Welcome to happy hearts: romance reviews! Each month, I’ll share reviews and recommendations of romance novels I love. My reviews will be informed by my passion for the genre, and my scholarly approach of feminist literary and cultural criticism. I’m excited to share some of my favorite novels with you, and provide insights into the world of Romancelandia. (To learn more about my romance origin story and the reasons I think romance is an inherently feminist genre, check out my 2019 TEDx UWGB talk, “Romance Novels are Feminist”).
For this first installment, I want to start by chatting about what the genre is…and isn’t. Many people base their ideas of romance novels on old-school romances from earlier decades, the books with seductive covers and problematic, non-consensual plots. While scholars make compelling arguments about how those novels were working within the constraints of their historical moment, they can be cringeworthy for modern readers. I’m happy to report that today’s romance novels are incredibly diverse, featuring many identities, and endless variations on the happily ever after…or happily for now. You can find everything from more traditional novels to those that push the genre boundaries. Which brings me to another important point: the romance genre has a few ironclad conventions, just like any other literary genre. The simplest description of these conventions comes from the Romance Writers of America, a professional organization for those in the romance industry.* They define romance novels as having “a central love story, and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (“About the Genre”). This open definition provides creative freedom for romance authors to craft richly compelling and often wild stories of those seeking—and finding—love.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert. 2019. Female-male relationship. Contemporary romance.
Hibbert’s novel, set in her native England, tells the enemies-to-lovers story of Redford “Red” Morgan and Chloe Brown. Red is a visual artist, who struggles with a creative block after an abusive relationship. He currently serves as the supervisor of the apartment building where Chloe lives, and is what we in Romancelandia call a cinnamon roll—a soft, sweet, and nurturing character. Chloe, outwardly prickly and blunt, is a web designer whose life is shaped by—and currently limited by—her chronic illness, fibromyalgia. She resolves to get a life, and makes a list of tasks that will shake up her world and help her get a life: “ride a motorbike, go camping, have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex” and so on (Hibbert 25). Through a series of events, Chloe enlists Red to help her complete the items on her list, and adds to her list as she falls for him. This interracial, interclass relationship faces external challenges as the characters make assumptions about each other based on some of their identity categories (Red is White, and is from a lower socioeconomic class, while Chloe is Black and wealthy). The novel engages thoughtfully with the impact of abusive relationships, as well as the ongoing toll of chronic illness, and how both of these life challenges impact future relationships. I love how Hibbert shows romance blooming as both characters reconnect to their own passions and power.
American Dreamer, Adriana Herrera. 2019. Male-male relationship. Contemporary. Only available as an e-book.
This is the first novel in an ongoing series that features characters of diverse racial, ethnic, and sexual identities navigating romantic relationships in our contemporary world. So far, American Dreamer is my favorite novel in the series because the central characters have great chemistry, and their respective passion projects represent two of my favorite things: food and books. Nesto Vasquez runs an Afro-Caribbean food truck, and moves to Ithaca, New York, from New York City to both be closer to his family and to try and cultivate a viable business. Jude Fuller works at the local library, where he’s advocating for a mobile library to serve folks in the rural reaches of the library district. The novel uses the character Misty to show how white privilege and homophobia are wielded in seemingly subtle or coded ways to try and derail the two men and their projects that serve to enhance the community and reach many people. The series celebrates friendship as found family—both Jude and Nesto have strong friendships that provide family-like bonds with unwavering support. While Nesto also has close relationships to his family of origin, Jude doesn’t; the novel encourages readers to think about how much of themselves they’re willing to sacrifice in order to maintain the appearance of traditional family. This steamy, interracial romance will leave you hungry for Afro-Caribbean food and social justice.
*I can’t mention RWA without also noting the recent upheaval within the organization, related to structural racism. To learn more, start with this excellent summary by author Claire Ryan: “The Implosion of the RWA.” This is one of many recent high-profile incidents related to racial inequity in the literary and publishing world. There is a movement to support #OwnVoices authors within Romancelandia and in the broader literary world, a movement I wholeheartedly support in my own reading and reviewing.
By Dr. Jessica Lyn Van Slooten
Jessica Lyn Van Slooten is an Associate Professor of English, Writing, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. She teaches courses on women writers, gender and popular culture, romance writing, and more. Jessica has published numerous articles on teaching and assessing gender studies courses, and popular romance fiction and film. She is currently drafting a romance novel set in a small midwestern town.