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20 Must-Read Contemporary Sapphic Novels

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Laura Sackton

Senior Contributor

Laura Sackton is a queer book nerd and freelance writer, known on the internet for loving winter, despising summer, and going overboard with extravagant baking projects. In addition to her work at Book Riot, she reviews for BookPage and AudioFile, and writes a weekly newsletter, Books & Bakes, celebrating queer lit and tasty treats. You can catch her on Instagram shouting about the queer books she loves and sharing photos of the walks she takes in the hills of Western Mass (while listening to audiobooks, of course).

Danika recently wrote a wonderful piece about sapphic YA and the various forms it takes. She mentioned that one of the reasons she enjoys reading sapphic YA is because there are a lot less sapphic novels to choose from in adult lit. Look, I’m not going to contradict the wonderful Danika, who runs the equally wonderful Lesbrary, and whose sapphic book knowledge is definitely superior to mine. I am simply here to tell you, as someone who reads more adult lit than YA lit, and as someone whose reading life revolves around queer books, that there are a lot of incredible sapphic novels out there for adults.

I’m not saying that adult sapphic lit is as plentiful as I’d like it to be. It certainly isn’t. But I have read a ton of amazing sapphic novels in the last few years. So many, in fact, that I couldn’t include all of them on this list of 20. I’m staring at my bookshelf right now, and several sapphic books are staring back at me, wondering why they didn’t make the cut: Justine by Forsyth Harmon, Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera, and Amora by Natalia Borges Polesso. (Answer: I haven’t read them yet!) And because I decided to focus on contemporary books, I left out a few historical favorites: Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis, The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, and Stray City by Chelsey Johnson. I didn’t even wade into the waters of the speculative.

And then there are all the upcoming sapphic novels I’m excited about! Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily R. Austin (7/6), Skye Falling by Mia McKenzie (7/27), and Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed (8/3) to name just a few.

In compiling this list, I strove to include as many kinds of sapphic experiences and lives as possible. These books feature lesbians, bi+ women, and queer women who don’t identify as bi or lesbian (hi, hello, it’s me, I see you). They’re written by and feature cis and trans women. Some include romance; some do not. Some are about bi+ women in relationships with men. Some are about healthy relationships and some are about obsessive, toxic ones. Some have happy endings and some don’t. They’re about parenting, friendship, grief, work, family, art, illness, and navigating identity. They take places in cities, small towns, and rural areas. There is queer suffering and human suffering. There’s humor, heartbreak, and most of all, a whole lot of glorious, messy life.

Obviously no list of sapphic literature, even this relatively specific list of contemporary adult sapphic novels, will ever be comprehensive or representative of the myriad varied realities of queer women. There’s no such thing as too much sapphic literature. Until the voices of BIPOC, trans, and disabled queer women are as plentiful as those of white cis queer women, we still have a long way to go. But this list contains some of my absolute favorite reads, in any genre, from the last few years. It’s a starting place.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Patsy is a gay woman who leaves Jamaica for America in search of her best friend and first love, leaving her young daughter, Tru, behind. Over the next decade, Patsy and Tru both wrestle with the consequences of her actions. Patsy slowly builds a life for herself in New York while Tru comes of age in the shadow of her absent mom. This novel is so rich and complex, full of vivid scenes and deeply nuanced characters. It’s one of my go-to queer parenting recs, because it doesn’t simplify or neaten Patsy’s experiences as a mother, lover, queer Black woman, and undocumented immigrant.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

This novel centers three women — two trans and one cis — navigating the murky possibilities of non-traditional family making. Reese has always wanted to be a mom. But she’s definitely surprised when her ex, Ames, a trans woman now living as a man, approaches her with a proposition: his girlfriend is pregnant, and he wants the three of them to co-parent the baby. It’s a messy, funny, brilliantly human book about contemporary queer and trans lives.

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

This is an intense — at times excruciating — book about Rachel, a Jewish twentysomething woman working through a lot of emotional trauma. She has a toxic relationship with her mother, and, when the book opens, is severely restricting her eating. When she meets Miriam, an Orthodox woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop, they fall into an all-consuming relationship. Broder writes with so much honesty about bodies, desire, and sex. It’s not an easy or comfortable read, but it’s a worthwhile one.

