50 Excellent Novels by Female Writers Under 50 That Everyone Should Read


It’s pretty much been settled that everyone should read more books by women. But when looking for recommendations, it’s often all Woolf, Morrison, Lessing, Austen, Brontë. Of course, these are essential authors for a reason, and you should definitely read all of their books. That said, there’s something to catching a writer at the beginning of her career and following her for years that is supremely satisfying — not to mention the fact that young female writers need readers rather more than Jane Austen does. So in an effort to get you in on the ground floor (or at least, like, the third floor), after the jump you’ll find a compendium of 50 novels written by 50 female novelists under 50 that are worth your time. But these aren’t the only 50 books that fit this description! Read through and add on as you will in the comments.

Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Welp, you’re probably not surprised to see Oyeyemi on this list — if you’re a regular reader of Flavorwire, you’ll know that everyone here pretty much loves her. This novel, her latest, is a modern retelling of Snow White where the stepmother is de-villainized and borders of many other kinds are blurred to boot. Oyeyemi is also only 29, which means that you should only read her if you’re ready to start a lifetime relationship with a writer of gorgeous, gymnastic, fairy tale-infused fiction. Which you are.

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

It is the Year of Roxane Gay after all. Celebrate by reading her hypnotic hurricane of a debut novel, but be prepared for it never to not be the Year of Roxane Gay again.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

I’ve said it before here, and I’ll say it again: read this book. The language within is as incendiary as its title.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

To be quite honest, I mostly prefer Russell’s short stories to her debut novel, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t excellent. And leaving a 33-year-old fantasist who is also an official genius off a list like this? Blasphemy.

The Anatomy of Dreams, Chloe Benjamin

You won’t be able to get your hands on this one until September, but put it on your list now — Benjamin’s deft debut creeps up on you like sleep, enchants you like a dream, and then slaps you awake to the real. Can’t wait to see more from her.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

Bender is one of the most imaginative writers at work today, and you should gobble up just about everything by her. It’ll taste much better than your mother’s secret despair — promise.

Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones

From the very first line (“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist”), you know this book is going to be a rather unusual family drama. Indeed, James Witherspoon has two families, one public, one secret, and two daughters, one public, one secret. But daughters have a way of finding themselves — and each other — out. A highly engaging book about truth, family, and growing up.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

But of course. The 28-year-old’s second novel won the Booker Prize last year, making her the youngest author ever to win it — and with the longest book, to boot. An engaging, ambitious mystery, it’s worth all 832 of those prize-winning pages.

No One is Here Except All of Us, Ramona Ausubel

Ausubel is a perennial favorite around here, always poetic and weird and fantastical all at once. Her first novel is a beautiful story woven of legends and history set in a Romanian village in the ‘30s.

The Vanishers, Heidi Julavits

Grad school for psychics and power struggles that happen behind the mind, or maybe nowhere at all? Only Heidi Julavits could write a cerebral novel that’s such wicked fun.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you haven’t heard of Adichie, you haven’t been paying attention. Hell, Beyoncé sampled her TED Talk, so you really have no excuses. Americanah is a breathtaking and dare I say important novel about race, identity, and love, and I know I’m not the first to tell you to read it, so, you know, go read it.

Vacation, Deb Olin Unferth

People should, just in general, always be reading more Deb Olin Unferth. This novel is strange, obsessive, abstract, and pretty incredible all around.

Madeleine Is Sleeping, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

This book, which Alan Cheuse called “a wonderful combination of Virginia Woolf and Freud and Jung,” is a weird semi-retelling of Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic children’s book, but all mixed up in dreams and sex and fairy tale and the permeable membranes between them.

Threats, Amelia Gray

Trust Amelia Gray to shake you from head to toe, and leave little notes for you in places you’d least expect them. At least, that’s what happens to David, who thinks his wife is dead, but keeps on getting… well, threats. Threats of the weirdest kind. This novel will perplex and terrify and charm you. Maybe to death?

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

One of the greats. Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran and the Iranian revolution is funny, sweet, and pretty damn powerful. Also, you know, there are pictures.

In the Woods, Tana French

Everyone’s favorite contemporary literary thriller — and now the first book in everyone’s favorite literary thriller series. Do not start reading late at night.

Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen

In Galchen’s much-lauded debut, a psychiatrist hopes to find his wife — his real wife, because it appears that the one in front of him has been replaced by a simulacrum. An incredible — and incredibly written — quest ensues.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith

This novel remains, to my mind, the very best work by the ever-brilliant Zadie Smith.

Land of Love and Drowning, Tiphanie Yanique

A magnificent family saga set in the pulsing, crashing, glowing Virgin Islands. Yanique has talent to spare.

