This week’s Sapphic Reading Challenge features sapphic books set in the 20th century.
We had an earlier post covering sapphic historical fiction, but this category is more specific: It includes only books that take place between the years 1901-2000.
In my recommended books list below, I picked one or several books set in each decade of the 20th century, starting with the 1900s and wrapping up with the 1990s.
Read up on the rules of the Sapphic Reading Challenge
If you are only discovering the Sapphic Reading Challenge now, the good news is you can still join! It’s a year-long challenge, so it runs until December 31, 2021. Read up on the rules of the Sapphic Reading Challenge and download your PDF so you can keep track of the books you read this year.
15 sapphic books set in the 20th century
I put together a list of 15 sapphic books that are set in the 20th century.
Shaken to the Core by Jae (1900s)
Kate Winthrop, the only child of a wealthy shipping magnate, has the course of her life charted for her by her parents. She’s expected to marry well and produce a successor to the Winthrop empire. But Kate has a very different path in mind. Her true passion lies with photography—and with women.
Alone in the city after losing her brother, Sicilian immigrant Giuliana Russo starts working for the Winthrops as a maid. Despite their different social status, Kate and Giuliana become friends, much to the dismay of Kate’s parents.
As the connection between the two women grows, a devastating earthquake hits San Francisco and ignites fires that sweep through the city for three days and nights.
Will the disaster shatter their tentative feelings for each other, or will they find the courage to save each other’s lives—and their hearts?
Join Kate and Giuliana on a journey of danger and discovery in the action-packed historical romance Shaken to the Core, set against the backdrop of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
While My Heart Beats by Erin McKenzie (1910s)
Johanna Lennox, a working-class Scottish nurse, and Ellie Winthrop, a Voluntary Aid Detachment recruit from a wealthy British family, are thrown together in a general hospital in France during World War I.
When Johanna’s mother dies unexpectedly, Ellie is there to offer the comfort she desperately needs, and their feelings for each other grow into an attraction neither can deny. Johanna is convinced they can’t have a future together and throws herself into her work to escape her pain. She volunteers to serve closer to the front and almost loses her life before being sent home.
When Ellie refuses to give up hope and goes to find her, will Johanna be able to trust that a love born amidst the horrors of the Great War can survive in a post-war world?
Masquerade by Anne Shade (1920s)
Harlem, New York, 1925 is a mecca of cultural and creative freedom, where masquerade drag balls are all the rage and the music, dancing, and loose prohibition laws unite people from all walks of life.
Dinah Hampton came to Harlem for better opportunities for her family but ends up working as a nightclub chorus girl to help make ends meet. Among the nightlife and danger, she finds love in the most unexpected way.
When a scandal rocks Celine Montre’s family and sends them fleeing from New Orleans to Harlem, the gorgeous Dinah Hampton helps her to discover that there’s more to life, and love, than she ever thought possible.
When a notorious gangster sets her sights on seducing Celine, Dinah and Celine are forced to risk their hearts, and lives, for love.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo (1920s)
Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society―she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer and Asian, a Vietnamese adoptee treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.
But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.
All I See Is You by Lily Hammond (1930s)
The heart has its own language.
Summer in January. Birds with unknown songs. People with strange accents.
In 1932, Eliza Sparrow walks straight off the boat from England to New Zealand into a nightmare. Unable to speak or write, and with the death of her mother during the voyage, Eliza is alone, without any means, without any hope. Unless she meets someone willing to help her.
Maxine and Ruth have opened their home to destitute women, sheltering those they can from the worst of the Depression. When they find Eliza, they are determined to aid and protect her.
Never though, did they think they’d have to protect Eliza from their dear friend Clemency. Like them, Clemency loves other women, but unlike the happily ‘married’ Maxine and Ruth, Clemency is lonely, unable to find a lover she really connects with. When she meets Eliza, no one thinks it could be serious and Clemency would simply be taking advantage of the speechless Eliza, her attraction never possibly other than a passing desire.
No one took into account however, that the heart has its own language, and it’s one that Eliza can speak perfectly well.
The Seduction of Moxie by Colette Moody (1930s)
When Hollywood-bound actress Violet London meets speakeasy singer Moxie Valette, her trip takes an unexpected turn toward love.
New York City, 1931: When wry Broadway actress Violet London and her hard-drinking cohorts venture into a speakeasy the night before she is to board a train for Hollywood, she is floored by sassy blond singer Moxie Valette. As Violet introduces Moxie to an assortment of bootleg liquor, cross-dressers, and sex shows, she vows to find a way to see her again.
Moxie is fascinated by Violet in a thrilling and unfamiliar way, and the ensuing evening of bon mots, shameless flirtation, and illicit revelry is unlike anything she has ever experienced.
From Manhattan to Los Angeles, both women’s lives are turned upside-down by separation, unscrupulous motion picture studio executives, self-serving agents, eccentric celebrities, and the collection of hedonistic reprobates that are their closest friends.
Berlin Hungers by Justine Saracen (1940s)
In the years after World War II, the alliance that saved Europe is breaking down as the Soviet Union and the West compete for control of Germany. When Russia blockades Berlin, everyone, it seems, is hungry: Russian soldiers for German women, the Soviet leaders for territory, the Berliners themselves for food. But the hardest hunger of all is between a Royal Air Force woman and the wife of a Luftwaffe pilot who helped set fire to half of London.
Alice & Jean by Lily Hammond (1940s)
Every lover has her story, and every town has its secrets.
It’s 1946 in New Zealand, and Alice Holden has fallen for the woman delivering her milk every morning. Jean has a way about her, a swagger, honey-sweet and low voice, and a wink with an easy smile that lights up Alice’s world, stirring her in ways she’s never known before, and Alice with blinders on, wants to choose this feeling over all else.
