From Austen to Aciman, we’ve collected a list of the greatest romance novels of all time. Get reading, lovebirds!
“The greatest romance novels of all time” is a tough category to quantify. Divided into sub-categories of contemporary romance, fantasy romance, historical romance, and many more, it’s one of the best-selling genres in the world.
With a mix of historical fiction, literary fiction, and contemporary fiction, we’ve created a list of the greatest romance novels, across a range of sub-genres, for you to explore.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (1813)
Having been in continuous publication for over 200 years, as well as being adapted countless times for film, TV, and the stage, Pride and Prejudice is one of the most iconic, and enduring romance novels to ever exist.
It’s frequently cited amongst the most influential books of all time and follows the life of Elizabeth Bennett, one of five daughters, growing up in rural England in the early 1800s. It discusses class, marriage, wealth, and love, constructing a complex novel of manners that explores how Elizabeth’s life changes as the brooding Mr. Darcy enters her life.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë (1847)
As another novel that’s on par with Austen’s legendary romantic legacy, Jane Eyre is a Victorian bildungsroman that follows the life of the eponymous protagonist as she grows up in Northern England and falls in love with the mysterious, swoon-worthy Edward Fairfax Rochester.
Detailing the classic “two-lovers-must-overcome-obstacle-to-be-reunited” trope, it’s one of the best romantic novels of all time, full of those agonizing, yet devotional, declarations of passion, as well as critical social commentary on the nature of love and marriage.
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë (1847)
A family of talented children, the Brontës (yes — Charlotte and Emily are related) had some of the most significant literary outputs in not just the 1800s, but modern literature. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights has got a firm place as one of the most groundbreaking pieces of romantic fiction in recent history.
Ranked No 13. in the 100 best novels by The Guardian, Wuthering Heights was described as: “The scope and drift of its imagination, its passionate exploration of a fatal yet regenerative love affair, and its brilliant manipulation of time and space put it in a league of its own. This is great English literature, the fruit of a quite extraordinary childhood.”
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (1878)
Only of the most revered love stories of all time, Anna Karenina details the unfolding of an extramarital affair between the titular protagonist and a cavalry officer, Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, in the social circles of Imperial Russia. While the enormous novel (resting at approximately 800+ pages, varying with translations) does concern itself with the main characters’ romance, it also expands into examining themes like class consciousness, fidelity, carnal desire, and death.
Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang (1943)
Describing the love between Bai Liusu, a young widow, and Fan Liuyuan, a returning Chinese British expat, during the crisis of late WWII China, Love in a Fallen City is an excellent romance novel. A moving meditation on the importance of love and connection in the throes of violence, Eileen Chang’s masterpiece also explores ideas of marriage, feminism, and class structures in mid-twentieth century China.
Madonna in a Fur Coat – Sabahattin Ali (1943)
Madonna in a Fur Coat follows Raif, a shy young man from rural Turkey who leaves his hometown to discover life in 1920s Berlin. The consequent love affair between him and Maria, an assertive young woman, explores love through the lens of traditional gender role reversal and a fractured post-war Berlin.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles (1969)
Set in Victorian Lyme Regis, The French Lieutenant’s Woman follows naturalist Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff, a former governess, with whom he falls in love. Exploring themes of class, sexuality, and gender, the romance novel has also been adapted into the titular 1981 film — starring Meryl Streep.
Maurice – E.M. Forster (1971)
Set in early 20th-century England, Maurice follows the titular character’s love affair with the working-class Alec Scudder. The legendary novel has been adapted into a film that was directed by James Ivory (screenwriter of Call Me By Your Name fame), as well for the stage and BBC Radio.
The Princess Bride – William Goldman (1973)
Integrating genres of drama, adventure, fantasy, romance, and fairy tale, The Princess Bride follows the romance between Buttercup, a wealthy young teenager, and Westley, a groundskeeper at Buttercup’s family’s farm.
If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin (1974)
Recently turned into a Hollywood film by Moonlight-director Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story set in Harlem, following the lives of Clementine “Tish” and her lover, Alonzo “Fonny,” who has been accused of rape.
As described by Penguin, “flashbacks from their love affair are woven into the compelling struggle of two families to win justice for Fonny. To this love story, James Baldwin brings a spare and impassioned intensity, charging it with universal resonance and power.”
The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough (1977)
Set in the fictional Australian sheep station Drogheda, The Thorn Birds follows the ill-fated romance of Meggie Cleary, the central character, and Father Ralph de Bricassart, an Irish Catholic priest. Written by Australian author Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds has sold over 30 million copies worldwide and is the highest-selling book to ever come out of Australia.
