Romance shows up a lot in books across all genres. Even when books aren’t specifically about romance, romantic subplots are common. If you’re looking for a bit of romance on the side, you can find it in space operas, murder mysteries, epic fantasies, hard-hitting YA, historical fiction, and every other kind of book under the sun. If you’re looking for books without romance, though, things get harder. But they do exist!
These six contemporary novels all feature (almost) no romance. A few of them do mention romance, but none of them have romantic plots or subplots. Some of the characters in these books are in romantic relationships at one point or another, but those relationships are just briefly touched on. Romance isn’t what drives the plot. Instead, these books are about friendship, grief, family, self-discovery, and work. There are so many interesting and important things that happen to humans besides falling in love, and these books explore all of that messy, non-romantic stuff.
The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya
Friendship is such a complex relationship, and such an important part of so many of our lives. Yet it’s still rare to find adult books that center friendships. This novel does exactly that. It’s about two South Asian musicians, Neela and Rukmini, who become friends after Rukmini covers one of Neela’s songs and it goes viral. Shraya explores all the heartbreaks, challenges, and joys of female friendship, as well as brown womanhood, internet culture, fame, racism in the music industry, and a whole lot more.
Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante
This is another amazing book about friendship! The narrator is a trans woman whose best friend Viv has just died. Viv was obsessed with a TV show, Little Blue, and so the narrator decides to write an encyclopedia about the show as a way to grieve and remember her friend. It’s a celebration of trans friendship and a beautiful meditation on grief. It’s quirky and funny and centers platonic and familial relationships.
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
Shalini is a privileged young woman from Bangalore. In the wake of her mother’s unexpected death, she travels to Kashmir in search of a salesman who often visited her childhood home. She’s convinced that finding him will shed some light on her mother’s life. But when she arrives in Kashmir, she’s forced to confront not only the tangled politics of the region, but the long-lasting and devastating effects of her presence there. There is so much going on in this novel. It’s about grief, wealth and privilege, political upheaval, violence, and power. There are so many deeply human stories to be told that are not about falling in and out of love, and this is one of them.
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
I hesitated to include this one because there is a bit of romance toward the end, as well as a few flashback scenes involving a romantic relationship. But I decided to go with it because is is such a unique book about issues that are so often tied up with romance: parenting and childbirth. Natsu has always wanted children, but she’s not interested in sex. Throughout the book, she wrestles with this question of how to have children, as well as the narrow and limiting societal expectations placed on women. Natsu is such a wonderful character, full of questions and contradictions. It’s a treat to get to witness her journey, which is as much about figuring out what she wants as it is about how to get it.
Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang
This quiet novel follows Mei, a trans Asian Canadian woman, through a year of grief and transformation. Her beloved cousin has just died and left her his house in the town where they both grew up. So she leaves the city to spend a year reconnecting with her past. Like so many of the books on this list, this novel is about friendship and family relationships. I honestly could have read an entire book about each of Mei’s relationships: with her cousin, her mother, her grandmother, her best friend. They’re all so nuanced and thoughtful.
Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins
While there are a few romantic relationships in this novel, we see very little of them, and they’re not the focus. In a lush and beautiful intergenerational story about two Black families in Harlem, Jerkins explores Black feminism, gentrification, reproductive justice, and the complex relationships between women. The Melancons are known for the healing cauls they possess, which they sell to wealthy white customers. When they refuse to sell a caul to a pregnant Black woman, it sets off a chain of events that ties their two families together forever.