Maybe when I have a daughter I should name her Nora, because everyone named Nora is awesome.
I've already "waxed poetically" about my love of Nora Ephron and now here I am, singing the praises of one Nora Roberts - yes, the New York Times bestselling author of over 200 romance novels (that's a lot of novels!!!!).
Romance novels often get a bad rap. While there are certainly some stinkers out there, I don't believe the genre as a whole should be dismissed. There is bad science fiction, bad children's fiction, bad historical fiction, bad mystery novels - and yet, romance novels are written off as silly stories with flighty women that create unrealistic expectations for real world romance. Well, I am here to tell you that Nora Roberts is no Walt Disney.
In the eyes of my mother and myself, Roberts represents all that is good about the genre. Not only has Roberts written many great stand-alone stories, she has trilogies (and some quartets) down to an absolute science. Some might argue that Roberts formulaic stories and consistently happy endings are indicative of vapid, empty story telling. I aim to disagree. In all of Roberts stories the main characters are strong, generally independent women (or even men! Some of her novels have male main characters! I challenge you to name another romance novelist who does that (and if you do, please tell me because I will definitely read it)). The romance story line is always framed by a greater journey - be it a fantastic journey of strength and ghosts, or four women building a business from the ground up - and that journey is what gives women agency and power. Roberts books may be romance novels, but Twilight and silly damsel-in-distress tales they are not (yes, I read the entire Twilight series, and it is silly and harmless for someone in their twenties, but it portrays a fairly dysfunctional relationship which could be problematic for the young girls reading it). And yes, Roberts books include descriptive sex scenes, but they aren't anything crazy a la E.L. James. The sex in Roberts books function as just one aspect of the relationship, not as the central focus.
My favorite stand-alone novel of Roberts is Honest Illusions. It's rich in detail, the characters are absolutely magnetic, and the main conflict is super-duper suspenseful. The troupe/family of magician thieves makes for an entertaining and morally ambiguous read. Sure, they're stealing jewels from "horrible" wealthy people, but does that really make it okay? Perhaps the Nouvelle family deserves the misfortune which befalls them. Furthermore, this book spans several years and the love between Roxy and Luke is certainly no fling, so there is no room for the "love at first sight" criticism.
For the most part, Roberts trilogies and quartets follow a similar outline and that's what makes them so great. The series generally revolves around three women, who are either friends prior to the story or become friends because of the central conflict. The female camaraderie in Roberts novels provides warmth and depth to the characters in a way that I think elevates her work beyond typical Harelquin fare. Each book follows the love story of one of the group, with sprinkles of the other relationships. I love this aspect to Roberts work - it gives the love story extra mojo and believability. Sure the couple in book one might get engaged at the end of the story, but they don't get married until book three, so the reader spends more than one book becoming invested in their love. The final book usually involves the two more cynical or "damaged" characters because they (REALISTICALLY) took longer to come around to love and each other. Though some of her books, specifically the Key Trilogy, can be more fantastical in the storyline, I have always found the love stories very realistic. Sure, they fall in love pretty fast, but Roberts characters are full-fledged adults (usually in the late twenties, early thirties), not young bright-eyed 21-year-olds.
When I asked my Mom for help explaining why we love Nora Roberts she said "I think because Nora follows a certain formula for her writing. Readers
know what to expect and that's sort of comforting. Some books can be stressful to read. When you find an author who writes really well
even though there is a formula you read them over and over". And she is totally right! I've already told you I love to re-read books, sometimes multiple times. And because Nora has so many books to choose from, it can feel like catching up with an old friend.
Romance novels can provide a great escape, especially when well-written. If, like me, you experience moments of anguish as the bookstore because you can't afford the entire stack of books in your arms so you tell yourself to JUST PICK ONE, pick the Nora Roberts book, because it's sure to surprise you and is totally re-readable (which means it's a good investment! I always regret buying a book I end up disliking because that means I'll never read it again).
And now some unsolicited recommendations:
The Villa - This one holds a special place in my heart because it's the first Nora I remember reading. Sophia and Luke are the grandchildren of neighboring wineries who join forces in more ways than one. They've known one another for years, making their love story all the more meaningful.
The Key Trilogy - It's hard for me to put in to words how amazing these books are. The female friendship in this series drives the storyline and the men become secondary. The women meet when they are invited to a reception at a mansion in town owned by mysterious folk. Little do Mallory, Dana, and Zoe know when they embark on a quest to save the souls of three demigoddesses.
The Inn at Boonsboro Trilogy - This is a recent series and is a great example of Nora's ability to write well-rounded male characters and allow them to steal the show from the women. Three brothers in a small Maryland town are rehabbing an old inn and these books follow their journeys towards love and family. Their mother is a real treat, giving Ryder, Beckett, and Owen a solid foundation from which to grow their family business. The girls don't hurt either - Clare, Avery, & Hope are equally as great, it's just nice to read a romance novel from the male perspective.