4 Romance Novel Clichés…and Books That Did Them Well

Callie Hutton's The Elusive Wife

The romance genre, like any other, has its well-known conventions, tropes, and traditions. Sometimes this is what keeps readers coming back—after a hard day’s work, it’s nice to know that your book is guaranteed to end happily (and when it doesn’t, that is what we call a wallbanger). But sometimes the pleasure is in watching how a talented author subverts the genre’s limitations, using her skill to wring something fresh out of a hoary old premise. Here are four super-common romance clichés—and several books that include them, with exceedingly fine results.

Virgins, virgins everywhere

Sarah Morgan’s Doukakis’s Apprentice is a contemporary that subverts not only the virgin heroine trope but the equally well-trod plot of the master-of-the-universe businessman falling for his employee (pick one: assistant, chef, nanny, piano tuner). When media magnate Damon Doukakis buys out Peter Prince’s advertising agency, Peter’s daughter, Polly, doesn’t know if the hostile takeover is just business, or revenge for Peter’s affair with Damon’s sister. Determined to save her coworkers’ jobs, she agrees to accompany Damon on a work trip to Paris—and then things get steamy. Morgan’s heroine is a virgin, but not an innocent, and this fact is handled as nonchalantly as any other detail about her. The book focuses more on how straight-up awesome she is at her job than on whether or not she’s made the beast with two backs. It’s lovely, actually, to find something that surprising in a category romance.

While the virgin heroine is less common these days in contemporary romances, the be-hymened lady still predominates in historicals. (Because the word “ruination” is just so much fun.) Callie Hutton’s The Elusive Wife is a historical in which the hero’s father forces him to marry the sheltered daughter of a scholar. In a childish bit of acting out, he shows up at their wedding hammered, then abandons his new bride at their country estate. When she arrives in London several weeks later and he starts hitting on her without realizing she’s his wife, things get really fun. This virgin heroine is spirited and self-assured, and the way she bends the drunken lout of a hero to her will makes the trope feel, er, shiny and new. (As for the virginal gentleman, the best I’ve ever read is Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed, in which a courtesan and a moralistic writer just go bananas on each other.)

Surprise! It’s a baby

This genre convention is not generally my cup o’ whiskey. Part of it is that midpregnancy just seems like a really awkward time to start dating someone new, what with the barfing and the sciatic nerve pain and the whole extra person growing inside your body. But the majority of my dislike comes from a book, enthusiastically recommended to me, in which the heroine takes advantage of the hero for purposes of getting pregnant. And her reason for assaulting him was that she was very brilliant and wanted a dumber man to father her baby so her kid wouldn’t be cursed with genius.

I also expect characters (in contemporaries, especially) to know where babies come from and take appropriate steps to prevent said babies when they’re just casually shagging about. But one book that handles the oops-we’re-having-a-baby situation well is Shannon Stacey’s Undeniably Yours. Beth and Kevin have a one-night stand at his brother’s wedding, and despite conscientious condom use, life finds a way. So even though Beth doesn’t want anything do with Kevin, he’s determined to be involved in their baby’s life, and in hers. Stacey has written 9 books now about the sprawling Kowalski family (this one is the second), and readers just love them.

Friends to lovers

When Harry Met Sally… threw down the challenge for friends-to-lovers stories, so much so that in the 25 years since, that plot has begun to feel awfully stale. But it’s still one of my favorite conventions, and I love seeing how authors put their own spin on it. (And, in my Olympics fever, anyone who wants to write me some Charlie White/Meryl Davis fanfic can get right on it.) Samantha Young’s Before Jamaica Lane is unusual in that it features the first meeting of the two friends as adults—i.e., they didn’t grow up together—and then segues into another romance trope, in which one character asks another to show her (and it’s almost always her) the ropes sexually, and then they find there’s Something More There. And it does seem like I spend my entire life telling you to read Sarah Mayberry’s books, but the aptly titled Her Best Friend really hits this one out of the park. Quinn and Amy remind me of The Office’s Jim and Pam—so sweet and sexy.

Enemies to lovers

And the flip side of the friends-to-lovers plot is the enemies-to-lovers plot, which can be even more delicious.  Jennifer Echols’s Star Crossed features two competing PR agents. Wendy’s charged with rehabbing the image of hard-partying starlet Lorelei Vogel, while Daniel’s job is to keep Lorelei’s ex, Colton Farr, from drinking and gambling himself to death…and the two stars are supposed to appear on a Las Vegas awards show in a few days’ time. Wendy and Daniel have been antagonists ever since college, so of course every time they’re around each other there’s friction. This book’s kind of like if Olivia Pope spent all her time on Scandal bickering and flirting with a rival fixer rather than covering up murders and weepily shagging the president. Echols writes sprightly, funny, engrossing books that I find impossible to put down, and I’m delighted she’s now writing grown-up rom-coms in addition to her sparkling YA offerings.

What are some of your favorite clichés in romance?

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