Rom-com reading: The best new books that made us laugh, swoon and root for love

A year into the pandemic, we’re still looking for an escape. A laundry list of new rom-coms in 2021 have helped us forget about the world’s troubles, at least for a little while. 

Romantic comedies, nee “chick lit” have come a long way since “Bridget Jones” and “Shopaholic” burst on the scene more than 20 years ago. With more diverse authors and stories, modern-day rom-coms are as delightful as ever.

What makes a good rom-com? Start with a little conflict, throw in a few gut-busting laughs, add some moments of melancholy and several swoon-worthy scenarios that will sweep even the most jaded reader off their feet. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the course of a truly great rom-com never does run smooth. Add an ending that, while not always the cliched happily-ever-after, is wholly satisfying. But who are we kidding – we’ll take the cliche ending every day of the week. 

USA TODAY’s Life Staff read some of 2021’s newest rom-com novels and we’re recommending the ones that gave us all the feelings. 

"Act Your Age, Eve Brown," by Talia Hibbert (Photo: Avon)

Act Your Age, Eve Brown,” by Talia Hibbert. ★★★ (out of four.) Out: Now. Eve Brown’s life is not going as planned. Her career and her relationships are in a constant state of flux. When she gets an ultimatum from her parents to grow up she begins badly by following up a job interview by running over her potential boss. Said boss, Jacob, is an always-in-control B&B owner who has his own struggles with relationships. Cue an unpredictable, laugh-out-loud love story where opposing personalities don’t translate to incompatible. Think slapstick meets sexy but with a good dose of sensitivity. This is the first novel I have read in the Brown Sisters series by Hibbert, which includes “Get A Life, Chloe Brown” and “Take a Hint, Dani Brown,” but it won’t be the last. – Mary Cadden

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"Accidentally Engaged," by Farah Heron (Photo: Forever)

“Accidentally Engaged,”by Farah Heron ★★★ (out of four.) Out now. Reena Manji is a single Muslim woman in her early 30s who’s not completely happy with where she’s at in life, but has found some solace in bread making. Her family, yet again, tries to push another eligible Muslim bachelor her way to marry and Reena, who’s used to declining the onslaught of Father-approved suitors, ends up maybe liking this new one. Somehow Heron found the perfect balance of preserving the South Asian/East African traditional Muslim family dynamic while still being realistic with Reena’s character: A young Muslim woman living in Toronto who drinks, has sex, has family in the LGBTQ community and is still trying to figure out her life while searching for love. “Accidentally Engaged” is an engaging read with authentic characters who continue to surprise you. – Rasha Ali

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"First Comes Like," by Alisha Rai (Photo: Avon)

First Comes Like,” by Alisha Rai. ★★★ (out of four.) Out now. A perfect blend of modern dating in the digital age and some good old-fashioned courting, “First Comes Like” is the latest in Rai’s modern love series. Instagram beauty influencer Jia Ahmed is cutting edge when it comes to promoting herself on social media but fails to realize she has been catfished until it is far too late. Not until she is standing in front of Bollywood soap star Dev Dixit, her supposed beau, that Jia figures out there is a problem. Dev has no idea who Jia is. After Jai storms off Dev makes an effort to clear up the confusion only to add to it thanks to some well-placed and pesky paparazzi and prying parents. As a result, a whirlwind fauxmance to romance is born. But don’t let the “old-fashioned” descriptor fool you. While clearly chaste at the start, this is a romance that builds to a slow, sweet, and at times steamily, satisfying end.  – Mary Cadden

"Make Up Break Up," by Lily Menon (Photo: St. Martin's Griffin)

Make Up Break Up,” by Lily Menon. ★★½ (out of four.) Out now. “Make Up Break Up” is a fun and a super quick read, though somewhat predictable where the intimate moments all have a wannabe “Fifty Shades” feel. The novel takes you to sunny California where two techie app creators with a brief romantic history find themselves pitted against each other and working in the same office building. Annika Dev and Hudson Craft can’t stand each other, but all-too predictably also have unavoidable chemistry. Their antics and attempts to sabotage each other is made more interesting by Annika’s character who embodies a confident, take-charge woman on a mission. Her work comes first, and she’s not afraid to put her overbearing Indian-American father in his place as she eagerly one-ups her professional rival in her hopes of taking the tech world by storm. The fact that she may find romance while doing it is a bonus.  – Leora Arnowitz

"Meet You in the Middle" by Devon Daniels is out now. (Photo: Penguin Random House, Inc.)

