10 Reading Suggestions for the Twenty-Something Woman Thursday, Sep 27 2012 

Thanks to Twitter, today I came across this list of books every girl in her 20s should read. While it includes two novels I love (Pride and Prejudice and The Joy Luck Club), I was taken aback, as a woman in my 20s, at how many self-help books and “chick-lit” novels about shopping it included. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with reading such books, but I couldn’t help thinking that many reading women my age might be looking for something more substantial, which is why I was glad to find this list via Twitter soon afterward. Inspired, I decided to come up with my own list of books I think many twenty-something women would appreciate.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Despite the title, this is no dating self-help manual. Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories explores a wide variety of uncomfortable themes, including violence, racism, greed, and religious faith. Even if you don’t agree with all of O’Connor’s conclusions, it’s impossible to ignore the difficult questions raised in her sparse yet powerful prose. She was a woman unafraid to write about the same disturbing characters, settings, and themes as men; A Good Man is Hard to Find and her other works demonstrate a talent that has frequently been overlooked in favor of male 20th century writers.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Set in the not-so-distant future, The Handmaid’s Tale is a frightening cautionary tale about what will happen if political freedom and women’s rights are lost to totalitarianism. Offred, once a woman with a job and a family to love, is separated from all she’s ever known and earned after an extreme group of theocrats overthrows the U.S. government. This is a call to action for women of all ages, but especially the young, to take seriously their safety, health, and freedom. You can read my recent review of this book here.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Set in late 20th and early 21st century Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of Mariam and Laila, two very different women eventually married to the same abusive husband. Though unsure of each other at first, Mariam and Laila form a strong bond, setting in motion a heartbreaking but beautiful story of love, family, and sacrifice in the face of their society’s never-ending challenges. Beautifully written and strikingly relevant, this novel presents what is easily one of the most powerful friendships in contemporary literature.

Washington Square by Henry James

In 19th century New York City, rich but unsophisticated Catherine Sloper leads a lonely life under the thumb of a father who constantly berates her. She falls hopelessly in love with Morris Townsend, failing to see that he only wants to marry her for her family’s fortune. It’s not one of the most exciting novels you’ll ever read, but there is something very satisfying about Catherine’s journey away from insecurity and a need for male approval and toward a more independent life. Also be sure to check out The Heiress, the excellent 1949 film adaptation of the play based on Washington Square. It’s one of those rare cases where the movie is even better than the book.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

In the Old Testament, much is said about Jacob’s many sons, but there is only a brief and violent passage about Dinah, his only daughter. In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant crafts a story of Dinah’s life and gives voice to other women largely ignored in the Book of Genesis. These women form their own society within the one dominated by the men of their family, where they support one another through difficult times and defy many of the beliefs of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. This is a gorgeous and moving novel that brings a forgotten character to life and questions the restricted, simplistic view of women in the Bible.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After marrying the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter following a brief courtship, the unnamed narrator returns with him to Manderley, his country estate. There, she immediately finds herself living in the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, the charming and beautiful Rebecca. Soon, the second Mrs. de Winter is also caught up in the mysteries and secrets of Manderley—and of what really happened to Rebecca. The romantic suspense is the main draw here, but Rebecca is also an exploration of the challenges a woman faces when married to a much more powerful man, as well as of the frustration of being compared to other women in beauty and sophistication.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Chances are you already read this classic in high school or perhaps college, but if it’s been a while, I encourage you to give it another read. I read it three times between eighth grade and college graduation and found something new and deeper in it every time. Jane herself is a sympathetic but flawed heroine, torn between her love for the brooding Mr. Rochester and the possibilities of a freer life away from him. Her life story is not only a legendary romantic melodrama, but also a powerful commentary on the place of women, orphans, and the poor in the early Victorian era. Whether you’re a student of literature or simply enjoy a great story, this one is worth a second, third, or even fourth look. (Bonus: read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for a postcolonial take on Jane Eyre and a look at the shortcomings of the book’s 19th century feminism.)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The lesser known of two novels by the least known Brontë sister, this book was considered coarse and controversial when it was first published in 1848. A feminist work in a time when feminism didn’t have a name, it tells the story of Helen, a woman abused by her alcoholic husband but strong enough to fight back for her own sake and for the well-being of her child. Though its questioning of Victorian social mores and English law horrified some critics at the time, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was revolutionary in its brutal honesty about marital abuse, and it remains relevant for women today.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