Cover of Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

This gorgeous novel follows three Nigerian women: twins Kehinde and Taiye and their mother Kambirinachi. Kehinde and Taiye were close as children but estranged as adults; this is the story of how they slowly find their way back to each other. Ekwuyasi is an absolute master at writing poignant, vivid scenes. She captures so many emotions in simple everyday moments — cooking breakfast for a lover or a first date. The characters are so alive, and the messiness of Taiye’s queerness especially resonated with me.

Cover of Weekend by Jane Eaton Hamilton

Weekend by Jane Eaton Hamilton

If you’re been searching for a book featuring older queer characters and conversations that feel like they’re straight out of real life, you’re going to want to pick this one up. Set on a small island in Ontario, it follows two queer couples over the course of one weekend, both at major turning points in their relationships. Joe and Elliot have been together for decades, and now have a newborn. Ajax and Logan are a newer couple on their first weekend getaway. This book is full of fights and mistakes, harm caused and forgiveness offered, sex, difficult conversations, humor, pain, and celebration. In short: it’s got a little bit of everything.

You Exist Too Much cover

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

This novel opens with upheaval. The narrator, a bisexual Palestinian American woman, breaks up with her girlfriend after she discovers her infidelity. Determined to break a lifelong pattern of obsessive longing, affairs, and pining after unavailable women, she checks herself into The Ledge, a rehab center that offers treatment in “love addiction”. What follows is a dizzying journey of self-discovery, as she begins to reckon with her past, her relationship with her mother, and, most importantly, herself.

Small Beauty by jia qing wilson-yang

This is one of my favorite novels ever, and I could go on about it at length. It’s the story of Mei, a Chinese Canadian trans woman whose beloved cousin has just died. He leaves her his house, so she departs her life in the city to live in the small town where she grew up. She spends the next year grieving, remembering, reconnecting with family, discovering new family, and delving into her memories of the past. It’s a quiet, gorgeously told, shimmeringly alive book about queer lineage, ghosts, immigration, trans friendship, grief, silence, belonging, and the power of stories.

A World Between by Emily Hashimoto

Eleanor Suzuki and Leena Shah meet as college students in 2004. They fall in love fast and hard, with all the whirlwind possibility of new adulthood. Years later, as adults, both patterned with different people, they meet again and their old connection bubbles up. This is such a beautiful book about what it means to grow up and settle into adulthood. It’s about all the interconnected relationships that make up a life, and how much those relationships shift over time. Hashimoto captures all the tumultuous, hesitant, confusing, and bewildering emotions that come with real change. It’s a hard book to look away from.

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

In the wake of her father’s death by suicide, Jessa takes over the management of the family taxidermy shop. With her mother and brother engulfed in their own grief, it’s up to her to keep the family, and the business, from falling apart. Which means she has to face her feelings for her sister-in-law, and maybe actually figure out who her family is, and how she fits with them. Arnett revels in the weird, and this book is no exception. It’s often dark and uncomfortable. If you like brutally honest family stories, you’ll want to pick this up.

cover of Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Jane has just graduated from high school and she’s pregnant; she lives with her loving boyfriend and supportive mother. They’re thrilled about the baby, but she isn’t. She works as a pizza delivery person, and this is how she meets Jenny, a young mother she becomes increasingly obsessed with. I love books featuring messy teenage characters, and this is one. Jane makes so many bad choices. There is a lot of pain, a lot of mistakes. But under all that, it’s an incredibly honest, thoughtful book about how hard it can be to figure yourself out, and the ordinary but powerful experiences that can alter a life forever.

Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian) by Hazel Jane Plante

One of the funniest, most moving, and most creative books I’ve ever read, this surprising novel is written in the form of an encyclopedia for a fictional TV show, Little Blue. The narrator is a trans woman whose best friend Viv has just died. Viv was obsessed with Little Blue; the encyclopedia is a celebration of their friendship and a way for the narrator to process her grief. It soon becomes clear that the narrator was in love with Viv, but this isn’t an unrequited love story. It’s a friendship story. The writing is superb. The fictional TV show is fascinating. There is so much life in this relatively short book. I’ll never forget the narrative voice.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

Lucky and Krishna are both gay. They got married to appease their Sri-Lankan American families, and they have their own lives. But when Lucky reconnects with her first love, Nisha, she finds herself reconsidering her life choices. Queer people entering into protective marriages is a familiar plot line, but Sindu delves into the complexities of it. She explores Lucky’s tumultuous relationships with Kris and Nisha, but also with extended family, especially her grandmother, and herself. It’s a nuanced story about family and community that honors the many kinds of choices queer women make in order to survive.

