CONVERSATION: Enemies to Lovers
Janine: In our conversation about our reading in 2021, the enemies-to-lovers trope came up. I loved some of what you said and thought we could have a wider and deeper conversation about it. Here are some questions to start us off:
Do you enjoy the enemies-to-lovers trope? Why or why not? What are examples of the most successful books with romances between people who begin as enemies? Which enemies-to-lovers books have been least effective for you? Whether you like or dislike enemies to lovers, have you always felt this way about the trope, or was there a time when you felt differently? And how do you feel the trope has evolved over time?
Love it or hate it?
Sirius: I love love love “from enemies to lovers” trope. Of course when I am professing my love of it, this does not mean that I love *any and all* plot twists and characterizations that this trope may include and I rolled my eyes many times when I sought out this trope and read the actual book that used the trope, but in theory yes I love it very much.
I love it first and foremost because to me this trope provides the most believable (if executed to my satisfaction of course) source of internal conflict between two protagonists. If two people do not like each other for whatever reason and through the course of the story they find out that they have something in common and something they can like, respect, love each other for, to me it can be most satisfactory. It is not that I do not like the guys starting as friends, I think in life two people starting as friends may end up in love way more often than enemies, but too often in romance the authors choose some kind of ridiculous misunderstanding to make sure the men just do NOT see that they have feelings for each other. They are blind, stupid or both? Or we can have Oh he is not worthy of me, or I am unworthy of him.
Again, I am only talking about internal conflict which for me works best within the constraints of this trope, external ones are different animals all together and I really don’t pay much attention towards the set up when blurb hints at “Us against the world” type of story.
Janine: I’m also fond of the enemies-to-lovers trope, but it generally works better for me in fantasy, historical or paranormal/UF settings than in contemporary romances. In speculative and historical settings, it’s possible to set a romance against a backdrop of warring countries, societies or worlds. Cultural differences and histories inform the conflict and the stakes are higher. With contemporaries, the reasons frequently don’t justify it. Anyone above the age of nine shouldn’t have an enemy unless they’re in a war zone. I’m most likely to feel this way about romantic comedies—the cuter the enmity is supposed to seem, the more likely it is to be based in a ridiculous reason. You are right, though, Sirius, that when the trope works it can make for amazing internal conflict.
Sirius: Janine, I absolutely agree that in contemporaries the reasoning underneath characters being enemies frequently do not justify it to me. Considering that contemporaries in general are my least favorite romance subgenre, I would agree that in SFF or historical this trope works much better for me as a rule. I do read some, but not nearly as much as I read SFF, or paranormals or historical (well I read very few real historicals this year, but that does not diminish my desire to read some). More often than not in contemporaries I read mysteries with romantic elements, but romantic mysteries is the kind of genre where from friends to lovers actually works for me often enough.
Kaetrin: Regarding enemies to lovers I don’t generally like the trope in contemporaries. As Janine said in SFF or fantasy I think it works well.
Jennie: Enemies to lovers – I am not generally a fan because I associate it with characters acting rather childishly towards each other. This is actually a concept that works better for me if it’s very serious – if there is actually a deep misunderstanding between the h/h that they need to overcome in order to make their relationship work.
Jayne: I don’t have much to add to this conversation as despite the number of them I’ve read in the past, enemies to lovers isn’t one of my favorite tropes. Looking at the number of them I’ve tagged this way, quite a few were books in which the hero and heroine started out on enemy sides (usually due to war) but didn’t feel they were ever actual enemies when they met.
Favorites and Least Favorites
Sirius: Favorite “from friends to enemies” story? Tamara Allen The Only Gold, hands down. The two main characters clash over the seemingly different approach to work and life. They are both passionate about what they do, but they show their passion so very differently. Of course, another reason why the story is a huge favorite (besides being from a favorite writer) is because despite their seemingly different approach to work and life the men have similar values as we find out. They are both good people. They just need to learn about what makes each other tick better and compromise somewhat.
Now, if we would have the story between assassin and a cop falling in love, man the writer would have to work hard to convince me that this story would make some sense.
I also read many good stories from Megan Derr who writes this trope very often. I do hesitate to recommend her stories if copy editing is important to you. Some are better than others in that regard, but the stories (especially her longer stories) are very good if you love the trope.
Janine: A great example of a speculative enemies-to-lovers romance is one of my favorite books of 2021, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri. Malini is the princess of an empire, while Priya is from a country that empire has subjugated for generations. They are brought together when Malini is imprisoned in Priya’s homeland. After accidentally witnessing maidservant Priya using magic that she hides, Malini realizes she can use Priya’s secret to arrange her own escape, and she gets Priya assigned to help guard her. The romance begins with Priya feeling sorry for Malini, who is abused by her keeper, and Malini attempting to further that compassion so that she can escape.
A contemporary enemies-to-lovers story that is the exception to my general rule is Rachel Reid’s Heated Rivalry, which is about NHL players from rival teams. I love the enemies-with-benefits trope because the sex scenes always really matter. In the case of Heated Rivalry, the trope also works because Ilya and Shane are really young when they discover they have incendiary chemistry—barely eighteen. That’s an age when many people take wild risks with sex and other intimacies. Their competitive personalities also help sell it because there’s a one-upsmanship element to the sex.
