Serious Novels for People Who'd Rather Be Reading Romance Fiction

So why do book review pages so often ignore romance fiction? Some of the best writing these days, according to Book World critics, is being done in genre novels: mysteries, SF and thrillers. Can the same be said for romance?

Truth be told, I've been reading love stories since I was 10. I grew up on Jane Eyre, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary (by the way, did you know that the film romance "Ryan's Daughter" was loosely based on the plot of "Madame Bovary"?). When I wasn't over at my best friend's house, drooling over her copy of "True Confessions" (strictly verboten in my house), I was reading love stories my mother happily endorsed because I'd persuaded her they were part of my literary education. Even "Lady Chatterley's Lover" managed to qualify on this basis -- a bodice ripper if ever there was one!

Now, what I'd really like to hear from all of you romance fans: Which of your favorite novels would you proudly put forth as solid lit? Come on, complete my education. I promise to gather your suggestions and publish them in Book World before Valentine's Day.

In the meantime, here's a list of five heady novels about love:


Brazil, by John Updike.
It's Tristan and Isolde all over again. What I like about this book is not so much its story line -- black street-boy falls for white convent-girl -- but the radical choice it meant for Updike: the going south, the jungle bits, the magical realism. It was a risky departure that ends up as an unabashed ode to love.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith.
Okay, okay. You'll argue that the love here is only in the subplots. And you would be right. This is a big, sprawling novel about class, gender and race. But it's suggested for romance readers (by someone I admire) precisely because, like a good love story, it manages to keep you wanting more.

Light Years, by James Salter.
The story of a (not entirely) charmed marriage. Told in luminous prose.

Call Me By Your Name, by Andre Aciman.
A teenage boy falls in love with a vibrant young man who comes to visit for the summer. I don't think I've read anything more subtly compelling about erotic obsession since Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice."

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie.
A boy sent to a Maoist re-education camp tries to transform a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover. And he succeeds, with surprising results.

-- Marie Arana

By Christian Pelusi |  January 17, 2008; 8:02 AM ET Fiction , Marie Arana
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Good list! I'm a serious reader who loves a good romantic story.

Of course, you must include Pride and Prejudice (or anything by Ms. Austen) as some of the best love stories ever written.

I second Anna Karenina and raise you War & Peace. Anna, Kitty and Natasha's romantic entanglements are so... real. Also Dr. Zhivago. Those Russians know how to steam it up.

For unrequited love, I can never get too cynical for A Tale of Two Cities.

And for very human love, with some "damn that is just WRONG" moments, Faulkner's Light in August.

Posted by: Violet | January 17, 2008 9:15 AM

For a great, plot-driven story with the "of course, he should have ended up with her, why didn't he before" element, I'd go with David Copperfield.

I also agree about Anna Karenina. It's been 20 years since I read it, so I don't remember a great deal, but I do remember being drawn to it because it began with a lord of the manor being kicked out of his house because he had an affair with the governess. Can't start any better than that.

Posted by: KLeewrite | January 17, 2008 11:30 AM

Plus, on the Zadie Smith front, I recommend "White Teeth." There's an unrequited love story running through the second half of the book that involves a great female character.

Posted by: KLeewrite | January 17, 2008 11:37 AM

My choice for the most romantic "literary" book ever: Random Harvest, by James Hilton. Written in 1940 or so.

When I read it the first time, I thought I was reading a somewhat stuffy interwar English novel. Then I got to the end (the last page, even) and I discovered that I had been reading another book entirely- I won't give it away, but there is a very important, and romantic (and ingenious) plot twist that is only revealed at the end.
Then I had to read it again, of course.
They made a movie in the 40s based on the novel but there was no way to film it without revealing the ending in advance, unfortunately.

Posted by: acorn | January 17, 2008 12:58 PM

And I didn't really like On Beauty. Once I was done finding all the Howard's End references, there wasn't much else about it to like.

Posted by: acorn | January 17, 2008 1:03 PM

One of my favorites is Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt (and it has "romance" in the title on top of it all). I have to admit, it's been years since I read it though.

Posted by: C | January 17, 2008 1:55 PM

"Dr. Zhivago" and "Possession" are very nice additions!
"Zhivago" is nothing if not soap opera, after all, and Pasternak a pretty mushy guy. I read the novel at 13 and hung on every line.
"Possession" is a cut gem in comparison--it's largely cold, though I'd agree that romance is indeed at center stage.
But I've completely neglected to list any Latins! There's "Love in the Time of Cholera." And Vargas Llosa's "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter," as well as his most recent "The Bad Girl." This last is fairly hot stuff. . .

Posted by: Marie Arana | January 17, 2008 5:39 PM

"On Beauty" was awesome. End of story. Well, that was the one thing it didn't have. And I realize that postmodernity makes a "real" ending optional, but she didn't break the story off in an especially pregnant or thought-provoking place either. But otherwise, it rules.

I wrote a dumb little thing about the Notorious B.I.G. and Big Punisher references in "On Beauty" here:

http://spam-o-matic.org/culture/rappersinnovels.htm

(Those are rappers, BTW.)

Posted by: Lindemann | January 17, 2008 6:07 PM

I'd like to also recommend "Possession" by A.S. Byatt. It took me a while to get to the book (a gift) and then I was stuck for a while in the middle. Then, I picked it back up and flew through it. A post-modern(?) literary type of romance.
Audrey Maynard

Posted by: AMaynard | January 17, 2008 8:10 PM

Echoing, I'd like to also recommend "Possession" by A.S. Byatt. It took me a while to get to the book (a gift) and then I was stuck for a while in the middle. Then, I picked it back up and flew through it. A post-modern(?) literary type of romance.

Posted by: AMaynard | January 17, 2008 8:19 PM

Diana Gabaldon's Jamie & Claire epic, starting with "Outlander". Even though they place her books in the Romance stacks, you'd wonder why they aren't in Historical Fiction, for all her solid writing and thorough research. Fortunately, in my opinion, it fails the novel-to-film test. It is a literary orgy.

