New readers are flocking to the romance genre in droves (welcome, friends!). As a relative latecomer to the genre myself, having started reading the genre at the decrepit age of 22, I’ve been diving into the backlogs and catching up on the series that Romancelandia recommends again and again.
Even a cursory search of romance recommendations makes it clear that Lisa Kleypas’ Wallflower quartet, published between 2004 and 2006, has attained classic status. It begins in the relatively rare setting of early Victorian England, with gorgeous but tragically poor Annabelle, shy and stuttering Evie, and scandalous American heiresses Lillian and Daisy all seated at the back of the ballroom per usual. When they finally break the ice and actually talk to each other, they end up making a pact to band together and help each other find husbands.
With its emphasis on female friendship, gorgeous settings and vivid detail (the food descriptions alone make these books worth the read), the Wallflowers series is a fantastic intro to the pleasures of historical romance.
Secrets of a Summer Night
The Couple: Dashing, confident industrialist Simon Hunt and lovely, demure Annabelle Peyton.
The Plot: Annabelle needs to capitalize on her good looks and name to save her family from destitution. But her most consistent admirer is Simon, a rich upstart businessman who’s wanted Annabelle for years—but as his mistress, not his wife. Annabelle and her friends team up to find her a man at a house party, where she begins to discover that there’s more to Simon than arrogance and good looks.
The Tropes: Alpha Male, Cross-Class Romance, House Party (where a bunch of aristocrats and other rich people go to a country estate and hang out for weeks at a time, creating a perfect setting for drama and scandal)
The Vibe: If you have never read a romance novel before, Secrets of a Summer Night would cover almost all of the traditional bases. That sounds like a dig, but trust me when I say that Kleypas does it in the best way possible. It’s like the best margherita pizza you’ve ever had—not reinventing the wheel by any means, but a dependable, lovingly crafted comfort all the same. It’s unfailingly witty, consistently charming and finds the emotional heart of Simon and Annabelle, two characters who could have been boring archetypes.
Read it if you like: Jane Austen adaptations, North & South (but you wish there were more ballroom and less factory scenes).
Best snack to pair it with: A big bowl of ice cream.
Supporting character that steals the show: All of the other Wallflowers make a strong showing, but snarky Lillian Bowman gets all the best lines.
It Happened One Autumn
The Couple: Opinionated, take-no-prisoners American heiress Lillian Bowman and the very proper, also very opinionated Marcus Marsden, Lord Westcliff.
The Plot: It’s another house party at Stony Cross Park, and Lillian and Marcus are fighting. Again. But this time, the fight ends in a fantastic and unexpected kiss, leaving both parties very confused (and very horny). They may be attracted to each other, but is it possible for such different people to be happy together?
The Tropes: Enemies to Lovers, Alpha/Alpha, Grumpy Hero, That Shocking American Girl!, House Party
The Vibe: A true Alpha male and Alpha woman romance is a joy to behold, and the snappy, sarcastic banter of Marcus and Lillian contains some of Kleypas’ best dialogue ever. This is my pick for the funniest Wallflower, and much of the humor comes from the ways Marcus and Lillian throw each other off their game, alternatively bringing out the best and worst in each other (mainly because they want to bang each other into next Tuesday). It’s hard to take a couple that argues this ferociously and develop them to the point that they feel realistic as a long-term couple, but It Happened One Autumn rings true every step of the way.
Read it if you like: Classic screwball comedies (especially those starring Katharine Hepburn), the scenes from When Harry Met Sally when they hate each other, being right when other people are wrong.
Best snack to pair it with: A surprisingly substantial charcuterie board (with pears or some pear brandy . . . you’ll understand once you read it).
Supporting character that steals the show: This one is easy: the clever, amoral Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. A truly delectable, wickedly charming villain.
Devil in Winter
The Couple: Sweetheart wallflower Evangeline “Evie” Jenner and the baddest rake that ever did rake, Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent.
The Plot: Evie needs to marry to escape her horrible, abusive relatives, claim her fortune and be able to see her father before he dies. Sebastian needs a rich wife to fill up the empty family coffers. They run off to Gretna Green to elope, shocking all their friends, but Evie declares that she has no intention of sharing her bed with Sebastian after consummating the marriage. He initially thinks that this will not be a problem for him. He is very wrong.
