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There are so many amazing books to choose from for a list of the best romance novels of all time. But 90% of the time, when I see lists about romance on the internet they are full of books that just aren’t romance novels. Loving Jane Austen is probably one of my top 10 personality traits. And I was so obsessed with the Bronte sisters’ novels in college that I planned a solo pilgrimage to Haworth where they grew up. But when I see these classic novels on romance novel round ups, I have to roll my eyes. Because even though those books are certainly romantic (I’m looking at you Mr. Darcy), they were not published as romance novels as we mean them today and they don’t carry the same stigma. And don’t even even get me started about seeing books like Anna Karenina or Nicholas Sparks novels featured…those don’t even have happy endings!
I’ll stop talking about what I didn’t want to include on the list now. And instead talk about what I was looking for. I wanted to include romance novels by romance publishers that created or handled popular tropes in interesting ways. I wanted the character development to be excellent and the chemistry between the main characters to be undeniable. Most of all, I wanted books that celebrated love, fantasy, and happily ever afters. I could easily write an article about the 100 best romance novels or 1000 best romance novels. Because there is so much superb writing and storytelling in this genre. But I’ve narrowed my list of the best romance novels of all time down to these 24 books.
Katherine by Anya Seton
This historical epic romance tells a fictionalized version of the true story Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt in 14th century England. John of Gaunt is the Duke of Lancaster and the third surviving son of King Edward III. He falls in love with Katherine when she is already married. And she finds kindness, understanding, and passion with John that she never experienced with her husband. Katherine and John’s romances survives through war, plague, court scandals, and more. And the happily ever after at the end feels almost too good to be true, but it is based in historical fact. This romance can feel old fashioned, both because it was written in the 1950s and set in the 1300s, but I believe it holds up as one of the most beloved romances of all time.
Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt
In this gothic romance, Martha is a 24-year-old who’s been hired as a governess at the intimidating Mellyn estate in Cornwall. Her new boss is the cold and arrogant widower, Connan TreMellyn, whose wife died under mysterious circumstances. As Martha takes care of his spoiled daughter, Alvean, she develops romantic feelings for Connan. However, she also feels drawn to solving the mystery that surrounds his first wife’s death while adjusting to life in a possibly haunted mansion.
A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux
This time travel romance features a modern day heroine with a 16th century hero. The heroine, Dougless, is on a terrible trip to England with her horrible boyfriend. She ends up crying in an old graveyard and wishing desperately for a knight in shining armor. In an answer to her wish, Nicholas Stafford, Earl of Thornwyck, appears. An adventure through time and space follows as the two fall in love in the modern storyline, and then Dougless follows him back to the 1500s to keep their love alive. There is so much will they won’t they in terms of if Dougless and Nicholas will end up together and, if so, what century will they live in. And while the ending is controversial, I think the complicated plotting, intricate theme of memory, and sweet romance qualify this book as one of the best romance novels of all time.
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The Bride by Julie Garwood
This iconic historical romance takes readers back to the 1100s. By order of the King of England, a powerful Scottish highlander must marry an English woman. While looking for his choice, Alec instantly falls in lust with Jaime, the youngest daughter of an English baron. He decides he must have her, and she doesn’t have any say in the matter. But on her wedding day, Jaime swears an oath never to fall in love with her new Scottish husband. Instant conflict! This is definitely an old fashioned historical romance, with a lot of the problematic elements that go along with that (see: Jaime not needing to consent to marriage). But Garwood is a master at creating feisty, independent heroines to challenge the status quo and spark hilarious plots. If you can wade through the problematic sexism, you’ll see why this book is a romance classic.
Tonight and Forever by Brenda Jackson
Brenda Jackson is another romance writing powerhouse with over 100 romance novels published. There’s a lot to choose from, but one of her best goes back to the beginning of her career with the first book in the popular Madaris Family Saga. After a bitter divorce, Lorren returns home to Texas vowing never to love another man again. Justin is a doctor whose wife died ten years ago. He’s been grieving, but when he sees Lorren, he feels instantly drawn to her. A gentle romance develops, where both of them try to work past the issues their last relationships left them with. This is slow burn romance at its finest!
