If you are so lucky as to read a Jasmine Guillory novel you are guaranteed three things. The first is a smart, nuanced, relatable black woman protagonist. The second is page after page of mouth-wateringly good descriptions of food, the best culinary writing this side of MFK Fisher and her oysters.
And the third? A hot romantic hero who loves to go down on his partner.
Like all great romance novels, sex ripples through every page of Guillory’s books, from 2018’s New York Times bestselling The Wedding Date and The Proposal to the forthcoming The Wedding Party, out this summer, and Royal Holiday, out in October. But unlike the pulpy romance paperbacks that police bed & breakfast bathrooms the world over with a flaxen-maned Fabio reclining lustily on their front covers, sex in a Guillory book isn’t an exercise in bodice-ripping melodrama. It’s hot and fun and full of pleasure. Which is to say, kind of what sex in real life should be like. Trust me, you’ve never read a romance novel like this before. And Guillory is just one of a wave of authors reworking the genre for an audience of modern, discerning women.
Romance is a tale as old as time. What is Romeo & Juliet if not the story of a night of all-consuming passion? Still, it was only in the mid-18th century that romance became a genre in its own right, and the story of a few star-crossed lovers stumbling their way to the altar became the defining plot of a generation of classic novels, penned by women like Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell and, later, Edith Wharton. Though there’s no sex in an Austen novel — believe me, I’ve looked — there is a lot of dancing, which in Regency times was kind of the same thing.
Everything went mainstream in 1939, when an enterprising businessman printed the first paperback book. With their portable size and cheap price, paperbacks were a book for and of the people and it was then that niche genres like romance flourished. Mills & Boon and Harlequin began retailing their particular brand of buttery melodrama with great success. In America, romance novels with a historical frisson were selling in the tens of millions in the 70s. Last year, the industry was worth more than $1.08 billion globally.
But with success comes derision. Historically, romance novels have been written off as emotion-filled nonsense for undiscerning tastes (read: women). Granted, there is a rich seam of so-called “chick lit” that does fall into that category.
In the last year, however, a fresh take on the genre has emerged. It started with the success of Guillory, whose smart and sexy meet-cute stories soared to the top of the bestseller lists and were showered with praise by Roxane Gay and Reese Witherspoon. Then The New York Times appointed their first romance novel critic. Then came a new wave of diverse authors creating romance novels in their image, women like Helen Hoang, Ayisha Malik and Alexa Martin. (Still, only 6.2% of the genre’s authors are people of color.)
It’s not surprising that romance novels are having a second wind at the same time as Noah Centineo is “whoa-whoa-whoaing” at audiences through their Netflix screens in candy-floss-sweet romantic comedies. These two genres share an appeal. With romance novels, as with rom-coms, you know exactly what you’re in for — they adhere to a specific structure with well-worn grooves that you are intimately acquainted with. But rather than render the entire genre a cliché, this formulaic structure becomes a comfort. Reading a romance novel is like sinking into a hot bath. Steeped in familiarity, you know the second you crack that cover open that you are in safe, confident hands and that nothing bad will ever happen to you while you are reading.
Sophie Roberts, 31, co-host of the Highly Enthused podcast, first read Guillory while caring for a loved one through a serious illness. “I needed something light-hearted to distract myself,” she explains. “I just liked the escapism of them, and the low-stakes conflict that always gets resolved.”
The comfort of a romance plot is the thing, really. It can take the form of a live-wire Netflix romantic comedy, a season of The Bachelor or Love Island, the lyrical slow dance spun by Sally Rooney in Normal People or Diana Evans in Ordinary People (are mediocre humans the current trend in literary titles?), or this week’s New York Times’ Modern Love column, but the pleasure remains the same. A love story is still the simplest, most relatable, most hopeful thing to read about or watch. It’s also the genre that most consistently places women’s voices at its center, and dares to allow them to indulge.
In a time when more women’s stories are not only being told but listened to, romance is thriving for good reason. Romance is a genre that gives women the space not merely to dip their toes into their desires but to bathe in them. Guillory’s female characters are hungry — for their careers, for bags of freshly-baked doughnuts, for roadside tacos and for plenty of sex. In these new and improved romances, which take the clichés the genre is known for and elevates them, the women are treated well by men in unexpected ways. They often have a network of supportive women around them. They live in worlds that are peopled by the diverse faces that tessellate our own. And it’s such a pleasure to spend time there.
“I think reading as a pastime gets taken way too seriously,” Roberts adds. “Everyone feels like they need to be reading the latest Booker prizewinner at all times. I think it’s why so many people don’t read anymore and instead spend hours watching television. They’ve forgotten books can be fun!”
Which is exactly what a good romance novel ought to be, if it possibly can. Fun, flirty, and full of life. With a happy ending, too.
3 romance novels to buy this year
Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory
In Guillory’s fourth novel, a 50-year-old woman accompanies her stylist daughter to England, where she is working with a new Duchess, and falls for a high-ranking courtier. Inspired by a viral Twitter thread about Doria Ragland, the novel is Guillory’s second this year. (She also has The Wedding Party, releasing in July.)
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Dubbed a modern-day Bridget Jones, Queenie is the story of our eponymous heroine, reeling from a bad breakup and trying to cope with the demands of lonely, modern city living. She may not always realize it, but there’s love coursing through every part of Queenie’s life: love from her family, from her friends, from her colleagues but mostly from herself.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Deploying that beloved romantic comedy trope of the arranged set up to great effect, this smart novel follows a Vietnamese couple falling for each other because, not despite, their shortcomings.
Graphics by Madeline Montoya.