In October 2018, The Prom premiered on Broadway. It was a musical inspired by real events with a great deal of glitter thrown on top, and I was one of the people lucky enough to see the original cast on Broadway, because a good friend surprised me with tickets on my trip. The musical was fantastic, but sadly had a much shorter run than deserved, but it’s a book now, and we can all bask in its glory. The book is adapted from stage by Saundra Mitchell. Obviously the stage show has coloured my reading of the book, much like when you watch a film adaptation and you know all the bits they missed out. So I’m going to keep the comparisons vague to avoid spoilers, but I will still reference the show in my reading.
The story is set in Edgewater, Indiana, where our narrator Emma Nolan, informs us that it is a bad idea to be gay. Heads up, homophobia is a very presiding theme in this story, so if you are looking for a cute romance with no obstacles or politics, this may not be your read. Emma’s story preceding the book has been a difficult one, all too familiar to a lot of queer readers, but sadly a story that still must be told. The second narrator is Alyssa Greene, love interest, student body president, and perfect daughter to the overbearing leader of the PTA. The tension in the story all revolves around the fact that out and proud(ish) Emma would dearly like to go to prom with her closeted girlfriend. The PTA gets in the way, Broadway actors find out about the scandal and try to help. All hell breaks loose.
I’m torn over the structure of the book. On the one hand, I really enjoy swapping between Alyssa and Emma’s narratives, and this structure actually gives Alyssa a lot more agency and power than she has in the show. However, there are glimpses of scenes which exist on stage that they had to cut due to a lack of POV character, and are mentioned as asides, which make little sense. It’s a bit like only watching half of a crossover episode and wondering what you missed out on. The Prom is a nice short read, clocking in at just over two-hundred pages, so I think it might have made more sense to either expand to allow more points of view, or simply axe some of those asides altogether and focus on the main plot. The weirdest of these is perhaps that the book opens with reference to a broadway show flopping, and then doesn’t allude to this at all for about fifty pages. It makes a lot more sense by the end, but I personally think that the articles which serve as prologue and epilogue detract a little from the main narrative and are really only there for fans of the show.
The tone of the book is inescapably teenage highschooler. It’s a YA novel adaptation and it knows it. Pop culture references are abound, and if you aren’t up to date on your American High School slang (I am not), you might find yourself rereading a few sentences. But for the most part, I found the pop culture references hilarious and engaging. Emma’s narrative has a sarcastic and witty snap to it which is delightful to read even when things are going wrong. It also spans a decent range from memes, music, and tv, as well as inevitably a large number of broadway shows. This book genuinely made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions, and it’s chock full of genuinely wise quotes about homophobia, acceptance, and life in general.
(This bit is only about differences to the show, so if you aren’t already a fan, be ready for spoilers.) Firstly, there are some great little cast easter eggs in the names of the characters, some very obvious and some quite sneaky. The words of many (if not all) of the musical numbers have also made it into the writing one way or another, with several of them providing a lot of backbone to the plot, and others acting as throwaway lines which maybe don’t quite work. As I’ve already alluded to, the broadway characters don’t get a point of view. Dee Dee and Barry are still in it, but Trent and Angie have been axed entirely (despite the cast of Godspell still being present). Dee Dee really is turned into a caricature of what was already a largely than life character, but Barry somehow manages to retain depth and dignity, despite soaking up most of Trent’s role in the narrative.
Seeing the show and then reading the book definitely changed my reading of the book, and I’m very interested to know what others think who haven’t read it. From an adaptation standpoint, I thought it was a very cute read, with a lot of power, which overall took the narrative from a new angle and made sure we got more of the love interest’s side of the story. I would recommend this book highly to people who have seen or know the show, and and anyone who just wants a nice triumphant story about love against all odds.
No matter how old you are, there’s always a chance for romance.
Second Wind follows Martha Appleby and Pamela Thornton, women in their seventies who reconnect on a flight to Glasgow following the death of Martha’s husband. During their trip, the two women begin to rekindle their childhood bond, support each other through difficult transitions and understand why they parted ways all those years ago.
With endearing side characters, idyllic settings and an uplifting, romantic storyline, Second Wind promises to whisk you away and, with its short page count, makes for a lovely, breezy read.
It’s incredibly refreshing to read a love story about older protagonists, and particularly queer women. The main characters brim with personality, quips, quirks and distinctly different temperaments. Martha’s relationship to her deceased husband is never dismissed or downplayed, yet it never overshadows her blossoming romance with Pamela. The two simply exist together in the same story, Martha’s story.
Second Wind is short enough that we don’t get as much background on the main characters as readers might like, outside of the flashback chapters, but there’s a lot to fill in considering their decades-long personal histories. For this reason, some readers might find it lacking, but the story itself, following these characters at this point in their lives, is an absolute delight. It’s sweet and simple, heart-achingly romantic and abundantly hopeful. The stakes are mundane but intensely real.
