Disability-Themed Romance Novels

September 19, 2014 Reading Guide 12

A few years ago, I did this post as an “If You Like…” over on Dear Author. Sadly, I don’t have any new books to add beyond a single, heavily-caveated rec for Sweet Annie but I thought I’d repost this with a few minor changes for anyone who hasn’t seen it before.

Over the past few years I’ve read dozens of romances where one or both of the protagonists lives with some sort of disability. Unfortunately, I’ve found that most books are downright offensive in their portrayals of disability. Of all the books I’ve read, these are the only ones I’d recommend.

Heroes with Disabilities

Flowers From the Storm – Laura Kinsale

Book cover for Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale. A tree in the foreground with a large country home in the distance and a sky that's bluish-purple.

This is a bit of a cheap place to start, I admit. First of all, recommending this book is like recommending Nora Roberts, unless you live under a rock, chances are that you’ve read this already. Secondly, it deals with a temporary disability, although the hero never quite shakes off all the effects of his stroke. That said, I love this book’s take on dealing with a neurological disability. The parts of the book written from the hero’s POV are as clever as they are insightful, and pull the reader into his frustration and confusion with him. Where I think the book excels, though, is in how the hero never loses his dignity. He rages in frustration at others’ patronizing treatment of him, but retains his pride throughout. The heroine doesn’t save him, she provides the means for him to save himself. Few books with disabled characters manage to do this, and I appreciated it.

Simple Jess – Pamela Morsi

Book cover for Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi. It has the author's name and book title in white in a curlicued font on a blue, purple and pink background along with different kinds of tree leaves. Very 90s looking.

Deprived of oxygen at birth when the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, the hero, Jess, lives with an intellectual disability, hence the nickname “Simple Jess.” Set in the early 20th c. Ozarks, this book manages one of my favorite portrayals of disability in romance. Jess is never used as a morality yardstick – you have no idea how many books separate the protagonists from the villains based on how they treat the disabled character – and is never the object of pity. He’s a dignified man who goes through life to the best of his ability. He sees how other people treat him, but never internalizes their patronization. For her part, the heroine never treats Jess any differently than she would treat anyone else. She doesn’t do Jess a favor by hooking up with him, she’s just drawn to the man who makes her a happy woman. It’s a great book full of wonderful characters.

The Write Man for Her – Christie Walker Bos

Cover for The Write Man for Her by Christie Walker Bos. A parakeet sits on a red bra sitting next to a peanut butter jar with a post-it note on it.

A commenter on Dear Author pointed me towards this one when I whined about how books make disability out to be a dreary, angst-ridden existence, and I really enjoyed it. While not flawless – it does feature a number of disability-theme cliches like his ex leaving him because of his injury, the presence of wheelchair sports and “normal” sex – I liked how the hero is just a man in a wheelchair. He’s an English professor, a basketball player, a good cook, and a handsome dude, leaving “wheelchair-user” and “paraplegic” refreshingly low on the character-definition totem pole. The heroine’s his student (It’s a non-degree, online course. They’re both divorcees and about the same age.) and sets out to make a move on “Professor Hottie” before she even knows he’s a wheelchair-user. It’s just a romance between two people, one of whom just so happens to sit in a chair.

Lord Carew’s Bride – Mary Balogh

Cover for Lord Carew's Bride by Mary Balogh.  An older Signet regency with a  painted cover featuring a smiling white woman in a white wedding gown and veil on the arm of a white man in a black tuxedo.

Although the author clearly uses the hero’s disability – a limp and diminished dexterity in one hand – for a blatant “seeing beneath the surface” allegory, the lack of angst over his body or sense that the heroine is doing the hero a favor by digging him saves the book for me. It’s such a cute story about two people finding the best friend they didn’t know they had that I’ll forgive Balogh the ham-fisted appropriation. Despite her best efforts, it’s not actually a story about ignoring someone’s “flaws.” (Balogh also wrote another disabled character that I really liked in Sydnam Butler, a man who was seriously scarred and lost an eye and an arm while fighting in the Peninsular War. However, I only liked him as a side character in A Summer to Remember. When she made him the hero of Simply Love, she used him to tell an incredibly ableist story of living with a disability. It was a waste of a great character and a squandered opportunity.)

