Once upon a time in Romancelandia, before there were Bridgertons, before there were Bullet Catchers, before Virgin River was a gleam in Robyn Carr’s eye, there lived upon this Earth a type of romance novel rarely seen these days.
Yes, friends, I speak of that rarest of literary unicorns, the standalone romance novel.
I’m not sure when standalones went out of fashion. I suspect it had something to do with the three-book deal in New York publishing. And with the need for authors to build reader demand. After all, it’s much easier to increase anticipation for an upcoming release when the reader already knows the characters you’re going to write about. And if you can build up that demand over the course of many books, as Jo Beverley did with Rothgar or Mary Balogh did with Wulfric, readers will practically weep with wanting that last book of the series.
Still, there are times when as a reader I just want a story that I know will be finished when I get to “The end.” A story where I don’t have to worry as I read just who that wisecracking sidekick character will be paired with in the next book. A story where a secondary character is just that, a secondary character. Though they might not be easy to find, standalone romances do still exist and to prove it, I’ve compiled a list of some examples.
First up is from the first lady of romance, Nora Roberts (or La Nora, as we like to call her). Every summer, with a comforting reliability, Nora Roberts delivers a stand alone romantic suspense hardcover. The first of these—indeed my very first Nora read—was the fabulous Angels Fall. When Reece Gilmore, who is dealing with some serious emotional trauma, and who is new to the little town of Angels Fall, Wyoming, sees what she thinks is a murder, nobody believes her. What follows is a gripping thriller, but also a tender, sexy romance, set in the stunning landscape of the Wyoming mountains. This was the novel that got me hooked on Nora. She might be better known for her trilogies, which also appear once a year like clockwork, but Ms. Roberts has an impressive number of stand-alones under her belt. Other favorites include Carnal Innocence and High Noon.
Next to the Regency, where families with at least five children—each named Sequel Bait—usually predominate we take a look at the exquisite prose of Anna Campbell. Though she came on to the historical romance scene with a splash with Claiming the Courtesan, the book that solidified my love for her is her sophomore effort, Untouched. The story of Matthew, Marquess Sheene, and the widowed Grace Paget, Untouched is one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve finished. Imprisoned by his uncle since the age of fourteen, when he contracted a brain fever, Matthew is now twenty-five years old and regularly subjected to tortuous testing to “prove” him mad so that his uncle can retain control of the marquessate. Uncle John brings Grace Paget to his nephew as a mere amusement, but what develops between them is far more compelling. With a virgin hero, a determined heroine, and a daring escape plan, Untouched is historical romance at its stand-alone best.
From the angsty historical, we now turn to the lush, light fairy tale historicals of Eloisa James. Known for her complex interrelated stories, Ms. James has of late embarked upon a series of fairy tale retellings set in a world very like Regency England. She began with A Kiss at Midnight, a Cinderella story complete with a down-on-his-luck prince, a fairy godmother of sorts, a glass slipper, and a pickle-eating dog. This was followed up by When Beauty Tamed the Beast, featuring a hero with a remarkable resemblance to a certain grouchy television doctor, and a beautiful debutante determined not to marry the man of her father’s choosing. As always, Ms. James’s prose is exquisite, and with the small exception of a connected novella as a follow up to A Kiss at Midnight, these stories are concluded as soon as the reader reached “the end.”
Another writer whose historicals stand-alone is Kris Kennedy, whose medievals make even this avowed medieval-hater pick them up as soon as they are released. Her first book The Conqueror was the one that hooked me, telling the story of Pagan and Gwyn, who are both hiding very big secrets from one another, and who are both nursing very big grudges against each others families. It’s a complicated plot that brings them together, but what ultimately sold me on the story was the chemistry between Pagan and Gwyn. Their love simply comes alive on the page. There’s witty banter (my weakness), smoldering love scenes, and the conflict between them is not about their relationship, but about their family loyalties. And it’s all deliciously self-contained. Despite the complex family relationships in the novel, it is perfectly stand-alone.
If you like contemporary romance, and are having a tough time finding stand-alones, you might try checking out some of Harlequin’s category offerings. Though they are sometimes connected to one another, quite a few category romances are stand-alone in the true meaning of the term. And the good thing about category is that there’s a heat level and a content type for just about every reader.
If you like your heat level set to steamy, try picking up Sarah Mayberry’s Can’t Get Enough, which has a wonderful stuck-in-an-elevator scene in addition to a tri-athlete heroine. If you like less heat, you might try Harlequin Superromance What the Librarian Did by Karina Bliss, which made quite a few top ten lists of 2010, and pairs up a starchy librarian with a washed out rock star.
Though it might seem at times that the stand-alone romance has gone the way of the buggy whip, with a little bit of digging you’ll find that rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
So, tell me, gentle readers, have you seen any stand-alone books in the wild?
In the third grade Manda read both Little Women and Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero. Is it any wonder she grew up to write historical romance laced with mystery? Her regency historical romance, How to Dance with a Duke, will be published in February 2012 by St. Martin’s Press. For more information and an excerpt, check out her website at mandacollins.com. She can be found most days on Twitter @MandaCollins