Bad Behavior , Mary Gaitskill
Strange without being quirky and the perfect degree of naughty, Mary Gaitskill’s 1988 debut collection is filled with matter-of-fact stories about young, disenchanted women living in New York City — looking for human connection, going on Dexedrine binges, engaging in non-PC, semi-shocking sexual acts because a. they’re just trying to figure it out, and b. why shouldn’t they? Gaitskill is known for her use of S&M in her fiction (the film 2002 Secretary is a much watered down adaptation of one of the stories in this book), but the tales are even more notable for their honesty, candor, and perfectly unsentimental view of human existence. Plus, we know Dunham herself has read it, for whatever that’s worth.
The Fallback Plan , Leigh Stein
Leigh Stein’s hilarious debut novel may be slightly more Tiny Furniture than it is Girls — its fumbling narrator moves back in with her parents after college — but it’s still filled with that Dunham-snark and self-examination. Plus, as in Girls, you always have the feeling that things will eventually work out. As Stein told The Millions, “This is just a temporary blip in her life as an otherwise successful young woman, and I hope my novel resonates with those in a similar boat: not just the perennial ‘slackers’ out there, but the temporarily lost as well. Esther’s fantasies are just that: fantasies…for successful, ambitious people, there’s a dark fantasy to just throw in the towel, give up, and eat cereal.” We think we know some girls (and Girls) with that fantasy too.
Foxfire , Joyce Carol Oates
This novel — the tale of a riotous 50’s girl gang in Upstate New York led by “Legs” Sadovsky — won’t exactly approximate the world of Girls, but if we know anything about Hannah, it probably reflects some corner of her secret fantasies (we know it reflects a few of ours). Not to mention the book’s portrayals of young female friendships and bonding — they may be outlaws, they may get in trouble, but these girls love each other.
I Was Told There’d Be Cake , Sloane Crosley
Girls‘s protagonist Hannah is a billed as a struggling writer of funny, sardonic, self-deprecating essays about life as a 20-something, so why not read a book full of funny, sardonic, self-deprecating essays about life as a 20-something by a not-so struggling writer while you wait for her return? Crosley’s essays are a little less edgy than we imagine Hannah’s to be, but they’re still likely to make you laugh out loud and nod along all at once.
How Should a Person Be? , Sheila Heti
If there’s a single question the eponymous Girls are trying to answer, it’s the same titular one that Heti’s (fictional) protagonist Sheila is trying to answer. How Should a Person Be? is messy, bawdy, and true-to-life, filled with a strange mix of metafictional devices, transcribed conversations and emails, and as the novel continues, the reader begins to confuse the fictional Sheila with the real one. Which we admit, all other similarities aside, we sort of always do with Dunham and Hannah.
Semi-Charmed Life , Nora Zelevansky
In her first novel, Zelevansky, who comes from the same New York City art world background as Dunham, has written a charming, magical and somewhat strange city satire that follows arty Upper West Sider Beatrice Bernstein as she becomes a ghost writer for the blog of her “famous-for-nothing socialite” neighbor Veruca Pfeffernoose and ends up falling down the rabbit hole of opulence. Like any city story, eventually Beatrice has to decide where she really stands.
How To Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall
Like Girls, this novel is grounded in its relationships, though these are cross-generational and cross-gender. What tipped the scale, however, is the book’s perfectly horrifying descriptions of “illicit, dangerous sex. Sex that is novel and leaves you sore; that is experienced in the gaps between your mundane, moral life; that is strange and breathless and addictive . . . These exchanges are simply a confirmation of life to your entropic atoms, an attempt to reverse the exodus of your psyche. You are simply grief fucking.” That seems like something Hannah might do.
You Don’t Love Me Yet , Jonathan Lethem
Though Lethem’s coming-of-age rock novel is set in LA, protagonist and official paid complaint-taker Lucinda (who falls in love with a complainer) and her cast of motley acquaintances trying to make it in the music world somehow remind us of Hannah and all of her friends striving in their own various directions. It doesn’t hurt that Lethem’s sparkly prose, like Dunham’s writing, makes us love them the whole way through.
The Group , Mary McCarthy
Sure, Norman Mailer called this 1962 book “a trivial lady writer’s novel,” but he is a crotchety old man, and we think it remains one of the best novelistic portrayals of a group of female friends living, working, and making realistic life decisions. Witty and satisfying, the novel follows the lives of eight Vassar friends as they navigate through their twenties in New York City, finding love and heartbreak, new jobs and success and tragedy.
The Emperor’s Children , Claire Messud
In a way, Messud’s wonderful comedy of manners is a possible glimpse of Hannah and her friends in a few years: three 30-year old friends are all struggling in their various creative pursuits (freelance criticism, documentary film, writing), and leaning on each other as well as their families for support. As the waters get stirred up by a pair of new arrivals to the friends’ social group, everyone has to work hard to maintain — or find — their footing. Again.