If ever there was a year when we really needed an escape, it was 2018. Luckily for us, the romance genre was bursting with swoon-worthy new releases from debut authors and legends in the genre alike. Whether you prefer your romance with heavy doses of angst and real world stakes or you love to take a journey to the past or you’re feeling you need the uplift of a sparkling romantic comedy, the best of romance in 2018 had something to offer for you. The year’s primary trend was marked by the return of the rom-com, which offered up plenty of genuinely hilarious, touching, breezy romantic comedies to page through. No matter what scratches your romantic itch, click through to see EW’s 10 best romance novels of the year.
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
Guillory had one of the buzziest debuts of the year with The Wedding Date, an effervescent rom-com complete with an elevator meet-cute. When Alexa and Drew meet in a broken-down elevator, he invites her to be his plus-one to a wedding on a whim – but the two find themselves falling harder and faster than they ever thought possible. Guillory declared herself as a major force on the romance scene with this thoughtful interracial romance that both plumbs real-world issues like race and gender politics, while still offering up plenty of swoon-worthy moments. She writes of everything from Alexa’s professional ambition to Drew’s cocksureness to both characters’ delectable love affair with food with a delicious and sparkling wit and deep affection. With The Wedding Date, Guillory offers a first date with an author that will easily keep readers coming back for more.
It Takes Two by Jenny Holiday
Many year-end lists have highlighted Holiday’s first novel in her Bridesmaids Behaving Badly series, the frothy rom-com bliss that is One and Only. But the second book, It Takes Two, is our top-10 choices simply because we can’t resist its slightly pricklier heroine, Wendy. This second-chance romance between the infuriatingly practical and direct Wendy and the first book’s protagonist’s younger brother, Noah, is the stuff the romantic comedy dreams are made of. Still smarting from Noah’s inadvertent rejection in high school, Wendy uses the forced proximity of her best friend Jane’s wedding to compete with Noah to throw the best bachelor(ette) party while trying to deny their long-dormant attraction. Holiday is a consummate master of witty banter, her words flying off the page with the zest and vigor of a classic Hollywood screwball comedy. She matches this effervescent wit with an equally compelling unhealed wound in each of her characters, making readers work for their moments of hard-won vulnerability. It’s a testament to Holiday’s skill that she perfectly balances the rom-com froth with the deeper, more heart-tugging emotional moments in a way that feels utterly believable. For those that dream of the one that got away, It Takes Two is a fizzy, delectable delight and the most divine escape of the year.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
No romance novel this year has a better backstory than The Kiss Quotient. While researching and writing this reverse Pretty Woman tale of a woman with high-functioning autism hiring an escort to teach her about intimacy, Hoang went on a journey of self-discovery and received a similar diagnosis to her heroine. But even without that incredible story, Hoang delivers one of the most empathetic, delightful reads of the year. Stella Lane’s idiosyncrasies and her sensitivity over them are written with crisp, heartrending detail. Hoang takes the romantic trope of loving your partner for their imperfections to the next level in this warm, compulsively readable novel. Much like her heroine, Hoang writes with a direct and frank simplicity that proves an effective channel to the carefully calibrated emotions lying at the heart of the story. Stella fears she cannot enjoy sex because her neurodivergent tendencies set her apart, but it’s those tendencies startling relatability that pack a true wallop. Equal parts crackling love scenes and emotional, unflinchingly honest conversations, Hoang’s debut is as effortlessly beautiful as one of Stella’s favorite elegant math equations.
Sinner by Sierra Simone
With this sizzling, provocative tale, Sierra Simone offers up one of the most erotic reads of the year. Sean Bell considers himself a “sinner,” a man who has forsaken God and his faith to worship at the altar of capitalism. But he is shaken to his core when old family friend Zenny Iverson asks him to show her what she’ll be missing before she takes her vows of celibacy and becomes a nun. Simone’s books are not for the faint of heart, and Sinner pulses with a heady eroticism throughout. In exploring the intersection of carnality, desire, and spirituality, Simone grapples with questions of faith, God, and grief in more moving and profound ways than the most gifted of theologians. When many romances still can’t escape the implications of morality in their engagement with sex, Simone writes God into the most instinctual and human of all acts. For anyone who’s ever grappled with loss, with how grief can test one’s faith, and with what constitutes a sin, Simone offers up a heart-wrenching, powerful examination of the human heart and soul. Sinner is a masterful probing of faith, love, sex, and grief from an author who understands that to be truly human is to find the divine in the most unexpected of places. God bless this heartbreaking, cleansing, soul-renewing, tour-de-force of a book.
A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry captured the world’s attention in 2018 with their real-world fairy-tale, but its Alyssa Cole’s royal romance that should be crowned as the best regal happily-ever-after this year. When orphaned grad student Naledi Smith starts receiving emails claiming she is the betrothed queen of an African nation, she dismisses them a spam. But they’re real – and Prince Thabiso of Thesolo has come to New York City to claim his bride. When Naledi mistakes him for a coworker, Thabiso jumps at the chance to get to know someone without his royal title. Cole’s romance is a fairy-tale utterly grounded in real-world politics where compassion, intelligence, and thoughtfulness are as essential traits for a prince and princess as beauty or birthright. With her brainym scientific heroine, Cole grapples with the genuine stresses and responsibilities of royal life, while offering up a fictional African nation that gives Wakanda a run for its money. Ledi and Thesolo bond over their shared loneliness, helping each other to see they are worthy of love while both making each other into the best versions of themselves. The palpable joy of their romance bursts from every page all the while tempered by Cole’s incisive understanding of the human heart and the growing pains of learning to accept the love we deserve.
