Here’s the thing: although I’ve never had a date on Valentine’s Day, I’m not actually opposed to the concept. I absolutely love love, and corny as it is, a day devoted to celebrating whatever that means to you and your significant other isn’t a bad thing! We could all use a little more love in the world!
But if you, like me, find yourself without plans this February 14th and want to mark the occasion anyway, what better way to do so than by picking up a romance novel? The genre has seen a huge uptick in popularity thanks to platforms like Tik Tok making certain titles go viral, or books like Bridgerton being adapted for the screen.
With that in mind, I present my top 14 picks for—mostly recent—love stories to check out this Valentine’s Day.
The Bridgerton Series by Julia Quinn
This one might feel like a no-brainer, especially with the Netflix series propelling this charming series right to the tops of everyone’s TBR piles. But for those still hesitant about embarking on an eight-book journey, let this list be your encouragement to take the plunge.
Most are probably familiar with the plot of the first book, The Duke and I, which formed the basis for the first season of the television series. With the second season set to follow the plot of The Viscount Who Loved Me, the second book, the timing could not be better.
Set among the titular Bridgerton family, and spanning approximately a decade altogether, each of the books in the series follows one of the siblings through the ups and downs of finding love among London’s high society in the early 1800s.
The first four books of the series—including the two mentioned above as well as An Offer From a Gentleman and Romancing Mr. Bridgerton — function very well as a quartet, with threads of their stories interweaving. And the tropes. Oh, the tropes. Naturally, these are present in the series as well, but in the books where the focus is solely on the core couple they jump out all the more.
It might be a bit much to read 8 books on Valentine’s Day, true, but there are 40 full days between then and the season two premiere!
Losing It by Cora Carmack
Cora Carmack is an underrated gem of a romance author. Though contemporary new adult romance dominates the genre nowadays — or at the very least, is much more readily available — her book Losing It, as well as the two follow-ups Faking It and Finding It, came out in the early 2010s, when these things weren’t quite so mainstream.
Losing It, her debut novel, follows Bliss Edwards, a young woman on the cusp of graduating from college. The only one of her friends who has yet to go all the way, she’s determined to do something about it on the eve before her final semester begins. Things are going just fine with the lovely man she meets at the bar until she panics and asks him to leave. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue, of course, if she didn’t walk into class the next day and see that the same man happens to be her new, visiting professor.
The utterly delightful rom-com trope aside, the best thing about this book, and the two subsequent ones in the series, are how they touched on issues facing millennials of that generation and interwove it so seamlessly with the love story. Bliss isn’t just fighting feelings for someone she knows she can’t be with. She is also facing the prospect of graduating college in an uncertain time with a fine arts degree. It’s a balance that Carmack walks very well, and the blend of realism and romance is one of the reasons I hope she returns to writing romance someday.
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
Alright, technically, this is a young adult fantasy, not a romance novel. Now that said, the central love story is written and framed very much with those romance novel beats. It’s actually not difficult to imagine that with a few slight tweaks, the Wrath and the Dawn duology could be repackaged and reshelved in the romance aisle. Not that I would ever suggest that in earnest. Younger readers need their knee-weakening romances too.
The Wrath and the Dawn is a retelling of 1001 Nights, one that pays loving tribute to the region of the world where the story originates. It’s not a bland, Orientalist vision of the Middle East, but one with enough organic notes sprinkled in throughout that it feels something like home to those of us who hail from that region. The novel follows Shahrzad, the young woman who volunteers to marry the mad king who takes a new wife each night and executes her at dawn. The king in question, Khalid, is hardly older than she is, and just so tortured.
The angst in this one is absolutely top tier, with Shahrzad’s anger at all she’s lost coming into direct conflict with how she’s starting to feel about her new husband. It’s got so many arranged marriage romance tropes, something of a Reylo vibe, and a beautiful undercurrent about the importance of living atonement. A conventional romance novel, it may not be, but it is no less worthy of inclusion on this list.
