Angst In Romance

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

 When I sat down to outline this post, I knew that I could not do the topic any kind of justice without seeking some other voices. I've been following both Charlotte and Hannah for some time now and I like to think that I know their reading tastes pretty well. I always lump those two (in a good way) as "angst experts" because they bring up the topic of angst in romance often on their social media. It was only obvious that I slid into their DMs to ask if they would be interested in collaborating on this post. I'm very glad I did because they got me thinking about different perspectives that readers have about angst.

I hope you enjoy reading this post and that you find some terrific new books to add to your TBR.


In March, I asked Twitter what “angst” in romance means to them. The question was inspired when I saw someone call one of my angstiest 2021 reads by one of my consistently angstiest authors “angst free.” I was so confused. Did we read the same book?

This got me thinking: what even is “angst?” I throw the term around a lot. I’m a self-described high-angst reader, in that I have been barely moved by books that have melted many other people into puddles of emotion. I even developed a Hannah Angst ScaleTM trying to quantify my angst tolerance. But what exactly is it that creates that gorgeous, aching, hollow-but-full-of-emotion, help-me-it-huuuuurts, how-will-I-ever-live-or-read-again feeling?

When I asked Twitter about how they define angst, many people mentioned a feeling of hopelessness, despair, and pain created by internal or interpersonal conflict that is an obstacle to the HEA. For me, that internal element is key to angst. A book can have a thousand sources of external conflict and feel low angst to me if the MCs don’t think of themselves as the main barrier in the relationship. And it’s more than just a low moment or third act breakup. It’s a persistent hum of dread throughout the book that they are going to fuck it up royally because of their own baggage—no matter that we know there’s an HEA waiting for us at the end. This only works, of course, if we’re rooting for the MCs to be together. As Charlotte will mention, cruelty is not angst.

The physical experience of angst was also a common thread for many people. It’s certainly true for me. The more of my body parts that ache, the higher a book ranks on the Hannah Angst ScaleTM. My Holy Grail books cause my entire body to hurt and tears to actually fall from my eyes (only two romances have ever hit this tier). I think this speaks to the connection readers feel with a truly angsty read and the power a talented author has to evoke empathy from their audience. High emotional stakes are relatable (or at least imaginable) in a way that most external stakes (i.e. feuding families, kidnapping) are not. Most of my favorite angsty romances are character-driven as opposed to plot-driven.

So now that I have struggled and largely failed to get a handle on what “angst” is, here are just a few of my favorite angsty romances:

For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale - “I’m going to sacrifice something of my own happiness in order to make sure you’re safe” angst

Arden St. Ives/Billionaire trilogy by Alexis Hall - “I’m no good for you but I can’t stay away” angst

Snowflake by Nia Forrester - “I want you so much but there’s no way you want me the same way, so I’ll try to be content with what I can get” angst

The Point of It All by Christina C. Jones - “I’m going to have to leave you eventually so don’t get too attached to me” angst


Curious about my two Holy Grail Angst Romances

Here they are:

The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers - “I love you but you deserve so much more than I could ever offer you” angst--I felt pain down to my toes from the first page, and then I cried

Luck of the Draw by Kate Clayborn - “I am responsible for so much of your pain, how could you love me?” angst--I have read it thrice and bawled each time



The question I wanted to explore for this post is: what is the difference between angst and just plain suffering? What makes the former a cherished part of romance reading, and the latter kind of a slog? The answer, for me, is care. What makes angst bearable, what makes it good, is the ways it is coupled with care. Because I love a taxonomy, I’ve broken down a few ways that care turns suffering into cathartic romance-novel angst. 

Care despite circumstances

As Hannah suggests, there’s a certain type of angst that comes, at least in part, from external circumstances. In these novels, our MCs can’t be together because of feuding families, class differences, or preexisting loyalties. These books are still full of the emotional pain of love denied, but the denial arises in large part from circumstances beyond either or both MCs' control. What often makes this kind of angst bearable is how characters care for each other in the face of their obstacles. This “care against the world” can come from an extended support network, a found family, or even between the MCs themselves. Here are a few recs where the way the MCs care for each other makes the angst of their circumstances bearable for the reader. 

A Seditious Affair by KJ Charles, Honeytrap by Aster Glenn Gray, The Loyal League series by Alyssa Cole, Wrong to Need You by Alisha Rai. 


Care despite hurt

The kind of angst that hits me where it hurts the most is when the MCs are the ones hurting each other. This hurt isn’t willful - that would be cruelty-  it happens through ignorance, lack of reflection, or from a place of internal pain and trauma. It’s important, of course, that we care about the character who is most seriously getting their heart broken. But I have a real soft spot for novels that make us care about the character who is causing the hurt. It takes work to create a character who is lashing out from a place of pain so deep that they’re wounding the person they (and we) love, yet they remain so relatable, so loveable, that we’ll care for them anyway. Here’s a few recs that absolutely put the work into making you care for the person bringing the angst: 

Luck of the Draw by Kate Clayborn, Small Change by Roan Parrish, Unraveled by Courtney Milan, Work For It by Talia Hibbert.


Ultimately, however, I think the most important type of care is the one extended to readers: the guarantee of the HEA. Romance has a wide margin to lovingly portray characters whom others might not care about, who have sometimes acted carelessly, to whom the world hasn’t shown the necessary care. Because despite what they suffer, we know they’ll find their HEA. And so as readers, we know we will be cared for at the story’s end, right along with the characters. I don’t have specific recommendations for this kind of care because I want to hear yours. Tell us about a romance that created angst by extending care in a way you hadn’t seen it before. It might be the most powerful thing this genre does. 


