For many of us, 2021 feels like a year dedicated to recovery mode, the aftermath of something life-changing and unpredictable where we now have the opportunity to start to pick up the pieces from the year before. Of course the publishing industry, like so many others, was negatively impacted in 2020, but one of the few genres that continued to carve out a path forward (like it always has) was romance.
In some ways, it shouldn’t be surprising that the romance genre still found a way to thrive during the coronavirus pandemic and its lingering effects on our world. The essential tenets of the genre — a central love story and an emotionally satisfying resolution (typically referred to in shorthand as a HEA, for Happily Ever After, or HFN, for Happy For Now) — are grounded in hope and happiness. In a world of uncertainty, readers have clung to books that will give them the promise of their basic premise, and this year featured so many that served as a light in the darkness. (This list will be updated on a monthly basis.)
The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes isn’t just a romance novel about rock music; it’s a book that literally sings, with lyrical prose that will keep you turning page after page well into the night. Antonia “Toni” Bennett (and yes, she’s heard all the jokes) grew up with mostly just a guitar for company. When a 12-year-old Toni meets 13-year-old Sebastian Quick, they make a pact to escape their small town together — but when he turns 18 he bails out by himself and leaves her behind. Years later, Toni is still living her dream as a performer, even if she’s only playing in local Philadelphia bars and laying in backup tracks on other artists’ albums. Getting the chance to try out for a spot in the Lillys, one of the hottest new girl bands out there, is a dream opportunity — until she runs into her old childhood friend Seb and realizes he’s one of the people who could either make or break her dream. Never mind the fact that she’s never fully forgiven him for abandoning her all those years ago, either. Whether you want an agonizingly good slow-burn romance, an ode to indie rock, or some amalgam of the two, this novel is as impossible to get out of your head as any earworm — but you should definitely read it with the music that was written specifically to accompany the book!
Lam’s debut romance is a genuine gift and a reminder of the fact that romances can be just as much about second chances as they are about falling in love for the very first time. Trixie Nguyen is a refreshing, sex-positive heroine who makes a living selling adult toys. She genuinely adores her job instructing women about how to make sex a more pleasurable experience. Making a fresh start in Washington, D.C., after a bad breakup feels like the best next step — but then she comes face-to-face with Andre Walker, her ex, tending bar at her very first pop-up event! As if that weren’t enough, it turns out Andre originally dumped her via a Post-It note, which is obviously going to demand some serious groveling. At first, Trixie and Andre decide not to pick up where they left off but to try something new: being friends with benefits. The only problem is that they’re reminded all too quickly of just how well they work together, both in and out of the bedroom, and soon the benefits start to outweigh the desire to keep their situation strictly friendly. When Trixie sets her sights on a new co-op initiative in the neighborhood, Andre’s concerned it’ll threaten the legacy of his late mother’s restaurant, and the two are left with a decision to make between business and pleasure — as well as the real possibility of starting over together.
In a landscape that can’t even technically be described as post-pandemic yet, where many of us are longing for the ability to escape the quarantine of our homes and simply go places, there’s something about Henry’s latest romance that offers both immense satisfaction and an intense hunger for travel and making lasting memories with the people we love. Poppy and Alex have arguably nothing in common, but they’ve been best friends for years, and they celebrate their long-distance dynamic in a very specific way: every summer, they take a vacation together. Or they did until two years ago, when one fateful summer night changed everything between them, and they haven’t spoken since. Now, Poppy’s navigating feelings of millennial ennui at her job, but she does remember the last time she was truly happy: on a trip with Alex. Convincing her former BFF to take one more trip with her is almost the easy part; realizing there’s still one huge secret that’s been hanging over their entire friendship is what could drive them apart forever. In her follow-up to the equally compelling Beach Read, Henry has solidified a name for herself as an author with the ability to write romances that burst with both humor and emotional yearning.
Office romances can be a tricky tightrope to navigate, especially between two characters where the playing field isn’t entirely level, but Barrett’s rom-com debut is a refreshing take on navigating romance in the workplace and confronting the obvious power dynamic issues with realism and care. Corinne Blunt is used to people having preconceived notions about her ice-queen status, but she’s only gotten to the executive level by operating in a certain light. Of course she’s always had some level of awareness around it, but when she overhears someone laughing at a co-worker giving her an especially rude nickname, she decides to wield her authority against the assumed offender: new intern Wesley Chambers. To Corinne’s chagrin, however, Wesley is all too happy to work hard and try to prove himself to his new boss, and the warmth he exudes soon proves strong and sincere enough to melt the ice she’s built up around her heart too. This book exemplifies all of the best parts of the genre, with sweetness and steaminess abounding in equal measure.