Posted by: sreid | January 18, 2008 12:33 PM

The Great Gatsby!

I'd also put in votes for "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (Georgio Bassani), "Love in the Time of Cholera," and, although it's a little perverse, Maugham's "The Painted Veil".

Posted by: Fitzgerald | January 18, 2008 12:42 PM

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is amazing. It's beautiful and painful.

Posted by: Jessica | January 18, 2008 12:56 PM

Kartography by Kamila Shamsie

it's just a great book.

Posted by: chi | January 18, 2008 1:00 PM

Your article jumped right at me, but I was disappointed to read that what you term "romance fiction" isn't what most of the US considers "romance fiction." When I hear that term, I think Diana Gabaldon, Nora Roberts, Cherry Adair, Elizabeth Lowell, Maggie Stewart, Johanna Lindsey, Danielle Steele...
This is not to say your selections weren't good selections; they're great reads, along with most of the books commenters' mentioned, but I was hoping to have Romance Fiction finally recognized for what it brings to literature. Most authors spend a great deal of time researching and studing subjects before they start their books. I just wish they too were considered in your article.

Posted by: kathryn | January 18, 2008 1:50 PM

Thanks, Kathryn,
The point actually is to get you romance lovers on board here. Tell us what you consider the best of the best. I'd like to cover your responses in Book World and give the genre a fair shake.
Give us a list of your favorites and tell me what you like. And get your reading buddies to weigh in, too.

Posted by: Marie Arana | January 18, 2008 2:05 PM

I nominate Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, for the characters, the atmosphere, and in Rebecca, for the mystery combined with romance. And I agree with the first poster who listed Tale of Two Cities.

Posted by: Cuthbert | January 18, 2008 2:05 PM

I would agree with kathryn and also note that for me, the title of your post is almost contradictory. I love the romance genre because it's not serious. Many best-selling romance authors such as Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Lauren Willig, etc. bring humor and light-heartedness into sometimes well-researched books.

There is certainly a difference between a romance novel and a novel with romance. One key aspect is the ending. As they say in "The Importance of Being Earnest," "the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily." Any other way, and I'm not interested.

Posted by: d | January 18, 2008 3:21 PM

I definitely agree with sreid on Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series - these are the books that got me started reading romance, and I've never found anything to match them.

Another more literary, romantic favorite of mine is Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, really 3 romance stories in one and just wonderfully compelling. One of the few books (along with the Outlander series) that I'm happy to read over and over again.

Posted by: lb | January 18, 2008 3:39 PM

Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase
It Had to Be You, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Welcome to Temptation, by Jennifer Crusie

Those will get you started....

Posted by: TheNorthWing | January 18, 2008 4:58 PM

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers -- I picked it up as a mystery (which it is) but was pleasantly surprised by the love story. Certainly changes one's standards for the ideal man.

I didn't care for Jane Eyre very much because of Jane's subservient relationship to Rochester throughout much of the book and because the plot is predictable (BBC's newest adaptation, however, is superb) But the romance in Villette is beautiful and nuanced -- my favorite Bronte story.

Posted by: SC | January 18, 2008 6:47 PM

I loved Possession. Too bad they made such a terrible movie out of it. It was so bad that I think it didn't even make it to DVD. I read Jane Eyre when I was in my early teens and loved it all except Mr. I did like the quote "... to stay well and not die." I also read 100 years of solitude 15 years ago, and while I can't remember exactly what it was about, I remember liking it a lot.

Posted by: jane | January 18, 2008 7:06 PM

Karleen Koen's Through A Glass Darkly is filed on the fiction shelves but is a great love story. I find there is no rhyme or reason to where these books are filed. I find the books I love in fiction, romance, mystery or scifi/fantasy sections depending on the store.
Ellen

Posted by: Ellen Thompson | January 18, 2008 7:26 PM

S. C. Gaudy Night! Yes-I started reading it during shoulder surgery therapy. Loved it. Went on to read the rest of DS's books. Not so well known and should be.

Posted by: multreda | January 18, 2008 11:26 PM

Strictly from a romance genre point of view, I'd recommend almost anything by Laura Kinsale (most people love Flowers for the Storm and The Shadow and the Star, but I like For My Lady's Heart and Shadowheart best). I reckon she's one of the best in the genre, and she writes just the kind of angst that people might expect from, ahem, "serious" novels.

For light-hearted Regency fare:
- Enchanting Pleasures by Eloisa James (or, if that doesn't float your boat, her Duchess Quartet)
- Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn (if the first chapter doesn't grab you, skip this list)
- Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase

For cross-genre (paranormal) romances:
- Demon Angel by Meljean Brook (often criticised for being slow in pace, but that might be something "serious" novel readers might enjoy, although personally, I had no problem with the pacing)
- Nalini Singh's Psy-Changeling series
- C. L. Wilson's The Lord of the Fading Lands & Lady of Light and Shadows (but particularly the latter)
- The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe

I don't have any recs for contemporary romance. Nora Roberts and Jennifer Cruisie write in a style I think I could love, but I haven't read enough of their work to recommend a particular book.

As a few comments above have raised, many of the recommendations in this thread so far don't really fall into genre romance territory, which for most readers (of the genre) require a reasonably happy ending.

Posted by: Kat | January 19, 2008 6:57 AM

Staying within the romance genre category, I'd add the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer, especially The Grand Sophy, Faro's Daughter and The Devil's Cub.

Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor should be read by every fan of science fiction with romance, and I'd also recommend Sharon Shinn, both her adult and YA books.

This year saw the publication of Joanna Bourne's The Spymaster's Lady. Get past the cover and you'll find one of the best historical romances of the decade.

Posted by: Darlene Marshall | January 19, 2008 9:21 AM

I forgot to add If His Kiss Was Wicked by Jo Goodman, a Regency with a mystery plot and lots of family secrets and drama and nuance. And death, which seems to be a lit fic favourite. *g* (Ignore the title and cover for they don't do the book justice.)

