Forbidden romances in contemporary YA
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Star-crossed lovers or the forbidden romance trope is always a big draw for me as a romance reader – who doesn’t love all that angst of characters who should be together but are separated for Some Big Reason? I also enjoy this trope because while lover-enemies are great, the obstacles of forbidden romance or star-crossed lovers go beyond the personal dynamic between your protagonist and your love interest and usually involve greater reasons for which they shouldn’t – or can’t! – be together. This could be due to family feuds, cultural expectations, or circumstances in the world that put your characters at odds. Being together is often forbidden and frowned upon by other people in their lives, and finding a way to be together is a challenge for the characters.
The biggest inspiration behind this forbidden romance trope is obviously the play Romeo and Juliet, which…spoiler alert, is not a romance. (At least not a romance in terms of how we understand the genre today, which requires a happy ending forever or a happy ending for now.) I decided to focus on contemporary YA books with this trope but which have a happy ending for our couples (the so popular book Frankly in Love by David Yoon is unfortunately out). These picks deal with everything from family secrets to conflicting businesses, from misguided promises to school-wide rivalries. Prepare for all the feelings of angst, secret relationships and introspective journeys!
A Pho Love Story by Loan Le
Bao Nguyen and Linh Mai are the children of two warring Vietnamese families who own competing pho restaurants. Bad and Linh each have their own dreams and responsibilities in their families, and while they’ve always been aware of each other’s existence, they’ve never really interacted. Until a chance encounter brings them together and sparks fly. They know their romance won’t be celebrated, so they decide to dig in and get to the bottom of the feud to finally learn once and for all why their families have long been at odds.
Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan
Jubilee is a cellist with clear goals, but she also spends time working at her mother-in-law’s indie comic book shop. Ridley is lost among his parents’ heavy expectations, one of which is to ensure the success of their chain of comic book stores. When the two meet at a convention, they can’t help but fall in love with each other, even though their parents would be horrified. As Jubilee and Ridley’s relationship deepens, they begin to wonder if their love can withstand the weight of their combined external pressures. This non-tragic stance Romeo and Juliet tackles anxiety and mental health in a smart and sensitive way.
You Can Go Your Own Way by Eric Smith
Adam Stillwater tries to save his late father’s beloved pinball hall in Philadelphia. But with a new tech mogul’s chain of gaming cafes taking over the neighborhood, things don’t go well. Whitney Mitchell works for her father’s company, mostly handling social media and waging a merry war with the account owned by an old arcade across town. But when Adam and Whitney get caught in a snowstorm and trapped in the arcade overnight, they learn there’s more to each other than meets the eye. But can their only night of understanding and their budding relationship withstand the cold light of day.
XOXO by Axie Oh
Jenny is an aspiring professional cellist and normally has no problem concentrating on her work. But when she makes the impulsive decision to spend an evening with Jaewoo, a dreamy boy visiting Los Angeles, they have a perfect night before Jaewoo flies off to Korea. Just as well. Except…Jenny and her mother unexpectedly move to Korea to take care of her grandmother, and when Jenny shows up at school, who does she find? Jaewoo. Only it turns out he’s one of K-pop’s biggest stars and he is under strict orders from his label not to date. Jenny doesn’t want anything to derail her dreams, or Jaewoo’s. But their feelings for each other aren’t fading anytime soon.
Autoboyography of Christina Lauren
Tanner is a bisexual teenager from California, but when his family moved to Utah, he stayed in the closet for high school — it just seemed easier and safer. Now he’s about to graduate and be free, but first he has one last semester left…and a prestigious seminary course to take. In this seminar, students write a book in four months. Tanner isn’t worried about the workload, but he’s surprised by the presence of Sebastian Brother, a recently graduated former student who sold his own seminar book and now mentors the class. It doesn’t take long for Tanner to fall in love with Sebastian…and Sebastian might even feel the same way. But Sebastian is a Mormon and he doesn’t know how to reconcile his religion and family beliefs with his feelings.
The Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks
Long before Miriam was born, her grandfather was the creator of the TomorrowMen comic books, which have since become a successful franchise. But unfortunately for Miriam’s family, they never saw a penny of revenue because her grandfather was defrauded into giving up his rights to the show. Now the family is struggling to get by and Miriam doesn’t know how to build a future. When a cute new boy comes to town, Miriam can’t help but fall in love with him. Except he’s the son of the family who currently owns the rights to TomorrowMen and cheated on his grandfather all those years ago. How to find happiness together?
Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruits by Jaye Robin Brown
Joanna is the proud daughter of a preacher, but when he remarries and they move from Atlanta to small town Georgia, her dad asks her to calm down the gay, for a smooth transition to a new community of church and in the family of his new mother-in-law. Joanna accepts because she loves her father but she quickly realizes how impossible this situation is when she meets Mary Carlson at school. She’s sweet and kind and funny and perfect…and probably straight too. But that doesn’t matter because everyone thinks Joanna is straight too. Except that the more time Joanna spends with Mary Carlson, the harder she finds it to keep her feelings hidden and the more frustrated she becomes with her father’s demand and the apparent narrow-mindedness of the new community.
Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett
Zorie and Lennon were best friends. Then lovers. And now they are enemies, and their families are in a feud to compete with the Montagues and the Capulets. But when the two go on a group camping adventure that goes south and they find themselves stranded together in the desert, they discover that their insults and beatings won’t keep them alive – they have to work together. And as they rely on each other to pull through, they begin to wonder what things might look like if they survive this mess.
Our capricious destiny by Gloria Chao
Ali Chu is a Taiwanese American teenager living in the middle of nowhere in Indiana, where her family is the only Asian family in town. She has a habit of ignoring the racism she encounters on a daily basis, until Chase Yu shows up. He’s also Taiwanese, and he challenges Ali not to just accept the mistreatment. They begin to fall in love with each other, and Ali thinks his mother will be happy that she’s literally dating the only other Taiwanese boy for miles…but that’s not the case. She forces Ali to end the relationship, sparking Ali’s journey to find out why his mother is so opposed to Chase and what other secrets his mother might be hiding.
Home court advantage by Dahlia Adler
Amber is determined to become captain of the cheer squad, but she has her work cut out when the football team’s QB is tragically killed in a car accident. He’s replaced by a newcomer who infuriates the whole school not only by being better than their previous QB…but by being a girl. Jack (for Jaclyn) is everyone’s enemy number one, and Amber realizes that to become cheer captain, you have to help everyone defeat Jack. But Amber and Jack fall in love with each other, which means that at some point Amber has to choose what’s most important to her.
Want more great YA romance featuring your favorite tropes? Check out our roundup of the best second-chance YA romance!