Stripped by Zoey Castile
In this book oft described as Magic Mike meets Bridesmaids, Zoey Castile gave readers a frothy rom-com, all the while forcing them to reexamine their stereotypes about sex workers and their adjacent ilk. When elementary school teacher Robyn Flores finds a sparkly thong in her laundry bag, she realizes there’s been a mix-up with her hot new neighbor Zac Fallon, who also happens to be a stripper. The book itself is a striptease, promising heat and sexy romance in its early pages, before laying its characters bare and asking them (and readers) to reevaluate their assumptions about what they think will make them happy. Castile is unflinching in her demand that we take Fallon’s career seriously, blending plenty of lust-worthy moments for the female gaze with some hard love and a blazing sense of professional pride. The book is one of the naughtiest on this list, but that’s shared in equal measure by its big, earnest heart. Stripped begins as a rom-com escape, but it’s one of the most unexpected delights of the year in the way its crisp, vivid writing grapples with truths of the body and heart with unapologetic clarity and verve.
Duchess by Design by Maya Rodale
With this Gilded Age tale, Maya Rodale taps into a current of social upheaval with a romance between a New York City dressmaker and a financially insolvent Duke. Adeline Black is Rodale’s pitch-perfect heroine, a designer who shocks society with her commitment to putting pockets in women’s dresses. Determined to achieve her dreams, Adeline challenges Brandon Fiennes, the handsome Duke of Kingston, to do some serious soul-searching to be worthy of her esteem. Duchess by Design is as much a tale of sisterhood and Adeline’s deep affection for her fellow women, as it is a traditional romance. Rodale interrogates the limitations of historical women’s lives, pushing her hero to confront seismic change in society and culture. This romance feels the most urgent, of-its-moment release of the year, despite being set a century before our present time. Rodale is unflinching in her assessment of the indignities women must endure (big and little) in their lives, but also subversively, outrageously joyous in her trust in the world-changing power of love. And there’s no more fulfilling happily-ever-after than that affirmation.
Scoring the Player’s Baby by Naima Simone
Naima Simone scored one hell of a touchdown with this entry in her WAGs series. Kim Matlock has sworn off professional football players after her marriage to one ended in infidelity, but she can’t resist the rock-hard bod of Ronin Palamo, agreeing to a no-strings attached smoking hot one night stand. Things get complicated when Kim discovers she’s pregnant with Ronin’s baby. Simone offers up one of the most achingly romantic and vulnerable romances of the year, taking the trope of accidental pregnancy and grounding it in real-world emotion with delicacy that avoids any whiff of histrionics. While plenty of romances made me feel deeply this year, this was only one of two that brought me to tears, the hard-won happily-ever-after and its attendant romantic gesture an emotional release of epic proportions. Simone balances crackling, electric love scenes with exquisitely rendered characters caught in emotional turmoil. With all the breathlessness and beauty of a perfect football pass, she delivers one of the best of the year.
Wicked and the Wallflower by Sarah MacLean
If Sarah MacLean writes a new book and it doesn’t make your top 10 list, did the year even really happen? MacLean launches her new “Bareknuckle Bastards” series, which takes readers into a darker, grittier side of London in the Covent Garden Underworld. Devil plans to use wallflower Felicity Faircloth as bait to lay a trap for revenge years in the making, but things get complicated when he finds Felicity’s quirks, including her penchant for lockpicking and fascination with his dark side, utterly irresistible. MacLean uses her historical narratives to interrogate everything from classism to gender roles, crafting modern fairy-tales that offer up slightly subversive happily-ever-afters in their full-hearted embrace of the explicitly political nature of women’s desire and pleasure. Her ferocity and literary gusto know no bounds, all of which are on brilliant, elegant, intoxicating display in this tempting gem of a novel.
The Ones Who Got Away by Roni Loren
A school shooting might seem a strange inciting incident for one of the most life-affirming romances of the year, but it’s a testament to Roni Loren’s writing that it not only works, it soars. Olivia “Livvy” Arias is a reformed high school rebel from the “wrong side of the tracks” who once dated her high school golden boy, Finn Dorsey, in secret. When a documentary about a shooting at their senior prom reunites them, the two grapple with trauma, fear, and self-doubt while rekindling a connection they once thought lost forever. Loren expertly plums the limits of tragedy without ever feeling maudlin or opportunistic, instead painting a picture of what it requires to break through trauma to find a longed for happy ending and make peace with the wounds of your past when you’ve allowed them to control you. She perfectly calibrates angst with fiery love scenes, offering up a truly inspiring tale of second chances and the courage it takes to seize them. In a world plagued by the horrors of gun violence, Loren finds hope amidst the noise.
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