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
Jasmine Guillory has made a name for herself with swoony romances that center on high-powered, extremely busy professionals who strive to balance personal aspirations with the sudden upheaval that only new love can bring. Each of her books delicately blends the best tropes — from rivals to lovers, to fake dating, to workplace romance — together with a grounded style that she does so well. And have I mentioned the way her characters talk about food? Word to the wise: do not read any of her books while hungry.
Though her first six novels are standalones, they follow in the great romance novel tradition of being somewhat interconnected, with a side character from one book being the main character in the next. For readers who want to discover where it all began, look no further than her debut novel The Wedding Date.
The Wedding Date follows Alexa and Drew, two strangers who get trapped together in an elevator. Drew is facing the prospect of attending his ex’s wedding without a date, and so asks Alexa to be his plus one. Their one-night-only connection begins to blossom into something more when they return to their real lives — on opposite ends of the state — and have to fight the growing attraction that sparked to life on the night of the wedding.
By the Book by Julia Sonneborn
Pride and Prejudice might have been the first Jane Austen book that I ever read, but by far Persuasion is my favorite. It’s a thoughtful, mature, second-chance romance between two people who want to be together but whose pride and insecurities keep them from making that first move.
By The Book is a retelling of Persuasion by way of the Hallmark channel. Set in the world of academia, heroine Anne Corey has a good thing going for herself professionally at the college where she is a professor. Things get turned on their head when the school gets a new president — Adam Martinez, her one-time fiancé who she left years ago, hurting both of them in the process.
It’s not easy to do retellings well. Oftentimes they either lack the spark of the original or else they feel just a little too close, so much so that it makes you wonder how the characters never stop and go “gee, did you ever think that maybe our lives are an awful lot like this book?”. Anne and Adam are enough of their own characters that it doesn’t feel too on the nose, while at the same time acknowledging the irony in their situation, since Persuasion was a book they bonded over in the early days of their relationship.
And the lone time the original Austen work is quoted directly? Perfection.
A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
Rare is the occasion where a book can hook me so thoroughly by the premise alone, but that is exactly what A Princess in Theory managed to do. A young graduate student receiving emails from an African prince claiming she is his betrothed, dismissing them as spam only to find out it’s all actually true? Brilliant.
Of all the books in the “Reluctant Royals” series, and the subsequent “Runaway Royals” series, A Princess in Theory is my personal favorite. Convenient when it comes to introducing new readers to it as well, since it’s the first of the interconnected series that imagines a somewhat fictionalized Africa and Europe (though not without some very real geopolitical conflicts woven in).
Ledi and Thabiso’s story feels like getting two for the price of one. There’s the concealed identity romance in the first half of the book, when Prince Thabiso comes to find her and doesn’t tell her who he is. But when the truth is revealed, they don’t fall into a happy ever after right away. Instead, it follows them for some time after, while Ledi weighs her options for her future and tries to decide if this life is something she even wants to begin with. What this means is by the time they do get to that happy ever after, it feels well and truly earned.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
The first in Talia Hibbert’s “Brown sisters” trilogy, Get A Life, Chloe Brown is one I missed when it first came out and I’m genuinely sorry it took me so long.
The story follows Chloe, who is determined to live a more fulfilling existence once she decides the kid gloves her family treats her with because of her chronic illness have left her very risk-averse. She moves out of the family home and into an apartment of her own, and comes up with a list of things she wants to do, and experiences she wants to have.
Helping her in this endeavor is thoughtful artist and building superintendent Red, who agrees to help her check off the items on her list in exchange for Chloe helping him reestablish his artist website so he can begin pursuing his passion again.
Both Chloe and Red carry a lot of hurt from their pasts, with those they loved and trusted violating that trust and making them close off to others. As they grow from friends to lovers, they do so by helping the other heal their hurt. It’s not a question of having to love yourself fully before you can be loved, but a question of two people growing together as individuals.
The Marriage Game by Sara Desai
One thing I find there is surprisingly little of, relatively speaking, is romance novels set among various cultural diasporas. Speaking as someone who lives within a diaspora myself, there are so many little quirks and nuances to be found within communities as they try to balance tradition from back home with the traditions of where they’ve chosen to make their new lives.