A Man Like Mac – Fay Robinson

Book cover for A Man Like Mac by Fay Robinson. A Superromance with a painted cover. A white woman with short blond hair and a white man with short brown hair sit and snuggle by a fireplace.

Oh I loved this one! An Olympic-level distance runner comes back to her college running coach for help rehabbing after an accident. He’s seen the medical reports and knows she has no chance of competing again, but agrees to help figuring he’s in a unique position to help someone adjust to a life changed by injury. Mac’s just a great character. He’s perfectly adjusted to his paraplegia, continues with his career in college athletics, has meaningful friendships (lord save me from sad, disabled loners in romance) and is just your typical straight man. He’s not some sad wretch the heroine deigns to love, he’s her salvation. It’s out of print and not in ebook, but Amazon has a ton of used copies for cheap. Totally worth tracking down. (Apparently you can borrow the ebook from Open Library. H/T to Kaetrin.)

Heroines with Disabilities

These stories are the hardest to find. A heroine with a disability almost invariably is a sad, helpless martyr thrown into a story merely as fodder for the caretaker alpha sort of story. It’s not an accident that all of these recs are books I still have reservations about.

Out of the Blue – Sally Mandel

Book cover for Out of the Blue by Sally Mandel . A landscape view of Manhattan from the lake in Central Park.

This one’s not really a romance novel so much as a novel with a romance. It’s the story of the heroine finally coming to terms with a diagnosis of MS. It’s told in the first person and follows the heroine going through life as a 28-year old private school teacher in New York five years after her diagnosis. When she meets a man who makes his interest in her known, the life she thought she was comfortable with starts to confuse her. It’s an interesting look at someone finally accepting that she needs the help loved ones offer, but the martyrish “I don’t want to be a burden” theme really grated on me. It definitely buys into the idea that being loved by non-disabled people is the key to a disabled person’s happiness, but she makes peace with herself and her body on her own before going back to the hero, so it’s not a total wash. Her foul-mouthed mother was a delightful character. (The ebook is $.99 right now at Amazon.)

Samantha’s Cowboy – Marin Thomas

Book cover for Samantha's Cowboy by Marin Thomas. A Harlequin American Romance with a white man wearing jeans, a tan tank top and a cowboy hat holding a steel shovel while leaning in to kiss a white woman in jeans and white tank top who holds a cowboy hat in her hands.

This one’s complicated to rec. The heroine deals with nightmares and memory problems after head trauma incurred as a teenager. Her wealthy family has provided for her every need, but as a 32 year-old woman she’s desperate to break out on her own and live the independent life she knows she’s capable of. She’s a great character with a wonderfully healthy outlook. She’s aware of her limits but is prepared to work around them. She’s sick of being treated like a child by well-meaning friends and family and is ready to put in the work to prove to herself and others that she can run her own life. Unfortunately, she’s a great character trapped in a mediocre book. It has a wicked case of series-itis, an overly precocious child character and a flimsy deception-based conflict that goes on a bit too long. I can recommend it for the heroine, but the book’s nothing special.

Sweet Annie – Cheryl St.John

Book cover for Sweet Annie by Cheryl St.John. A painted Harlequin Historical cover with a white man in overalls and a white woman in a yellow gown sit by a riverbank.

This book had a really great disabled heroine until the author pissed away all the goodwill in the last quarter of the book. It had been a story of a disabled woman breaking out of her shell and demanding people see her as the fully-actualized woman she was. It was a lovely story of two people who left lasting impressions on each other as children falling in love many years later as adults. Annie, who limped so badly she used a wheelchair, decides she’s had enough of her parents speaking for her and treating her like spun glass as though she can’t speak for herself. Luke was patient, determined and kind as he encouraged Annie to live life on her own terms. Both laughed, loved and enjoyed life just a little bit more in each other’s presence. It was all wonderful, until the book’s “dark moment” involved lightning injuring Annie and her deciding that meant she was bringing Luke low and just nope and goddamn it.

What a Scoundrel Wants – Carrie Lofty

Book cover for What a Scoundrel Wants by Carrie Lofty. A shirtless white man viewed from waist to just below the eyes with a forest as background.

