Lesbian authors are pushing the boundaries of genre and paving the way for dark and toxic love stories with unlikeable women protagonists. They explore the realms of gothic fiction, dedicating themselves to love and kindness. Regardless of your preferred genre, whether it’s historical fiction, tales of sea monsters, or love stories that transcend time and space, there is something for everyone in these must-read sapphic and lesbian novels.
Essential Lesbian Novels
Some of these lesbian novels delve into the darkness, while others celebrate queer love in the face of patriarchy. Some are translations, while others forge new paths within well-trodden genres. However, what unites them all is their sheer quality. These lesbian novels are written by some of the best women writers of today.
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
Julia Armfield made a splash with her debut short story collection, “Salt Slow.” In “Our Wives Under the Sea,” she delves into the world of modern gothic fiction, exploring loss and grief from a unique perspective. The story is told from two perspectives, following Miri and Leah. Miri’s wife, Leah, embarks on a sea expedition that lasts much longer than expected, and when she returns, she is not the same. The book forces readers to confront the complexities of grief and the transformations it brings. It is a tale of love, loss, loneliness, and isolation—a truly original gothic novel.
After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
“After Sappho” is a novelization of the lives of queer women from around the turn of the 20th century who pushed feminism and queer experiences into the limelight. This powerful book celebrates the kind, hopeful, and inspiring stories of these women who challenged gender roles, loved other women, and inspired those around them. It takes readers on a journey through Italy, France, England, Ireland, and the US, painting a picture of change, growth, and love. These interconnected lives, inspired by Sappho’s legacy, form an unforgettable tapestry.
Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin
Qiu Miaojin’s “Notes of a Crocodile” is a quintessential Taiwanese novel of the 20th century and one of the most prominent and powerful lesbian novels of recent decades. The book follows Lazi, a queer Taiwanese student, through a series of notebooks during her university years. Lazi grapples with her love for a woman and navigates the complexities of relationships within queer circles. This visceral tale explores personal hatred, acceptance, love, and danger, reminiscent of Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human.” Translated from Mandarin, this Taiwanese novel presents a candid portrayal of love and self-discovery.
Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens
Set in the American Wild West of the late 19th century, “Lucky Red” is a historical sapphic novel that tells the story of Bridget, a young redhead who finds love and community in a frontier town. After a series of misfortunes, Bridget begins working at the Buffalo Queen brothel, where she forms strong bonds with the women and discovers her true desires. This engaging novel explores themes of sex, lust, love, and the bonds between women amidst a dangerous and challenging world.
Love Me Tender by Constance Debré
“Love Me Tender” is a brash and punk piece of lesbian liberation. The protagonist, a 47-year-old woman, separated from her husband after realizing she is gay. Now living a life of freedom and hedonism in Paris, she navigates the complexities of queer liberation while facing the consequences of homophobia and traditionalism. At just 160 pages, this novel explores the struggles of queer identity, heteronormativity, and family dynamics with raw honesty. It is a punk literature masterpiece and one of the most exciting lesbian novels in recent years.
Boulder by Eva Baltasar
Eva Baltasar’s “Boulder” is a raw and tender novella that explores the intertwining of love and pain in the life of its protagonist. Boulder, nicknamed by her geologist girlfriend, navigates various jobs as a cook while struggling with her harsh and unforgiving nature. However, everything changes when she meets Samsa and moves to Reykjavik. Their relationship takes unexpected turns as they face the challenges of having a child and the internal struggle of motherhood. Written as a diary, this sensual novel captures the essence of love, rawness, and anger.
Mrs. S by K. Patrick
“Mrs. S” tells the story of an Australian woman who moves to England and develops an obsessive friendship with the headmaster’s wife, Mrs. S. As she navigates her own identity and desires, she sees Mrs. S as a guide to unlock her true self. This novel explores themes of self-discovery, sexuality, and the complexities of human relationships. With its unique narrative style and vivid descriptions, “Mrs. S” captivates readers with its intimacy and claustrophobic setting.
Chlorine by Jade Song
“Chlorine” is a coming-of-age story inspired by the author’s experience as a competitive swimmer. Ren, a Chinese-American girl, explores the nuances of puberty, sex, depression, friendship, and crises. Amidst it all is Cathy, Ren’s friend who holds a deep romantic love for her. Their lives intertwine as Ren undergoes a supposed transformation into a mermaid. This raw and difficult novel tackles themes of dysphoria, sexual repression, and freedom from societal expectations with honesty and empathy.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Melissa Broder’s “Milk Fed” introduces Rachel, a young Jewish woman whose obsession with calorie counting and weight watching has taken a toll on her life. Everything changes when she meets Miriam, an overweight orthodox Jewish woman who loves food and her family. Rachel’s desires and fantasies become intertwined with her unconventional relationship with Miriam. “Milk Fed” is a daring and original novel that explores female complexities and challenges societal expectations.
X by Davey Davis
“X” is a sexy and kinky noir story that follows Lee, a non-binary lesbian, as they search the clubs and dungeons of Brooklyn for the elusive X. With a corporate day job and a night life filled with punk shows and sadomasochism, Lee becomes obsessed with finding X, who they had a thrilling encounter with before. Against the backdrop of government deportation policies, Lee navigates their own desires and history while searching for their enigmatic lover.
Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval
Jenny Hval, an internationally acclaimed Norwegian musician, takes us on a journey with “Paradise Rot,” a visceral and sensual novel exploring desire, temptation, and the human body. Set in a converted brewery in a smog-filled city, Jo, a young Norwegian woman, moves in with a local woman. Together, they obsess over each other, explore their sexuality, and unravel the boundaries of their shared space. “Paradise Rot” is a raw and addictive novel that demands attention with its coarse and alluring language.
Solo Dance by Li Kotomi
Li Kotomi’s “Solo Dance” follows Norie, a Taiwanese immigrant navigating life in Japan. With themes of depression, anxiety, and abuse, Norie’s story resonates with queer readers who have faced similar struggles. Taking readers on a journey through Norie’s life, this novel offers a raw and rewarding glimpse into the complexities of queer identity. “Solo Dance” is a powerful and intimate portrayal of a queer immigrant’s search for self-acceptance and happiness.
A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson
“A Dowry of Blood” is a gothic romance that delves into the cursed marriage of Dracula and Constanta. This novel explores the depths of their relationship, the introduction of a second bride, and the love, lust, and longing that exists within their complex dynamic. With its themes of love, violence, and passion, “A Dowry of Blood” captivates readers with its captivating blend of gothic horror and sapphic desire.
Night Shift by Kiare Ladner
Set in late-90s London, “Night Shift” takes readers on a gritty journey through the life of Meggie. Her obsessive friendship with Sabine, a Belgian woman, sparks a journey of self-discovery and sexual exploration. As Meggie grapples with her own sexuality, her relationship with Sabine opens her eyes to a new side of the city and life. “Night Shift” is a raw and punk novel that immerses readers in the vibrant underworld of late 90s London.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
“The Confessions of Frannie Langton” is a bold and beautiful novel that combines gothic elements with a tragic lesbian love story. Set in the early 19th century, it follows the life of Frannie Langton, a Black lesbian protagonist. This gripping story delves into themes of race, class, gender, sexual assault, and domestic abuse. It is an homage to gothic classics while offering a fresh perspective with its representation of a Black female protagonist.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
“This is How You Lose the Time War” is a unique sapphic love story that unfolds through letters sent across time and space. Red and Blue, rival agents from warring factions in a time war, fall in love through their intimate correspondence. Their letters span various eras and locations, from Shakespeare’s London to a distant alien war. This highly poetic novella captures the fractured yearning and tenderness between the two agents. Beyond being a beautiful love story, it is also one of the best sci-fi novels of all time.
The Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
“The Last Night at the Telegraph Club” is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1954 during the Red Scare. It follows Lily, who secretly explores her lesbian identity while living in a society that does not accept queer love. Through her experiences with Kathleen Miller, a white classmate, Lily discovers her true self. This poignant novel seamlessly weaves cultural touchstones and historic Chinese American significance with a beautiful sapphic love story. It is a testament to love’s triumph over adversity.
The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara
“The Adventures of China Iron” is a glorious celebration of queer love that laughs at patriarchy and heteronormativity. Set in 19th-century Argentina, it follows China Iron’s journey from a tragic past to a newfound love and freedom. This Argentinian novel breaks free from societal constraints, celebrates lesbian love, and explores the depths of desire and possibility. “The Adventures of China Iron” is an unshackled work of art that challenges traditional literary norms.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
“The Color Purple,” written by Alice Walker, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that explores the life of Celie over a span of twenty years. This powerful epistolary novel tackles themes of race, class, gender, sexual assault, domestic abuse, religion, and the Southern United States in the early 1900s. Through Celie’s letters to God and her sister Nettie, readers witness her journey of self-discovery, including her lesbian relationship with Shug, which provides her with love and intimacy for the first time. It is a beautiful and important work that resonates deeply.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
“Fingersmith,” another renowned novel by Sarah Waters, takes readers on a thrilling journey filled with twists and turns. Set in Victorian London, it follows Sue Trinder, who is drawn into a plan to steal a fortune from a rich young woman named Maud Lilly. The story unfolds with unexpected twists and betrayals, keeping readers on the edge of their seats. With its historical setting, complex characters, and endless surprises, “Fingersmith” is a lesbian novel filled with intrigue and revenge.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
From the author of “Red, White & Royal Blue” comes another light-hearted and witty romance novel, “One Last Stop.” This delightful read captures the exhilarating energy of meeting someone who might be your person. When August meets Jane on the subway, she realizes that Jane is displaced in time from the 1970s. August must help her return to her era, leading to a heartwarming and historic queer romance. “One Last Stop” offers insight into historic queer culture while keeping readers invested in the cute love story.
House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson
“House of Hunger” by Alexis Henderson is a gothic fantasy novel that explores the terrifying world of Marion, a maid living in a smog-filled city. As Marion becomes a blood maid, serving the powerful houses of the North, her relationship with the countess blossoms into something more romantic and intimate. This frightening yet captivating novel blends elements of horror and sapphic desire, delivering a unique reading experience.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
“Tipping the Velvet” is another acclaimed novel by Sarah Waters that takes readers on a captivating journey through late Victorian England. Set in the seaside town of Whistable and later in London, the story follows Nancy, who becomes infatuated with Kitty, a performer in a lesbian cabaret underworld. Sarah Waters skillfully creates a vivid sense of time and place, bringing readers into a world filled with unforgettable characters and engaging plot twists.
These sapphic and lesbian novels offer diverse stories and explore a multitude of themes, from love and desire to oppression and self-discovery. Each one is a unique and powerful contribution to the LGBTQ+ literary canon. So, grab a cup of tea, find a cozy spot, and immerse yourself in the rich and vibrant world of sapphic and lesbian literature.