Ah, Romance

I saw a publishing headline earlier this month which mentioned that the number of romance novels being sold was rising during the global pandemic, citing their typical “happy ending” as something that readers were finding extra appealing right now. Now? Had we previously been seeking stories with a dark ending? Surely I would have noticed that headline.

The romance publishing world isn’t just pages of clever “meet cutes” and happily ever afters – known as “HEA”. It’s slowly becoming a reflection of the readers who love to read the genre. Romance fans have used their social media power to demand that their treasured genre include more diverse characters and ensure that we are no longer limited to seeing a girl-hopes-to-meets-boy world on the pages. Our new book orders regularly include powerful stories of girl meets girl, boy meets boy, with princes, librarians, spies, werewolves and cowboys all in the glorious mix!

Start with a guaranteed good read and pick up Abby Jimenez’ Friend Zone. Kristen Peterson runs an independent business selling accessories for small dogs (her dog is named Stuntman Mike) and is very busy being an incredible maid of honour to her best friend, Sloan. Romance is not on her mind when she meets Josh Copeland, the best man, and she is happy to have a new friend who gets her sense of humour, enjoys the same movies and shares her passion for food. When she senses that their friendship could turn into something romantic she is an absolute mess because he seems like he could be the one but he wants a big family and she isn’t able to have children. This is a contemporary romance with a believable friendship between Kristen and Sloan which is almost as sweet as the romance she builds with Josh. Kristen is funny and easy to care about, exactly the loyal friend anyone would want by their side as they plan a wedding or manage a boutique dog business. The author promised that she would write a companion novel to expand on Sloan’s story and she has with The Happy Ever After Playlist. Two great choices for your TBR list.

Also a contemporary romance but a re-telling of a beloved 1813 classic is Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable. Reading updates of Jane Austen can be a treat but I rarely read one so clever and sharp that it made me walk to the bookshelf and take out my original copy for a comparison re-read. Kamal’s version has Alysba Binat, the second daughter in a family of five opinionated sisters, living in 2001 Pakistan. Their dialogue is so funny I couldn’t help but stay up far into the morning to finish it. She meets her Mr. Darcy – Valentine Darsee – at a wedding where her mother is determined to parade her daughters in front of all eligible bachelors. Their first meeting goes as well as you might expect. That chapter is not to be missed – gorgeous, cinematic description of the clothing and setting, and anyone who has had the misfortune of being in an uncomfortable conversation among relatives at a party will cringe while they read it and love it. The romance between Alysba and Valentine follows a predictable but entertaining path we all know, with troublesome sisters and the added friction of cultural expectations making it an absolutely wonderful read.

Weddings are central to the plot of so many satisfying romance novels and are an important part of Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test. It’s the sequel to her best seller, The Kiss Quotient, and features the same warm family dynamic with much teasing among cousins and siblings. The Bride Test has Esme Tran traveling from Vietnam to the U.S. to meet, and hopefully marry, Khai Diep because his mother has grown so very tired of waiting for him to find a wife. Most sons would find this frustrating, to put it mildly, but Khai is aware that he has always had difficulty with emotions so he goes along with his mother’s plans if she agrees to never interfere again. Esme and Khai connect over their shared feelings of “otherness” – she, of being mixed-race and uneducated and he, diagnosed with autism and living alone. Some of their mistakes are just painful to read, making it easy to hope that things will work out for this terrific couple, but the rising tension of wondering whether the obstacles might just be too much makes the ending that much more interesting. If you aren’t one of the readers who made Hoang’s first novel a best seller you should grab it (in book, eBook and eAudiobook) and enjoy getting to know Stella Lane and Michael Phan, and catch a glimpse of Khai. Even more exciting news… the third book featuring characters from this group of friends will come out in August. We can all look forward to reading The Heart Principle.

Often the friends can be the most compelling part of a romance novel. Not that the central love story isn’t great. It is. But if those main characters don’t have a supporting cast of great companions then the story falls flat and I end up returning it early. It’s just hard to believe that anyone would fall in love with a person if they don’t have a companion or two to boost their spirits when they discover that their one and only has a secret baby, has been hiding their true identity, or was-just-pretending-to-fall-for-them-at-first-and-has-now-really-fallen-for-them. It takes an author with a sense of humour, or a team of authors, to write that kind of romance and here are two for you to try.

In the category of romance with a side of hilarious I nominate Christina Lauren’s My Favorite Half-night Stand. Christina Lauren is the pen name for two women who have been writing together since the 2009 and have been on every “best of” list more than once. In My Favorite Half-night Stand they feature a group of academics who have been struggling with dating for years. When they find that they will have to bring plus-ones to a formal faculty event they agree that the way to solve the problem is to try online dating.

Their first attempts are terrible but oh so funny. Their solution is to write profiles for one another and coach each other through the dating process. When Millie Morris, the only woman in the group, sets up a fictional persona and finds that she is matched with one of the friends, Reid Campbell, she finds that she is able to be more “herself” than she has ever been before. She has to decide whether the chance of letting their romance build is worth spoiling their fabulous friendship.

The authors get full marks for the way they write the scenes between Millie and Reid but the group dynamic between this longtime group of people who work at the same university is one of my favourites. They have written novels in a series before where the characters feature in each other’s lives and I would be happy to see any of Millie’s friends again. Any Christina Lauren book is worth a read as is the 2015 novel which was team-written by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. The Royal We is their take on the royal romance of Will and Kate and features a superb group of mates who support them in their university years, the rocky months before they marry and the stress-filled days before their world-famous wedding. The sequel, The Heir Affair, is due to be published this summer.

Another friendship-filled romance hit our shelves last year and it’s almost as if the author had spun the wheel of romance tropes, picked out as many as they could, and managed to successfully wedge them into an irresistible novel. In Red, White and Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston has characters from the U.S. first family falling in love with the British royal family. Their love story begins as a false friendship to satisfy voters – turning into a real romance. It starts through letters (well, texts and emails) before it builds into something more and they have to fight for their love even though family members disapprove. I think that is five classic hits but there are several more before it ends – romance novel perfection!

Alex Claremont-Diaz is the first son of the U.S. President and Prince Henry is the heir to the throne when they get into a slightly drunken tussle at a wedding involving the destruction of a $75,000 cake. To prevent an “international incident” they are forced to spend time together at several staged events and romance builds. Alex’s mother is running for presidential re-election but they still manage some steamy visits at a polo match, a karaoke bar, the Royal Box at Wimbledon and a New Year’s Eve ball with a marvelous set of siblings, friends and personal protection officers along for the ride. The political drama has a bigger role in the second half of the novel, making this charming romance read like “The West Wing” with witty pop culture references. I would watch THAT television show.

This is a smattering of more recent splendid, emotion-filled romantic stories available to you through the library. I’m just scratching the surface here and haven’t even touched on the thrill of paranormal romances, the grandeur of historical romance, romance novels with a spiritual belief that is integral to the story, or the long list of fabulous love stories written for young adults but every one of them scratches the itch of taking you on that swoon-worthy journey with a satisfying ending. Books in this genre take up a large part of the publishing market, second only to general fiction, because people just love a happy ending. Let’s all look forward to more of those.

— Penny M.