Hot stuff: The 8 best romance novels of spring 2023
Spring is in the air — flowers are in bloom (allergies too), and maybe a little romance?
If you're looking for love, we have eight fictional titles that will bring you everywhere from turn-of-the-century Paris to a modern safari in Africa in search of a happily ever after. Don't miss the chance to lose your heart to one of our favorite romance reads of the season.
Ana María and the Fox by Liana De La Rosa
Liana De La Rosa is the latest author to bring the real history of people of color to traditionally published historical romance. This first Luna sisters story follows Ana María Luna Valdés, as she and her younger sisters escape Mexico during the French occupation for the safer, rainier climes of Victorian London. There, she experiences what it's like to live free from the strict rules of her father. She's intoxicated by one Gideon Fox, a biracial man who has elevated himself to Parliament and is dedicated to abolishing the Atlantic slave trade. The two have immediate sparks, but Ana María has a betrothed back home and Gideon can't let anything distract him from his goal — until political conspiracy and danger forces their hands into a marriage of convenience that is anything but. De La Rosa's novel starts with promising vigor, its two protagonists as fiery and intractable as the best romance novel matches often are. The Luna sisters are a force to be reckoned with, each wielding their beauty and smarts in subtly different and effective ways. Gideon Fox is the type of hero that swooning was invented for — handsome, stoic, and noble to a fault. But the novel lags in the middle, taking too long to get to the marriage of convenience, and failing to fully stick the landing. Still, it's rare to see a Victorian romance that feels so vitally alive and contemporary, the threats and costs of colonialism laid bare on the page in a way that feels utterly realistic but not pandering. Yet those very real dangers don't keep the Luna Sisters from finding joy in their lives. The story serves as a poignant reminder that we should seize happiness wherever we may find it — because sometimes it can be the most radical of acts.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
The Portrait of a Duchess by Scarlett Peckham
Scarlett Peckham continues her Society of Sirens series with this long-awaited sophomore entry that both celebrates and upends romance tropes. Painter of radicals and harlots, Cornelia Ludgate prizes her freedom above all else. So when Rafe Goodwood, her husband from her long-ago plot to escape her uncle's oppressive plans, returns to her life, she's determined not to fall in love with him. Rafe and Cornelia need each other to execute their plans for government reform and societal improvement, but they can't resist the pull that brought them together 20 years prior. Peckham has a gift for spearing the conventions of 19th-century British romance fiction, taking a hatchet to the patriarchal, imperialistic values of the era. She does this not merely through enlightened heroes, but also by involving her characters in plots that actively call the status quo into question. Rafe and Cornelia are fascinating additions to her world, as a trainer of horses who rises to the position of duke and a radical, biracial artist disowned by her aristocratic family. The ideas that Peckham wants to explore in her work — feminine power, the hypocrisy of ruination, and the indulgence of desire — are all here. Cornelia is a force to be reckoned with, a woman who has chosen a life of unfettered independence and a commitment to enabling others to seek the same. Rafe is an open wound of want, a man who loves too quickly and too fiercely, and keenly feels the cost of his beautifully abundant heart. At times, Cornelia's hardness, her inability to accept affection from Rafe in any public manner, can verge on extremity. This isn't a judgment on her "unlikeability," but rather a sense that her commitment to such a hard line strains credulity. Peckham also dips into polyamory (still rare in traditionally published romance), as Rafe and Cornelia engage in a threesome and ultimately promise to allow others into their relationship. But on this point, Peckham could have pushed further to really nail that sense of radical love that defines her protagonists. Compared to the blistering fury of The Rakess, The Portrait of a Duchess is a quieter tale, gentler and more measured in its rage. It's sexy as ever, but lacking some of the urgency that defines Peckham's work. Still, it feels almost unfair to hold it to that bar, given that Peckham delivers some of the most interesting, downright wanton writing in the sub-genre even when she's a bit subdued.
