13 New Adult Romance Novels That Won My Heart

I wouldn’t relive my early 20s for a million dollars, but I apparently love a good new adult romance novel (or novella or short story). Here’s a set of my faves, including several picks with main characters who aren’t in college, since that’s not everyone’s life path. Hope you find something new to check out!

Before we jump in:

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Swelter by Jules Kelley (Amazon / Goodreads)

A fun, sexy F/F short story about a wedding hookup between college student and bridesmaid Grace and her older brother’s best friend and “best man,” motorcycle-riding lesbian Maya. In Grace’s old Sunday School classroom. You see, both of these ladies had been attracted to each other since high school, and the weather in Atlanta is just so steamy when Maya picks Grace up from the airport… well, you know how these things go.

Kelley does a great job of establishing just enough character personality and backstory to ground the sexual tension and make the fling specific to these two people, all within a short story, which is impressive. The flirting is impeccable. There’s plenty of humor. I’m looking forward to whatever Kelley writes next!

Update: Kelley now has two sequel stories about these gals. Soak is available for free on the author’s website, and Shiver is available on Amazon.

Diversity notes: (1) I interpret Grace as bisexual based on her interior narration (“she thought Maya was just as cute as Rob’s friend Jason.”) Maya is described as having brown skin, and the author has confirmed she is a woman of color. (2) Kelley is queer and uses she/they pronouns.

A Model Boyfriend by Clancy Nacht (Amazon / Goodreads)

Possibly the most college-y college romance I’ve ever read, in such a delightful way. It’s a love story between bisexual gal artist Andy and pro model / film student Brandon, complicated by Andy’s reluctance to end the doomed relationship she’s in with Mike, her first serious boyfriend. Mike was once a quirky artist girl’s dream, but he’s reinventing himself as a polo-shirt-wearing business student and wants to take Andy along for the ride! Brandon, on the other hand, likes Andy exactly as she is… and she’s quite different from *his* current girlfriend.

It’s messy, dramatic, and has the most poignant early-20-something breakup scene I’ve possibly ever read (no spoilers on who), but it never looks down on its cast. Andy feels accurately young in the way she reacts to her life, and from my early 40s perspective I found myself identifying with her as a protagonist but also wanting to show up at her place with a load of groceries and a checkbook to get her caught up on bills, the poor thing. And Brandon is too sweet and lovely for words.

Yay for more bisexual characters in M/F romance, especially women, and yay for creative girls trying to make art and find happiness.

Diversity note: Nacht is a bisexual genderqueer author.

Resistance by Nia Forrester (Amazon / Goodreads)

A really good Black “how they met” M/F romance short grounded in the 2020 protests. Forrester packed a lot into a short piece, including full and rich personalities for both of the collage-age main characters.

“Kai is an accidental activist, drawn to protest only because the alternative—to not protest—feels unimaginable in a turbulent time like this. And Lila is a longtime social justice warrior. At least in theory. Trying to find their footing and independent voices in the middle of a new movement, they just might find something else—a new love.”

The California Dashwoods by Lisa Henry (Amazon / Goodreads)

A modern gay retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which I have not read, nor do I remember if I saw a film adaptation, so I have no idea how it reflects the original. With that out of the way, I really liked this! It’s more romance-adjacent than strictly romance, because the love story somewhat bookends the main character’s personal journey, though it’s in his thoughts fairly pervasively during the time the characters are apart. But I can’t imagine that any romance fan reading this is going to clutch their pearls that I have mis-filed a Jane Austen adaptation by including it in a post about romance novels.

Elliott Dashwood ended up caring for his terminally ill father instead of college. When his father dies, his family is ejected from their East Coast home… somewhat more dramatically than he’d hoped, after he’s caught in flagrante with Ned Ferrars. The Dashwoods move to California and start rebuilding their lives virtually from scratch, so while Elliott can’t stop thinking about Ned, he also knows there’s virtually no chance of anything more. Especially once he finds out the secret Ned kept from him.

