The 10 Best Romance Books
This wiki has been updated 31 times since it was first published in December of 2015. Get ready to curl up in your favorite armchair in front of the fire or stretch out on your trusty beach blanket under the sun. These romance books contain tales of love, honor, heroism, and betrayal, and are set throughout history, including modern times. We've selected books suitable for young readers and adults, most of which will require a box of tissues, a pint of ice cream, and/or some wine. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
January 21, 2020:
While there are tons of classics that are more than worthy of recommendation for this list, authors are always adding new, compelling entries to the romance genre, and so we sought to strike a balance between the two.
While Love in the Time of Cholera is beautifully written and thought-provoking, it deals with themes and characters that feel dated by today's standards. We decided to swap it for another well-loved classic, The Thorn Birds. Coming in at nearly 700 pages, this novel is a sweeping family saga that explores difficult emotions and situations, as well as gives incredible insight into the isolation, unpredictability, and back-breaking labor involved with farming.
And while we love The Scarlet Letter and think it more than deserves its spot on school reading lists across the country, it lacks the romantic aspect that many people crave and instead deals with burdens taken on as a result of love. We decided to add the enormously popular and similarly tragic Me Before You in its place, as it deals more with the couple involved and less the day to day of one character who lives in social isolation.
We removed The Japanese Lover in favor of the lighthearted The Hating Game, which is the epitome of a beach read. Its funny and breezily written, and offers interesting takes on the competition that can arise between partners and how to prioritize a career and a relationship when one threatens to damage the other.
If you like to have a touch of magic woven into your love stories, then Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" and Matchmaking for Beginners are solid choices. For those who want something a bit more mystical, you'll want to look at our list of paranormal romance books.
In Favor Of Formula
It's often thought of more as a war novel than a love story, even though the love story is the heart that pumps the blood through its pages.
How many plots are there? Really. Some folks say three, some say seven, or six, or thirteen. However many there are, the number seems rather small, which leads me to believe that there are formulas at work from the outset.
Boy meets girl is the simplest of formulas, into which you can insert any number of variables to spin your tale. It's also the one that concerns us most directly in looking at the romance novel.
Some authors work toward their romances with another formulaic consideration in mind, and in doing so, they often get to deeper themes, more evocative scenarios, and a true and potent romance. In short, they get to better writing.
That other formulaic consideration is a desire in the protagonist that is not the love story. Take, for example, one of the finest works of fiction in the world, For Whom the Bell Tolls. It's often thought of more as a war novel than a love story, even though the love story is the heart that pumps the blood through its pages.
That's because Robert Jordan, the book's protagonist, doesn't desire love at the outset. He has an entirely different objective that not only carries him into his love affair, it eventually threatens it.
He wants to survive the war and defeat the Fascists. Plain and simple, until she arrives in the picture. Then, he still wants to survive the war and defeat the Fascists, but now he wants to do so to be with her and to keep her safe.
Weaker novels tend to introduce the love story and to live in it as the only source of desire and conflict for the characters. Other considerations are tertiary and exist to flesh out a world and a tone without deepening its characters the way a true conflict does.
Good romance novels are at their best when the characters are already pursuing deep desires in their lives by the time they meet and begin to fall in love. The love becomes the complication in their search for something else, and that make for interesting, layered fiction.
A Whole Stack Of Options
I love a good love story. I do. I'm a sucker, a sap, a hopeless romantic. But I disdain bad writing.
One of the things a good love story will do well is lead you to believe, to worry and fret over the possibility, that the lovers might not make it. Shakespeare went and got all of us primed for tragic endings when he wrote Romeo & Juliet.
Since then, even the most stable of love stories seems like it could end horribly at any minute, and the more anxiety a writer can elicit, the more we find ourselves longing the way the lovers do for a happy ending.
That's good writing: there's this whole other story going on–oh, and by the way, these people are desperately trying to be in love in the middle of it all.
Myriad romance novels have that element about them, that fear that external circumstances are going to destroy the chance for this love to endure. But that doesn't mean they're each created equal, and each of these tomes falls pretty heavily into one of a few unique subcategories.
In selecting which of these books to crack open and commit several days and hours of your life to, you'll want to ask yourself a few simple questions to see which subcategory will please you the most.
How are you with violence? Do you hate it in all of its forms? Then you'll want to go for books that avoid war and conflict so as to sidestep explicitly violent acts.
Do you know what BDSM stands for? Do you enjoy light amounts of physical pain? If it's no on both fronts, you might skip over books that champion that type of erotica, at least for now.
How about history? If you like a good historical setting, or a story that can span time through a number of historical events, then period novels will surely please.
Notice how these questions have little to do with the romance itself? That's good writing: there's this whole other story going on–oh, and by the way, these people are desperately trying to be in love in the middle of it all.
The First Novel Was An Epic Romance
It's widely believed that the first novel, or at least the first modern novel, in human history was The Tale Of Genji, or Genji Monogatari, written by Murasaki Shikibu in early 11th century Japan.
After his mother, the concubine, dies, the emperor takes a new lover who greatly resembles Genji's mother, and with whom Genji falls in love.
It's a sprawling, magnificent work of fiction that is as fascinating for its breadth as it is for its consistency in handling over 400 characters spanning several generations.
It also happens to be a great work of epic romance. The story follows Genji, the son of the emperor and a favored concubine. After his mother, the concubine, dies, the emperor takes a new lover who greatly resembles Genji's mother, and with whom Genji falls in love.
Of course, such a love is taboo on several counts, and their inability to be with one another fuels a tumultuous life of desperate love affairs, political misconduct, banishment, and redemption for the protagonist.
Frankly, it sounds like something that could be written today and do very, very well.