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2021 was rough, but books about love gave us life. Here are 13 recommendations

Noa Denmon for NPR

Who doesn't love a good, well, love story? Whether it's the meet cutes, the crossed stars, the sheer passion, or a forbidden union, we're big fans.

Books We Love, NPR's list of best reads from 2021, has hundreds of recommendations: 369 of them, to be exact. With that kind of lengthy list, it can be hard to know exactly where to start. So here are 13 suggestions from our colleagues and independent critics for what to read if you want a good love story or want to explore themes of love and relationships.

Act Your Age, Eve Brown: A Novel by Talia Hibbert

"Has there ever been a better time to read about a charming, hilarious young woman who just can't seem to get it together? This book follows Eve Brown – a talented cook, phenomenal singer, devoted sister and, at the start of the story, a notorious ne'er-do-well. As her story unspools, Eve winds up learning a lot about herself and what she's capable of; her struggle also helps illuminate how rigid and often misguided the expectations of our family, friends and communities can be." — Leah Donnella, supervising editor, Code Switch

A Lot Like Adiós by Alexis Daria

"Childhood besties Michelle and Gabriel hook up one night after high school graduation – and for a moment it looks like the two might finally get together until Michelle discovers that Gabe is planning on leaving for college across the country. After a blowout fight, the two don't speak again for years – until the gym that Gabriel owns hires Michelle to work on a rebranding campaign. Once they reconnect ... well, let's just say they collaborate on more than a marketing campaign. It's hot, it's fun and it's a great chance to brush up on your Spanish vocabulary." — Lauren Migaki, senior producer, NPR Ed

Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

"A crime novel wrapped up in a romance? Just what the doctor ordered for readers during the pandemic! There's a lot to love here, especially the criminal high jinks that Meddelin, her mother and her aunts find themselves immersed in as she rekindles a lost flame. Above and beyond, though, this is a love letter to the bonds of family and culture." — Tayla Burney, senior content manager

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado

"I'm glad there's a wave of YA books with fat protagonists, but the characters often possess a level of self-confidence that's too good to be true. Crystal Maldonado has created a much-needed believable protagonist with teenage and adult readers. Charlie Vega is a fat, glasses-wearing, biracial Puerto Rican with a diet-pushing mother and a beautiful, athletic best friend. When her classmate Brian pursues a romantic relationship, Charlie is plagued with-self doubt. The book is propelled by conflicts both internal and external. I'm glad this book isn't body-positive escapism, but rather a well-observed story of fat teenage life." Jessica Reedy, producer/editor, Pop Culture Happy Hour

First Comes Like: A Novel by Alisha Rai

"Alisha Rai is one of my go-to writers when I need a romance. Her books are usually quite spicy, but with First Comes Like, Rai shows she can write a great slow-burn romance. When beauty influencer Jia Ahmed learns that she has been catfished by a man pretending to be Bollywood star Dev Dixit, she ends up striking up a friendship with the real actor. A paparazzi mishap leads Jai and Dev to begin fake-dating. Will their fake relationship lead to real feelings? (Of course it will – this is a romance after all.) It's a lovely story about decent people just trying to do the right thing." — Jessica Reedy

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

"One night, Grace Porter – burned out and aimless after finally getting her Ph.D. in astronomy – gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she does not know, in Vegas no less. Cliché? Definitely. A bad idea? Maybe ... not? Through the mists of her epic hangover, Grace starts to piece together clues about her mysterious new wife. Yuki, as it turns out, hosts a radio show about the supernatural. What follows is a delightfully weird summer where together, Grace and Yuki learn about mythical monsters and even face down some of their own." — Lauren Migaki

Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola

"This multifaceted, multitalented Nigerian-British writer – humorist, television creator and now bestselling author – searched the globe to find a radically diverse group of stories about love, from magical folk tales of West Africa to iconic Greek myths and ancient legends from the Middle East. Then, with an evocative and vivid style, she brought new life to old tales and wrote three original stories of her own. The result is a remarkable modern collection of 13 short stories about love." — Carole V. Bell, book critic