This is one of the strongest portrayals of a disabled heroine I’ve read so far. The blind heroine in the novel is not only not helpless, she’s a talented chemist with a penchant for explosives. The hero is Will Scarlet and this medieval-ish Robin Hood retelling is a fun sort of swashbuckling read. It does have the heroine rape the hero and a bit of an info dump problem. I’m also not totally sure it’s a faithful representation of living with blindness. I’d have to re-read it.

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An ice hockey fan from north of Boston and the genre's most beloved troll, Ridley enjoys reading contemporary and historical romance, as well as the odd erotica novel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, she takes a particular interest in disability themes.

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12 Responses to “Disability-Themed Romance Novels”

  1. marjorie

    I too liked What a Scoundrel Wants, with caveats. It is rape-y throughout, and people treat each other really cruelly throughout. But I thought the Robin Hood/Will Scarlet stuff was creative, and the heroine is definitely a badass.

    I just read a new novella with a disabled hero I liked a lot — His Road Home by Anna Richland. Afghanistan vet who has lost his legs and has a traumatic brain injury after being blown up by an IED. The book has a lot of humor without feeling trivializing, and the author’s military background really shows. Hero is Latino, heroine is Korean-American. My longer review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1054858847

  2. Ridley

    @marjorie: Oh, neat! I beta read that Anna Richland book. I should grab the finished copy and see how it worked out.

  3. Ridley

    @cleo: I’m super torn on that one. It’s on my radar, but I haven’t bought it yet. People I think have their head up their ass liked it, which frightens me, but people who I don’t think have their head up their ass liked it too. I don’t know.

  4. cleo

    @Ridley – I read it and mostly liked it – I had a few reservations about it, but I liked it well enough to read the rest of the series in less than a week.

    Based on what I know of your taste from the blog, I think it’s possible you won’t hate it. And there’s a chance you’d like it (because hockey and playing video games as foreplay) – but I really don’t want to oversell it.

    I can’t really judge the portrayal of disability but it seemed to me to avoid a lot of stereotypes. Two things that bugged me is that a couple times the hero thought about how inspiring the heroine was, and during their first sexual encounter, he made it about “helping” her re-discover her sexuality. Ick. The thing that saved it for me is that later, Corey decides she needs to get over him and actively seeks out new friends and activities. And disses him beautifully.

    I thought the class stuff was handled pretty well. The hero’s a poor kid going to an Ivy League school and he has some issues around that – but his family life is good and there’s no Erin McCarthy style poor bashing. It’s set at a fictional Ivy League school (apparently a thinly disguised Yale) so the students are pretty white and privileged.

    As I say, I enjoyed it, despite it’s problems. YMMV. If you do read it, I hope you review it.

  5. cleo

    One more thought – my favorite book of the Ivy Years series is Blonde Date. It’s a fun, sweet novella that’s completely stand alone. You might try that one first to see if you like the author voice and can tolerate the setting before deciding about The Year We Fell Down.

  6. Anna Richland

    Hi Ridley! I just saw this post, weeks late – I don’t know how I missed it.

    I think the copy of His Road Home I sent you as a thank you for beta reading (and you’re thanked in the acknowledgments, too, because you were so helpful) must have gone to your spam folder? Big attachment might have done it – or maybe I had the wrong email – if you haven’t already ordered it, I’d love to send you a final version.

    (And hi Marjorie! I think it was over here at Love in the Margins on a different thread that you were mentioning my other crazy book and I said hi and instead of exchanging phone numbers in a bar I gave you an ARC, because that’s what romance readers do, no? Was it the cover design thread?)

  7. Anna Richland

    If email failure was an Olympic event, I’d make the team too! Glad it was still there, and doubly glad you found my first email last year!

    The changes in His Road Home are pretty subtle – but they were important – pretty much everything you pointed out was a cliche, which I think is a whole topic worth exploring – why do clichés revolve around issues like being whole? – definitely made me think a lot as a writer. Thank you again.

    Back to prep for our local Emerald City Writers’ Conf this weekend (all I want to do is play on the internet…)