[Note from Frolic: This week’s Frolic Podcast of the Week is Whoa!Mance! They’re sharing the top three romance novels that make them go WHOA. Take it away, guys!]
We had so much trouble narrowing this down to just three!
Ayesha At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
I am a fan adaption in general. There’s something in the scaffolding of the original that can sometimes be highlighted to new and surprising advantage in an adaptation. Jalaluddin’s Pride and Prejudice redo places a modern Darcy and Elizabeth in an immigrant Muslim community making new lives in the cold snows of Toronto. While Ayesha is a more retiring Elizabeth, the constraints of her culture and the abiding love and commitment she has for her family are perfectly fit for her moment in modern day Canada and easily mapped onto Elizabeth’s in 1814.
Khalid is not snobbish per se, but he is traditional. It was fascinating to see that traditionalism without flexibility is exactly every Darcy’s problem. That Ayesha and Elizabeth don’t so much represent a different social/economic class (though they both do) as much as they represent change, or invite a perspective shift in the heroes. Which is initially scary and off-putting to these men, but by page after slow burn page, it becomes a bit of an obsession.
I won’t spoil much, but Khalid has one over on the OG Darcy as far as I am concerned, pretty early on in the text. It’s one of those delicious moments in romance where the hero ‘sees’ the heroine in all her unspoken dreams and desires–and shows her that he recognizes her–even the parts she hasn’t spoken aloud. This is a sllllllllooooooooowwwwwwww burn of piercing gazes and smouldering half smiles exchanged at the Mosque and over awkward family dinners. It makes sweet romance feel steamy.
I recommend this book and this episode is because of the surprises. My partner Morgan and I delight in watching romances make familiar turns feel fresh. Ayesha is as familiar as your fav slippers after you’ve finally found them in the back of the closet, afraid for months that they’d disappeared. And wonders of wonders they still fit, but are warmer, sturdier and better than you remember.
Hummingbird by LaVyrle Spencer
I don’t care for secret millionaires.
I don’t care for westerns.
But I care intensely for Hummingbird by LaVyrle Spencer.
Recently, an onion-root splinter interrupted my dinner preparations, I had to stop dicing maybe the 164,864th onion I have cooked. Imagine my pleasure when I finally pulled it loose in one piece. That is what it is to read Hummingbird.
This book was our first ever listener request. I went into the pages with zero expectations, and I’m hesitant to separate you, Dear Reader, from that same experience. If you need more convincing than the onion root metaphor, well.
The heroine is 33 and understood by others in her dusty Colorado town as an ice queen. Just before humbling herself for a wage, she takes the opportunity to double down on her misfit status by taking in an unconscious and wounded criminal–and an alleged hero–to nurse them back to health.
Subconscious church masturbation, the erotic kind of boot licking, and detailed instructions for Old West wound cleaning practices (handy!) ensue. There are also quiet things like sitting in the sun, contemplating wallpaper, asking for help, asking for what one wants. And our heroine thinks she learns a lesson about fitting in and community–that is all I want to say about the greatest Happily Ever After I have read so far.
How this book is not a bigger deal is beyond my comprehension. There are so many lessons in the hard-earned HEA, the question of true choice, an interrogation of womanly id that is surfaced, literalized, conscientious, but not pretentious or opaque.
I recommend this book to anyone who reads fiction, period. But I recommend this book with my whole chest for romance fans who feel their TBR is stale. The pining, the surprises, the sensations, the structural feats. Like Flowers From The Storm, like Indigo, this book shows you what incredible depth and breadth is possible in historical romance, in the genre as a whole.
Defy Not the Heart by Johanna Lindsey
One of the undisputed greats in Johanna Lindsey’s (RIP) catalog is Defy Not the Heart, and listen–I get it.
Reina is a badass. She has her own specially fitted armour, can wield a sword as easily as she dispenses orders, has admirable tactical command and is cool under pressure. For you LOTR fans she’s a lot like Eowyn circa “I am no man”. Charged with saving her castle and the surrounding village from marauding men seeking wed her and gain access to her holdings–she needs a solution and quick. But she won’t marry anyone who doesn’t get how important it is to run her holdings ethically and for the mutual good of all. In walks Ranulf–a bastard son with a chip on his broad shoulder about the ruling class and a pet cat that he loves with comedic fierceness.
These two unlikely lovers and their bosom companions must save the castle and town from the mechanizations of Ranulf’s unscrupulous (legitimate) half brother. Reina proposes they wed for the protection for her people and status for Ranulf. After some wrangling Ranulf agrees. And what would have been a very easy forced marriage trope turns into an incredibly complicated discussion of making marriage work.
Reina and Ranulf must adjust to one another, and these adjustments aren’t easy. But they bend. That tempering, that flex towards one another rather than away is what makes this text one of Johanna Lindsey’s finest. For all it’s sweep it’s a surprisingly domestic novel, centered on the ways we accidentally hurt one another, and how we try to make amends. This is a book about hope–and I know the genre really leans into its own hopefulness–but this book is about the hope that blooms into certainty. It’s the pleasure of being proved right in placing your trust in someone, and having that trust returned.
Plus mind shattering sex.
I love this episode because I love this book— also because it helped me understand how the genre engenders such loyal readers. You can’t read this book without wanting more.
Check out Whoa!Macnce wherever you get your podcasts!