Last week, bestselling novelist Milly Johnson launched a blistering broadside against those who denigrate romance books. They are “the glorious counterbalance to this climate of hate”, she argued, as she accepted a lifetime achievement award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association, saying that “there is plenty of space for other books beside the tragic and the challenging”.
“We sell these ‘lesser books’ by the millions, our sales are on the up. The worse the world is, the more we are needed to be the aloe vera on pressured, anxious lives,” said Johnson. “There is nothing wrong with a happy, hopeful ending, nothing wrong with making someone laugh as they read your words – or a good old heartwarming love story.”
As a passionate romance reader, I couldn’t agree more. Over the Brexit weekend at the end of January, I self-medicated with Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Shore (about a single mother who ends up running a book van in the Scottish Highlands) and Mhairi McFarlane’s If I Never Met You (the story of a fake office romance).
I’m also on a huge Nora Roberts jag at the moment – whenever I’ve time, I sink into one of her satisfyingly chunky romantic thrillers, where I know there will be stunning American scenery, animals, narrowly averted danger, and a heroine who doesn’t need a man. (But wouldn’t mind one if he happens to be the right one.) My latest fix, Northern Lights, is set in the remote, snow-locked Alaskan town of Lunacy, where depressed cop Nate falls for loner pilot Meg. A sheer pleasure.
Marian Keyes (whose books I must have read a million times; Rachel’s Holiday is the best, don’t @ me) has recently admitted to doing something similar: she read three Mills & Boons every Sunday while studying for her law degree – and, more recently, told the Guardian that when her dad died, “I mainlined Mills & Boon. It’s the absolute escape from my sorrow. I know nothing’s going to jump out and scare me.”
Keyes, incidentally, will never not give us a happy ending – “I couldn’t have something permanent in the world like a book with something that accepted that life is as painful as it really is” – although I was pleased to see in her latest, Grown Ups, that the most reprehensible of her varied cast definitely got his comeuppance.
So here’s to Johnson and her wisdom, and some of my favourite romantic novels to get started with, if you’re in need of escape. And let’s face it, who isn’t right now?
You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane
All of McFarlane’s novels are brilliant – sharp, funny, a little bit swoony – but this one, about Ben and Rachel, former best friends who haven’t spoken for a decade until they bump into each other on the street, is my favourite.
The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan
Work forces Flora to leave London for the tiny Scottish island where she grew up, accompanied by her standoffish boss Joel (whom she has a huge crush on). Food, romance, windswept Scottish setting – a delight.
The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh
Sarah and Eddie have a whirlwind romance. When he doesn’t call after he goes on a two-week holiday, she thinks the worst. Dealing with some pretty dark, deep issues, this is definitely a read-in-one-sitting book.
Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes
Also dealing with some pretty dark, deep issues – addiction and recovery – this also features the most swoon-worthy of Keyes’s heroes, the wonderful Luke.
The Love of Her Life by Harriet Evans
Kate flees London for New York after her life falls apart. But she’s forced home by her father’s illness, and has to face up to what she left behind – including the heroic Mac, her ex.