Not all books have to be dark and full of complicated twists and turns in order to be enjoyable. This novella is charming and refreshing in its simplicity, reminding us that you can still find love (and specifically, queer love) no matter your age.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel, The Mercies (2020), is a vivid, sapphic, historical novel that I couldn’t bear to put down. I read this book in nearly one sitting and its dark, passionate story will likely have you doing the same.
Hargrave’s novel is starts in Finnmark, Norway, in 1617. It follows twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter as she watches a sudden storm overwhelm the male fishermen trapped on the sea. Most of the men in the village, including Maren’s brother and father, are drowned, and the women must fend for themselves in an isolated world of rock, ocean, and dangerous weather.
Three years later, when Absalom Cornet arrives, carrying with him a reputation for burning witches in Scotland and his new Norwegian wife, Ursa, tensions build in the town as Absalom sows seeds of unrest and rumours of witchcraft among the women. Was the storm a natural disaster, or the work of a curse? Meanwhile, in the lives of these independent women, Ursa encounters a new way of life, perhaps a life that involves Maren in ways neither of them ever anticipated. But Absalom sees only evil brewing in this community of women left without men to guide them, and as tensions build and violence escalates, survival becomes even more difficult.
I heard about this book because a lesbian author I follow on Twitter was reading it and couldn’t recommend it enough, so when I bought it on my ereader a few months ago, I was so excited to read it. The Mercies is a beautiful novel in terms of its wonderful poetic language that is sweeping and immersive. Some of the descriptions of the landscape are so captivating that this book really can take over your day. Hargrave’s novel is also very raw, portraying the dangerous and volatile life of this village with stunning clarity. However, it’s also incredibly dark. Based on the true story of the Vardø storm and the 1620s witch trials, the tragic violence in this book perpetrated against the women in this novel is unsettling and sometimes difficult to read, but told from Maren and Ursa’s dual perspectives, it is also a powerful story of resilience.
Maren and Ursa’s characters are two sides of the same coin—both women trapped without knowing it in a male-dominated world where their paths of marriage and family are laid out for them from birth. However, they are both pushed away from those paths and towards each other as they become alienated and isolated from those around them. Hargrave captures the chaos of suspicion and fear and the relief of finding an ally and a safe place in another person. This book was gorgeous and there really is nothing I love more than historical lesbian fiction. It’s not beautiful and glamorous, like a Sarah Waters novel, rather, it’s raw and dangerous and the peace that both women find with each other is sharply juxtaposed against an unforgiving landscape filled with dangerous accusers.
I recommend this book both for its writing and for its lesbian plot. I think my only criticism would be that it could have used a better ending, or at least one that did some of the characters more justice. Nevertheless, this novel cuts right to the heart and I couldn’t be happier that I read it.
Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture, execution, domestic abuse.
Rachel Friars is a creative writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every queer novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.
I’m not going to lie, I did not know if I wanted to read The Pull of the Stars before I started it. I haven’t read a lot of Emma Donoghue before, and I wasn’t aware that The Pull of the Stars had an f/f relationship. I knew that a couple of my friends had liked it, and that it was about the Spanish flu pandemic, and I questioned whether I wanted to read a book about another pandemic while living through one. But it was a shorter read, and I do love historical fiction, and I’m trying this new thing during quarantine of reading books soon after they come out rather than three years later, and I’m glad I moved this one to the top of my to-read list.
The entirety of the book takes place over about three days, and most of it takes place in one small room of a Dublin hospital. Julia works long shifts at a hospital with no leave, and off shift she goes back to the house she shares with her brother, who was invalided out of the army with what is obviously a severe case of PTSD. Julia is a nurse in the maternity ward, but since the flu had become an epidemic, the hospital she works at has quarantined women with flu symptoms into one room with three beds, away from the other women, and Julia is assigned to this room, having previously gotten and recovered from the flu herself. Closed in together, Julia and her patients might as well be in their own little world–she can rarely even get a doctor to come in to assist in emergencies or to sign off on orders that Julia knows are right but doesn’t have the authority to do herself. It creates a very intense mood that distills down an already intense subject matter. In just the few days that the book covers, Julia deals with the full spectrum of birthing experience, from success to tragedy, with the flu heightening everything and making everything more difficult. Any book I read these days is an escape from my small apartment, but this time I read avidly, feeling connected to these characters who are also closed in and struggling and scarred in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Even simple things become more difficult when systems are overloaded, as we all well know now, and reading about Julia doing her best to do her job and help her patients was strangely cathartic.