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo cover image

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

This intergenerational family saga focuses mostly on Hero, a queer Filipina woman who immigrates to the U.S. to live with her aunt and uncle after spending most of her young adulthood fighting in the resistance during the reign of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In California, she slowly builds a new life and new family for herself. The sapphic love story in this book took my breath away. It’s a novel about all the stories and histories a person carries, and how those stories shape relationships. Most of this book takes place in the ’90s, so I guess it’s technically historical, but it does skip ahead a bit to the 2000s in a few places, so I’m counting it.

In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

This darkly comic book explores the humorous pitfalls, as well as the very real pain, of modern love and romance. Julia is a twentysomething living in London with a job she hates, a roommate who’s happily coupled, and a yearning for a date, which she hasn’t had in a while. When she meets an intriguing woman at a party, she enters a whole new world of queer exploration — which is both exhilarating and dangerous. Julia’s struggle to figure herself out and get what she needs (and wants) is a painful journey to witness, and a very relatable one.

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin

This novel opens with Laura, a chronically ill Norwegian immigrant living and working in New York and taking care of her young daughter. Moving backwards through time, the story chronicles Laura’s life: her various relationships and hospital stays, her childhood in Norway and young adulthood in New York, the shifting realities of living with chronic illness. I couldn’t put it down. The writing is so alive, so firmly rooted in the physical world and body.

We Play Ourselves book cover

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

Cass is an up-and-coming bisexual playwright whose career implodes during her first big show. In the aftermath, she flees to L.A., where she gets involved with a film project that seems amazing at first but slowly reveals itself to be something else entirely. There are so many different kinds of bi rep in this, and so many kinds of sapphic relationships: friendships, mentor-mentee relationships, obsessive relationships, romances, and rivalries. It’s about the intersections between art and fame and representation and self-expression.

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren book cover

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Set in rural West Virginia, this novel begins on the day Jodi McCarty gets out of jail. On her meandering journey to get home, she meets and falls for Miranda, who has recently lost custody of her children. They’re both looking for a fresh start, and they decide to make one together. Only, it doesn’t go as planned. This is not a bright, happy book. It’s about the costs of poverty and incarceration on Appalachian communities, about consequences and second chances and how easy it is to spiral out of control in the face of seemingly endless obstacles.

Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam

This family saga, set in Brooklyn and Bangladesh, centers on two cousins, Ella and Charu. Ella, orphaned as a child, lives with Charu’s family in Brooklyn; the two girls were raised as sisters. Over the course of one summer during college, Ella falls in love while the family deals with a series of crises that lead them on a trip to Bangladesh, and into their past. There are many intersecting storylines in this deftly plotted novel, but it never feels like Islam has taken on too much. Each character’s story is equally riveting.

Honey Girl book cover

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Grace Porter has just finished her PhD in astronomy; to celebrate she heads to Vegas with her two best friends and…gets drunk married to a woman she doesn’t know. Back at home, trying to figure out what’s next in her life, she decides to put her career on hold, and head to New York to get to know her wife, Yuki. This book isn’t a romance, though. It’s a novel about a woman who’s always stuck to the plain laid out for her, and what happens when she breaks free of it. I love how honestly Rogers writes about academia, familial pressure, and therapy.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

This book has a big historical plot line running through it, but I’m including it anyway because a) at least half of it is contemporary and b) it is so damn sapphic. Are there even any straight characters in it? I don’t remember any, but don’t quote me. The story follows a group of queer filmmakers and actors involved in a film about a cursed girls’ boarding school. Eerie and strange and a bit creepy at times, it’s about contemporary lesbian culture and hidden queer history.

Looking for more great sapphic novels? Check out 100 Must-Read Bisexual and Lesbian Books (especially if you’re looking for classics across many genres). Danika also made a great list of Bi and Lesbian Literary Fiction (which only features one book that’s also on this list!) If you missed any of these sapphic books from 2019, you’re going to want to fix that, pronto. And if that’s not enough sapphic novels, you can always peruse our LGBTQ archives.