined a new term for many romances: “instalust” or “instalove.” Usually used in a derogatory manner, either word refers to the sudden attraction between two people, what we used to call love at first sight. Whether that sensation of immediate attraction has any basis in real life isn’t under discussion here: the fact remains that it saturates romance.
From Cinderella’s dance with Prince Charming to paranormal romances in which a shifter male recognizes his usually unwitting mate to the locked gazes of two strangers across a crowded room in an old black-and-white movie to the tingle of awareness between two people meeting for the first time, love at first sight imbues the romantic connection between heroes and heroines throughout the ages.
Aside from fairy tales and Greek and Nordic mythology, my first experiences with instalove within the romance genre come from the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. If I recall correctly, Laura has no special awareness of Almanzo until he helps her with her coat, indicating that he noticed her. Then it’s all downhill from there.
Gentle romance in childhood reading gave way to Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer, and myriad Harlequin romances. The love at first sight trope featured strongly in most books with the twist of “girl hates boy.” I quickly learned to summarize the story line of almost every single one of those books: 1) boy meets girl; 2) girl hates boy; 3) boy manhandles girl; 4) girl loves boy; and, 5) boy and girl get married. I never liked that particular plot line, because it assumes that girls need some forceful handling. Even as a young teen in the late 1970s, that struck me wrong. So did Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and the John Wayne movie McClintock which is based on that classic play.
(I wonder what Maureen O’Hara thought of that last scene in which her character sweetly complies to the hero’s every request after having been spanked.)
Despite the advances in rights and privileges since the Women’s Liberation Movement, readers and authors remain enamored of love at first sight. There’s something magical about it: two souls somehow destined for one another meeting for the first time. We revel in the romantic pull of fate: these two souls can’t help but collide. We know from the outset that theirs is a love for the ages, strong, true, and unfailing. And we want it for ourselves.
Therein, I think, lies the ultimate allure of instalove: we want it for ourselves. No matter how old we become–and, really, the view from behind the eyelids doesn’t change all that much through the decades–we imagine ourselves as young and beautiful, full of life, vigor, and potential. In lives filled with disappointment and pain and disillusionment, we yearn for the certainty and simplicity of knowing that there’s one person made for each one of us, one person who will complete us, one person who will never fail us, one person who will complement our every weakness and support our every strength. We want that undying love, that eternal passion.
That deep-seated desire for what most of us never have combined with a few decades of life experience probably serves as the main reason why most successful romance writers are middle-aged women. We remember those heady days of youth and possibility and the reality of hard-to-shed pounds and aching joints and years of disappointments inspire us to create the worlds and relationships that populate our fantasies.
It’s a gamble, thinking that our fantasies interest others. However, it’s proved tried and true through the ages. People remain enamored of the concept of love at first sight.