Reviews and Recs: Books on Identity

by Alison Pasbrig

Personal identity is very important to most people, but sometimes finding representation of your identities in novels can be quite difficult. When I read about characters who have similar identities to me, it makes me feel happy and understood. So, I have compiled a list of six fairly recent books that showcase different parts of identities.

I hope these make you feel seen and bring you happiness too.

book cover of Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

by Celeste Ng

TW: abortion, infertility, kidnapping, racism

Little Fires Everywhere follows the Warrens and the Richardsons, two families from different backgrounds brought together when Mia Warren rents a home from the Richardsons. Nomadic, artistic, and mysterious Mia is a single mother living with her teenage daughter Pearl. By contrast, the wealthy and more traditional Richardson family, who has lived in their community for generations, consists of mother Elena, father Bill, and four children: Lexie, Tripp, Moody, and Izzy. Tension between the families rises when Mia discovers a friend of Elena has adopted a Chinese American baby—who is actually the daughter of Mia’s friend Bebe, a Chinese immigrant forced to give up her only child when she was alone, broke, and struggling with postpartum depression.

Little Fires Everywhere is a captivating novel that will have you hooked from the first page. It’s also the inspiration for Hulu’s miniseries of the same title.

What you might identify with:
  • nationality: Chinese immigrants
  • race and ethnicity: Black and African American, Chinese American, multiracial
  • family dynamics: single mothers, adopted children
book cover of Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You

by Celeste Ng

TW: suicide, abuse, ableist language, racism

Everything I Never Told You, Ng’s debut novel, unfolds after the death of the Lee family’s middle—and favorite—child Lydia. As Chinese Americans, the Lee family deals with a lot of discrimination, which affects each member in different ways. Lydia’s depression and social anxiety cause tension for everyone, and the novel explores how the intersection of mental health and culture can create rifts in otherwise loving families.

This is one of the most heartbreaking books I have ever read. It literally had me sobbing for an hour after I read it.

What you might identify with:
  • race and ethnicity: Chinese Americans, multiracial
  • family dynamics: siblings, parent-child relationships
  • health: mental illness (depression, social anxiety)
book cover of Radio Silence

Radio Silence

by Alice Oseman

TW: suicidal ideation, child abuse, animal abuse, harassment 

Radio Silence is a YA novel about a girl named Frances, who is always studying and making fan art, and a boy named Aled, who is the creator of Frances’ favorite podcast. The two team up to collaborate on the podcast, and in doing so discover important information about each other and themselves. This book features many LGBTQIA+ characters and has an asexual main character who Oseman wrote very intentionally: “It was very important to me to show that asexuality is a real, valid identity, and that it can be a great struggle to share that even with those closest to you.”

This novel is heavily fast paced and compelling, with characters almost everyone can identify with.

What you might identify with:
  • sexuality: asexual, bisexual, demisexual, lesbian, gay
  • race and ethnicity: British and Ethiopian, multiracial
  • family dynamics: emotional abuse
  • health: mental illness (depression)
book cover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

by Taylor Jenkins Reid

TW: alcohol, sexual assault, abuse, homophobic language, biphobia/misia

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo follows 1960s Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo and the people she loved. As an aging movie icon, Evelyn decides it’s time for a tell-all about her life and chooses an unknown magazine journalist, Monique Grant, to write her story. Monique is surprised when she’s specifically chosen for the job, but she commits hoping it will help her career. Monique learns more than she could’ve imagined as Evelyn’s story reveals what life was like for bisexual women and lesbians during a time when they could not be “out” and shows the lengths people will go to in order to keep their true selves protected from the cruelty of society.

This novel is incredibly heartfelt and well-written, and it will have you feeling like you know the characters personally. 

What you might identify with:
  • sexuality: bisexual, lesbian, gay
  • family dynamics: domestic violence, “closeted” relationships, queer partnerships
  • health: addiction, mental illness (depression, suicidal ideation), grief and loss
book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

TW: drug use and addiction, child abuse, rape, homophobic slurs, racism 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the debut novel of poet Ocean Vuong. It’s a coming-of-age story written as a letter from a son in his late 20s to his immigrant mother who cannot read. The son, Little Dog, uncovers generational trauma as he traces family history from before he was born and throughout his life growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant in the US. Little Dog’s letter shares that he’s struggled with pieces of his identity—especially his race, sexuality, and gender—over the years in ways in mother likely had no idea. Ultimately, Little Dog shows how his relationship with his mother is loving, fraught, yet always enduring.

Vuong’s heartbreaking semi-autobiographical novel is written beautifully and will have you crying throughout the whole thing.

What you might identify with:
  • nationality: Vietnamese immigrants
  • race and ethnicity: Vietnamese
  • sexuality: gay
  • family dynamics: generational trauma, single mothers, mother-son relationships
book cover for In the Dream House

In the Dream House

by Carmen Maria Machado

TW: domestic violence, psychological and emotional abuse, suicidal ideation 

Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir relays her experiences with relationship abuse. Machado tells her story in vignettes instead of one single story, and she often writes in second person to make readers feel completely connected to her story as if it’s their own. Although this is the story of how Machado survived living with a psychologically abusive partner, her memoir speaks to concerns beyond herself: the tension between religious upbringing and sexuality and same-sex relationships; the harm caused by the utopian lesbian relationship stereotype; and the reality of abuse and violence within queer relationships.

It is a raw and emotional tale.

What you might identify with:
  • sexuality: bisexual, lesbian
  • family dynamics: polyamorous relationships, queer partnerships
  • health: fear and exhaustion, mental illness (depression, suicidal ideation)