What to Read When You’re Looking for Desire


I’m continually fascinated by desire. Of course, I’m interested in desire in all of its manifestations, but as human experience, I’m curious about women’s desire most of all. How women contain it or don’t. How patriarchal culture has subjugated women’s desire through shame or repression. How it is often portrayed as dangerous. Desire as political empowerment. Desire as pleasure. Desire as full embodiment of the physical self in relationship to nature and other bodies. Desire as a potential shortcoming, as in, unrequited and unresolved. In my search to understand my own desires, how to fulfill my wanting through both through external situations and internally, I seek out art and literature that craft desire into something beautiful, interesting, and provocative.

When I began writing my memoir, I didn’t know it would become an investigation into desire, longing, want, all held within this container of my life which was constructed around marriage, family, and farming. My book follows my journey in opening my marriage with my husband. After fourteen years of monogamy, I didn’t want to stay with the same partner, but instead of cheating I wanted to be honest with my intentions in exploring my sexual desire. I was also in the midst of becoming a new woman, a more empowered women, and taking control of my sexuality was a part of that becoming. As I wrote, and the language came into a form in which desire seemed to be the common thread, I went to the following books as a way to comfort me when I was tentative, undecided, doubtful. I hoped these books would tell me what to do. Of course, they couldn’t do that—no book can—but what they did do was influence me enough to keep going with my inquiry and writing, knowing that I was not alone in my search for desire and sexual autonomy.


Cactus Thorn by Mary Austin
Some would say this is an unlikely choice for this list, but I read this novella in a fury over two nights. It chronicles a love affair between a stranger and a solitary woman, ultimately ending in tragedy. Not many still read or have even heard of Mary Austin (which shouldn’t be the case) but her portrayal of a woman’s desire for a man placed against the desert landscape is stunning and tragic. The novella was written in 1927, rejected by Houghton Mifflin, and remained unpublished until 1988. It’s an early feminist text and you will fall in love with the narrator as self-sufficient, autonomous desert woman. The combination of physical detail with the eroticism of a love affair is enough to keep you up at night—and I mean that in a good way.


Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free by Wednesday Martin
This book is necessary for everyone! I read this quickly and with deep fascination in terms of understanding the science behind desire, monogamy, and why women tend to stray from their marriages just as much as men, if not more. Wednesday Martin deconstructs science around female desire and takes us on a journey to show that it’s very natural for women to want to be non-monogamous, that marriage is actually problematic for women, and that women have more of a need to reject monogamy than men. I found the first several chapters the most compelling as Martin investigates consensual non-monogamy, and what is “normal” in terms of sexual partners, freedom to explore sexuality, infidelity, and the need for women to be seen outside of their marital partners.


Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel
I love this book very much, though it might not be for everyone as it is told in a fractured way, relying on the reader to make connections and leaps into meaning on their own—those are the kind of books I love most. This memoir was an early influence on my own writing and as literature, Angel uses interesting techniques to craft her narrative including structure, language, and patterns. The book reminds me of Anne Carson’s or Maggie Nelson’s work in which the personal becomes political and the poetic becomes universal. Angel takes on issues of sex, desire, and power while investigating deeper notions of self and polarities of the masculine and feminine.


Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux
This book was recommended to me early on in my MFA program by my writing teacher. In fact, I have quoted Annie Ernaux in my own memoir as I was heavily engaged with another man outside of my marriage and the quote from her book singularly epitomized how I was feeling in terms of my own lust and desire. With extreme vulnerability and sparse prose, Ernaux writes of a passionate love affair and obsession with a man from the point of view of teacher and writer. In this book, readers will find comfort in the way the narrator reveals herself in an all-consuming love affair. Translated from the French, Ernaux writes, “Quite often I felt I was living out this passion in the same way I would have written a book: the same determination to get every single scene right, the same minute attention to detail.”


The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom
Not everyone will love this novel, but I do, now and especially when I was writing my memoir. It explicitly tells of an affair between a married woman and her lover, and oh, the language is so good! If you want a read which does not shy away from writing about eroticism, sex, lust, pornography, masturbation, kink, etc., then this novel is for you.


Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
A classic read that I still feel is relevant decades after its initial publication in 1973. A feminist text in which Jong explores the boredom of marriage and female sexuality through a narrator’s search for the “zipless fuck.” Isadora, the protagonist and narrator, is unassuming, clever, and strong. The novel is intelligent as the reader grapples with Isadora’s conflict between her marriage and her love affair with an imperfect man. She writes, “What was it about marriage anyway? Even if you loved your husband, there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese.” Perfection in her sentences and her exploration of marriage and love and sex.


a spy in the house of love by Anaïs Nin
One of my writing mentors recommended this book to me as he was reading parts of my manuscript and I was investigating the nature of my own sexual desire. Of course, Anaïs Nin is most well-known for her diaries and erotic stories, but this novel captured my attention with its lyrical language as well as its mystery and secrecy. The narrator, Sabina, searches for sexual fulfillment through meeting strange men. The book has a dreamlike quality to it and the reader can rest in the fantasy and intelligence of the story.


Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
I read this many years ago and I haven’t returned to it, though I think it is time for a re-read. You can read this short book in one sitting. The novel addresses the seasons of a marriage, the failed ambitions that come with long-term partnership, and the failures of intimacy at various times. Again, like many of the books on this list, the story is told through a fragmented narrative using sparse prose and white space to increase tension and drama. There is also an integration of various intellectual ideas which lift the narrative from just the speculation of a marriage to a larger inquiry of self and purpose. Offill writes, “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.” Yes.


The Awakening by Kate Chopin
I had to include this classic book here because it is the essence of a woman finding her freedom and sexual desire. An early feminist text, its protagonist Edna Pontellier struggles with her role as mother and woman at a time in which women did not question their fundamental life structures and marriage. She goes through a sexual awakening and a discovery of self that leads the way in literature for women to explore their own lives in this deep and intimate way.


The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power by Audre Lorde
Another classic text for everyone—no matter your interest in desire or eroticism. This short book-length essay goes beyond the typical sexual definition of the erotic to a kind of expansion and reclamation of power. The work investigates the deep knowledge that roots itself in the feminine. Lorde writes, “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women.”


Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros
I’ve been carrying this book with me since my undergraduate days. I would read these poems over and over again in the dim light of my dorm room, wondering if I could ever write like Cisneros or become as bold a woman and a writer. These poems are electric in their eroticism and their longings, and beyond that, they give us an unapologetic and lyric portrait of a woman embodying her own erotic potential.


Playing Monogamy by Simon€ van Saarloos
I put this one last on the list, because I haven’t read it, but I want to recommend it anyhow because that Leni Zumas wrote the foreword to the new edition and because it explores multi-love partnership, making a case against monogamy. As my book relates to this subject in terms of my own exploration of open marriage and my philosophical belief in ethical non-monogamy, this book, translated from the Dutch, will be another important contribution to the discussion and conversation of polyamory and multi-love as well as provide the canon with a new inquiry into intimacy and sexuality. It’s a book I can’t wait to read!


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Melissa’s new memoir-in-essays, Tracing the Desire Line, out now from Split Lip Press!  – Ed.

Tracing the Desire Line: A Memoir in Essays by Melissa Matthewson
Tracing the Desire Line follows a writer’s journey of opening her marriage with her husband. The story—told through short memoirs, essays, lists, letters, and hybrid prose poems—is an intimate inquiry into one woman’s search for autonomy with detours into meditations on music, motherhood, religion, love, and wildness.

Melissa Matthewson is the author of a memoir-in-essays, Tracing the Desire Line (Split/Lip Press, 2019), a finalist for the 2021 Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Guernica, Longreads, Oregon Humanities, Literary Hub, The Common, DIAGRAM, and American Literary Review, among other publications. She teaches in the MFA Creative Writing program at Eastern Oregon University and in the Communication program at Southern Oregon University. Find her on Twitter at @melmatthewson and Instagram at @mazzymaple. More from this author →