If the recent on-screen successes of Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before are any indication, the romantic comedy is back. Based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, Crazy Rich Asians is one of the year’s few examples, amid the superhero and horror flicks, of a big-screen rom-com, and it’s among the top-grossing films in the U.S. for 2018 to date. “I think people are ready for romantic comedy, just because it had been absent for so long,” says Cindy Hwang, v-p and editorial director at Berkley.
Netflix announced in October that more than 80 million people watched its summer slate of rom-coms, with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, adapted from Jenny Han’s 2014 YA novel, becoming one of its most-viewed original films ever, with strong repeat viewing. (For more on young adult romance novels, see “Teen Spring Fling”).
“I’m happy to see these stories come back,” says Monique Patterson, editorial director at St. Martin’s Paperbacks. “Not that they ever went away completely, but now we all get to enjoy them collectively again.”
The popularity of recent rom-com screen adaptations suggests a desire for funny, sweet stories that end in a happily ever after. The films, and the books they’re based on, have something else in common: characters who tend to be underrepresented in romance fiction. Crazy Rich Asians has an all-Asian cast, and in To All the Boys, Vietnamese-American Lana Condor plays protagonist Lara Jean Covey, who is biracial.
We spoke with romance publishers about the resurgence of the romantic comedy and the significance of giving characters of all types their happily ever afters.
A Safe Place
In tough times, rom-com novels can serve as the literary equivalent of comfort food. Forthcoming titles incorporate real-life issues that concern many readers—money problems, the gig economy, social justice issues, and more—while still giving them the happy outcome they crave and the hope that their own problems are going to work out.
“Right now, we’re living in a time for many people in general—and certainly many people in the queer community—where every day you wake up to a new horror,” says Ruth Sternglantz, editorial and marketing consultant at Bold Strokes Books. Because the real world is uncertain, she notes, a few hours with a book can remind the reader that there are many paths to happiness. Shut Up and Kiss Me by Julie Cannon (Bold Strokes, Feb. 2019), a story of rich girl meets poor girl, delves into social and economic divides—and, because it’s a romance, it’s no spoiler to disclose that they find their way to each other despite the obstacles.
In the #MeToo era, rom-coms sometimes offer another sort of solace: the idea that things don’t have to be this way. “We need to believe that there are good men in the world,” says Tessa Woodward, senior editor at William Morrow; supportive romantic heroes can offer a model for how a real-life partner should behave.
Carrie Feron, senior v-p and executive editor at Morrow, says the hero of Sally Thorne’s 99 Percent Mine (Feb. 2019) is one of those models. “Sally says that Tom is the guy so many women wish they had in their life.”
The book’s heroine, Darcy, feels as though she peaked in her photography career at age 20, and she has yet to meet a guy as good as Tom, her childhood crush. As she and her twin brother fight over how to deal with a house they inherit, Tom resurfaces to help them flip the house, and sparks fly.
Thorne’s first novel, 2016’s The Hating Game, which PW’s review praised for its “Hepburn-and-Tracy-esque banter,” was popular among millennial readers, Feron says. She expects that demographic to embrace the somewhat bawdy 99 Percent, too. Darcy strings together several gigs—bartender, product photographer, unpaid Etsy store helper—just like many in her age group.
Of the myriad permutations of romance novels, Feron says, rom-coms are among the best at distracting readers from their troubles. 99 Percent Mine, for instance, is a locked-room romance—one in which characters are forced by circumstance to be under the same roof—and it’s both “funny and sexy. It’s a safe place to be.”
The best rom-coms not only make readers laugh, says Amy Pierpont, editor-in-chief at Forever and Forever Yours, but they invite them to take themselves and their circumstances less seriously. Jenny Hale’s The Summer House (Forever, May 2019), which is being published in partnership with U.K. digital publisher Bookouture, introduces characters “who are struggling just like we are,” Pierpont says—best friends who put their life savings into a bed-and-breakfast, and meet a local heartthrob in the process. “Half the time, I feel like rom-coms are not so much about the LOLs—that’s hard,” she adds. “It’s really that knowing smile, the ‘I get you; I hear you.’ It’s that kind of knowing nod you make to yourself.”
A lighthearted attitude can make even dark situations rom-com fodder. In Grace After Henry (Putnam, Mar. 2019) by Irish author Eithne Shortall, Grace’s fiancé, Henry, is killed in a freak accident. Naturally, she feels a bit lost—until his long-lost twin brother shows up. “Irish authors have this amazing capacity for humor that maybe is in their blood,” says Tara Singh-Carlson, executive editor at Putnam. “They’re able to write their female characters with the right amount of edge and vulnerability and self-deprecation. It’s getting the lead woman just right—to have her be strong but relatable, and insecure in the ways that we’re all insecure.”