Meet You in the Middle,” by Devon Daniels. ★★★1/2  (out of four.) Out now. Set in Washington DC in the aftermath of the polarizing 2016 election, “Meet You in the Middle” feels more timely than ever following the even-more-divisive 2020 election. Kate Adams and Ben Mackenzie are on opposite sides of the aisle but they figure out (refreshingly quickly) that they have plenty in common. One of the things that makes this book a rapid-fire read is the fact that the characters don’t take painstakingly long to figure out their feelings for one another. Daniels gives depth to both Kate and Ben and though there are a few eye roll-worthy moments (like Kate’s penchant for tears), it’s the kind of book that will leave you feeling gleeful. – Leora Arnowitz 

"Siri, Who Am I?." by Sam Tschida (Photo: Quirkbooks)

“Siri, Who Am I?,” by Sam Tschida. ★★★1/2 (out of four.) Out now. Imagine waking up in a hospital bed with no idea who you are and no friends and family around you. Well, Mia, the protagonist and narrator of Sam Tschida’s “Siri, Who Am I?” finds herself in just that situation. Thankfully, like every good millennial, she’s still attached to her cell phone — and her Instagram account, which leads her on a journey that’s unpredictable, fun and funny for the reader, as she attempts to figure out who she really is in a world of online influence. It turns out that Instagram, shockingly, may not be illustrating the whole truth. Tschida took me on a wild ride in the quick read with endless turns and a happily-ever-after ending fit for a Friday night, feel-good rom-com movie. – Morgan Hines

“Honey Girl,” by Morgan Rogers. (Photo: Park Row)

“Honey Girl,” by Morgan Rogers. ★★★★ (out of four.) Out now. A rom-com premise makes way for a thoughtful, expansive take on self-discovery and chosen families in Morgan Rogers’ debut novel. Grace Porter, a 28-year-old with a new Ph.D. in astronomy and an overbearing father who won’t settle for anything less than perfect, finds herself in uncharted territory when a birthday trip to Las Vegas brandishes a souvenir she hadn’t quite expected: a wife. Yuki Yamamoto, a manic pixie dream girl waitress with a radio show and an ethereal take on life, welcomes Grace to finally dream past the confines of her science lab. Though the plot of “Honey Girl” is spurred by romance, it’s the loving embrace from forever friendships that gives its story the most heart. Sprinkled with stardust, Rogers’ prose is poetic, earnest and existential, making for a coming-of-age story that reminds us we figure out who we are and what our place is in the world over and over. As any star-gazer suspects, we aren’t alone in the universe – or in life. – Hannah Yasharoff

"A Pho Love Story" by Loan Le (Photo: Simon & Schuster)

“A Pho Love Story,” by Loan Le. ★★★ (out of four.) Out now. A modern-day “Romeo and Juliet” story about high school students from rival family pho restaurants. What’s not to like? In her debut novel, author Loan Lee serves up a YA love story devourable even for those who have long since graduated. The Nguyen and Mai families play our Montagues and Capulets, with Bao and Linh as star-crossed lovers forbidden to talk to each other. But when Bao, a quiet, thoughtful burgeoning writer, and Linh, an impassioned artist conflicted about fulfilling her dreams full-time, are brought together to review local restaurants for the school newspaper, they realize they may have been too quick to judge. Sweet, full of depth and worth savoring, “Pho” explores the battle between complicated family histories and indisputable new love. – Hannah Yasharoff

"The Dating Plan" by Sara Desai (Photo: Penguin Random House)

“The Dating Plan,” by Sara Desai. ★★★1/2 (out of four.) Out: March 16. Daisy Patel needs a fake fiancé to keep her family from playing matchmaker. Liam Murphy needs a fake fiancée to win his late grandfather’s inheritance. Seems like a perfect match — except that Liam stood Daisy up on prom night, and 10 years later, she still hasn’t forgiven him. Sara Desai returns with another thoughtful, goofy and sexy enemies-to-lovers plot that explores first crushes, second chances and familial love. “The Dating Plan” includes callbacks to Desai’s debut novel “The Marriage Game,” which isn’t a prerequisite but should be on your list regardless. You won’t want to put either down until you’re done. – Hannah Yasharoff

