…and that’s saying a lot. I’m not going to take the time or energy right now to talk about the anti-romance prejudice out there, except to say this: the happy ending may be out of fashion, but that won’t last forever. This culture of the ugly and morose that permeates literary fiction circles will fade away eventually, and in the meantime you can always read Jane Austen — she’ll give you a love story and a happy ending you don’t have to apologize about.
Anything I could say on this topic has been said before and said very well indeed, particularly by Jenny Crusie, the goddess of modern romantic comedy. Please have a look at her Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women (an essay on the romance novel as feminist revision of toxic fairy tales and canonical literature), and Defeating the Critics: What We Can Do About the Anti-Romance Bias.
Of course you could just skip the essays and go straight to one of her novels — I’d recommend you start with Welcome to Temptation (St. Martin’s Press March 2000 ISBN 0312252943) . Reading her fiction will get across all the same points.
So, a list of three romance novels that I consider just plain good: well written, engaging fiction with a strong narrative and excellent characterizations. And happy endings, which (remember this) aren’t fattening.
Beyond Welcome to Temptation I recommend: Flowers from the Storm (Avon Books 1992; re-issue May 27 2003, ISBN 0380-76132-7 ) by Laura Kinsale. It was out of print for a long time, but it’s back again, and what a good thing.
Especially fine is Judy Cueva‘s (aka Judith Ivory‘s) Dance (Jove Books, 1996, ISBN 0-515-11763-3). In fact, thinking about it, if I had to pick one novel classified as romance to take to a desert island, it would probably be Dance, for the lyrical language and the characters I adore so much that I shiver — literally — when I pick this book up to read it again. Which I do regularly. Now if they’d only reissue it (it’s sadly out of print, but worth the search) and give it a worthy cover.