Despite that introduction, The Marriage Game is not the kind of immigrant trauma tale of how hard it is for this family hailing from India had it when making their lives in America. Nor is it the Hollywood expectation of Americanized children of immigrants choosing to eschew everything their parents value and stand for because they’re “not like that.” That isn’t to say that it’s totally devoid of these elements. They’re just not the primary focus.
Instead, the story of Layla and Sam is just as trope-filled and romantic as any of the others on this list. It’s also one of the few contemporary romance novels I would classify as actual enemies to lovers. The two of them go out of their way to damage the other’s livelihood, all in the name of claiming ownership of a shared office space.
However, they reach an agreement — and therefore a ceasefire. Layla, who following a bad breakup is willing to consider an arranged marriage, will meet with the suitable Indian men her father has picked out for her via a dating website. Sam, in turn, will act as her chaperone. If she finds someone to marry, she will relinquish the office space. If she does not, he is the one who will relocate. What complicates matters, of course, is when this little game of theirs starts pushing the two of them closer and closer together.
Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade
A novel that’s not only a romance, but a love letter to the fandom, fanfic, and shippers that help popular stories thrive? Spoiler Alert is the novel I didn’t know I needed, but was absolutely delighted to have picked up on a whim.
Spoiler Alert follows April, a geologist with a double life as a well-liked fanfic author for the fictional Gods of the Gates TV series (the in-book answer to Game of Thrones). When she posts a picture of herself in a cosplay she made of her favorite character, it garners the wrong kind of attention online, mostly from trolls who don’t think a fat woman has any place dressing like that.
Enter Marcus, star of the series, whose character is the love interest of the one April is cosplaying. Upset at the comments she received, he privately messages her to ask her to dinner, and naturally the kind gesture blossoms into very real feelings.
Olivia Dade has created a charming universe with Spoiler Alert and its follow-up All The Feels, infusing it with an endearing sense of humor, an earnest reflection of what it means to accept yourself for everything you are, and a healthy dose of catharsis for those who found the final season of Game of Thrones…wanting to say the least.
Neon Gods by Katee Robert
Who doesn’t love a good Hades and Persephone retelling, particularly when it’s as heart-racing as Neon Gods?
This alternate universe retelling of the god of the underworld and the daughter of spring moves the setting to the city of Olympus, a cosmopolitan realm ruled by the Thirteen: powerful people who each claim dominion over a certain sector of Olympus’s management. When her mother Demeter tries to marry her off to Zeus, who has a reputation as a very literal lady killer, Persephone flees to the Lower City. Thus she enters the domain of the mysterious Hades, who she’d been told was a myth.
The two agree for her to stay with him for the rest of the winter, and to engage in a public—and publicly intimate—relationship to make her seem less appealing to Zeus. Since fake relationships never stay fake, it doesn’t take long for the two of them to give in to their tantalizing chemistry and develop real feelings for each other as well.
Of all the books on this list, Neon Gods is definitely the steamiest. While the politics and world of Olympus give their story some very real stakes, the core of what makes the book so worth the read is the delicious friction between Hades and Persephone. If you enjoy a good grumpy/sunshine story, this is one where the two leads alternate those roles just enough to keep each other, and the reader, guessing.
If the Shoe Fits by Julie Murphy
A modernized fairy tale retelling is one thing, but a modernized Disney retelling in a romance novel? On paper, it shouldn’t work, but If the Shoe Fits is here to prove those assumptions wrong.
As the title suggests, it’s a retelling of Cinderella, set in the combined worlds of high fashion and reality TV. Shoe designer Cindy agrees to appear on the reality dating show her stepmother produces, not expecting to win but instead hoping to have an avenue to showcase her designs. Her plan gets an unexpected complication when she meets the “suitor” whose heart she is supposed to try and win, and its the man she met at the airport on the way in.