In Renaissance Florence, Alessandra Cecchi is fascinated with art and shows a talent for drawing. Unfortunately, her family disapproves of this interest and discourages her from pursuing it, eventually forcing her into an arranged marriage with a much older man. Despite this marriage and the turbulence in her city, Alessandra finds ways to explore her love of art and her attraction to a gifted painter employed by her family. It’s a lighter read than most on this list, but historical fiction fans will undoubtedly enjoy the incredible Renaissance detail, and it certainly provides an interesting story of a woman finding her place in a world where she’s told she doesn’t belong.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’ll be the first to agree that this classic love story never gets old, but it’s not about getting your “happily ever after” through “sass and perseverance.” It’s about questioning the typical standards for women and marriage during Austen’s time, and about finding love through personal growth, forgiveness, and learning to be less judgmental. And please, when you’re finished with the book, skip the good-but-nothing-special 2005 film adaptation and go for the 1995 miniseries instead; it’s much longer but also much better and more faithful to the book. You can find more of my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice here.

Feel free to share some of your own reading suggestions below.

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Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë Sunday, Aug 14 2011 

Anne Brontë’s semi-autobiographical Agnes Grey is not what I expected from a novel by one of the Brontë sisters. It is a much simpler, less atmospheric novel than the other four I have read by these women, and in many instances feels more like a novel by Jane Austen, though I think it lacks Austen’s witty dialogue and clever observations.

Like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey revolves around a young woman employed as a governess, who later goes on to start a small school for girls. However, neither family that Agnes works for provides her with the same excitement that Jane finds at Thornfield with the brooding Mr. Rochester. Although Anne Brontë eventually provides a love interest for Agnes, the novel focuses primarily on the difficulties she finds in her work—obnoxious pupils, ignorant parents, the contempt with which the rich treat the lower classes, and the challenge of staying true to herself in a world where so much goes against her values.

This novel lacks the powerful gothic elements of the most famous Brontë novels, or even of the other lesser-known ones. The novel does offer some sharp, honest observations about life as a governess and especially about the selfishness and snobbery frequently found among the 19th century upper classes. Having worked as a governess herself, Anne Brontë, according to her sister Charlotte, believed that “none but those who had been in the position of governess could ever realize the dark side of ‘respectable’ human nature.” She is certainly not afraid to share some of her realizations with the reader, though having read plenty of other 19th century novels that dealt with social class issues, nothing I read in Agnes Grey shocked me. I also believe that this novel does not allow as excellent an opportunity for insights into gender, religion, and other social themes as other Brontë novels do, including Anne’s second and final novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While it would probably be useful for anyone wanting to know more about 19th century governesses, I doubt Agnes Grey would hold up well against a substantial literary criticism.

Agnes Grey is shorter than the other Brontë novels I have read, but while it is a pleasant enough read, I found it rather slow. There is little passion or drama found here, and the protagonist does not change very much over the course of the novel. Her stories about her pupils and the trouble they cause her also get rather repetitive, and there is not much variety, creativity, or humor in how Anne Brontë tells them. I did not need quite so many reminders that the Bloomfield children were cruel and deceitful or that Rosalie Murray was materialistic and vain. There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but there is not anything extraordinary about it either. As I mentioned earlier, the class conflict sometimes leads the novel to take on the feel of one of Jane Austen’s works, and it feels even more like Austen after Agnes meets and falls in love with Mr. Weston. However, Anne Brontë lacks Jane Austen’s gift for crafting witty prose and memorable characters, so it is a rather pale imitation. Funnily enough, though, Brontë also brings her novel to an uncharacteristically hasty conclusion—a habit I noticed in the three Austen novels I have read, and one that I cannot help but find a little annoying.

