Anna Dorn’s Guide To Must-Read Sapphic Novels
Novelist Anna Dorn breaks down the best sapphic novels to read, from Cassandra at the Wedding to Big Swiss.
Making a sapphic reading list for Pride Month feels like something I can only do somewhat ironically. I don’t believe in being proud of anything, especially not one’s sexuality, which frankly is a mundane preference and I think we’d all benefit if it were treated as such. And I struggle with the rhetoric. “Queer” feels sexless and corporate. It also includes men, who I’d prefer to exclude. “Lesbian” is preferable — retro, chic, Greek island — but excludes books by or about women who don’t partner exclusively with women, which would rule out a lot of banger books. “Sapphic” is a tad TikTok-y, but in this case it’s the most precise. So I’m making a sapphic reading list for pride with the awareness that the practice and jargon may be a little cringe.
The protagonist of my forthcoming novel Perfume & Pain has a similarly fraught relationship with her sexuality. Astrid Dahl (no relation to Roald) is a girl-crazy lesbian author who gets flack for refusing to identify as queer or conform to what’s considered PC in the deliriously-woke publishing world. Put simply: she’s a brat. An insufferable contrarian. (Who can relate?) But Astrid is trying to be less difficult. (I can relate.) In writing Astrid, I was probably trying to exorcise the difficult part of myself. (For me, writing a novel is always a bit of an exorcism.) Given the previous paragraph, I don’t think it worked. Or maybe it worked a little because I am earnestly excited to share the following list of incredible books about women loving women. To quote the viral meme: “I’m cringe, but I’m free.” And with that, here are some of Astrid and my favorite sapphic novels.
Baker’s 1962 novel about a woman self-destructing at her identical twin’s wedding was rereleased by the New York Review of Books in 2004. The reprint’s back cover identifies Cassandra as gay, but the novel itself never explicitly does. As the book is semi-autobiographical, Cassandra’s sexuality is only hinted at. There’s reference to a woman named Liz Janko calling her nonstop for weeks — deeply lesbian behavior — and Cassandra’s grandmother tells her at one point, “I’ve never been able to see anything wrong with your being—” before Cassandra cuts her off. Cassandra is messy and challenging and I’m absolutely positive that in some fictional lesbian afterlife, she and Astrid are drinking heavily together.
Like Cassandra at the Wedding, Swiss author Fleur Jaeggy’s most famous novel is slim in pages but thick with lesbian undertones. The 1989 novel centers around a homoerotic friendship at a Swiss boarding school in a majestic Alpine village. There, the unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with the elegant new girl, Frédérique, seeking first to befriend and then “conquer her.” Years later, when the women reunite in Paris, the narrator asks, “Is it sorcery that brings lovers together?” Between women, yes.
Laurie Weeks’ ecstatic masterpiece Zippermouth won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award and also my heart. Told in cheeky stream-of-consciousness, the novel follows a young lesbian addict in 1990s New York City, gliding feverishly between benders and dreams, childhood letters to Judy Davis and falling for a straight woman named Jane. “Jane’s hair was many, many things,” Weeks writes. “Jane’s hair was my lost adolescence,” “Jane’s hair was a bottle of suave Wildflower Shampoo,” “Jane’s hair was the cooing of a mourning dove, it was was the call of the wild,” “Jane’s hair was a photograph of my mother holding me the day I was born,” “Jane’s hair was a starfish, the stars, Jane’s hair had a mind of its own.” Lesbian pining at its most delightful; Sappho herself would be proud.
Eccentric and electric, Roveto’s second book lies somewhere between prose poetry and experimental novella. It’s queer not only as in gay, but also as in puzzling, peculiar, unexpected — author Lucy Ives said Roveto is “devising a new language.” Both celestial and heartfelt, the book is filled with hallucinatory romantic abstractions that wash over you like jazz. “Our safe word was dental floss,” Roveto writes. “Say I love you we said I love you they said.”
James Franco and I both love this novel, a salty and devastating anti-romance between two art students: a charismatic bitch (Paulina) and a shy dreamer (Fran). Paulina first notices Fran dancing in front of a broken mirror at a party, gazing at her distorted reflection. “There was something innovative in the layout of her face,” Paulina thinks. Looking at Fran’s lost green eyes, Paulina decides she wants to “be her, or be with her, or destroy her.” And, honestly, is there anything gayer?
Disabato’s second novel follows a baddie witch on an emotional and chemical bender all over Los Angeles. Think Sabrina the Teenage Witch meets Eve Babitz, who shares a first name with our narrator. U Up’s Eve is much gayer though. She goes to a crystal sound bath and then catches her ex-girlfriend mid-hookup at a ‘90s lesbian dance party. She flirts with a bratty ghost in her apartment throughout the book. It’s mystical, it’s messy, it’s melodramatic, it’s everything we want from a sapphic novel.
Two American expats in Berlin turn their apartment into a decadent nightclub, but quickly become convinced their crime writer landlord is spying on them for her next thriller. The B story follows protagonist Zoe’s fearless sexual awakening with a shaved-headed British woman, which helped author Calla Henkel embrace her own sexuality and come out. “But the book I wrote is in no way an Eat Pray Love, lose-yourself-to-find-yourself journey,” Henkel said. “It’s a dark thriller [...] that reworked my last decade spent living in Berlin into a bloody fictional nightmare.”
Categorized as josei manga — Japanese for “lady comics” — my Lesbian Experience With Loneliness documents Kabi Nagata’s autobiographical experience of losing her virginity to a female sex worker. It also tracks her anxiety, eating disorder, self-loathing, and struggles to publish. Nagata draws all the art herself with a two-tone pink palette, and uses a pen name to protect her identity. I could find no photos of her on the internet. If I were her, my next book would be called Lesbian Invisibility.
Beagin’s hilarious and tender third novel follows a sex therapist’s transcriptionist who falls in love with a client. Greta has just moved into a bee-infested Dutch farmhouse. In her new job transcribing recorded sex therapy sessions, she becomes transfixed by an icy gynecologist she affectionately calls Big Swiss (she’s tall and from Switzerland). “[Big Swiss] reminded Greta of one of those exotic vegetables she was drawn to at the farmer’s market but didn’t know how to cook.” Greta recognizes Big Swiss’s voice one day at the dog park and the two quickly fall into a rapturous affair. As one could expect, things end badly. But in a mostly fun way.
Jenny Fran Davis’s debut adult novel Dykette is a delicious, psychosexual romp following three queer couples on a hedonistic holiday getaway in the Hudson Valley. The protagonist Sasha is a graduate student studying the “feminine miniature,” like dollhouses and “petty ephemera.” The drama begins when Sasha — while trying to take a sexy Grinch selfie for her partner Jesse — overhears Jesse complaining about her during a virtual therapy session. Sasha then becomes threatened by newcomer Darcy, a tiny bimbo with a big internet following. “The battle for high-femme dominance,” as Kirkus put it, “comes to a head when Jesse and Darcy collaborate on a piece of livestreamed performance art that Sasha perceives not just as infidelity, but also as a parody of her sweetly pink aesthetic.” I told you: it’s delicious.
Madievsky’s debut has everything I want from a novel: a toxic sister relationship, countless nights at a trashy LA nightclub called Salvation, and a dreamy sapphic romance. After being estranged from her sister, the unnamed narrator gets a job at an emergency room where a mystical woman named Sasha appears, claiming to be her “amulet” and taking her on a spiritual journey and sexual awakening. This novel is hypnotic; I inhaled it.