While burying your head in a book is the last thing you should do when traveling throughout Europe (or anywhere for that matter) you should at least gain some travel inspiration before your trip by engrossing yourself in the many beautiful stories that take place within that part of the world.
Below are the top five books I’ve come across recently that not only beautifully detail tales of gay and/or male-bodied love, sex, eroticism, and friendship, but also pay homage to the beautiful cities, islands, and regions of Europe. Although all the books below are fictional (except one and some loosely so), they all succeed in transplanting you to the people, cultures, and landscapes that continue to lure and seduce no matter the gender.
If you can’t get away to Europe at the moment, these books will either quench your longing for escape or leave you trapped in a perpetual state of travel nostalgia. Either way, particularly if you’re American, get reading…
- Cleanness, by Garth Greenwell – Bulgaria
Reason for Reading: They say one of the markers of a great writer is not only the ability to tell captivating stories but to write them with honesty. Narratives and dialogue that display the intricacies of human nature, whatever that may be, are difficult; when human nature has to do with sex, desire, and shame, is even more difficult.
The details in which Greenwell describes his main protagonist’s explicit sexual encounters were so raw (so to speak), they even made me clutch my pearls with shocked delight. Greenwell has a way of describing sex, desire, and the shame that often accompanies it, in ways most gay men find hard to acknowledge, much less accept. As we learn more about the main character, an American teacher in Bulgaria (whose name we never know) navigating his life abroad, we also catch glimpses of life in Bulgaria, its culture, history, and people.
While most people may find it hard to point Bulgaria on a map, Greenwell does justice to the country’s beauty, tumultuous past, and the unease some Bulgarians feel about the predictability of their unpredictable future. His main character’s shame as well as that of Bulgaria are parallel themes throughout the book, both trying to accept themselves and their past in what I interpret Greenwell to be mean by “cleanness”.
Sites to See:
“That’s the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention, and not only our actions but our failures to act, gestures and words held back or unspoken, all we might have done and failed to do…”
“I stood and watched him, enjoying not giving him what he wanted, though that isn’t quite true, the not-giving was part of what he wanted; and part of what I wanted was this, to see him desire or perform desire, more intensely now as he started rooting into me, almost making me flinch.”
2. Call Me By Your Name, by Andre Aciman – Italy
Reason for Reading: Most everyone has heard of the movie adapted from this book this book about a love between an erudite teenager and an equally intelligent graduate student visiting his professor’s home in Italy for the summer. Of course, the characters are hot, the love is intense, and Timothée Chalamet’s French and Italian are impeccable in the movie, but what you truly fall in love with is Italy itself. Almost as idyllic as the love between the two main characters is the Northern Italian home in which the book is set and that the movie perfectly captures.
Despite the few departures from the book, particularly the painfully pleasurable experience of having penetrative sex for the first time (which the movie displays almost comically as fast, easy, and instantly enjoyable), both the movie and the book create the perfect itinerary for a Northern Italian getaway: rent a beautiful two million dollar villa in Lombardy, read books by the poolside in the hot searing sun, take an afternoon walk or bike ride into town for some gelato or maybe an aperol spritz, go grocery shopping at the local markets, and make dinner with new friends or family staying up until you finish every single bottle of wine and grappa in the house. How can anyone not fall in love?
Sites to see:
“What I forgot to earmark in that promise was that ice and apathy have ways of instantly repealing all truces and resolutions signed in sunnier moments.”
“Fifteen minutes ago, I was in total agony, every nerve ending, every emotion bruised, trampled, crushed as in Mafalda’s mortar, all of it pulverized till you couldn’t tell fear from anger from the merest trickle of desire.”
3. The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller – Greece and Turkey
Reason for Reading: It’s always a delight when straight authors take on “gay” characters, love between two men, and homoeroticism. Madeline Miller’s passionate reimagining of famous mythological characters takes you on a journey to the Greek isles. There, she masterfully tells a love story between a young prince name Patroclus and the legendary Achilles, son of king Peleus and the fierce (yes, fierce) goddess, Thetis, the mother and mother-in-law from hell – or rather, from the sea.
What makes the book a captivating, heartfelt love story is because Miller writes it as not a “gay love story” (there is no “gay” in this context anyway) but as a love story between two men (or boys, I think they are young) who by chance met, fell for each other, supported each other, and fought for each other. Despite it being fiction, Miller’s melodious prose will teach you more about mythology than your AP English class. When travelling to Europe, you’ll finally understand whose faces are on some of those statues (if they’re still standing).
Sites to see:
“He was like a flame himself. He glittered, drew eyes. There was a glamour to him even on waking, with this hair tousled and his face still muddled with sleep”
“The stars turned, and somewhere the moon crept across the sky. When my eyes dragged closed again, he was waiting for me still, covered in blood, his face as pale as bone.”
4. Beautiful Animals, by Lawrence Osborne – Hydra, Greece
Reasons for Reading: So, this book is actually not gay-themed but what gay man wouldn’t love a story between two young women who befriend each other on an island in Greece only to later become estranged frenemies? The friendship between Naomi, the daughter of a British art collector living in a to-die-for villa on the island of Hydra and Sam, an American on vacation with her family, deepen when they find Fouad, a Syrian migrant. As they decide to help Fouad, their true natures are revealed to each other. Osborne creates characters as sensual as his depictions of Hydra’s landscape – it’s crystal waters, steep hills, and intense heat. Although there are definite political undertones to the plot, you can choose to read Beautiful Animals as a light summer book. Get lost in the characters, get lost in Hydra…
Sites to see:
“Over the years she had discovered from experience that the best moments between them were when they drank ouzo together. That double-edged and flavorless drink was their dark truce, their mutual anonymity.”
“The broken teenager never mends.”
5. Lie With Me, by Philippe Besson – France
Reasons for Reading: Set in a small town outside Bordeaux, Philippe Besson tells a mostly autobiographical story of falling in love for the first time with another teenage boy. Like many ‘gay-themed’ novels, Lie With Me deals with the stifling emotion of shame. Besson’s book reflects on what he remembers of his passionate love with Andrieu in a way that is more sentimental than painfully nostalgic (while an ex of mine told me he cried reading this book, I did not). In fact, Besson looks at his past not in yearning but with a distant curiosity that only time could offer. Both the city of Bordeaux and Besson himself have changed over time preserving their past while also letting it go. Even if the details of your first love are different (and hopefully they are), this is a love story that any gay man can relate to.
Sites to see:
“There were circumstances – a series of coincidences and simultaneous desire. There was something in the atmosphere, something in the time and the place that brought us together.”
“Those who have not taken this step, who have not come to terms with themselves, are not necessarily frightened, they are perhaps helpless, disoriented, lost as one is in the middle of a forest that’s too dark or dense or vast.”