The Best Romance Novels

When I was eleven, my two favorite books were…

…Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and The Gift by Danielle Steel. Yes, I was an early reader, and my favorite subject was love. Any book with a falling-in-love element was a book I wanted to read, and romance novels always fit the bill. My mother didn’t censor my reading materials, so I was free to read whatever I wanted as much as I wanted. Up until my senior year of high school, I read one new romance novel per week.

Romance novels were page-turners, they always ended happily, and most important, they were a way for me to be exposed to and explore sexual or erotic thoughts before I was actually ready to talk about them. And unlike other books where the act of sex was either inferred or stated plainly, romance novels introduced me to a whole other language about getting down and dirty. It was a decadent language where your love touching your arm might be described as, “A strong hand, hot with desire, stroking my forearm, and making direct connect with the white hot current running just beneath my skin.”

I loved them.

Still, when I left for college, I donated or packed away the majority of my romance novels. I decided to get serious about the literary merits of real novels and leave what I had been told was a childish attachment to happy endings and heartstrings behind. While I studied the classics as an English major, I mostly avoided the romance genre, but every once in a while I’d indulge and become privately obsessed with some new series. I didn’t talk about these books to anyone except my best friend, but I got so much enjoyment from them.

Then, last year inspired me to do something that was just for me.

I started a romance novel book club. Something in me knew I needed this. In a room full of people who were also suckers for happily-ever-after, I needed to talk about relationships, pleasure and SEX. Now, 10 to 15 brilliant women (and one awesome dude!) meet me at Greenlight Bookstore once a month. These folks range in age from early twenties to fifties, some are writers, some are executives, others are neither, and it may be the most racially diverse group I’ve ever been part of. The only thing we all have in common is our love for the romance novel, and our deep desire to discuss, critique and celebrate the genre.

Because I’m back in the romance reading game, I’m finding there is much more to these books and communities than I’d ever imagined. Just last week, I visited a romance-only bookstore in Los Angeles called The Ripped Bodice. I met Leah Koch, who co-owns the store with her sister, Bea. Leah showed me around the store pointing out all they had to offer, including many, many books with LGBTQ and POC protagonists. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Leah Koch said, “People who are not straight, white and Christian are not adequately represented in romance novels.” Which is something I’d noticed even before visiting their store, but was delighted to find they had already strongly addressed.

Now, I know there are others like me out there, women who are afraid of being taken less seriously because we read romance novels, but let me assure you: that’s bullshit.

Depending on your tastes, here are a few of my faves:

IF YOU LIKE History and spies
READ An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
WHY YOU’LL LOVE IT Set during The Civil War, Elle Burns is a free black woman who returns to the South as a spy for the Union Army, and soon finds herself working with and falling for Malcom McCall, an undercover detective for Pinkerton’s Secret Service. It’s an intense story, but incredibly satisfying.
QUOTE “Her lips were a dusky rose, slightly parted, as if blooming for him, and the sight sent a jolt through him. His mind ceased functioning, and for a moment all that existed for him was her.”

IF YOU LIKE Independent women and family dramas
READ Hate To Want You by Alisha Rai
WHY YOU’LL LOVE IT Olivia Kane and Nicholas Chandler were childhood sweethearts, bound by close family business ties — and their love. Then everything fell apart. Now, they’re both back in their old hometown, and tensions are rising, but so is the heat between them. I’ve read the first two books in Rai’s Forbidden Hearts series, and am eagerly awaiting the third.
QUOTE “You don’t have to trust me completely right now, but watch me. Watch me fight for you this time.”

IF YOU LIKE Stories set in the past that are still hilarious and sexy
READ The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare
WHY YOU’LL LOVE IT I picked up this book on a whim, and it ended up being one of my favorite reads in 2017. Emma Gladstone and The Duke of Ashbury find themselves in a marriage of convenience, but their feelings begin to grow. This book is pure pleasure and hilarity from beginning to end. If you’re looking for something that will affect you, but won’t wring you out to dry, pick up this compelling novel.
QUOTE “’You’re here,’ he repeated, taking her hand and drawing it against his chest, right above his pounding heartbeat. ‘In my heart. Somehow, you crashed your way into it when I wasn’t looking. The same way you barged into my library, I suppose. But you’re here now, inside. Emma, you’re the very life of me.'”

It’s already feeling a little steamier in here, and I like it. And more important, I’m not afraid to say I like it. Do you read romance novels? Share your thoughts in the comments! I can’t wait to hear from you all.

P.S. More about books, including an articles club and the most beautiful thing we ever read.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow.)