Absolutely Positively by Jayne Ann Krentz
Molly is the owner of a tea company and in charge of running her late father’s scientific foundation. Because she knows little about science, she hires a consultant, Dr. Harry Stratton Trevelyan, to help her decide how to award grant money. Harry has been burned by love but can’t get Molly off his mind. He suggests a scientific solution, a no strings affair to let their sexual attraction run its course without the drama of a relationship. Molly finds that she can’t resist Harry, but she soon learns there is more to him than the cold, methodical persona he projects to the world. When a series of pranks by a scorned grant seeker puts Molly’s life in danger, Harry will have to look beyond science to the famed psychic powers of his family to help save her life.
Naked in Death by J.D. Robb
Is it sneaky to use Nora Roberts’ pen name to include her twice on the list? Maybe. But I’m doing it anyway. Roberts was already famous for her contemporary stories when she wrote this futuristic suspense romance. Set in 2058, Eva is a homicide detective charged with solving the murder of a senator’s daughter. The lead subject is Roarke, a powerful billionaire with lots of influence. In a world of technological domination, Eva tries to get the answers she needs while resisting her growing attraction to Roarke. The book is so beloved that it began a series that is up to 63 novels. So if you want to start this one, be aware that working your way through the series is quite the undertaking.
Indigo by Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins, known as Ms. Bev to Romancelandia, is a historical romance master who opened the genre up to more diverse storytelling. So many of her books could have easily made this list, but Indigo is a classic for a reason. Hester escaped slavery as a child. Her hands and feet are still dyed blue from her time enslaved on an indigo plantation. Now she tries to help other enslaved people reach freedom by offering her house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Galen is a member of one of the wealthiest free Black families in New Orleans. But he risks his freedom as a conductor leading people who’ve escaped enslavement north. He is brought to Hester’s house to hide out from slave catchers and heal after a bad beating. She nurses him to health, but despite their mutual attraction, their path to romance isn’t smooth. Still, a beautiful relationship grows against the backdrop of a horrific historical time. And each moment is so engrossing, it’s hard to put the book down.
Sea Swept by Nora Roberts
Choosing one Nora Roberts novel as the best feels almost impossible (which is why I included J.D. Robb so I could pick two). Not only is she one of the authors that made me a romance novel reader, but she’s one of the most beloved and bestselling authors of all time. But I went with Sea Swept, the first in Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay Saga. Cameron Quinn is a champion boat racer, who must return home to Maryland’s Eastern Shore when his adopted father dies to take care of his youngest brother. He is instantly wary of Anna, the beautiful young social worker assigned to his brother’s case. The attraction between them is undeniable, but Cam is still very aware that Anna has the power to break up his family.
Suddenly You by Lisa Kleypas
Lisa Kleypas kept the ballrooms and passion of the historical bodice ripper and added humor while giving her heroines more independence. Amanda supports herself as a novelist. She likes almost everything about her life as a spinster, except for the fact she’s never made love to a man. So for her 30th birthday, she visits a madam to hire a prostitute as a birthday gift to herself. The madam does some matchmaking and sends Jack, Amanda’s publisher that she’s never met. He shows up on her doorstep expecting a different sort of business discussion. But Jack goes along with her misunderstanding and gives her a night of pleasure. When Amanda discovers his true identity, their professional and personal relationship begins on an entirely new course. Not only is this a squee-worthy set up for a romance, but it includes positive fat representation and shifts away from Regency romances featuring only aristocratic characters.
Fated Love by Radclyfe
This slow burn, medical romance romance features big emotions and next-level chemistry. Quinn is a young trauma surgeon who accepts a new job as an ER doctor. At first, she butts heads with her new boss, Honor. But as they move through the fast paced world of ER emergencies, the two declare a truce, then become friends, then become…more. The attraction between them surprises both women, but it grows until it is too compelling to ignore despite the professional consequences. Medical romances have been a popular subgenre for decades, and Radclyfe does an amazing job weaving together the medical storylines with the evolving romance between Honor and Quinn.
Angels’ Blood by Nalini Singh
Nalini Singh sets the standard for superb paranormal romance. This is the first in her Guild Hunter series. Elena is one of the best vampire hunters around. But for her new job she’s been hired by the powerful archangel Raphael to hunt a fallen archangel who’s on a killing spree. The sexual attraction between Elena and Raphael burns bright as the two work together on this quest. But for Elena, succumbing to her longing for Raphael is almost as unsafe as the killer she is hunting. It’s dangerous for a mortal to get involved with an all-powerful archangel. The pacing and character development in this book in unparalleled. Seriously, even if vampires, vampire hunters, and angels aren’t your thing, this book is worth trying out.
