So, everyone’s heard it at one time or another, right? “Romance novels?!” Cue quelle horreur. “Why would you read that crap?”
The answer to the question—once you’re done rolling your eyes, of course—is very simple: Hand that misinformed book snob a novel by Jennifer Crusie. For my money, she’s the go-to romance author for people who don’t think they like romance. Crusie’s books are smart and hilarious (nobody does better banter) and deceptively layered, featuring heroines and heroes who act like real people. They have kids and dogs and headache-inducing family members and bad, awkward sex (when they’re not having fantastic wall-banging sex, anyway). On occasion, they tangle with Mr. Wrong before they find Mr. Right. And, always, they’re funny and clever and warm-hearted—people you just want to spend time with.
Even though all of her books are set in average suburban neighborhoods (almost always in Crusie’s home state of Ohio, the heart of middle America), she has a talent for world-building that rivals any epic fantasy author. More than just solo characters, Crusie writes dynamic communities, ragtag oddball families, forged by choice if not blood, who invite you in.
Lucky for us, she’s a veteran author with a nice long backlist we can sink our teeth into. These might not all be her top sellers, but they’re some of my favorite Crusie novels and the ones I’d hand over first to turn someone into a romance convert:
The Cinderella Deal (1997)
Daisy Flattery is a free spirit, a painter and storyteller. Her neighbor Linc Blaise is a stuffy history professor who overthinks everything and is afraid of having a little fun. But he’s in need of an adoring fiancée to present to his bosses at the college he wants a job at, and as much as he dislikes Daisy’s careless abandon and weird idiosyncracies, she looks perfect for the part. Not to mention she can tell a story like nobody’s business. Their relationship starts out as a business arrangement, but deeper feelings soon emerge. Daisy is a force of nature, sweeping up people and pets in her wake and charming the socks off just about everyone she meets—Linc included. But has she told the story too well? And will Linc ever be able to accept the real Daisy, and maybe even let her save him too?
Why I love this book: This particular oldie but goodie remains my all-time favorite because a) I love stories about storytelling; b) there’s a brilliant blend of whimsy and emotion here; and c) most importantly, Linc and Daisy BOTH make compromises to meet each other in the middle. Each changes and grows over the course of the novel, progressing from prickly business partners to a genuine friendship to ultimately a deeper love. It’s a beautiful evolution of a relationship. As is her strength, Crusie creates a very vibrant world here and you’ll want to be swept into the little yellow house in Prescott, Ohio and fed cookies and tea by Daisy too. Plus, there’s a fascinating (and feminist) symbolism to Daisy’s paintings when you look at them closely.
Anyone But You (1996)
40-year-old Nina Askew just got divorced and moved to the city, trading her stifled suburban housewife existence for single-in-the-city living. She’s got a new apartment, a new dog (a total charmer Bassett hound named Fred), and a sexy new neighbor…who’s 10 years younger than she is. Despite their chemistry, Nina doesn’t want to take a chance on delicious Dr. Alex Moore because she’s convinced he’s all wrong for her. But, of course, she’ll soon come to realize he’s really Mr. Right.
Why I love this book: I am almost never a fan of big age differences in romances (I blame Jo choosing Professor Bhaer instead of Laurie in Little Women!), but there is zero question in my mind that Alex and Nina are completely perfect for each other. Crusie builds their friends-with-benefits relationship into the real thing in a charming, no melodrama way. Alex himself might even be one of my most favorite Crusie heroes. How do you not love a guy who insists he loves you because of not in spite of your wrinkles and thinks a perfect night is eating Oreos on the couch and mocking bad movies?
Tell Me Lies (1998)
Maddie Faraday is having an exceptionally bad day. First she found underpants—-not hers—-shoved under the seat of her husband’s car, then she became convinced her nosy neighbors were talking about her (not that that’s anything new), and then her darling 8-year-old demanded they get a dog (Yes, every Crusie book has a dog), and then…her mother called. Next thing she knows, Maddie’s resorting to gnawing on a frozen brownie and hiding in her kitchen. As her life spins more and more out of control, Maddie realizes she can’t worry about everyone else in her life, she just needs to go after what she wants…even if that includes her steamy one-time-fling C. L. Sturgis.
Why I love this book: Crusie made a big step up from category romances to big time hardcovers with this novel and it shows. Her heroine, Maddie Faraday, is just as relatable as all of her others, but Crusie skillfully adds some more high concept plotlines (blackmail! Embezzlement! MURDER!) but never loses the grounded poignancy of Maddie’s predicament. Especially touching are the scenes from 8-year-old Em’s perspective. There are many more secondary players in this novel than her previous ones, all of whom are endearing and quirky in their own ways.
Welcome to Temptation (2000)
Sophie Dempsey is only sticking around Temptation long enough to help her baby sister film a documentary about an aging movie star. At least that’s what she thinks… But then all hell breaks loose in this small town by way of politics, pornography and murder! And despite her best efforts, Sophie finds herself succumbing to the town’s charms—-and that of its slacker Mayor Phineas Tucker.
Why I love this book: More is definitely more when it comes to Temptation. Crusie stuffs this book full of Dusty Springfield songs, movie quotes, hilariously self-important town council meetings, amateur soft-core porn, popsicles, con artists, slightly kinky sex, and one incredibly phallic water tower, yet somehow it all works. Sophie’s from a family of grifters, but determined to go straight (her brother Davy pops up late in the book and nearly steals the whole show—-luckily he comes back later in his own book, Faking It) and she more than meets her match in Phin, who, like most Crusie heroes, has a lot going on under his easygoing surface. He seduces Sophie and the sparks fly, but it takes time for these two to get (out of bed) past their personal baggage and learn to trust and care for one another.
Wild Ride (2010)
In 2006, Crusie decided to team up with action-thriller writer Bob Mayer to match her down-to-earth but frequently frazzled heroines with his hard-charging, often-military alpha heroes. Their first collaborations served up Crusie’s usual cocktail of bantery goodness and suburban goddesses complimented by high-octane hijinx and stoic machismo. But with this third joint effort, they threw paranormal elements into the mix with a tale set at Dreamland, a rundown, cursed, demon-populated amusement park. Enter Mary Alice Brannigan, known as “Mab,” who doesn’t believe in the supernatural and just wants to focus on her job restoring the rides and buildings at the park. But mysterious happenings keep happening and Mab keeps getting into dangerous situations....
Why I love this book: The setting is, more than in any of Crusie’s previous books, a vivid character in its own right. Dreamland is such a captivating place with a rich and ancient supernatural mythology that slowly unfolds throughout the story. It’s a kick reading along as all of the characters discover their inner psychic, sorceress, demon hunter, etc. And as in all of Crusie’s books, as things come to an epic climax, Mab’s also busy learning how to follow her heart, and that she doesn’t always have to be the one in charge of fixing things.
With so many wonderful novels in her backlist, there’s easily a bunch more I could have added here. Which Crusie novels are your favorites?
Post edited on 4/30 @ 9:54 p.m. ET
Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.