The 10 Best Romance Books
10. The Fault in Our Stars
9. The Rosie Project
8. The Japanese Lover
7. The Shoemaker's Wife
6. The Scarlet Letter
5. Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander"
4. Matchmaking for Beginners
3. Love in the Time of Cholera
2. Pride and Prejudice
1. For Whom the Bell Tolls
In Favor Of Formula
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. For example, our number one book is one of the finest works of fiction in the world. 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.
All of the books in our top five 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 five 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? You want to go for number five, as all the other books deal, in one way or another, with 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 number two, 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 numbers one, three, and four 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.
It's a sprawling, magnificent work of fiction that is as fascinating for its breadth as is it 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.