Sarah MacLean’s Regency romance novels transport readers to what some might call “Bridgerton”-era England, an early-1800s world in which rogues make high stakes bets in London clubs and ladies defy expectations through adventures that often bring them love.
Most of the author’s heroes, pursued by MacLean’s strong heroines, are strapping Brits. Some are born with titles, while others fight their way up from the gritty streets.
But there is a standout in her cast of characters, one American man who’s become a fan favorite.
He’s from Boston. His name is Caleb Calhoun. In a very fictional world, he is also the owner of the Bell in Hand. He’s the object of desire of one feisty Sesily Talbot.
“Caleb has been in Boston since he was a teenager,” an excited MacLean explained during an interview in Boston in June. “He started working, as a boy [in Boston], and by the time he’s a grown man, he owns eleven taverns between Baltimore and here, including the Bell in Hand, which is a slight ... historical … [laughing] I took a bit of liberty.”
Caleb and Sesily’s romance has been a slow burn in MacLean’s other books. A year ago, one frustrated fan on the website GoodReads asked, of Sesily and Caleb, “Is there already a book about them that I’ve missed or will there be? Hope to hear about this soon, anyone have info?”
On Tuesday, the wait is over. The London-based book is called “Bombshell,” and it launches MacLean’s latest series, “Hell’s Belles.”
It’s the fifth series, and the 15th full-length book for MacLean, a Lincoln, R.I.-bred, Smith College graduate. In the Regency romance world, MacLean is a star like Julia Quinn of “Bridgerton” fame (the two are also friends). But she’s also a romance fan and ambassador, who boosts other authors, cohosts a romance podcast, and has long been as happy to read as she is to write.
“I’ve been a romance reader since long before I was supposed to be a romance reader,” she said. “I have an older sister who is 10 years older than me, and when she went off to college, under her bed … there were hundreds of romances under there.”
MacLean’s fascination with romance novels continued at Smith.
“I lived in Lamont House, and there was a romance novel collection that was kept at the house,” she said. “And the coolest thing about that collection was ... the marginalia from a bunch of Smith students. There was a real lens of feminism that was established in these books ... because the heroine — obviously I’m talking about cisgender, heterosexual romance — but the heroine is the hero of the story. She triumphs. She finds someone who wants equity with her.”
Later, after graduating in 2000 and moving to New York, MacLean was working for a boutique PR firm when a friend floated the idea of writing her own book.
“‘Twilight’ had just come out,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I could do this.’” During a night out, a friend dared her to try. “I had had just enough alcohol, but it seemed like a good idea. And I went home that night, and I wrote the first chapter of what would become ‘The Season,’” a young adult book published by Scholastic.
But there was something missing for MacLean, despite her publishing success.
“I wanted to write the naughty bits. I wanted to write the full gamut of the romance. And that is something that only comes when you start writing adult romance. Because that was where my heart was from the beginning.”
Her first adult romance release was 2010′s “Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake.” MacLean’s sister, Chiara Trabucchi — who works in finance and economics as a principal at Industrial Economics in Cambridge — said it’s still her favorite book.
“Maybe because it’s her first,” she said. “It’s the book.”
Subsequent books, including those in MacLean’s recent series, “The Bareknuckle Bastards,” all focus on a woman seeking pleasure, often in defiance of norms, and a man who must allow himself to be vulnerable to love.
MacLean, who lives in New York with her husband and daughter, has a theory about Regency romance authors and how they approach their happy endings.
“When I think about romance, and this is probably deep in the weeds, it’s like a family tree, right? It feels like the DNA like some of us come off the [Jane] Austen branch, and some of us come off the Brontë branch. Many of us who I would sort of put on an Austen branch — that sort of sparkling conversational ballroom historical. I think I probably come off the Brontë branch.”
This is the kind of expertise she offers on her podcast, “Fated Mates,” which she hosts with Jen Prokop. MacLean and Prokop met on Twitter and bonded over a shared love of “Immortals After Dark,” a paranormal romance series by Kresley Cole. Their podcast now highlights all kinds of romance novels. They even discussed the hit Apple show “Ted Lasso” in a recent episode. Prokop said MacLean is a natural ambassador for an often “maligned” genre that has long deserved more respect.
Prokop also said that as people continue to find MacLean’s books (not surprisingly, many Regency authors experienced a “Bridgerton” boost), she uses that voice to highlight newer authors and voices.
Adriana Herrera, author of the “Dreamer Series,” said she met MacLean when she was still looking for an agent. MacLean quickly became an enthusiastic friend and supporter.
“I’m a Black Latina. I write queer romance, and I’m not the only BIPOC author that Sarah really intentionally supports — like purposely supports,” Herrera said. “I think it’s a genuine interest for the genre to grow and develop and be bigger and more inclusive. When you love something, you want it to make make it better.”
MacLean said she’s honored to be part of that growth, and thrilled that so many readers take time with her work.
Not too much time, though.
“For me, romance is about joy. Romance has always been about being able to sit down and lose myself for three hours. If it takes you longer than six hours to read one of my books, I’ve done something wrong.”
BOMBSHELL: A Hell’s Belles Novel
By Sarah MacLean
Avon, 400 pages, $27.99 hardcover, $8.99 paper