Like every second person on the internet, I recently read and loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s joyous Romantic Comedy and it made me wonder: why do I read so many books about trauma? And pain? And grief? And death? Books so emotionally harrowing that I need to chat with my psychologist about them afterwards (true story, bonus points if you guessed A Little Life).
And most importantly, why do I endure such misery when I could be enjoying all of the cheery conventions that define the rom-com genre all of the time? Like sex and love and crushes and happy-endings (not that variety) and wit and humour and chemistry and that perfect balance of fantasy and reality.
I decided to pursue more of this anti-trauma good stuff and discovered that, while rom-coms don’t always have to be especially good to be enjoyed (sometimes the very genre begets joy), there is a category of titles where the banter is especially snappy, the writing especially witty, the sociological observations particularly on point, the high-heels on the cover especially absent, and the pay-off oh-so gratifying.
I’m calling them smart rom-coms and while I’ll be the first to admit the label sounds a little snooty, I think you’ll agree there’s something special about these seven books that make them more than your average rom-com.
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld
In case you missed it, everyone’s new favourite book is about a comedy writer who thinks she’s sworn off love until a dreamily handsome popstar flips the script on all her assumptions. With the emotional acuity she is famous for, Curtis Sittenfeld asks serious questions about love, vulnerability, cheesiness and intimacy, all while telling a truly entertaining story.
Book Lovers by Emily Henry
Honestly, you could read any of EmHen’s books and be guaranteed a smart rom-com (there’s a reason Vulture said she’d cracked the modern romance novel), but this one just happens to be my favourite. A subversive rivals-to-lovers tale set over a steamy summer, it gets bonus points for being a book about books and bookish people.
The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang
When Roxane Gay chooses a rom-com for her book club, you know it’s got something special going for it. The Heart Principle is the third instalment in the Kiss Quotient series (each of the three books can be read as standalone novels but this is the standout). As much a novel about a woman finding her voice and learning to manage a later in life autism diagnosis as it is a gripping and complex love story, there is more rom than com plus plenty of smarts.
The Bird Has Flown by Susanna Hoffs
This debut novel from Susanna Hoffs has been described as “part British rom-com, part Jane Eyre, and one hundred percent enjoyable”. With all the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll you’d expect from the founding member of The Bangles (yes, the 80s band), this riotously funny and steamy novel about music, fate, redemption, passion and the ghosts of our past is as clever as it is charming.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
While not strictly a rom-com, it has many of the tropes you’d expect from the genre and is too delightful a read not to include. Writers & Lovers follows Casey in the last days of a long youth. Torn between two very different relationships that promise two very different futures, this beautifully engrossing story explores the conflicting demands of art and life, and the terrifying leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another.
The Idea of You by Robinne Lee
A novel written by an actress that reads as Harry Styles fan fiction and is also one of Curtis Sittenfeld’s favourite rom-coms? Yes please! French-born art gallerist and 39-year-old divorced mum Solène starts an affair with the 20-year-old British lead singer from her teenage daughter’s favourite boy band. Escapist, engrossing and ridiculously sexy (you will blush reading this one in public), the depth and emotional nuance with which Lee writes is the cherry on top.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The OG rom-com that inspired thousands of spin-offs and one of the most delightful love stories ever written. How could I not include it?!