Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity to remember that love takes many forms. Sure, there’s romantic love. But what about friendship, filial love, and even interspecies affection?
Instead of springing for champagne and roses this year, you might opt out of romance. Books about romance, that is. Yup, I said it: ditch the romantic love books and pick up a non-romance. An anti-romance? You get my drift. Heck, you could even give your book a sniff if you want — everyone knows a good book smells better than flowers.
Regardless of your tome’s fragrance, it’s the stories that will fill you up. Stories of women supporting each other, surprise friendships, soulful companionship, and more.
Admittedly, things are sometimes a little less titillating when everybody keeps their clothes on, but they can also be interesting in different ways. As a matter of fact, when you take romance out of the picture, all manner of beautiful dynamics have room to bloom.
To that end, I’ve compiled a list of books that center non-romantic love. These books plumb the depths of true friendship and offer interesting twists on family. Some of them showcase networks of support that keep the character afloat through difficult times. Still others offer humorous takes on love in all its many forms.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Just Kids is Patti Smith’s love letter to longtime best friend Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s a book she promised him she’d write. Published a few decades after Mapplethorpe’s death, it’s a moving story of friendship (and art). The memoir chronicles Smith’s years as a budding artist and musician, during which time her life was intertwined with Mapplethorpe’s. The intensity of their incipient friendship (which did spill over into romance here and there) will stay with you for a long time after you’ve put this one down.
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
In case you couldn’t tell by the title, this novel is…unconventional. The premise is simple enough: Korede’s sister Ayoola has a little problem. A little boyfriends-keep-dying-under-suspicious-circumstances problem. After helping Ayoola dispose of unlucky boyfriend #3, Korede figures her sister just might actually be a serial killer. And yet the book moves into surprisingly deep areas with its exploration of these sisters’ love for one another and the traumas in their past.
OBIT by Victoria Chang
Chang’s collection is a series of poetic obituaries. It’s a meditative journey through grief over the loss of a parent. Sometimes humorous, often reflective, and always compelling, OBIT is an unflinching exploration of a grown child’s love for their parents that somehow manages to be gentle. I read it not too long after I lost my dad, and it helped me sit with that loss and find some healing in a different way that other books had. Chang was already one of my favorite poets, but this collection is next level.
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
Orquídea Divina has long been rumored to be a witch, and when she summons her family to her house for her impending death…well, nobody’s really second-guessing that witch thing. But her transformation isn’t what anyone expected and it triggers an unexpected undertaking for her descendants. This story is about the ties that bind families together and the magic protections of love.
Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons by Lorna Landvik
I have to pause and acknowledge what a fantastic title this is. Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons. I picked this book up because of its title and I have zero regrets about that decision. It follows five women in a suburban neighborhood across over four decades. During that time, they navigate the joys and perils of their lives, creating a book club that sustains them far beyond their readerly needs. Fair warning: this book will totally make you want to start your own neighborhood book club.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This is a story about amazing women. It’s an epistolary novel consisting of letters from Celie to God. Celie’s life in the rural South isn’t easy, and through her hardships the book becomes a paean to friendship — especially those that rise up between women in the face of hard men, hard times, and a hard world. I mean, when a book has been made into a movie that Oprah herself stars in, it’s pretty obvious it’s worth reading (IMHO).
Summer in the City of Roses by Michelle Ruiz Keil
This is a tale of sibling love if I ever read one. You’ve got tough-as-nails older sister Iph and tender younger brother Orr. The novel kicks off when their dad pays to have Orr kidnapped and taken to a behavior-modification bootcamp to “fix” his sensitive nature. From there, all manner of beautiful mayhem ensues. Fairytales come to life in this imaginative coming-of-age narrative that explores the complex wonder of sibling love.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
This weird western follows Asian American siblings Lucy and Sam as they traverse the so-called Old West in search of belonging. There’s so much about Lucy and Sam’s relationship, family history, and adventures that hinges on love. They each have to learn to love themselves, and to love (and forgive) their parents. Their journeys — sometimes together, sometimes divided — take them to unexpected places. Along the way, Zhang’s masterful prose makes this an unforgettable read.
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
A mother-daughter bond. A magical land nobody has ever heard of. A character named Gretel who is undeniably obsessed with gingerbread. This contemporary fairytale is Helen Oyeyemi at her best. That mother-daughter relationship is central to Gingerbread, which follows young Perdita on her quest for her mother’s childhood friend. She travels to impossible and dangerous places, prompting her mother to follow her. Along the way, there are lessons learned, secrets unearthed, and love reforged.
