8 Novels About Complicated Queer Relationships

Rafael Frumkin, author of "Confidence," recommends stories that celebrate and normalize queerness

Photo of couple holding hands.
Photo by Courtney Coles via Unsplash

Queer fiction is experiencing a renaissance, with titles abounding across genres: literary, speculative, graphic, romance, YA. There are even a host of children’s books dedicated to introducing kids to LGBTQIA2S+ themes. Republican lawmakers hell-bent on legislating transness and queerness out of existence have (mercifully) no control over what gets published in our gay little corner of the world, and as long as these books keep getting published—and they will—LGBTQIA2S+ readers will continue to find themselves in fiction, a powerful antidote to heterenormativity and the conservative agenda. 

Happily, we’ve arrived at a time where books with queer characters aren’t just about coming out, getting bullied, or suffering dysphoria. That is to say, queer books aren’t always about queerness so much as they’re about queer characters getting up to the same kind of mischief straight characters have always been allowed to get up to. To be living in an age where queerness can be taken for granted in fiction is a true pleasure, because it means that the cishet experience is no longer the default. This opens things up tremendously: now we’ve got domestic fiction about lesbians and hard sci-fi starring trans people and all kinds of things in between. Instead of being the objects of pity, queer people are now allowed to be messy and complex, to travel to other planets, have situationships and exorcize spirits from haunted houses. 

These eight books are about the perils and rewards of relationships—the queerness of those relationships is both incidental and important. Incidental because, like I said above, we’re finally allowed to take queerness for granted in fiction; important because representation both celebrates and normalizes queer complexity. With Confidence, I wanted to tell a story of love and heartbreak that could belong to anyone, but happens to belong to a gay con artist who’s head over heels for a charismatic and unobtainable huckster of a pansexual lover. All of these books inspired me as I was writing, and I know they’ll continue to inspire generations of queer writers to come.

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Set in the Pittsburgh of the 1970s, this book is like ice cream sprinkled with cyanide: delicious and dangerous all at once. Paul is a shy college student who develops an obsession with his classmate Julian, a lithesome Dickie Greenleaf type who need only walk into a room to become the center of attention. The two become secret lovers, longing to get out of Pittsburgh and start a life together without the nosiness of teachers and parents holding them back. But their love takes them in a truly toxic direction, resulting in an act of violence that had me gripping the book until my knuckles turned white. Think the creepiness of Leopold and Loeb meets the retro languidness of Call Me by Your Name meets the nerdy arrogance of The Secret History and you’ve got These Violent Delights.  

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

Mathews’s sparkling debut follows a group of twentysomething friends in late aughts Wisconsin trying their best to figure themselves and their lives out. Sneha, the book’s protagonist, is a queer first-generation Indian American who lands a consulting job at a Fortune 500 company based in Milwaukee. She graduates college and moves to the strange, tiny city, where she lives above her toxic landlord and struggles to infiltrate the local lesbian scene. When she finally does find her way in, she meets Marina, a beautiful dancer whose Americanness both annoys and fascinates Sneha. The two begin a relationship, and, despite the all-consuming sex, Sneha finds herself struggling to match Marina’s needs for commitment and affection. The book’s sentences are like freshly-tumbled gems, and Mathews is a master when it comes to exploring the millennial condition. It’s no surprise this book was a shortlister for the National Book Award.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor

Lawlor brings the early ‘90s to life in this hilariously irreverent picaresque about Paul, a person who can shapeshift among genders at will. At twenty-three years old, Paul is a stud in the Iowa City queer scene whose conquests are too numerous to count. His ability to casually switch out his sex organs allows him to float among in-groups: he goes from holding court with the burly daddies in Chicago leather bars to having some folksy lesbian sex at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Lawlor certainly knows their queer theory: references to Barthes and Butler abound, and Maggie Nelson herself called the book “hot.” Although Paul regularly pines for his dead lover Tony Pinto, the complicated queer relationship in this book is Paul’s with himself— for all his bravado and Tiresian abilities, Paul is still learning who he really is, and that takes quite a lot of trial and error. This book is for anyone who wishes Middlesex had more mixtapes and fanzines.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

This is a well-known classic, and no list of books about complicated queer relationships would be complete without it. David is a young bisexual American living in Paris: when we meet him, his fiancée Hella has returned to the United States and his ex-boyfriend Giovanni is about to be executed. The slim volume is a book-length flashback to the events leading up to Giovanni’s death. David and Giovanni meet in a gay bar owned by the flamboyant Guillame: Giovanni is handsome and penniless and David is compelled despite himself. When the two start sleeping together in Giovanni’s barren and messy bachelor’s flat, David struggles with questions of sexuality and masculinity, ultimately sleeping with a woman to “prove he’s a man.” But Giovanni clings to David, and when Giovanni is fired from his job at Guillame’s bar he becomes desperate, resulting in the commission of the crime that will lead to his execution. Baldwin’s time as an expatriate in Paris clearly informed this elegant and devastating novel, as did the fact that he was a giant of American letters.

