One of the criticisms I hear most often about the romance genre is that the happy endings are unrealistic, and the stories or conflicts don’t have any real depth. That argument always frustrates me because while there are plenty of happy and fluffy books in romance, that’s true of all genres. A happy ending doesn’t mean the characters didn’t have to struggle or deal with real conflict to get there.
From time to time, I love a romance that’s as light as cotton candy — something that’s fun and easy and, frankly, a little forgettable (I look for the same thing in action movies, to be honest). But many of my favorite romances are those that are hard and seemingly unyielding. Those are the books that really earn the happy ending and that, to me, feel a bit more connected to the multi-dimensional human experience. Over the last few years, as I’ve been navigating some personal loss, I’ve been especially drawn to romances in which one or more main characters are dealing with grief.
Those who don’t know the genre might be surprised to know that romance, a genre best known for happy endings, contains many romances of all subgenres that wrangle with grief. Grief in romance shouldn’t be that hard to imagine: Sleepless in Seattle is one of the best-known romantic comedies of all time, and that movie opens with Tom Hank’s character at his wife’s graveside, for god’s sake. An author who can write well about the experience of grief makes their characters more relatable to readers who’ve been through it, and seeing a grief-stricken person — even a fictional one — work to navigate their grief and find love and happiness is a good reminder for all of us that we don’t have to lose ourselves in our loss.
Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail by Ashley Herring Blake
It’s a bit of a spoiler to reveal the kind of loss and grief Jordan is dealing with in Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail, a charming and moving story of two rivals who are each trying to start over in their own way. This book has one of the best and most disastrous meetings between main characters that I’ve ever read, and it’s tough to imagine how the two women can come back from that — as well as their competing interests in fixing up a local inn. But Astrid and Jordan recognize the struggle and strain in one another, and that shared understanding brings them together so that they can build something new.
You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emery
A shared understanding draws Feyi and Alim together (along with a giant dose of attraction and chemistry), as both have lost their spouses. Their connection is more than a little complicated because the two meet when Alim’s son — Feyi’s friend with benefits who wants more — introduces the two. Although the relationship is central, this is very much Feyi’s story. I’ve never read anything quite like the gorgeous way Emezi writes about Feyi and how grief and joy and art and love are all intertwined parts of the life she’s now living.
Devil’s Daughter by Lisa Kleypas
Lady Phoebe is also a widow, having lost the husband who had been her best friend since childhood. What struck me most about her story of finding new love with West, a reformed childhood nemesis of Phoebe’s late husband, is the way she’s struggling to figure out who she’s going to be as she moves forward. At one point, as she’s dealing with anxiety over reentering some of the social circles she’s fallen away from (social circles are kind of a big deal in these Victorian romances), she discusses her fear that people won’t understand that she’s a different person in many ways. “My old self is gone,” she explains. “And the new one hasn’t turned up yet.”
The Brightest Star in Paris by Diana Biller
I’ve gone on record many (many) times as a fan of Diana Biller’s books, and one of the things I love about The Brightest Star in Paris, a romance set in the late 19th century, is the way it wrangles with the long-term impacts of grief. Twelve years after a young Amelie helped Benedict recover from the grief and post-traumatic stress of war, the two are reunited, and it’s Ben’s turn to try to support Parisian Amelie as she deals with not only the death of her mother but also with the aftermath of the Siege of Paris. Amelie is literally haunted by loss, and Benedict is still feeling guilty that he wasn’t able to work through his own grief and trauma more quickly. There’s deep sadness in this book, but also joy and love and humor — grief doesn’t always eclipse those aspects of life.
Love Hard by Nalini Singh
In Love Hard, Jacob Esera is juggling his professional rugby career with life as a single parent following the death of his high school sweetheart. Being a few years out from her death, Jacob is less mired in the day-to-day grief that can be a struggle, but having lost someone he deeply loved, he’s dealing with the fear that comes with that kind of trauma. It impacts him both as a father and as he starts to fall in love with a high school rival, Juliet, who is dealing with her own loss and regret. Nalini Singh is better known as a paranormal romance writer, but I think the way she brings the focus on community and family that she’s known for to her contemporary romances deserves more appreciation.
Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev
Sonali Dev’s books sometimes depict grief as a violent and destructive force — which, of course, it can be. In the case of Recipe for Persuasion, Ashna and Rico were in love as teenagers, and each had already dealt with a significant amount of loss. They’re pushed apart by family, and over the next decade, Rico becomes a famous athlete, and Ashna struggles as a chef, still dealing with grief and trauma related to her father’s death. People can get stuck in grief, and through this story, various characters are. But part of the happy ending is the way they push through and fight for more.
I encourage readers to check out content warnings for any of these books, but that’s especially true for this one, which deals with suicide and rape, among other serious and possibly triggering themes.
Battle Royal by Lucy Parker
Battle Royal is a great romantic comedy that happens to also deal beautifully with grief, particularly in the case of Sylvie, a baker who is still struggling with the loss of the only parent she’s ever known. She’s judging a reality baking competition with Dominic, a rival who is dealing with some past trauma of his own. There’s sharp, dry humor all throughout this book, but what sets it apart for me is the way Parker writes about the deep love Sylvie has for her deceased aunt. The scene in which Sylvie describes her aunt as “the great love of her life so far” stopped me in my tracks.
Xeni by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Xeni is not the kind of book in which loss and grief are long-existing struggles. The book opens at a memorial service, so the loss is just the beginning. Xeni has traveled from California to New York following the death of her beloved Aunt Sable, and in addition to navigating both the emotions and logistics of loss, she’s dealing with the fact that her inheritance requires her to marry Mason, who was also very close to her aunt. It’s a bit of a zany set-up, but Weatherspoon does a really lovely job of illustrating not only the grief Xeni and Mason feel in the immediate aftermath of Sable’s death but also, as Xeni learns more about her aunt and secrets are revealed, the grief that comes with knowing what kind of relationship they could have had and now, never will.
Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand
That grief that comes as a result of a plan or future that will never come to fruition is very real, and I think, in some ways, it can be the hardest to navigate. Snow-Kissed is a gut punch of a novella, centering on Kai and Kurt, an estranged married couple whose relationship has disintegrated as they both deal with the grief related to multiple miscarriages. There’s nothing light or frothy about this story, and the loneliness of grief really comes through — despite both Kai and Kurt dealing with loss, it feels different to each of them, and they end up struggling alone as opposed to together. Snow-Kissed is a romance illustrating that even when things are devastatingly sad and hard, two people can still choose one another.
This is a collection of romances dealing specifically with grief, but if you’re looking for Big Feelings in romance, check out 10 Romance Books That Destroyed Me (And Put Me Back Together) and Feeling Terribly Sad and Deeply In Love: 12 Sad Romance Books.