Some might call December holiday season. And it is! But it’s also the season of another cheerful, warming tradition: the romantic comedy. Think about it. What goes better with cozy twinkle lights and a steaming mug of tea than two people falling in love? With Hallmark finding new life with the Christmas rom-com boom—and Netflix getting in on the action—it seems like we’re all yearning for a little something sweet come the holidays. Personally, my current watch list is stocked with Love Actually, The Holiday, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and the like, and it will be until the post-holiday blues wear off.
The sudden resurgence of the rom-com genre in both film and book format seems ripe for analysis. Why are these stories so satisfying to us, when we can accurately map out each plot point and know literally from the beginning how they’re going to end? And why do they go through periodic booms? Well, like any genre, rom-com popularity is surely at the whim of trends, which come and go mostly without explanation. But I think there might be something more to it.
The most obvious place to look is, quite simply, the state of our world. With our relatively new access to the incessant, depressing, soul-crushing 24 hour news cycle—giving us access to previously obscure horrors from around the globe in addition to our own backyard—it’s easy to lose faith in just about everything. Whether or not the world is in a worse state than it’s ever been, the fact is we now know how terrible things are (whereas before, we may have only gotten the news in bits and pieces). So what better antidote to real-world horror than candy-coated, perfectly contrived narratives that by necessity end with a happily-ever-after? As Hugh Grant’s character says in the opening scene of Love Actually, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere.” Hugh’s version of Heathrow Airport holds the same kind of heartwarming, best-version-of-humanity qualities that we love in romantic comedies. It’s a world where the good outweighs the bad, where love always wins, where you know exactly how things are going to play out. It is, in a short word, comfort.
Sometimes you just want to sink your teeth into a well-known trope, one you’re familiar with after years and years of exposure. The standoffish jerk insults the protagonist, the protagonist thinks “ugh, I hate him!” and instead of rolling your eyes at this obvious set-up, you hunker down excitedly. “Can’t wait to see these fools realize they love each other,” you think to yourself. A lot of people might think these kinds of romantic tropes are a recent invention, and that the genre is played out. I attribute this to something like rom-com fatigue, a natural reaction against the, shall we say, less than stellar rom-com outputs of the 2000s (sorry to Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey) which were rote in the worst way and cynical to boot. But the truth is, rom-com tropes have been around (and popular) since at least Shakespeare’s time: think of Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, to name only a couple. Yet they remain the pariahs of tropes. Why is that? An excellent Vox investigation brings up the following point:
The mainstreaming of geek culture has gradually granted legitimacy to all the other heavily trope-based genres — comics, fantasy, sci-fi, video game narratives, horror — because they appealed to men, and male nerds have been ascendant. Yet trope-heavy genres dominated by women, which are mainly rom-com, erotic romance, and young adult at this point, have continued to struggle to gain any kind of cultural legitimacy.
For a clear-cut example of this, see the just-announced Golden Globe nominations: Joker is nominated for Best Motion Picture Drama despite having an aggregate critical score of 69% while Little Women is shut out with a score of 97%. This is just par for the course for female-dominated spheres. So seeking refuge in media very much made for women (or anyone who is tired of dreariness) by women seems like a nice middle finger to the institutions that have traditionally ignored it. It’s a place to safely explore the things that make us happy.
But it’s not just movies; the book industry has also seen a boom in romantic comedies lately—or rather, a boom in people openly, excitedly celebrating romantic comedies. Think about all the books with cutesy covers that only look slightly different from each other; no doubt you’ve seen them all over displays at your local bookstore. But what’s especially exciting about romantic comedies in novel format is just how many there are, and how varied. Unlike movies, which require a massive budget and can only be made by a handful of studios, these books are everywhere. And all the better for the holiday season!
So sit back, light a fire in the fireplace (or, if you’re like me, stream a fireplace video on your TV) and check out my personal picks below.
If your taste in love interests leans toward the aforementioned standoffish jerk, you might want to try The Unhoneymooners. It’s a trope as old as time, popular since at least the Regency era, when Mr. Darcy called Lizzy Bennett “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me” at the ball that one time.
The Unhoneymooners revolves around an entirely implausible scenario of two people who hate each other being forced to take a honeymoon vacation together after their newlywed siblings get food poisoning. This one falls into what I consider to be pure romantic comedy; there’s really not much else going on besides the two main characters learning to tolerate each other and eventually—spoiler alert—falling in love. There’s elements of the ever popular “fake relationship” trope and a smidge of “enemies to lovers”, which somehow, despite reading and watching countless stories with the same trajectory still always feels like a victory. The silly plot would be at home in a 2007 romantic comedy film starring Katherine Heigl, which I don’t mean as an insult! It’s not the most sophisticated of plots, to be fair, but sometimes you just want to kick back with a glass of wine and read about a heroine getting herself into some ridiculous shenanigans. A beach read through and through, but also a sitting-cozy-by-the-fireplace-in-wool-socks read.
Fun fact: the author Christina Lauren is actually two people, Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, who have been writing as a duo since 2010 after meeting online in fanfiction spaces (depending on how raunchy you like your romance, you may know their previous works like the Beautiful Bastard series).
