As the 10-year-old old chief librarian at Hamilton East Primary School in 1986, one of my teachers noticed my voracious appetite for reading and suggested I borrow a book of hers: V. C. Andrews’ 1979 bestseller, Flowers in the Attic.
I’m not here to unpack whether a teacher should or shouldn’t be encouraging a 10-year-old to read a story of child abuse, sexual trauma and incest. Or maybe I am? As a parent who recently bought her 13-year-old Judy Blume’s Forever in an attempt to get him to engage with reading, I am perhaps here to defend the lifelong positive impact this book had on me.
Two years later, in a scene that could be straight from the Dollanganger family, my sister savagely threw me down my bedroom stairs while fighting over a copy of the final book in the series, Seeds of Yesterday. To this day when rain is coming I rub the scar above my eye, remembering Cathy and Chris’s forbidden love and the irreversible chaos it caused.
I was a smart girl, in the way that academic success rewards those who seek approval from authority figures, and #blessed to grow up in the ‘80 and ‘90s when I could hide under my duvet with a torch and devour books until all hours of the night. I read widely, and took pride in my perception as an intellectual. For Bursary English in my final year of school I received 97% including 100% for my essays on Sylvia Plath.
The following year, 1994, I moved to Tāmaki Makaurau to do a BA majoring in English and Art History. I always imagined my move to Auckland to be on par with those who gathered in cafes in Paris during times of intense intellectual discourse. In reality, I knew no one, felt intensely overwhelmed and was living in a shared room at the halls of residence in a wooden single bed with a roommate I had nothing in common with.
I spent much of that year escaping to my grandmother's apartment in Kohimarama. Not exactly the cultural epicentre of Auckland, but a safe space. Plus she had a spa bath. She was away most of that year and I would let myself in, raid her bookshelves and run a bath. Shirley Conran and Jackie Collins featured prominently on Nana's bookshelf. I would leave the stress and uncertainty of life in Auckland behind, and immerse myself in a fantasy world before literally pulling the plug on it and heading back to my lonely existence and academic tomes.
A couple of months into this strange new life I shuffled, still nervy and overwhelmed, into an English lecture with Wystan Curnow, son of the great NZ poet Allen Curnow and artist Elizabeth Curnow. He started solemnly, saying he was going to pay tribute to the death overnight of one of the world's greatest modern poets. It was an earnest, academic lecture and I was only half-tuned in. Suddenly Smells Like Teen Spirit came blaring through the sound system and I realised he was talking about Kurt Cobain.
Growing up in Hamilton I’d never been given permission to consider pop culture as something worth canonising. Picasso was about as populist as it got; we certainly never made it as far as Warhol. This intelligent, heartfelt and earnest tribute to something I’d never before considered art became the biggest learning of my academic life. I think of it often when listening to the work of Taylor Swift or Lorde.
“Which one of you bitches is my mother”
(Lili to Pagan, Judy and Maxine in Shirley Conran’s Lace)
It also allowed me to release the shame I felt over my love of romance novels. Okay, ‘bonkbusters’ is a far more apt description; the predictable story arc, submissive female protagonists and disposable nature of Mills & Boon was never my cup of tea compared to the full immersion of the sprawling worlds of Jackie Collins and Shirley Conran, which often explored the complicated nature of female friendship and motherhood just as much as (if not more than) heteronormative relationships.
Lucky Santangelo was the original #Girlboss, with the third book in the series about the daughter of a mafia-esque crime boss, published in 1990, even called Lady Boss. In Lady Boss the beautiful and ‘wild’ Lucky buys a film studio in order to protect her third husband’s film career from an ill-advised three picture contract.
Whether it be Lucky, Rock Star, Sinners, Hollywood Wives or the World is Full of Married Men, all Collins’ heroes wore dangerous heels, had dangerous curves and voracious sexual appetites. Of course, there was the occasional meek female (a virtue far worse than being unattractive) but by and large her female characters weren’t victims. Men always underestimated them; they always got what they wanted (which was usually power and sex, not love - duh).
My husband, like many, is a true crime fanatic. True crime is a particularly lauded genre of book, particularly as the rise in podcasts and documentaries devoted to it have seen it elevated above the Anne Rule dense-yet-scrappy paperback genre. True crime is just that, a crime that truly happened to someone. The more twisted and ghoulish the more interesting the book. Bonkbusters are the opposite: they hurt no one and provide great enjoyment. There is tremendous skill in universalising stories that appeal to millions, yet the patriarchy has taught us to feel ashamed of these celebrations of female pleasure, and ultimately power.
In 2001 I moved to Auckland for a second time, having spent a couple of years living in Melbourne. In 2003 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. For two years I didn’t read anything heavier than a Who magazine (and even then I didn’t read the last page out of an irrational superstition about looking at the list of celebrity deaths listed there).
Nearly 19 years on and I’ve finally accepted it’s okay not to be emotionally tortured by art. I don’t need it to take me to dark places; I know how to get there all by myself. Pure escapism is what I’m after. My collection of bonkbusters is collected from secondhand bookshops visited around the motu/country and the aotūroa/world. (My copy of Lady Boss bears the stamp of a bookstore in Chiang Mai, Thailand). My favourite holiday destination is anywhere that has a V. C. Andrews or Jackie Collins book in their shared library, for then I know I am on a road travelled by like-minded kin.
It’s not a proper summer holiday without re-reading an escapist bonkbuster fantasy while working on my tan. Both terribly un-PC pastimes but ones which sum up the best of my youth. I can’t see that changing in the future, but I’m finally prepared to own that.
ENSEMBLE’S BONKBUSTER BOOK CLUB
Forever by Judy Blume
Lace by Shirley Conran
Riders by Jilly Cooper
Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews
Lucky by Jackie Collins
Family Album by Danielle Steel
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Luster by Raven Leilani
Valley of the Horses, Jean M Auel
Insatiable: A Love Story For Greedy Girls by Daisy Buchanan