Posted by: Kat | January 19, 2008 5:27 PM

That's so interesting about romance novels and happy endings, and of course it's right on the money. I'm just in the process of finishing up edits to a new novel I've written--it's a love story. And, in one of the first conversations I had with my agent about the book (she's a very smart woman), she said: "Pay special attention to that ending. I want you to break my heart."
So the long and short of it is that this novel doesn't qualify in the happy ending department . . .
I'm very glad to have all these good suggestions for romance reading, by the way. As promised, I'll be culling a list for Book World's Valentine's Day issue. Keep the suggestions coming!

Posted by: Marie Arana | January 20, 2008 11:23 AM

I would have to say the best recent romance novel wrapped up in a somewhat serious idea is The Other Boleyn Girl. It's a total romance novel, with a title that makes any passerby think that you are a student of English history. Quite a good trick. It almost borders on a bodice-ripping romance novel in some parts.

Posted by: JP | January 20, 2008 9:00 PM

This is such a great idea. I have high hopes that one day Romance Novels will be considered solid lit, as you put it.

I second:
Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne (just get pass the ghastly cover and you will be in for a treat)
If Hiss Kiss is Wicked by Jo Goodman

and also, for a lighter, funny read
The Viscomte who Loved me by Julia Quinn

and
Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas.

I can not wait for your list

Posted by: Ana | January 21, 2008 12:26 PM

To the excellent suggestions from other readers of romance fiction for works that meet RWA's definition of "romance" and represent the best of the genre, I would add The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, Devilish by Jo Beverley, As You Desire by Connie Brockway, Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, and The Crossroads Cafe by Deborah Smith.

Posted by: JR | January 21, 2008 1:36 PM

I'm delighted to see you focus on Romance Fiction. There are some excellent books being published these days that are all too often overlooked by book lists.

"The Spymaster's Lady" by Joanna Bourne is a meticulously researched and brilliantly written book. The author has superbly crafted a story set in France and England during the time of Napoleon that is filled with rich dialogue, complex characters and fascinating twists and turns. Don't let the cover or title scare you off.

"If His Kiss Is Wicked" by Jo Goodman is another historical I would highly recommend.

Two of my favorite contemporary romance novels, in addition to those already listed, are "Sugar Daddy" by Lisa Kleypas and "Skinny Dipping" by Connie Brockway.

"Sugar Daddy" is a coming of age story that tracks the life of a young woman in Texas from a poor and turbulent childhood through adolescence to marriage.

"Skinny Dipping" is also a coming of age story but focuses on the life of 40 year old Mimi Olson. This story will make you laugh, cry, break your heart and fill you with joy. It's set in northern Minnesota and filled with a whole host of quirky characters you will want to revisit time and time again.

Posted by: PJ | January 21, 2008 3:03 PM

Not to sound like a broken record by The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne will soon become a classic up there in the ranks of Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. Awesome awesome book. Her dialogue couldn't ring any truer.

Midnight Pleasures by Eloisa James. This book promises to rip out your heart. I dare you to read it and not cry.

Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn. Four words: black mallet of death. *g*

Lisa Kleypas' contemporaries are amazing. Her upcoming Blue-Eyed Devil is just as great as Sugar Daddy was.

Karen Hawkins' MacLean Curse series will have you in stitches. I promise you'll never look at weather the same way.

Anna Campbell had one of the most talked about debuts with her Claiming the Courtesan.

In the urban fantasy sub-genre, Vicki Pettersson's Zodiac Series is mouth-dropping. I am in awe of her world building. Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series is also great. Jeaniene Frost had one of 2007 most stellar debuts with Halfway in the Grave.

I really encourage everyone to try a romance novel. This genre has grown so much, its not the "bodice-rippers" of the 80's anymore. Give a few of them a chance!

Posted by: Kim | January 21, 2008 3:16 PM

The Nora Roberts I would recommend is her Chesapeake series of 3 books, although the McGregor books are also excellent. Possession is terrific, as are the Austins. My book club just finished On Beauty and really didn't like it. But I would have to say that my favorite is and will always be Rebecca. For genre romances, you can't do better than Janice Kay Johnson's books - they are series romance genres, but she writes realistically. The plots are completely believable - not a millionaire or prince in the lot.

Posted by: babsy | January 21, 2008 4:32 PM

So let me understand this:
We need a happy ending.
And, furthermore, there is much in it that should be considered as "solid lit."
And this is a genre that is languishing out there, needing recognition?
Let's be serious.
It needs recognition in the literary world, but it isn't getting it because it's conforming to a rule that says it needs to end happy and be pleasingly predictable in the end.
I'm sorry.
That's not literature.
There are never any such promises made in literature.
Let's decide something here and now.
When you suspend yourself in a serious novel, there are no promises. Everything can go awry. And it often does.
Go on. Recommend some books with the understanding that nothing is promised and all can go bad. Then we will have achieved something.
Give me some romance novels with teeth.

Posted by: dave | January 21, 2008 11:00 PM

Romance Fiction gets such short shrift from critics and readers alike that I'm always excited when I see it taking center stage.

With more than a billion in sales each year and 26.4% share of the consumer-book market, according to the Romance Writers of America, this genre reaches out to readers the world over and across all boundaries.

The reason for this sweeping popularity is that the stories convey a message of "hope." Yes, the ending of all romance stories is predictable, from those of Sir Walter Scott to modern-day Nora Roberts. However, it's the path that the hero and the heroine travel to arrive at the "happily ever after" finale, that is the reason characters, bits of prose, story themes, and their writers are remembered and much talked about years later.

My recommendations below are all historicals, since that's the sub-genre I read and know about the most. This sub-genre covers stories set in ancient history up to the first world war. The most popular sub-sub-genre is the Regency-set historical, which covers the history of England from 1811 to 1820.