The whole book isn’t about midwifery and plague though. When Julia arrives for her first shift at the beginning of the book, she is assigned a new runner, an orphan named Bridie Sweeney who has been sent by the nuns who attend to the hospital. Bridie has no nursing experience, but she’s willing to learn and is good with the patients. Her sunny eagerness and the joy she takes in even the small good things are an instant bright spot in the stuffy fever ward, and Julia finds herself taking Bridie under her wing and teaching her the beginnings of nursing. Alone and dependent on each other to get their wards through each night, Julia and Bridie grow closer and closer together in the crucible of the hospital. Julia finds herself opening up to Bridie, and also finds herself keenly drawn towards the other woman as she learns more about Bridie’s past. Now, since this review is appearing in a queer book blog, a discerning reader can probably guess the way this relationship is headed, but I, having done no research and knowing nothing about this book before starting it, did not, and it was delightful. For one endless night, things were getting better for Julia and Bridie, and they even stole enough space and time for themselves to breathe and dream, and it was so so good.
Unfortunately, this is a book about a plague and the end of a war, and the dreams do not last. The flu doesn’t care about tragic backstories or hopes or dreams. Even as Julia rails against the lack of help she has to give her patients, and the circumstances that led to their present conditions, and the increasingly disturbing facts about Bridie’s childhood, all she can do is her best, which isn’t enough in the face of such overwhelming odds. But somehow, even though the ending was emotional and sad, it pulled it all together in a way that made me long for more. The Pull of the Stars was a fast read, a fascinating read, undoubtedly a difficult read, and yet an incredibly satisfying read. I connected with it on a personal level due to our current circumstances without it being too overwhelming, and in the end it was about the importance of doing what you can to keep going, and about the good you can do along the way. As an entry into the halls of f/f historical fiction, I heartily recommend it.
Are you looking for a book with a diverse cast, compelling story, great worldbuilding, and disability representation? Lucky you, because you have The Labyrinth’s Archivist.
This fantastical novella stars Azulea, the newest in a long line of Archivists, the people who interview travelers and make maps of the worlds that extend out from the Archivists’ Residence. Azulea desperately wants to join her family’s vocation, but she is blind and therefore assumed to be incapable. When someone (or something) starts killing Archivists one by one, Azulea puts her mind to solving the mystery.
There were so many things I loved about this book. For starters, there was the amazing disability representation. The author, Day Al-Mohamed, is blind herself, so the representation was very authentic. I love how Azulea’s blindness was incorporated into the story, but didn’t make it seem like inspiration porn. It was also very refreshing to see disability representation in the fantasy genre, where we certainly don’t get enough of it. More than just painting Azulea as an inspirational story, the novella really dives into the challenges of being blind in a fantasy world. Physically and psychologically, Azulea must adapt to her surroundings. The Labyrinth’s Archivist is worth reading for this aspect alone.
Another part of the novella I loved was worldbuilding. The world of the Labyrinth was so detailed and intricate. Every setting was so beautifully described. I could picture every scene like a movie, which is something I love to see in a book. The world is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture, which also gave it a sense of depth and richness. The opulence of the Residence itself shines throughout the novella, and serves as a wonderful backdrop to the central mystery. The story itself reads very quickly, too. It’s like a fantasy version of an Agatha Christie novel. I flew through it. If anything, I thought it was too short.
Even given everything else, for me, the best part of this novel was the characters. Azulea is a really wonderful protagonist. She is spirited, resilient, and determined. I was happy to spend the entire novella following her. Her relationships with other characters also stood out. I loved reading the interactions between Azulea and her mother. They had a difficult, but ultimately very authentic relationship. Same with the relationship between Azulea and her grandmother. Finally, the romance was also very sweet. I wish we had gotten more of that as a plotline, because it does come up quickly towards the end of the story. Still, the engaging and complex characters made this book a real page-turner for me.
The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a short, refreshing, fun novella that blends fantasy and Middle Eastern culture in a beautiful way. Its characters are very interesting and drive the story forward. It involves disability representation and worldbuilding that are truly unique. Although it is short, this book is definitely worth your time.
This is the obvious place to start this list, but it’s also an exception: this is the only nonfiction manga included. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness details the author’s struggles with mental health, coming out, and—of course—loneliness. It is vulnerable and raw to the point that it is sometimes uncomfortable to read, but it offers an honesty that hadn’t been present in yuri/lesbian manga before this. It was also a huge hit, and its popularity not only ensured the publication of sequels (My Solo Exchange Diary, My Solo Exchange Diary, Vol. 2, and the upcoming My Alcoholic Escape from Reality), but also opened the door for more lesbian manga that looks frankly at lesbian identity and coming out in Japan.