What I really appreciated about this book was that it didn’t ask Elliott, who’s always been the responsible one in the family, to “loosen up” and be irresponsible as a way to balance that out. I’ve seen that too often in fiction. But it’s okay to care whether the lights get cut off because someone (his “free-spirited” parents, grr) forgot to pay the bill! The book doesn’t even judge Elliott or act as if he takes on more than he should. It just makes the space for him to realize that even with his role as family caretaker, he should also get to want, and have, something for himself.

Thirsty by Mia Hopkins (Amazon / Goodreads)

The only romance novel I’ve ever read that just about broke my heart with office supplies. I was absolutely captivated by this story of a young man sorting out his life after prison and falling in love with a single mom who’s working to become an accountant. If I made a bullet point list of everything that worked well about it, we’d be here all day, so I’m going to pick three things. First, I loved Sal’s narrative voice. Dry at times, never self-pitying, emotionally raw and honest, just amazing writing here. Second, I respected there were no easy answers to the conflicts Sal faces. Gangs are not full of one-dimensional monsters, and their roles in communities are not simple. This book honors that complexity. Third, the book is deeply compassionate towards the impact that our prison system has on people who end up in it. In this case, Sal develops an anxiety disorder and self-harms due to the discord between prison life and outside life. Hopkins pulls off that compassion without letting anyone off the hook for committing crimes, especially crimes in which people are hurt or killed.

It’s an amazing read, and my only complaint is that the sequel comes out so far in the future!

Diversity note: Both main characters are Latinx, and Hopkins is a woman of color.

Abroad by Liz Jacobs (Amazon / Goodreads)

What can I say about this amazing duology? The basic description was enough to pull me in: Nick, a closeted gay college student with anxiety, who was born Jewish in Russia before emigrating to the U.S., studies history abroad in London and falls for Dex, a black British engineering major. What I didn’t realize when I started is there’s a second plot interwoven with this, in which their female friend, film student Izzy, has her own POV and moves from believing she’s straight to accepting her bisexuality, and finally finds love too.

It leans a bit more literary fiction than most romances I’ve read, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a compassionate and skillful navigation through the social dynamics of friendships, crushes, and relationships among a super-close group of mostly queer college students. Kind of a flashback to my own college years, to be honest, with everyone flailing around and the feelings are SO BIG and SO REAL and things are messy and everything hurts, but also with lovely soaring moments and people supporting each other. Everyone’s really young and has the corresponding coping and relationship skills, but they’re all trying so hard, and I was always rooting for them. SO worthwhile to read, even though both books together is a lot of book. These characters stories wouldn’t have been tell-able in a shorter space, though. And it was so freakin’ refreshing to spend time with this fictional group of friends where gay, bi, trans, and POC is just normal, instead of having a token this or that in a predominantly white, straight, and cis cast.

Shout out to the epilogue, which doesn’t flinch from the realities of inter-continental relationships, but finds a place of happiness for Nick, Dex, and their found family.

Diversity note: Jacobs is a Jewish woman (with a wife, though I don’t know how she identifies) who was born in Russia and emigrated to the U.S. as a refugee when she was a child.

Loose Cannon by Sidney Bell (Amazon / Goodreads)

Sidney Bell is becoming one of my fave M/M authors for super-angsty and suspenseful romance, and this did not disappoint. Miller Quinn was Edgar-Allen Church’s safe haven when Church was a teenager getting into trouble, before he went to a juvenile treatment center for five years. When Church is released, Miller is the only person he can think of who might provide a safe place to crash while Church starts to build a new life for himself. Everyone, including Church and Miller, think it’s probably a bad idea for them to live together, though, because before Church went away? They’d fought after anger-management-problems Church made a pass at Miller. Miller’s denial of who he is couldn’t take the stress. So yeah. Living together. Great idea. Of course they do it anyway.

What’s even more complicated is that the job Church secures tangles him up with criminals, the exact kind of people he absolutely must avoid! So while Church and Miller are fumbling through this will-they-can-Miller-admit-it dance, the tension is rising with how Church is going to extricate himself from very bad danger without wrecking his chance to figure out who he wants to be.

