Forty Great Books By Women About Women

Last week my friend sent me a link to a list of 40 Books Every Woman Should Read in Red magazine. It seemed such an odd, eclectic list that it has tempted me to write my own. But without bullying modal verbs. Below are 40 books written by women in the 20th or 21st century that have something to say about being a woman, and I think they are all very good books. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments (my list isn’t especially diverse, for instance); I’d love to hear about your favourites too.

1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Brilliant account of the plight of the woman artist.

2. A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Hard to believe this meditation on women’s ability to take on responsibility to the point of overwhelm is fifty years old. It’s still so pertinent.

3. Cheri by Colette. Surely one of the best novels ever about a woman growing too old for love.

4. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Pulitzer prize winner about a disgraced woman’s uneasy return to her social tribe.

5. Ghosting by Jennie Erdall. A beautiful piece of creative non-fiction about the art of ghostwriting.

6. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. A portrait of tense but fierce female friendship.

7. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. The inimitable Carter’s take on classic fairy tales.

8. Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Poignant memoir of life with a newborn.

9. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. So much I could have picked by Beauvoir, but in the end I opted for her first volume of memoirs: mapping the creation of a female genius.

10. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim. The funny, bittersweet story of an ordinary marriage with all its trials and tribulations (and bad childbirth experiences).

11. Lying by Lauren Slater. Controversial memoir about epilepsy and the author’s tendency to fabulate.

12. Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar. This actually isn’t my favourite Djebar but she’s hard to get hold of in translation. She’s a brilliant writer on Algerian women’s experience.

13. How To Be Both by Ali Smith. A truly joyous novel about love and art.

14. The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska. I’m always trying to persuade people to read this. It’s an entirely original piece of creative non-fiction, not to be summed up in a sentence!

15. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I’m not a big reader of children’s books as an adult, but this one really transcends its boundaries. The story of a young girl who hunts the galaxy for her lost father.

16. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. The American Madame Bovary.

17. This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway. Hilarious account of a gruelling Scottish childhood.

18. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Powerful and disturbing story of an abused foster child in the Depression Era.

19. Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. How many novels can you think of that feature as their heroine a brilliant elderly lady who knits? Watch Miss Marple wipe the floor with Inspector Slack.

20. Reading Women by Stephanie Staal. The author audits a class on feminist texts in the early stages of her marriage and new motherhood. It’s beautifully done.

21. Sherazade by Leรฏla Sebbar. A teenage Algerian runaway in Paris on a search for her identity.

22. Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. Coming of age in South Africa with a hated mother and a burning desire to write (yup, pretty autobiographical, Doris).

23. The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm. Brilliant account of Sylvia Plath that teases out the hidden agendas in those who witnessed and wrote about her.

24. The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Modern classic novel about women struggling to make it in Hollywood. Harlequin Romance meets Emile Zola.

25. Bilgewater by Jane Gardam. Beautiful coming of age novel.

26. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. One of the most original and extraordinary accounts of motherhood you’ll ever read.

27. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. One of my all-time favourite novels about Little England in which spinster, Mildred, watches the machinations of her attractive, trendy neighbours.

28. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. A recent edition to my personal greats. A novel about mothers and daughters and dysfunctional families.

29. The Group by Mary McCarthy. Following the lives of a group of friends post-Vassar in 1930s America. Was a scandalous success back in the day, still a great novel.

30. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Teenagers abandoned home alone cope with World War 3. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything else quite so visceral.

31. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. The story of a woman abandoned in a psychiatric institute for her entire life, for not behaving in the ways her family thought fit.

32. The Good Wife by Sue Miller. Can mothers have sex lives? Sue Miller’s gripping, ferocious novel about why they can’t.

33. Desirada by Maryse Condรฉ. Classic novel about a woman’s journey of redemption from Guadeloupe to France to the United States, away from a neglectful mother and in search of her father.

34. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. A slice of beautifully written social history in this saga of a middle-class family during World War Two.

35. Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. Funniest historical fiction ever about a giantess.

36. I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith. Gorgeous coming of age novel about two sisters seeking love and money.

37. Fierce Attachments by Vivien Gornick. A wonderful memoir about never being able to cut loose from a Jewish mother.

38. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Murder and madness in this historical novel. Was young servant girl, Grace Marks, a cold-hearted killer or a vulnerable child just trying to survive?

39. Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Gender-bending, cross-dressing historical romp by the one and only Woolf.

40. Aftermath by Rachel Cusk. This was a very controversial memoir about divorce when it first appeared. Hopefully now the furore has died down it can be read for the beautiful, expressive book that it is.



46 thoughts on “Forty Great Books By Women About Women

  1. A great list! I suggest that you do not read Cheri until you have some experience yourself. Anything by Angela Carter, but indeed the Bloody Chamber is most appropriate on this list. I have read many of these and commend strongly Alias Grace and Orlando (and the Sally Potter film of the latter too). If I might add two more by Colette which I think fit the remit, The Ripening Seed and, especially, The Cat. I think the latter will tell you exactly how powerful a love can be and how it can disrupt your own feelings of happiness and apparent (marital) success as a woman and demonstates jealousy and unconditional love in a most unexpected way.

    • Ha, well, it’s too late for me and Cheri, but I second The Ripening Seed and The Cat, both of which are brilliant. I could easily have put anything by Angela Carter, that’s for sure. I haven’t seen the film of Orlando, though, which is a thought. Thank you for the suggestions, Peter! Great to see them.

  2. Had it not been there I was going to add ‘Esme Lennox’ because it is about a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome and when you read anything about the Asperger’s it is almost always about the way it affects men. The condition is never specifically mentioned but anyone in the same position will recognise her situation. The absolute give away is the conversation between the sisters about the peas in the bed. I have always felt that the story of The Princess and the Pea is actually the story of a woman with extreme Asperger’s.

    • I had never thought about that, but now you say it, Alex, I can see you are right. And it’s true that every other Asperger’s protagonist I can think of is male. Love your thought about The Princess and the Pea, too.

  3. A terrific list: some I have read and loved (Bilgewater, a wonder); some I have wanted to read, but forgotten about; and some I don’t know at all. So, in short, some that reassure and lots to investigate. Thank you!

    • I am so happy to find another fan of Bilgewater! I read that book when I was oh 20, 21 or something and can remember being utterly enthralled by it. I’m very tempted now to read it again. So pleased you like the list!

  4. Interesting list – many I didn’t know. From personal favourites, I would recommend Changing, by Liv Ullmann, Cassandra by Christa Wolf and the novels of Barbara Kingsolver, especially The Bean Trees and Prodigal Summer.

    • I wondered about putting a Christa Wolf on the list, but couldn’t think what and so left her out. Delighted to have your suggestion there, and the others too. Barbara Kingsolver is one of those authors I’ve LONG been meaning to read. I think I even own a copy of Prodigal Summer. I absolutely must get to it. Thank you so much for your suggestions!

  5. I love this list! I’m taking notes, as there are quite a few that I’ve been meaning to read but never got around to doing it. I’d also include Dorothy Parker’s short stories, especially Big Blonde (life of a glamour girl when she gets older), Enchi Fumiko’s The Waiting Years, Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book.

    • I was THAT close to adding The Summer Book to the list, so I’m delighted you mention it in your suggestions. Dorothy Parker I also love and second. Enchi Fumiko is a new name to me, which is exciting. One to check out! And Clarice Lispector I’ve never read, but have long thought I should. Great suggestions, thank you!

      • That Enchi Fumiko novel is heartbreaking, all about second wifes/concubines and how the first wife feels. Japan at the end of the 19th century/early 20th century and women’s unfortunate position in it.

  6. Such a wide-ranging list! Delighted to see Lucy Barton there, and Ghosting too. I’m going to take you up on your invitation to make suggestions – Katherine Grant’s Sedition is a hugely enjoyable novel about female sedition set in the late 18th century; Jamie Attenberg’s Saint Mazie tells the story of an ordinary woman who does extraordinary things; Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin is about a woman who lives as a man to retain her independence and Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life is a wonderful celebration of female friendship and resilience. I’m hoping that other readers will add a few titles, too.

    • I am so pleased you’ve made some suggestions, Susan – I was hoping you would! I’ve got Sedition on my shelves and have long been wanting to get to it (ineffectually). Saint Mazie I enjoyed very much and second heartily and the other two are new to me (fantastic!). Thank you!

      • I think you’ll love Sedition, Victoria. A hugely satisfying read! Under the Visible Life is one of those books that slipped beneath the radar but is so good that I mention it every chance I get.

