I applaud anyone thinking of doing #readwomen2014, even as I’m not sure I’ll be doing it myself in any formal way. Making it a point to read books that emerge from a wide variety of human experiences will never be a bad thing. Everyone should do it. The end.
But I notice people seem in need of suggestions for what to read, in that case. As I’ve said before, my own bookshelves have been trending female for a long time now. So I have a fairly good handle on novels written by women in the last century or so, and if I were drawing you up a syllabus of what to read next by women, here are the top 50 books I would recommend. Since I could easily offer more than 50 suggestions, I tried to keep this manageable by sticking largely to fiction, with a few memoirs along the way. I also picked only one book per author, though in general I tried, where possible, to select a book you wouldn’t necessarily have encountered on a school syllabus. I tried to do a fair mix of older books and newer books, too, and emphasized ones which you could call overlooked or even forgotten. Really the only common denominator is that I own, and have loved, all of these.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
I just finished reading this novel, which tells the entwined stories of a writer named Ruth in British Columbia and a girl named Nao in Japan. Long after putting it down, I can’t stop thinking about it.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Still Smith’s best novel all these years later. The story of a lifelong friendship inflected by the realities of immigration in an increasingly multicultural London, it’s funny and sharp.
What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal) by Zoë Heller
You may have seen the Cate Blanchett/Judi Dench film made from this book, but the book is far better, a delicious and involving tale told by the unreliable bystander to a high-school sex scandal.
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
Custom has never had one of those big costume adaptations that can take a novel from “syllabus must” to “household name.” Undine Spragg is Wharton’s Becky Sharp or (for those of you less addicted to 19th-century novels) Elle Woods, determined to ascend in a society that is less interested in talent or skill than good breeding.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I’ve recommended Americanah here at Flavorwire so many times I thought I’d mix it up and suggest you look at this novel too, Adichie’s first. Sparer and more lyrical than her later work, it is a beautiful coming-of-age tale about a young girl trying to get a foothold in spite of her disintegrating, even violent family. It’s a very haunting sort of book.
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
This brief but transcendently beautiful novel tells the story of an (adult) poet in love with a 12-year-old girl. It weighs in at under 200 pages but manages to pack so much context and nuance in them, I promise you you will be in awe.
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
Really hard to describe what genre this book belongs to; perhaps “memoir-essay” sort of covers it, but there’s more going on here too. Whatever the catalog copy, you’ll find yourself captivated once you begin reading it.
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
This is a novel about depression, and its form is experimental, so it might not be for everyone. Sample line: “Since I was born, hasn’t every word I’ve said, every thought I’ve thought, everything I’ve done, been tied up, weighted, chained?” But it is the kind of novel that burns itself into the retinas of those who do appreciate it.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich’s first book is loosely organized around a single tragedy: the freezing death of a woman coming home from a bar. But it is also about love, the cruelty of white governance of Native Americans, and the inescapability of family.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
This history of the Great Migration, told through the lens of the personal stories of people who actually experienced it, is one of the most remarkable works of nonfiction to appear in recent years.
The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick
This book has an unusual structure, as a linked novella and short story about a mother named Rosa and the death of her 15-month-old in a Nazi concentration camp. It won many awards when it was published, to be clear, but of late people don’t talk about it as much as they should. I don’t know why.
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Hm, I am starting to notice I’m picking a lot of books about violence. Oh well! Shriver’s agonized mother-of-school-shooter confession is as engrossing as you’ve been told it is, and there’s a considerable amount of nuance and art in it for a book with such a lurid, newsy hook.
The Group by Mary McCarthy
This paradigmatic book about a group of Vassar graduates trying to find careers and romance in New York was a sensation in its own time. Today, it reads a bit tame, but you’ll recognize a lot of the tropes of the girl-comes-to-the-big-city novels in it, executed in McCarthy’s flawless prose.
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
Jonathan Franzen loves this book, and so do I. So does Ruth Franklin. How many more endorsements do you need for this exquisite little book about a crumbling marriage?
The Judge by Rebecca West
West, who was tremendously famous in her own time and almost forgotten in ours except as the author of the remark, “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute,” is better known for her reported non-fiction. But she did write novels, and The Judge was her attempt to do a Gothic romance. The lovers in this one are a suffragette and an explorer.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
I include this book on this list not because I think you won’t have heard of it, but because I know that in my own life the movie somehow eclipsed to actual book. And that’s wrong, terribly wrong, because as good as the film might be, the novel is better. You should read it on its own merits.