On Cats by Doris Lessing
This tiny volume is Doris Lessing’s memoir about the cats in her life. It’s about her love of cats, those most idiosyncratic and irresistible of creatures. As Lessing ruminates on the various felines who have left paw prints on her heart, her thoughtfully chosen words convey her deep love of cats as well as how they have changed her. It’s a really special little book that gets right to the heart of the unique relationship humans and felines share with one another.
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
Of course, if you’re more of a dog person then Mary Oliver’s poetry collection might appeal to you instead. Like Lessing’s meditation on cats, Oliver’s homage to dogs is a celebration of the human-canine bond. The influence dogs affected in Oliver’s world speaks to the powerful connection humans can sometimes share with their canine companions. It’s a touching collection that demonstrates the powerful impact our animal friends can have on our lives.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
This book is so fun to read. It’s about a lonely teenager in Japan who’s the victim of bullying. And, of course, her Zen Buddhist grandmother. Oh, and a woman living in the Pacific Northwest who finds the girl’s diary washed up at the beach. So you have journal entries, environmental commentary, writer’s block, and small-town dynamics all jumbled in there together. And it works beautifully. Out of it all is a story of love — a stranger’s love for the young woman who wrote of her pain in a diary, a teenager’s love for her grandmother, a man’s love for the earth we live on.
So Far From God by Ana Castillo
This is a novel about women. Four sisters and their mother, to be specific. Set in New Mexico, it follows Sofia and her symbolically named daughters (Fe, Esperanza, Caridad…and “la Loca,” whose real name has been forgotten). It’s about their love for one another, certainly, but also about communities of women holding each other up in the face of patriarchy, racism, and unrelenting hardship. Sometimes a little bit of romance creeps into the story, but it all comes back to the women. Networks of women who love and support one another.
The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir by E.J. Koh
In this memoir, the author grapples with her relationship with her mother. After finding a box full of her mother’s letters to her, written years ago and in Korean, Koh grapples with her parent’s decision to return to South Korea and leave her and her brother in California. As an adult Koh translates the letters, she delves into her mother’s and grandmother’s pasts. The Magical Language of Others is an intergenerational love story about women, family, and poetry.
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham
The title kind of says it all with The Home Place. It’s about history, racism, family, and place. But also, it’s about Lanham’s love of nature. It’s a complex and dynamic book that explores Lanham’s experiences in the rural South through his love of the natural world. (Incidentally, if you enjoyed Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s book World of Wonders then you’ll probably find this one enjoyable, too.)
How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior
Who can say no to a book about a cranky old woman and who goes to Antarctica to learn about penguins? Okay, so that’s a little reductive, but it gets the point across. Veronica is 85 years old, very wealthy, and trying to figure out who to leave her fortune to. So, naturally, she forces her way into into the lives of unwitting scientists in Antarctica. As you can imagine, antics ensue. But there’s some serious stuff in there, too, as Veronica’s childhood journal entries come into play…along with the son she has long since lost touch with. Need I say more?
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala
This book is so much about friendship, family, and one woman’s slow process of learning to love the hometown she happily fled as soon as she finished high school. Lila has come home, and it wasn’t entirely willingly. She’s working in the family restaurant when her ex-boyfriend and local food critic dies face-first in the meal she served him. This cozy mystery follows Lila and her best friend as they conduct their own investigation in an attempt to save the family business. I love that the potential love interests take a sideline to the storylines about Lila’s aunties and her best friend. If you like it, pick up the recently published sequel called Homicide and Halo-Halo.
Pax by Sarah Pennypacker
This one is a middle grade read, but it’s sooooo worth it for adults, too. Pax is a fox who’s been raised by a young boy named Peter. Peter’s father forces him to release Pax into the wild (which feels an awful like abandonment) when he goes off to fight in the war. Thus begins Peter and Pax’s journey to find each other in a war-torn country. Along the way, Peter makes friends with a cantankerous old woman and Pax finds a new family of foxes. This is a story that, to me, reads a lot like Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist because of its universality and fable-like language.
The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
This story is one of my favorites. I can’t resist a feline narrator. Nana is a cat who finds himself on a road trip with his human, Satoru. As they make their way toward their destination, their relationship deepens. So, however, does the real reason behind the trip. This is a surprising story about the extraordinary bond between a cat and his human. It’s about love and loss and the particular brand of courage we often need to survive in this world of ours.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
It seems fitting to end this list with Nunez’s aptly titled book. It’s the unexpected tale of a woman whose best friend has died by suicide…and left his dog, Apollo, to her. Apollo becomes her companion as she grieves (or, rather, as they both grieve) and their time together transforms her. As friends urge her to ditch the dog, whose presence will certainly result in the narrator’s eviction, she and Apollo grow inseparable Nunez’s novel is a moving depiction of love in a variety of forms.