14 Great Novels by Women

Do you read enough novels written by women? I’ve found that most people who love literature tend to be heavily skewed toward male authors (the complex reasons for this deserve their own post). Even my own top 10 list would probably include more men, and I seek out novels by women. These are some of the best I’ve read:

The Bone People by Keri Hulme
This is one of those novels that will haunt you for years. Embedded in the Maori culture of New Zealand, it’s the story of a young mute boy and the bond he forms with a woman recluse, who has few ties to others. It’s an exploration of the nature of love and human connections in a place deeply scarred by the violence of colonialism.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I’m not sure this is even my favorite Atwood (that might be Robber Bride), but it is a 20th century classic that should be on everyone’s reading list. It is set in a dystopian future, when all of the worst-case-scenarios around gender and reproduction play out in a tight, tense plot line. The movie is worth a gander, too.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
For some reason, this was on the reading list for three separate Lit classes I took at the UW, so I got to spend some time with it. It certainly deserves the attention, as a quintessential piece of modernist prose written at a time when all of the structures of 19th century arts and society were finally being dismantled. Stream of consciousness from multiple viewpoints paints a rich picture of a single day in London, which is both ordinary and tragic.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Of course this is on the list. How could it not be? Jane Austen was a master of wit and subtle subversion, which she applied with aplomb to the social mores of the 19th century, and especially the institution of marriage. The novel is much lighter than some of its contemporaries, using humor and wordplay to jab at the mating rituals of the upper classes. If you’ve just read a Thomas Hardy novel, this is a good palette cleanser.

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore
In addition to just being great writing, this genius collection of stories uses the theory of anagrams (shifting letters to make different words) to play with identity and explore themes from multiple angles. The protagonist Benna Carpenter is a different person with a different life in each of the five stories, and through these five women she examines the different ways we experience love (or lack of love).

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
I feel a deep connection to the geography of this novel, as it is set in a fictionalized version of Sandpoint, Idaho, about 50 miles from where I grew up. Robinson herself grew up in North Idaho, and she masterfully describes the culture of frontier freedom, and the experience of being a woman in the Pacific Northwest, where different rules apply. Both the Guardian and Time have listed it among the 100 best novels of all time.

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This is a lush narrative delivered from the multiple points of view of a mother and her four daughters as they adjust to life as a missionary family in the Belgian Congo at the beginning of the 1960s. Kingsolver masterfully captures the unique voices as they adapt to the challenges of life in a politically charged tribal culture. Their personal strife and tragedy reflect the turmoil of this occupied African nation.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
It feels a bit clichéd to include this one, because Morrison is so Oprah-hyped, it’s hardly likely you haven’t heard of it. I spurned her writing for years for exactly that reason. Plus, I always thought she was writing for a different audience. Older. Blacker. More “American” (yes, I am very American… sometimes I don’t feel very American). The fact is, she is a great American writer, and her books are literary works deserving of a broad audience. ‘The Bluest Eye’ is her first novel, and it takes the reader to uncomfortable zone, grappling with skin and eye color (and self-worth) in a racist culture.

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier
‘Rebecca’ would be a more obvious choice, and it is definitely worth reading (and worth watching the film adaptation), but I really enjoy this tightly plotted, suspenseful meditation on identity and class. An unsuspecting traveler is unwittingly transplanted into the complicated life of a wealthy con man — his doppelgänger. Hijinx ensue.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Another overhyped novel,  published when the author was only 22. I resented this work for its hype and mega-advance, but she has clearly absorbed some of my favorite writers, like Murdoch, Amis and Nabokov. And she’s a talented writer. This is a very British novel, delving into the complexities of the multicultural world into which Smith was born in London at the dawn of the 21st century.

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
Pick any Iris Murdoch, they’re all great. I chose this one as a great example of a humorously obsessive, neurotic protagonist, in classic Murdoch style. She is the master of the the neurotic British relationship, replete with all of the strange things people do when they want things they can’t have. Like many of her novels, the story focuses on a group of friends who are involved in the arts and have complicated histories with each other. No one does dialogue or pathos like Murdoch.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt is one of my favorite American novelists. Her novels tend to weave twisty Hitchcockian plots around human events that have irrevocable outcomes for the central characters. She develops complex characters who reflect the aesthetic of East Coast elitism, though she is from Mississippi herself (and Southern Gothic flourishes sneak in as well). The Goldfinch begins when a boy’s mother is killed in a tragic museum bombing that puts him in unwitting possession of one of the world’s most valuable stolen artworks. Hijinx ensue.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
If possible, read this when you are a 15-year-old girl, as I did. Otherwise, take it as an important cultural artifact of the 20th century. What was it like to be a young woman in mid-twentieth-century America? This is a poignant portrayal of that fast and fragile time. Plath pulls us into the well of her depression with grace and poetic language. What does it mean to be sick? What does it mean to be well? These are questions to ask when you pick up this novel.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley led a fascinating life in a tumultuous era. Her feminist mother died when she was only eleven, but her political philosopher father encouraged her to follow his liberal political theories. She became involved with one of her father’s followers — Percy Bysshe Shelley (poet) — when he was still married to another woman. They were married after his first wife committed suicide, and by then had already lost a stillborn daughter of their own. Of their four other children only one survived, and Percy Shelley eventually drowned. Fun. I was mostly familiar with Frankenstein as a clunky, cartoonish metaphor for playing God, until I read the novel. The book is much more psychologically complex and set against treacherous internal and external terrains.

Other women to read*:

Ursula LeGuin

Joan Didion

Sheila Heti

Charlotte Bronte

Cheryl Strayed

Mary Gaitskill

Flannery O’Connor

bell hooks

Rebecca Solnit

Mary Karr

Patricia Highsmith

Shirley Jackson

*This list is not by any means comprehensive. It only includes authors I have read and liked, and I may have forgotten a few of those! I also did not include the many great crime fiction authors I have read.

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