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.
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.
6. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. A portrait of tense but fierce female friendship.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
25. Bilgewater by Jane Gardam. Beautiful coming of age novel.
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.
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.
32. The Good Wife by Sue Miller. Can mothers have sex lives? Sue Miller’s gripping, ferocious novel about why they can’t.
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.
37. Fierce Attachments by Vivien Gornick. A wonderful memoir about never being able to cut loose from a Jewish mother.
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.