Given how many novels feature romance, what makes a romance book a romance? We questioned a group of readers, who decided that a happy ending, an element of comedy, and, ideally, plenty of good sex were key. If there’s plenty of sex, but a sad ending, you’re likely reading literary fiction.
Like many things linked predominantly with women, romance books rarely get the praise they’re due. How often do you see them given a half-page review unless there’s something newsworthy about the author? Yet, romance features in many fiction titles, because that pull between two people who can’t resist the other, and who fall in love because of and in spite of their quirks and faults, is a quality that makes the world go round – and some of the world’s most adored books.
As witnessed yearly in the Bad Sex Award shortlist, romance is a tricky one to get right. Lead characters need to have chemistry, but also need to be interesting on their own. You need juicy subplots and a supporting cast of characters and a setting that leaps off the page.
The long-time newspaper columnist Jilly Cooper spent years variously researching orchestras, polo, television consortiums, and horse racing for her books, yet has often been dismissed for writing bonkbusters because her books have racy covers. Harper’s magazine called her “the Jane Austen of our time” in the Seventies, yet Austen’s six novels are hailed as classics rather than romances, even though love and complexities thereof are at their heart.
The best romance books are absorbing, entertaining, and introduce the reader to new worlds and new ways of looking at their own. They may also lead them to look at themselves differently. There will be wit, humour and challenges. And the very best romance books give the reader as much of a new lease of life as its characters.
Recent years have seen the old stereotype of the mainstream romance novel as “heterosexual-flirting-before-marriage” reinvigorated, with a welcome dose of perspective bringing more variety to our shelves and to readers. The political activist and romance author Stacey Abrams helped to deliver Joe Biden his presidency – and proved what romance readers have always known, that being an intellectual powerhouse and writing romantic fiction are by no means incompatible.
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‘Rivals’ by Jilly Cooper, published by Transworld
Cooper’s best novel is also her own favourite, and at the heart of this gloriously unapologetic romp is the plotline of how one of literature’s biggest rakes, Rupert Campbell-Black, finds true love at last. Cooper writes with a journalist’s eye for observation, much to the displeasure of many people who found themselves immortalised (or worse: not) in her books, and this enormous book zips along at a pace that belies its size. Cooper is extremely funny about the television world, and just be sanguine about the fact that Rupert can manage to be an Olympic sportsman, a minister for sport, and an aspiring TV man all at once. Cooper pinched many of Rupert’s best lines from her husband, Leo, and one of the best things about her books is that the men feel entirely real, whether creeps, good eggs, good friends, or Rupert. Read this and see why and how Cooper has inspired so many fantastic authors over the years.
Buy now £10.99, Waterstones.com
‘Unsticky’ by Sarra Manning, published by Transworld
Forget for a moment that there were any other books published in 2009 which involved extremely damaged, extremely rich men initiating sexual contracts with 20-something naifs, and think only of Manning’s extraordinarily moreish and utterly compelling Unsticky (currently and unfathomably out of print, but available on eBook). When fashion magazine assistant Grace – in debt, boss from hell, hating everything – is dumped in the hallowed halls of Liberty London by her boyfriend, she is rescued by an older man in a beautiful suit, and their paths intertwine still further once he discovers that she is intelligent, interested, and extremely gifted at fashion, art, and people.
Manning, a longtime magazine journalist herself, brings the world of Skirt (and Grace’s hideous boss) to life beautifully. The pages sing as much as the fashion, but Grace is too interesting to limit her to life as sexy arm candy. This wonderful book has a cult following, and once you roar through it, you’ll be petitioning Manning’s publisher to put a new edition on the shelves. There are too many good lines to underline, too many enjoyable characters – and a lot of fantastic sex.
Buy now £1.99, Amazon.co.uk
‘The Last Romeo’ by Justin Myers, published by Piatkus
Myers built up a cult following as the smart, sardonic (and anonymous) blogger, The Guyliner, whose weekly round-ups of The Guardian’s Blind Dates column regularly went viral. He has now established himself as a popular mainstream columnist, author and critic, but his 2018 debut novel, The Last Romeo, borrows from his own experiences as an undercover writer. James is 34, recently single, and livid that his best friend is moving to Russia, when he decides to get on with it and launch himself into the online dating scene. Bored with his job writing celebrity gossip, he writes up his dates with London’s hottest, strangest, and most underwhelming men on an anonymous blog, and becomes a star in his own right, until a date with a closeted Olympian threatens his livelihood and his sanity. Myers has a wonderful style, but never lets it get in the way of James’s merry chaos through the dating world, and if you wonder how “Romeo” became the last, it’s probably because Myers’s lines are sharp enough to murder.