Admittedly, this series follows a gay teenager who is coming to terms with his identity, but it is one of the most queer manga series out there. It follows Tasuku, who is considering suicide because of the bullying he’s faced at school for being perceived as gay. He is distracted by seeing a woman jump from a high ledge, and follows her to a drop-in center. It is run by this mysterious woman, and soon she has him volunteering to help out. He is stunned when he meets Haruko, who casually mentions her wife. The final volume in the series follows the planning of a wedding ceremony between two women, who are Tasuku’s inspiration to come out.
I know: the title doesn’t exactly scream quality representation. This short, standalone manga is surprisingly thoughtful, though. It’s about a fake marriage: Morimoto is sick of being constantly set up by her parents. Her friend Hana suggests that they get married (or, at least, get an equivalent partnership certificate offered in some regions). Morimoto finds herself agreeing to this plan, despite her parents’ outrage and despite her knowledge that Hana is an out lesbian and had feelings for her in high school. Unsurprisingly, once they start living together, their relationship begins to change. Not only does this have a character who identifies as a lesbian, it also deals with having abusive and controlling parents, and even some discussion of consent. Do be prepared for a very short manga, though: the last section of the book is a short story.
Before there was lesbian manga, there were the classics of yuri manga. The one that’s probably most well-known is Sailor Moon. Although Usagi is arguably bisexual, that’s a whole other tangent. What made Sailor Moon so significant to the yuri genre was the relationship between Haruka (Sailor Uranus) and Michiru (Sailor Neptune). Their long-standing relationship is included without fanfare, which was fairly unusual at the time, especially for a series that achieved such popularity around the world. While the American TV adaptation tried to rewrite the two as cousins, there’s no way to mistake their relationship in the original books.
Revolutionary Girl Utena owes a lot to the Magical Girl manga genre, but it is its own surreal masterpiece. It follows Utena who, as a young child, was saved by a prince. She’s so impressed that she vows to grow up to become a prince herself. Now, she’s at a private school (where all the girls swoon over her), and she stumbles on a dueling club. This club duels for the Power to Revolutionize the World and the Rose Bride. The Rose Bride is a fellow student, Anthy, who seems to be acting as a prop in their game. Utena joins the duel to protect Anthy, and finds herself drawn into a dreamlike world where castles descend from the sky and you settle every interpersonal conflict with fencing skills. In the original manga, the relationship between Anthy and Utena is heavily subtextual. It’s been adapted to many formats, though (anime, movie, standalone manga, manga short stories), and is often canonical in those.
Check out my full review of the Utena series here and my review of the recent sequel, After the Revolution, here.
Predating any of these was The Rose of Versailles, which was serialized in 1973 and published in 10 volumes in 1982. It follows Oscar François de Jarjeyes, a young noblewoman raised as a son who is now the commander of Marie Antoinette’s guard. There is yuri content: Oscar and another female character, Rosalie, acknowledge that they have feelings for each other, and if Oscar was a man, they’d be together. Beyond that, though, the playing with gender in this series has likely affected yuri manga more than any actual F/F content. It’s not hard to see how Utena may have been influenced by this earlier work.
While lesbian manga is still pretty rare, there is a lot more yuri manga being published that is inarguably F/F (not just subtext). One of the foundational series in this vein is Girl Friends. This follows most of the common tropes in yuri: it follows two schoolgirls, one of whom has a crush on the other. There is a lot of blushing and the typical “girls don’t do this” heteronormativity. The first omnibus is about 500 pages, and it’s a slow burn: the majority of this first collection is just about them becoming friends. I thought the second volume was stronger, because SPOILER: it deals more with their relationship than just the pining, and it takes them seriously as a couple, even after graduation.
This series has become hugely popular. It follows Yuu, who is a big fan of shoujo manga and is waiting for her whirlwind romance. When she does get a confession of love from a boy, however, she finds herself uninterested and turning him down. Later, she sees Nanako—who is running for school president—also turn down a suitor, and strikes up a conversation, thinking they have something in common. She’s taken aback when soon Nanako is also declaring her love for Yuu. Yuu doesn’t return her feelings, but agrees to be “wooed.” Unsurprisingly, based on the premise, it can veer into questionable consent territory: Nanako is sometimes pushy. They do discuss this when it happens, though, and over the course of the series, this becomes an engaging and cute romance that keeps you flipping pages.
This is told in a series of vignettes as Yamada meets Kase, a tomboy track star. They bond over their shared love of the gardens at their school, and their romance slowly begins to blossom. (I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it.) There is the typical “but we’re both girls!” angst and includes some fan service, but overall, it’s a cute and fluffy F/F romance. In the second volume, SPOILER: they try to navigate being a couple and exploring the sexual aspect of their relationship.
Although this is a high school romance, there is a sequel series called Kase-san and Yamada that takes place in college!
