Romance fans, rejoice: Talia Hibbert’s Get a Life, Chloe Brown is now on shelves! This must-read fall romance follows Chloe Brown, a computer geek living with chronic illness, on her mission to change her life after a near-death experience. Along the way, she meets and falls in love with Red Morgan, her building’s very cute super. No stranger to the power of a good love story, Hibbert shares how romance novels were her lifeline through years of learning to manage her own chronic pain and an invisible disability.
If you’ve ever read a romance novel, I don’t need to tell you how powerful and poignant they can be. Whether stuffed with sarcasm and sex (like my books), or campy humor, or angsty tension, romance novels grapple with complex, starkly human themes. Maybe that’s why, during the loneliest period of my life, the romance genre acted as my emotional and social booster pack. The books I read were wordy vitamins labeled Life+, devoured daily by a Talia who couldn’t access much life on her own.
When you grow up chronically ill and invisibly disabled, the terror of teenagerdom is a thousand times shittier. I know that sounds mathematically impossible, considering the RSL (Resting Shit Level) of the average person’s teenage years, but it’s true. Alongside the usual challenges of growing up, I had to deal with unexplainable symptoms, incurable pain, and doctors calling me a delusional attention-seeker. My untreated, undiagnosed conditions left me isolated from other kids. Then school ended, and the few friends I’d managed to hoard moved away for work or university. Meanwhile, I… stayed at home.
But I also bought a walking stick, enrolled at a local uni, and started popping painkillers. Leaving the house every day leached the life from me. I wasn’t a naturally sociable person, but I tried so hard to make connections. I smiled so much, my cheek muscles wrote several stern letters of complaint to management. In the end, none of it helped. When fellow students invited me to hang out after class, I had to refuse. If I missed this train or that parental pickup time, I explained awkwardly, my body couldn’t be relied upon to get me home a different way. They winced, nodded, suggested lunch between lectures. I muttered silly excuses because I didn’t want to admit that I spent free periods sleeping in a dark corner of the library. Fatigue didn’t give a shit about my social life.
I know this all sounds rather tragic, but never fear: I didn’t grow into a Gotham-esque supervillain. In fact, my story is more rom com than cautionary tale, just like the novels I write. Even when misery beckoned, I always had the support of my few high school friends and my boyfriend (which puts me at a grand total of four non-familial associates, if you were counting). Plus, I clung to the hope that I’d eventually find an effective treatment plan and a career that accommodated my physical needs—which, spoiler alert, did happen. Yay, me.
But what really saved me from withering away, even during the loneliest times, was reading romance novels.
I’ve always loved books, but, being naturally unadventurous, I was never fussed about far-flung locations or physically commanding heroines. What I hungered for was simpler and a thousand times more complex: autonomy and agency, freedom and human connection. I wanted to read about people, because people were the heart of the world that spun on without me. And I’d known, ever since discovering my first Julia Quinn at the age of 12, that romance scratched my itch.
Only in romance could I find two or more characters transforming for reasons that I understood so completely. Only in romance could I truly cocoon myself in the lives and psyches of other, achingly real people, their every emotion drilled into and exposed. So when physical pain and mental frustration got to me, I picked up Alyssa Cole or Alisha Rai and sank into intense, uplifting reflections of real life.
You see, the multifaceted aspects of human existence—the silly, the steamy, the serious—are often carefully separated in literature, as if allowing one to touch another will diminish them all. But romance thrusts those realities together without remorse or self-conscious explanation, and that juxtaposition doesn’t diminish any of those elements: It intensifies them. Just look at how Therese Beharrie added a sprinkle of wealthy, commanding hero and a dash of healing after abuse in Island Fling with the Tycoon, or how Mimi Grace layered the tension of shame and enmity with a compulsory road trip and a shared hotel room in Along for the Ride, or how 19th century characters grapple with a thrilling mystery and with the gender and class-based power imbalances that destroyed their connection years prior in KJ Charles’ Gilded Cage.
The dick jokes and the family dynamics, the (consensual!) bodice-ripping and the mental health exploration, the swoon-worthy tropes and the social analysis—in romance, it’s all there, stirred into one bubbling pot that I’ve devoured for years, through the good times and the bad. Romance helped me ‘get a life’ without hurting myself to fulfill ableist ideas of how I should survive. Romance was my lifeline. And when I sat down to write about a chronically ill heroine who’d faced struggles similar to my own, that experience gave me a blueprint to create the most honest portrayal of chronic illness that I could.
If you’re not healthy and able-bodied, you often find yourself trapped between a rock and a hard place when it comes to representation. I mean, on the one hand, my illnesses suck. Being constantly in pain is not fun, being unable to do the things others take for granted is not fun, and I refuse to act as if they are. But on the other hand, my life as a whole is fun—because my disability is not my life. So the last thing I wanted was to write a chronically ill heroine who only existed so healthy, able-bodied people could wank over how lucky they are in comparison.
I also dreaded the idea of writing about my disabled heroine ‘overcoming’ her struggles. What those narratives always seem to forget is that our struggles are… well, ableism. From the manager who forced me to lift heavy boxes, then berated me when I dropped them and injured myself; to the doctors who refused to give me treatment for six years; to the so-called friends who cut me off for lying because “no one’s sick that often.” So many of the mainstream books and films that focus on ‘overcoming’ never suggest making all the buildings in town wheelchair accessible, or adding alt-text to the computer system so a blind employee can flourish. They’re usually about disabled people bending over backward to make everyone else comfortable or dying to make everyone else feel inspired.
My thoughts about the kind of story I didn’t want to write left me with a fine line to balance on, and I knew it. Did I go with warts-and-all honesty and risk creating the kind of painful, two-dimensional portrayal I hate, or did I go full rom com and brush off Chloe’s illness as immaterial? Neither would be honest, neither would be right, so I had to strike a balance. Thank God I was a devoted romance reader. Thank God I’d been taking a subconscious masterclass in melding the disparate sides of life for over a decade.
My love of the romance genre helped me shape a story that presented all facets of life as a chronically ill human being, and that included the wonder and wit and heat disabled people deserve just as much as anyone else. Not only did romance novels help me get a life—they helped me write a life for Chloe, too. Though it’s fair to say she and I take different approaches to the whole ‘life’ thing.
Like the chronically ill heroine of my rom com, I’ve been let down by medical practitioners, and felt limited by the constraints of a society that wasn’t built for people like me. But, unlike Chloe, I never felt the need to revolutionize my staid, steady existence with a list of outrageous goals. I didn’t need to, because romance was there to quench my thirst for something different. When I felt as if I was watching humanity from behind the glass, romance novels were there to thrust me right into the messy, sweaty chaos that is our existence. That’s what this genre means to me.
Talia Hibbert is a Black British author who lives in a bedroom full of books. Supposedly, there is a world beyond that room, but she has yet to drum up enough interest to investigate. She writes steamy, diverse romance because she believes that people of marginalized identities need honest and positive representation. Her interests include makeup, junk food, and unnecessary sarcasm.