Queer Books That Stole My Heart
I read a lot.
There’s something immensely comforting to me about nestling into a warm and cozy spot, feeling the reassuring weight of the pages in my hands, and escaping into lives that are sometimes vastly different from my own and, sometimes, surprisingly similar.
Each book is both a reaffirmation of who I am and a lesson in empathy about those who are different from me.
In recent years, I’ve gravitated more toward books with LGBTQ characters in leading roles. Seeing yourself represented in popular culture when you aren’t accustomed to it can be a liberating feeling. I can’t get enough, and I want to share that feeling with others.
Here are four books with LGBTQ characters in leading roles that I love.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Have you ever wanted to venture on a fantastic, whimsical journey through decades of time in Ireland, as seen through the eyes of a man who just so happens to be gay? If not, you should add it to your bucket list prior to picking up this book.
At times hilarious, at times devastating, and at times so magical it seems ridiculous, this book is one of those all-consuming stories that commands your time, energy, and attention — which you will most certainly want to give it.
Cyril Avery is born in 1940’s Ireland, cast away by his mother, and adopted into a less-than-ideal family. As we move through time by taking wandering pit stops at the critical points in his life, we learn who he loves (a callous, selfish straight friend named Julian), who he hates (any number of people), and who he is most desperate to connect with (his birth mother, whose story intertwines unwittingly with Cyril’s repeatedly throughout his life).
This book made me laugh, it made my cry, and it made me question my sanity more than once. But in the end, it made me love Cyril for all his flaws, all his heartbreaks, and all the wild, wonderful events that remind us why life is worth living.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Despite its purposefully deceptive title, this book is very much about homosexuality.
Evelyn Hugo is a headstrong, beautiful girl who becomes one of the lucky few to make it big in Hollywood in the 1950’s. We watch her story unfold through the eyes of a modern-day reporter to whom Evelyn chose to reveal her deepest secrets. And yes, Evelyn does, indeed, have seven husbands throughout her long and illustrious lifetime, but it’s the one person she never married — a woman — who shapes the heart of the tale.
This book is heartbreaking in the sense that it does not have a happy ending, or even much of a happy beginning or middle. But it’s uplifting for how it shows the resilience of LGBTQ individuals in times when they didn’t have the opportunities we have now. The challenges of maintaining a double life are numerous, but infinitely compounded by being one of the biggest stars in the world with a million pairs of eyes watching anxiously for your next slip-up.
This book is a dazzling glimpse into fame and glamour, but it also strips all that away to reveal the raw heart of someone who spent her entire life living a lie to protect herself from a world that would have ruined her had she lived openly. I love Evelyn Hugo for all her flaws and heartbreaks, and I know you will, too.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
I know what you’re thinking — a second book by the same author, on a list this short? Yes. These are the only two books written for adults by John Boyne that I’ve read, but both of them immediately catapulted to the top of my love list upon finishing them — just like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas did when I was younger, which is another of his incredible works.
Maurice Swift, the delectably evil star of this novel, is the most frustrating character I’ve ever loved to hate. He’s a novelist with grand ambitions and few original ideas, and the ways he goes about stealing success are horrendous. I found myself squirming in my seat and audibly growling in frustration throughout this book because of how much I hated what he was able to do to people — and get away with.
We don’t actually hear from Maurice himself until the painful, frustrating ending of this book. The rest of it is told through the eyes of those he manipulated and ruined, with each perspective being more difficult to read than the last. At several times throughout this novel, I thought to myself well, it couldn’t possibly get worse than this, but Maurice kept proving me wrong.
While not gay himself — he has no sexual or romantic attraction to anyone of any gender — Maurice uses his movie-star good looks and sharp wit to win the hearts of men and women alike throughout the book, all in an attempt to get himself further. His tendencies remind me a bit of those of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, but with a slightly more human tint.
This book made me angrier than any I’ve read before — which goes to show you how well the author crafted the lives of the characters who lose everything in Maurice’s vicious path to glory.
Be careful when you pick this book up, because you’ll want to use it to bludgeon the character at the heart of it all.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I saved the best for last. This novel is in a league of its own, a tragic modern masterpiece that broke my heart in two so severely that I began reading it again from the moment I finished it, just to remind myself that the characters would always be there, with all their triumphs and tragedies.
This is not just a gay book. In fact, it explores male relationships in all forms without ever properly labeling them: romantic, sexual, fatherly, friendly. It is the lack of labels and the genuine qualities of the numerous relationships in this book that make it the best I’ve ever read.
It all centers on Jude St. Francis and his three best friends from college, a brash and lively foursome that move through decades of life in New York City together. Jude comes from a tragic background and fights his way to becoming a successful lawyer; JB is a sassy, scrappy artist who worms his way to success in the art world; Malcolm is a quiet, pensive architect who steadily climbs to the top of his field; And Willem is a small-town stunner with a heart of gold who becomes one of the most famous actors of his time.
There’s an element of fantasy to the massive success all four of these men achieve in this novel, but their glamorous professions serve as a stark contrast to the personal challenges that plague them in the decades we follow them. Their relationships with each other become more and more complicated — and more and more beautiful — as the book progresses, while their relationships with others are both uplifting and heartbreaking.
Nothing I say can do this book justice. It’s long, but I wish it were three times longer. I never wanted to leave the lives of Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm behind. The tears I shed at numerous points while reading this book were the most genuine, painful tears I’ve ever cried in relation to a work of fiction. These characters are so expertly developed that they feel as real to me as my oldest friends, and their losses feel like my own.
Just read it. I have never felt more confident in promising that you will not be disappointed.
As I continue to devour queer literature, I will make note of the pieces that warrant sharing — until then, please let me know what books are moving your soul.