This is one of the few books on this list that follows adult characters! Emi is ditched by her friend in a dance club, and she’s overwhelmed by the loudness and crush of people. When she starts getting hit on, she starts looking for an exit and is rescued by Kei, a DJ. They go home together, and Emi finds herself drawn into Kei’s exciting, artistic life.
This is one of the few yuri manga volumes to include a sex scene that doesn’t seem to be for fan service, and both women already seem comfortable with their sexuality—in fact, Emi is likely bisexual, which is another rarity on this list.
When Akira starts at a new high school, she isn’t expecting to run into her best friend from kindergarten, Fumi! They strike up their friendship again, but Fumi is trying to mend a broken heart: her girlfriend left her and is getting married. She’s glad to be asked out by another classmate, Sugimoto, but she’s struggling to get over her last relationship. Akira is protective of Fumi and tries to help her move on. This is the same mangaka who wrote Wandering Son, which is a beloved manga series featuring trans characters. (In fact, this one discusses identity enough that it might even belong in the lesbian manga category.)
I am conflicted about this title, because on the one hand, it’s the most absorbing manga series I’ve ever read. On the other hand… just look at that cover. It follows Yuzu, a fun-loving girl who’s just started at a new high school and is shocked by their strict rules. She immediately comes into conflict with Mei, the student council president, who has no tolerance for her. Then, plot twist, Mei turns out to be Yuzu’s new stepsister! This is a romance between stepsisters, but they have just met. There is questionable consent, but it is grappled with: Mei has gone through sexual abuse, and has a fractured relationship with her sexuality. This isn’t an entirely healthy relationship, and there’s definitely a lot of angst, but it is captivating.
This is a typical blushing schoolgirl yuri romance, with a lingering hug acting as the climax of the story, but I really enjoyed it. Konatsu is just starting at a new school (is anyone else noticing a pattern?), and they are holding an event hosted by the Aquarium Club. When she attends, she runs into the sole member of the club, Koyuki, and they share a shy conversation. Konatsu discovers that she has to join a school club—will she choose the Home Ec Club that her friendly classmate Kaede invited her to, or will she help out Koyuki at the Aquarium Club? This is an adorable story, and I liked that Konatsu helps Koyuki to take some time for herself and not always live up to the standard others hold her to. I also thought the aquarium theme made for beautiful illustrations.
Kobayashi has a pretty regular life working as a programmer—until she bumps into Tohru. Tohru is a dragon, and she seems to hate every human except Kobayashi, which means they end up living together. It turns into a slapstick slice-of-life comedy with a lot of crass humor.
Despite all the ridiculousness, this is still one of the few yuri manga series with adult main characters.
“Your characters begin to live the way you do, unrepentant. Never reduced to their queerness, only expanded by it. It infuses them in many ways, sometimes subtle, others loud.”
What does it mean to be invisible? As queer people, most of us are familiar with invisibility in many forms. For some of us, it’s being in the closet, having to deliberately conceal parts of ourselves; for others it’s a lack of representation, a blank outline where we should be in the media. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab is the fantastical and introspective journey of Addie LaRue, a bisexual immortal cursed by the devil himself to be forgotten by all who meet her, until she meets someone who finally accepts her and loves her for who she is.
I’ve always loved Schwab’s writing, from her X-men inspired Villains series, to the whimsical and enchanting A Darker Shade of Magic series. One thing that I always appreciated in her writing is the casual inclusion of queer representation; Prince Rhy Maresh makes Alucard his prince-consort in the magical Red London, and the anti-hero Victor Vale’s asexuality is a valid part of his identity.
Following the immediate publication of long-awaited The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, author V.E. Schwab came out as gay in a moving interview for Oprah Magazine. Schwab’s coming out was touching and it was refreshing to discover one of my favorite authors was queer as well. In the article, she cites the queerness of her characters as a tool to becoming comfortable in her own sexuality and skim, a theme that is echoed throughout Addie LaRue’s life, as love allows her to discover her true self and worth.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is more of a character study than a romance; although Addie does not shy away from describing her female partners in the same way as her male partners, the true core of the book is Addie’s character development. Addie begins the story in 17th century rural France, a desperate teenage girl willing to sell her soul for the chance to to escape an arranged marriage, and live openly on her own terms. Lucifer, ever cunning, gives her the freedom and immortality she longs for, but curses her to be forgotten by all who meet her, dooming her to a life of isolation and sorrow. Throughout her eternal life, she is haunted by the charismatic, seductive devil himself, and nearly loses herself to his deceit. As she grows older and wiser, she learns that although she is forgotten, she will still be remembered through the marks she leaves behind on people’s lives, history and art. When she meets Henry Strauss in 2014, they slowly fall for each other after learning they were both marked by Lucifer. With Henry’s support and encouragement, she begins to find the strength to tell her story and defeat the devil on her own terms.