Danan’s follow-up to her sparkling, sexy debut The Roommate (released in September of last year) is more introspective and emotional than its predecessor, but with that same captivating prose that made her first release so successful even in the height of a difficult publishing landscape. Naomi Grant, the best friend and ex of The Roommate’s Josh, has been poised to make the jump from sex worker to sex educator since the start-up they co-founded together hit big. The only problem is that due to her background, she’s having trouble finding gigs as a lecturer. Enter Ethan Cohen, a rabbi who has been tasked with attracting a younger generation to his synagogue and only three months to do it. When the two team up for a seminar about intimacy in the millennial world, crafting a syllabus that revolves around love and sex proves to be the spark that lights the match of their burning attraction for one another. This book tackles issues of religion and romance in a way that makes them simpatico, not opposing forces, and Naomi is a lead with nuance who owns her past without shame, while Ethan never expresses judgment or condemnation towards her at any turn.
Hibbert’s dazzling Brown Sisters series comes to a close with the newest release featuring likely the wildest sister, but the good news is Hibbert really wraps things up on a high note. Eve Brown can’t seem to get anything right no matter how hard she tries — and when her latest antics ruin an expensive wedding, her parents finally put their foot down. She needs to get her act together, even if she doesn’t know how to do that yet. Interviewing for an open chef position at a bed and breakfast seems like the right move, but then she accidentally runs over the owner with her car. Oops! Jacob Wayne’s used to being in control of everything, but with a broken arm and a business that needs him, he’ll have to rely on the last person he wanted to help out around the place. These two characters are a true case of opposites attracting, and even though they get off on the wrong foot, the heat between them is smoldering.
Accidentally Engaged does what all good romance novels do best: It’s full of emotion, fun, and family, with that ultimately satisfying HEA that will settle in your stomach like a home-cooked meal. Reena Manji isn’t the biggest fan of her family shoving themselves into every detail of her life, but she can focus on her baking, something reliable and delicate to put her efforts into. When her father conveniently moves his newest employee, Nadim, in across the hall from her, it feels like a very obvious setup situation. But he cuts a nice figure and he enjoys her bread, two things in his favor. When her career takes an unexpected downturn, Nadim even agrees to fake an engagement with her so she can enter a couples contest. They might be playing at pretending to be a match, but when the secret gets out, what will happen when her family catches wind?
Honey Girl isn’t your typical romance novel — at least not in its more strictly defined terms — but it’s one of the most powerful coming-of-age stories debuting this year and it should be required reading for any millennial who finds themselves buckling under the weight of expectation. Wielding her newly earned Ph.D., Grace Porter decides to go on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She’s not the type of person who would party hard and get drunkenly married to a woman she doesn’t even know … and yet that’s exactly what she does. Deciding to throw caution to the wind, Grace jets off to New York to spend time with a wife who might as well be a stranger, and over one memorable summer, begins to fall for her. The question is: Is Grace actually running to someone, or running away from something else?
Clayborn writes romances that are engaging, heart wrenching, and so ultimately satisfying that you won’t want to put the book down. When he was a teenager, Will Sterling encountered the girl of his dreams on an apartment building balcony, but she never even knew he was there. Sixteen years later, he’s back, dealing with the unexpected surprise of his uncle’s passing and the inheritance of a new apartment he never wanted. But he doesn’t expect he’ll run right into his dream girl from all those years ago, or that she’ll want nothing to do with him now. Nora Clarke is definitely taken aback by her handsome new neighbor, but when she learns his plans to rent out the apartment, she tasks herself with preserving the building’s community, throwing a wrench in at every turn. That might be easier said than done when every second she spends in Will’s company forces her to acknowledge their connection.
Solomon’s a YA author, but in her adult rom-com debut, she pens a love letter to radio — as well as anyone who can’t ever get enough of NPR in their earbuds. Shay Goldstein has been a producer at a Seattle public radio station for almost ten years, but her latest struggle occurs in one tall, handsome coworker named Dominic Yun, who name-drops his master’s degree in journalism at every opportunity and thinks he knows it all. But the station is in dire straits and needs an infusion of new programming, and when Shay casually suggests a show hosted by exes who used to date each other, their boss jumps at the idea. Unfortunately, he also decides Shay and Dominic should be the hosts. The only problem? They’ve never dated. Not only are they going to have to fake a past relationship, they’ll have to fake a break up too, and over the course of their research, the two begin to wonder if maybe they might be falling for each other for real.
What do you do when your long-standing professional enemy is also someone you’ve never laid eyes on … until now? That’s the premise of Hockman’s charming contemporary romance, about an overworked heroine named Henley Evans who gets the chance to prove herself when she’s up for her dream promotion at the cruise line where she works. However, there’s one other person in contention for the same role: the company’s social media manager, Graeme Crawford-Collins. Their boss informs them they’ll need to draft a proposal to prove why they’re the best candidate for the gig — and what better place to do that than on location in the Galapagos Islands, on one of the company’s very own cruise ships? The first time she lays eyes on Graeme IRL, Henley’s shocked to discover he’s nothing like what she imagined, and when they’re forced to work together, she realizes that her loathing for him may not be completely hate-based after all. Hockman’s debut is smart, witty, and charming, with steamy on-page chemistry that will make you want to take a dip even in winter.