A Recovering “Not That Kind of Girl’s” Guide to Reading Romance

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These are just a few of the ways I heard people talking about romance novels growing up, and I internalized that message. I scoffed at my friend’s mom who read romance by the paper bag full and stacked them all over their house (sorry Mrs. G.). Simultaneously I devoured books by authors like Mercedes Lackey where the elements of romance were only veiled by where the librarian placed them on the shelf. I sought out love stories in fantasy and science fiction like I was dying of thirst in the desert. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I read a romance on purpose.

Once I started to read romance I questioned everything I had internalized about these books. I ended up questioning my own feminism and my relationship to femininity. I nurtured my newfound love of romance novels with a job at a bookstore that basically sent me home with free paperbacks to be “recycled” almost every week. My classmates and I passed the books around, some reading ironically and some sharing their favorite authors and unabashedly loving romance. I’m writing this article for myself, for the me who had been sold the messages that romance books were inherently bad, that they were all the same, and that they were not worth my time.

According to the Romance Writers of America there are two qualities that a book must have to be a romance novel; the main plot must center on a love story, and that it ends happily. That’s a really wide umbrella, really more of a circus tent. You’ll note that that umbrella doesn’t say that the romance has to be straight, white, or just between two people. This allows for a more diverse genre. Romance spans a multitude of sub-genres and there’s a niche for everyone. There’s fantasy romance, cowboy romance, erotic dystopian science fiction romance, and romance set in every era of history. Here are a few recommendations for some of the more popular sub-genres to get you started.

Contemporary Romance

Basically, this is a giant subgenre that includes any romance set in the time period in which it was written. Everything from motorcycle clubs and romantic suspense, to sweet small towns where everyone owns a bakery and gossips about whose cousin was seen kissing the new girl in town.

Contemporary romances that I would recommend include…

A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole – a PhD student studying epidemics learns that she was betrothed to a prince as a toddler, a prince with a mysterious illness plaguing his country.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne – Office rivalry becomes office romance.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang – Autistic heroine hires a male escort to teach her how to date.

Historical Romance

Historicals can be set anywhere and in any era, however, some time periods have captured the imagination of romance authors and readers more than others.

For many decades romances set in the early 19th century England have been the most popular of all the historical periods. These are called regencies, referring to the era where King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son served as Prince Regent (1811-1820), however the romance version stretches out the timeline. Think high-waisted dresses and Jane Austen.

The American West is another popular time and place for historical romance. Think Cowboys and mail order brides. In recent years romances set in the Victorian and Edwardian periods have become more popular. These were times of massive cultural change and many of the authors writing in these time periods use that cultural shift as a pivotal element of their stories.

A regency romance I recommend would be I’ve Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm by Kelly Bowen. A woman who faked her own death helps other women escape abusive marriages in secret, but she needs help with her next rescue. A down on his luck military veteran is exactly what she needs to rescue an innocent girl from the clutches of the man she barely escaped.

Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins is everything that is good about American Westerns. The hero is a rich tavern owner and he’s falling in love with the determined and independent cook he rescued from the desert. Problem is, he’s passing as white.

Paranormal/Sci-fi/Fantasy Romance

In the romance world these all get treated like separate genres, but if you are like me and grew up reading SFF all you need to know is that Paranormals are the kissing cousins of Urban Fantasy with elements of mystery, suspense, and leather pants along with elves and vampires. Sci-fi romance can be hard to find these days, but I think it is due a revival. Fantasy romance is most common in YA romance, but that’s more of a guideline than a rule.

Nalini Singh’s books are a little bit fantasy, a little bit paranormal, and a little bit sci-fi. She’s a master world-builder and each book follows a couple so you don’t have to read multiple books to get that satisfying conclusion. I recommend starting with Slave to Sensation.

Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik is the first in a sci-fi romance trilogy and the only thing I didn’t like about it was that the next book isn’t out yet. 

For me, reading romance has become a safe port in a world that seems like it is always stormy. I know that in the end I will have that happy ending and the story is all about how you get to that point. Romance is not only the assurance that everything will be alright in the end, but it is a place where the wants and needs of women are valued and important. A place where I can say “I am that kind of girl” with pride. I encourage you to pick up one of these romances (or another one, I won’t be offended) and fall in love with books about love.

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