Hot Head by Damon Suede
For ten years, Brooklyn firefighter Griff has been in love with his best friend and teammate, Dante. But because the FDNY is a homophobic workplace and Griff is certain that Dante is straight, he’s determined to keep his feelings a secret. But when Dante gets in financial trouble, he suggests setting up a gay internet porn site featuring firefighters. Dante also wants to feature Griff and himself on camera. It’s a chance for Griff to act out his deepest sexual fantasies while helping his best friend out of trouble. But he’s worried about protecting their friendship, their jobs, and his heart in the process. This book does feature some homophobia from the characters’ workplace and family members. But overall, it is a very sexy, passionate romance with an off-the-charts happily ever after.
Lothaire by Kresley Cole
No one writes paranormal romance quite like Kresley Cole. Lothaire is one of the most beloved books in her famous (and infamous) Immortals After Dark series. But it is also a controversial one. Up to this point, Lothaire has been a villain in the series. He’s a bloodthirsty, all-powerful vampire who’s spend centuries trying to revenge his mother’s murder. He never expects his fated mate to be a human girl, let alone Ellie from Appalachia. He captures her, planning to sacrifice her soul to gain power. But she awakens feelings and emotions in him that he thought were impossible. And their sexual chemistry is driving both of them to the point of madness. At the end of the month, he must choose between the woman he loves and the vendetta he’s spent his life pursuing. And Ellie must fight for her life, while also figuring out how and if she can forgive Lothaire for all the things he’s done to her. This book approaches dark romance with violence, gore, and consent issues as part of the story. It’s also a masterpiece of how a villain can turn into the hero of a book. People love it for a reason, but it definitely won’t be for everyone.
The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin
This story set in Tang Dynasty China, weaves together romance and mystery. Yue-ying is a maidservant at the famous Lotus Palace to one of the most beautiful and popular courtesans. Yue-ying is not beautiful. A birthmark makes her ineligible to become a courtesan at the Lotus Palace. And after a traumatic past, she just wants to stay in the background and escape the attention of any men. This is why she rejects the privileged Bai Huang when he flirts with her on a visit to the Lotus Palace. But when courtesans begin being murdered, the pair is thrown together in their mutual attempt to find and stop the killer. This leads to an exciting number of twists and turns in the mystery plot, and a fulfilling, slow burn romance between Yue-ying and Bai Huang.
Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Treasure is new adult romance at its best. On her first day of college, Alexis finds herself in class with Tricia, the stripper known as Treasure who Alexis met at her sister’s bachelorette party over the summer. Both girls are interested in each other, but neither has been in a relationship before. They come from different backgrounds and have very different lives. But somehow, Alexis and Tricia learn to understand and support each other…while having some very hot sex along the way! The sex work positivity in this romance novel is very refreshing and well-handled. There are some mentions of self harm and suicide in Alexis’s past that might be triggering for some readers.
The Hating Game by Sally Thorne
This hilarious enemies-to-lovers workplace romance was an instant hit with readers. Lucy and Josh work in a shared office as administrative assistants to the co-CEOs of a publishing house. They spend their days devoted to books and playing pranks on each other. These pranks have been codified into a series of games, each designed to drive the other mad. But when they are each up for a promotion and they share a particularly steamy elevator kiss, the ground beneath their relationship begins to shift. Maybe the hating game is covering up real feelings? This book is very sexy, while also being laugh out loud, pee in your pants funny. It also signals a new trend of first person, single perspective romances where readers have to guess what the love interest thinks and feels.