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen
"The Devil's Cub" by Georgette Heyer
"The MacGregor Brides" by Nora Roberts
"Flowers from the Storm" by Laura Kinsale
"Angel in a Red Dress" by Judith Ivory
"Lord of Scoundrels" by Loretta Chase
"Devilish" by Jo Beverley
"Simply Magic" by Mary Balogh
"Mine Till Midnight" by Lisa Kleypas
"My Dearest Enemy" by Connie Brockway
"Heather and Velvet" by Teresa Medeiros
"Romancing Mr. Bridgerton" by Julia Quinn
"The Perfect Rake" by Anne Gracie
"If His Kiss Is Wicked" by Jo Goodman
"Lady Be Bad" by Candice Hern
"Innocence and Impropriety" by Diane Gaston
"Claiming the Courtesan" by Anna Campbell

Posted by: Keira Soleore | January 21, 2008 11:15 PM

Two books I forgot to mention:

"Possession" by A.S. Byatt
"Promise" by Danielle Steele

Posted by: Keira Soleore | January 21, 2008 11:18 PM

With all due respect, dave, I think you missed the bit where we qualified our lists as being books within the romance genre. As with other genre fiction, readers have certain expectations. If you find that too limiting, by all means steer clear. The genre, far from languishing, draws a more than respectable readership. I can't recommend a romance (genre) novel without a happy ending because I would no longer consider such a story as belonging to the genre, teeth or no.

And back to recommendations... I forgot to mention Judith Ivory. She's not one of my favourite authors, but I think her style may appeal to lit readers, particularly Sleeping Beauty, which features an aging courtesan as the heroine.

Posted by: Kat | January 22, 2008 4:47 AM

So, since we know a thriller will include murder does this mean that thrillers aren't literature too?

Posted by: Kim | January 22, 2008 8:38 AM

Dave said: pleasingly predictable in the end. I'm sorry. That's not literature. ... Go on. Recommend some books with the understanding that nothing is promised and all can go bad. Then we will have achieved something.

Dave, are you saying that mystery and fantasy (as well as genre romance) are not serious fiction or literature? Last time I checked, mystery has a formula, which ends with the Bad Guy being caught. Fantasy has a formula as well, with Evil being vanquished by the forces of Good and Light. Genre fiction by its very nature adheres to the conventions of the genre.

My romance recommendations:
Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold
Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie
Persuasion by Jane Austen
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
Nora Roberts' Chesapeake quartet

Posted by: jmc | January 22, 2008 9:24 AM

I'll second many of the exisitng recommendations.

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen (one of the ultimate classic romances)
"Lord of Scoundrels" by Loretta Chase
"Mr. Impossible" by Loretta Chase
"The Spymaster's Lady" by Joanna Bourne

I would also say, as a whole, Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series was exquisite. (This includes some of the ones already listed by others such as "The Viscount Who Loved Me") Nobody quite does witty dialogue and straight out character interaction like Julia Quinn.

In addition, I'd feel comfortable saying just about anything from Lisa Kleypas is a good bet to be solid.

Eloisa James' recent Desperate Duchesses series is shaping up to be quite the epic as well.

Posted by: Michellynn | January 22, 2008 9:32 AM

The notion that nothing can be 'literature' or 'interesting' or well written' if it conforms to a set of stringent rules -- which would exclude everything from mysteries to Noh plays, sonnets to Greek tragedy -- strikes me as odd and self-defeating. What a narrow point of view.

I don't know if I'd call any of these 'serious literature', but they are delightful.

Jo Beverley, An Arranged Marriage
Jennie Crusie, Welcome to Temptation
Tom and Sharon Curtis, The Windflower
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
Judith Ivory, The Proposition
Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Heaven Texas
Julia Quinn, To Sir Phillip, With Love
Nora Roberts, Chesapeake Series

Posted by: Jo Bourne | January 22, 2008 9:51 AM

An OED defintion of "literature":
"Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general. Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect."

I don't see anything in that definition that precludes romance fiction as "literature." Even literary fiction has its conventions, and an unhappy or ambiguous ending seems to be one of them.

Author Jennifer Crusie says that romance writing is the "best antidote I know for a graduate degree in literature." I think romance reading works as an antidote too.

Posted by: JR | January 22, 2008 9:57 AM

It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale
Mine til Midnight by Lisa Kleypas
Persuasion by Jane Austen

Posted by: Lily | January 22, 2008 10:24 AM

I don't understand why so many people put down romances because they find it formulaic and trashy. I look around in the world today, and movies are formulaic, ads are formulaic, even the way politicians attack campaigns are formulaic. I find romance novels inspirational. In a world where so much is focused on what's bad and wrong, I love having joy and hope contained in pages, regardless of what sub-genre of romance it's in.

I have hope for the future. I'm sure Pride and Prejudice was considered unsubstantial at the time of its release because it is a novel about love. I don't know how long I'll have to wait, but I'm sure most of the books listed in these comments will be raised to Austen's level.

Books I Love:
The Spymaster's Lady by Joanne Bourne
Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Philips
The Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas
Pleasure for Pleasure by Eloisa James
Yours Until Dawn by Teresa Medeiros

