You know, like, if you want to. Sophia Larigakis examines five books that present love, sex, and relationships in ways that deviate from the straight, saccharine, vanilla norm.
In apparent contradiction to the title of this article, there is no such thing as unconventional love. I won’t wax poetic about all the ways that love is subjective and strange, but I will say that there is a dominant discourse for what love looks like. In this discourse, love is straight, linear, age-appropriate, vanilla, and unambiguous. It’s the be-all and end-all of life, and it’s only love if it’s requited. The five books listed here approach love unflinchingly, and explore ways of loving that cannot be tied up neatly with a bow. Here, love and sex and relationships are asymmetrical, obsessive, debilitating, dirty, radical, queer.
Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney (2017)
Sally Rooney’s writing sits just on the edge of too-clever-for-its-own-good, but never strays into its depths. The result is a novel so smart that it makes you want to murder her for writing it at the impossibly young age of 25. In Conversations with Friends, two best friends (formerly a couple), Frances and Bobbi, fall for one half of an older couple, respectively. Frances, the narrator, becomes particularly infatuated with Nick, and Bobbi develops a thing for Nick’s wife, Melissa. While the dominant “love story” in this book is Frances and Nick’s, the relationship between Frances and Bobbi is by far the most enthralling. The two share the kind of codependent, dramatic, and erotically-charged relationship arguably unique to queer women.
The Idiot, by Elif Batuman (2017)
The Idiot is a crystalline coming of age novel centered around a young woman named Selin’s freshman year at Harvard. Following her first (neither clearly requited nor unrequited) love to Hungary, Selin embodies all the painstakingly sincere, affect-laden, and yet naive and open aspects of youth. Reading about her obsession with a senior with whom she shares an intimate, but strictly intellectual email correspondence, it’s impossible not to be reminded of one’s own first crippling love.
I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (1997, 2006)
Poor Chris Kraus is a cliche at this point but fuck, she’s a good writer. I Love Dick dips in and out of love letters sent from the character Chris Kraus (and sometimes her husband, the character Sylvere Lotringer – which is the name of her actual now-ex husband) to Dick, Sylvere’s colleague. The letters are obsessive, lustful, and have basically nothing to do with Dick the person. The book is a meditation on the power of projection, the way writing is gendered, and the strange, wayward nature of desire.
White Girls, by Hilton Als (2013)
There are many forms of love in White Girls: romantic, familial, platonic – all recounted with Als’ dependable lyricism. “Tristes Tropiques,” the first essay in the book, is about the kind of love that makes you want to be eaten whole by someone, swallowed up and absorbed into their skin – a perennial, destructive closeness. The narrator describes SL – “Sir or Lady” – as his twin, his friend, and his impossible lover, and their relationship is the stage for his musings on family, identification, race, and sexuality.
The First Bad Man, by Miranda July (2015)
This is by far one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read, and the love story – between a meek, regimented older woman and her chaotic, 20-year-old uninvited houseguest – is all the richer for its weirdness. Cheryl’s super-orderly life is brutally interrupted by the presence of Clee, her boss’ daughter, and the dynamic between the two slips from resentful to violent to erotic all before you’ve wrapped your head around the existence of the other main characters in the novel: a ghost-baby and a truly fucked up man – Cheryl’s initial, age-appropriate love interest. Love, here, is only a hair’s breadth from true, unadulterated loathing.
Sophia Larigakis is a Canadian writer and editor based in New York City, and an editor at Slutever.