Heat rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Jana Goes Wild by Farah Heron
Jana Heron continues her winning record of fun but deeply emotional romances with this safari-set tale. When Jana Suleiman is roped into being a bridesmaid in a wedding in the Serengeti National Park, she's got plenty to worry about between being an introvert trapped in social situations and her 5-year-old daughter. But things get really complicated when her ex and father of her child, Anil Malek, comes along too. Jana never got over Anil, despite a messy breakup upon discovering he was married. Her friends concoct a to-do list for Jana, encouraging her to let loose on the trip, but she never expects for Anil to end up on it. Heron is a master of setting and her affection for Tanzania and the wildlife there brims from every page. It's abundantly evident that she has a special connection to the place, and it makes Jana's world as vibrant as the hot pink bikini that she dares to wear. However, in spite of the adventurous locale, there's a distinct melancholy that permeates the book — a sense that Jana has been told she's a wet blanket so many times that she's internalized it to an unhealthy degree. Beyond that, she's built her walls so high in regards to Anil that she often won't see reason when it comes to his actions and motivations. This can be frustrating, particularly because we never get his point of view in the story. Though the novel's central conceit is about Jana finding her way back to a happier life, it is challenging to hang in with a heroine who always believes the worst of herself. Fortunately, Heron's warm writing style, her gift for scene setting, and Anil's hunky hot dad energy make up for those shortcomings. Plus, any author that references ABBA this much is a super trouper in our book. Jana Goes Wild is not as wacky a romp as its packaging might suggest, but it still has a great deal to say about self-love, forgiveness, and healing.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Something Wild and Wonderful by Anita Kelly
Anita Kelly's follow-up to their warm, heartfelt Love & Other Disasters packs a hell of an emotional wallop. Something Wild & Wonderful follows Alexei Lebedev and Ben Caravalho's journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alexei is trying to heal after coming out to his parents and being essentially disowned. Ben, who recently trained as a nurse, is also looking for his own brand of medicine in nature, trying to distance himself from a string of toxic relationships. When Ben and Alexei first meet, their connection is a tentative one — Alexei mistrusts strangers, while Ben is open and guileless. But as Ben's kindheartedness seeps into Alexei's own heart, the two fall for each other. Kelly's writing is vivid and picturesque, bringing to life the sights and sounds (and even smells) of the PCT with deep affection for nature. The novel is steeped in the culture of hiking, but even if your idea of being outdoorsy is reading outside with a glass of wine in hand, there are plenty of points of connection to be found. Because for Ben and Alexei, the trek isn't about the trail so much as it's about each other — the gentle ways in which they fumble toward one another, abjectly afraid of heartbreak. It can, at times, be difficult to stomach the intolerance and ignorance Alexei has faced from within his own family. The joy of the burgeoning love between Alexei and Ben is sometimes overshadowed by Alexei's own struggle to make peace with himself. There's a melancholy that pervades the storytelling, a dark cloud that feels sometimes impenetrable for both the reader and the characters. Kelly threaded that needle perfectly in Love & Other Disasters. But here the joy of romance, of claiming one's happy ending unapologetically, can get mired in those harsher realities. Walking the entire Pacific Crest Trail feels like an insurmountable challenge, and in some ways, so is the task Kelly set themselves — but the effort is half the battle anyway.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
Happy Place by Emily Henry
Emily Henry does it yet again with Happy Place, a romance novel that treads more fully into the territory of women's fiction. It follows Harriet and Wyn, the perfect couple who has actually been broken up for five months. When they reunite at their annual summer getaway in Maine, they have to pretend to still be together for the sake of making sure their last week spent at the cottage (which is for sale) is a special one. But sometimes pretending starts to feel an awful lot like reality. The book pings back and forth between key moments in Harriet and Wyn's past — their first meeting, the split itself, etc. — and the present day on the summer trip. Though it has moments of hilarity, arguing over who will get the bed or the floor in their shared room, for instance, by and large, Happy Place is a more somber entry from Henry. The breakup and their wistful regrets pervade the storytelling. Harriet has never seen a marriage that works, while Wyn has only known the domestic bliss of his parents. But through the attempt to recapture what has made the cabin their "happy place," they discover that it's not about a specific time or place, but rather the people you've made the memories with. It's equally a love story about friendship, the ways in which it fluctuates and evolves, as it is about a second chance for Harriet and Wyn. In some ways, the things that broke them as a couple are the same things threatening their friendship — an unwillingness to accept change, a striving to live up to expectations, an inability to communicate. The trip, in recreating many of their traditions for better or worse, exposes these vulnerable spots, only to give them the springboard to build back even stronger. The book abounds with Henry's signature wit, her one-liners and asides reading like a late-night text from a best friend. Sometimes they're full of gossip, other times much needed advice — but they're always welcome and oh-so soothing in this wild world. Happy Place is not as interested in spearing literary tropes as some of Henry's previous novels, but it is heartfelt and cozy, its themes of second chances and self-love as familiar and vibrant as the cartoon covers of her books. It's a novel about nostalgia, the ways in which longing for our past can derail our future — and a paean to friendship, to stupid inside jokes only the people you love most understand, and to long, lazy summer days. All of that creates a protective shell for the vulnerable story at its center — of learning to listen to the wishes of one's heart and having the courage to act on them. Henry's ability to write with wry humor bruised with the melancholy of life is her innate gift, and that's what makes each new title from her one of our most trusted happy places.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Once More With Feeling by Elissa Sussman