Kaetrin: Milla Vane’s A Heart of Blood and Ashes is a great example of when it really worked for me. (Note: Many CWs for this one!)
In contemporaries I like rivals to lovers but not enemies to lovers. I’d classify Shane and Ilya from Heated Rivalry as rivals not enemies. Another example where it worked was Ruby Lang’s Open House. The characters each had good reason to be on opposing sides but they were not mean to one another. It was a genuine conflict that made sense in the story.
The difference for me is whether the contemporary characters are just mean and horrible to one another. It’s hard for me to root for a couple if I don’t like them and I dislike meanness. I DNF’d The Hating Game because I did not like the way the characters treated one another at the beginning of the book. I know I’m not alone but I’m certainly in the minority in that opinion – it’s a wildly popular book.
Janine: LOL, the Milla Vane book is a good example of an enemies-to-lovers book that didn’t work for me. Maddek was too angry (even his name starts with “Mad”) and mean.
Sirius: Heated Rivalry worked very well for me too, but funny thing is I did not exactly consider it as example “from enemies to lovers”. I think you very aptly noted that in contemporary one should not have an enemy unless one is in the war zone. To me Ilya and Shane were ferocious competitors, fighters, but I would not consider them enemies. I would consider them rivals. As I am typing this, I wonder if *softer* varieties of this trope actually do work better for me in contemporaries. In other words, when we have *people who do not like each other*, people who compete with each other, eventually getting past that and falling in love, maybe that does work better for me, of course if written well. Maybe if they start being less of real enemies, but just people who dislike each other, maybe in contemporaries it is easier for me to buy the transformation.
On the third hand, one of the softer varieties of this trope to me is people who just like to bicker and yes, that happens in romantic comedies and it can be SO SILLY.
Janine: I’m not usually into the rivals-to-lovers trope in romantic comedies either. I don’t want to read a You’ve Got Mail type romantic comedy where he opens a chain bookstore across from her independent bookshop. Those just make me want to say “Grow up, you’re not in third grade anymore.”
You and Kaetrin are right, though, I misspoke in calling Heated Rivalry an enemies-to-lovers book. It isn’t, but I do consider it an enemies-with-benefits book–that’s when the lovers start out disliking each other or there’s a difficult history they haven’t gotten over, but they still periodically meet in secret for sex because the chemistry is just that good.
Alisha Rai has a book like that as well, Hate to Want You. There’s an enmity between Nicholas and Livvy’s families. Nicholas and Livvy were young and dating when it first arose; it split them up and ten years later they still haven’t gotten over the fallout. But they meet once a year on Livvy’s birthday, each time in a different city, and spend the night together. Livvy texts Nicholas her GPS coordinates and he drops his work and meets her there for one hot night. Then they go their separate ways and don’t communicate again until their yearly date the following year. When the book starts more than a year has passed since their last meeting but Livvy didn’t text Nicholas, and now she moves back to their hometown.
I loved that book; it’s a star-crossed lovers story because even when they admitted their feelings, they still faced the obstacle of the tension between the families (the two families aspect made the book a touch soapy, though). Something similar happens with Ilya and Shane–when they realize there’s more than sex there, there are still the tension between their rival teams and the obstacle of being queer and in the NHL. When the enmity is between the characters’ groups (countries, races, packs, teams, etc.) it presents an external conflict and not just an internal one.
Layla: I like the enemies to lovers trope (like all others!) when properly done. My favourite enemies to lovers book are not so much enemies— I don’t like it when the protagonists have good reason to dislike each other and [I] don’t believe that certain obstacles can be overcome for example bullying— but more misunderstandings where one person appears cold or unknowable to the other. The classic best book I can think of is Pride and Prejudice of course!!! Also North and South.
Janine: My idea of what kind of enemies-to-lovers books I want to read has changed over the years. When I was young, I liked books that are a lot more problematic than I would enjoy today. For example, Johanna Lindsey’s historical romance A Gentle Feuding, which was about a couple from enemy Scottish clans. It probably *was* gentle for its time (and for its author at the time) but it had the “sex while sleeping” trope and today my feelings about that aren’t what they were then. Many enemies-to-lovers historicals were even worse—I’m thinking of Rebecca Brandewyne’s Forever, My Love and Christine Monson’s Stormfire. Authors could put their heroines through things that most of today’s readers wouldn’t want to read, and the heroes were often the vehicles for all that suffering. A backdrop of warring families or clans was frequently part of the package.
Jayne: I will admit that back in the day, I read and enjoyed Lady Gallant by Suzanne Robinson. I’m middle aged now and a lot less willing to put up with the shit that was used in “enemies to lovers” especially in historical books. But I definitely feel that the real-world issues of the past few years have also played a part.
It’s time to turn the discussion over to you, readers. Do you generally like or dislike the enemies-to-lovers trope? What are your recommendations and your most frustrating reads within the trope? How do you feel about the trope’s evolution and have your feelings about it also evolved?