The Tropes: Reformed Rake, Rake/Wallflower, Marriage of Convenience
The Vibe: An angsty fairy tale, Devil in Winter combines elements of both Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast in a tale of a selfish man who learns to love and a shy wallflower discovering her own inner strength. Though Sebastian's snarky asides provide some humor, this is easily the most serious Wallflower romance. Evie is dealing with not only the lingering effects of her relatives’ abuse, but her father’s imminent death. And Sebastian has an entire life’s worth of bad choices and loneliness to reckon with. If you can get past Sebastian’s earlier actions in the series (link is a spoiler!), the payoff is really spectacular. There’s a reason that this book has been firmly placed in the top tier of romance novels.
Read it if you like: Brooding paranormal romances but you wish the heroines had a bit more personality, Gothic classics like Jane Eyre and Rebecca, watching bad men get their karmic comeuppance.
Best snack to pair it with: A hot toddy and perhaps some chocolate, enjoyed under a cozy blanket.
Supporting character that steals the show: The incredibly handsome and very competent Cam Rohan, who works at Evie’s father’s gambling club and is something of a surrogate brother to her.
Scandal in Spring
The Couple: Dreamy, charming Daisy Bowman and Matthew Swift, her father’s protégé, a man whom Daisy hates.
The Plot: Finally fed up with Daisy’s inability to nail down a boring aristocrat, Papa Bowman declares that if she doesn’t find a husband, he’ll pick one for her. And Daisy is sure he'll choose his boring, sycophantic underling, Matthew Swift. But when Matthew shows up, he’s become so attractive she almost doesn’t recognize him. And as soon as the reader gets a chapter from Matthew perspective, one thing becomes very clear—he is head-over-heels in love with Daisy, has been since he met her and his standoffish behavior is just his increasingly desperate attempt to not go after his boss’ daughter.
The Tropes: Unrequited Love, That Shocking American Girl!, the Glow Up, House Party
The Vibe: As befits a spring-themed book, Scandal is the lightest and fluffiest of the Wallflower series. A lot of that is due to Daisy, who is a total delight. Her good-natured, romantic perspective is a lovely place to spend over half a book, and Matthew rightfully worships the ground she walks on. And if alpha males aren’t your thing, Scandal is the book for you—Matthew is a fascinating hero, with a very appealing combination of ruthless practicality and a nearly uncontrollable love and admiration for Daisy. Things get a bit serious near the end, but for the most part this is a sprightly little romp of a book.
Read it if you like: 1990s rom-coms, Manic Pixie Dream Girls but wished they were more dynamic characters, pining, frothy period pieces.
Best snack to pair it with: A bowl of strawberries, especially if you have champagne handy.
Supporting character that steals the show: Marcus, Lord Westcliff. Yes, I know he was a hero of a previous book, but Marcus’ more mellow, caring side is on full display in Scandal and his concern and love for his sister-in-law is all kinds of adorable.
Again the Magic is a prequel to the series, and tells the love stories of Marcus’ younger sisters, Aline and Livia. And Kleypas released a Christmas novel, A Wallflower Christmas, in 2008 (I am happily saving it for my own seasonal reading this year).
Because romance authors were doing extended universes before the MCU was even a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, three of Kleypas' other historical series have connections to the Wallflowers books. There are a fair amount of references to fan favorite hero Derek Craven and Kleypas’ earlier series, The Gamblers of Craven’s. Enigmatic Devil in Winter scene-stealer Cam Rohan is the hero of the first book of the Hathaways series, Mine Till Midnight. And the Ravenels series, which jumps a generation forward in time to the 1870s, features the children of Evie and Sebastian in two books—Devil in Spring and Devil’s Daughter.
Among his many dastardly acts, Sebastian kidnaps Lillian Bowman at the end of It Happened One Autumn and threatens to force a marriage by raping her. He later asserts that it was an empty threat, but if this is a dealbreaker for you (it ultimately was for me), you may want to skip Devil in Winter.