Red, White and Royal Blue
Red, White and Royal Blue goes down like a cardamom latte—sweet with a spicy kick. Author Casey McQuinston is basically what happens when you let a millennial write a book: she knows all of her characters’ Hogwarts houses, their Meyers-Briggs personalities, and their full birth charts (“”I think the rise of astrology is directly proportional to the rise of young people with depression and anxiety, honestly,” she told Bustle, “We’re all out here joking our way through existential dread and trying to figure out who we are, and I think for a lot of us, astrology provides some kind of order and a framework to make sense of ourselves.”)
The story is an alternate timeline, a contemporary fantasy deviating from the 2016 US election wherein a woman is president, and one in which the public may just be okay with the First Son and the Prince of England falling in love. The main trope in this one is the good old “fake relationship”—or in this case, fake friendship. When Alex Claremont-Diaz, son of the US president, and Prince Henry of England cause an unfortunate scene at a public event, they are forced by their families and their advisers to play nice for the media. But what starts as a PR friendship turns into—you guessed it—real love. And while these two are truly adorable together, this isn’t your grandmother’s romantic comedy. There are pages upon pages of Alex and Henry, uh, exploring their new feelings. As the New York Times puts it, “when they fall in love, the intensity of their infatuation, youthful but not immature, is intoxicating.” It reminds me of the previously linked Vox article, which includes a little segment on another heavily female space: fanfiction. “[In] fanfiction, especially queer fanfiction, writers tend to simultaneously embrace and explode rom-com tropes. They do that by treating them extremely seriously and with that much-coveted sincerity […] making conscious choices about how to either subvert the tropes they’re working with or reframe social issues in order to shamelessly leverage those tropes to create even more shameless fantasy.”
Red, White and Royal Blue is definitely escapist, but it presents a world that is tantalizingly close to ours—and is so earnest about it that it makes you earnest about it too. Maybe one day, this kind of diverse, tolerant version of reality can be ours. And a little bonus sweetness: Amazon Studios has already snatched up the movie rights.
If you’re into the English royalty aspect of Red, White, and Royal Blue but you also want something that explicitly takes place at Christmastime, Jasmine Guillory’s newest output Royal Holiday should satisfy for obvious reasons. The author of the acclaimed Wedding Date series returns and brings with her something a little different: a cross-Atlantic romantic comedy starring two black people in their 50s.
Royal Holiday is indeed an installment in the Wedding Date series, and they all do take place in the same universe, but you don’t have to read each one to understand the next. In this one, Vivian Forest (mother of Maddie, star of this year’s The Wedding Party) gets an invitation to tag along with her daughter to England at Christmas, as Maddie has been offered a job styling a member of the royal family. This puts Vivian right in contact with members of the royal household and their staff—including Malcolm Hudson, the Queen’s private secretary and a very handsome gentleman. What makes Royal Holiday such a sugary read is the fact that Malcolm is nice to Vivian, and interested in her, off the bat. So there’s no push-and-pull that is almost expected in a rom-com. The result is just a simply delightful read.
Word has it that Guillory was inspired by a certain Duchess’s mother being invited to Sandringham House for Christmas last year. So while Royal Holiday might be as much of a fantasy as any other books on this list, it’s an imagined version of real events; it’s fanfiction of Doria Ragland’s life, basically! And it has all the Christmas coziness, English politeness, and sweet romance that your heart desires.
Bringing Down the Duke
Clearly my interests have a trend, as this is yet another novel set in England. Except this time, it’s set in Victorian Oxford, centred around burgeoning suffragette Annabelle Archer as she tries to win the stony Duke of Montgomery to the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In the vein of Red White and Royal Blue, this one is on the steamier side—deliciously so. There is essentially a whole subgenre of romance dedicated solely to dukes, but most aren’t as fun as this one. Our duke in question here is Sebastian Devereux, a romance name if I’ve ever heard one, and if you love a Jerk With a Heart of Gold, well. Buckle up.
But besides the truly frothy, achy romance of the novel, what makes Bringing Down the Duke so notable is the detail author Evie Dunmore uses to bring Victorian England to life. Some quick background info on Dunmore: she herself is an Oxford grad (thus explaining the evocative way she paints her setting), having studied politics and economics with an M.Sc. in Diplomacy. In an interview with Kirkus Reviews, Dunmore’s interest in diplomacy is explained: “she was interested in how good policy-making could address social problems, and she became fascinated by the long-fought battle for women’s rights in England: the right to vote, to own property, to control their own money.” The England of Dunmore’s novel is not a fantastical version of the past; the threat of scandal and ruin is very much present for her characters—and not always in a sexy way. Another interesting fact about Dunmore is that English is her second language; she is actually German and lives in Berlin. But from her witty, crackling dialogue and accurate depiction of English society, you would never guess!
Bringing Down the Duke is all-in-all a highly enjoyable, swoon-worthy novel that will keep you glued to the pages. And good news! It’s the first in a planned series by Dunmore, which she has delightfully dubbed A League of Extraordinary Women. A Rogue of One’s Own is planned for 2020, focusing on the formidable, brilliant Lady Lucie of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Stay tuned!