There’s more to romance than Christian Grey and Mr. Darcy. As the largest subset of the fiction market, romance boasts — possibly more than any other genre — something for everyone. Whatever your pleasure (romantic or otherwise), somewhere in romance, it exists. This month, three novels showcase the diversity of the genre, testing its limits with remarkable results.
In Life on the Level (Diversion; paperback, $14.99), Zoraida Córdova brings readers an unforgettable heroine in River Thomas, a New York City-born gambling addict. After a dangerous misstep, River flees the city and checks herself into a rehabilitation center in Montana, but not before having an unforgettable one-night stand with a mystery man. She soon discovers he’s Christopher Hutchinson (“Hutch”), a counselor at the center. Córdova carefully navigates the relationship between River and Hutch, deftly balancing their electric attraction with the power differential in their professional relationship. Although River is never placed in formal treatment with Hutch, their bond evolves nonetheless, slowly, evocatively, and with the kind of passion that comes from a deep emotional connection. The book is River’s story, poignant and intense as readers see her work to remove layers of emotional armor, revealing anger and fear and a deep desire to be seen and loved, flaws and all.
At first glance, Elizabeth Michels’s The Infamous Heir (Sourcebooks Casablanca; paperback, $5.99) seems like a textbook historical romance. When Lady Roselyn Grey arrives at the country estate of the man she intends to wed, she is greeted by (and immediately drawn to) his scandalous, prizefighting younger brother, Ethan Moore. Readers know this setup well. Roselyn and Ethan are unmistakably perfect for each other, even if they don’t see it themselves. But Michels quickly turns the story on its head. When her betrothed is murdered, Roselyn has every reason to believe that Ethan is the killer, and their love story is thrown into chaos. Historical romance devotees will enjoy Michels’s adoring use of some of the classic tropes of the genre — the spare heir, the wrong brother as hero, the heroine in men’s clothing — but what makes the book so enjoyable is the way Michels makes the familiar fresh. The book is at once a well-crafted mystery and a simmering romance. Ethan and Roselyn’s love is a slow build — asking questions about desire, trust and courage that linger long after the two find their deeply rewarding happily ever after.
Perhaps no subsection of romance straddles the lines of the genre more than romantic suspense. After all, a great suspense novel requires much more than a satisfying romantic relationship. At their best, these tales remind us that love can be found even in the most unlikely of scenarios, with the most unlikely of characters. Such is the case with Cindy Gerard’s Taking Fire (Pocket, $7.99). The book begins in Afghanistan, where Israeli Mossad operative Talia Levine uses her relationship with defense contractor Bobby Taggart to orchestrate an attack on a high-ranking Hamas leader before disappearing from Bobby’s life. Six years later, Bobby is working for the Department of Defense in Oman when Talia reenters his life with a literal explosion — at the U.S. Embassy. Although Talia and Bobby survive the attack, there is a much more terrifying threat: Hamas has captured Talia’s 5-year-old son, Meir. Clever readers will do the math instantly and realize that Bobby is Meir’s father. There is a special kind of thrill in the secret-baby plot, but Gerard seamlessly weaves this staple of the romance genre into a complex international political thriller. Bobby and Talia’s romance is a beautiful one, filled with regret and sorrow and second chances, and perfectly balanced with heart-pounding action sequences. A riveting read for romance and thriller fans alike.
Sarah MacLean reviews romance monthly for The Washington Post and is the author, most recently, of “The Rogue Not Taken.”
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