The novel embodies Schwab’s familiar, haunting prose, and introduces us to a cast of unique and lovable characters, the majority of which are LGBT. Henry’s friend group feels like a love letter to gay friendship as a whole, illustrating the inside jokes and affection only a group of queer people can have for each other. I also loved following Addie through history, seeing the world change and advance around her. The use of multimedia and art as a motif was particularly moving; the art we make acts as a stark indicator of both who we were, are and will be, and the world we live in.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a microcosm of a life’s journeys and discoveries. Addie’s imperceptibility can be seen as a metaphor for being closeted; Addie sells her soul for the opportunity for freedom, and the ability to choose who to love outside of the pre-conceived notions of narrow-minded people in her small French village. Thus, Addie is erased from the forefront, a vital part of her identity disregarded and ignored, her contributions lost to the sands of time, like many queer individuals through the annals of history. Addie is isolated and cut off from anyone like her, similar to being in the closet. It isn’t until Addie meets Henry, someone else who is cursed for wanting love and acceptance on his own terms, that she is able to see herself in him and come into her own.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a moving reflection on isolation and what it truly means to be human, summing up the collective need for companionship and acceptance in a tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm for the modern age.
Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the advance review copy.
Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a fun historical romance about a widowed countess and lady astronomer. Lucy wants to pick up her father’s work and do the translation for a famous French astronomer for England’s science society, but lo and behold, they’re all men and sexist as hell. Lady Catherine, the society’s main patroness, doesn’t care for that at all and takes her funds to Lucy’s endeavors. Naturally, they fall in love, and romance and angst ensue.
The driving force behind Lucy and Catherine’s meeting is heartbreak. Lucy, who’s always known she only loves women, wants to run away from home after so much loss. Aside from being rejected by her lover who chooses to marry a man, her father passes away. She loved him dearly and worked alongside him for so many years. When she comes across the work of Oléron, the famous French astronomer, among her father’s work, she’s determined to throw herself into this work as well.
Lady Catherine, recently a widow, only wants to take a lover to satisfy her needs. She doesn’t want love and romance, and she certainly doesn’t want to get married again. But her previous lover after her late husband’s death wanted to marry her, so she had to call off the affair. In comes Lucy, stirring feelings in her she never knew she could have for a woman, and the idea strikes her: if she takes on a woman as a lover, she’d never have to marry. As is bound to happen in a romance novel, when two characters are running away and most definitely NOT looking for love, they find each other.
The sweetest part of their romance is how much they support one another. While Lady Catherine finances Lucy’s translation work and assures her she’s just as brilliant as the cocky bastards in the society, Lucy validates Catherine’s own artistic talents and assures the Lady her needlepoint skills have as much merit in the art world as any painter or sculptor. Together, they help each other realize their dreams. This balance and celebration of both STEM and the arts makes Lady’s Guide a delightful narrative that highlights how these pursuits complement one another.
Waite creates a highly sensual atmosphere with the sex scenes between Lucy and Catherine. They highlight the importance and eroticism of consent, as well as taking charge of one’s pleasure and desires. There’s never any shame between the two women, even as Catherine engages in intimacy with a woman for the first time. She’s never repulsed by her feelings, but rather confused, as she never thought it possible. Lucy in turn shows a great deal of respect for her partner, making sure she’s comfortable and enthusiastic every step of the way. They both take great care to address each other’s needs.
Perhaps one of the best moments in the book is when it’s revealed that Oléron is a woman. The whole time the society, and Lucy herself, assumed the famous French astronomer was a man. This point gets tangled in Lucy’s discovery of other women like herself who have studied and furthered the sciences through history and who were silenced or else had their work taken by their fathers, brothers and other men. It leads her to her newest endeavor, which is to collect the work of these women and continue their scientific pursuits while giving them their due credit. A wonderful feminist ending for a Regency story with misogynistic conflict.
When I say that I read mostly bi and lesbian literature, people often assume that means F/F romance. Although I like the occasional romance novel, the truth is that it makes up very little of my reading life. There are sapphic books in every genre: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, nonfiction, etc. One of the genres I gravitate towards is bi and lesbian literary fiction—which is a tricky thing to describe. What makes a book literary fiction? Well, usually it is more character-driven than plot-driven. It may deal with “big ideas” and concentrate more on questions than on action. It’s often seen as complex and “well-written”—but all of these qualities are subjective. I’m not interested in getting a perfect definition. Instead, I want to offer some book recommendations that will likely appeal to you if you read books that are marketed as “literary fiction.”
This is in no way a complete list of every bi and lesbian literary fiction book out there. They’re just some of my favorites. To simplify, I decided to leave out the “classics” of lesbian literature: The Well of Loneliness, The Color Purple, Rubyfruit Jungle, and other books published in the early days of queer lit. These are not all recent releases, but they are biased towards books that have come out in the last decade or two. Did your favorites make the list?