Posted by: Diana | January 22, 2008 10:54 AM

I just wanted to second some of these emotions here.. All literature, when we read it, have some plot that is formulaic, and we as readers always have some sort of expectation as to how it will end. It is called a short description on the book cover. From this description, we make our own assumptions, they may not be the right ones, but, we make them as the same..
As the the romance novels I love, a lot of them are very emotional, and they don't always end as you would expect them to, ie, I am surprised at times, when I did not see a certain ending coming..
As to the titles of romances I love, the number one book of all time, in my opinion,is Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, by Julia Quinn, It begins with unrequited love,and ends with many emotional turning points,and a very wonderful happily ever after. You love the hero so much at the end, that you wish you had that devotion too. And, I don't think that there is anything wrong with that, suspending your belief, that it what all books are for, to suspend your belief for a while, until the very end, to leave you with all sorts of emotions that you might not be able to express everyday. It is an outlet of sorts, in a world that is all about violence, grief, poverty, and high gas prices these days. I cheer a novel that lets me forget for a while that the world can be a rather cruel place.
Well, not that I'm done with that rant, here are more of my favorites..
I like all of the the Bridgerton series from Julia Quinn.
I like the novels from Lynsay Sands, especially the book, Love is Blind. If you do not feel for the heroine, and love the hero in the end, then, you might have just read the wrong book.
Suzanne Enoch, and her "Invitation" books, starting with "An Invitation to sin" the first in the series about the Griffin family, are the most remarkable books I have read in years. Note: This is the second book in the series, which I had read first..
Then, there is Eliosa James, any book with her name on it, I pick up and read, automatically. All her stories suck you in and don't let you go until the very end.
Kasey Michaels, she has written historical romance, Mysteries, and some modern tales that have delighted me for years.
Vicki Lewis Thompson, with her debut "nerd" series, give me something to howl about. She made nerds cool again.
Kathryn Caskie, and her "How to" books beginning with "How to seduce a Duke"
Linda Lael Miller, with her western romances, the Mettrick series.
I second the emotion about Karen Hawkins, and her Highland lord series. The first novel engrossed me so much that I read it in two days."How to abduct a Highland Lord." is wonderful, the book begins with the heroine forcing the hero into an unwanted marriage. And, you would never guess how, you just have to read it!
Victoria Alexander is another romance novel queen. Beginning with the last man standing series. All about bachelors making a wager as to who will be the last man to wed. The first one "A little bit wicked" is a must read. This is a story I could not put down, even if my house had caught fire! LoL.
And, one last author, Stephanie Laurens.
Her Cynster series, are the best. I have read every single book staring this extended family. It all began with, "Devil's bride"

Posted by: Angela | January 22, 2008 12:50 PM

This is a remarkable thread. A real education. What strikes me is the ease with which all of you devoted romance fans move from classics to popular fiction. Thanks to all for these good suggestions and for the trenchant observations about formulas in fiction.
Now, here's a question for you: Does a good romance novel have to be written by a woman?

Posted by: Marie Arana | January 22, 2008 5:24 PM

"Does a good romance novel have to be written by a woman?"

Shouldn't think so. I do think, however, that if a man writes a romance novel - like Tony Parsons' 'Man and Boy' it's not necessarily marketed as a romance. (Didn't like the book, so that's not a recommendation.)

Agreeing with everyone else, Joanna Bourne's 'The Spymaster's Lady' is the best romance I've read recently.
The other book I loved within the last couple of months was Mary Renault's 'The Charioteer'. However, that was published in the 50s - and I don't know if it's still in print. And it's not quite a romance genre book.
If older books are acceptable, I'd recommend most of Georgette Heyer. 'Venetia' is a classic regency - beautiful heroine, rakish hero - written well. And Mary Stewart - again I like most of her older books - 'Madam, will you talk?' for choice.
And Bujold's 'A Civil Campaign' which is a sci-fi take on the regency romance is great fiction in either genre.
Love Gaudy Night as well, though again, while it contains a great romantic subplot, it's not quite a romance genre book.

None of these may be 'solid lit'. But they're good reads, and it would be lovely to read a piece about genre fiction that just took it for what it is.
And I think you get bonus points if you can write an entire article without using the term 'bodice-rippers' or making reference to Fabio. (Though do call Pride and Prejudice a Romance, because it's always fun to read people carefully explaining how it can't be a romance, because it's proper literature.)

Posted by: Marianne McA | January 22, 2008 7:45 PM

Now, here's a question for you: Does a good romance novel have to be written by a woman?

Nope. In fact, one of the best books I read last year, arguably a romance, is Anthony Capella's The Wedding Officer.

I believe there are some men writing genre romance today, but they write under female noms de plume or are part of a husband-wife team.

Posted by: jmc | January 22, 2008 8:23 PM

I love the collaborations between Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer in which she writes the female POV and he writes the male POV. I like the dynamic they produce. (But many other Crusie fans would probably disagree with me. Also, I think their next book will no longer fall under genre romance.)

I wouldn't mind seeing more male authors in romance. Sometimes it's frustrating when I come across a taciturn hero who turns into an emotional heap at the end and I think, This hero would never say that! But I guess that's really an issue of craft rather than male or female authors. Or maybe we just need more male readers. :-)

In short, no, genre romance authors don't have to be female but most of them are (or seem to be).

Posted by: Kat | January 22, 2008 11:05 PM

Does a good romance novel have to be written by a woman?

By no means, that's true. Sir Walter Scott is knows as the first writer of romance fiction. It's not a requirement of the genre, but it is what it is. That is why men who was to write romance either assume female pseudonyms or co-write with a woman (e.g. Toni Carrington, or Bob Mayer with Jennifer Cruise). This is much like a woman crime writer using initials for her first name (e.g. PD James) or a male psudonym.

Posted by: Keira Soleore | January 22, 2008 11:39 PM

I'm fascinated by Dave's comment about the limitations of literature -- Shakespeare, after all, wrote only in genre: tragedies, histories, etc. Genre writers, Shakespeare among them, face a bigger challenge because they work within certain boundaries, and it's harder to surprise the reader. The idea that literature must be 'outside genre' is a very new one--Aristotle wouldn't agree either.

There's a lot of great romance out there right now. It would be great to see the Washington Post exploring that!

Mary

Posted by: Mary | January 23, 2008 5:51 PM

Penny Vincenzi wrote a trilogy that started with No Angel. It is the one romance novel/series I will recommend.

Good romance does not have to be written by a woman. However, I would like to know how many men are writing as women or the name of a good male romance novelist.

Posted by: Chris | January 23, 2008 9:09 PM

Historically, some of the most popular romances were written by men. If you insist on a Happily Ever After, Joseph Richardson's Pamela got hers (and so did Upton Sinclair's Another Pamela in the 1950s).

