A Quick Introduction
“She was carrying two coffees and a donut bag, and right then and there, he fell in love."
-Jill Shalvis "Animal Magnetism"
Before we begin, I need to be clear about something: romance novels are fantastic. I mean this both literally and colloquially--Real life doesn't follow the romance novel script. The type of raging, everlasting, constant passion that slinks through the pages of every romance novel I've come across belongs in the same fantastic realm as Hogwarts and Pern, and we all understand this. We don't get to the end of a romance novel and think "one day...THIS WILL BE MY LIFE!" I swear.
On top of that, there are certainly things that I don't care for in the genre. The rather short length and the fact that the narrative is supposed to focus on the relationship between the two main characters means that the romance moves along really quickly. Then there's the fact that the end-game is marriage (and, time permitting, squalling little brats), so the two main characters have to fall in complete, unbreakable love by the last page. There's no room for "Ok, so we have pretty excellent sex, but let's just see how dating goes for awhile." or "You know, I'm not really into the whole 'marriage' thing." Sometimes the sexual initiation is carried out with a little less finesse than I like, and gender roles are adhered to pretty stringently.
All that aside, there's a lot to love about the love genre. I bring these things up not because they're terribly important, but because the best way to present a decent argument is to acknowledge when the opposing side brings up a good point--these are, undoubtedly, good points. They're also not enough to discourage me from coming back to the romance genre time and again. For every book that I have to put down because it's just too shmoopy, I can read ten others that are perfectly acceptable.
A good romance leaves me feeling content, happy, and about as far from intellectually stimulated as it's possible to get--a good thing, since the last seven and a half years of my life have been sacrificed to the dense, intellectual literature that high schools and colleges like to make you read. This isn't to say that I don't adore literature of all kinds (I do) but it can become a bit much. Sometimes you need a break from Nabokov and James Joyce to have some brain-meltingly sentimental romance. To me, a good bodice-ripper (disclaimer: I don't read novels with bodices, as a general rule) to break up the intensity of academic literature is as essential as tea on weekends and cat-snuggles.
There's a time and a place for Nabokov, few and far between though they may be.
The Queen of Romance
When I reach for a romance, I reach for Roberts. (c)
I can't tell you what she's done for the genre, because I honestly don't know; I have heard that she brought romance out of the virginal bodice-ripping and into the twenty-first century, and that's always a good thing. She's a fabulous writer who has consistently pounded out quality romance for over thirty years--something so obscenely huge that I can't even wrap my mind around it. Much like my college tuition. Hahaha. Haaaa....
I can safely say that Nora's definitely my favorite romance novelist, so without further ado I present:
A Nora Roberts Rec List for the Bodice-Ripper Virgin
"You go to California, or you go to hell, but you stay away from this boy, and you stay away from me."
-Nora Roberts, "Inner Harbor"
It's a very well-paced book. It's well-researched, and the plot is unique and interesting. The two main characters are some of my favorites, and the mystery is a mystery right until the end. Of Roberts' books, this is the only book that I really enjoyed despite not being part of a series.
The Chesapeake Bay Saga (1999)
Sea Swept, Rising Tides, Inner Harbor, and Chesapeake Blue
It's an intense series, but the novels are long, the characters are really well developed, and the female characters are fabulous--not to mention that the writing is gripping, and the setting of a small town on the Chesapeake Bay is lovely. Highly recommended, although admittedly darker than Nora usually goes for.
The Three Sisters Trilogy (2002)
Dance Upon the Air, Heaven and Earth, and Face the Fire
Nora likes the idea of the supernatural, and she uses it to great effect in this series. The magic is well-implemented, and it affects the three main characters in different ways. Nell, the heroine of Face the Fire, comes to the island after running away from her abusive husband, while Mia and Ripley have lived there their whole lives. Mia embraces her powers, while Ripley rejects them (and Mia) because she is frightened of what she might be capable of.
This was one of the first series I read when I first started getting into the romance novel genre, and I've read it several times since. It's a great first series, because it really highlights the fact that romance can be the biggest genre-hopper out there, incorporating anything from supernatural material to espionage and crime.
The MacKade Brothers (1995)
The Return of Rafe MacKade, The Pride of Jared MacKade, The Heart of Devin MacKade,
and The Fall of Shane MacKade
It's an older series, but it's still quite relevant. The history is incorporated really well, as is the paranormal element. Bonus: there's a bed-and-breakfast (another theme that Nora Roberts seems to enjoy using) and antiques, two of my favorite things. It's hard to go wrong with this series, and like the Three Sisters Island trilogy, it was one of the first romance series I read. Don't worry, though--it's still excellent.