Love In the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez (1987)
Love In the Time of Cholera is easily ranked amongst the greatest romance novels of all time. Published to worldwide acclaim, Gabriel García Márquez’s novel details the lives of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, as the passage of time forces them to reckon with the romantic promises they made in their youth.
Acclaimed author Thomas Pynchon praised the novel in The New York Times: “This novel is also revolutionary in daring to suggest that vows of love made under a presumption of immortality – youthful idiocy, to some – may yet be honored, much later in life when we ought to know better, in the face of the undeniable. … There is nothing I have read quite like this astonishing final chapter, symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo, moving like a riverboat too … at the very best it results in works that can even return our worn souls to us, among which most certainly belongs Love in the Time of Cholera, this shining and heartbreaking novel.”
Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami (1987)
One of the most heartbreaking love stories ever, Norweigian Wood delves into themes of coming-of-age, first love, death, and burgeoning sexuality. Following the life of Toru Watanabe, the novel retrospectively details his life as a young university student in Tokyo and his encounters with two radically different women — Midori and Naoko.
In a retrospective review by The Guardian, the novel is described as: “[having gained] immense popularity because they guide readers through some of life’s darkest and most dangerous territory – the cold, dark winter woods of death and grief and abuse – and do so with wisdom and warmth.”
The Bride – Julie Garwood (1989)
One of the most celebrated romantic writers of contemporary times, Julie Garwood is an NYT Bestselling author, whose books have over 35 million copies in print. The Bride is a work of historical romance that’s set in medieval Scotland and follows the lives of a dysfunctional couple: Jaime, the daughter of an English Baron, and Alec, a fearless, Highland warrior, who have been married to each other, by order of their King.
Rich in tantalizing suspense, humour, and passion, The Bride is a passionate love story that paints a vivid fictional portrait of Scotland during the early Middle Ages.
Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel (1989)
Employing the use of magical realism, Like Water for Chocolate details the romance of Tita and Pedro, two young lovers who are forbidden from being together due to Tita’s familial responsibility to take care of her mother until she dies, instead of marrying.
The Notebook – Nicholas Sparks (1996)
Oh, The Notebook — who could forget the dramatic kiss in the rain between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams in the 2004 film adaptation? (My guess is no one.) The Notebook is one of those stories that is branded into the minds of all Millennials and Gen Zs, just by nature of it being synonymous with pop culture history.
The original book was Nicholas Sparks’ writing debut and follows the life of Noah and Allie — two teenagers who fall in love over a brief summer and embark on a journey full of miracles, love, loss, and life. Based on Sparks’ own grandparents’ relationship, The Notebook is one of the greatest romance novels of all time.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan-Philipp Sendker (2002)
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats follows the story of Julia, a young New Yorker who investigates the disappearance of her father, until she comes across a love letter he wrote many years ago, to an unknown Burmese woman. The novel details her travel to Burma in search of the woman, and the love story that shaped her father’s life.
Call Me by Your Name – André Aciman (2007)
While the iconic 2017 film adaptation cemented this love story as one of the greatest of all time, André Aciman’s European masterpiece follows the life of Elio Pearlman, a precocious young man, and his romantic relationship that blossoms with Oliver, his father’s Ph.D. student.
Set in the mid-’80s, Call Me By Your Name captures the youth, obsession, and consummation of young love, as it blossoms against the backdrop of Northern Italy. An incredibly moving, heartbreaking romance novel, André Aciman’s novel is one that will stay with you, long after you’ve turned the last page.
One Day – David Nicholls (2009)
One Day follows the lives of a young couple, Dexter and Emma, on the same day every year (15 July, St Swithin’s Day) for 20 years. As reviewed in The Times, “For, in spite of its comic gloss, One Day is really about loneliness and the casual savagery of fate; the tragic gap between youthful aspiration and the compromises that we end up tolerating.”
Vision in White – Nora Roberts (2009)
The first in a quartet of books — aptly titled the Bride Quartet — about four childhood friends and their journeys in searching for love, Vision in White is written by veteran romance novelist Nora Roberts, who has authored a staggering 225+ novels in her career as a romance writer.
Vision in White is Roberts’ foray into contemporary romance, detailing the life and romances of Mac, a successful wedding photographer who encounters her newest client’s brother, Carter — a run-in that shapes both Mac and Carter’s life forever.