Anthony Hope created Ruritania (The Prisoner of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau) and George Barr McCutcheon created Graustark at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries, much to the filling of their bank accounts.

Then there was Frank Yerby (The Foxes of Harrow, The Golden Hawk) -- an African American writer of swooping, and non-African-American, romances.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 24, 2008 7:25 PM

As to men who write genre Romance . . .

the names that come to mind, besides the two teams mentioned in the thread above, are Peter O'Donnell (Madeline Brent), Arthur Gladstone (Margaret SeBastian), Tom Huff (Jennifer Wilde), Leigh Greenwood, and Ken Caspar. Tori Carrington is a husband-wife team.

Posted by: Jo Bourne | January 24, 2008 9:43 PM

I'm deeply skeptical that The Washington Post's Book World is taking the romance genre seriously, but okay, I'll bite.

I would recommend:

-The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch by Marsha Moyer
-The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington
-Katherine by Anya Seton
-The Poldark Saga by Winston Graham
-A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
-Paradise by Judith McNaught
-Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
-Sweet Everlasting by Patricia Gaffney
-In the Midnight Rain by Ruth Wind
-It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
-Kill and Tell by Linda Howard
-For My Lady's Heart by Linda Kinsale
-Cool Shade by Theresa Weir
-Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer
-The You I Never Knew by Susan Wiggs
-Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married by Marian Keyes
-Keeper of the Dream by Penelope Williamson
-Again by Kathleen Gilles Seidel
-The Year of Living Famously by Laura Caldwell
-Girls Night by Stef Ann Holm
-Honest Illusions by Nora Roberts
-Desiree by Annemarie Selinko
-and just because she was the queen of romance and passed away only recently, Ashes in the Wind and Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss

As for whether romance can be written by a man.... Well, historically, haven't many movies been written and directed by men? And, don't many of those have a romance element? Some of our fondest romantic films were helmed by men and the stories have ended, if not happily, then hopefully. Even science fiction, comic books, westerns, and suspense novels have their romance elements. Look at the movie, Knocked Up. Not my favorite romantic film by any stretch, but romance was featured prominently, the movie ended happily, and I don't believe the people behind the film were women. Even sophomoric women.

Love stories are universal. I'll never understand why this one particular format -- the romance novel -- is so disrespected.


Posted by: Sandy | January 24, 2008 9:50 PM

I forgot to put my name on my first post about Hope, McCutcheon, et al. as male writers of romance. It should be noted that their products were just as firmly condemned by elite literary critics of their day as romance often is now.

I would add among male writers of romance, historically, Rafael Sabatini. There was also, in the 1940s, a considerable romance element in the swashbuckling historicals of authors such as Thomas B. Costain and Samuel Shellabarger.

Moving to another topic, don't totally ignore the products of the "series" romance lines. They often throw up occasional good writers, such as Kathleen Korbel (A Rose for Maggie, on the theme of a Down's Syndrome baby, and A Soldier's Heart, on the impact of the Viet Nam war on a nurse who served there), Janice Kay Johnson (almost any of her titles, but try Revelations on the effect of parental abuse on an adult daughter), and lately quite a few of the Everlasting Love lines, such as Linda Barrett, The Soldier and the Rose (a Jewish couple in New York City from World War II to old age).

Posted by: Virginia | January 25, 2008 6:51 AM

In regard to male writers, someone above listed a book by Tom and Sharon Curtis. At the time it was published, they were writing as "Laura London."

Ken Casper for a long time published his romances as K.N. Casper -- possibly a reverse of the long-time tendency in sf and mystery for female authors to disguise themselves with initials.

Posted by: Virginia | January 25, 2008 8:23 AM

"A Woman without Lies"--Elizabeth Lowell
"Tapestry"--Maura Seger

Posted by: dick | January 25, 2008 11:59 AM

This is probably my last question. What do you do about books that certainly cross genres? For Ms. Arana, given her Hispanic background, I would specifically use Like Water for Chocolate as an example. Is it a romance or is it literary fiction?

It's a question that is somewhat off-topic for what you requested, but it's not completely off-the-wall. Our nearest B&N shelves books by Jennifer Crusie and Diana Gabaldon in both the romance section and the fiction section. Charlaine Harris' Harper Connelly series sometimes shows up in both romance and mystery; sometimes in paranormal. Kasey Michaels' Maggie Kelly series also shows in both mystery and romance; so does Carole Nelson Douglas' Midnight Louie series and her latest book, Dancing with Werewolves, shows up in romance, mystery, and f/sf. Patricia Briggs' Mercedes Thompson series shows in both f/sf and romance; so do some works by Linnea Sinclair.

Are there getting to be so many cross-genre authors that it's hard to discuss single-genre titles only without omitting a lot of interesting books?

Posted by: Virginia | January 25, 2008 12:20 PM

One further note. Quite a lot of books that have traditionally been classified as romances, at least in a way, are rejected by some contemporary readers for lacking the happy ending (Romeo and Juliet, A Tale of Two Cities, Ivanhoe, at least for the fans of Rebecca rather than Rowena, Cyrano de Bergerac). There doesn't seem to be any room for noble renunciation in the currently-being-written popular romance genre, although it was certainly there in the past.

Posted by: Virginia | January 26, 2008 8:41 AM

I've always considered Romeo and Juliet a tragedy rather than a romance. Or a romantic tragedy (an oxymoron for genre readers). There are romance genre readers who would be open to ambiguous endings, but I daresay the majority of readers would not and that's why the current market insists on the happy ending. "Love story", however, is not defined as a genre, and covers these books of, as you say, noble renunciation. Also, genre romance readers talk about "romance" in the genre sense. Other readers might use the term more broadly, hence the confusion.

Regarding crossing genres, I think most romance genre readers would require that the romantic relationship be at the centre of the story. It's great that we're at a point where romance novels are diverse enough to cross over to other genres (and be strong enough in those elements to be shelved accordingly). It's probably good marketing, too, considering the size of the market for romance fiction.

