I’m a romance novel addict. Seriously. I bought my first romance novel when I was about 14, and I still spend anywhere from $8 to $20 a month on this guilty pleasure. Don’t do the math. It’s a lot of books.
I’ll be the first to admit that there tends to be a formula to romance novels, and a finite number of plots that seem work in the format. I go in with my eyes open when I buy a book. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to enjoy the read. So over the year’s I’ve developed a series of fool-proof (for me anyway) rules for picking a great romance novel.
1. If the character names make you roll your eyes when you’re reading the back cover, it’s not going to be a good read.
I don’t care what else is going on with the book, I’m not getting past chapter three if I can’t take the character names seriously. (Rhett and Tawney anyone?)
2. If the characters are reunited lovers, or if either of them has a kid, put the book down.
Old relationships and kids require more of the back story to be explained and that pulls focus from the main story. Girl meets boy, mayhem and/or misunderstandings ensue, girl and boy realize they are in love – it works because it’s simple.
3. If any of the characters has supernatural powers, read at your own risk.
Everything about a romance novel requires the reader to suspend belief for 150-350 pages. (They fell madly in love and are getting married after just six days? Sure, I buy that.) Introducing ghosts, ESP, etc. just makes it tougher to take the story seriously.
4. If it’s a cop/(potential) victim/witness, boss/assistant, or cowboy/cook/housekeeper story – buy it, it’s going to be good (assuming all other rules hold).
I have no idea why stories about these three particular pairings always seem to work, but my experience says they do.
5. Modern is better – although apparently exceptions can be made for ancient Scotland.
I stand by tips one through four, but I’ll admit this one is more personal preference (if Victorian-era damsels in distress work for you, go nuts). That said, nailing the dialogue, setting and cultural ticks of another era can be tough. I’m not saying it can’t be done (the Outlander series is wildly popular, and Monica McCarthy does it extremely well in her highland guard series), but when it’s done poorly it’s distracting. Best to stick with a modern setting.