Written on the Body by Jeannette Winterson

In this captivating novel, a nameless and genderless narrator who has trouble committing to relationships becomes obsessed with the beautiful and dynamic Louise. The narrator leaves their partner to pursue Louise, whose physicality Winterson renders on the page in her trademark sumptuous prose. A problem: Louise is married to Elgin, a research physician who thinks he’s on the verge of a breakthrough in cancer treatment. Another problem: Louise has cancer. Elgin confronts the narrator about the affair, talking them into leaving Louise so she can receive the treatment she needs. Heartbroken but convinced they’re saving Louise’s life, the narrator retreats to a cottage in the woods and takes a job at a nearby bar. When a local lesbian convinces them to go back to the city in pursuit of Louise, our narrator learns that Elgin’s intentions were less than noble, and all hell breaks loose. Winterson is a genius when it comes to understanding the body as text, accounting for every detail of Louise’s body with a bookish lover’s tenderness. 

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Many of Highsmith’s novels have been adapted for the screen, and it’s no wonder: the books are cinematic in their suspense and thematically timeless. The Price of Salt is no exception—it’s a story of lesbian love in a highly conformist era, when evidence of queerness was enough to lose custody of a child in divorce. Therese is a twentysomething loner in Manhattan with a job in a department store and a boyfriend she’s not attracted to. When Carol walks into the store, chic and self-possessed in her early thirties, Therese develops an instant crush. Carol gives Therese an address to send her purchases to and Therese sends her a Christmas card on a whim. Carol writes back, and an intense love affair begins. Unfortunately, neither of them accounted for Carol’s husband Harge, who’s onto the affair and wants a divorce, and who’s willing to wiretap a room to get it. Things get more turbulent from there, but Highsmith allows us the gift of a happy ending— all too rare in old school novels about queer love. 

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon 

325 years in the future, a giant spaceship called The Matilda is carrying what’s left of the human race to an as-yet-unidentified new settling place. The ship is structured like a plantation, with Black and Brown people toiling below deck and white people enjoying the fresh air up above. Aster Grey is gloriously neurodivergent and queer—like all below-deckers, her body is essentially gender non-conforming, a fact that fuels much of the above-deckers’ policing and abuse of those below them. Aster is a healer, having trained with Theo, a mixed-raced (but ultimately white-passing) above-deck surgeon. Aster and Theo’s non-platonic relationship is strained when Theo asks her to help him save the ship’s Sovereign, who’s suffering from a mysterious ailment not unlike the one Aster’s mother suffered from before taking her own life. In helping Theo, Aster begins to piece together clues left in her mother’s engineering notebooks about The Matilda’s history, a project that fuels Aster’s desire for insurrection. The world-building in this book is exquisite, the essential queerness of its characters and their relationships is wonderful, and the brutality of Aster’s world—a space-allegory for the ravages of white supremacy—is brilliantly wrought. 

Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin 

Set in the post-martial law era of late-’80s and early-’90s Taipei, this bittersweet cult classic is about a group of friends at Taiwan’s most prestigious university navigating love, queerness, and Intro to Chinese Literature. The book is structured as a set of notebooks written by a young lesbian who goes by Lazi: she’s head over heels for the resplendent Shui Ling but too lost in her internalized homophobia to keep up the relationship. Lazi and Shui Ling break up and Lazi goes on to graduate, get her first job, and date other women, all while keeping up with her very gay circle of college friends. But Lazi can’t get Shui Ling—who was her first love—out of her head. 

Intertwined with this fraught love story is a surrealist account of humanoid crocodiles that have begun to crop up all over Taiwan. They dress in human clothes and conduct themselves like humans, but they’re noticeably different— not unlike the queer people who populate Miaojin’s novel. There’s much to love about this book, from its punk epistolary style to its tender portrayal of queer friendship to the playfulness of its crocodile metaphor. 

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