Bell’s trademarks so far, IMHO, are super-distinctive characters, main characters motivated by deep pain but also deep loyalty, and significant grittiness. If you dig that, try this out. The secondary characters who will star in the second and third books are fantastic, and so is the main antagonist.

Diversity note: Church is half Puerto Rican.

The Shape of My Heart by Ann Aguirre (Amazon / Goodreads)

I loved so many things about this book, a friends-to-lovers new adult romance between roommates Courtney, a purple-haired bi girl from a wealthy Jewish family, and Max, a formerly homeless mechanic working his way through college. The banter between these two is amazingly funny. Found family is one of my favorite tropes, and theirs is lovely and diverse. Courtney and Max fall for each other for all the right reasons, and their reactions to the obstacles that come up seem age-appropriate for college students without being immature. I adored the epilogue, too, which takes place years after the book. Totally satisfying HEA, which is what I read romance for!

The pacing? A little funky. I felt like I was reading a series of novellas about these characters where each had its own arc, rather than one book with its own long arc. The road trip that begins the change in Courtney and Max’s relationship moves along SO fast and has so many punchy / seemingly-climactic emotional moments that I had a hard time getting home from the trip with these two and realizing that I had the rest of their book to read. But the spark between these two and their dialogue is well worth it.

Diversity note: Max’s mother was from Paraguay. Her death in his early childhood means he wasn’t connected to her culture, and we aren’t told whether he thinks of himself as Latino, but his background does affect his experience, at least with Courtney’s family.

Where We Left Off by Roan Parrish (Amazon / Goodreads)

A painful but ultimately hopeful gay romance between college student Leo Ware and older graphic designer Will Highland. It breaks apart the romance novel trope where one character wants blissful platonic monogamous love and the other insists they don’t, but secretly they do, by making Leo the romantic and Will the guy who actually doesn’t want the fairy tale. Leo is infinitely smitten with Will, and Will cares for Leo a great deal, but these two are in completely different headspaces about love and romance.

Parrish is unrelenting with how much hurt she’s willing to let these characters go through as their desires continually smash into each other, but it’s beautiful in its brutal honesty that you can’t just assume everyone sees the world as you do. The romance reader is conditioned to see Leo as “right,” but Parrish does an amazing job showing Will’s emotions and perspective even without his POV. His life is heavily influenced by his past, but he’s not broken or cruel, he’s just very different from Will.

Recommended if you want something different from the usual love story and you’re interested in significant character growth. NOT recommended if you need your main characters to only sleep with each other once they get involved.

Some Part Of Me Is You by Adrienne Marsh (Amazon / Goodreads)

“Alison has been in her brother’s indie rock band, Right Turn, since she was a teenager. Right as she’s about to graduate college and will have to start making real decisions about her future, there comes an offer for them to go on a small tour with pop-country sensation Kristen Nichols, who is looking to make serious changes to her sound and image and believes touring with indie darlings Right Turn will give the new ‘her’ credibility.

Kristen Nichols is the embodiment of everything about the music industry that Ali scoffs at, but she’s offering them an affordable, real tour, and that’s very hard to say no to. Putting up with a pop princess for a summer is a price worth paying–or so Ali thinks before she actually meets Kristen.

‘K-Nic’ does absolutely nothing for her, but Kristen Nichols in person? Yeah, that’s a different story…”

Into the Blue by Pene Henson (Interlude Press / Amazon / Goodreads)

A lovely, gentle, friends-to-lovers surfing romance novel that happens within a found/created family. It’s a really quiet book at times, which was striking and different from many other romance novels I’ve read.

Ollie Birkstrum is a gifted surfer on his last chance to go pro after an injury. Tai Talagi is his gay best friend. They’re both part of a group of roommates that has become a family over the years. When Ollie needs Tai’s continued coaching (and social support, see diversity note below) to make his comeback, Tai puts his life on hold to travel with Ollie. Ollie finds himself wanting more than friendship with Tai, though he’s rarely or never experienced sexual attraction before. (I and some other readers interpret Ollie as demisexual or something similar.) This new development is hella awkward for Tai, who’s devoted like 20% of his waking energy for years to suppressing his crush on Ollie.

