No Shades of Grey Here

What to read right now: 8 smart, sexy and unconventional love stories

What to read right now: 8 smart, sexy and unconventional love stories

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe
The super true sad love story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethrope is chronicled in Smith's Just Kids. Photo courtesy of HarperCollins

Whether you love, hate or feel ambivalent about Valentine’s Day, there’s no avoiding February’s in-your-face-romance. And because we’re in the camp of people who find reading ridiculously sexy, we’re celebrating the holiday with some smart, steamy love stories that are not the international phenomenon that inspired a major motion picture opening this weekend.

Full of lyrical prose, humor, authentic sex scenes, and enough vengeneance and darkness for even the most cynical hearts to enjoy, below are eight unconventional books about love and relationships you ought to read this month.

Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce
There’s nothing romantic or sentimental about the lifelong Texan’s debut novel, which is what makes it an absolute thrill to read. The novel’s narrator, Marie, is a young, whip-smart single mother waitressing at a variety of Dallas restaurants and navigating the gritty, often misogynistic realities of womanhood, sex and making ends meet.

There’s a lot of drugs, a lot of self-destruction and a lot of old, mean, white men, but somehow Tierce gives all of that ugliness a piercing kind of beauty. Anyone who wants a fast-paced, dark and strikingly unique read about love and sex will appreciate Love Me Back. And anyone who spends his or her Valentine’s Day waiting tables for people who are in love will especially appreciate it.

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
The love in Geek Love is about as far from cuddly and Hallmark as it gets. But the intensely real romance in Dunn’s novel, written more than 25 years ago, still holds up today.

The world that Dunn paints of the Binewskis, a carnival family of “freaks” who hits hard times, is ridiculously imaginative, wholly engrossing and at times straight-up gross. It turns inside out how we define normal, what we see as beautiful and what a novel can do to us. There’s an electricity that emanates from Geek Love, and its energetic prose and smartly constructed narrative are hard to beat, even all these years later.

Oh, and if you watched — and loved — American Horror Show: Freak Show and haven’t heard of Geek Love, then you’re doing it wrong. You owe it to Dunn and yourself to read this perennial bestseller that has inspired countless wild stories in our pop culture since its release.

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz
Pulitzer Prize-winning Diaz tackles a whole bunch of modern matters of the heart in this dazzling short story collection that has become a darling in the indie-lit world. Yunior, the studly Dominican American voice that grounds these nine stories, is hardheaded and reckless, yet there’s a vulnerability behind his guile and masculinity that gives an air of romance to the most unlikely scenarios.  

“The half-life of love is forever,” Diaz writes, and it’s not a stretch to say the half-life of this book is forever, either. It sticks with you.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Sure, it’s as classic a love story as they come. But nothing hits the spot quite like a mid-19th century love triangle, and when you’re yearning to spend an afternoon curled up with tea and a worn paperback, weeping over characters with names like “Heathcliff,” nothing beats Bronte.

Haunting and intense, Wuthering Heights has all the elements of the darkest, most intense kind of love — betrayal, vengeance, jealousy — all told through a tightly spun, turbulent love story spanning two generations.

The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
Set in London in 1922, The Paying Guests follows the way that life transforms for spinster Frances and her impoverished, widowed mother when they are forced to take in lodgers — the young, attractive and modern couple Lillian and Leonard Barber of the “clerk class.” Sensual and suspenseful, it delivers everything you’re looking for in a long, sexy, can’t-put-it-down romance novel, plus a whole lot more.

Waters, who is known for her brilliant, evocative writing, is at her finest with The Paying Guests, giving us a literary story full of dark tension and well-drawn, engaging characters.

This Is Between Us, Kevin Sampsell
Sampsell gives us a rich, confessional-style narrative of a couple’s troubled love life in his debut novel. Told over the course of five years, we are let in to the moments shared between two unnamed characters that add up to form and define their relationship. The moments are sometimes funny, sometimes devastating, often explicit and always intimate. This Is Between Us is a daringly honest story about love and relationships.

It’s a strange and addictive read, written with skillful phrasing and striking imagery from the very first scene: “The first time I went to your apartment, I wanted you to show me every room and demonstrate something you did in each one … In the kitchen, I watched you make coffee. In the bathroom, you sat on the toilet seat for me. In the living room, you did some jumping jacks. You sat at the dining room table and ate a carrot while I watched you. In the bedroom, you slowly changed your clothes without taking your eyes off me.”

Blue Is the Warmest Color, Julie Maroh
The graphic novel (that inspired the film by the same name and won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival), Blue Is the Warmest Color is a bittersweet, beautiful read. In it, a wide-eyed teenager named Clementine meets and falls for a vibrant, blue-haired girl named Emma.

Maroh’s skillful use of color and raw illustrations combined with an energized narrative makes for a tragic story about coming out, teenage love and self-acceptance. Originally published in France, it’s got that chic, sexy-without-even-trying thing going for it.

Just Kids, Patti Smith
If you haven’t read this 2010 National Book Award winner yet, do it now. Smith’s memoir about her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe — first as lovers and then as friends as Mapplethorpe revealed he was gay — starts in the late ’60s, when they were both living in New York City, lost, broke and dreaming about being famous.

Smith writes, not surprisingly, with lyrical, powerful prose about how tthey became each others muses in a world driven by art. “Where does it all lead?” Smith asks. “What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”

The book is full of colorful vignettes of life during what was maybe the best time, or at least the most idealized time, for being an artist in New York. Smith writes about parties at the Hotel Chelsea, readings at The Strand, and casually bumping into Andy Warhol and Jimi Hendrix. But more than a window into that world, it’s a window into a beautiful friendship — one riddled with sadness and complications, but one from which Smith’s love never wavers.

Her tender, raw memoir is, at its core, a love letter. And it’s probably one of the best ones you will ever read.