8 Books Featuring Lesbian May/December Romance To Curl Up With Tonight

Welcome to the first Autostraddle installment of Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian! Basically, how it works is readers — just like you — send me an email (or tweet) asking for help finding your next favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books. Then, I write you up a whole post with suggestions! I’ve helped people find lesbian and bisexual dystopian YA, fat-positive queer books, novels with asexual characters, YA about trans characters that doesn’t focus on transition, books that are similar to Mariko Tamaki’s, and lots more! If you want to see what I’ve already done, have a look here. This is my latest request, one I’m pretty excited to share with you:


Hi Casey!

I have followed your reviews for years and am finding myself in need of your expertise this evening. I absolutely LOVED Susan Choi’s My Education about a sexy student/professor love affair and I was wondering if you had read anything similar? I have this ridiculous crush on an older woman at work and I just feel like reading a professor/student or older/younger romance might help work it out of me, you know? Is that ridiculous?

Anyways, thanks for your excellent reviews and thanks in advance if you happen to think of something to help me out!
Kristin


Dear Kristin,

This is a great question! I fully support your plan of working through your older woman crush by vicariously living it out through books. I personally believe books fix all of life’s problems but this, I think, is an especially excellent idea.

I also loved Susan Choi’s My Education and was super excited about tracking down some similar books for you. For those of you who haven’t read it, well, it’s awesome. It won the 2014 Lambda Literary award for bisexual fiction and it’s deliciously wordy and juicy, kind of like a Victorian novel but about a biracial, bisexual American woman in the 90s and 2000s. It’s a lovely book that really captures that head-over-heels feeling of being in love for the first time. For Regina, the main character of My Education, this first love is technically not with her professor, but her professor’s wife. Luckily there’s no shortage of these kinds of relationships in queer women’s fiction, so let’s dive into some options for you:


Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule

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Desert of the Heart is a lesbian classic for a reason, and it happens to feature a relationship with a 15-year age difference. Evelyn, the older woman, is even a professor. Though this book is set in the late 50s and was published in ’64 during the heyday of lesbian pulp fiction with tragic endings, Desert of the Heart presents a startlingly psychologically complex reading of a lesbian relationship, full of eroticism. It takes place in Reno, where Evelyn, an English professor from California, is one of the many women drawn to the divorce capital of the U.S., because it was so difficult and time-consuming to get a divorce in other states at the time. Ann and Evelyn meet in this loose but liberating place, at Ann’s stepmother’s “divorce ranch”; Ann is a “change girl” at a casino, but also a talented cartoonist. Much like in My Education, a very sexy, yet intellectual relationship ensues.


The IHOP Papers, by Ali Liebegott

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The IHOP Papers features a student-professor affair of the tortured variety. Francesca, aka Goaty, is the main character and she’s a nineteen-year-old cynical, sarcastic lesbian in love with Irene, her former professor. Goaty has even followed Irene to San Francisco and has now been forced to work at the famous pancake house to support herself. Irene is really quite awful, and manipulative, and all manner of terribleness disguised beneath a veneer of leftist politics. Unfortunately, Goaty just can’t get enough of her. The style of this book isn’t for everyone; it’s very post-modern, and all about irony and authorial self-awareness. The kind of thing people either love or hate. Gritty, darkly funny, and full of details of San Francisco, The IHOP Papers was one of Autostraddle’s Read A Fucking Book Club pick back in the day. [FYI, there is some self-harm in this book, so take care of yourself!].


Pages for You, by Sylvia Brownrigg

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Pages For You is another doomed romance, but with more of a poetic, melancholy feel. Flannery is a bright-eyed seventeen-year-old college student, fresh out of high school at her East Coast college hoping to, well, become her authentic (lesbian) self, like everyone else on campus. One day in a steam-filled diner, she catches sight of a beautiful older graduate student, with whom she later ends up enrolled in a class. Of course, Flannery is at first intimidated by the brilliant, elusive Anne, but soon has fallen hard for her. Throughout the book she also does things like smoke cigarettes in order to look cool and mysterious, while not really succeeding. You know from the beginning that things are not going to end well, but the ride is sure beautiful. In fact, I think Brownrigg’s elegant writing style has much in common with Susan Choi’s.


