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Romance Novels A Literature Lover Could Swoon Over

I regret having once dismissed a whole genre of smart, sexy books.

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girlfriend, books, aarp
Karen Kurycki
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Never read a romance novel? Assume they’re kind of dumb, with their covers bedecked with partly dressed men and swooning, buxom women? Yup, me too, until a friend urged me to give them a try. “Some of them are really well written!” she insisted when I looked incredulous.

She suggested I try Penny Reid’s books, which she labels “smart romance.” I started with Beauty and the Mustache: A Philosophical Romance, and was sucked in by its mix of sexy, funny and, yes, smart. It features Ashley, a young Chicagoan who visits her home in rural Tennessee and falls for her brothers’ friend Drew, a musclebound, poetry-loving game warden with a PhD. Reid had me at their first “soul scorching, pride destroying, body claiming kiss.”

Reid, 38, who lives in Seattle with her husband and two children, wrote her first book six years ago after her friend, a biochemist, sheepishly admitted to reading romance novels but said she couldn’t find a heroine she could really relate to. Reid, who’d never read a romance novel in her life, bet her friend that she could write a smart, relevant one with a realistic female protagonist. Seven months later, Reid told me in a recent interview, she finished Neanderthal Seeks Human, a rom-com set in Chicago that she later self-published. She won the bet; her friend bought her a steak dinner.

That led to others, including the start of two series based on Ashley’s Chicago friends (Knitting in the City) and her six adorable bearded brothers in rural Tennessee (The Winston Brothers), until she finally quit her day job in 2015.

Her other books, also self-published, are just as smart and fun, with awesomely nerdy elements — like Jessica in Truth or Beard who dresses up as a sexy Gandalf, the wizard in The Hobbit, for Halloween. (Reid’s characters also tend to have a thing for Harry Potter, are appealingly self-deprecating and love to knit.)

I’ve since read romance novels by other writers, determined to throw myself into the genre after decades of missing out on a whole world of good books, and have loved Amy Harmon, Lisa Kleypas and Mary Balogh, among others. I also realized that I’ve read plenty of romance novels that aren’t marketed as such. You won’t find Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, for instance, labeled as romances at your local bookstore, though that’s precisely what they are. (The Romance Writers of America describes a romance novel as having two key elements: a central love story and “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”)

Reid, meanwhile, says she’s planning to write a “Dad Bod” series, with images of a shirtless dad bod (no six-pack abs, in other words) on the cover. I kid you not. She explains in an email: “It's always alarmed me that romance novels have these images of men and women on covers that aren't representative of (or even achievable for) most folks. It's like we surround ourselves with images of one percent of the population, and what kind of message does this send? That only one percent of the population is attractive? Or loveable? Or worthy of romance? Why can't normal be beautiful or desirable? We are!”

And how beautiful is that?