The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America (and Valencia) by Michelle Tea
Michelle Tea is one of our favorite writers of all time — and she’s written so much about her youth that we had to kick off this list by cheating and sticking in an extra book. Passionate Mistakes, a classic for feminists and counterculture weirdos in general, is an autobiographical novel that takes us from the author’s teenage days as a working-class goth from the Boston suburbs across the country to San Francisco, learning messy lessons about work, art, and sexuality in the process. Valencia picks up roughly where Tea’s debut left off, tracing its protagonist through the California queer underground, a gritty and glamorous place fueled by drugs and populated by sex workers and other artists.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton’s iconic protagonist, Lily Bart, has a few things in common with Lena Dunham’s Girls character, Hannah. Both are young women who’ve been living off the generosity of their well-off families, and who must suddenly face the reality that the support won’t last forever. Hannah may not have Lily’s celebrated beauty, but at least she doesn’t have to worry that she’ll be branded an old maid if she doesn’t marry by 30.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published when she was just 28, Adichie’s second novel isn’t just about young women — it tells the story of a handful of intellectuals living in Nigeria during the Biafran War of the late ’60s. But at its core are Olanna and Kainene, twins whose personalities couldn’t be more different, and the complicated relationships and dire wartime straits that pull them together and tear them apart.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Don’t be fooled by this wildly popular book’s induction into the middlebrow canon; The Joy Luck Club is more than just airplane reading. Although it also tells the stories of their elderly mothers, who were born in China and have been meeting regularly for decades to play mahjong, this novel’s true subject is the daughters — young women who have to negotiate between their traditional families’ high expectations and their own ambitions and identities as second-generation Chinese Americans in San Francisco, and come to terms with what their moms endured to give them a better life.
The Group by Mary McCarthy
Like Girls set amid the Great Depression (a period that does, of course, have more than a little in common with the present), this autobiographical novel follows a group of Vassar graduates as they make their way in New York. McCarthy is well known for her cruel but observant sense of humor, and the characters she creates — a lazy socialite named Pokey, a social-climbing snob with a philandering husband — are recognizable to this day. Hell, poor Dottie’s relationship rivals Hannah on Girls‘ for sheer debasement.
Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee
Decades later in a very different corner of New York — Queens, that is — Jasmine is a 17-year-old Indian widow forced to make a new life for herself. Enduring terrible jobs, poverty, and even rape, her luck eventually changes as she slowly integrates herself into American society, becoming a nanny and embarks upon an ambitious program of self-education. A strong and restless heroine, Jasmine doesn’t simply give rare voice to the journey of an immigrant — she embodies the American dream.
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
Originally published in 1958, Elaine Dundy’s debut novel got fresh buzz a few years back, when it was reissued by New York Review Books. If the story of a beautiful, young American girl descending upon ’50s Paris isn’t enough to tempt you into picking up a copy, consider NPR’s description: “Basically, if you were to set Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady near the Sorbonne, untangle the sentences and add more slapstick, sex and champagne cocktails, you’re getting close.” Yes, please!
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez
In Nunez’s autobiographical debut novel, a young woman attempts to sort through the mysteries of her very different parents — a Chinese-Panamanian father who came to New York as a teenager but never learned English and a beautiful, emotional German mother. As the book continues, it picks up the narrator’s own story, weaving together this nameless character’s chaotic love life and dream of becoming a ballerina with the family who influenced her to become the person she is.
By Blood by Ellen Ullman
Although the narrator of Ellen Ullman’s gripping new novel is a mentally disturbed middle-aged professor, it’s the woman he’s obsessed with — the female patient of a therapist who works next door to his office — whose story we get sucked into. A 20-something lesbian in ’70s San Francisco with a job in finance and a whole host of issues surrounding her adoption, this nameless woman fascinates and frustrates us as we, like our dangerously voyeuristic storyteller, become ever more consumed by her search for love and identity.
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Last but not least — well, OK, maybe least — is a bit of pure, soap-opera fun. If you haven’t read Jacqueline Susann’s melodramatic 1966 novel about three wannabe starlets who meet in New York while working on a Broadway show, pour yourself a martini and get ready for 450 pages of thrills, pills, and hysterical breakdowns.