By Don Qarlo Bernardino
The Romance genre is often accompanied by gendered assumptions that deem its narratives as vapid, cliché and centred around women's unrealistic fantasies. Women romance authors not being taken seriously is common, and they are often positioned against highly regarded works of fiction. It's a genre that almost everyone is familiar with, yet less respect it as “esteemed literature.”
Despite the criticisms that are associated with romance novels, it is still one of the most profitable genres. Many established authors have built long-lasting careers out of romance fiction, such as the classical Jane Austen and more modern names like Julia Quinn and Danielle Steel. You may recognize Quinn’s name from her thriving book series, Bridgerton, that recently became a hit on Netflix, further proving the genre's profitability.
Taylor Jenkins Reid is a fascinating author and the centre of this spotlight as she sets herself apart from other romance writers. She gives readers a fresh take on a familiar genre through complex female protagonists and compelling storylines.
Reid’s work speaks to women everywhere, with a career spanning across multiple mediums, including television, magazines and now adult and historical fiction. In managing to write romance stories that speak to an audience beyond its stereotypical target reader, Reid’s work tells real, honest stories about love and romance that address their complexities. Each of her books is told from the perspective of female protagonists with compassion and empathy, fleshed out as real and complex human beings. These women are dealing with love, but the author also gives the readers a reason to identify with them beyond their romantic endeavours.
Early on in her career, Reid worked in the entertainment industry and as an essayist with various magazine publications. Her foray into fiction all started when she met Jennifer Aniston, whom she recognized from the show Friends. In an interview with Marie Claire, Reid spoke about how all her friends wanted to know what it was like meeting Jennifer Aniston, leading her to write them an email detailing the story of how she met the actress. This was what made her realize she loved writing stories and found that she had a real knack for it. She then decided to write full-time, and has since become an extremely prolific and talented writer who shows no signs of slowing down.
Her early novels: adult romance
Reid kicked off her literary career with four adult romance novels that had similar themes of two people falling in and out of love. The romance genre is plagued with familiar narratives like this, attracting much of the criticism that writers of romance fiction receive. But it's the tried and true formula. A man and woman meet, fall in love, have steamy sexual tension. Change up the setting, characters and conflicts every now and then and you have a bookshelf of best-selling novels.
What elevates Reid’s adult romance novels from others in the genre is her ability to tell grounded, heart-wrenching stories about love that take different approaches in their concepts and have realistic characters. In her first novel, Forever Interrupted, readers follow Elsie Porter, who at the beginning of the novel tragically loses her husband Ben Ross, with whom she recently eloped. The novel jumps back and forth between past and present, showing us Elsie and Ben’s whirlwind romance and the aftermath of Ben’s death in which Elsie processes and grieves his passing. As with most debut novels, it isn’t Reid's best work and you can sense that she was still trying to find her footing. Still, the book provides an emotional exploration of grief, what it means to lose love and how to move on from it.
Reid followed up her debut novel a year later with After I Do. This is where she takes what she did right in her first novel and elevates it to new heights. The book is a heartbreaking story about a recently married couple, Lauren and Ryan, who realize that their marriage is reaching its breaking point and come up with an unconventional plan to fix it. They decide to spend one whole year apart from each other, without contacting each other. After that one year, they will reconnect and try to see if they can fall in love again. What separates After I Do from other romance novels is its dissection of marriage after the honeymoon phase.
What makes Reid’s books so compelling is that it all comes down to how well she writes her characters. A great romance novel works only when the reader cares deeply about the characters. After I Do deals with the destruction of a relationship, but what makes it so engaging is that you get the chance to understand both Lauren and Ryan’s perspectives. It's a heartbreaking read as you witness firsthand how the two were able to fall in love and how that love slowly fades over the years. It's real, raw and gets deep into the philosophies of what it means to love.
Reid ended her journey of writing contemporary novels with One True Loves. It follows Emma Blair, who marries her high school sweetheart Jesse. Emma’s whole life takes a turn when Jesse goes missing. This forces Emma to reshape her whole life while dealing with grief. She feels like she gets a second chance at love when she runs into Sam, an old friend. That is until Jesse turns out to be alive and finally finds his way back to her. What follows is Emma dealing with a love triangle for the ages. This time, Reid focuses on whether or not we are destined to end up with one person: our one true love. What makes the novel so fascinating is that the love triangle is so unique. It's about a woman falling in love with two different people during two different periods in her life. It dives into the complicated emotions that come with this dilemma, marking a strong end to Reid’s era of writing original contemporary fiction.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s breakout into historical fiction
In an interview with Girly Book Club, Reid discusses her transition from adult contemporary romance fiction to historical fiction. She talks about how she felt like she had written everything she wanted to cover within the adult contemporary genre. With her next novels, she wanted to try something new and thus started her journey writing historical romance fiction. Personally, I think The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is her best book yet. This was the first book where Reid branched off into historical fiction and was met with positive acclaim.
The novel starts off in the present day when journalist Monique Heart mysteriously gets tasked to interview Cuban-American Evelyn Hugo, one of the most popular Hollywood actresses now in her old age. Readers are entrenched in the fictional life of this woman, as her story reads similarly to a compelling biography from her rise to astronomical fame, but with a lifetime of secrets, regrets and mistakes.
Like the title suggests, Evelyn Hugo has seven husbands over the course of her life and each of them have a compelling story attached to each marriage. But, there is someone whom she ultimately loves the most and finding out who that person is makes the novel a serious page-turner.
Many readers have cited the book as a masterpiece. It’s all about the scandals, gossip and the price of fame in Hollywood all from the perspective of a powerful and complicated woman such as Evelyn Hugo. Reid also explores writing about LGBTQ+, POC and even stronger female leads that we hadn’t seen before in her previous books. This is especially true with Evelyn Hugo, a woman of colour who is deeply flawed but incredibly ambitious.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo unpacks marginalized identities in Old Hollywood and how one is forced to change or hide certain parts of their identity to fit into a world that would not accept them if they didn’t.
The hotly anticipated follow up to Evelyn Hugo was released the following year: Daisy Jones & The Six. The book follows a fictional rock band in the 1970s Los Angeles Sunset Strip through its lead singer Daisy Jones and her constant clash with the other lead Billy Dunne. Told in an interview-style format, the book plays out like a documentary where the band members recount their glory days with their rise in fame and what led to their infamous break-up. Like your cinematic rock and roll biopic, Daisy Jones & The Six is all about the clashing egos between band members, the romances that form and the price of fame. Daisy Jones has a lot of the same ingredients that made Evelyn Hugo a success. The flawed but fascinating female protagonist, Daisy, has an undeniable talent in singing and a beauty that gets everyone's heads turning. She is a woman who lives by her own rules and walks to the beat of her own drum. She is empowering and electrifying, never letting her gender get in the way of pursuing a career in a male-dominated industry.
Taylor Jenkins Reid is clearly a prolific author. She has released a book every year since 2013 and the quality that she is able to produce at such a fast rate is astounding. The trademark in each of her books is that her characters, in one way or another, deal with love. Whether that's falling in love with a person, love for your friends, family or career. Her books always have that signature female protagonist, with her prose often turning to introspection by diving into their thoughts, feelings and philosophies. She has a knack for creating not just empowering, strong female protagonists, but just as compelling side characters. You get to relate to and understand each and every character’s perspective in her books, even if they don’t make the best choices. Reid’s books are all about learning what it means to love and how to create empathy for the people you come across in life. She is a talented author who writes thoughtful characters and universal themes. In oversaturated genres like romance and historical fiction, she stands out by subverting readers’ expectations, writing beautiful prose and having diverse representation.