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Eight romance novels that are subverting the genre in 2019

Rom-coms have evolved and are making a comeback – not just on the screen, but also on the page

Most years are good years for romance novels, but 2019 is set to be stellar. The Netflix-sponsored 2018 renaissance of the rom-com film has opened hearts and minds to the possibility of the genre – besides, in dire political times, many of us are interested in a bit of escapist, uncomplicated happiness. But to see romances only as “comfort food” is an over-simplification of the genre. Romance writers are often doing much more interesting work than simply providing an escapist alternative.

These eight books all fit, one way or another, into the romance genre, though only some of them will be perceived as such. They also give us a good taste of where romance is heading in 2019 – a genre deserving of literary merit in its own right. Here are our picks for the best from the first half of 2019.

SUGAR RUN, MESHA MAREN (ALGONQUIN BOOKS)

Sugar Run is the story of Jodi McCarty’s two loves, separated by eighteen years. In those eighteen years, Jodi went to prison at the age of seventeen for what she thought was a life sentence, and it’s when she’s released, still reeling from shock and disorientation, that she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother. What follows is a back-and-forth between Jodi’s life pre- and post-prison, exploring the ways age and trauma change the way we love – or don’t. Mesha Maren’s sharp, controlled writing explodes now and then into heart-in-throat moments of love and beauty, and the novel simmers with sexuality, as in the moment when Jodi sees her first lover Paula waiting for her for the first time, “head turned and eyes on Jodi as a hot wind flaps around her, filling her shirt and lifting it like a billowing sheet.” You’re unlikely to catch your breath for the rest of the novel.

Buy Sugar Run here

WILLA & HESPER, AMY FELTMAN (HACHETTE BOOK GROUP)

Willa & Hesper is the story of a crush, then a romance, then a break-up; by far, the romance of the novel (as well as the majority of its length) is contained in the break-up. Amy Feltman uses the typical end point of a love affair to interrogate the entire length of a relationship: what it means to be in love, the difficulty of being the one who loves less, queerness, friendship, heartbreak. Willa and Hesper, two queer girls who drift together then split apart, end up on strange concurrent trips to Europe, but the real exploration of the narrative is inward, not outward, using romantic tropes and milestones to reveal the most intimate pieces of each character.

Pre-order Willa & Hesper here

AMERICAN SPY, LAUREN WILKINSON (PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE)

The spy novel has always been an elevated genre, full of acclaimed literary giants like John le Carre and Graham Greene. Women appear in it rarely, and usually as pawns passed between important men; women of colour are even more poorly represented. Lauren Wilkinson’s debut turns these tropes on its head, telling the story of Marie Mitchell, an intelligence officer working for the FBI in the heart of the Cold War. She’s a black woman struggling to make it in the boy’s club of the intelligence community, until she takes the chance to join a shadowy task force that wants to bring down a charismatic, revolutionary president. American Spy plays with stale concepts of the seductress spy and brings out something fresh, furious and entrancing, as Marie grapples with what it means to be both a lover and an American.

Pre-order American Spy here

THE HEAVENS, SANDRA NEWMAN (GRANTA BOOKS)

The Heavens begins with a New York house party in 2000, at once familiar and strangely disorientating. At the centre of the party we watch a boy-meets-girl moment between protagonists Ben and Kate, brought to new life with Sandra Newman’s quick, flirtatious prose. Around them, though, things seem strange: more New Yorkers than you would think are speaking French. Something called the Jerusalem peace accords have been signed, and a woman named President Chen has just swept the American election. We’re introduced to a world that feels like first love, as hopeful and beautiful. Unsurprisingly, and just like in a love affair, in a plot halfway between science fiction and magical realism, things quickly begin to go wrong. Every one of The Heavens’ pages feels like that first shuddering spark of attraction – the potential for great joy, and terrible pain. The Heavens gives us both.

Buy The Heavens here

AYESHA AT LAST, UZMA JALALUDDIN (ATLANTIC BOOKS)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most years will see at least a couple of Jane Austen rewrites. We’ve had Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2016 novel Eligible, and 1995’s beloved Clueless; there was a brief sweep of monster additions to the Austen canon, and a fair share of erotica. This year, I’ve already counted three upcoming novels that retell Pride and Prejudice alone, but my favourite of the bunch is Umza Jalaluddin's Ayesha At Last, a charming, heartwarming update of the story that stays true to Austen’s feeling for community, family and begrudging attraction.

In Ayesha At Last, Mr Darcy is transformed into the conservative, handsome Khalid Mirza, quite happy to stay at home with his stern mother until an arranged marriage, while Ayesha Shamsi moves between her loving grandparents, troublesome cousin and her own dreams of life as a poet. The two are intrinsically different in their approach to everything, but their shared integrity and compassion will have you rooting for them from their first, awkward encounter. Come for Ayesha’s sparkling humour; stay for Khalid’s hilariously awful update on the famous failed marriage proposal.

Pre-order Ayesha at Last here

PERMISSION, SASKIA VOGEL (LITTLE BROWN)

Echo has been lost since her father’s sudden disappearance into the sea off the coast of Los Angeles; the first thing to anchor her in her grief and paralysis is Orly, the dominatrix who moves in across the road. Permission’s pace is slow and tender, each breath thought through before it’s exhaled, with the relationship between Orly and Echo forming only one intersection in a complex network of sexual, romantic and familial connections. There are no easy answers: Saskia Vogel delves deep into the heart of romance and sexuality to expose it as awkward and complicated and incalculably valuable all the same. And it has my pick for the 2019’s best sex scene in literature.

Pre-order Permission here

THE OLD DRIFT, NAMWALI SERPELL (PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE)

The Old Drift is many things: an epic, generational tale threading families and lives together; a magical realist history of Zambia that calls to mind Gabriel Garcia Marquez; a renunciation of traditional colonialist narratives around Africa. But it’s also a love story, or a series of love stories that are always fresh and enchanting as we watch the ways Namwali Serpell’s characters fall for one another, disappoint one another, forgive one another, and reject one another. “You know, in this life,” one character remarks halfway through the novel, “all you really need is love.” That’s why, she explains, she changed her name to Loveness. The Old Drift takes the familiar platitude at its word, exploring power, attraction, sexuality and history, and the way love influences everyone around it.

Pre-order The Old Drift here

RED, WHITE AND ROYAL BLUE, CASEY MCQUISTON (MACMILLAN)

Much like Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing provided a political fantasy during the early George W. Bush years, Red, White and Royal Blue gifts us a present day alternative to our current political situation which feels like a breath of dizzying hope. The President of the United States is a woman. And her son, Alex Claremont-Diaz, has just fallen for the Royal Prince of England. This is romance at its purest, carrying the reader away on a warm, funny journey that isn’t afraid to shy away from difficult issues like racism and homophobia, but still presents a vision of humanity at its finest. People make mistakes, and recover. Lovers stumble, and then help one another.

Red, White and Royal Blue is a queer romance that feels like an escape from the present day, but it is also a promise for the future: We can do better than this. And it features the coolest kids the White House will ever see.

Pre-order Red, White and Royal Blue here