The Romance Novel 101 Syllabus

Maya Rodale
3 min readJul 30, 2020

True story: I started reading romance novels in college at my mother’s insistence. I was pursuing an English degree with a focus on women as authors and characters when my mother (rightly) insisted that I could not legitimately get such a degree without reading the most popular and profitable books by women, for women. AKA romance novels.

Being an academic snob, I resisted reading those trashy books until finally I rolled my eyes and huffed and said, “FINE. Send me a syllabus.” And she did! I started with Jane Austen, went on to Forever Amber and by the time I got to Kathleen Woodiwiss, I was hooked.

We have lost the original list (alas!) but she recently did her best to recreate it (below).

This is NOT an attempt to create a “canon of romance” which is an interesting question and requires a significant amount of thought, research and discussion. This is just the list my mom gave to me, circa 2003, that got me started.

I still haven’t read everything on this list.

And so, for your romance education and reading pleasure, I now present Mama Rodale’s Romance 101 Reading List:

The Tale of Gengi by Lady Murasaki. Widely considered to be the first novel, this book is a love story written by a woman and it is EPIC. Not sure if it technically fits as a romance novel, but it is worth noting.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Basically the first and still the best romance novel.

Forever Amber by Kathleen Windsor. “Frequently compared to Gone with the Wind, Forever Amber is the other great historical romance, outselling every other American novel of the 1940s — despite being banned in Boston for its sheer sexiness.” You had me at “banned for sheer sexiness.” But spoiler: this novel has an ambiguous ending and as soon as I finished it, I called my mother, OUTRAGED, and she said “read Kathleen Woodiwiss and call me in the morning.”

Shanna and The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I couldn’t quite get into Shanna, so I tried TF&TF. It’s the romance novel that got me — and legions of other women — hooked on the genre, in part because I couldn’t fathom how a relationship that started that way (rape) could end happily.

Barbara Cartland. Oh, just one of the most prolific and commercially successful authors of all time.

Danielle Steele. Oh, just the best selling author alive today and the fourth best selling fiction author of all time.

I’ll Take Manhattan by Judith Krantz. “In the high-stakes world of magazine publishing, she weaves a dazzling tale of love and betrayal, and creates her most joyous character–sensational Maxi, an uninhibited woman who unexpectedly discovers that her talent for life is matched by a hunger to succeed.” I think she recommended this one since we both love magazines ;-) It’s a fun read, perhaps more women’s fiction than strictly romance.

Nora Roberts. Reigning Queen of Romancelandia.

The Bridgertons by Julia Quinn. Start with The Duke & I and cancel all your plans.

Eloisa James. One of the greats of the genre, read everything. You’re welcome.

Some other titles and authors I would add:

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

Anything by Courtney Milan

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

Practice Makes Perfect by Julie James

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon

For more excellent romance novels, check out my reviews at NPR Books.



Maya Rodale

Bestselling author of funny, feminist historical romance. As seen in Bustle, Glamour, Shondaland, Buzzfeed, HuffPo,PBS. She/Her.