Sometimes I’m looking for a romance that will really put me through the wringer. Other times, I’m looking for romances that embody the “no plot, just vibes” ethos. Today, we’ll be looking more toward the latter end of the spectrum. These romances indeed do have plots, more or less. But the stakes are not dire. Characters generally treat each other with kindness. Because sometimes you really need some gentle romances. Books that feel like a warm hug.
I sometimes find books with too little tension boring. So if the plot is low stakes, there needs to be something else to capture my attention. The best romances with low angst create compelling tales in other ways. I’m personally keen on gentle romances that include sex scenes, though I know they’re not for everyone. I also love lived-in worlds full of places you want to explore. Richly drawn characters you want to hang out with and get to know. Vivid details, be they food or fashion, that ignite the senses. And underneath it all, a romance story that unfolds with care. Sometimes it’s not enough simply to know a happy ending is coming. Sometimes, the whole thing needs to be happy. I’ve endeavored to find a wide range of books across sub-genres and levels of explicitness, so you can find your particular happy place within the world of gentle romances.
Donut Fall in Love by Jackie Lau
The overlap between foodie romances and gentle romances is pretty deep. Here’s one example (more to come!). Actor Ryan Kwok is a little bit adrift in life, so he signs up for a celebrity episode of Baking Fail. He enlists Lindsay to help him learn how to bake. They’d gotten off to a rocky start when he knocked over two dozen donuts in her shop, but a spark ignited between them nonetheless. One thing to note: while this is indeed a very soft romance, both main characters are mourning the loss of a parent.
The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan
This charming historical romance upends expectations at every turn. List-making Chloe Fong told her childhood sweetheart Jeremy that he should come back to her when he’s ready to be serious. But Jeremy is a trickster at heart. He’s also secretly a duke, and he needs to come clean to Chloe about that not-so-minor detail. With a delightful revenge plot, absolutely goofy antics, and Chloe’s dad, AKA the real MVP, this book truly sparkles.
It Takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian
It was hard to pick just one Cat Sebastian to include on this list, as her books are generally gentler romances known for dialing down the plot while keeping pining levels at all-time highs. But this book has traces of The Sound of Music in its literary DNA, so you just need to read it. Ben, a country vicar, is tasked with caring for the kids of absent naval captain Phillip. When Phillip returns from sea and unexpectedly finds his children in the care of this cheerful, adorable vicar, he can’t help but fall in love himself.
Xeni by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Anyone who loves a contemporary marriage of convenience will enjoy this pick. Xeni needs to marry to claim an estate — a romance classic if ever there was one. Mason, the handsome Scot Xeni meets at her aunt’s memorial, agrees to marry Xeni for a month. As it turns out, there’s an inheritance in the works for him as well. They’re both great communicators, bringing their honest selves to this odd situation, and they have CHEMISTRY. If you like romances that are sweet and also a little kinky, check this one out.
When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare
Again, it was tough to pick among Tessa Dare’s outstanding bibliography for this list, but if you haven’t yet read When a Scot Ties the Knot, you simply must. Madeline did what so many of us have done to avoid unwanted male attention. She invented herself a boyfriend: Captain MacKenzie. She sends him letters and everything. So when the real Captain MacKenzie shows up with her letters in hand, she’s in some real trouble. All Madeline ever wanted was to uncover the secrets of lobster mating (not even kidding), but she accidentally caught herself a mate.
Kiss and Cry by Mina V. Esguerra
This Manila-set romance pairs Calinda, an ex-figure skater with Ramirez, a hockey player nearing retirement. They both have to figure out where their lives are headed. And, surprise! It’s towards each other. They already have some history, viewing each other as “the one that got away.” If you love thoughtful, gentle romances with characters who communicate well through their problems, this book is a rare treat.
The Craft of Love by EE Ottoman
I love, love, love reading historical romances with characters in interesting professions. In The Craft of Love, romance builds out of professional respect when Remembrance, a quilter and embroiderer, meets Benjamin, a silversmith. Benjamin is a trans man, but that is not a source of conflict for the story. The gradual building of trust in their relationship is wonderful to behold. This is one to read wrapped in a cozy quilt with a lovely pot of tea next to you.
Playing House by Ruby Lang
Please read the entire Uptown trilogy, but start here. Fay plants a kiss on Oliver to get away from some unwanted attention. They aren’t strangers, though; Oliver’s kept his crush on Fay to himself for a long time because she was married. But now she’s divorced, and the fake smooch turns into an opportunity to fake date their way through Upper Manhattan real estate tours. But fake dating inevitably leads to real feelings. It’s a cardinal rule of romance. If architectural details make your heart sing, you’ll adore this gentle romance.
Soft on Soft by Mina Waheed
Here’s a slice-of-life romance between two fat queer women. Selena is an actress and model; June is a makeup artist. They meet through work and embark on a slow burn romance. June’s anxiety is the main obstacle, but Selena supports June through her struggles. If you appreciate knowing exactly where the sexually explicit content in a book is, this book saves it all for a bonus scene at the end, which is clearly labeled.
Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle
Maybell is a dreamer who prefers her mind palace to real life. She inherits a rambling old house in the Smokies, but she shares ownership of it with the groundskeeper Wesley. He’s guarded and uncompromising, and suddenly, all of this is way too real for Maybell. They have a grumpy/sunshine slow burn relationship that unfolds beautifully. This book also depicts characters struggling with anxiety. When it comes to sex, this is a closed door romance.
I’m So (Not) Over You by Kosoko Jackson
If you love the idea of a second chance romance forged through fake dating, here you go. Hudson asks Kian to fake being his boyfriend again while Hudson’s parents are in town, and Kian agrees. This fake relationship could result in some important career contacts for Kian, after all. But the title gives away Kian’s true feelings. This book is hot, funny, and full of pop culture references. Both Kian and Hudson are believably messy characters, and you will root for them to get it right this time.
Digging Up Love by Chandra Blumberg
Ready to fall in love with some characters? Alisha is a baker and power lifter dreaming of opening a cookie shop in Chicago. Quentin is a dreamy bespectacled paleontologist. When Alisha’s grandparents discover a dinosaur bone in their backyard, Quentin is on the scene. And he meets Alisha, who is also a dinosaur lover. Yes, there are Jurassic Park references. And also a completely amazing romantic gesture that I will not spoil. If you’re looking for a romance with kisses only, this one’s for you.
Sweet Tea by Piper Huguley
If you loved the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, please read this romance! It follows Jack, a documentary maker investigating authentic Southern food. Althea, a powerful lawyer and city girl back for a visit, suspects Jack is trying to steal her grandmother’s recipes, but she gradually warms up to him. This romance builds onto the world Piper Huguley established with her Home to Milford College series, but it stands alone. This one is also kissing only.
Whether you need more feel-good romance, romances that will elicit laughs, or the very best of the genre, we’re here to help. Like a tall glasses of water for our parched souls, these are the gentle romances we drink to help us face the future with renewed hope.