By Maureen Lee Lenker
December 23, 2019 at 10:30 AM EST
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Illustration by EW

Romance was more important than ever in 2019. In a year beset by impeachment trials, natural disasters, and more, it was essential to have plenty of happily ever afters to escape into. The best romances of the year reflected our lives back to us, tackled some of our most pressing issues, and still promised us a happy ending in spite of it all.

There were plenty of trends — rom-coms galore! Illustrated covers! — but just as many titles that stepped outside the box or bucked expectations, offering readers something fresh and exciting. Romances this year tackled everything from chronic illness to the perils of CTE and concussion protocol in professional football to the dreams of first-generation immigrants, offering up crucial reminders that everyone is worthy of love. These books made us cry, made us swoon, made us fan ourselves, and made us believe in the power of love. Here are the 10 best romance novels of 2019.

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

Kensington

 

Coming in just under the wire with a Dec. 31 release, Love Lettering easily earns its place here. This gem of a novel is like a hand-crafted invitation bursting with artistry, lyrical flourishes, and moments of exquisite beauty from the moment you crack the seal. Meg Mackworth is a professional artist/letterer, who designs everything from fancy planners to wedding invitations. When Reid Sutherland storms back into her life, demanding an answer as to how she knew his marriage would fail (and why she left a code suggesting as much in his wedding program), Meg spirals but finds an unexpected companion in Reid. It’s a love letter (pun intended) to New York City, creativity, and finding the person who fills in your cracks in all the right places. As lushly crafted and designed as one of Meg’s hand-lettered pages, the novel will sweep you into its holy litany of letters and keep you under its inky spell for days after.

Trashed by Mia Hopkins

Little Stone Press

One of the promises of romance is its potential to prove that we are all deserving of love, to convince us that a happily ever after is possible even if we’re not used to seeing ourselves depicted as such. Mia Hopkins’ Trashed doubles down on this promise with this breathtaking tale of ex-con and former gang member Eddie Rosas. Fresh out of prison, Eddie connects with beautiful chef Carmen, and when he ends up in her kitchen six months later, can’t resist the chemistry that led to their electric one-night stand. But the ghosts of his past, and the gang that doesn’t want to let him go, threaten to tear apart the fragile connection they’ve built. Hopkins did extensive research on the communities she writes of, resulting in a heart-rending tale crafted with sensitivity, emotional detail, and grace. Trashed offers a stark look at the cost of gentrification, judging a book by its cover, and the true courage it takes to chase your dreams against all odds. It’s a beautiful portrait of a vibrant community replete with compelling messages of forgiveness and redemption, a heart-shattering reminder of how love in all its forms can be the ultimate salvation.

Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean

HarperCollins

It’s MacLean’s third year running on this list, but can we help it if she wrote what might be the best book of her career in 2019? Brazen and the Beast follows Hattie, a young woman hell-bent on claiming her future, including her father’s successful shipping business as her own. When she meets one of the Bareknuckle Bastards of Covent Garden, Whit a.k.a. “Beast,” the pair’s combustible chemistry throws off her well-measured plans for her “Year of Hattie” in the most delicious of ways. Somehow, yet again, MacLean spins a tale of feminist magic and rage that pulses with historical detail and invites readers to embrace their muchness. Brazen and the Beast is a rallying cry for anyone who’s ever walked that delicate balance of feeling too much and not enough, and a tribute to the true measure of partnership. Reading it is a release and a relief, with the chance to luxuriate in its warm, witty eroticism and its wildly radical endorsement of the power of seizing the life you truly deserve, rather than the one you’ve been convinced to accept. May we all be so brazen as to take a shot at our own “Year of Hattie” and carry the vim and vigor contained in these pages in our hearts as a reminder of how to stand by the courage of our convictions.

Nightchaser by Amanda Bouchet

Sourcebooks

This sci-fi romance is a blazingly bright space opera, streaking across the metaphorical sky of its pages with the fizzy effervescence of a firework show. Bursting with galactic overlords and space scoundrels who leave us weak at the knees, Bouchet’s novel is both cinematic in scope and heart-pounding in its immediacy with its underdog tale. Tess Bailey is the most wanted woman in the galaxy as captain of a crew of rebels that hurtle through space stealing supplies for the resistance. She meets her match in bounty hunter Shade Ganavan, who possesses all the swagger and charm of Han Solo. Bouchet’s action sequences are flawless, vivid, and exciting, only matched by her gift for witty banter between her wise-cracking, kick-ass protagonists. Nightchaser is a breathlessly romantic, action-packed, space adventure that flings you into a galaxy far, far away with gusto. Truly out of this world.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Avon Books

Hibbert offers a guidebook and testament to the compassion we’ve carried in our hearts since closing the back cover. Get a Life, Chloe Brown follows chronically ill Chloe Brown as she attempts to “get a life,” checking off items on a list designed to shake her out of the play-it-safe doldrums her illness has wrought. When she crosses paths with her building superintendent “Red” Morgan, the two clash and then connect, fusing a love story built on gentleness, soft places to land, and empathy. Throughout, Hibbert walks the line between combustible humor and bruising reality, exploring the peculiarities of invisible wounds. Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a powerful reminder that no matter how broken you feel, it is possible to put those pieces back together with tender care. It’s a warm, laugh-filled, life-affirming tribute to the hard work and rewards of healing, honoring the courage it requires to love oneself.

