2021 brought diverse offerings for lovers of romance fiction
The year is almost over, and although I have to admit I haven’t read nearly as many books as I thought I would in this crazy not-quite-post-pandemic year, I did buy many more romances than ever due to an assortment of COVID-related reasons.
I would like to dub 2021 the year of Real Representation in Romance, because although publishers can (still) always do better, this year they actually managed to promote and sell a bunch more books by a far more diverse group of authors than the queens of the genre, Danielle Steel (who saw six books debut this year) and Nora Roberts (who released eight, including two under her pen name JD Robb), who tend to dominate the genre with tales of white folks and their intergenerational wealth.
Everyone deserves romance
Diversity and inclusion is finally becoming much more front-and-center in Romancelandia, rather than a hastily included afterthought, and as a result the stories are much more complex and deeply layered than ever before. Progress!
Black lives actually do matter in romance, and after increased attention to Black romances in 2020, I continued to see publishers marketing many more Black romance titles online than ever before, including Piper G. Huguley’s Sweet Tea–the first original Hallmark Publishing novel to feature a Black heroine and an interracial couple. Midnight Bargain by CL Polk, a Regency romance with Black main characters in a fantasy setting, was a Canada Reads contender, bringing wider mainstream media attention to some of the genre’s best and brightest. KM Jackson’s How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days was a November Book of the Month pick, and for obvious reasons should be an instant hit (is there anyone who wouldn’t want to marry Keanu?).
The Melanin Library, which first appeared in 2019, continues to highlight romances by Black authors that feature Black and Brown main characters. Alyssa Cole, a beloved Black romance author best known for her Reluctant Royals and Runaway Royals series, released her first thriller, When No One Is Watching, which won the 2021 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. And the beloved Ms. Bev, aka Beverly Jenkins, released the second installment in her Women Who Dare series, Wild Rain, in February with a starred Kirkus review calling her “One of romance’s finest writers”–a sentiment that most of Twitter’s romance readership has embraced for years. In short: Black romance is killin’ it, and it’s about damn time!
In addition to Black romance, Asian and Asian-American romances also made a bigger splash this year as readers sought to uplift antiracist campaigns like Stop Asian Hate by sharing stories of Asian love. Helen Hoang’s third installment in her The Kiss Quotient series, The Heart Principle, finally released in August after the publisher pushed it back several times. It waas well worth the wait and instantly became one of my favorite books of the year. Thien-Kim Lam’s debut novel, Happy Endings, released in May and the author notes that she “definitely [has] more [multicultural] options when curating boxes for Bawdy Bookworms,” her sex toy subscription box aimed at romance readers.
Alisha Rai’s third book in her Modern Love series, First Comes Like, debuted in February with a modern Hollywood love story worthy of the Bollywood soap operas that inspired it. And Sara Desai’s March release, The Dating Plan, offers a rom-com take on the fake relationship trope, this time set in Silicon Valley between an Indian-American software engineer and an Irish-American venture capitalist aiming to claim his inheritance with a faux wife.
Another fun 2021 romance trend is the continued retelling of Jane Austen’s tales, now more and more by and for folks of color as well as folks who enjoy their romance with a Sapphic twist. Sonali Dev’s Incense and Sensibility, the third installment in her The Rajes series following two Indian-American main characters, launched in July 2021 following Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors (2019) and Recipe for Persuasion (2020).
Another take, The Bennett Women by Eden Appiah-Kubi which focuses on a trio of sorority sisters (Black, Filipina, and trans) in a modern take on Pride and Prejudice, debuted in September. Author Uzma Jalaluddin, who wrote a modern Muslim take on Pride and Prejudice called Ayesha At Last in 2019, also returned this year with an updated version of You’ve Got Mail entitled Hana Khan Carries On (April 2021), proving that the trend isn’t just about imitation of the classics but offering a unique twist on any number of beloved tropes and characters.
To briefly share my personal favorites, my top five romances of 2021 are:
The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang: beautiful, heartbreaking, long awaited and breaking a number of boundaries within the traditional romance, if you haven’t read Helen’s work, I highly encourage you to do so. This is one of her most raw and autobiographical works, as she notes, and it touches on themes of grief and loss as much as the need for unconditional love and romance.
Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron: a very funny faux relationship story set in Toronto, Canada and featuring a heroine who bakes sourdough bread and the foot-worshiping man who falls for her, this book has plenty of multicultural flair, family drama, and a big heart.
Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers: another nontraditional tale of romance, this one follows an astrophysicist who has just graduated and wakes up accidentally married in Vegas after a wild night of celebration. Not knowing her new wife at all, she sets out to discover who she married, as well as who she wants to be now that she’s completed her studies and needs to make her own way in the universe.
The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan: can a rabbi and a former sex worker make their relationship work in a world that judges both secular and sacred folks harshly for stepping outside their little boxes? Focusing on prejudices and preconceived notions people may have about both sex workers and Jewish folks, this book brings patience, love, understanding, and high heat to the budding relationship between two apparent opposites who find themselves extremely attracted to each other. What is intimacy, really, and how can two strangers build trust when they’ve both lost faith in different ways?
People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry: best friends who finally get it together and realize they were meant for one another, after all these years of shared summer vacations. What’s not to love? Yeah, it’s basic, but sometimes you just need a happy ending you’ve seen coming from miles away. If you need a reassuring love story, look no further.
And, finally, as author Rebekah Weatherspoon said on Twitter: “Bring back the clinch, normalize healthy love, and for the love of god do not let people shame you for writing or reading stories with happy endings.”