This is historical fiction based on Tamara de Lempicka, and it made me fall in love with Ellis Avery as an author and Tamara de Lempicka as an artist. It’s about the artist’s relationship with one of her models, Rafaela, who was the inspiration for six paintings. It’s beautiful and melancholy, and completely pulls you into 1920s Paris. It will make you think about art, doomed romance, discovering your sexuality, our relationships to our bodies, queer history, and the nature of betrayal.
This is about two women in Trinidad: one a sugar cane worker, another an activist attempting to unionize the workers. They are immediately drawn to each other, but their relationship is threatened by outside forces, including racism and homophobia. This book will make you think about belonging, and feeling caught between (and left outside of) two communities. It will make you think about immigration, and what it means to be “illegal,” about justice and belonging, and about individual choices in an unjust system.
This books at first glance seems to be the very stereotype of a literary novel: a young university student begins taking classes with a professor rumored to sleep with his students. They begin sleeping together. When Regina meets his wife, however, she is far more interested in her—and that’s the dynamic at the heart of this novel. This book will make you think about trainwreck relationships—the kind you can’t quite resist, about flawed main characters, and about the mistakes you make in early adulthood.
This is an atmospheric, absorbing book about teaching at a boarding school in India in the 1970s during the monsoon season. Sheltered Charulata is only a handful of years older than the students, but she changes quickly, especially when she has two sordid, tragic love affairs (one male partner, one female). Then a student turns up dead, and the mystery element begins. This will make you think about coming of age and discovering your own identity.
Patsy has just taken her chance to move to the U.S., leaving her small Jamaican hometown behind—as well as her 5-year-old daughter. Patsy follows the main character and her daughter over years, and how they both reconcile with this decision, and what it means for their relationship. It will leave you thinking about family, independence and interdependence, gender, and sexuality. Be sure to also check out her previous novel, Here Comes the Sun.
This title is standing in for a lot of Donoghue books: she’s one of the big names in lesbian literary fiction. The Pull of the Stars is set during the 1918 pandemic in a small hospital ward, which is either exactly what you want to read right now, or exactly the opposite. It will leave you thinking about the parallels between that pandemic and ours, about justice in healthcare, pregnancy and childbirth, and motherhood.
This book is an experience. It follows three women in different countries and time periods: Mer in 18th century Haiti, Jeanne in 1880s France, and Meritet in ancient Alexandria. Binding the three together is the spirit Ezili, who inhabits each of them at different times. This book has an F/F sex scene in the first 15 pages, and let me tell you, when I was assigned this in university, I was not expecting that. This book will leave you thinking about freedom and oppression, what’s worth sacrificing, misogyny and racism throughout time, sexuality, spirituality, the beauty of language, and so much more.
This is told in three perspectives: the eponymous fox, counting down until her thousandth birthday when she will acquire power and knowledge; Yu Hsuan-Chi, a real-life poetess from 9th century China; and Artemis, a young woman in modern-day Vancouver. This is told like folklore, with fables woven throughout. It’s beautifully written, I firmly believe it should be considered a classic of lesbian literary fiction. This will make you think about toxic friendships, about activism uninformed by compassion and respect, and about queering folklore.
This is a beautiful and unsettling collection that takes familiar stories and exposes the misogyny beneath them. They are thoughtful, metaphorical stories: women who fade away until they are imbued into objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, and urban legends transformed. Read this to think about gender, stereotypes (a writer is accused of writing a stereotype, and she explains that she’s writing about herself—her gay, anxious self), folklore, feminism, and more.
This book feels like the moment before a summer thunderstorm. It’s about a family dealing with the fallout from a tragedy they can’t bare to talk about. We alternate between Ava’s childhood, when she was free-spirited and passionate, and her closed-off, practical adult self. Read this to think about race and racism (particularly anti-Black racism), societal norms, growing up, family secrets, and the possibility of kissing a strange woman who shows up at your doorstop.
Mala is sent to Paradise Alms House after she is declared unfit to stand trial for suspected murder. Slowly, she begins to unravel her life story to her nurse, Tyler (a gender-nonconforming person of indeterminate gender). Two queer love stories emerge: one in Mala’s past, one with Tyler. This story will make you think about homophobia, racism, and the intersections between them; about inter-generational queerness; and about hope.
This story is about two star-crossed lovers in Nigeria: they’re both girls, and from different ethnic communities. They are thrown together during civil war—but this is not a romance, and they are torn apart. Ijeoma has to learn what do about this part of herself that has to be hidden for her safety and acceptance. Read this to think about the the dangers of being out in different places around the world, to consider how much is worth sacrificing to be your whole self, and how these impossible choices may change over time.