"Twice Shy," by Sarah Hogle (Photo: G.P. Putnam's Sons)

“Twice Shy,” by Sarah Hogle. ★★★ (out of four.) Out: April 6. Maybell Parrish is in a losing battle against inertia. She’s stuck in a job and social circle she hates, only finding escape in her vivid daydreams. When her Aunt Violet dies and bequeaths her a house in the Smokies, Maybell seizes the moment and starts a new path. Or so she thinks. Enter Wesley Koehler: A handsome and taciturn groundskeeper who’s also inherited the estate and was (unknowingly) involved in a catfishing scheme against Maybell. Wesley and Maybell – each carrying their own emotional damages – embark on a fixer upper plan for the estate and end up repairing so much more. Hogel did a marvelous job of turning what could be a heavy and predictable tale into a lighthearted story full of surprises, redemption and love. – Jennifer McClellan

"The Sky Blues," by Robbie Couch. (Photo: Courtesy of Robbie Couch)

“The Sky Blues,”by Robbie Couch. ★★★1/2 (out of four.)  Out: April 6. “The Sky Blues” is exactly the kind of teenage romantic comedy that LGBTQ youth – really all youth – need right now. Sky Baker is an out gay high school senior living in Rock Ledge, Michigan, with a major prom-posal plan in the works for his crush Ali. But when that plan falls apart after an unfortunate e-mail blast, Sky’s journey to self-confidence truly begins. Debut author Couch chose a smart first step by not making the novel a coming out story, but one that deals with the repercussions of coming out when not everyone in your life is so accepting. It makes the ones that do accept you that much more important. Readers will fall in love with Sky and his group of friends, made up of diverse, eclectic characters you’ll want to see triumph. Sneaky plot twists will keep you reading late into the night (especially when dealing with a bout of insomnia, like I was). – David Oliver

"Second First Impressions," by Sally Thorne (Photo: William Morrow Paperbacks)

“Second First Impressions,” by Sally Thorne. ★★★ (out of four.) Out April 13. Was I in the mood for 300+ pages of cheeky retirement home gossip? You bet I was. “Second First Impressions” attempts love for mousy office manager Ruthie Midona, who at 25 lives (and dresses) more like her opinionated elderly residents than her peers. Enter the heavily tattooed, vagabond Teddy Prescott, the youngest son of the retirement home’s new owner, who roars in on a motorcycle ready to prove his worth to papa by working the grounds. A no-nonsense Ruthie assigns Teddy to work as a personal assistant (read: tormented houseboy) for the complex’s rowdiest octogenarians, the wealthy, rather fabulous Parloni sisters. Despite everyone – including the millennial temp –becoming invested in Ruthie finding a nice boyfriend, the dowdy preacher’s daughter only has eyes for her new bad boy neighbor (did I mention they share a cottage on property?). The premise is cute (it also packs a scandalous twist) but it’s Thorne’s storytelling, which gives her seniors as much life as her twentysomethings, that proves as delightful as an early bird special. – Andrea Mandell

"Dial A for Aunties," by Jesse Q Sutanto ★★★★ (out of four.) Out: April 27. (Photo: Penguin Random House)

“Dial A for Aunties,” by Jesse Q. Sutanto. ★★★★ (out of four.) Out: April 27. Everyone has a story of a bad blind date. But Meddelin “Meddy” Chan takes the cake when she accidentally kills the suitor her meddling mother set her up with the night before the biggest event of her family’s wedding business (“Don’t leave your big day to chance, leave it to the Chans!”). Disposing of the body, however, isn’t a piece of cake after her Chinese-Indonesian Ma and three equally nosy aunts mistakenly send the corpse in a cake cooler to the “Crazy Rich Asians”-esque wedding they are working. Talk about a wedding crasher. Sutanto brilliantly infuses comedy and culture into the unpredictable rom-com/murder mystery mashup as Meddy navigates familial duty, possible arrest and a groomzilla. I laughed out loud and you will too.  – Cydney Henderson

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