For a novel to be considered romance, its primary focus needs to be the budding romantic relationship between two characters that ultimately results in a satisfying, happy ending. Of course, endings can vary and become angsty instead, but as long as there’s clear evidence of a love story, in whatever form it may take, it can be considered romance.
Before I started reading romance novels, the first image that would pop into my head when I thought of the genre was that of those glossy, cheesy covers with a bare-chested man holding a beautiful white woman in an off-the-shoulder dress or shirt. And I think it was this way for a while, but the genre has substantially evolved throughout the last few decades.
We can’t talk about romance novels without mentioning Nicholas Sparks who, obviously, happens to be a man. His novels continue to be successful, but they’ll never quite achieve the same popularity they had in the 2010s. Eleven of his books have been turned into movies, but they’ve now become stuck in time due to their banal storylines and lack of diversity.
We’re getting more and more used to seeing diversity on screen and especially on paper, where the book community is putting in an effort to include both writers and characters of color in the stories they consume. So the Nicholas Sparks books and movies — which solely consist of white leads and love interests — are a reflection of the past and are no longer relevant.
This progression within the romance genre paves the way for a whole new group of writers to bring diversity to the table. But no one has really taken Sparks’ place yet. Tom Ellen and his novel, “All About Us,” could be a great contender. It’ll be hard for any writer to truly take Sparks’ place since readers are looking for more modern and real romances, instead of the swoony ones that were popular in the 2010s. But it’s certainly a starting point to welcome more male writers into the genre.
Ellen is an author and journalist from London, England. He has co-written three successful young adult novels and “All About Us” is his independent debut. He is working on his next novel, which is teased in an excerpt at the end of his most recently published book.
“All About Us” is a romance novel centered around Christmas. It is clearly influenced by “A Christmas Carol” — the main character, Ben, is given a wristwatch that allows him to travel through time, particularly to moments when he was given two choices that would later leave him curious about the choice that he did not make.
The reader meets Ben in 2020. Married to the love of his life but unhappy due to a terrible job and other circumstances that have made him lose track of what’s worth fighting for, Ben considers cheating on his wife with his college crush. The synopsis sells the book as a love triangle, but it’s really more about regrets and realizing what we should be thankful for.
It’s an interesting romance novel because the main character is also a man. You don’t often encounter books in the genre with male protagonists — at least not as the sole narrator. Sometimes they’ll have a dual point of view of the couple or be told in the third person. But “All About Us” is Ben’s story, told by Ben himself. Which is very refreshing.
Ben gets to relive some of his biggest regrets, those that later made him ask himself “What if?” Throughout “All About Us,” Ellen takes Ben and the reader alike on a time-traveling adventure full of eye-opening moments.
One of my favorite parts of the book is that it opens up a whole new realm of issues to tackle within the romance genre. Ellen uses his male protagonist as an opportunity to talk about toxic masculinity and how it truly affects men. It perfectly reflects the way some (if not most) male friendships work.
Ben and his best friend, Harv, have a wonderful friendship, but is it deep? Not in the slightest. Their conversations range from what they’ve done that day to naming every winning team of the Soccer World Championships. They don’t talk about their feelings or anything “girly” like that. But the truth is, they could both use an outlet more than most.
The book does a wonderful job of portraying how much men can suffer from the impossible standards society enforces upon them and it encourages readers to discard these unrealistic standards completely and do what feels right. If you need to cry on your friend’s shoulder, do it. If you need to see a therapist because coping just isn’t enough anymore, do that too.
Ben’s arc is beautiful and admirable. The turning point of Ellen’s novel emerges when Ben changes his outlook on life after realizing what truly matters: how much he loves his wife, how he can change something — like his job — if he doesn’t like it and how he shouldn’t care about what others think about him. But, much to Ben’s surprise, so is Harv’s, who was in a toxic relationship without Ben even realizing it until he went back in time. When Ben returns to his friend in the present, he throws all caution to the wind and asks him outright how he’s feeling. This is something the two had never done before but it turns out to be the best action Ben could have taken for the well-being of Harv and their friendship.
Since the romance genre is embarking on this new, valuable journey, it should start catering to all people and not just women. That way, men can learn these important lessons through a wholesome story about love and friendship that should in no way be shamed. Hopefully, there’ll be a time when romance stops being looked down upon and starts being added to bookcases all around the world next to sci-fi, fantasy and other genres society deems as appropriate for male readers.