Agnes Grey is by no means a bad novel, and there is definitely value here for anyone interested in learning more about the lives of 19th century women. However, it is not as memorable as other works by the Brontës—even Villette, which I did not enjoy reading but found incredibly insightful and worthy of discussion. It is worthwhile for fans of the Brontës or 19th century literature in general, but do not expect to get as much out of it as you did other novels from the same era. 

Wuthering Heights: The Strange, Twisted, Brilliant Novel that Changed My Life Sunday, Jul 10 2011 

Wuthering Heights is one of those classics that tends to elicit strong reactions in those who read it. Thanks to a cast of unsettling characters, an uncomfortable Gothic setting, and the obsessive, amoral love story at its core, Emily Brontë’s only novel is one that fascinates some readers while simultaneously boring or infuriating others. Even fans of other works by the Brontë sisters are divided on Wuthering Heights; some love it as much as or more than Jane Eyre, while others vehemently insist that Charlotte Brontë’s novel is far better written and far more enjoyable.

Having read Wuthering Heights in both high school and college, I consider it not only my favorite book, but also one that changed my life. Reading it in English class during my sophomore year of high school opened my mind to so much about literature. I came to realize just how complicated literary characters could be, how setting can reflect plot and themes, and how much more interesting a book can be when there is no clear hero and little distinction between the good and the bad. While some readers have decried the twisted love story between Catherine and Heathcliff and especially Heathcliff’s bitter vengeance on Catherine’s relatives and their descendants, I was instantly enthralled with the strange relationships between the characters, the way Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange reflected the lives of their residents, and the themes we discussed in class. Simply put, Wuthering Heights was the novel that made me want to study literature like never before and lead to my decision to major in English in college.

Toward the end of my college career, I once again found myself reading Wuthering Heights for an English class. While I was excited to read it again, I also wondered if I would love Brontë’s novel as much as I had several years beforehand. I was thrilled to find that after several years of honing my critical thinking skills and learning more about literature, Wuthering Heights was better than ever. I had the chance to explore fully Heathcliff’s racial difference from those around him and its potential implications for the novel, as well as what may have inspired Brontë to include a Roma character. The brilliance of the structure of Wuthering Heights became clear to me; there is a reason, and perhaps even multiple reasons, for its framing, story-within-a-story format. With a deeper, more complex reading of the novel, its themes became more powerful and its plot more disturbing. While I had read and discussed plenty of other books between my first reading of Wuthering Heights and my second, seeing the novel again through sharper eyes made me remember exactly why I had chosen my major, and just how rewarding the study of literature could be.

I believe that the things that cause many to dislike Wuthering Heights are exactly the things that I love about it. Centering a novel on a mysterious, bitter individual such as Heathcliff provokes questions that would be impossible with a more likable main character. Especially after my second reading of the book, I found myself simultaneously despising and pitying Heathcliff, as well as finding much more to discuss and analyze about him than I would have a more conventional, romantic hero. As for the love story between Heathcliff and Catherine, I think it might shock some readers to find out that it isn’t the beautiful romance they often expect from literature, or that they had been told was part of Wuthering Heights (the 1939 film adaptation, which excludes the second half of the novel, has shaped many people’s image of what the book is really like). I’ll admit that I was initially a bit taken aback myself at the bizarre, obsessive nature of their relationship. I had not expected their passion to be so destructive and unchanging, especially in the years after Catherine’s death. However, their love story, if it can indeed be called that, is now a large part of what keeps Wuthering Heights so vibrant in my mind. It is a relationship in which both parties are entirely obsessed with one another, yet completely selfish. Their passion ruins others’ happiness and continues to do so for years after one of the lovers has died. The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff is unlike any other I’ve encountered in literature, and it too inspires discussions that would never happen with a more typical love story.

I could go on forever about Wuthering Heights from a number of perspectives, but I won’t. I doubt that my praises here will change many minds, but for me, this will always be an extremely fascinating and special book—one that changed my life and my outlook on literature forever. Feel free to leave a comment about what you love or hate about this legendary novel, and how it has affected you.