Broken Harbor by Tana French
One of the best mystery novels I’ve read in years, involving a half-finished housing development and, as always with French, a hint of the supernatural. Two young children and their father die in one of the few finished houses, and the mother is left speechless from the tragedy. Though theoretically all of French’s books are linked, this one you could easily read without having looked at the others first.
Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
Eisenberg is a short-story writer very unlike most other short-story writers. I say this as a compliment. She tells stories of the kind that sound like ordinary bourgeois New Yorker-type stories, but it’s in the mode of execution that she makes her mark on them. A line from a Ben Marcus review of her work often comes to me when I think of describing what her stories are like: “refracted through cracked glass.” This collection, from 2006, is pretty great.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
The story of a Native American soldier who returns home from Vietnam to his reservation afflicted by “humid dreams of black night” and in need of spiritual solace, Ceremony won many awards in its own time and is an American classic, although one not quite as widely known as it should be.
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Leblanc spent ten years reporting her study of one extended family in the Bronx, as they dealt with the ravages of poverty and addiction. The result is something that reads like a novel but is much less sentimental than that sort of compliment suggests.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s backstory often threatens to cloud out the brilliance of her books; she refuses to grant press interviews, and there are recurrent rumors that her name is a pseudonym. My Brilliant Friend was among the first of her books to be translated into English, and is a study of female friendship, the envy and the contest and the eventual resentment of it, that you’ll never forget.
The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Childhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
This novel of growing up Chinese American has a beautiful way of capturing the in-between feeling of the immigrant experience, the way you never quite feel your feet beneath you in one place or another.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
A beautifully crusty tale about a woman made hard by her own loneliness, who begins to interfere in a friend’s marriage. The main character is everything you fear you’ll become if you remain single too long.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
This beautiful book is the story of a lonely and abused child growing up in South Carolina. You will not be the same person after finishing it, though probably best to plan to read the last hundred or so pages somewhere private; people sometimes don’t like to see public displays of empathetic despair.
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
It is hard to believe when you read this novel, the first of Danticat’s books, that it is actually the product of a 25-year old. The story of a girl sent to live with the mother she’s never known in America, and the way in which the experience of Haiti continues to haunt her, it has a confidence and depth that are really remarkable.
Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector
Lispector, a Brazilian novelist whose reputation in America has enjoyed a renaissance since Benjamin Moser published a major biography a few years back, wrote this coming-of-age novel when she was just 22. Don’t let your jealousy of that fact keep you from reading this.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Tartt’s Bacchanal-at-liberal-arts-college masterpiece combines a number of genres — murder mystery, campus romance, Bret Easton Ellis-ish gawking at the foibles of the very rich — and it’s a page-turner you won’t be able to set down until you finish it.
The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
These are companion books, sometimes sold in the same volume, and plot-wise, they are what you could call chamber dramas about marriage and domestic life of the British aristocracy. They are also hilariously funny.
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
In fact, if I knew you’d be able to find it in print, I’d recommend going first to DeWitt’s big, ambitious novel The Last Samurai. But the whip-smart satire Lightning Rods, which tells the story of one man’s unusual solution to the problem of workplace sexual harassment, will probably serve my purpose too of whetting your appetite for DeWitt, whose lucid, hyper-intelligent humor doesn’t get her near celebrated enough. If you ask me, anyway.
Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro
You knew I had to include one of Alice Munro’s short story collections. I always pick this early one because it has “The Ottawa Valley” in it, which is my favorite for possibly-less-than-universally-applicable-reasons. (I have deep roots in the Ottawa Valley.) But you won’t regret this, I promise.
The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch
Murdoch is sometimes criticized for being a less-than-gorgeous prose stylist. This book dampens, if it does not totally silence, such critics. An old man, who had lived his life as a playwright and director, begins to write his memoirs in seclusion by the sea. Philosophical hijinks ensue.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
If you have been putting off reading this, why?
