Recent literary fiction with NO romance
March 18, 2019 9:04 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for recommendations of recent non-genre fiction. I'm going through a divorce, and I don't want to read anything about romantic relationships. I don't want to read about dating, "friends with benefits," engagements, entanglements, "the one that got away," marriages, breakups, divorce or (and maybe especially) recovery from or the aftermath of those things. It's easy to find genre fiction that doesn't have these elements, but it's harder to find literary fiction without them. Hit me.
posted by OrangeDisk to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Transcription by Kate Atkinson; The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner.
posted by Cwell at 9:16 AM on March 18

The Overstory by Richard Powers.
posted by brookeb at 9:38 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

The River, by Peter Heller.
posted by lyssabee at 9:45 AM on March 18

The Overstory has romantic relationships, but they are not the focus of the book.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga (translated by Jordan Stump) - An autobiographical book about the author's mother, a Tutsi woman.

The Door by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix). The narrator is married and the husband appears here and there in the book, but that's about it. It's about the relationship between the narrator and her housekeeper, a secretive older woman whose life is hard for the narrator to understand.

Kingdom Cons and Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:53 AM on March 18

For context, I am reading The Overstory now, and it is what led to me asking the question. Although the relationship between Maidenhead and Watchman is not central, it is so poignant that it is causing me pain.
posted by OrangeDisk at 10:16 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Tell the Wolves I'm Home--I recall a brief bit about a teenage crush but it's ancillary at best--and the adults have marriages or partners, but it's background information. Recent-ish.

The Girls. There's sex and the narrator's parents have relationships, but, again, they are ancillary to the story.
posted by crush at 10:42 AM on March 18

So, it's not fiction, but I highly recommend Educated by Tara Westover. It's a memoir of growing up with her survivalist family in Idaho. It is so, so compelling, definitely guaranteed to distract. I am generally a fiction-only person (aside from parenting books, sigh) but I was totally swept up in it. She has a couple of relationships along the way, but they're all very secondary, and woven into the core story which is her learning to self-actualize. The focus is on her life with her parents.
posted by CiaoMela at 10:46 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Transcription has romantic relationships as well, and they are weird and upsetting.
posted by exceptinsects at 11:17 AM on March 18

I would respectfully disagree about Tell the Wolves I'm Home. I just read this last week for my book club, and I found love to be a pretty big part of the plot.
posted by lyssabee at 11:19 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

Here's an interesting article on the subject, with a few suggestions
posted by exceptinsects at 11:33 AM on March 18

Is it okay if there are some marriages or romances mentioned as part of the story without being anything close to the focus of it (not even emotionally)? I'm finding it very hard to think of literary novels where nobody even reminisces for a half-page about some old lost love or whatever.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is about ghosts! And Abe Lincoln. And buddhist-ish existential contemplations of death.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy is about civil war and politics and hijras and yes, there is a sort of epistolary romance hidden in the crazy political shit but it's so completely overshadowed by the rest of the emotionally draining story that I hardly recall it.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera is also about civil war. So very good. A couple of love stories but very much in the background.

The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens was pretty great (it won the Booker Prize in... 2017 I think?).
posted by MiraK at 12:30 PM on March 18

One book I enjoyed recently was A Key To Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. It's about an orphaned boy who loves words, and tells his story by way of a glossary. Each entry is his unique and personal relationship to a word and its meaning in his life's story.

I will always recommend Pale Fire as the most pleasant literary diversion. It's hardly new, but always fresh.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:45 PM on March 18

Definitely Salvage the Bones by Jesamyn Ward, and it's a great novel.

Not sure if you consider The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman to be genre fiction. I think it's on the fence of genre/literary.

The Power by Naomi Alderman might fit the bill. Explores gender dynamics, but there's not a prolonged or specific focus on romantic relationships (CW: sexual assault)

Passage by Khary Lazarre-White is billed as YA, but I would argue that just because something is about a young person, doesn't make it strictly YA. I enjoyed it greatly as an adult reader, and the writing is lyrical and descriptive.

Romantic relationships are mentioned briefly in There There by Tommy Orange, but they are by no means a focus - more of in a family history kind of way. (CW:One short chapter does describe a domestic violence situation.)

Likewise, there are characters in The Leavers by Lisa Ko who are partnered, and brief mentions of relationship status or changes to relationship status are in the book, but romantic relationships are not a focus (other familial relationships are.)
posted by nuclear_soup at 1:49 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

You might also check out the work of Sigrid Nunez

The Friend won the National Book Award this year. The woman at the center of the story has just lost a close friend and mentor and has inherited their great dane. There is loss of a relationship as part of the plot, but not a romantic one.

Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker maybe or City on Fire by Garth Hallberg The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.

Citizen Vince by Jess Walters, which is much more than just genre fiction, so is Station Eleven or Out
posted by brookeb at 4:03 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

The Friend won the National Book Award this year. The woman at the center of the story has just lost a close friend and mentor and has inherited their great dane. There is loss of a relationship as part of the plot, but not a romantic one.

This is not true. They were once lovers and the book has pining and speculation on the affair.
posted by dobbs at 4:06 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

I’d also recommend against The Friend. The character being mourned was a professor who had affairs with younger women. (I swear to god, at least half of the “literary” fiction I attempt to read has a dirtbag professor character.) There There would be good though.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:16 AM on March 19

The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy. Like Watership Down but with elephants.
posted by Morpeth at 7:02 AM on March 19

I posted a response yesterday that got "favorited" several times, but it seems to have disappeared. I recommended (and still do) The Martian. It's a fun, absorbing read, and has zero romance.
posted by Dolley at 11:05 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]

I scanned through my Read list and came up with the following:
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle (gothic novel featuring children)
- There But For The (a man locks himself in a room during a dinner party and stays for months)
- The Sisters Brothers (western)
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (unusual upbringing by scientists)
- The Good Lord Bird (historical fiction centered around abolitionist John Brown)
- True History of the Kelly Gang (historical fiction about Australian outlaw Ned Kelly)
- State of Wonder (woman travels to Amazon to search for missing colleague)
- Room (kidnapped woman and son adjust to real world after years of imprisonment)
- Cloud Atlas (a metafilter favorite! Reincarnation across centuries)
posted by emd3737 at 1:04 PM on March 19

A couple more:
A Confederacy of Dunces (a misfit in New Orleans)
Life of Pi (boy survives shipwreck)

One caveat on my recommendations- some of these books I read a while ago so they may have minor romantic plot lines I've forgotten about.
posted by emd3737 at 1:14 PM on March 19

I love Richard Powers with all my heart and I will tell you that if you were to read almost any of his books at this point in your life, they will break your heart.

American Fuji, by Sara Backer, is an underrated and too little known gem that follows an American woman in Japan, who has been inexplicably fired from her job teaching English and who suffers from ulcerative colitis, a chronic auto-immune disorder. She is stuck helping a fellow American who has come to Japan to find out exactly how his son died. It's about loss and it's about the pain of uncertainty and it's really quite lovely. And you would swear from the cover that it is chick lit.

I do agree with brookeb above that Citizen Vince is beyond genre fiction, and I also warmly recommend Jess Walter's fantastic novel The Zero.

Redeployment, by Phil Klay

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
posted by janey47 at 2:50 PM on March 19

This isn't recent, but So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell is a beautiful novel/novella that I don't think has romance.
posted by swheatie at 3:28 PM on March 19

Also, Godsend by John Wray. There's a girl and a guy, but no real romance transpires. I had issues with this book, but it was well written and readable.
posted by swheatie at 3:32 PM on March 19

State of Wonder definitely isn't very relationship focused, but for what it's worth, the main character is in a (somewhat strained) relationship with her boss; this comes up mostly toward the start of the book.
posted by eponym at 4:11 PM on March 19

I was going to recommend So Long, See You Tomorrow as well, and though it doesn't have romance, it definitely has relationships between a man and widow and the man and his new wife. It is not romantic, though, and is an extraordinary book.

I'll also recommend Zeroville, especially if you're a film fan.
posted by dobbs at 6:00 PM on March 19

Finding books about happily single people is very very hard. Google for “aromantic” or “asexual” books and there are a handful of lists. The typical answer to this question really is genre fiction. If mystery or action novels work, they’re pretty reliably non-romantic. They’re also more adjacent to straight literary fiction than most genres.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:42 AM on March 20

It's been a while, but I wonder if The Last Samurai might fit your criteria? (Note: it has nothing at all to do with the film of the same name.)

There is an extremely brief relationship (I think it's a one-night stand?) that results in the birth of the main character's son, and there might be some bits of relationship in the backstory, but my recollection is that it's 99% about two things: the narrator's relationship with her son, and the son's search for his father. (And about the mother's individual development, and the son's.)
posted by kristi at 3:54 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]

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