The “we’ll just have sex while we’re on the road” decision causes some significant complications, the resolving of which require more honesty than either is used to, and quite frankly they’re both kind of terrible at it. Even when they’re hurting each other, though, it’s within such a context of caring that you’re confident they’re going to work it out. At the end, after watching facet after facet of Tai and Ollie’s lives change and then click together, I had such a feeling of peace.

Diversity notes: (1) Tai is Samoan. To me, Ollie read as either on the autism spectrum or having social anxiety, but it’s never labeled explicitly. (2) Henson is a queer woman.

Playing to Win (and its sequel Playing Dead) by Avery Cockburn (Amazon / Goodreads)

An opposites attract M/M Scottish football (soccer) romance novel that I now love, but didn’t finish the first time I tried reading it! On first read I loved Colin MacDuff, the grumpy, activist footballer from the slums of Glasgow whose family survives due to government assistance. But I hated conservative, judgmental, wealthy Lord Andrew Sutherland with a fiery passion. I didn’t know writer Avery Cockburn well enough to trust her to bring Andrew around, I just couldn’t get past his ignorant anti-welfare opinions and general privileged ignorance about Colin’s life.

Lucky for me, I tried again, because Cockburn was in fact setting the stage for Andrew to grow.

Set during the referendum for Scottish independence, another political issue that divides Colin (pro) and Andrew (anti), this is an intensely political book, and I love it for that. I also love how she takes two men who are gunshy about making themselves vulnerable beyond sexytimes and finds authentic ways for them to open up emotionally to each other. It’s complicated, messy, and not always comfortable, but that was true to the characters.

The sequel novella, Playing Dead, is about Andrew dealing with the fallout from some difficult events in Playing to Win, and I adored it too.

I liked the first book in this series, Glasgow Lads series, it was fine, and the third one was also good (I trusted Cockburn to bring her gay character who didn’t believe in bisexuality to a place where I didn’t want to smack him on the back of the head). But so far Playing to Win is the series standout IMHO. Any full-length novel in the series can be read as a standalone, but the #2.5 and #3.5 novellas wouldn’t make much sense out of context.

Dead Ringer by Heidi Belleau and Sam Schooler (out of print as of August 2019, I’ll update this when it’s republished / Goodreads)

A seriously emotional new adult romance between two young men, with the most transformative character arcs I’ve possibly ever seen in a romance novel.

Brandon Ringer, 19, looks almost exactly like his late grandfather, famous actor James Ringer, who died at age 21. (Think James Dean.) Broke, he joins an escort agency that supplies celebrity look-alikes. Percy Charles, 21, is a wealthy James Ringer superfan who lives in his parents’ home, socially isolated due to how his family handles his significant medical needs from juvenile idiopathic arthritis (spoiler = by treating him like a child, and sometimes abusively).

The characters don’t even meet until 30% of the way through the book, because Belleau and Schooler spend so much time establishing the characters in rich detail and starting their journeys. Brandon, grieving, insecure, and resentful, gets his first taste of wanting to do well at a job and having colleagues who actually care about him. Percy, frustrated with his isolation, connects with his first real friend and takes her encouragement to start rebelling against his parents and hired caregiver.

By the time Percy hires Brandon, hoping to meet someone who loves James Ringer as much as he does, it’s clear they each have something important to give the other. But yay, their growing relationship supports the work they’re already doing rather than acting as a magic wand to fix everything. Their (awesome!) friends become even more important, too, which I loved, because both of these guys have been lonely too long! As a final treat, Brandon and Percy also uncover some Ringer family secrets that help Brandon start healing.

This can be a tough read, including assault during sex work, abuse by a caregiver, slurs, blackmail, and plenty of not-yet-healed scars from Brandon’s homophobic parents. If you don’t need to skip it for those reasons, though, it’s SO worth reading! Cute boys, classic films, queer history, friends who’ll break you out of jail, sex work positivity, and figuring out who you want to be.

Diversity Note: Belleau is bi. Schooler is queer and nonibinary.

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And that’s the list of my favorite new adult romance novels! Hope you found something interesting. If you have any reading suggestions, let me know, and as always, if you found this post helpful, please share it!