I have always loved books with kissing in them, but for most of my adulthood I was told these books weren’t worth serious consideration.
I grew up devouring young adult romance, loving writers like Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen, but lost touch with romance novels as teachers encouraged me to read things they deemed more appropriate and “more challenging.” (A sentiment echoed by other adults in my life.) By my early 20s, I’d fully bought into the idea that only “literary” works merited attention — a gatekeeper phrase that’s difficult to define, and biased toward an unchanging historical library of Western-canon classics. Outside of those novels, I was recommended books that dealt with heavy subject matter, suggesting sadness over joy as a primary marker of value and heft.
I do love many of those classics, and I love books in general. But I also got fed up with the social norms that led me to gatekeep my own tastes. A few years ago, I dove into romance novels again with absolute delight, eager to find what I lost. My interest was piqued by a local bookstore, The Ripped Bodice — during the bookshop’s third-year anniversary celebration, I spied a line of people wrapping around the block. I hadn’t even known there was a bookstore in my neighborhood, and couldn’t resist joining in. I had no clue about what I was going to buy — what was even happening in romance these days? Where was I supposed to (re)start? Luckily, I struck up conversation with other people in the line, and they kindly offered me a ton of recommendations. They quite literally cheered me on. I walked out of the Ripped Bodice with a big stack of books in my hands, and I have not looked back since.
I’m so glad I ran into that line, years ago. Since then, I’ve found stability, comfort, and wonder in curling up with a good romance. They’re a perfect diversion from the endless to-do’s of everyday life, and a space where I can anticipate things will end happily. That’s been especially valuable during the stress of the past two years, when it’s been particularly worth buckling in for a good ride into escapism. Perhaps on this Valentine’s Day you’d like to join me?
Why you should read romance
Romance novels prioritize a main character’s well-being, desires, passions, and joys as they seek out love. You might know that romances are known for their “happily ever after” (or as fans of romance put it, HEA) endings. It’s an immense comfort, especially when things are difficult in real life, to know that a main character’s needs will be met. This is what I’ve gotten out of that HEA: the promise that we all deserve romantic companionship, that finding love is possible, desirable, and life-altering. Why should we pretend any of these things aren’t true, or that we don’t want them?
The protagonists of romance novels are largely women — and in a broader entertainment landscape that, until fairly recently, was largely focused on male protagonists, it’s meaningful to dive into worlds where women’s desires are taken seriously. In romance novels, the process of falling in love involves a lot of introspection: Protagonists figure out what they need from a partner on an intimate level, but they also have to consider how a partner fits into their life. This includes taking careers into account, as well as the cities where they live, and their friends and family. In romance novels, “the search for contentment and happiness is given a lot of importance and weight,” says Leah Koch, co-owner of The Ripped Bodice, that very same romance bookstore in Los Angeles.
Romance is an incredibly fun genre, and reading about people falling in love is a joy. Through reading romance, I’ve swooned over people falling in love in tropical destinations, small cozy towns, pirate ships, floating houses, or even while stuck in an elevator. There are tropes and themes for any reader: I’ve read a queer historical romance starring a printing-press owner and a beekeeper; a contemporary novel about an autistic woman falling in love with an escort; a version of The Bachelor where the star is plus-sized; one about a PhD candidate getting an actual non-spam email from the prince of a fictional African country; and a series of Indian American Jane Austen retellings. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Romance is rapidly evolving to fit a wide variety of increasingly specific audiences. Some of my favorite contemporary romances explore how hard it is to form meaningful relationships in the dating-app age, and what it means to find love despite a busy career. Others make space for their characters to work through intergenerational trauma, prior abuse, or navigating mental illness. Even historical romances — where marriage is more explicitly tied to a woman’s livelihood — have explored topics like suffrage and academic pursuits. Knowing the protagonist will find support through these events is an immense well of stability and comfort for readers.
“One of the things that’s really evolved in romance over the past two to three decades is what happily-ever-after looks like,” Koch tells Polygon. “It used to be marriage and a baby. Now, I think it’s more literal: You just have to be happy. That could be deciding to get a dog together, or moving in, or oftentimes, it’s just the verbalization of commitment. Sometimes, it’s a different commitment, because you have romances with ethically non-monogamous couples, and they’re going to be together, but also going to date other people. It’s become so much more expansive.”
