If you read a lot of contemporary romance, you may have noticed that the trend right now seems to be spectacular out of the box hooks, and giant, film-sized plots. As someone who loves television, let me tell you, a book that feels like a movie? I’m in. Sure, I can suspend reality for a little while and get pulled away by these wild set-ups. Zany meet cutes, celebrities falling for the girl next door, finding the love of your life on your local major league baseball team—are you not entertained?! And then there’s the possibility that the book gets optioned for an actual movie, because it’s just that big, and you get to experience it twice!
But there’s something else I love just a little more, and that’s a story that could just as easily star your best friend rather than Jennifer Aniston. I live for a story that feels like a Monday morning recap from one of your best friends about this new guy they met. A quiet romance. Something real that could happen to someone I know. There’s something so swoony about a quiet love story that happens in a world just like the one I live in, where instead of a giant hook, it’s more of finger curl bringing me into a conversation I can relate to. My friends and I are all married now, so I don’t get a lot of chances to hear about new love over brunch or spend late nights dishing over the inevitable ‘what do you think he meant?’ of a new relationship. That’s why I read romance. For those butterfly feelings I remember. And when I read one that has that nostalgic ‘oh yeah that happened to someone I know’ feeling, it’s a little extra special. There’s always something to be said for the fairytale, but there’s a beauty in the nitty gritty of realistic encounters.
Some of the quieter romances I’ve stumbled upon have gone down as favs because of that relatability. So if you’re looking for a romance that feels like that post-hook-up call from a friend, here are some recommendations:
Beginner’s Luck Series by Kate Clayborn
This is a three-book series and I’ve devoured the first two. I’m currently reading the third after hitting that one-click buy button before the epilogue was even done on the second. I love this series and it’s exactly what I mean by a quiet, real romance. There is an overarching hook to this series that is pretty bold, but that just sets the stage. Each individual story is about something different, something normal, and something overwhelmingly relatable.
The first book is about Kit and Ben. He’s a recruiter, she’s a sought-after talent for his firm, and there’s some competing motivations. Nothing crazy about that. It’s a take on a workplace romance that feels fresh and new, while also familiar in that I definitely know people in real life who have met and fallen in love through their careers. There’s nothing huge about this hook and that’s what’s so great! It’s the inner conflict that really drives this story—emotional walls that are slowly broken down, and excellently-drawn, real characters. I felt for Kit and Ben so strongly because I know people who have experienced those kinds of issues in relationships and when I read a romance, I want to understand where the characters are coming from just as much as I want to be entertained.
The second book is Zoe and Aiden, and though there is a fake dating trope here (one of my favorites) and we don’t see a lot of real world instances of needing to pretend to be engaged to someone, the way the story played out still felt entirely real world. Again, though the plot had some high stakes it was never out of the realm of possibility for the average person. We’ve all wanted something so badly we’ve been unwilling to see the forest for the trees, and ultimately, this story relied on that inner conflict much more than it did its biggest plot points. I know a Zoe. A lot of people know a Zoe. And Aiden’s backstory was just so realistic in the way it held him back and affected his relationships, that his character arc could have been set in the middle of a trip to Target and we still would have felt satisfied by his transformation.
Floored by Melanie Harlow
Like the last, this book is part of a series where each of the women in this tight friend group gets their own love story. The set up for this one is Erin’s house is broken into and the cop (the kind that might give you a speeding ticket, not SWAT, special forces, or CIA) who responds to the scene is someone she knows from her childhood, and not pleasantly. They reconnect and try to get to know the grown up versions of themselves and fall in love doing it. That’s it. No one is trying to kill them (I say this with love because I read and enjoy plenty of suspense) and no major outside conflict is keeping them apart. It’s just a story about making up for past wrongs, overcoming previous judgments, and finding love in unexpected places. Like Beginner’s Luck, this entire series was also a great look at strong friendships and the roles platonic love plays in our lives. Frenched and Forked, the other books in the series, had bigger hooks, but Floored was just as enjoyable in its normalcy.
Josh and Hazel’s Guide To Not Dating by Christina Lauren
I love Christina Lauren. They’re a powerhouse when it comes to the rom-com and some of their crazy plots have had me flipping pages like a mad person and enjoying every minute. In comparison, Josh and Hazel stood out because, well, it was just so simple. The story was so real, it even had exactly the same meet-cute that I had with my husband! I met him at a house party my brother had. Josh met Hazel at a house party his sister was throwing. I just went to a house party last week. Who knows how many love stories started there over the margaritas and hamburgers!? The hook is that they decide to be friends only, and as such help each other with their dating lives with other people until obviously they figured it out. It was a very different set-up than The Unhoneymooners or Dating You Hating You, and it was just as enjoyable. It was quiet, real, and it just evolved. I wish more inner conflict could serve as the hook in and of itself. Person A doesn’t know how to be emotionally available until person B shows them. That’s it. That’s the book. It’s not unconventional, but done right, it leaves you with a different kind of experience—the kind that feels really satisfying because it took hard emotional work to achieve.
Just One of the Groomsmen by Cindi Madsen
This book is about childhood friends who grow up to all of a sudden see each other as very much adult, oh and they’re all in a wedding together. It’s just fun. Tucker and Addie could have been a part of my own circle of friends. They played soccer and went to bars on the weekends. They had normal jobs, money worries, and lived in a small town. Now this is the kind of story you hear when you ask someone at a party “how did you two meet?” It was so cozy and believable. The only thing they had to overcome was the obvious implications of trying to cross that line with your friend. Isn’t that enough? I think so. As hooks go, it’s not flashy, but it’s true. Tell me something true, and I’m buying the book.
99% Mine by Sally Thorne
Disclaimer: Sally Thorne is one of my favorite authors of all time and The Hating Game is one of my favorite books of all time. Okay, so now that I got that out of the way, I want to talk about her other book, 99% Mine. When I started this book, I immediately compared it to The Hating Game. THG wasn’t overly unbelievable in terms of hooks. It was mostly a workplace romance, but it felt big because of the larger than life antics. 99% Mine felt very quiet in comparison and that was my favorite part about it. One thing I found myself thinking while reading this book was: nothing is really happening. These characters just go about a fairly normal house renovation. They’re not on a television house-flip show or anything, it’s more of a sentimental and practical endeavor. There are not a lot of huge plot points here, but the dialogue and the revelations that happen internally to these characters as they spend more time together is the crux of the story. Again, Tom and Darcy could be your neighbors, that’s what made them so interesting to me. It was a little angsty and kind of sad without being tragic, and I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling that, market-wise, this book wouldn’t have been successful if it had been her debut. There just wasn’t enough flair to cut through to the top, and that’s really too bad because in it’s quietness it was so deep! I’m really glad I got to read it and I’m glad Sally Thorne got the chance to tell it.
Falling in love is inherently internal, and sometimes you don’t need a big plot to tell that story. You can get it done just as effectively by showing the reader why the love between these two regular people is important. I wish there was more room at the publishing table for stories like these, but until then, I’m going to keep searching them out in between the blockbusters.