If Britney Spears had a second chance romance with JC Chasez while starring in a Broadway musical, the result would be something like Once More With Feeling. Sussman, in her sophomore novel, crafts a pop culture redolent tribute to 1990s pop and musical theater. Back in the day, Katee Rose was a pop star of the highest order, but her life and career imploded when she cheated on her boyfriend, Ryan LeNeve of boy band CrushZone, with another one of his bandmates, Cal Kirby. And Ryan promptly went to the press with the story. Now, she's ready to fulfill her lifelong dream of starring in a Broadway musical written by her best friend Harriet. The only trouble is that the director is Cal, the man who helped blow up her life and left her holding the smoldering pieces. Sussman grants us a window into Cal and Katee's budding romance amidst the for-publicity relationship with Ryan. But the majority of our time is spent in the present day where Cal and Katee (now using her real name Kathleen Rosenberg) try to resist the still volatile attraction between them. Sussman's take on the nerve-wracking world of Broadway auditions, rehearsals, workshops, and out-of-town performances showcases her abundant love for the art form. But it's her commentary on the misogyny and sexism at play in both Kathleen's past and present that truly makes the novel sing. She is clearly commenting on the problematic end of Britney Spears' relationship with Justin Timberlake and the ways in which systemic sexism and Timberlake's machinations villainized Spears. It's a smart take on stardom, gendered expectations, and the ways in which the hardest person to forgive is often ourselves. Cal and Kathleen positively crackle with their chemistry, and there's a lovely through-line about friendship and jealousy between Kathleen and Harriet. Once More With Feeling is as fun and frothy as a Britney concert mashed up with a musical comedy. As hilarious and pointed as many of the scenes are, there's also a deep well of emotion as the characters reckon with avoiding past mistakes while honoring the truth of their hearts. There's no need to do it once more, as the book is already brimming with plenty of feeling — warm, engrossing, and satisfying in every way.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Zora Books Her Happy Ever After by Taj McCoy
Taj McCoy offers readers a yummy love triangle with her latest — placing bookstore owner Zora between hotshot author Lawrence and his best friend, academic Reid. Zora has thrown herself into making her independent bookstore in her Washington, D.C., neighborhood a success, and more importantly, a pillar of her community. When Lawrence comes to the store for an event, sparks immediately fly between them — even if Zora can't stop thinking about his grumpy friend who seemed to resent being there. Zora waffles between both men, dating them simultaneously (with their knowledge) until secrets are revealed, pushing her to choose. McCoy writes with a vibrant sense of setting, and Zora's sense of humor makes the book a charming diversion. Her relationship with her cheeky grandmother and best friend is particularly delightful. It's rare to read a romance novel that invests so heavily in a love triangle with both love interests as viable choices until the climax. McCoy mostly manages to sell it, though Lawrence feels untrustworthy from the word go in ways that can make it frustrating when Zora doesn't see through him. The novel also tends to fall frequently into the trap of telling instead of showing, often getting mired in exposition. But it's still a romp offering readers a heroine who knows what she deserves and two men competing to measure up.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera
Adriana Herrera returns to her Leonas with this fiery, heartfelt tale of two women daring to claim the lives they want. Manuela del Carmen Caceres Galvan is an artist, and she's thrilled to have her paintings shown in the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. When a business deal brings her into the path of an irresistible duchess, Cora, she resolves to make the most of a life of passion before returning to an arranged marriage in South America. But Manuela and Cora unleash a desire and longing neither of them have ever felt before, leading them to question their determination to live by the dictates of society's rules. Herrera is a master of historical research and detail, and she takes readers deep into the world of turn-of-century Paris and the lesbian enclaves that flourished there. In the clubs and salons of Montmartre, women could live freely, pursuing careers and relationships they chose. Cora introduces Manuela to this world of unfettered possibility, a world she had only permitted herself to live on the fringes of. But when Manuela embraces it wholeheartedly, reveling in the freedom it offers, it nudges Cora toward a life on her own terms too. Herrera writes, as always, with style and vigor, her pages filled with colorful tableaus of historical whimsy. She is extraordinarily gifted at celebrating the passion and escapism of romance, while never failing to ground it with context and consideration. Manuela and Cora are both exiles, by virtue of who they love and their home countries. Herrera probes that status with resonance, picking apart Manuela's devotion to her familial responsibilities with the precision of a needleworker. Cora and Manuela have a more contained romance than Herrera wrote in A Caribbean Heiress in Paris, their assignations in luxurious bedrooms and secret nightclubs. But that doesn't make the storytelling any less enticing, particularly with its emphasis on not only subverting the patriarchy but refusing to engage with it on any terms. Herrera's latest is a swoony manifesto on living life openly and proudly, and the enormous rewards that come with such gigantic risks.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