Libby Hubscher’s beautiful debut, Meet Me in Paradise, is a poignant, emotionally authentic story of sisterly bonds and unexpected love. When Marin Cole’s globe-trotting younger sister, Sadie, suggests a restorative sisters’ weekend on the Caribbean island of Saba, Marin reluctantly agrees. Little does she know that Sadie, who pretends to miss their flight, has enrolled resort owner Lucas Tsai in her secret plan to help uptight Marin find the fun by exploring the island. The title suggests a breezy island rom-com, but Hubscher doesn’t shy from heavy topics, resulting in a story that is as likely to elicit tears as laughter.
Long before I’d dreamed of the moment that every romance reader longs for—the one where the two main characters recognize their blooming feelings for each other in some perfect, prolonged episode of eye contact or accidental touch—I knew each hurt they were holding and every heartbreak that awaited them.
Part of what I love about romance is knowing no matter what hardship happens, there’s a happy ending waiting. Still, there’s something truly satisfying about a happily-ever-after that is the culmination of a moving emotional journey. Real life can be devastating, and as a reader, I tend to gravitate toward something that grounds the romantic fantasy in reality.
Romance novels that tug on our heartstrings serve as important reminders that despite loss, pain, and sorrow, love and joy can flourish. They allow hope to swell in us even as our eyes fill with tears and, sometimes, they sweep us away completely. Here are 10 of my favorites:
Doller’s adult debut novel begins a year after Anna has lost her fiancé to suicide, when she begins a journey they’d planned to take together. As she takes to sea aboard the boat he left her, her grief is ever present, a shifting current that pulls her along. Then Anna meets sailor Keane, who is dealing with a different kind of loss, and together they have to navigate the waters as well as their own complicated feelings. Float Plan is gentle, deeply emotional exploration of the fluidity of grief, the struggle that is moving on, and the resiliency of the heart in its capacity of love, even after heartbreak.
2. Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center
Center’s novel revolves around Cassie, a woman who excels at handling other people’s emergencies in her job as a firefighter and has to face her own personal worst-case scenario when she ends up far from home, caring for her ill, estranged mother and working with a new crew who seems to view her as an unwelcome guest. Between her complex relationship at home and her conflicted feelings for the gorgeous rookie she finds herself working beside and fantasizing about, Cassie’s life is on the verge of combustion. Her strength, inside and out, belies a deep wound she’s carrying, and her journey to healing through acceptance, forgiveness, vulnerability, and love is a powerfully moving one.
Hoang’s heartaching and beautiful novel is the exquisite story of Esme, who leaves her home and young daughter in Vietnam for the promise of love and the American dream, only to be met with the brilliant, but tortured Khai, whose past traumas have instilled in him the misbelief that he is incapable of love. As Esme wrestles with her feelings of unworthiness and her affection and admiration for Khai, the book becomes an intricately layered portrait of two people who could be perfect each other, if they’d only overcome the seemingly insurmountable emotional obstacles keeping them apart. Fortunately the torment of deep hurt and heartbreaking things left unsaid is offset by the care these characters show each other as well as their growth as they each realize their own truths and go after what they want.
In the follow-up to Jimenez’s debut, The Friend Zone, Sloan has a near miss with a dog in the road on her way to visit her fiancé’s grave. This chance encounter sets her on a path to healing and a second chance at love with the dog’s owner, a famous musician. A tentative relationship blossoms, but Sloan has to find a way to navigate her unresolved grief and balance her own needs with those of her new relationship as she comes into her own again. While Sloan’s discovery of a life after loss is aching at times, it’s perfectly balanced with moments of humor and levity.
Every single aspect of Lalli’s latest book is touching—from Serena’s struggle to feel accepted by her family, to her strained relationships at work, to the love she let slip away and can’t seem to forget—but the emotional power it wields is sneaky. What seems like one woman’s quest to make an independent, satisfying life for herself is a story full of longing, loneliness, relationships broken and mended. While this one walks the line between romance and women’s fiction, the love story is authentic and satisfying, as Serena realizes that sometimes being strong means being vulnerable and letting one’s heart lead the way.
Holmes’s novel starts off with widowed Evvie on the floor of her home wrestling with the burden of a secret she’s keeping from everyone in her life. It’s not until Dean, a professional baseball player whose career might be over, stays in her guest apartment that Evvie begins to come to terms with her painful history with her husband and a gentle romance develops. Her efforts to process past hurts are raw and lead to unexpected fallout, including a rift with her best friend, but it is how she picks up the pieces and takes a second chance on love that makes this one so special.
In Love Lettering, romance blossoms between Meg, a calligrapher, and newly single Reid, who decoded a warning she hid in the lettering on his wedding program. Reid feels out of place in New York City, and Meg’s struggling with work pressure and the withdrawal of her best friend, Sibby. The romance that develops is tender and charming, a chance to fall in love with New York City as Meg and Reid wander together, searching for meaning. The emotional challenges and untethered feeling that Meg and Reid both struggle with are equally resonant and touching, but the story is ultimately uplifting as they find connection and acceptance in each other.
Henry’s adult debut has an ideal premise—two authors dealing with their own creative struggles end up as neighbors and lovers during a summer vacation. But beneath that is some moving history that sets the stage for a poignant story of second chances. January, a romance novelist struggling with writer’s block, is reeling with grief after losing her father and learning of his deception, while Gus, the college classmate she loved to hate, is dealing with trauma of his own. Together, they help each other work through their pain in a multitude of ways, some practical, some sensual, all leaving readers satisfied and utterly affected.
9. The Heart of Blade series by Sherry Thomas
This is cheating a bit, but this historical romance duology by Thomas packs a devastating one-two punch, especially when read together. The Hidden Blade is not a romance; however, it delivers all of the essential history of Catherine Blade and Capt. Leighton Atwood as fate drew them together in their formative years. What follows in My Beautiful Enemy is equal parts adventure and epic love story, when the rival forces must navigate their painful pasts, a complex political landscape, and their own undeniable magnetism. It’s as heart-wrenching as it is enthralling, with the anguish of utter betrayal and the bitter struggle to regain trust as they come together for survival and passion giving way to a breathtaking romance that refuses to let go.
10. The Simple Wild by K. A. Tucker
After learning her estranged father is dying, city girl Calla returns to the man and birthplace she’s never known in rural Alaska, only to be met by pilot Jonah, who seems to detest her. This book is a poignant and enthralling exploration of unbreakable family bonds, following Calla as she gets to know the father she’s missed. Her struggles to adapt to life in the Alaskan wilderness are compelling and relatable, and the evolution from judgmental first impressions to friendship and romantic feelings with Jonah is fulfilling, even with a happy-for-now ending. Ultimately, the call of the heart and the wild prove impossible to resist, even when they are diametrically opposed.