The Romance 101 Syllabus

Original work by Mama Rodale. Ink on paper. Crumpled in handbag for dramatic affect.

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. And so, for your romance education and reading pleasure, I now present:

Mama Rodale’s Romance 101 Syllabus

  1. 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.
  2. Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson. One of the first novels in the West, this might have been the 50 Shades of Grey of it’s time. Young servant girl resists Lord of the Manor’s “overtures” until he weds her.
  3. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. “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.”
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Basically the first and still the best romance novel.
  5. Barbara Cartland. Oh, just one of the most prolific and commercially successful authors of all time.
  6. Danielle Steele. Oh, just the best selling author alive today and the fourth best selling fiction author of all time.
  7. 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.”
  8. Shanna and The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. TF&TF is the romance novel that got me hooked, once at for all. It’s also the one that launched the genre as we know it.
  9. Nora Roberts. Reigning Queen of Romancelandia.
  10. The Bridgertons by Julia Quinn. Start with The Duke & I and cancel all your plans.
  11. Eloisa James. One of the greats of the genre, read everything. You’re welcome.

What have you read on this list? Who would you add?



Judith McNaught is my all time favorite – Whitney, My Love, Almost Heaven, A Kingdom of Dreams – anything of hers set in the past.

Diana Gabaldon also got me hooked on romance.


Nalini Singh’s Psy-changeling series. World building at it’s finest.


I agree with Mama Rodale for the most part. Definitely a “no brainer” the the first 4 on the list and once you start Julia Quinn’s “Bridgertons”, you can’t stop! I also agree with AnnaC … Diana Gabaldon. Story telling and character development at its best. I’d like to add Stephanie Laurens … any of her stories, but particularly the “Cynster” books over several generations!

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