I’m not usually one for reality TV about dating and relationships. But after about the hundredth lesbian told me I absolutely had to watch The Ultimatum: Queer Love within a week of its debut, I decided to give it a try, and I was instantly hooked. The drama! The tears! The absolutely bananas concept! If you, like me, couldn’t get enough of Netflix’s The Ultimatum: Queer Love, check out these deliciously messy sapphic novels.
I’ll be the first to say it: The Ultimatum is the absolute worst idea for a reality show I’ve ever heard. It stars five couples who disagree on whether or not they should get married, with one issuing an ultimatum to the other that they must either get married or break up. (First red flag — if you and your partner disagree on where your relationship is headed, go to therapy, not a casting director.) The couples rearrange themselves into five new pairings for three-week “trial marriages.” (Second red flag — why would you fake-marry a stranger when you could go to therapy?) Then they come back to their original partners for another trial marriage before finally choosing if they will end up engaged to their original partner, engaged to their new trial partner, or single. (It’s red flags all the way down. GO TO THERAPY.)
I guess the inconceivably ridiculous concept is what made it impossible to stop watching. Why would any of these ten grown-ass adults agree to this? How could it possibly end well for anyone involved? And if they’re all queer, why do they have such traditional and limited views on marriage? Isn’t that the coolest part of being queer, that we can break the societal mold and let our relationships take whatever shapes make us happiest? I started watching because I was so befuddled by the whole thing. But before long, I was also deeply invested in every one of the contestants. Their mess was my mess. Their joys and sorrows were my joys and sorrows. And in the end… Yes, I still wanted to take them each by the hand and lead them to therapy.
These messy sapphic novels, from romance to literary fiction to queer satire, feature relatably imperfect queer protagonists and tangled sapphic relationships. If you couldn’t get enough of The Ultimatum: Queer Love, they’re the perfect way to fill the trial-wife-shaped hole in your heart.
Messy Sapphic Novels like The Ultimatum: Queer Love
D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins
Read if: You wanted to see Yoly risk it all for someone she met five seconds ago.
Kris is striving to break through as an influencer. D’Vaughn is looking for a way to finally come out to her mom. Enter Instant I Do, a reality show where Kris and D’Vaughn can both get what they want — plus $100,000 — if they can plan an amazing wedding in just six weeks. If you love a terribly conceived reality TV show that pushes people to get married to complete strangers (ahem, The Ultimatum), you’ll adore D’Vaughn and Kris’ delightful and unexpected chemistry.
Your Driver is Waiting by Priya Guns
Read if: You watched Rae choose her trial wife through the cracks in your fingers, knowing it could only end in disaster.
Damani is barely scraping by as a RideShare driver, especially with protestors blocking streets and supposedly speaking on behalf of people like her. When she picks up a beautiful, politically active woman named Jolene, Damani falls hard. But Damani and Jolene come from very different worlds, and they’re sure to collide at some point. This is one of those wild fever dream books where you know something big is lurking just around the next page. Damani is a nuanced and morally gray character that draws you into her world immediately.
Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
Read if: You secretly hoped all the trial wives would sleep together just to see what drama would ensue.
Greta’s emotional detachment makes it easier for her to maintain a sense of removal from her job transcribing patient sessions for a sex and relationship therapist. But she’s new to Hudson, New York, and doesn’t know how often she might hear a familiar voice around town, only to realize she knows that stranger’s most sexually charged secrets. Greta becomes obsessed with one patient she calls Big Swiss, and when she runs into her at the dog park, they form a tenuous friendship full of complicated secrets and lies. Messy, uncomfortable, sometimes gross, and always completely bizarre, this story will sweep you into a world of sapphic chaos right from the start.
Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst
Read if: You thought, “Anyone who would even consider breaking up with Mal is a damn fool.”
Mickey’s life was finally going according to plan, thanks to her patient partner Lex and her covetable media job bringing her dreams of being an influential writer within reach. But then she got fired. Furious enough to reveal the anti-Black racism she’d faced in her job, she posted a searing open letter online…which no one read. It isn’t until Mickey returns to her hometown and considers giving up her dream that drama in the industry brings her almost forgotten letter into the spotlight. It’s a searing indictment of the current media landscape through the eyes of a protagonist ready to leave it all behind.
All Are Welcome by Liz Parker
Read if: You wondered why the hell Lexi is so hellbent on marriage at the age of 24 when it clearly seems like a bad idea.
