Highly Recommend Romance Novels

Noemi J. Mullins

A friend gifted me Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory when it came out in late 2019, and when I finally picked it up in March 2020, I had no idea a heartwarming Christmas romance was about to change my life. The last time I had read a romance novel before this was in high school when I inherited a stack of bodice rippers from my older cousin. Holiday’s charming pink and mint green cover looked different from the busty books I’d read years ago. I knew I couldn’t handle my typical harrowing fare–memoirs, psychological thrillers, and self-help–and wanted something fun and light to help me feel good. And I wasn’t the only one turning to rom-com novels during the dark early days of the pandemic: From January through May 2020, 16.2 million romance e-books and print books were sold, and sales continue to soar.

The same day I started reading Royal Holiday, I wrote about why calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” was deeply harmful to the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Social media trolls told me it wasn’t racist to use those terms. At that point, my four-year-old twins, my husband, and I had been in lockdown for five days. It felt like five months.

At night, I dove into Guillory’s novel. The charming romance, set in modern-day England and complete with freshly baked scones and strolls on the green grounds of a castle, was the perfect place to escape my overwhelming reality. Under stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles, I felt squeezed as a mother, a writer, and an Asian American. I was constantly caregiving–searching for activities to keep my kids entertained, cooking meals, and tending to a sick dog. My brain felt like Swiss cheese by my children’s bedtime. But when I got lost in the sweet love story between an American mom and a debonair British gentleman who works for the queen, I felt swept away from the chaos of my life.

Over the next few months, I went on a romance novel binge as the world felt upside down. I blew through all of Guillory’s books, then dove into Talia Hibbert and Helen Hoang. Reading these stories was my spot of sunshine amid the doom and gloom of the news. When I had trouble sleeping, my comfort reads lulled me into relaxation. And though I’m no longer feeling as emotionally drained as I did in 2020, I haven’t quit my habit.

Here’s precisely how romance novels helped my mental health through the first year of the pandemic–and why I continue to rely on them to please me.

Reading happily-ever-afters brought me comfort.

According to Stop Asian Hate, a coalition of three AAPI social service organizations, 6,600 hate incidents were reported from March 2020 to March 2021. AAPI women and girls were more than twice as likely than men to report a verbal or physical assault. I read countless headlines about Asian seniors being beaten. My worst day was reading a local New York news story about an elderly Asian woman who was set on fire (her shirt was burned, but she managed to avoid serious injury). This woman reminded me of my grandmother, who always walked to get groceries. I cried while writing at my desk.

At night, I eagerly looked forward to reading the romances I downloaded from the Los Angeles Public Library. Some I devoured in three nights. Others I turned to when anxiety woke me up at 4 a.m. There was safety in the routine of knowing that every story I read ended happily; I didn’t have to wonder if the people I read about were hurting.

Romance novels also helped me with anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

At first, I dismissed my symptoms–irritability, hopelessness, and physical exhaustion–as caregiver burnout mixed with stress from writing about the rapid rise in anti-Asian sentiments. Reading romance helped me to relax and stop the anxiety loop. I’ve tried meditation and melatonin, but it worked better. It is important to note that romance novels do not replace mental health treatments. I needed a combination of therapy and medication to manage my anxiety and depression.

There’s science behind the boost in mental health I received from my fictional friends. In a 2022 study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, emergency health workers found that reading was an effective way to cope with the pandemic. It reduced feelings of anxiety and depression. It’s not fair to compare my situation with theirs. And, yes, you cannot read your way to better mental health. But, it is encouraging to learn that reading books can make you feel better in times of darkness and overwhelm.

In particular, romance novels can help with loneliness and isolation. In a 2013 study in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, researchers talked to readers of specific book genres–domestic fiction, romance, science fiction/fantasy, and suspense/thriller–to understand how they might pick up on social and emotional nonverbal cues. Researchers asked participants to “decode emotion from black-and-white cropped images of people’s eyes.” They found that romance readers were better at picking up on social cues than readers of other genres.

Translated: Reading romance novels could help you feel more connected with other people. Katrina Fong, Ph.D., is a researcher in social and personality psychology and the study’s lead author. She told SELF. Not surprisingly, romance is more focused on relationships than any other genre. “Reading and connecting with characters can help us meet our psychological needs,” Dr. Fong says. It’s possible to feel closer to fictional characters, especially if they seem like real people.

This is only one study and did not specifically examine whether romance stories helped readers to feel less isolated or lonely. My intense feeling of connection when I was able to spend time with the characters in my romance novels, may have helped me overcome my loneliness during a very isolating period.

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