Buy now £7.19, Hive.co.uk
‘In At The Deep End’ by Kate Davies, published by HarperCollins
When this was published a couple of years ago, you’d think Davies had made a “Best Of” compilation of Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Catherine M, such was the huffing and puffing about how filthy this book was. And yes, there’s loads of sex in it, and yes you will enjoy every minute of it. It’s also screamingly funny, and particularly strong when briskly describing millennial and Gen Z cliques at their most enjoyably ridiculous. Our heroine, Julia, an aspiring dancer turned civil servant hasn’t had sex in three years, and when she gets back in the saddle with an unsatisfying one-night stand, she decides to embrace a side of herself that she has never quite been ready to, and sleep with a female crush. Wouldn’t you know it, Julia finds women quite moreish and soon comes out as lesbian.
Davies has said that she was partly inspired to write this book so that lesbian fiction had some fun and jollity alongside the drama and tragedy of the Radclyffe Hall’s – and while Julia’s relationships are far from all fun and games, In At The Deep End reminds you of how rare it is to see a lesbian front and centre in a romance book. With this excellent book being adapted for television, hopefully we’ll have more Julias, Ellas, and non-binary pals on our shelves.
Buy now £8.36, Bookshop.org
‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen, published by Arcturus Publishing
We know what you’re thinking: why bother reading the book when you’ve seen the BBC TV adaptation about 24 times? Well a) this is a romance book list and b) any list without Lady Catherine de Bourgh is no list at all. Every author, whatever their genre, owes Austen a vast debt, for her plotting, social satire, and incredibly dry put-downs. Every satirical best friend stems from Austen, but wishes they were back in her books. If you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice in a while, do yourself a favour and get stuck in. Every line is perfect, every character recognisable, sometimes horribly so. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett seem the unlikeliest of couples – the fun is in watching them get there, and how they compare among the other couples in their world. They are, of course, the best ones.
Buy now £6.50, Bookshop.org
‘The Wedding Date’ by Jasmine Guillory, published by Headline
A lawyer turned bestselling author, Jasmine Guillory has made a name for herself writing romances themed around weddings (her second novel,The Proposal, was picked for Reese Witherspoon’s book club). If you’d rather hit yourself in the face with a heart-embossed cupcake than read about floral arrangements, don’t panic: there’s salt in amongst the sugar in this tale of how two people with high-powered careers manage to find, and keep each other. Drew, a paediatric surgeon, and Alexa, a mayoral advisor, meet when they’re stuck in a hotel lift that breaks down. Drew impetuously asks Alexa to be his date to a wedding the following day, and they are pleasantly surprised to find their chemistry leads to more. But given they live a plane ride apart, and are both in love with their jobs, can they unbend to find something more with each other?
This smart, funny novel is also astute on the specific microaggressions of interracial dating and being a black person at a majority white event. Alexa draws on her experience of this from attending an Ivy League university to deal with unpleasant wedding guests, and Drew and Alexa’s meet-cute happens while Alexa is en route to celebrate her sister becoming the first black partner at her law firm.
Buy now £8.19, Whsmith.co.uk
‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes, published by Penguin
Moyes’s emotional bestseller about Louisa Clark, a troubled woman who becomes a caretaker for a man rendered quadriplegic after a skiing accident, celebrates its 10th anniversary next year, having sold over 14 million copies and been adapted into a hit film. While its central romance between Lou and her client, Will Traynor, is ostensibly the main relationship, Will’s interest in helping here to achieve her potential and deal with what has been holding her back is even more absorbing. Moyes has written two further instalments of Lou’s story, both bestsellers, and a lockdown short story, cementing the point that romance is all well and good, but you need a lead character to root for. In Lou Clark, we have that in spades.
Buy now £8.99, Waterstones.com
‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ by Casey McQuiston, published by St Martin’s Press
Given the hysteria that greeted the latest series ofThe Crown, you’d be forgiven for turning the pages of McQuiston’s gloriously irreverent royals-meets-politics romance with one eye alert for a protest mob. In McQuiston’s world, a woman is president of the United States, and her mixed-race children, journalist June and aspiring politico Alex, form a high-achieving millennial gang with the vice president’s daughter, helping the adults in charge achieve cachet by proxy. Alex has long considered the Queen of England’s bland, stuffy grandson Henry (cough) Mountchristen-Windsor (more coughing) his nemesis, but when the pair are thrown together after a royal wedding, lust follows.
McQuiston paints a recognisably representative world with a light hand (Alex’s security detail, Amy, is a married trans woman with a knitting habit) and does a shrewd job at depicting how difficult public life would be for a gay royal, while pointing out England’s own gay royal past and how sexuality could be used as political currency to appeal to younger voters. But don’t be fooled into thinking Henry and Alex’s romance is a politics essay come to life: this is tremendous fun with plenty of heart, wit, and friendship, and a lot to say about the unreasonable expectations the public put on their figureheads.
Buy now £12.99, Waterstones.com
The verdict: Romance books
Any of these books is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon lolling on the grass in a park (and perhaps one day, Covid-willing, on a sun lounger) but Rivals will have you ignoring everything around you until you’ve finished the last page.
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Looking for more Austen? Read our review of her best works