Which romance books to start with
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of free time must be in want of a good book recommendation.
If you’ve never read romance before, a good place to start is by considering the types of genres, tropes, or characters you typically prefer, then using those as jumping-off points. From there, you can start to build out a preference within the romance genre specifically.
“We always want to recommend something that’s not totally dissimilar from what you already like to read,” Koch says, noting that readers should feel equally welcome to try something totally different. “But especially if you’re new to the genre, you may want to read something that already appeals to you. So if you’re a history buff, if you like reading a lot of historical fiction, you might go toward historical. If you normally read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi, you’ll want to go toward paranormal fantasy romance. And if you really don’t know, contemporary is always the best place to start, because there’s just less of a knowledge barrier, you’re not trying to frantically look up what ‘the ton’ is.”
As you read more, you may surprise yourself with the scenarios you often return to — and you’ll start to pick up on your tastes, including many of the fun tropes. This was one of the most rewarding parts of my own experience: learning exactly which tropes inspired a reread, and talking to others about their favorites. It’s incredibly subjective. Apparently, I love the “enemies-to-lovers” trope, but only when I feel characters have a legitimate reason for having disliked each other. I typically don’t like when someone’s thorniness is just a fixed part of their personality, which occasionally turns me away from “grumpy-meets-sunshine” tropes.
In addition to simply asking yourself, “What do I like to read in general?” Koch also mentioned making sure to evaluate comfort with how steamy a romance is. “There’s a whole spectrum,” she says. In some books, the characters “never touch each other on the page,” while other books are highly explicit. And of course there’s a ton of middle ground. Romance is a safe, private place to be shamelessly horny and explore kinks. Enjoy fantasy worlds where adult characters have learned that magic can be pleasurable and enhance intimacy — or maybe you’re more interested in a cozy revenge-comedy story of two witches falling in love over tea and conspiring. Lust after a buff male nanny. Or fall in love with a biromantic ace woman who finds fulfillment in purely emotional connections instead of physical ones.
Most of all, romance is to be enjoyed, and there’s a ton of it out there to try. “We try to remind people this is a really big genre,” Koch says. When you find the books that click with you, it’s well worth the trip. You might just find yourself reading and rereading your favorites.
Resources to help you get started
Diving into a new genre can be intimidating, but there are a wide variety of lists and recommendation platforms to help you find your new favorites.
First, I’d recommend subscribing to your local bookstore’s newsletter, and checking whether they recommend romance. There are also a number of romance-dedicated bookstores with excellent onsite lists or newsletters, including The Ripped Bodice, Meet Cute, and Love’s Sweet Arrow, among others. They’re also worth following on social media, along with romance authors whose works you enjoy.
The romance-blogging scene is also thriving, and these dedicated readers do an excellent job of highlighting what’s coming out. The romance review site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has a book finder, which allows readers to select books based on theme and archetype. (They also have a podcast, which is great for recommendations.) “WOC In Romance” highlights excellent reads from authors of color. And if you do most of your book discovery over social media, there are tons of Bookstagrammers, BookTubers, and BookTokers worth following. Often, after you follow one, the algorithm will recommend others.
Publications like Book Riot, Epic Reads, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub — among other book-centric places — do a great job of curating lists of romance recommendations. I’m also a big fan of NPR’s annual “Books We Love,” which has “love stories” as a sortable category. Lots of these places also offer great newsletters — I particularly like BuzzFeed’s books one, which breaks out their romance section. And if you’re searching by trope specifically, Goodreads has lists dedicated to particular tropes, along with lists curated by other users.
There’s also subscription boxes, which bring romance books to your doorstep. The Ripped Bodice has one; and there’s also one called The Bookworm Box, started by popular romance (and other genres) writer Colleen Hoover.
It all started with my own little love story, between a woman and a bookstore. I hope this helps you, dear reader, find your way into a genre that has meant so much to me, and maybe start an affair with romance yourself.