I recently came to the conclusion that most of my favorite romance books don't all have common tropes, but what they do share in common is their angst levels - they are almost all high-angst. This surprised me at first because I thought that I reach for the fluffy books when I'm feeling tense, sad, or stressed because, in my head, I equate fluffy books with comfort and happiness. But I actually tend to re-read books that are heart-wrenching and make my chest hurt. 

I had to think about why exactly I was reaching for these books and I think it's because the overwhelming amount of feelings I experience while reading an angsty romance successfully allows me to escape my sources of stress. And even though these books are technically angsty and probably torture the heck out of me emotionally, as Charlotte said, we know that there will be a HEA at the end of it. That's the beauty of a romance novel, right? 

So what exactly is an angsty romance novel? For me, it's all very arbitrary. I'm personally not a reader who emotes all that much while reading. Inner-me will squeal, but getting me to shed a tear is TOUGH. I'm just not built that way. The romance novels that do deliver on high angst for me have all 1. brought me to near-tears and 2. caused chest/gut/stomach aches. At some point in the book, I have to feel like I was punched in the throat or the gut. I think an extremely important element for me when reading such a story is that I have to feel like all the pain that I went through is worth it by the end. Otherwise, I end up being completely dissatisfied and it can easily veer the story into "trauma porn" for lack of better words.

For me, there are two types of angst - kick-me-in-the-stomach angst and soft angst. I don't know that I can adequately describe the two well, so I'll share a few books that might help illustrate the differences between the two. 

Let's start with the kick-me-in-the-stomach angst

First up, we have what is probably one of the angstiest books I have ever read in my life from my favorite historical romance author, Sherry Thomas. Ravishing the Heiress is a terrific example of a well-written angsty romance for me. It includes the unrequited love and has a lot of one-sided pining from our heroine, Millie, for the hero, Fitz, who is in love with another. Throughout this entire book, I had a giant lump in my throat as I watched Millie navigate her marriage to Fitz, loving him from afar. Then, towards the end, there is a scene when Millie finally breaks down, and together with Millie, I was also clutching my chest and crying in pain. FYI, pretty much all of Sherry Thomas's books are high ANGST and they are all good. Chanel Cleeton's On Broken Wings, is another romance I consider high-angst. It's a love story between Easy, and his best friend's widow. There's a lot of messy emotions in this book, with guilt and love being the predominant ones. I felt wrecked while reading it but came out of it in one piece, which I think is a sign of a good angsty romance. I would also include in this section, Luck of the Draw by Kate Clayborn - both Hannah and Charlotte describe this book far better than I do, so I won't go into the details of it. To be honest, pretty much all of Kate Clayborn's books have some form of angst in them - she likes to her put her characters through the emotional wringer. Her latest, Love at First, had a different kind of angst in that there isn't anything particularly angsty keeping the couple apart, but Will, in particular, is dealing with a lot of unresolved issues that make him come across as an angst BOI. 


I can't not talk about high-angst books without bringing up the best book that Christina Lauren have written, Love and Other Words. Once again this is a book that revolves around pain and characters who have hurt each other, leading them to become estranged. Therese Beharrie is another author who writes at least some amount of angst into her stories. Her books tend to be character-driven and high on the emotions, which almost always means that I'll be left feeling I've been on a roller coaster with endless emotional highs. One of my personal favorites is Second Chance With Her Billionaire, which is a second-chance romance, and what an amazing one at that. Estranged-spouses stories are the perfect trope for an angsty story and this book, which tells the story of Summer and Wyatt, took me on an emotional journey. I felt for both of them and Therese does a really good job at having the reader sympathize with both characters and root for their second chance at love. She also writes brilliant conversations where the characters open up to each other and talk their feelings out and this one has one of the best I've read from her. I know Charlotte mentioned Alisha Rai already, but I have to mention her too, specifically Hate to Want You. The angst in this book comes from the combination of forbidden love, second chance romance, and hate-to-love. The complicated family dynamics also add to that. 


Let's move on to the soft angst romances. 

These are books that have a healthy amount of feelings, but they are not as in your face as the kick-me-in-the-stomach angst. It's actually pretty hard for me to pinpoint where the angst is coming from. Sometimes it's external and sometimes it's the author's writing style. Soft angst books also balance out the angst with humor or lightness. I think some of you will probably disagree with my examples but I'll try my best to explain why I classified these as such. I immediately think of That Kind of Guy by Talia Hibbert as an example. Talia has written one phenomenal story after the other, but one that I think frequently about is this book. The angst here comes from the pining between these two and the lightness comes from their banter and rapport with each other. I recently read To Be Alone With You by Jodie Slaughter and also classified it as a soft angst romance. This is another book with some unrequited/mutual pining, but the primary reason I classified it as angsty romance is the writing. Jodie writes with a lot of emotions and every sentence softly punches your heart. Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle is another soft and achy romance with a good dose of angst. For the most part, this book has a lightness to it with the grumpy + sunshine dynamics, but there are these emotional moments that took my breath away that ended up making this a soft angst read for me. The final book on my list is Love in the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas. The first few chapters of this book is epistolary in format with Beatrix pretending to be her friend, Prudence, in her letters to Captain Phelan who is away at war. The angst comes from Christopher not knowing who the real woman who wrote him the love letters is and the feelings of unrequited love on Beatrix's part. Once again, the humor, banter, and vast array of animals in this book, however, add a lightness to this story.



I hope you enjoyed reading this post! Thank you so much to Hannah and Charlotte for agreeing to write this post with me. Be sure to follow them on their social media!

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Do you enjoy angsty romance reads? How do you define angst?
Do you have any recommendations?

Feel free to drop them in the comments below!

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