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  8. I want to save this list! Many favourites there (although what about Lessing’s The Golden Notebook? ) and I want to read the others!

    • I hesitated over The Golden Notebook as I personally prefer Martha Quest. But I think it leaves me without a ‘madwoman’ text on the list, and that probably should be represented. I thought I might add Lenora Carrington’s Down Below, a chilling account of a descent into madness that is only about 50 pages long. But The Golden Notebook is the iconic breakdown novel, for sure!

  9. I like your list a lot. I’m glad I’ve read many and own most of those I haven’t. Even The Orchard, which you recommended a few years ago. Now I’ll only have to make time to read them.
    I like that the list is so diverse. Sebbar’s is the only one I’ve not heard of before.

    • I think we have very similar tastes, Caroline! And I am always fascinated to hear your opinion on any of the books we’ve both read. I think you’d like Sebbar. She is tough and a bit gritty but lyrical, too.

  10. A wonderful list and reminds me yet again of some books I have been meaning to read lately or re-read. I read I Capture the Castle and reviewed it recently. It jumped straight into my top ten favourite books ever. So brilliant and funny.

  11. Quite a few to add to my tbr here (sighs, sort of). Have read and agree with Alias Grace and Esme Lennox (brilliant) and Orlando. Have read other books by the authors you include, many excellent. Ladder of Years has been added, or I would have put it here, so I’ll suggest Salley Vickers, particularly The Other Side of You and The Cleaner of Chartres. Glad you are back blogging books and I hope you are well. Loved the rocking chair Mr Litlove made and wife would like one if it doesn’t make you seasick.

    • Bookboxed! How very lovely to have you visit! I do hope all is well with you and yours? Salley Vickers is an excellent suggestion. I loved The Other Side of You and have yet to read The Cleaner of Chartres (and between you and me, I have her latest, Cousins, as an audio book). Heh, you are quite right that rocking is an art. Too much ferocity and you will end up discombobulated. But a little gentle back and forth is very soothing. I’ve been reading up about the rocking chair and apparently some well-regarded alienist in early 20th Century America insisted on having lots of them in his asylums because he felt they produced such a beneficial effect. Well, an Englishwoman’s home is her asylum, as we all know. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m hoping to keep blogging once a week – I do miss you all when I’m not in the virtual world!

    • I had to have Agatha. I don’t think any of the most blatantly and loudly feminist have done as much for the cause of the invisible, elderly lady as she did! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I completely agree about Rachel Cusk – what is that all about?? Ah, as for no Austen, I had to have some parameters or else face impossible choices, so the list is only 20th and 21st century women writers. Otherwise I’d definitely have had her – I love Jane!

  12. I’m definitely going to make a copy of that list. Quite a few authors on it are unknown to me. I would personally add Margaret Drabble (especially her earlier novels: The Milestone, Jerusalem the Golden, The Realms of Gold…), Fay Weldon (Female Friends) and Emma Tennant (The Bad Sister, Two Women of London…).

    • What interesting additions! I remember reading those earlier novels of Drabble that you mention and loving them – I haven’t thought of them in years! And whatever happened to Emma Tennant? She was such a big thing in the 80s. Anyway, excellent choices, thank you.

  13. Such an interesting list. Many thanks for compiling it. Good to hear of other suggestions for the list.

    I love I capture the Castle – re reading this book is an absolute treat; I agree with the suggestion of Margaret Drabble’s early works: they showed women being at the centre of their own life (quite as revolutionary as Germaine Greer’s books) and I wonder, after looking at my book shelves, whether Penelope Lively merits a place?


    • I’ve been loving the suggestions! And Penelope Lively is another excellent one. I guess Moon Tiger is the obvious place to start, but I also really loved The Photograph – a clever, subtle story that really gets under your skin. All this talk of Drabble is making me feel like I want to read her again! So thank you very much for your additions!

  14. This is a wonderful list, Victoria! With quite a few of them, I’ve read different books by the same author, so I look forward to trying some of your recommendations, as well as discovering entirely new writers. I especially like the sound of the book that can’t be summed up in a sentence! So thanks for the reading list, and extra thanks for providing it without any bullying modal verbs or reminders of our mortality.

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  16. Good heavens, I’m late here, but I can’t resist adding a few favorites to you excellent list (I’m glad to see the superb Cazalet Chronicles on it). My list would include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.

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