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
The confessions of a 19th-century Canadian servant girl accused of murder form the backbone of this historical novel, which is my favorite of Atwood’s work. Something about the claustrophobia of the 19th century really suits her, gives her meat to work with.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick is better known as a critic than a novelist. Sleepless Nights is her effort at a very autobiographical sort of fiction; as Joan Didion put it, reviewing the novel for the Times, “We recognize the events and addresses of Elizabeth Hardwick’s life not only from her earlier work, but from the poems of her husband, the late Robert Lowell.”
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Listen, I keep putting this book on lists here because it is really a far more accessible sort of book than the big Cromwell tomes (which I love as well, but still). Mediums, sailor-ghosts, come on!
Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker
David Foster Wallace once wrote of Acker that Deleuze and Guattari were all over her work “like white on rice.” He was not exactly wrong in that assessment, but the way she dives into all that is sordid and bloody in female life does indeed have a pull beyond the attractions of theory. Janey Smith’s abjection (which is not as abject as it looks) will either thrill or infuriate you. Possibly, both.
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
Angela Carter was doing wonderful things with magical realism and postmodernism before those terms were the sort of grad school bread and butter they are today. Carter drew intensely readable work from her explorations of these matters, though, including this novel about a circus performer who literally sprouts wings.
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Possibly my favorite novel of all time, in which a graduate student and an English professor play literary detective, trying to chase down a heretofore unknown love affair between two Romantic poets. Sounds a little dry but in practice a page turner; I think of the end of this book, and what it says about how little we all know about each other, all the time.
Passing by Nella Larsen
Larsen’s novel about just what the title says is pretty exquisite, though it’s also been occasionally criticized for its embrace of a “tragic mulatto” stereotype. My own read is that something more complicated and subtle is going on.
Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor
No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. This Taylor is a prolific English novelist, one who wrote a great many lovely novels contemporaneously with the career of the movie star and so was always condemned to a sort of second place. This one, about an acquaintance of convenience that arises when the protagonist’s husband dies, and then morphs into a toxic friendship, is my particular favorite.
Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
This is the only book of criticism I’m putting on this list, and I’m putting it there for the delightful irony it represents in Sontag’s career. Here she is, one of the great interpreters of the ages, and she nonetheless kicks off her career by calling for an end to the practice that will come to define her life.
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
This novel opens in a society falling apart at the seams. A young woman named Lauren Olamina, who is an empath, walks out of the ruin with a band of followers looking to survive the aftermath.
The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
If you still haven’t read Karr’s bestselling Scout-Finch-by-way-of-Texas-and-Dickens memoir, you should. Karr is hilariously funny even as she’s describing unhappy circumstance.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
This work of reported non-fiction is taught in many medical schools today. It follows the story of Lia Lee, a child in Merced, California, who is diagnosed with epilepsy. It should have been treatable. But because her parents are Hmong, and don’t think the same way Western medicine does, her course of treatment became a disaster, in no small part due to the inability of the medical establishment to communicate with Lia’s parents. You will never forget this book, once you have read it.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
This novel, which is commonly understood to be an autobiographical account of the dissolution of Ephron’s marriage to the Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, is one of the most hilariously direct (and effective) acts of feminist literary revenge you’ll ever come across!
Complete Stories by Dorothy Parker
Parker is better known for her melancholy verse and sharp book reviews today, but in her time, and as far as her own personal ambitions went, her short stories were the key to all her work. And they hold up remarkably well, from that line in “Arrangement in Black and White” about the “assisted gold” of someone’s hair to the “blurred and flickering sequence” of Hazel Morse’s middle age in “Big Blonde.”
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
A beloved cult classic, this novel about a family of traveling circus geeks is like nothing else you’ll read possibly ever.
Zami by Audre Lorde
Lorde’s memoir/”biomythography” is amazing. Amazing. Just read it.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Moore is one of those short-story writers they’ll probably still be reading in a hundred years, but she produces very slowly. She has a new collection coming out in a couple of months, but for now you could simply obtain and read Birds of America if you wanted to catch up on her idiosyncratic slices of life before the new fanfare starts.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Waters is one of the great British novelists of our age, doing pastiches of Victorian intrigue. Tipping the Velvet, the book which made her reputation, is about lesbian burlesque dancers making it (in more senses than one) in London. If you are really into densely plotted books, in particular, you’re bound to love this one.