Landing, by Emma Donoghue

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This book is like the best of the best romantic comedies, but with lesbians. Imagine a lesbian When Harry Met Sally with more bite and people of colour.  That May-December romance you’re looking for, combined with Donoghue’s talents for dialogue, characterization, and old-fashioned storytelling, make Landing kind of a perfect book. It’s a classic opposites-attract story between Jude, a 25-year-old rural butch and archivist from small-town Canada, and Síle, a 39-year-old classy urban femme and flight attendant from Dublin. They have a few obstacles to overcome: geography, generational understandings of queer identity, and cultural (Irish, Canadian, Indian) differences. If you enjoyed the wit in My Education, there’s plenty of that to be had here too, especially as dished out by Síle’s self-described hasbian friend and Jude’s Indigenous friend’s sarcastic jabs at colonization.


The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith

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This book is having a resurgence of fame because of the film version Carol, which is maybe the best lesbian movie ever made. But let’s not forget how amazing the 1952 book is, and how deliciously sexy the love story between Therese and Carol is. Therese is a shop girl in her early twenties, and Carol is the striking, assertive, rich, older woman. It’s a slow-burning, atmospheric story. The setting is as much a character as Carol and Therese: the smoky, eerie NYC streets at night, the lonely ambience of department stores, and the tension and fear of being on the run. Yes, there is a thriller element as Carol’s ex-husband interrupts their tentatively acquired, new-found bliss by setting an investigator to trail them on a cross-country road trip. It’s a beautiful classic that, along with Desert of the Heart, establishes the May-December lesbian relationship story as a staple of queer fiction.


Spelling Mississippi, by Marnie Woodrow

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This book begins with an extraordinary event: Cleo, a shy aspiring poet in her late twenties visiting New Orleans, witnesses a striking older woman jump headfirst into Mississippi river in the middle of the night, wearing full evening dress including a tiara and high heels. This initial bizarre encounter between Cleo, the traveller in search of meaning and belonging, and Madeline, the diving diva seeking the exhilaration of danger, is the catalyst for a moving love story that changes both of them. Cleo’s attempts to track down the alluring, eccentric femme bisexual Madeline are adorable. Madeline, of course, falls for the younger, awkward boyish lesbian Cleo. This book is also about self-discovery, as Cleo and Madeline struggle to reconcile themselves to their pasts, which keep catching up to them no matter how fast they run.


Whisper Their Love, by Valerie Taylor

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Another beautifully written classic from the golden era of lesbian pulp, Whisper Their Love was originally published in 1957 and was ground-breaking for its openly lesbian and feminist content. The story follows Joyce, a fresh 18-year-old student new to a fashionable school for girls. The way the back of the book describes the plot is better than anything I could write: “suddenly, all that matters to her is a woman twice her age.” Whisper Their Love has also been described as an anti-romance — not that there isn’t any in this story, but because for its time, its grounding in the reality of lived lesbian experience was revolutionary. On a side note, if you’re into these old pulp novels, Olivia by Dorothy Strachey, centring on an English teen girl’s infatuation with the headmistress at her French finishing school, will probably also appeal.


Skim, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

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Last but not least, this graphic novel doesn’t exactly have a younger/older woman romance, but more of an unrequited crush. It is an exquisitely drawn and expertly crafted story about a teen girl named Kim, aka Skim, which, she explains, is a nickname she got “because she’s not.” She’s not cool, she’s not skinny, she’s not happy, she’s not a Wiccan (yet). And she just might be falling in love with her quirky, hippie English teacher, Ms. Archer. What the novel does best, through both words and pictures, is depict the bitterness of first love in a painfully realistic way. As Kim tells us: “Things that make me sad: Love. Things that make me happy: Love.” For a book that takes on topics like teen suicide, the effects of racism and sexism on girls’ body images, and the complexities of discovering queerness amidst a homophobic environment, Skim is surprisingly fun to read.

