Romance readers agree on only one thing: Each romance novel should have a Happily Ever After. For more of what is required, take a look at What Rules are in the Romance Novel Covenant?
We've all weighed in on the Best This and the Crucial That, but we haven't yet attempted—not here, at least—to come up with a comprehensive list of what the Romance Novels You Should Have Read by Now are.
Let's rectify that, shall we? Keep in mind this list is not a subjective Best Ever list*, but a list that gathers up the crucial books in the genre. And—of course—feel free to add your thoughts in comments! What did we miss? What book isn't worth being included? We want to know!
10. Anne Stuart, Black Ice
Why? There is no one better than Anne Stuart at the “Kiss or kill” book, and Black Ice is the epitome of this delicate balance.
9. Julia Quinn, The Viscount Who Loved Me
Why? Julia Quinn's books appear deceptively light, but always carry darker depths underneath the sparkle. And there is loads of sparkle—Quinn excels at dialogue, and at making a historical setting seem approachable, peopled with characters you could imagine knowing at any period in time.
8. J.D. Robb, Naked in Death
Why? Before long-running series were the norm, J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) began her In Death series, still going strong 30+ books later. The book is set in the near future, is a police procedural, and is also strongly romantic. The series' couple, Eve and Roarke, are the paradigm of a strongly-matched pair.
7. E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey
Why? This book by E.L. James converted millions of people into readers. For that alone it should be part of the romance canon. It is also one of the most striking direct examples of the obsessive, controlling hero who finds something unique—something addictive—in an otherwise normal woman.
6. Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Ain't She Sweet
Why? The heroine is that completely unlikeable, manipulative, gorgeous, most popular girl in high school—laid completely low nearly a decade later, returning to her hometown and having to eat a lot of crow. She hasn't had a change of character, but her character changes through the course of the book, and the reader ends up rooting for her. A remarkable witty and gritty contemporary romance from Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
5. Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm
Why? This historical by Laura Kinsale tackles some very intricate and delicate subject matter, and ends up a tour de force, a book that includes a devout Quaker, a brain-damaged Duke, mathematical genius, and the vast and incredible power of love.
4. J.R. Ward, Lover Awakened
Why? J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood paranormal romance series is chock-full of over-the-top tortured vampire heroes, and the women who love them. Zsadist is the most (literally!) tortured hero of the BDB, and his journey to love is compelling, angsty, and utterly poignant.
3. Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me
Why? Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me has an overweight heroine, a hero who is befuddled and entranced by her, loads of snarky wit, and a critically sexy donut scene.
2. Lisa Kleypas, Dreaming of You
Why? In Dreaming of You, Lisa Kleypas crafted one of the most memorable heroes ever, Derek Craven.
Derek's rough upbringing, his ruthlessness, his need for his heroine, and his resultant emotional fragility is the epitome of the tough on the outside/gooey on the inside alpha male.
1. Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels
Why? Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels frequently tops Best Romance Novels Ever lists, and so it needs no further justification for being tops here. But since we're here...its lummoxy hero, Sebastian Dain, gets felled handily by his heroine, Jessica, and she seems to recognize, almost immediately, what Dain is like on the inside (see that tough/gooey analogy above). Their courtship is sensual, witty, and delicious throughout, and doesn't shy away from difficult moments.
*We might do a subjective Best Ever list, once we don our armor!
ETA 9/20/13: You've read Megan Frampton's list of romances you should read in various subgenres. Now, see what Leigh Davis thinks every CONTEMPORARY romance fan should read. And do add to her list with your picks!
Megan Frampton is the Community Manager for the HeroesandHeartbreakers site. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and son.