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While so many of us had high hopes for 2021 to be a better year than 2020, it was just as much of a rollercoaster, if not more.

This year, perhaps more than any other, it was difficult to feel hopeful in the face of setbacks on a global scale. But still, we looked for things to put smiles on our faces, to touch our hearts, and to restore our sense of optimism. Nowhere is that more feasible than in the pages of romance novels.

The promise of a happily-ever-after is something we don't get in real life — but it's always there on the pages of these novels that sustain us, entertain us, and most of all, remind us there's always hope to be found if you look hard enough. Here are our top 10 romance novels of 2021 (in no particular order).

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Best Romance of 2021
Credit: Grand Central Publishing

The Perks of Loving a Wallflower by Erica Ridley

Historical fiction is one of romance's most beloved sub-genres, but sometimes it can run the risk of feeling a bit wrapped in gauze. Not so of Erica Ridley's refreshing and feminist Sapphic romance about a non-binary con artist and the charming bluestocking she yearns for. Tommy Wynchester and Phillipa York are brought together by an adventure predicated on securing recognition for the achievements of women, and that aspect of the storytelling is an engrossing romp. But it's the novel's deeper themes of identity and being able to live (and be loved) wholeheartedly as oneself that set it apart.

Best Romance of 2021
Credit: Simon and Schuster

Shipped by Angie Hockman

Angie Hockman made her debut early in 2021 with this workplace-travelogue romance that is deceptively emotional with its patina of a tropical setting. Workaholic Henley Evans is obsessed with getting a promotion, but things get complicated when it requires her to go on a cruise of the Galapagos with her work nemesis, Graeme Crawford-Collins. The two have instant chemistry and banter worthy of a first-rate screwball comedy, but it also grapples with themes of grief, work-life balance, and the risks of opening yourself up to love. Hockman gives readers a literary vacation of the highest order with all the oomph of her emotionally affective storytelling.

Best Romance of 2021
Credit: Scribechick

Reel by Kennedy Ryan

Kennedy Ryan gives a masterclass in romance writing with each book, and Reel is no exception. The behind-the-scenes story of the making of a biopic about (fictional) forgotten jazz singer Dessi Blue. When hotshot director Canon Holt discovers Broadway understudy Neevah Saint, he knows her talent is one-of-a-kind — but he isn't prepared to fall in love with her. Ryan threads the needle of a complicated thread of stories, including on-set life, Neevah and Canon's past trauma and present crackling chemistry, and Dessi Blue's past. But it's her incisive portrayal of chronic illness — Neevah has lupus — that makes Reel so heartrending. There's a bruising understanding of the cost and vulnerability of living life with an open heart — and the rich rewards of choosing it anyway.

Best Romance of 2021
Credit: Simon and Schuster

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

We may have had more of The Bachelor franchise than we knew what to do with in 2021, but this book is the only version of the reality TV fairy-tale you actually need. Set behind the scenes of Ever After, a fictionalized hit reality dating show, The Charm Offensive follows hopeless romantic producer Dev Desphande and human disaster (at least on television) Charlie Winshaw, the hapless new face of the franchise. As Dev coaches Charlie through his anxiety and mental health barriers, the two begin to fall for each in the most swooningly romantic of ways. For those who love (or love to hate) The Bachelor, it's a winking tribute. But it's not just its delectably smart take on that trope, it's the novel's dedication to championing therapy, empathy, and the very real challenges of mental health that makes us want to give this book our rose.

Best Romance of 2021
Credit: Grand Central Publishing

Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron

With this fake dating romp, Farah Heron gave romance readers the most delicious read of the year. And we mean that literally. When Reena Manji enlists her parents' latest matchmaking target, Nadim, to fake an engagement to help her win a couples' cooking contest, she is determined not to fall for him. But romance readers know how silly a goal that is. Instead, as they unpack their complicated relationships with their families, food, and their love for their culture, they find a path to a new level of openness that could make them the perfect pair. As warm and inviting as a perfect loaf of bread, Accidentally Engaged made our mouths water and our hearts sing.

Best Romance of 2021
Credit: No Bird Press

Saint by Sierra Simone

Sierra Simone is consistently one of the bravest, most provocative romance authors working today. She refuses to pull her punches, blazing through taboos, without so much as a glance backward, to use the genre to probe deep questions of faith, healing, and spirituality. Saint enters that canon with its tale of monk Aiden Bell and his quest to determine which is a holier choice — his life as an ascetic monk or his love for Elijah Iverson? The two travel together, investigating matters of the heart and parsing the sacred from the profane. Aiden has to learn the sanctity of love — for Elijah and for himself — to find his own sense of grace. And it's a lesson that will remain etched on our hearts too.

Best Romance of 2021
Credit: Headline

To Love and To Loathe by Martha Waters

There was no romance novel more fun this year than this extremely witty enemies-with-benefits confection. Diana, Lady Templeton, and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham love to bicker with each other more than anything. But they're in denial about the real reason for this crackling repartee — deep-seated feelings for each other that rise to the surface when they decide on a mutually beneficial liaison. It sparkles with its humor and offers a tongue-in-cheek portrait of two self-deprecating, fiercely brilliant people who must work on developing their emotional intelligence. Reading To Love and To Loathe is the literary equivalent of popping a bottle of pink champagne and digging into a box of pastel bon-bons, and really, what more could you ask for?

Best Romance of 2021
Credit: Harlequin

For the Love of April French by Penny Aimes

 Penny Aimes made a splash of a debut with this fluffy, tender love story about trans woman, April, and the cis man who makes her see she's deserving of being so much more than someone just there for a good time. When Dennis Morgan walks into the kink club April considers a second home, she is spooked by the intensity of their immediate connection. But Dennis, despite his own baggage, wants to give April the care and love she's lacked for so long. It's a fresh and vital look at a community underserved by romance (and traditionally published fiction more broadly) with plenty of accessibility for those with less familiarity. But mostly, it's just an unblinking and heartfelt rendering of the challenges and rewards of letting someone see you, all of you — and love you for it.

Best Romance of 2021
Credit: HarperCollins

Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

Second First Impressions is the quietest, least flashy entry on this list and that's what makes it so divine. When Ruthie Midona gets mistaken for a little old lady by hunky tattooed Teddy Prescott, she stars to worry that she's let herself get too set in her ways. Thorne offers readers a delightfully quirky tale of a woman who's found a safety in shielding herself from the real world. There's a heartbreaking fear here, a deep understanding of how trauma can seal us off from the lows of life, but the highs too. Thorne revels in the small stuff, the compulsion to soak up every passing moment, and in that, gives readers both a wondrous love story and a handbook for how to live life to its fullest.

Best Romance of 2021
Credit: HarperCollins

One Week to Claim It All by Adriana Herrera

Herrera gave readers (and more pointedly, reviewers) a forceful reminder to stop underestimating category romance with this prescient and steamy story set in the world of telenovelas. When illegitimate love child Esmeralda Sambrano-Peña unexpectedly inherits her father's media empire, she's determined to prove herself. But major complications ensue in the form of her father's protégé, Rodrigo Almanzar, and her one that got away. As Esme wrestles with questions of trust, redemption, and loyalty, the novel also broaches broader subjects of colorism in the Latinx community, proving that Herrera can always give her readers an essential mix of social commentary and sizzling romance.

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