In case you need more books than I’ve given you here or if you’re in the mood for more straightforward, light romance, check out this list of lesbian May/December romances. Um, and not to torture you, but maybe Riese’s article about 11 Lesbian Couples Who Don’t Mind the (Age) Gap might also be of interest to you?


Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian is a Book Advice Column where you can send Casey your LGBTQ2IA+ book related questions and recommendation requests. Send an email to: stepaniukcasey [at] gmail.com and put “Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian” in the subject line.

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She writes regularly for Book Riot and Inside Vancouver about LGBTQ2IA+ and/or bookish topics as well as a monthly column about queer books at Autostraddle called Ask Your Friendly Neighborhood Lesbrarian. Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of queer Canadian books, archives of Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. Find her on Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Casey has written 39 articles for us.

49 Comments

  1. wow, speaking as someone with zero knowledge of lesbian fiction I am very excited about this column!

    I guess I kind of assumed the choice of lesbian books was as dire as the choice in lesbian films, but the way you have written this gives me hope

  2. I enjoyed “Arbor Vitae” by Susan X. Meagher from Brisk Press (you can buy it directly from them). I’ll grant that her style isn’t for everyone, but I love how she delves into the psychology of her characters. You can’t escape the old uber xena fanfic flavor (well, the blonde and the brunette; though frankly Xena was sort of May-December itself), which I personally find charming, and while there is some angst you ultimately get a happy ending! Which for me is important. The older woman is an untimely widow (husband died of a heart attack) who hires the younger woman for some landscaping work, which turns into a great landscape-architectural project, with some family drama thrown in (the older woman has adult children).

    Along the same lines (but much more uber) I’d recommend “Burning Dreams” by Susan Smith. I love this author’s use of language. You have professor/youth (not student, just age of students) here, with additional contrasts, drag shows, a setting of Buffalo, NY that really comes alive itself.

  3. ‘…Carol and no one else. It
    would be Carol, in a thousand
    cities, a thousand houses, in
    foreign lands where they
    would go together, in heaven
    and in hell.”
    Terese’s feverish and obsessive love left me breathless by the end of the book. I loved it more than the movie. The price of salt is the only lesbian love story ive ever read. I am not a sucker for romance but the first time Terese and Carol lock eyes is absolutely thrilling and my favorite part of the book. Its crazy, all the while she is selling valises and ugly dolls, and her world is completely ruined and changed forever , when Carol decides to walk over to her.

  4. Not May/December but it’s worth pointing out that My Education is very reminiscent of one of the major plots in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Denise Lambert, the woman in the love triangle in that book, is one of my favorite literary characters of all time.

  5. As an actual queer lady college instructor I have to say that the whole fixation with student/teacher romances in lesbian movies and novels makes me super uncomfortable. It’s a big no-no! We don’t do that, ok! (I know, I’m a buzzkill.)

  6. “Landing” is my favorite lesbian book of all time. Ever. I want a Jude to exchange witty historical banter with. Lil’ Canadian butch who can’t microwave. <3
    ALSO OMG Emma Donoghue is coming to town for a book signing, but tickets are like $45, and all I want is to (consentually) hug her and make her sign my library-stolen copies of "Kissing the Witch" and "Landing." FAVORITE AUTHOR EVER.

  7. I thought of a couple others that are my speed (i.e. happy/escapist):

    “Touchwood” by Karin Kallmaker
    (I think “Watermark” by Karin also)

    There’s also a delightful mystery duology set in the Canadian Maritimes by Gina Dartt entitled “Unexpected Sparks” and “Unexpected Ties”.

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