Thirty pages into Jasmine Guillory’s latest novel, Drunk on Love, out Sept. 20, a steamy one-night stand has already taken place and changed two characters lives completely. Margot Noble is under immense pressure running her family’s Napa Valley winery alongside her brother, but she finds an unexpected release in a hot fling one night with Luke, a handsome stranger and former Silicon Valley techie who, unbeknownst to either of them, also happens to be Margot’s newest employee. Sparks fly as Margot and Luke are forced to transition from lovers to colleagues in an instant, leaving them to contend with their undeniable sexual tension in a heady romance that’s worth savoring.
It can be hard to pin down just what makes a romance novel swoon-worthy and not saccharine, especially in a genre that relies so heavily on standard tropes and clichés, but if there’s anyone who knows how to craft a gripping love story, it’s Guillory. The best-selling author writes characters who are as lovable as they are relatable, navigating careers, relationships with their families and friends, and romance as they confront broader issues like race and gender.
Read more: How to Write a Romance Novel
Guillory’s approach to creating thoughtful and realistic depictions of love comes from being a voracious reader of the genre herself. Growing up in Oakland, Calif., she developed a modest affinity for romance novels during summers spent at camp, but found a renewed, head-over-heels infatuation with them as an adult, where getting lost in a book served as an outlet for stress as she juggled the demands of her then-day job as a lawyer and a fledgling hobby of writing in her free time.
“I didn’t really dig in and start reading a ton of romance until I was in my 30s,” she says. “Once I started, I jumped right in and never stopped.”
Through her reading, Guillory has encountered a wide range of what the genre has to offer, from bodice-ripping historical fiction to contemporary love stories, collecting insights about every trope and theme and amassing several favorite books along the way. While her top choices run the gamut from a love story centering on a Black woman in the 19th century to a modern romantic comedy of errors in which three women discover they’re dating the same man thanks to Twitter, the throughline of all Guillory’s favorite romantic novels is the pure delight they impart, an experience that she tries to offer with her own writing. “People need influxes of joy, especially during hard times,” she says. “I hope more people realize the joy that romance novels can bring them.”
Ahead of Drunk on Love’s release, Guillory spoke with TIME about her 11 favorite romantic books.
Her favorite historical romance novels
Devil in Winter and the Wallflowers series, Lisa Kleypas
“One of the authors that really sent me down the romance path was Lisa Kleypas,” Guillory says. In Devil in Winter, the second book in Kleypas’ Regency-era Wallflower series, protagonist Evangeline seeks freedom from her conniving relatives by pursuing a marriage of convenience with London’s most infamous bachelor, the rakish viscount Sebastian. When the pair unexpectedly develop feelings for each other, their relationship is tested; first by Evangeline’s celibacy ultimatum to reform Sebastian, then by a dastardly plot against her by an enemy from her past. “I love all of her Wallflowers books, but Devil in Winter I have read and re-read so many times. I checked it out from the library so many times that I eventually bought my own copy.”
Destiny’s Embrace, Beverly Jenkins
“For a while, I was just reading historical romances about white people, which are lovely, but they didn’t make me feel like I had a place in romance. Then I read Beverly Jenkins and loved her books,” Guillory says, sharing that Jenkins’ novel Destiny’s Embrace is her favorite work by the author. Destiny’s Embrace, the first installment in Jenkins’ Destiny trilogy, which takes place in 19th-century California, focuses on the forbidden romance between ranch owner Logan and his free-spirited housekeeper Mariah, who each must confront their true feelings for one another once Mariah’s ex-lover returns to her life.
Her favorite contemporary romance novels
The Boyfriend Project, Farrah Rochon
“Farrah Rochon has a collection of three books in the Boyfriend Project series about three women who meet because they discover from Twitter that they’re all dating the same man, but then become really good friends,” Guillory says. “The Boyfriend Project is the first one that kind of sets up their whole friendship, but each book is about a different woman. I love the friendships in the books, but I also really like the way each woman has a very different story and character. The way that they fall in love is so fun and thoughtful, and such a good read.”
32 Candles, Ernessa T. Carter
“It’s about a Black woman who’s turning 32 and her love story, and it’s really funny and smart,” Guillory says. “I remember sneaking away at work to read it on my phone because I was just so deep into the story.”
Bet Me, Jennifer Crusie
“I really love Bet Me. The trope is one that I have always not really liked—you know, there’s a bet that he can get her to do something and then they fall in love—but in the hands of a great writer, it really worked,” she says. “I had so much fun reading it.”
Fumbled, Alexa Martin
“Alexa Martin has four books about this football team, and I love the way she writes about sports. She doesn’t ignore all of the bad stuff, but talks about it and confronts it in a really interesting way. With Fumbled, she takes another trope that was never one of my favorites: when a man and woman have a baby together before the book starts and he doesn’t know about the baby,” Guillory says. “I’ve never really loved that, but put any frog in the hands of a great writer and I will love it. She makes me really empathize with both of them.”
The Right Swipe, Alisha Rai
The Right Swipe, which centers on an unexpected romance between a cynical dating-app developer and the former pro athlete who begins their interlude by seemingly ghosting her, is a take on love in the digital age. “I just love the way that Alisha Rai deals with people going through hard stuff in a relationship and working through it together,” Guillory says. “The friendships and families in her books are done so well.”
Her favorite comfort romance reads
Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery
“There are books that I read a lot when I was a kid that we don’t think of as traditional romance novels, but there’s lots of romance in them. I love the Anne of Green Gables books, especially Anne of the Island, where she and Gilbert go to college and he tries to get her to marry him, but she says no. Then their friendship breaks up, and then they get back together—love it,” Guillory says. “That romance has always stuck with me because I think it’s very real; they started as enemies, then became friends, and then fell in love—that transition of a relationship is done so well, and it really makes you fall in love with them together.”
Betsy and Joe, Maud Hart Lovelace
“The Betsy Tacy books are definitely a comfort read,” Guillory says. “I love Betsy and Joe because their romance also goes through some ups and downs.” In the book, protagonist Betsy, who has had a longtime flirtation with the mysterious and stoic Joe, her academic rival, begins a summertime correspondence with him ahead of their senior year that blossoms into a real-life romance. For Guillory, Betsy and Joe’s letters are some of the sweetest parts of their love story: “There are a number of messages that Joe writes to Betsy and her to Joe in those stories that make me swoon, even now.”
Her steamiest pick
Serving Pleasure, Alisha Rai
“Alisha Rai does steamy very well,” Guillory says. “The first one of hers that I read, Serving Pleasure, was very steamy and great.” The novel, which wastes no time in getting hot and heavy, serves up elements like voyeurism and kinky role-play through the story of Rana, a party girl who’s ready to trade in her casual hook-ups for a Mr. Right her family approves of—that is, until handsome (and entirely unsuitable) artist Micah moves in next door.
Her favorite of her own books
Drunk on Love, Jasmine Guillory
What’s Guillory’s favorite among her own novels? “The problem with that question is my favorite is always the most recent one because it’s so close to my heart,” she says. “I’ve been holding it close to me for so long. I don’t really talk about my books while I’m writing them, so it still feels like it’s just mine. I feel very tender about these characters.”
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