Books Pop Culture

How romance novels helped me soothe anxiety and build empathy

“Hope is a discipline,” says activist, writer, and educator Mariame Kaba.

For me, reading romance novels is an important part of that discipline, because romance is an engine of hope. Romance novels consistently reinforce something true but easily forgotten: at all points in history, regardless of how bleak the circumstances, people have always found love, and it has helped them get through.

Romance novels can also be soothing. For someone who struggles with anxiety (it me), the knowledge that a romance novel guarantees a happy ending can make it easier to encounter the darkness it might contain. Some romance novels are purely fluffy, escapist fantasies, perfect for readers at their most fragile or frivolous. If you’re in the mood to hone your hope discipline, however, romance can also help.

One of the spurious criticisms of romance is that it gives readers unreasonable expectations, which says more about the critics than it does about readers. In truth it’s laudable that romance portrays characters finding love exactly as they are. Perhaps that’s a radical expectation, given our culture telling us the way to happiness is through constant and often punishing self-improvement, but unreasonable it is not. For narratives of fundamental, foundational loveability, YA romance is rich ground.

If I could send books back in time to my teenage self, I’d send Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ and Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You, which have rich, complicated heroines who don’t contort their bodies, their minds, their experiences into an acceptable form. Both books also give equal weight to friendship and romance; truly the stories young people deserve!

Self-love is a step in many romance journeys, and a realistic impediment for some people. Learning to love after trauma is unfortunately also realistic, and hope within this arena is nothing short of vital. What a Wallflower Wants, a historical romance by Maya Rodale (It’s the third in the Wallflower series, but it stands alone) features Prudence, who struggles with trauma from a past sexual assault. A trademark of romance novels is the dark moment when the main characters face betrayal, violation of trust, or some other breach in their relationship that makes it seem irreparable. Prudence opening herself to love, first after her initial trauma and again when her dark moment with the hero reorients to the light, is a triumphant testament to the heart’s resilience.

Kennedy Ryan’s Long Shot is another unforgettable, deeply empathetic romance that gives a sensitive portrayal of a woman escaping her abusive husband. The book elucidates how an abusive partner can hinder a victim’s professional life in pursuit of total control, and when the heroine Iris gets not just a loving partner, but everything she wants in the end, the satisfaction is immense.

Long Shot is a counterexample to another misconception that romance novels encourage women to seek romantic love to the exclusion of all other goals. After a friend of mine expressed disappointment in a recent read, I encouraged her to pick up A Princess in Theory, the first Reluctant Royals book by Alyssa Cole. I guessed that my friend, who has a doctorate in a STEM subject, might find solace in a book that recognizes and reflects on the difficulties women often face pursuing STEM careers. Naledi, the heroine, gets the guy and saves the day using her science smarts. How did my friend like it? Going by the photos she sent me of lines that resonated with her, and the way she tore through the rest of the series, I’d say it was a hit.

Romance novels like A Princess in Theory demonstrate how love can strengthen us to fight external obstacles. Love from A to Z, a YA romance by S.K. Ali, is a book where the characters face Islamophobia and other incredible hardships but prevail thanks to love, faith, and righteous anger. Likewise, American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera, the first in her Dreamers series, features two heroes who face, in turn, the racism and anti-immigrant sentiments directed at Afro-Latinx populations, and the homophobia that is intrinsic to evangelical Christianity in the United States. If these sound heavy, they can be, but there’s plenty of levity and optimistic endings despite struggles and setbacks. Plus the tantalizing descriptions of food truck fare in American Dreamer gave me intense cravings for plantains.

Media reflects the culture at the time of its creation. To engage with romance is to engage with whatever issues culture is grappling with. I wouldn’t say that romance is the best place to find understanding of the world’s problems, considering not all stories are considered worthy by gatekeepers, and not all stories are authentically told by authors who deeply understand them. Nonetheless, whether romance illuminates a path through one’s personal struggles or shines an empathetic spotlight on others’, its position as the literature of hope makes it essential reading.

So go forth, read romance, practice hope, and be a better person!