Jean has been head over heels in love with the sparky and adorable single mother since the first time she saw her. She’s even drawn to Alice’s two fatherless children, and family life has never looked so good. Jean’s deep desire to have more than a life spent looking in from the outside seems more than she should hope for, and now Alice has her tossing the dice for it against all odds.
But there are two people in town who believe they have the prior claim to Alice, in duty and affection, and they’ll do almost anything to get what they want.
Alice and Jean have discovered that each is what the other has always longed for, each other’s missing link. Now they need to find a way to be together, despite the obstacles.
The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif (1950s)
In 1950’s South Africa, a free-spirited café owner falls for a young wife and mother. Their unexpected attraction pushes them to question the cruel rules of a world that divides white from black and women from men, but a world that might just allow an unexpected love to survive.
The Ada Decades by Paula Martinac (starts in the 1950s)
Over seven decades, Librarian, Ada Shook, is witness to the racism laced through her Southern city; the paradox of religion as both comfort and torment; and the survival networks created by gay people. Eleven interconnected stories cover the sweep of one woman’s personal history as she reaches her own form of Southern womanhood—compassionate, resilient, principled, lesbian.
The Beginning of Everything by Cara Malone (1960s)
A closeted secretary in 1960s Chicago. A fearless activist in San Francisco. A love so powerful it can change the world.
Betty wants what everyone wants – happiness, security, and a quiet, good life. She’s determined to make that happen on her own, despite her mother’s fears that she’ll turn into a spinster if she doesn’t settle down and find a husband soon.
Joan wants an important life – one where she gets to love who she wants to love, do what she enjoys, and will leave the world a better place when she’s gone. But what she is – a lesbian in San Francisco at the beginning of the LGBT+ civil rights movement – is criminal.
When Betty comes to California for vacation, it’s love at first sight across a crowded bar in the Tenderloin district. She’s mesmerized by Joan and drawn to the homophile movement, but does she have the courage to come out for love and join the fight for equality?
The Girls Club by Sally Bellerose (1970s)
The Girls Club is the coming-of-age story of a young, white, working-class woman. Set in the 1970s, the story revolves around Cora Rose as she copes with her emerging sexuality, an illness her sisters refer to as “the dreaded bowel disease,” and the conflicts created by the growing disparity between her desires and her Catholic upbringing.
Part one deals with the three sisters’ adolescent relationship to each other and their Catholic working-class world. Cora Rose’s distress at being caught in an embrace with her best friend Stella leads her to sleep with the first boy who shows interest. She is married with a child at age eighteen.
Part two shows how the sisters help and hinder each other in their struggles to take control and responsibility over their lives.
Part three reveals Cora Rose’s physical challenges, including an ostomy, that further complicate her feelings about her sexuality and increase her need for her sisters’ support. She becomes involved with a woman she meets at a bar called The Girls Club. Marie and Renee play out their own struggles as Cora Rose leaves her husband, fights to keep her child, and overcomes religious and social prejudices that threaten her personal integrity.
Cast Me Gently by Caren J. Werlinger (1980s)
Teresa Benedetto and Ellie Ryan couldn’t be more different, at least on the surface.
Teresa still lives at home. As much as she loves her boisterous Italian family, she feels trapped by them and their plans for her life. Their love is suffocating her.
Ellie has been on her own for years, working hard to save up enough to live her dream of escaping from Pittsburgh to travel the world. Except leaving isn’t that simple when she knows her brother is out on the streets of the city somewhere, back from Vietnam, but not home.
When Teresa and Ellie meet and fall in love, their worlds clash. Ellie would love to be part of Teresa’s family, but they both know that will never happen. Sooner or later, Teresa will have to choose between the two halves of her heart—Ellie or her family.
Set in 1980, the beginning of the Reagan era and the decline of Pittsburgh’s steel empire, Cast Me Gently is a classic lesbian romance.
The Love Factor by Quinn Ivins (1990s)
Molly Cook is almost thirty, with dismal career prospects, and has given up on saving the world. It might be the nineties, and everything’s shoulder pads, Doc Martens, and The X-Files, but people won’t budge on gay rights. Molly decides to give a PhD a whirl but finds herself more interested in campus politics…and her strict and sexy statistics professor.
Professor Carmen Vaughn is stuck in small-town Maryland with smarmy blowhards for colleagues and ungrateful students who can’t handle her high standards. She has no intention of coming out, least of all to Molly, a troublemaking grad student who can’t stop picking fights with the conservative faculty.
But when Molly discovers evidence implicating a homophobic colleague in a scandal, Carmen can’t ignore it—even if the subject hits too close to home. As the two women work together to make their case, they grow closer than Carmen ever imagined. But she absolutely refuses to get involved with a student.
The thing is, as the chemistry builds between them, Molly isn’t sure she wants to be a grad student anymore…if she ever did.
Paper is White by Hilary Zaid (1990s)
When oral historian Ellen Margolis and her girlfriend decide to get married, Ellen realizes that she can’t go through with a wedding until she tells her grandmother. There’s only one problem: her grandmother is dead.
As the two young women beat their own early path toward marriage equality, Ellen’s longing to plumb that voluminous silence draws her into a clandestine entanglement with a wily Holocaust survivor—a woman with more to hide than tell—and a secret search for buried history.
If there is to be a wedding Ellen must decide: How much do you need to share to be true to the one you love? Set in ebullient, 1990s Dot-com era San Francisco, Paper is White is a novel about the gravitational pull of the past and the words we must find to make ourselves whole.
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The 2022 Reading Challenge: Sapphic Book Bingo
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