It wasn’t long ago that fiction authored by LGBTQI+ authors was considered niche. It’s only over the last two decades that books celebrating gay and lesbian lives have become mainstream, and these are still the first books to be banned from schools. This recommended reading list includes literary, mainstream, historical, and YA fiction.
Happy Pride Month to all members of the LGBTQI+ community.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Not quite famous novelist Arthur Less desperately wants to get out of the country. He hasn’t committed a crime and he isn’t on the run, but he wants an iron clad reason not to attend his long term lover’s wedding. So he goes through his junk mail, accepting teaching appointments at random German universities, attending previously unheard of literary awards in Italy, taking on a food writing assignment in Japan, and agreeing to attend a friend of a friend’s birthday celebration in Morocco. During the course of his travels, Less accumulates a series of embarrassing moments, surprise victories, and flings. He prepares to turn fifty, thinking, “He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty.” Although Less has its serious moments and won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it is overall entertaining and perfect for your next beach vacation.
The Guncle by Steven Rowley
At age forty-three, Patrick is a retired sitcom actor who lives alone in Palm Springs. He has a Golden Globe and an Oscar Wilde quote for every occasion. What Patrick does not have is experience with children, and he is a stranger to his niece and nephew who simply know him as GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick). When Patrick’s sister-in-law and best friend, Sara, passes away, and his brother goes into rehab for a pill addiction that went unnoticed during Sara’s battle with cancer, Patrick finds himself temporary primary caregiver for nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant. Given that the kids don’t drink martinis, he’s not quite sure how to bond with them, and he definitely doesn’t know how to help them with their grief given that he has never recovered from losing his own partner years before. There are missteps and careless words aplenty, but Patrick finds he was made to be a guncle.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
It is 1985, and the Boystown district of Chicago is in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. The Great Believers opens with Yale Tishman grieving the loss of his friend, Nico. Like many of the early AIDS casualties, Nico had his final medical decisions made by estranged family members, rather than those closest to him, and was given a funeral that reflected the values of his relatives rather than Nico’s own. With his partner Charlie, Yale attends a life celebration for Nico, and at this event, misunderstandings and jealousy destroy Yale and Charlie’s relationship. Yale comes to learn that his relationship was not safe and monogamous as he had always thought. The second storyline of The Great Believers follows Fiona, Nico’s sister, in the present day as she seeks out her estranged daughter in Paris. As Fiona searches for Claire, she stays with her friend, Richard, an artist preparing for a show that will honor his fallen friends from Chicago. The Great Believers is a powerful story, and Makkai’s writing is beautiful. As I was very young when the AIDS epidemic began, it took decades for me to understand how it affected an entire generation of gay men and how politics and the witholding of funds turned a public health issue into genocide.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
When Monique Grant, a struggling journalist at a crossroads in life, is given an opportunity to write a biography of classic movie star, Evelyn Hugo, she accepts. Hugo is a Hollywood legend, known for her sexy roles and her seven marriages, and Monique knows writing this book could change her life. Born Evelyn Herrera in Hell’s Kitchen, Evelyn leaves New York for Hollywood as a teenager. After changing her surname, losing her accent, and dying her hair blond, she finds success in the movie industry. Evelyn has both beauty and talent, but she learns that high profile marriages are as important to her career as appearing in high profile films. And if those high profile marriages turn abusive, a film icon never lets the adoring public know. What Monique comes to learn is that Evelyn has had seven husbands, but only one true love, who was definitely not one of her husbands. But Evelyn’s sexual orientation isn’t her only secret and her last revelation to Monique completely rewrites Monique’s understanding of her own past.
Life Mask by Emma Donoghue (historical fiction)
Eliza Farren, a well-known comedic actress of 18th century London, prizes her reputation above all else. Through sheer talent, she has been able to move from being an impoverished child thespian in the country to being one of the most well known faces in Drury Lane. While most actresses of the time relied upon aristocratic donors for economic security, Eliza is unwilling to become a man’s mistress. This is unfortunate for Eliza’s greatest admirer, Edward Smith-Stanley, the Earl of Derby. When Derby’s bored aristocratic friends put on an amateur play, he gets Eliza involved as advisor, which brings her into London’s aristocratic social sphere. As rehearsals go on, a friendship develops between Eliza, Derby, and the widowed sculptor Mrs. Anne Damer. The three maintain a close friendship until rumors spread that Eliza and Anne’s relationship is more than platonic. While Derby initially thinks the rumor is absurd, he grows jealous and demands that Eliza choose between him and Anne. Life Mask is intricately researched historical fiction, and Eliza, Derby, and Anne were real historical figures. It might not be for readers who get bored with too much historical detail, but I was totally immersed in the late 18th and early 19th century world.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (historical fiction)
Sue Trinder, the seventeen-year-old orphaned daughter of a convicted murderer, has been raised in Victorian London by Mrs. Sucksby, baby farmer and petty criminal. While Sue has grown up committing petty thefts and learning to transform stolen goods into new and unidentifiable goods, she has never known neglect or lack of love as Mrs. Sucksby’s favorite orphan. One day, a conman, simply known as “Gentleman,” shows up at Mrs. Suckby’s house with a proposal for Sue. Gentleman wants Sue to take a job as a lady’s maid to heiress, Maud Lilly, and convince Maud to elope with Gentleman. Once Maud and Gentleman are married and he has control over Maud’s fortune, he will then share a portion of the fortune with Sue. With Mrs. Sucksby’s permission, Sue agrees to the scheme. But once Sue is at Briar, she learns that Maud, like her, is seventeen and motherless. The two girls even look similar. Despite their differences in class and upbringing, Sue and Maud become close and Sue begins to realize her feelings for Maud are far from sisterly. She wants to extricate herself from Gentleman’s scheme, but she needs the money to repay Mrs. Sucksby for all that she has done for her, and she doesn’t realize Gentleman’s scheme is wider than she ever imagined. Fingersmith is a very fun and intricately plotted historical novel.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (YA)
Noah and Jude are twins with extremely different personalities. At thirteen, introverted Noah looks to his art to save him, while adventurous Jude’s priority is on her social life. At sixteen, the relationship between the twins has been destroyed, and Jude is now the anti-social twin who looks to art as her salvation. Noah is outwardly the more successful twin, but beyond the surface, he isn’t doing any better than Jude and is more firmly wedged in his closet than he was at thirteen. The novel alternates chapters narrated by Noah at thirteen with chapters narrated by Jude at sixteen. This is a beautiful novel about loss, family, love, identity, and what happens after you’ve done things that seem unforgivable.
Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens (YA)
Otters Holt, Kentucky values traditional femininity. The town is the home of Molly the Corn Dolly, a forty-foot-tall statue that is its sole tourist attraction, and a corn dolly is awarded every year to an outstanding woman. Corn Dolly winners are pie bakers, gardeners, caregivers, and pillars of the community. Daughter of the local youth pastor, Billie McCaffrey is outside the Otters Holt ideal and is infamous for setting the church youth room on fire at a lock-in when she and her friends microwaved a smelly sock and her dad’s World’s Best Minister mug. However, when the Harvest Festival and corn dolly award are canceled, it is Billie and her group of misfits who develop a fundraising scheme to save the festival. Throughout the book, Billie is seeking to understand gender and sexuality. She resents that the church community demands that she can only love boys, but she also resents that her friends assume she is gay simply because she’s a tomboy. Her friends attempt to nudge her out of the closet when she just wants to figure out her sexual orientation for herself. While this book could have gone badly (either too sweet or too cynical), it never does because Billie is such a fresh, likable character.