The Day of the Duchess by Sarah MacLean
Sarah MacLean has been a favorite of mine and many Book Riot folks for a long time. Her Regency romance novels play on many cherished tropes of the genre. But her stories are also feminist, fat positive, and politically engaged. The Day of the Duchess is the third in her Scandal & Scoundrel series. It’s a second chance romance, where Malcolm, the Duke of Haven, requires an heir. But his wife, Seraphina, ran away from London three years ago after his infidelity and the death of their baby during childbirth. He’s been looking for her (and longing for her) ever since. But when she returns, she only wants one thing: a divorce so she can own property in her own right. He agrees to give her the divorce if she lives at his country estate for six weeks and helps him find his second wife. This is, of course, a ruse in which he hopes to use the forced proximity to make her fall in love with him again. Full of emotions and angst, this book accomplishes what seems impossible in making readers root for this love story. And the ending affirms the power of love, while also supporting women’s rights to freedom and independence.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Helen Hoang became a romance sensation for The Kiss Quotient. In her second novel, she continues exploring autism in romance while drawing on her mother’s history as a Vietnamese refugee. Khai believes he’s incapable of love. His mother disagrees and goes to Vietnam to find him a bride. She finds Esme working as a maid in her hotel and thinks she will be perfect for her son. And Esme can’t turn down the opportunity to go to America and provide for her family. In her attempt to seduce Kai, she falls in love with him. But she isn’t sure if he will ever return her feelings. Both characters have important lessons to learn about themselves before they can be together. And the chemistry between Khai and Esme is every fire metaphor used to describe romance novels put together!
A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
This contemporary Cinderella story starts with Naledi, a busy grad student working multiple jobs in NYC, who keeps getting emails from an African prince who claims they were betrothed as children. Naledi doesn’t remember much of her childhood before entering foster care, but she knows an internet scam when she sees one. So she keeps deleting the emails. Prince Thabiso is real, but when he shows up on Naledi’s doorstep, he decides to pretend to be a commoner to see if love develops before he announces who he really is. In this book, Alyssa Cole not only delivers a wonderful romance between two richly-developed characters, she also subverts fairytale tropes of the genre, while expanding the definition of what kind of characters deserve a true happily ever after.
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite
Lucy is the daughter of a famous astronomer who secretly worked on many of the mathematical calculations for her father’s discoveries. Catherine is a countess and widow who traveled the world with her husband to look at the stars. Looking for purpose after his death, she decides to fund the translation of an important French astronomy text. It turns out Lucy is the perfect person to complete the work. A gentle romance develops slowly between the pair. Both women are processing grief and trying to figure out how to make meaning out of their new lives. Their shared understanding and interest in science and astronomy provides a strong foundation to a relationship that faces challenges from social class distinctions and gender expectations of the time.
Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall
This British romcom mixes laugh out loud humor with some very swoony scenes. Luc is the son of a famous musician looking to clean up his image after a compromising photo is leaked to the press. Oliver has exactly the respectable vibe Luc is looking for, and fortunately Oliver needs something too: a date to his parents’ wedding anniversary party. Despite having little in common, the two agree to a fake relationship that will achieve both of their goals. But, as so often happens in fake dating stories, real feelings begin to complicate the arrangement.
You Had Me At Hola by Alexis Daria
After a messy breakup, Jasmine returns to her home in NYC to film a bilingual romance for one of the top streaming services. Ashton is a telenovela star who views this new series as a chance to reinvigorate his career so he can provide for his family. As Jasmine and Ashton rehearse and try to find the chemistry they need to make their on screen romance believable, real sparks between to fly between the pair. But tabloid rumors and personal secrets threaten their budding romance and their professional relationship as well. This romance is masterful for many reasons, but one is that readers get to see the relationship unfold between Ashton and Jasmine along with the second fictional romance from their show.
Seven Days in June by Tia Williams
Eva is a single mom living with chronic pain and writing vampire erotica. She’s struggling with the 15th book in her series, when the reclusive, celebrated literary author, Shane, arrives at a literary panel where she’s speaking. He tells the audience that he’s a fan of her books, sparking an avalanche of rumors. But the world doesn’t know that Evan and Shane have a past. They spent seven life-changing days together as teenagers that influenced the rest of their lives and the characters they write. This chance reunion reignites a passion between them. But have they grown up enough to make a loving, adult relationship work? The book’s writing is so deep and beautiful. Be aware, there are moments of self harm, child abuse, and drug and alcohol use depicted in the story. But these characters’ painful pasts is part of what makes them so perfect for each other.
I hope you saw some favorite stories or new romance books to add to your TBR on this list. And I apologize in advance for the many wonderful romance novels that were not included. I will humbly accept your critiques and shouty comments online about the books I’ve left off. But I will say, it’s an honor to write about a genre with such amazing character development, deep storytelling, and beautiful writing.