The 10 best romance novels of 2020
To say we needed happy endings more than ever in 2020 would be a massive understatement.
In a year that saw the COVID-19 pandemic massively disrupt lives around the world and bring a staggering amount of collective lost and mourning, we’ve needed to escape more than ever. Let’s be honest, for most people, reading has been a challenge this year with our mental states all over the place. But romance has been there as a balm, ready for those brief, blissful moments we can actually manage to focus enough to read.
Many of this year’s best titles, with the continued boom of the rom-com renaissance, seemed purposely designed to combat these dark and difficult times. Here are EW’s top 10 romance novels of 2020.
“Fetch” might not ever happen, but 2020 made the raunch-com a thing. Clara Wheaton finds herself on a journey to love and self-discovery when she inadvertently moves in with a porn star, Josh. This premise belies the novel’s stunningly sweet and tender storytelling, an unapologetically vulnerable tale dedicated to divorcing shame from sex. We frequently praise the romance genre as sex positive, but Danan’s debut ratcheted up the discourse on consent, equitable pleasure, and desire. There’s an essential conversation here about de-stigmatizing desire, but it’s one made all the sweeter by the trappings of its endearingly gentle love story. In some ways, The Roommate enacts the process of intimacy itself, knocking readers off their feet with a hard-core premise (and scenes that deliver on the steam) but recognizing that the truly good stuff comes with emotional vulnerability.
Since the “Hot Stuff” column started, romance has continued to evolve in its depiction of who deserves a love story (hint: it’s everyone. Except Nazis). Chloe Liese delivered one of the freshest, most heartfelt romances of the year. Frankie Zeferino has spent her life building emotional walls, thanks to her autism and her rheumatoid arthritis. But when she strikes up a secret workplace romance with hunky hockey player Ren, she has to learn the value of letting someone in. The book sparkles with Liese’s dry, quirky sense of humor, bringing both Ren and Frankie to life with idiosyncratic vigor. The result is a story about two utterly decent people, who feel completely real in their baggage (and Liese writes particularly poignantly of how neurodiversity and chronic illness can color romance). But its true triumph is in its resounding insistence that the things that make us different only make us more lovable.
Typically, flipping the switch from friends to lovers can be a slow burn, but Livesay turns it into a five-alarm fire with this gloriously sexy take. Dr. Nicole Allen has worked her butt off to build the life she knows she deserves. But when she offers to fake a relationship with her best friend Ben to help him dissuade an aggressive ex, sparks fly. Livesay knows how to turn up the heat (her hammock sex is probably the best bedroom scene of the year), but it’s her commitment to her characters that makes the story truly shine. Both Nic and Ben learn to support each other, and Nic refuses to make herself small to find a way to contort herself into fitting into someone else’s dreams. Like Lovers Do is bold and courageous, something utterly unexpected for a Martha’s Vineyard-set friends-to-lovers tale. But like her heroine, Livesay excels at upending expectations to deliver something altogether more rewarding and triumphant.
Every so often I read a book so good — so seemingly effortless in its adept use of language, so deeply heartfelt and mesmerizingly funny — that I want to hurl my laptop into the sea knowing no sentence I write will ever measure up. Boyfriend Material is one of those books. Messy, broken Luc needs to prove himself capable of holding down a healthy relationship to rehab his image (and save his job). When prim and proper Oliver Blackwood enters the picture, they agree to fake a relationship for their mutual benefit. In the process, they fall in love in dizzyingly chaotic fashion, rife with the emotion's true and glorious complexities. Boyfriend Material is wickedly smart, bursting with biting wit, but its secret weapon is its heart, which Hall practically rips from his chest and holds out for readers to plunder. Steeped in yearning, it understands the serious value, quicksilver magic, and worthwhile challenge of opening your heart to someone. It's a book that demands we hold it close and feel its joy.