Getting the lead woman just right is doubly hard when the rom-com stars two women of different ages and backgrounds. In One Summer in Paris by Sarah Morgan (HQN, Apr. 2019), the unlikely friendship between a newly single 40-something woman and a rebellious teenager in Paris helps each find a new path, and the potential for new love. “Sarah is brilliant at writing multigenerational female relationships, which strikes a real emotional chord,” says Flo Nicoll, senior editor at Harlequin. “Reading about women forging life-changing friendships, regardless of age, is inspirational.”
HEAs for All
Hired (Kensington, Mar. 2019) is the second book in Zoey Castile’s Happy Endings series, a Magic Mike–inspired romance fantasy that Norma Perez-Hernandez, assistant editor at Kensington Publishing, says is millennial-focused, modern, and multicultural. She acknowledges that the return to romantic comedies has been brewing for a long time, and that the books particularly resonate now. “The climate, no matter what your political affiliation, can be a little stressful, and you just want to see something happy and something fun.”
Perez-Hernandez says readers responded to 2018’s Stripped, which PW’s review called “thoroughly entertaining,” in part because of the variety of ethnicities and sexual orientations of the characters. In Hired, the male lead is Colombian and the female lead is black. That diversity is important, the author notes, but it’s not the only issue: “Ultimately, we’re reading to escape.”
Angela James, editorial director at Carina Press, says the romance readership has always included readers from all backgrounds, and those readers have been waiting to see themselves in stories. As the genre tries to pull in younger readers, she adds, publishers should look to the inclusivity of YA novels. “Those younger readers have been seeing themselves in stories,” James notes. “YA has done a much better job than the adult market of showing more representation, so if we don’t expand, we’ll fail to gain that readership.”
The idea that everyone deserves the escapism that comes from seeing themselves in a happily ever after—commonly known as an HEA—was the message at July’s annual conference of the Romance Writers of America, as Suzanne Brockmann took the stage to receive a Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. She used her platform to call for inclusion in romances. “When you grow up in a world where you learn, just from watching, that you are let in, but others are not, you often accept it as your truth,” Brockmann said. “So when you write what you see and what you know and what you’ve been told to believe, like books set in a town where absolutely no people of color or gay people live? You are perpetuating exclusion.”
It’s a conversation that’s been happening for a long time, and it’s only getting louder. Also at RWA 2018, A Bollywood Affair author Sonali Dev gave her thoughts on the importance of representation during a speech at Librarians Day. She asked librarians to amplify voices that aren’t always heard, using the power they have when they decide which books to order for their libraries.
In Dev’s forthcoming Jane Austen riff Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors (Morrow, May), the heroine, Tricia, is a neurosurgeon whose Indian immigrant family is descended from royalty, and her love interest, DJ, is an up-and-coming chef of South Asian and black heritage from a less-privileged background. Interactions between various characters yield some comical situations—the oh-so-serious Trisha isn’t quite sure what to do when DJ’s artist sister gives her one of her signature vagina paintings, which she says Trisha inspired—but the book also addresses broader issues. In one scene, the couple gets locked out of a car DJ borrowed from a friend, and he has to explain to Tricia, in a turning point for their relationship, that he cannot be seen breaking into the car because he’s black. “It’s really a slice of real life,” Morrow’s Woodward says. “Not everybody is white, and this is what they have to deal with.”
Writing in the Margins
Annie Harper, executive editor at Interlude Press, says that in the past, when books included characters with different gender identities or sexual orientations or other points of diversity, it didn’t always end well for those characters. Even if they did end up having a relationship, one or both members of the couple would be killed off, or some other tragedy would strike. That’s why diverse romantic comedies are so important, she says: readers see things work out for a character whose story, in earlier days, may not have had a happy conclusion.
Harper edited the queer romantic comedy Jilted by Lilah Suzanne (Nov.), which features a character, Link, who is nonbinary but whose gender identity doesn’t drive the story. When Link is left at the altar, Link meets Carter, also recently dumped. After being mistaken for newlyweds, the two decide to spend Link’s already-paid-for honeymoon together.
“That’s extremely valuable,” Harper says, “when the narrative changes and you’re looking at a fun romance, not just a story that speaks to challenges readers may be experiencing in everyday life.”
Helen Hoang’s 2018 debut, The Kiss Quotient (Berkley), starred a woman who, like the author, is on the autism spectrum. PW’s starred review cited the “diverse cast and exceptional writing,” and Roxane Gay called it “a fun read and it’s also quite original and sexy and sensitive.” The follow-up, The Bride Test (Jove, May 2019), also addresses neurodiversity and issues relating to immigration. Hoang, a second-generation American, created more than one barrier to communication for her lead characters, Khai and Esme. Neither speaks the other’s native language very well—Khai grew up in the U.S., Esme in Vietnam—and because Khai has autism, he isn’t certain he’s capable of love.
“They are perfectly imperfect, and definitely perfect for each other,” says Berkley’s Hwang. The couple has to work hard and compromise for their HEA, but, as in all rom-com romances, eventually they get there.
Melissa Umbarger is a freelance writer and editor by night and fights poverty at a nonprofit in North Carolina by day. She gets her romance fix on her daily commute.
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