Ugly Girls, Lindsay Hunter

This novel roars off the first page in a stolen red Mazda and never deigns to tap the brakes. Weird and wonderful and, yes, ugly, but also beautiful, this book explores a friendship as only a friendship between teenage girls on the edge can be: chipped and fleshy and grimy and everything and nothing at once.

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is such a literary mainstay at this point that it’s hard to believe she’s under 50. But that just goes to show how powerful and freaking brilliant she is. Read this one, or any of hers, and you’ll be glad you did.

Kinder Than Solitude, Yiyun Li

A gorgeous transcontinental mystery that reveals truths in all their forms: once-known, buried, and completely unexpected.

We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

A powerful debut novel — shortlisted for the Booker, no less — that tells the story of a ten-year-old girl’s journey from Zimbabwe to America, and all the things she didn’t expect when she gets there. Fierce and sometimes terrifying in her prose, Bulawayo is one to watch.

Green Girl, Kate Zambreno

A smart-as-hell novel that tells an old story — a young girl growing up — in searing, cracking new form.

A Partial History of Lost Causes, Jennifer DuBois

A chess champion and a woman (who may or may not be dying) form an international friendship over a letter written by her father long ago. DuBois’ characters want to know: How does one proceed in a lost cause? They may just find the answer.

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

This National Book Award-winning stunner tells the story of a family in the soaking shadow of Katrina. Beautiful and tough and fearless.

2 AM at the Cat’s Pajamas, Marie-Helene Bertino

Bertino’s debut novel is a total charmer, filled with music and wisdom and off-kilter humor, not to mention some very bad words for a nine-year-old to know about. For lovers of quirkiness and good writing.

Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat

Where to start with Danticat? Given the particular flavor of this list, why not her debut, published 20 years ago when she was only 25 years old. But really, all of her writing is pretty awesome.

The Last Illusion, Porochista Khakpour

A stunning novel about an Iranian boy raised in a birdcage and then set loose — and feral — on the streets of New York City. Glittering and mad.

The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas

In this philosophical and fantastical novel, a Ph.D. student reads a cursed manuscript and winds up on a quest in a very different dimension than our own. Gratuitous Joss Whedon reference: It’s all kind of like what happened to Fred if Pylea was a place where you could travel through other people’s minds. So, yeah.

The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld

This is a dark, captivating novel about death row and magic, written by a bestselling journalist.

The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich

Everybody’s favorite voice-crazed novel about teenage vampire hobo junkies.

The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff

Groff’s first novel is half faux-history, half coming-of-age story, and all love letter to her childhood home of Cooperstown. A delight from start to finish, with monsters.

A Person of Interest, Susan Choi

A psychologically complex and engrossing novel of terrorism, history, and personality. Like most of Choi’s work, not to be missed.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

Despite the watery ending, this novel, a reference-jammed Great Books course following a group of kids at an elite school, is bombastic, ambitious, and a hell of a lot of fun.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis

Oprah- and everyone-else-you-know-approved, this novel is a wonder.

The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan

Anointed last year as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, Fagan has earned her spot twice over with this novel, featuring a 15-year-old “girl with a shark’s heart” sent off to rehab.

The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt

Gotta love a time travel novel about Tesla.

Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta

I’d say this novel is brilliant, but really, who could explain it any better than EW’s Ken Tucker: “It’s as though Nabokov had written a rock novel.”

Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson

For those who like a few jinn with their political Middle Eastern love stories.

Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey

A dark magnet of a book about a girl who hurls herself off the side of her own life.

Among Others, Jo Walton

Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula for best novel, this dark fantasy — about a girl’s struggle with both her mother’s magic and her own. Buy it now, because Walton turns 50 in December. Or, you know, buy it after that, too.

Tampa, Alissa Nutting

I guarantee that no one who reads this book — especially sweating it out on the subway with frequent over-the-shoulder glances, as I did — will ever forget it.

We Take Me Apart, Molly Gaudry

This incredible verse novel(la) is infused with fairy tales and Gertrude Stein, not to mention Gaudry’s own dreamlike, luscious voice. An almost visceral delight.

Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi

An elegant novel about a splintered family painstakingly stitching itself back together.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

This international bestseller is also a surprising, wry novel that spans decades and continents and the much wider, longer swaths made up of loneliness that can take root in a soul.

The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer

Orringer’s debut is a vivid, completely captivating love story set in 1930s Paris. It is constantly compared to Dr. Zhivago, and is destined to be equally classic.

Woke Up Lonely, Fiona Maazel

You thought you’d never relate to a cult leader in love? Guess again, my friend.

Ghost Lights, Lydia Millet

A sharp, surrealist quest into the Central American jungle. One of her best.

Ten Thousand Saints, Eleanor Henderson

A gorgeously written, nervy coming-of-age story set in the gritty Lower East Side of the 1980s, in which a child of two hippies embraces the straightedge life. Read it before the movie (starring Ender Wiggin) comes out next year.