Romance novel reading has always been intensely personal for me, and I think that’s true for a lot of people. Pleasure reading can be highly subjective regardless of what genre the book is, but it seems that romance readers have a particular affinity for certain tropes, characters, and situations, and will avoid others like the plague. This is one reason I almost exclusively read romances based on friends’ recommendations, not strangers’ reviews – a romance novel can be technically very well-written and just what some readers are looking for, but if it doesn’t have some of my favorite ingredients, chances are I won’t enjoy it. So consider this my top ten list of recommendations, if you are into a few of the same things I am when it comes to your romances: smart women with jobs, confident men, sex-positivism, secrets, revenge, witty banter, humor, sizzling chemistry, and at least a little overt feminism.
10. Blue-Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas
This is the only contemporary romance on my list, mainly because it’s one of the few that I’ve read. I’ve read a lot of Kleypas historicals, and I like most of them, but this is the first romance novel I’ve read that makes me want to read more contemporaries, which is quite a feat. It’s set in Texas but is not about cowboys, so the details of the setting were a real treat for me. It’s also the first romance novel I’ve read told entirely in first person from one person’s perspective (the heroine, Haven). The first part of the book chronicles her abusive first marriage, and it is really hard to read, but it makes her growth and ability to move beyond it and love again all the more satisfying. I really appreciated getting away from the historical romance fixation upon virginity (always something that’s annoyed me about the genre, having to marry someone because you’ve slept with them is not a trope I enjoy) and reading a love story that seemed like it could actually happen. There are some great realistic family and friend relationships as well. Kleypas also has some really great lines.
9. The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas
Sherry Thomas’ books have some of the best writing in romance. This is quite a feat, considering English is not even her first language. With a Thomas book, you’re guaranteed to find perfectly evocative sentences and challenging word choices; hers are the most literary romances I’ve read. The Luckiest Lady in London is my favorite of hers. The conflict is an internal one (no romantic suspense here), driven by two characters learning about each other and how to love each other. It’s got Bridgerton-esque banter with a bit more of an edge, and the interactions between the hero and heroine feel taut, like at any moment they could either start shouting at each other or tearing each other’s clothes off – or maybe both. Thomas made me believe entirely in their initial attraction to each other and the love that eventually develops.
8. Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare
I like most of Tessa Dare’s books that I’ve read, but it’s rare that I love one. This is my favorite of hers. It’s a common story in historical romance – titled man and untitled woman fall in love, must come to terms with their different social stations, eventually figure things out and live happily ever after. But Dare writes the journey well, and her hero has just the right amount of arrogance to be slightly annoying but not insufferable. Her heroine takes no shit and isn’t ashamed of being a serving girl. The setup for the story is also a lot of fun: Griff is being pressured by his mother to get married and agrees to pick a bride from the women in “Spinster Cove.” To taunt his mother, he picks Pauline, the serving girl, and his mother goes along with the game, agreeing to give her “duchess lessons.” Griff tells Pauline he’ll pay her a load of cash if she deliberately fails the training and his mother insists he drop her. This will allow Pauline to open a bookshop, so she agrees. Of course, they fall in love instead. This is just a fun, well-written, sex-positive romance.
7. An Offer From a Gentleman by Julia Quinn
This is Julia Quinn’s take on Cinderella, always my favorite fairy tale, and it’s just wonderful. I appreciate the fact that Benedict, the hero, doesn’t decide right away to give his society the middle finger and marry Sophie, the servant he’s fallen in love with. Initially, he wants her to be his mistress, which does make him look like a dick – but it also grounds the book a bit in its time period, making it less of a fantasy and more of a story where the characters have to grapple with real situations and problems. Of course, there is the marriage and happily ever after in the end.
6. The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan
Jane Fairfield is socially awkward, wears outrageous clothes, and has a laugh that makes people want to cover their ears. She does all this on purpose – she wants to make sure anyone interested in marrying her stays far, far away. She has her reasons. Oliver Marshall is politically ambitious, and when a powerful person tells him to humiliate Jane in return for a political favor, he takes the bait – at least initially. These are two complex characters – Jane exaggerates her social awkwardness, but she also does have an astonishing laugh and loves her ridiculous clothes, and she’s in real danger; Oliver wants desperately to use the political system to make poorer people’s lives better, but he’s at risk of compromising his ideals to do so. This is a historical romance novel with almost as much history as romance (Oliver’s political troubles mirror what was really going on at the time), and it has a lovely B-romance featuring a man of Indian descent. It’s also one of Milan’s funniest books – Jane’s deliberate social missteps are a riot.
5. Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart by Sarah MacLean
Juliana Fiorini is considered a walking scandal in rules-conscious upper-crust British Victorian society. She’s of Italian ancestry with an Italian accent, so she started off at a disadvantage. She tried to fit in for a while, but eventually decided it was pointless. Her hero in this novel is Simon, a Duke who disdains anyone who cannot follow the rules – like Juliana. In fact, he’s called the Duke of Disdain because this is what he is known for. He makes appearances in the previous novels in this series, and he does not come off looking good. This is a common trope in romance novels – opposites attract; the two leads find in each other exactly what they thought they didn’t want. MacLean writes it really well. I appreciated this novel for the heroine who accepts who she is (eventually) and the hero who is more than what he seems on the surface – there’s a reason for the disdain. The heroine doesn’t change him, but she does bring out the better parts of his nature. In a good partnership, that’s what should happen. Like all MacLean books, there are misunderstandings and other stumbling blocks on the way to happiness, but the journey is a joy to read and the happily ever after eminently satisfying.
4. A Kiss for Midwinter by Courtney Milan (novella)
I normally stay away from novellas, but this one is so good. I read it during my initial Courtney Milan kick, when I was devouring everything she had written that I could find. Milan’s books are some of the most obviously feminist and this gem of a novella is no exception. Jonas Grantham is a doctor who advocates for birth control in a time when such things were considered obscene. Lydia Grantham is a young woman who saw Grantham’s mentor-doctor when she was a pregnant teen; this older doctor gave her medicine that ended her pregnancy against her wishes, and Lydia remembers the younger doctor who sat by and did nothing. Now, Jonas is overcome with feelings of guilt, and Lydia strives to put on a cheerful front, and of course when the two meet again, they fall in love – after significant misunderstandings and forgiveness. It’s a story about reproductive rights without being message-driven, and the romance is just lovely.
3. The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan
This is a book about a smart woman who is only able to do the work she does by allowing the credit to be taken by a man (the novel that occupies the top spot on this list has this trope as well, after a fashion; clearly it’s one that resonates with me). Violet is a countess from a bad marriage; thankfully her husband is now dead. She’s had a long-term partnership with her good friend Sebastian, who takes the credit for her scientific research so it can be published and taken seriously. He has intense feelings of guilt over this. Like in all my favorite romance novels, the hero genuinely respects the heroine’s mind and wishes the rest of the world would, too. Violet knows that Sebastian harbors romantic feelings for her beyond their friendship, but due to damage from her marriage and Sebastian’s reputation, she doesn’t let herself develop the same feelings (at least in the beginning; this is a romance novel, after all). Like the other heroes from my top five romance novels, Sebastian is an alpha without being domineering – he’s assertive, confident, respectful, and a listener. And I love that Milan has written us a historical romance novel featuring a female scientist (her book is dedicated to several of these real-life women).
2. When He Was Wicked by Julia Quinn
While my number one book takes its top spot fairly easily, this is not a distant second. I don’t think it’s necessary to be able to relate to a character to really enjoy a novel, but in romance, I always love the books most where I can see at least a part of myself in the heroine. Francesca Bridgerton was married to a man she loved, and then he died, and When He Was Wicked is the story about her grief, recovery, and finding love again. Normally I avoid really sad romances (and this one is sad; Francesca genuinely loved her first husband), and I didn’t love this one much when I first read it as a teenager. But as an adult, it really resonated with me. Not because of the loss, but rather because of how Francesca handles her emotions. She’s more closed-off than the rest of her siblings, who tend to be pretty verbose and demonstrative and open. She feels things just as deeply, but she prefers to keep these feelings a bit more under wraps. She’s not a sharer. It can be harder to get to know who she really is. As readers, of course, we’re privy to her innermost thoughts and feelings, but it can be tricky for other characters to know. As someone who occasionally comes across as cold, I get Francesca. And of course, the romance between her and Michael is lovely – they’ve been friends for ages, and Michael has loved her for ages, but he’s her first husband’s cousin and there are so many guilty feelings swirling over their developing affection. When Francesca finally allows herself to love him and admit that she loves him, it is one of the best scenes Julia Quinn has ever written.
1. Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah MacLean
While some of the other books may drop further down (or off) the list at some point, I think this one will always remain in the number one position. It is a practically perfect romance novel that ticks all of my boxes. It features a heroine with an incredible amount of power – but power she must keep hidden, power she must pretend belongs to someone who doesn’t actually exist. She’s underestimated and overlooked. She’s known only for her biggest mistake, but she’s stronger than anyone realizes. So this book is about pushing back against society’s strictures, but also pushing back against your own personal limitations. It’s about being strong enough to be on your own, but also wanting someone to share your life. The hero is staggeringly non-judgmental for his time (he falls in love with the heroine when he believes she is a prostitute), respects her decisions, but also is far from a beta. The storyline features revenge and mistaken identities and great male-female friendships and hot sex. It is a perfect book.