The Alarming Rise of the Wholesome Romance

Once upon a time, in a universe much like our own, the United States of America had a female President. And that female President had a son. His name was Alex Claremont-Diaz, and he had a plan to help his mom flip Texas blue. Then he met Henry, a literal British prince. It was mutual rancor at first sight; down-to-earth Alex thought Henry a snob, and haughty Henry thought Alex an ill-mannered commoner. This antipathy escalated into an international incident at the royal wedding of Henry’s older brother, which climaxed in a giant cake toppling and burying them under layers of fluffy icing.

Fast-forward through a handful of publicity stunts designed to sell the public on their friendship, and the two young men are hopelessly, hornily in love. But neither is openly queer. “Prince Henry belongs to Britain,” Henry explains.

The Alarming Rise of the Wholesome Romance

If you’re worried this is all destined to end in heartbreak (and geopolitical catastrophe) then you probably aren’t familiar with Casey McQuiston, who dreamed up the scenario in their hit 2019 novel Red, White, and Royal Blue. Now back on bestseller lists in anticipation of a frothy new adaptation, debuting Aug. 11 on Prime Video, Royal Blue is emblematic of a new generation of love story that has conquered pop culture. I call it wholesome romance.

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Decorated with cute illustrations of adorable couples, wholesome-romance covers leap out from bookstore displays in gummy-candy hues. Whether shelved as contemporary romance, YA, or new adult (coming-of-age stories about people in their 20s), these buoyant books take place in more idyllic versions of our reality, full of gentle humor and blessed with happy endings. The stakes are low, the people kind, the sex scenes PG-13 or vanilla. And the books-like Heartstopper (based on Alice Oseman’s comic), which just dropped its second season on Netflix; and Amazon’s The Summer I Turned Pretty, whose author Jenny Han’s YA romances have fueled three movies and two TV series since 2018-are getting snapped up by Hollywood. The sensibility has breached the romance-novel-to-rom-com pipeline and spilled over into literary fiction, reality TV, podcasts.

Unassuming as they atic shift in the fantasy lives of their mostly female audience. The multiplatform romance (and adjacent) juggernauts of the recent past, from Twilight and The Fault in Our Stars to Fifty Shades of Grey, seduced fans with bloodsucking dreamboats, BDSM billionaires, and terminally ill teens. Now, when we immerse ourselves in a love story, fewer of us seem to seek that frisson of danger. What has become more exotic, and thus more desirable, is comfort, safety, stability. That our collective daydreams now seem so healthy and achievable is not necessarily a sign of progress.

Nicholas Galitzine as Prince Henry and Taylor Zakhar Perez as Alex Claremont-Diaz in Red, White & Royal Blue Jonathan Prime-Prime Video

No story epitomizes this new sensibility like Beach Read, the breakthrough novel by erstwhile YA author Emily Henry. Published two months into COVID lockdown, in , the book hinges on the classic rom-com trope enemies to lovers. After the sudden death of her father and a breakup with her boyfriend of many years, romance writer January Andrews moves into the secret beach house that her seemingly perfect dad used to conduct an affair. She’s got all summer to deliver a new manuscript but can no longer bear to write happily-ever-after love stories. Then she realizes her next door neighbor is an old college rival who has grown up to be an acclaimed literary novelist. They fall in love, brought together by the challenge to swap genres for the summer.