Monique is shocked when Evelyn Hugo picks her to pen her biography: Hugo is an aging starlet whose biography is sure to be a bestseller, and Monique is an unknown writer with some magazine credits. Still, she takes the opportunity, and listens to Hugo unravel her life story, which reveals how she stayed closeted about her sexuality (bisexual) and ethnicity (Latina). Read this to think about the cost of fame, bi-erasure, complex female characters, racism, and 1950s Hollywood.
You might find this in the sci-fi/fantasy section, but this is more alternate history than steampunk. It’s a reimagining of the colonial history of the Republic of Congo, and also follows a tumultuous, decades-long relationship between two women of very different backgrounds. Read this to think about colonialism, racism, white “passing,” complicated F/F relationships, intersectionality, war, and the story structure of including a staggering amount of point of view characters.
Sarah Waters is my favorite author, so this is a stand-in for all of her books, but I especially recommend picking up Fingersmith, too. Tipping the Velvet is a “lesbo-Victorian romp” (that’s the author’s description) about a small-town girl falling for a male impersonator and joining her on the road. Read it to think about being queer in Victorian England, male impersonators and gender, first loves, socialism, relationships that develop from friendships, and love after loss.
Jeanette Winterson is one of the big names in lesbian literary fiction, so there are a lot of her books I could have included, but I especially recommend this and The Passion. Written on the Body is remarkable for not stating the gender of the protagonist explicitly at any point, but it’s generally regarded as a classic of lesbian literary fiction. It’s about the narrator’s adoration of Louise, a married woman, and singing the praises of her and her body. Read this to think about gender assumptions and signifiers, and about being passionately in all-consuming love.
Okay, you’ll almost certainly find it in the science fiction section: it’s about two women on opposite sides of a war across space and time, leaving each other letters—at first taunting, and then romantic. The letters between Red and Blue are so beautiful and lyrical that you’ll forgive me for including it on this list. Read this to think about poetry and love letters, war and time travel, and recognizing the humanity of people we’ve been taught to dehumanize.
Those are my picks for bi and lesbian literary fiction that will leave you with much to ponder! This is only a brief introduction: there are many more sapphic literary works, and more are being published all the time. If you pick up any of these, let me know what you think on Twitter! I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to also offer any recommendations of bi and lesbian literary fiction you think I’d enjoy! I’m always looking for more.
This book is sold as Bridget Jones meets Pride and Prejudice, and it does have nods to both of those, but it’s a delightful story all of its own. The story begins with Darcy and Elle having a disastrous first date. However, Elle is working with Darcy’s brother, so they can’t just pretend it never happened. After Darcy pretends to her brother that it went well in order to stop him setting her up again, she has to persuade Elle to fake-date. If you’ve read much romance you can probably predict most of the plot from there–shenanigans as they play up the romance in public and the inevitable development of real feelings.
As ever with this trope the “reasons” they fake date are a little dubious, but in this case it made sense within the story. It helped that both Darcy and Elle were very well realised characters. At the start of the book, Darcy appears to be anti-social, particular about her life and married to her work. Elle seems like a fun-loving free spirit. However, throughout the book we learnt more and more about them and they both became increasingly complex. We got to dive quite deep into their characters and the way their personalities interacted. They were very different–the book had both of their points of view, which I loved–and the way their contrasting personalities gradually came to complement each other was really well done. You got to see opposite points of view on several topics, which was fun. Both of them were also really sweet and likeable. I found it impossible not to root for them. Their romance was also well developed. It was really shown how much the characters came to like each other as friends as well as just being attracted to each other. This is something I find is often underdone in romance books, so I was pleasantly surprised by how well it was done here.
I also loved that both of the characters had other problems that they were working through, and that they both developed throughout the story. There’s a storyline about Elle’s relationship with her family, her business and one about Darcy’s past relationships. I will say some of this I found to be less interesting than other bits–for example, there’s quite a lot of astrology in this book, which personally I’m not super interested in. On the other hand, neither was Darcy, so the book did acknowledge the sceptic point of view.
The story is obviously quite focused on Elle and Darcy, but the side characters that were introduced were also given a lot of personality and I enjoyed reading about all of them. Elle’s best friend Margot and Darcy’s brother Brendan get quite a bit of page time, and it was really enjoyable to see the different ways they acted and were perceived in each of the points of view. Bellefleur did a great job of avoiding some obvious cliches for these characters too. All of their actions felt extremely realistic and character driven, rather than just to drive forward the romance plot (which can be another common pitfall of romance books).
There is some miscommunication in this book, so be aware if that’s something you dislike in romances. However, it’s very minimal, and I think it was justified well by the character’s backstories.
Overall this was a lighthearted read that I got through very quickly, and the most enjoyable romance I’ve read in a while. If you’re looking for a sweet sapphic romance you should definitely pick this up when it comes out!