Well Met by Jen De Luca

Berkley

Hot pirate cosplay and Shakespeare-based flirtation — what else can we say? The novel follows Emily, a woman nursing her heart after an ugly breakup, as she volunteers at a local Renaissance Faire for the summer. There, she meets Simon, the uptight organizer who suddenly becomes all the more appealing when he dons the leather vest and tight pants of his piratical Faire persona, Captain Blackthorne. DeLuca’s Ren Faire setting is refreshing and inventive, providing a vibrant backdrop that bursts off the page with its turkey legs and bustling taverns. She has a gift for banter and crafting grumpy heroes with secret soft sides. Well Met is a playful romance that also tackles heavy subjects like grief and abandonment with a gentle hand, showcasing DeLuca’s range and ample skill. From its opening lines about “wench life,” it grabs you with its wit, its charmingly specific obsessions and references, and its undercurrent of emotion. DeLuca’s voice is zippy, playful, hysterically funny, and unabashedly geeky, an essential addition to the romance landscape. Well Met is a mead-soaked Shakespearian romp of a debut that left us shouting “huzzah.”

The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker

Carina Press

 

Lucy Parker earns a standing ovation for the latest in her West End set London celebrities series. The Austen Playbook throws together sparkling trappings of British literature, from its Agatha Christie country house mystery to its Austen-infused theatricals. Eternally sunny actress Freddy Carlton finds herself plopped onto the country estate of her nemesis, curmudgeonly critic James “Griff” Ford-Griffin when she signs on to play Lydia Bennet in a live television event filming there. Parker nails the push and pull of their opposites-attract chemistry, complicating matters with the emergence of a life-altering family secret that impacts them both. Parker’s voice is earnest and droll, one that lends her novels a breathless specificity that allows you to get lost in the trappings of this world. The Austen Playbook is a fizzy mystery, one that pays tribute to emotional resiliency and the value of a truly supportive partner. It perfectly balances its whodunnit aspects with its swoony romance, delivering a theatrical tale that goes down as smoothly as a warm cup of tea. Rom-coms are the hot commodity in romance at the moment, but Parker is the rarest of gifts — an author who can skillfully balance both sides of that equation, promising humor and romance in equal, utterly delightful measure.

Fumbled by Alexa Martin

Penguin

Alexa Martin scores a touchdown with her second novel, a tale that unflinchingly tackles the costs and risks of CTE and football injuries while never losing sight of its heady central romance. Poppy has spent 10 years believing pro football player T.K. abandoned her and their baby in favor of his gridiron dreams, but when the two unexpectedly reconnect, she discovers the error of her assumptions. Fumbled is a beautiful second-chance romance, one that sidesteps the most problematic aspects of the secret baby trope to celebrate the unconditional love of the two parents at its heart. But most poignantly, the novel addresses the biggest challenges facing football today — the physical and emotional toll it takes on players and their families. Martin doesn’t balk at exploring the realities of the multimillion-dollar industry that treats its players as commodities to be bought and sold. She does all this, while never losing the buoyancy of her breezy writing style. She consistently renders the sensation of being enveloped in the humor and warmth of some wine time with your bestie. Fumbled plays out like a great football game, hitting where it hurts in the most necessary of ways while still offering hard-won, ecstatic moments of joy and celebration.

American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera

Carina Press

With American Dreamer, Adriana Herrera serves up one of the most tantalizing debuts of the year. Dominican Republican immigrant Nesto Vasquez relocates to Ithaca to take a shot at establishing the Afro-Caribbean food truck of his dreams, only to cross paths with shy children’s librarian Jude, nursing his family’s rejection of his sexuality. Herrera dives deep into the injustices and indignities that prove systemic obstacles to a happily ever after, exploring the social and political challenges facing the LGBTQ and immigrant communities. Her tale is one of resilience and hope, reflecting the hard-won victories of those who find themselves the target of hate because of their sexual identity or immigrant roots. She depicts the challenges with unflinching honesty, making her happy ending all the more satisfying. In her delicious writing, Herrera proves why it is essential that romance broaden who it deems worthy of a love story, offering up a painstaking, bittersweet, joy-soaked tale that pulses with socio-political immediacy and mouthwatering descriptions of food to boot.  

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue is one of 2019’s best pieces of literature period — a royal romance with a fizzy effervescence that leaves the reader soaked in a champagne haze of frothy delight. As the first son of the United States, Alex Claremont-Diaz is a wise-cracking smartass with high-minded political aspirations — and he hates the uptight Prince Henry of England. When an international incident forces the two to feign a friendship, the pair end up falling for each other in a breathtaking, soul-consuming rush that swings wildly between irrepressible lust and the joys of discovering the small idiosyncrasies and personality quirks that take hold of their heart one by one. McQuiston situates the two in history (history, huh?), including real historical letters between queer lovers, while also offering readers a revisionist view of the 2016 election that is both bittersweet and bursting with hope. Her writing twinkles in its vibrancy, toeing its way between wry, sarcastic humor and an unadulterated earnestness. Sincerity is something often sorely lacking in our modern world, but McQuiston delivers a love story soaked in it. Red, White & Royal Blue is the political fairy tale we needed this year, a glitter-soaked, unabashedly swoony love story that dares to imagine love can truly win out and hope is an entity more precious than gold. Every letter of this love story will be imprinted on our hearts for years to come.

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