Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

You have to love a love story. The meeting, the flirting, the falling, the struggling, and ultimately, the happily ever after.

This story was made by NPR’s podcasts Life Kit and Pop Culture Happy Hour.

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Maybe you’re an experienced romance reader, but maybe you’re just getting your feet wet as this genre, like a lot of others, evolves. Either way, it’s always good to get some recommendations, some basic background, and a few things to look for when you choose love stories for yourself. I’m one of the hosts of Pop Culture Happy Hour, and we were delighted to team up with Life Kit for a beginner’s guide to romances.

Not every love story is a romance

Yes, it seems fairly clear what a romance novel is. And up to a point, it is. But not every love story is a romance for genre fans.

One definition from the Romance Writers of America says you need a central love story and what they call “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” In other words, if the whole relationship goes to pieces, that may be a great book. It may be a fantastic book. But it’s not a romance novel as writers and readers generally understand that term. A romance doesn’t have to end with perfect resolution, by any means. But there is meant to be an emotional payoff for the people in the relationship that rewards their perseverance.

Romance is a huge industry

The thing about romance is…it’s huge. Romance novels make big money, romance readers help publishing stay afloat, and romance was the home of early experimentation with e-readers and self-publishing.

And as the industry has continued to grow, it has begun to work on making space for a wider range of characters. Characters of color, characters who aren’t neurotypical, queer characters and characters with a variety of body types are just some of the romance protagonists you’re more likely to see in high-profile books now than even ten years ago.

Romance writing is changing

One thing to be aware of is that as romance evolves, it gets farther and farther from some of the clichés about it, from sex scenes that incorporate coercion or worse to heroes who are exclusively bare-chested gods. Romance is written, and is read, by all kinds of people with all kinds of preferences. Romance writers are experimenting with moments in time, kinds of relationships, levels of sexual explicitness and lots more, so you shouldn’t assume they’ll all have much of anything in common — except that central love story and that satisfying ending.

Okay, so cough up those recommendations!

I talked to three panelists with very different angles on the genre. Karen Grigsby Bates is Senior Correspondent for NPR’s Code Switch podcast, and didn’t even consider herself a romance reader until relatively recently. Christina Tucker is a frequent Pop Culture Happy Hour guest and one of the hosts of the Unfriendly Black Hotties podcast. We also had romance writer Adriana Herrera with us to speak from a creator’s point of view. Listen to the episode at the top of this page or here.

A composite image of the book covers for the following books: Written in The Stars, The Bareknuckle Bastards series, The Kiss Quotient and Red, White and Royal Blue.

Avon/Avon/Berkley/St. Martin’s Griffin

Christina’s pick: Written in The Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur.

This tale of a social media astrologer and an actuary belongs both to the booming category of queer romance and to the popular “fake relationship” romance category, in which a couple pretends to like each other until they wind up actually liking each other.

Adriana’s pick: The Bareknuckle Bastards series by Sarah MacLean.

It’s definitely worth exploring a series when you find an author you like; a lot of romance authors have them. This particular series of historical romances follows three brothers who each find love; other series follow groups of friends, small towns, or even sports teams.

Karen’s pick: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang.

The Kiss Quotient made a big impression on readers a couple of years ago. It’s a sexy spin on the fake-relationship offshoot you might call “I just hired you!” — in this case, heroine Stella hires a man named Michael, who’s an escort, as a practice romantic partner. Both Hoang and her character Stella have been diagnosed with autism, and the book is both a charming love story and an interesting exploration of some assumptions about how emotions work in romance.

My bonus pick: I recommend Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue to so many people. A love story between an American president’s son and a British prince, it’s one of my favorite recent favorites. McQuiston also has a new book called One Last Stop, which adds a touch of science fiction, and that’s also well worth your time.

This episode was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Meghan Keane and Jessica Reedy.

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