Romance novels often get a bad rap. While there's plenty of trash fiction out there aimed at appealing to the readers' more prurient desires rather than their literary enlightenment (just take a look at the sales figures for the Fifty Shades of Grey series), romance and literary value are anything but mutually exclusive. After all, love is one of the most profound of human emotions, and romantic love is one of the most whimsical and volatile. As the saying goes, all's fair in love and war, making fictional romance one of the genres most rife for tension, conflict, climax, and satisfying resolution.
There's a handful of best romance novel contenders that you won't find on this list because we've already featured them elsewhere. William Goldman's dynamic novel The Princess Bride could easily make it to elite status in many genres, and it's certainly one of the best romance novels, but it's already been featured on our Best Fantasy Novels list. Meanwhile, the social convention-challenging Annie on my Mind is romantically-charged, it appeared on our list of the Most Controversial Books. And while it's not one of the best, but rather one of the more popular, the previously mentioned Fifty Shades trilogy was a Top Selling Book of 2012. But below you'll find four of the truly best romance novels ever written.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Unlike many contemporary trashy romance novels that tend to contain elements of misogyny or at least stereotype, Charlotte Brontë's classic Jane Eyre follows its strong-willed eponymous protagonist as she empowers herself from her challenging early years, comes of age and dedicates herself to her profession and personal principles, and ultimately falls in love with the gruff and aloof Mr. Rochester, who carries with him a dark secret. The pair overcome physical and emotional obstacles to eventually find their way back to each other in this all-time great.
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The science fiction convention of time travel is used as a metaphor for the challenges of romantic relationships in Audrey Niffenegger's dazzling debut novel. As a man struggles with a genetic disorder that forces him to travel through time unpredictably (and to often find himself in perilous situations), the book focuses on the love affair he enjoys with a wife whom he knows from many different eras. Dealing with issues of love, loss and the concept of free will, The Time Traveler's Wife makes for a transcendent tale of timeless love.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Amazingly, the all-time classic Gone with the Wind was the only novel Margaret Mitchell published during her lifetime. While the tumultuous love/hate relationship between the difficult Scarlett O'Hara and the roguish Rhett Butler constitute the crux of the book, Scarlett engages in many romances, being widowed twice before she eventually enters a volatile relationship with the hot-tempered and alcohol-swilling Rhett. A tale of wartime passion, jealousy, and violent love, Gone with the Wind continues to endure as one of the best romance books ever.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Written as part of National Novel Writing Month, Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants is a historical novel that tells the story of a lasting love that overcomes abusive circus folk. When former veterinary student Jacob learns of his parents' tragic death in a car accident he drops out of school and joins the circus, meeting the love of his life, Marlena, who is married to a violent brute and head trainer who abuses the animals as well as his employees. Jacob and Marlena overcome threats and violence to pursue their love and achieve the happiness together that they both deserve.