One Last Stop: A Novel by Casey McQuiston

"One Last Stop made me fall in love with Casey McQuiston's writing all over again. In this one, August, an inexperienced 20-something trying to figure out life in the big city, is an expert at keeping other people at arm's length until she meets Jane, an impossibly cool girl who always seems to be riding the subway at the same time as her. One Last Stop is queer romance with a side of time-travel shenanigans, but amid all the whip-smart banter and heartwarming rom-com tropes is a potent reminder to make room for love in all parts of your life." — Sharon Pruitt-Young, reporter, newsdesk

The Dating Playbook by Farrah Rochon

"Any list of 2021's best romantic comedies must include Farrah Rochon's The Dating Playbook. The story she weaves about Taylor Powell, a fitness trainer in need of some clients, and Jamar Dixon, an injured football superstar in need of a secret but hard-core fitness regime, is fresh, funny and sexy. It also boasts a ripped-from-the-headlines plot that touches on topics like football and concussion, and how social media has made having a private life an artform for anyone with celebrity status. Rochon presents her themes with jump-off-the-page humor, and they go far beyond the ups and downs of romance to broader concerns about family, women, friendship and jealousy." — Denny S. Bryce, book critic

The Heart Principle: A Novel by Helen Hoang

"Anna Sun is a talented violinist in the Bay Area whose disappointing boyfriend springs a proposal on her: an open relationship. While processing her boyfriend's request and battling a creative block, Anna meets Quan and wonders if he might be the real deal. I love this book because it deals with issues that feel really relevant to today, such as creative burnout, bad boyfriends and neurodivergence, which Helen Hoang explores through these deeply rich and heartfelt characters." — Candice Lim, production assistant, Pop Culture Happy Hour

The Prophets: A Novel by Robert Jones, Jr.

"This book broke my heart in a necessary way. It's spectacular. A poetic queer love story and an excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation, it deserves every accolade. At the center are Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved boys who grow up as best friends and eventually become lovers, and an older enslaved man, Amos, who takes on the role of preacher as a way of securing some semblance of safety and power. Jones excels at ensemble storytelling, treating each character with compassion while being brutally unsparing about the system they live under and the desperate compromises they have to make." — Carole V. Bell

Trust: A Novel by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

"In author Domenico Starnone's Italian-to-English translation, a couple named Pietro and Teresa are on-again, off-again until the day Teresa says, essentially, "Let's tell each other our worst secret." What she thinks will bind them together forever turns out to be what drives them apart; they've revealed the worst and it's unforgettable. For a lesser writer, this might be enough. For Starnone, it's a jumping-off point, even in a slim, taut book with no wasted words or ideas. When Pietro and Teresa meet again in the evening of their lives, the power one of them holds over the other still matters." — Bethanne Patrick, book critic

While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

"Jasmine Guillory is the queen of charming romance novels. In her sixth book, we meet ad exec Ben Stephens and movie star Anna Gardiner, who hit it off at a marketing campaign meeting and end up falling into a just-for-cameras relationship (with some fun benefits too). Unfortunately, romantic feelings (as they always do) get in the way of this arrangement. You might remember Ben from one of Guillory's last books, The Wedding Date – the brother of uptight Theo. The best part about Guillory's books is revisiting these characters and guessing who will show up in subsequent novels. Not to mention the descriptive California references (as a California native, I eat those up). Guillory's writing style is addictive, but she also tackles heavy themes. I can guarantee you'll finish this book quickly and want to check out her other ones." — Anjuli Sastry Krbechek, producer, It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders

To read more recommendations from staff members, you can explore the "Staff Picks" section on the 2021 Books We Love website.

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Mia Estrada
Mia Estrada is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow. She will spend the year rotating through different parts of NPR, including the Culture Desk, National Desk and Weekend Edition.