Talia Hibbert has consistently proved herself one of the most insightful, warmly funny, compassionate authors working today. Take a Hint, Dani Brown only reaffirmed that with its deeply felt story of academic Dani Brown and anxiety-plagued security guard Zaf. When Zaf rescues Dani from a fire drill gone wrong, the two embark on a fake relationship to help boost Zaf’s business. But the two exercise such care with each other, they immediately become the other’s soft place to land. Hibbert is an expert at plumbing life’s greatest obstacles – grief, mental illness, feelings of inadequacy — and how to navigate romantic relationships with, not in spite of them. Here, she spears everything from toxic masculinity to literary criticism, all with her signature wit and empathy, asking (and offering) the best of her characters and her readers.
Raise a margarita to this delectable rom-com that blends its pitch perfect depiction of female friendship with a crackling romance. Alongside her two new friends, Samiah Brooks vows to spend six months working on herself. No romantic distractions. But that gets tested with the arrival of new coworker, the hunky Daniel Collins, himself an undercover agent. Samiah struggles with the pressure to be perfect, but The Boyfriend Project is a firm reminder of the value of allowing others to help us carry the weight of our own expectations. Rochon is breezily funny and adept at banter, but it’s her ability to infuse her storytelling with real-world stakes and her celebratory portrait of female friendship that make The Boyfriend Project one of the best of the year.
Emilly Henry offered readers swooningly romantic manifesto in defense of genre fiction with Beach Read. January Andrews is a bestselling romance novelist; Augustus Everett is a critical darling known for his tomes of literary fiction. When the two former college rivals end up sharing side-by-side lake cabins, they make a bet to take a stab at writing in the other’s genre. But over the course of their experiment, they fall for each other. The sunny cover and blithe title suggest a breezy read, but Henry’s magic trick is to deliver both a sparkling love story and an erudite spearing of literary valuation. Beach Read celebrates the courage it takes to choose joy and happy endings, plumbing the challenges of pushing through emotional paralysis to seize life and cling to hope. It’s a heartfelt take on the vulnerability love requires, but most wonderfully, an astonishing celebration of the beauty of storytelling in all its forms.
Scarlett Peckham’s excoriating first entry in her new Society of Sirens series exposes historical romance’s capacity for radical reinvention. Seraphina Arden (loosely modeled on Mary Wollstonecraft) is the titular rakess, a woman who wields wickedness as a weapon and sexual appetite as armor. When she meets kindly widower Adam Anderson, she vows it will only be a summer fling, until he helps her rediscover that she is worthy of love. The Rakess pulses with female rage, making it one of the most electric, vibrantly alive titles on this list. It interrogates double standards, champions female pleasure, and propels itself forward with righteous fury. Peckham leans into its sense of the Gothic with relish, making its sparks of joy all the brighter and more enticingly dangerous.
Mia Sosa exploits the classic trappings of the rom-com (wedding planning! Oh no, I love my ex’s brother!) to give it a lens as fresh and delectable as an unconventional slice of wedding cake. Wedding planner Carolina Santos faced her worst nightmare when her fiancé dumped her at the altar, but when a new project forces her to partner with his brother/best man, Max (whom she blames for the jilting), it’s a career opportunity she can’t pass up. As Lina and Max work to prove themselves, they can’t help falling for each other. Sosa is an ace at bawdy banter (wordplay like “Big Lick Energy!” and “Stream of cocksciousness!” remains the wittiest of the year). But it’s her warm heart, one that blends aching realism with the zaniness of the rom-com, that makes The Worst Best Man a story that’s easy to lose oneself in.
Adriana Anders delivered the most gripping, suspenseful romance of 2020 with this high-octane chase across the freezing climes of Antarctica. South Pole cook Angel Smith is ready to hit reset on her life and leave the frozen tundra behind when evildoers descend, sending her on a race for her life across the ice with taciturn glaciologist Ford Cooper. Anders blends truly terrifying suspense with high stakes romance, layering the build of Ford and Angel’s relationship deftly alongside the ratcheting tension that starts high and builds to a gripping, propulsive finish. The unfolding mystery will keep readers on the edge of their seat, while the blistering romance is as explosive as they come. Anders is better at almost anyone at navigating the delicate dance of blending full throttle thrills with crackling love scenes, never taking her foot off the gas when it comes to both suspense and steam. Whiteout may have come early in 2020, but it remains one of the most exciting, intricately plotted novels of the year.