Posted by: Kat | January 26, 2008 7:10 PM

I've always considered Romeo and Juliet a tragedy rather than a romance. Or a romantic tragedy (an oxymoron for genre readers). There are romance genre readers who would be open to ambiguous endings, but I daresay the majority of readers would not and that's why the current market insists on the happy ending. "Love story", however, is not defined as a genre, and covers these books of, as you say, noble renunciation. Also, genre romance readers talk about "romance" in the genre sense. Other readers might use the term more broadly, hence the confusion.

Regarding crossing genres, I think most romance genre readers would require that the romantic relationship be at the centre of the story. It's great that we're at a point where romance novels are diverse enough to cross over to other genres (and be strong enough in those elements to be shelved accordingly). It's probably good marketing, too, considering the size of the market for romance fiction.

Posted by: Kat | January 26, 2008 7:21 PM

I've always considered Romeo and Juliet a tragedy rather than a romance. Or a romantic tragedy (an oxymoron for genre readers). There are romance genre readers who would be open to ambiguous endings, but I daresay the majority of readers would not and that's why the current market insists on the happy ending. "Love story", however, is not defined as a genre, and covers these books of, as you say, noble renunciation. Also, genre romance readers talk about "romance" in the genre sense. Other readers might use the term more broadly, hence the confusion.

Regarding crossing genres, I think most romance genre readers would require that the romantic relationship be at the centre of the story. It's great that we're at a point where romance novels are diverse enough to cross over to other genres (and be strong enough in those elements to be shelved accordingly). It's probably good marketing, too, considering the size of the market for romance fiction.

Posted by: Kat | January 26, 2008 7:24 PM

Eek! Apologies for the multiple posts.

Posted by: Kat | January 26, 2008 7:37 PM

Interested persons in general may want to look at the academic discussion of the romance genre available on:

http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com

Posted by: Virginia | January 27, 2008 2:30 AM

I would like to add a couple of books/authors that are not being published/mentioned as frequently or that may be a little older:

Roberta Gellis and the Roselynde Chronicles: six books that are amazingly well researched historical novels begining with Richard I's crusade & ending with King John's death. FANTASTIC books. (Her newer books are mysteries and some sci-fi fantasy but her older books are HISTORY with romance.)

Everything by Carla Kelly, who writes about the British during the Napoleanic wars - and never exclusively about Lords & Ladies and balls & routs - specifically though - Reforming Lord Ragsdale (the aftermath of an Irish rebellion); Miss Mitten Speaks Her Mind (a factory owner& alocal gentlewoman); The Wedding Journey (a daughter of the Regiment and the doctor during retreat in Spain); Beau Crusoe (a shipwrecked naval officer returns to society after several years alone on an island).

Laura Kinsale's, Sieze the Fire - about a traumitized vet attempting to return to normalcy - after the Napoleanic wars end.

Jennifer Crusie's, Fast Women - absolutely her best and makes you ask yourself, 'who is the kisser and who is the kissee in my relationship?'.

Mary Jo Putney's, The Rake - first published as the Rake & the Reformer.

Loretta Chase's, The Last Hellion.

Jo Beverley's, Forbidden Magic.

Linda Howard's, Kiss Me While I Sleep.

Posted by: JPoorman | January 27, 2008 8:38 AM

One more addition along the line of men writing romance -- Paul Gallico, The Lonely (1945). I read it so long ago, in the 1950s, that I had to put the description on BookSleuth, where a kind participant in the forum came up with the author and title for me.

Posted by: Virginia | January 27, 2008 8:52 AM

Diana Gabaldon. Period. Read the Outlander books. They're the best historical novels I've ever read. And her Jamie Fraser is pretty much the best fictional hero ever written.

Posted by: Catherine | January 27, 2008 10:38 AM

I"ve been a romance/historical fiction reader for over 40+years. I started out reading historical fiction of Anna Marie Selenko's DESIREE and Anya Seton's KATHERINE and then moved on to the wonderful works of Barbara Erskine LADY OF HAY, CHILD OF THE PHOENIX, KINGDOM OF SHADOWS and her current DAUGHTERS OF FIRE. Then of course there is Elizabeth Chadwick's THE GREATEST KNIGHT ( WM. MARSHALL) and the THE SCARLET LION (Wm Marshall). And what about Sharon Kay Penman's HERE BE DRAGONS, WHEN CHRIST AND HIS SAINTS SLEPT to name but a few of hers. And of course there is Diana Gabaldon't series OUTLANDER et all.

But there are great romance/love stories as well that came out in mass market fiction:Marsha Canham MIDNIGHT HOUR, Ciji Ware's ISLAND OF THE SWANS and WICKED COMPANY, Lynn Hanna's THE STARRY CHILD ( chilling paranormal celtic legend of star crossed lovers), THE SHATTERED ROSE by Jo Beverley, HEARTS OF GOLD by May McGoldrick the list is endless and this is just historicals. In contemps you have Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, Susanne Brockmann, Susan Wiggs, Kristin Hannah, Catherine Coutler, Julie Garwood, Judith McNaught. Debbie Macomber, and this is just a few of the A list authors, the midlist is equally powerful with stories that are both romance and love stories which today's women can identify with.

Romance readers are an educated and savvy bunch of readers, we don't need the ad men selling us books with their old fashion bodice ripper covers. Gone is the old romance reader image of the blue haired grandmother with curlers in her hair sucking on a cigarette and reading a Harlequin (Mills/Boon) novel. We have authors with their Phd's and have graduated from schools like Harvard and readers who have their PHd's and teach at schools like Harvard. We all want a satisfying read that takes us away to that first blush of love with promises of a HEA, the wonderful prose, characterizations and imagery are just a bonus.

Posted by: Jody | January 27, 2008 12:32 PM

Books by: Jo Beverley, Julie Garwood, Elizabeth Lowell, Mary Jo Putney, Stephanie Laurens, Jude Deveraux (the Velvet Series), Christina Dodd, Gaelon Foley, and the Queen: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.