The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)
The Marriage Plot follows Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard in the early 1980s as they leave university and enter the “real world.” Having been described as a “post-modern take on 19th-century romance,” The Marriage Plot invokes questions of love, life, and God while exploring feminism and sexual freedoms in the contemporary age.
It Ends with Us – Colleen Hoover (2016)
It Ends with Us follows the story of Lily, a young college graduate who meets the emotionally-detached, complex Ryle. As they allow themselves to uncover the deepest parts of each other, Lily finds herself still consumed with the thoughts of her first love, Atlas.
Exit West – Mohsin Hamid (2017)
Exit West follows the story of Saeed and Nadia, a couple attempting to escape the peril of war in an unnamed city. With a dash of magical realism, Mohsin Hamid reinvents the traditional, transitory refugee story by eliminating the border journey completely: in Exit West, there are no dangerous sea fares, only magical doors that allow people to step into another life.
In a review by The Atlantic, the couple’s romance is described as “…complicated, as most love affairs are, and is challenged to an unthinkable degree by the conditions they find themselves in. But together, they represent the instinct to find communion with other people, and to love even amid circumstances that mean loving another makes you twice as vulnerable.”
Normal People – Sally Rooney (2017)
Like many of Sally Rooney’s novels, Normal People explores the nuances of intimacy, love, reget, class, and sex in the modern age. Following the lives of two young Irish students, Marianne and Connell, the novel details their lives from late adolescence to early adulthood in a post-GFC Ireland. Capturing the millennial zeitgeist with simplistic, yet profound, ease, Rooney’s romance novel has widely been regarded as one of the best novels of the 21st century.
Reincarnation Blues: A Novel – Michael Poore (2017)
Reincarnation Blues follows the life of Milo, a man who has been reincarnated 9,995 times to reunite with his one true love: Death. With only five lives left until he expires, the novel details Milo’s attempt to reconstruct the cosmic puzzle that has separated him from the person he loves most.
Ayesha at Last – Uzma Jalaluddin (2018)
Ayesha at Last follows the love story of Ayesha and Khalid, two strong, independent young Muslims. Dealing with themes such as traditionalism versus modernity, religion, gender equality, the novel deftly weaves a romance into its vivid, diverse tapestry of characters.
As reviewed for NPR, the novel was described as: “In many ways, Ayesha at Last’s fictional universe acts as a microcosm of a diverse and oft-misunderstood community, and Jalaluddin’s compassionate and sensitive writing about it radiates off the page.”
A Long Petal of The Sea – Isabelle Allende (2019)
Set in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, A Long Petal of The Sea follows Roser, a pregnant young widow, whose life becomes entangled Victor Dalmau, the brother of her deceased love. As they both attempt to flee the violence, they end up being reluctantly married in order to survive. What ensues is a passionate story about unexpected romance, loss, exile, and belonging.
Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold – Bolu Babalola (2021)
Described by acclaimed author Candice Carty-Williams (author of Queenie) as “perfection in short story form… So rarely is love expressed this richly, this vividly, or this artfully,” Love in Color is a stunning debut. Interweaving traditional West African mythology, with a reimagining of Middle-Eastern and Roman-Greek myths, the novel constructs a decolonized celebration of romance, love, and passion.
Deeply imaginative and richly detailed, Love in Color is an exploration of the complexities of romance, written by an incisive, talented new literary voice.
Open Water – Caleb Azumah Nelson (2021)
A profoundly affecting novel, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water is a beautiful love story, that details the romance between a photographer and a dancer who meet in a bar. The novel traces the couple’s relationship as they weave in and out of each other’s lives, simultaneously constructing an ode to Black artistic excellence through references to Barry Jenkins, Zadie Smith, and Kendrick Lamar.
In terms of Nelson’s style, it is as reviewed in The Guardian: “While an elegance of style is a hallmark of Azumah Nelson’s storytelling, there is bold risk-taking in his choices too: he writes in the second person, using its immediacy and potency to create an emotional intensity that replicates the emotional intensity with which the protagonist experiences his bond with the dancer and his wider world.”
Seven Days in June – Tia Williams (2021)
Seven Days in June details a second-chance romance between two writers: Eva Mercy and Shane Hall. When the two unexpectedly run into each other in an event in New York, the 15-year old butterflies from their brief, clandestine affair resurface. Having gained fans from Reese Witherspoon to writer Jodi Picoult, the latter praised Tia Williams’ novel as: “A smart, sexy testament to Black joy, to the well of strength from which women draw, and to tragic romances that mature into second chances. I absolutely loved it.”