Cindy and Henry’s romance follows in that grand Cinderella retelling tradition where the two of them actually know each other before the climactic ball, but If the Shoe Fits takes things several steps further. This story has been told so often, all the beats are inevitably anticipated by the reader. Instead of simply rolling with them, Murphy subverts them at every turn, making them fit more organically for who Cindy is as a person rather than try to shove her into the confines of a predetermined story.
Payback’s A Witch by Lana Harper
If you enjoyed the trend this past fall of witchy romances, and haven’t yet had the chance to read Payback’s A Witch, let me assure you that you don’t need to wait until spooky season to discover the world of Thistle Grove.
This novel blends a sweet, exciting romance together with its own internal magical lore, served in a Hallmark-esque packaging. The story follows Emmy, who returns to her town of Thistle Grove to fill her familial role as Arbiter in a magical contest between the town’s three other witch families. While she’s back, she joins forces with her childhood best friend Linden, and cool girl Talia to get revenge on Gareth Blackmoore, the man who broke all of their hearts at some point or another. The three of them decide to use the contest as the opportunity to do just that, since Gareth, Talia, and Linden’s brother will all be competing.
With so much magical plot happening, it’s easy to see how this doesn’t feel like a conventional romance. And yet, it’s the revenge scheme that draws Emmy and Talia closer and closer together, with the weight of family expectation and generations of mistrust seeping into this little slice of happiness they try to discover with one another.
It Happened One Summer by Tessa Bailey
If there’s one point on which my tastes are uniformly consistent, it’s that I love a romance hero who is a tall, dark-haired, broody man with emotional baggage and in desperate need of a hug. If this sounds like something you enjoy, then It Happened One Summer is absolutely the book for you.
Spoiled socialite Piper is sent by her stepfather to the fishing town of Westport, where she was born, for the summer to learn the value of hard work and money. Along with her sister, the two of them are made to live on a budget for the first time in their lives. Naturally, Piper is miserable. Not hard to believe, as the author loosely based her on Schitt’s Creek’s Alexis Rose. Her bubbly LA personality clashes at once with that of sea captain Brendan, the broody man mentioned above, who is counting down the days until Piper packs up and goes home.
As she gets more comfortable in the town, discovers her roots and takes on a large improvement project on the local bar, Brendan’s heart starts to soften, then just melts altogether and the two of them fall in love knowing there’s an expiration date on the horizon.
While both of them battle their own personal demons that threaten what they’ve found in each other, what keeps them together is a beautiful, sensual intimacy, and a refreshing honesty that would be so easy to omit in the name of easy drama. But why take the easy way out, when we could take the angsty one instead?
The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood
Last but certainly not least is the book that took Tik Tok, social media, and our hearts by storm. If you’re reading this list at all, you’ve definitely heard of The Love Hypothesis. You might have even read The Love Hypothesis. If you’re still wondering if it lives up to the hype, let me assure you that it absolutely does.
The novel is a fake-dating rom-com about Ph.D. candidate Olive Smith, who gets herself into a bit of a sticky situation when she gives grouchy department fellow Dr. Adam Carleson an impromptu kiss while trying to hide from her best friend. By some miracle, he doesn’t freak out, but rather offers to help her look as if she’s moved on from her ex, clearing the way for her friend to date him. In exchange, his appearing to be in a relationship with someone at the university will make him seem serious about staying around, and make his superiors more likely to release his funding to him.
It’s no secret that The Love Hypothesis has its origins in transformative fan works, but in my view that only serves to strengthen it. Fanfiction authors, unrestricted by the confines of traditional storytelling, find ways to explore and expand on the things that interest them, getting as niche or conversely as angsty as they like. Those familiar with its origins will have fun picking out who’s who in the cast. Those who aren’t are in for a real treat regardless.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Maggie Lovitt.
Arezou Amin is a freelance writer with a lifelong love of Star Wars, romance, fantasy, and all things pop culture. She is the host of Space Waffles, a Star Wars-focused podcast on the Geeky Waffle network, where she also co-hosts the flagship show and writes reviews and recaps for the site.