Like anything created for women, by women, romance novels are unfairly maligned. Formulaic, poorly written, melodramatic… let every thriller, mystery, western, and plotless middle-aged crisis die in the same fire as the much-criticized romance.
The only requirement of a romance novel is that it end positively with one (or more) people together, or well on the path to that end. The path to that end can be long, or short, fraught or smooth (though you can guess which is more entertaining).
The best romance novels raise our expectations. They tell us that people can change their behaviour when they recognize the harm they are causing, and that none of us are held back by the obstacles we have overcome, and orgasms come with the standard model.
And while romance novels are marketed to women, I would strongly encourage every man to read at least one. Why? Well, they’re fun, and funny, and sexy… and they are the best existing example of how consent and communication fit in sex and relationships. They’re an antidote to toxic masculinity (and of course the disease resists the cure so the people least likely to read a romance novel are those most likely to need the lessons).
I read upwards of 150 books a year and I’d estimate a third of those are romance novels. Last year, when I struggled with some of the worst anxiety of my adult life, it was much more than that. I needed the certainty of knowing that no matter what these characters went through, they would eventually get a happy ending (both figurative and literal).
A few friends have expressed curiosity about romance novels, but haven’t known where to start, so here is a beginner’s guide – guaranteed rape free. If you have other recommendations, drop them in the comments. I’m always looking for more suggestions!
40 years ago Nora Roberts changed the genre. Women could have demands, didn’t have to be virgins, they weren’t after marriage, they had careers and dreams of their own. She’s one of the best known and most prolific romance novelists, for good reason. Roberts has written some of everything, but my favourites are her mysteries. If you read enough you’ll notice she recycles plots, but so do Grisham and King, and her books are equally well written with better characterization and dialogue.
Catie’s favourites: Private Scandals, Honest Illusions, The Search
I like Nora Roberts. Who else should I try? Julie Garwood (contemporary), Suzanne Brockmann
By all rights, Beverly Jenkins should be as famous as Nora Roberts. She’s as good a writer, almost as prolific, and her books defy cliches. Unfortunately, racism is as prevalent in romance as any other genre, so read (buy!) Jenkins for historic romance that says fuck you to the white-centric view of early America.
Catie’s favourites: Indigo, Forbidden, Belle
I like Beverly Jenkins. Who else should I try? Alyssa Cole, Tessa Dare
Look, no words I write can do justice to Courtney Milan. Her books are complicated, her characters are believably flawed, and she’s working on a contemporary series that includes multiple transgender characters of colour, at least one bisexual man, a realistic exploration of the “billionaire man meets broke woman” trope, and relationships that build over multiple books. Oh and she has a number of historic romances featuring characters of colour.
Catie’s favourites: Unraveled, Hold Me, The Suffragette Scandal
I like Courtney Milan. Who else should I try? Sarah McLean, Sherry Thomas
Lord of Scoundrals might be the romance novel I reread the most. Something about it strikes at my heart. So if you read it and hate it don’t tell me. Pick up something from Loretta Chase if you think that historic romances are full of inappropriate age gaps, swooning women, and “It’s not rape if she orgasms”.
Catie’s favourites: Lord of Scoundrals, Dukes Prefer Blondes, Don’t Tempt Me
I like Loretta Chase. Who else should I try? Elizabeth Boyle, Julie Anne Long
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SEX???
The authors above are sexy. Their books might turn you on. But if you’re here because you heard that romance novels are Porn For Women (hint: porn is porn for women) then those might disappoint. If what you actually want is Erotica, I might suggest searching for that specifically. But if you want some extra raunch in your romance, try these authors:
Who’s your favourite that I missed? Let me know in the comments – I’m always looking for new suggestions!