9 Novels About Characters Looking to Be Transformed by Sex or Love
Hanna Halperin, author of "I Could Live Here Forever," recommends all-consuming romances
Novels about intense romances are compelling because of the window of specificity it offers into something that from the outside might not make sense, but from the dizzying inside becomes intimately relatable.
In this reading list, characters are desperate to be filled up and satiated. They look for meaning in their partners, and hope that sex or love is going to transform their lives. Their obsessions—which aren’t always for love, but also for friends, or dreams, a particular type of body, a different life altogether—reveal their innermost vulnerabilities and insecurities. We see the loneliness and the pain they experience—and begin to understand the things that ordinary people will do to escape these overwhelming emotions.
My second novel I Could Live Here Forever is about a relationship between Leah, a young woman yearning for love, and Charlie, a recovering heroin addict—a couple doomed from the start.
Below are nine novels about infatuations that are all consuming. In some of these novels, the relationships skew more towards obsession or toxicity, while others skew more towards love.
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
In The Pisces, Lucy is severely depressed and has just broken up with her boyfriend. She can’t finish her dissertation on Sappho, so she camps out in her sister’s empty beach house in order to reset. There she goes on a series of disappointing Tinder dates. When she does fall in love, it’s electric—and it’s with a merman, named Theo (from the ocean, not from Tinder.) The sex scenes between Lucy and Theo are hot and weird and very specific. Lucy abandons all her other responsibilities, friendships, and the group therapy that she’s committed to, so that she can throw herself fully into her relationship. No one describes obsessive desire like Broder—with brutal and hilarious candidness—and what I loved so much about this book is that Lucy, so many times, actually gets what she wants. But then when Lucy is left wanting—when Theo pulls away, or when Lucy really messes up and has to sit with herself, by herself, I felt that ache viscerally.
Little Rabbit by Alyssa Songsiridej
The unnamed narrator, referred to as C, in Little Rabbit dives head first into a relationship with a man who she doesn’t like very much the first time she meets him. He is arrogant and domineering. He is also older than her, has more money, and is farther along in his artistic career than she is in her career as a writer. In bed, he dominates her in ways she’s never experienced, and this thrills her. When they begin an all-consuming relationship, many people in her life have questions and doubts. C’s roommate, Annie, questions the relationship more than anyone. Annie wonders what her queer friend is doing, upending her life for a man who leaves bruises on her body after sex. I was swept up by this relationship, both stunned and softened by the ending.
Post-Traumatic by Chantal V. Johnson
The protagonist of Johnson’s remarkable Post-Traumatic, is Vivian: she is a Black Latinx lawyer living in New York City. She is a fierce advocate for her clients, patients at the city’s psychiatric hospital, but she is floundering in her own life. Post-Traumatic is, like the title suggests, about trauma, but the novel is not composed of flashbacks to Vivian’s own childhood trauma, but her experience of what it feels like to go on living, trapped in a traumatized mind. Vivian’s modes of survival include disordered eating, obsessive fantasizing, hanging out with her friend, Jane, and eventually, cutting off all communication with her family. Desperate for relief, Vivian is convinced that if one of the boys who takes her out on their (mediocre) dates, chooses her back, it will “change her life.” This novel gutted me.
Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom
In Aesthetica, Anna Wey, an ex-Instagram model, has elected to undergo a risky surgery to undo every cosmetic procedure she’s had in her life up until this point. Anna got her first major plastic surgery at age 19, when her older boyfriend and social media manager Jake insisted and paid for her to get breast implants. Now, at age 35, Anna and Jake are no longer involved, but she stalks his Instagram. The novel has dual timelines, and we experience Anna as a teenager immersed in the world of social media and influencing, and in the present day, as she prepares for her reversal surgery. Anna longs to see herself now, more clearly, as a 35-year-old woman—grieving, in pain, and getting older. This novel is about so many different kinds of obsessions. The obsession of being seen and wanted and valued; of natural and manufactured beauty. But it’s also about a deeper, more private kind of love. A kind of love that can’t be captured on camera or quantified.
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
The relationship in Acts of Desperation is toxic—increasingly and scarily so as the book goes on—but it’s the way Nolan describes love that took me aback. How true the narrator’s desire for love feels; love as a consolation, or a religion, as a way to be a real and productive person in the world. The protagonist is obsessed with Ciaran, who is beautiful, cruel and withholding. The narrator will do anything to maintain the relationship, and she performs these acts of self-sacrifice with enormous and self-aware intention. It’s because of Nolan’s remorseless writing, that we understand why.
Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress
In Sirens & Muses, Louisa transfers to Wrynn College of Art as a scholarship student from South Louisiana. At the new elite private art school, her work is mostly dismissed as “Southern Gothic Lite” by her classmates. Lonely and adrift, she eventually falls into a relationship with her wealthy and talented roommate, Karina. Karina, however, is also romantically involved with a senior, named Preston, who makes art (or rather content) for his popular Instagram account. When Preston starts a controversial feud with a professor named Roger and gets kicked out of school, Louisa, Karina and Roger end up leaving school, too, catapulting all four characters into the art world—and the real world. Here they have to forge identities as artists and figure out their relationships with one another, no longer in the safe bubble of school. Angress writes stunningly about love, art, money and class, and how all these things intersect in unavoidable and fascinating ways.
Luster by Raven Leilani
In Luster, Edie is the 23-year-old narrator, working in the publishing industry, wanting to do her art but mostly not. She’s broke, depressed, yearning, and a wry observer of the people around her. When she gets involved in a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with a man named Eric, who is in an open relationship with his wife, Edie gets tangled up with this older couple in disturbing ways. It’s Eric’s wife, Rebecca, who invites Edie to come live with them in their house. Rebecca’s main motive is that she hopes that Edie, who is Black, might take their adopted daughter, Akila, under her wing. Akila is one of the only Black kids in their mostly white suburb. This is when the truly complex relationships emerge in the book—those between Edie and Rebecca, and Edie and Akila. I was totally gripped by these characters and Leilani’s exquisite writing.
A Novel Obsession by Caitlin Barasch
In A Novel Obsession, bookseller Naomi has great aspirations of writing a novel, but she doesn’t think she has interesting enough material. For inspiration, she begins to stalk her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, Rosemary Pierce. The more she learns about Rosemary, the hungrier she becomes for access to Rosemary—and the further she pushes, until she is totally enmeshed in Rosemary’s life. Naomi’s obsession with Rosemary grows huge and unmanageable, invasive, and quietly erotic. Barasch reminds us of all the ways we do so many of the very same things—compare, fixate and keep tabs. She is an honest and funny writer and this book was unputdownable.
Another Marvelous Thing by Laurie Colwin
In Another Marvelous Thing, Frank and Billie fall into an affair, while they’re both married to other people. Their love story is chronicled through eight interlinking stories, each told through a different point of view. Even though Frank and Billie are unfaithful, their current marriages aren’t loveless. But the relationship they find with each other—Frank is much older and more traditional than Billie—is tender, undeniable, and unusual. Frank says about Billy: “She is an absolute fact of my life…I conduct a mental life with her when we are apart. Thinking about her is like entering a secret room to which only I have access.” Laurie Colwin, who died in 1992, writes beautifully about people falling in love. One thing I love about this story is how gently it ends. Not all obsession leads to a crash. Sometimes people are just finding their way.