Posted by: Karen | January 27, 2008 12:39 PM

Diana Gabaldon does not classify her Outlander series as romance. Even Barnes and Noble has moved her books to the Fiction section of their stores. Whereever they are put, I'll find them!

Posted by: Karen | January 27, 2008 12:42 PM

It isn't just Gabaldon and Crusie. Even some "series" romances face difficulty in being fitted in as "romance genre." This last year, Harlequin published Tara Taylor Quinn's Behind Closed Doors. If not for the publisher, would the novel of an interracial marriage in which the wife is raped by members of an Aryan militia be thought of as "romance?"

Posted by: Virginia | January 27, 2008 1:44 PM

As to male romance writers Jim Mcgoldrick is part of the Jan Coffey and May Mcgoldrick writing team along with is wife Nikoo and I believe he has a Phd in 16th C British Literature and his wife is an manufacturing engineer. Between both names they have over 16 novels and on nonfiction book.

Posted by: JSA | January 28, 2008 12:09 AM

Well, I'm skeptical as others have expressed since I read Book World every week as a hometown reader, but I'll bite, too.

All Through the Night by Connie Brockway
Sleeping Beauty by Judith Ivory
Black Silk by Judith Ivory
Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie
Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer
Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh
The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Just for a start!

Posted by: Sandy C | January 28, 2008 3:20 PM

Like Quinn's "Behind Closed Doors," here's another one from 2007 in the category of, "If this had not been published by a 'romance' publishing house, would anyone think of it as 'romance genre'?" is Pam Jenoff, The Kommandant's Girl (a married Jewish woman from the Warsaw ghetto, passing as gentile during World War II, becomes involved with a Nazi official).

Posted by: Virginia | January 29, 2008 7:33 AM

Like others, I had to get past the ghastly cover of one recent romance novel and the ghastly title of another...The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne and If His Kiss is Wicked by Jo Goodman are two of the best historical romance novels I have read in recent years.

Bourne's book has a new angle on the now-stereotypical British/French historical spy story, and Goodman's historical romantic mystery has a wonderfully creepy gothic undercurrent. Out of recent books, these would have my highest recommendation.

The earlier Bridgerton novels by Julia Quinn (especially Romancing Mr. Bridgerton) and Eloisa James' earlier books are frothy little bits of joy. Sure, they aren't serious literature, but both ladies are extremely literate and witty writers.

Posted by: LizJ | January 29, 2008 11:52 AM

Another comment about men writing romance-- Yes! Book market may be nervous about it, but not TV/movies - has anyone noticed that men wrote some of the Sex & City episodes, and that both Seinfeld and Woody Allen are very chick-litty?
AND!-My husband and I have our first romantic suspense collaboration coming out in September under the pseudonym of Allyson Roy (Alice & Roy). Title is Aphrodisiac. Roy was a visual artist, an actor and stand-up comic (mucho humor in our book) and he loves sexy stories that touch the heart and funny bone as much as I do.

He was a comedian (mucho humor in our book) and he loves


Posted by: Alice | January 29, 2008 5:36 PM

Hello,

I would nominate anything by Jo Beverley. St. Raven is probably my favorite.

Also Middlemarch by George Elliott.

And Dorothy Lee Sayers' four-part romance.

Posted by: Laura | January 31, 2008 10:55 PM

Interesting the number of people who label Diana Gabaldon's novels as romances. They aren't. They chronicle the story of a marriage, not a courtship with a happily-ever-after ending. And whoever said they were a literary orgy is right. Adventurous historical fiction, I'd call them, with the flair of Dumas and the lyrical artistry of some of our finest literary writers.

But you wanted well-written romances. So try anything by Laura Kinsale, particularly Flowers From the Storm. And the newly published The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne. Bad title and worse cover, but the author is astonishingly talented. Rip the cover off and the writing in this book would not embarrass the most snobbish of the literati.

Posted by: Elaine | February 10, 2008 1:36 PM

If you want a book that "breaks your heart" but is not a romance, but rather, an awesome love story set during WWII...you must read, The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. There is not another book like it. It's an jem of a book and not many people seem to know about it.

Posted by: Lynne | February 13, 2008 2:19 PM

I haven't "intentionally" read much romance fiction recently as I am a devotee of the mystery genre, but would have to add Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, The Hollow HIlls, The Crystal Cave, & the other one whose name I've forgotten. I've also happened on a couple of time travel romances recently, Time & Again by Jack FInney (written in the 1970s), and The Time Traveler's Wife (promising first half, and doesn't truly qualify under the romance genres stated above.
Suite Francaise and The Shadow of the Wind also contain wonderful romance as well as mystery.

Posted by: TXskeptic | February 19, 2008 6:03 PM

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

That's all that needs to be said!

Posted by: Lisa | February 22, 2008 2:40 PM

One of the most thought provoking interracial romance novels out now is Ivy's Twisted Vine. It's an electrifying romance with serious characters that any woman or man can identify with on many levels. The book is not widely publicized but I don't know of anyone who has read it who has not loved it, and I know a quite a few. The author's name is Latrivia Nelson. I had the opportunity to even speak with her. She stays very close to her work, making sure that everyone who purchases from her enjoys the experience, and she craves feedback. I was blown away by how in-depth this book was with insights into political aspirations and unique circumstances surrounding the interracial platform. This book is fiction, but the story was true and jolting. I consider this book one of my all-time favorites.

Posted by: Victoria Cassini | February 22, 2008 10:03 PM

I haven't read romance novels since high school when I loved historical romance novels like Katherine by Anya Seton and Desiree by Annemarie Selinko.

However, i still read books that are romantic and would be enjoyed by lovers of romance novels. I agree with TXskeptic that Jack Finney's Time and Again and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger are excellent "cross over" novels.

Posted by: Shirley S | February 25, 2008 6:50 PM

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas is a fantastic classic that has a great love story.

Posted by: Jill | March 26, 2008 10:40 AM

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