Caroline wants a chill, laidback wedding. Her fiancé Tiny isn’t really sure what kind of wedding she wants. But their parents have lots of big plans for their lavish destination wedding in Bermuda. As guests arrive with their own messy drama in tow, the wedding event spirals out of Tiny and Caroline’s control. Full of twists, laughs, and characters you love to hate, this is a gossipy rich-people-problems novel that will keep you guessing if the protagonists will really go through with the wedding against the odds to the very end.
Can’t Resist Her by Kianna Alexander
Read if: You were deeply invested in Tiff and Mildred’s on-again off-again drama.
Summer and Aiko shared a steamy kiss at their high school senior dance, and neither of them have forgotten it years later. Now that Summer’s moving back to town to teach, they might have a chance to reignite the flame they had. But Summer’s furious to learn Aiko is on the architectural team planning to tear down their old high school — the school Summer’s grandmother founded. Is romance in their future when they can’t stop fighting about their shared past and future?
One’s Company by Ashley Hutson
Read if: You audibly begged Aussie to stop literally running away from her feelings and just go to therapy already.
After surviving a senseless act of violence, Bonnie becomes fixated on the TV show Three’s Company, falling further and further into the safe, retro world of Jack, Janet, and Chrissy. When she wins a massive lottery jackpot, she spends it recreating not just the apartment building, but the whole world of Three’s Company for her to live out her days alone and in secret on a rural mountain. But a secret as big as Bonnie’s custom TV land is sure to get out somehow, and Bonnie will do anything to defend it from intruders.
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier (AOC)
Read if: You’re secretly on Team Vanessa.
Jane is 18, pregnant, unsure of what she wants in life, and vaguely unhappy in her pizza delivery job. But then she gets a frenzied call from a woman whose son refuses to eat anything unless it’s a pepperoni and pickle pizza. Jane goes above and beyond to deliver, but her desire to help turns into a dark, messy, dangerous obsession. If you enjoy an “unlikable” morally gray protagonist who makes all the wrong decisions, you’ll love this bizarre, dark, wonderful, wild ride of a novel.
Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis
Read if: You’re openly on Team Vanessa.
Twenty-something lesbian couple Sasha and Jesse are pleased to accept an invitation to stay with a rich, older lesbian couple in their country home over the holidays. They’ll even deal with the awkward dynamics with another young couple, one of whom is an influencer. But as jealousy, obsession, and all sorts of tensions rise, it’s unclear if any of the three couples will end up together at the end of all the chaos. It’s a hot, messy, ridiculous journey through gender and modern lesbian relationships. (Sound familiar, The Ultimatum fans?)
Just As You Are by Camille Kellogg
Read if: You were constantly stressed for Xander because they are too sweet and gentle for this extremely manipulative experiment.
Liz loves her job writing listicles and advice columns for The Nether Fields, a queer magazine where most of her friends and roommates work as well. But when it looks like the magazine will be forced to shut down, she wonders if it’s time to pursue her secret dream of writing a novel. Instead, a couple of new investors step in to save the magazine, one of whom is dangerously hot — and seems to deeply hate Liz and her articles. This queer Pride and Prejudice retelling has so much humor, heart, gender exploration, and authenticity. I love how Camille Kellogg breathes fresh (and very queer) air into familiar characters, making Liz and her friends relatable and endearing.
Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers
Read if: You got a little misty eyed at Tiff’s admittedly overwritten monologue about love.
Grace has always been a disciplined over-achiever, as evidenced by her new PhD in Astronomy. That’s why she’s surprised by her own actions at a drunken girls’ trip to Vegas that end with her married to a woman she doesn’t know. Struggling to figure out the next move in her career, she spends a summer in New York with her new wife and learns to embrace the unexpected. It’s a wild ride that forces two strangers into an unexpected relationship that forces them to think about what they want out of a marriage — and out of life.
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
Read if: You’re still wondering how the post-Ultimatum trauma is playing out for all the stars.
In the before times, Miri was the difficult wife, the one who went through periods of withdrawal and melancholy. But when Leah’s research trip aboard a submarine goes terribly wrong, leaving her trapped at the bottom of the sea for months, she returns changed. She can’t seem to explain anything about her experience, instead spending hours in the bath, running the taps, and drinking salt water. Alternating between Miri and Leah’s perspectives, Our Wives Under the Sea explores the dangers of the deep, the way trauma reshapes us, and the unexpected turns in intimate relationships.
I hope these messy sapphic novels help you survive your The Ultimatum: Queer Love hangover! You might also enjoy: