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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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Thursday, Sep 13 2012 

It is the near future, and the United States no longer exists. The country is now the Republic of Gilead, and the democratically elected government has been overthrown and replaced with a totalitarian theocracy. First Amendment freedoms no longer exist, and anyone considered “undesirable” is banished to the outskirts of civilization, where they are certain to die within a few years—if the leadership of Gilead doesn’t execute them first.

One of Gilead’s most prominent characteristics is its subjugation of women, and that is the focus of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the story’s narrator, was once a woman with a husband, a daughter, and a job in a library. Now, she is separated from everyone she cares about and is no longer allowed to use her real name, have her own money, or even read. In the strict, highly stratified society of Gilead, Offred is a Handmaid, one of a class of women whose sole purpose is to have babies for the Commanders of the Faithful and their wives. Once every month, Offred is subjected to “The Ceremony” that she must hope will result in a pregnancy; every month that she does not get pregnant brings her another month closer to life being over, literally and figuratively. In between these ceremonies, Offred copes with a world where women cannot pursue knowledge, where sex is no longer about pleasure or love, and where spies and secret police may overhear anything a person says. Like the other Handmaids, Offred is no longer an individual, but a piece of property deemed interchangeable with any other woman of her rank.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a fun read (which you probably already concluded from that plot introduction), but it is riveting and terrifyingly relevant. Atwood’s prose is beautiful and descriptive, but never flowery. There is a sparse, dispassionate quality to it that makes Offred’s world seem all the more frightening and full of despair. Atwood writes in the voice of a miserable woman unable to express her misery openly or do anything to change it.

Even though it was published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale feels very timely now. It serves as a grim reminder that the progress made for women’s rights over the last century cannot and must not be taken for granted; the same is true for the freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The dystopia in this novel is not an outrageous speculation that could never happen; it is what reality might look like if some of the more extreme views in our society were able to take hold and become the law of the land. For women especially, it is an important cautionary tale. In her earlier life in the United States, Offred was often indifferent to or even uncomfortable with the feminist activism of her mother, and she took her freedoms as a given, a guarantee that would always be there. Now, in Gilead, her body and mind are no longer her own to control, and she remains complacent because she fears retaliation, both against herself and against her lost family. She misses that former life, even the most mundane and unpleasant things about it; she had never taken the time to appreciate them before. At the same time, however, it is suggested that some of the more extreme feminist attitudes of the pre-Gilead era may have helped the religious right gain a foothold and to manipulate women into thinking that theocratic rule would protect them and improve their lives. Nevertheless, Atwood’s main criticism is of the right-wing extremists who took away women’s rights, and her warning is that the freedoms women have gained must continue to be appreciated and fought for every single day.

Brilliant and engrossing as it is, this is definitely a depressing novel. What makes it so disheartening is that it is not a story of democracy triumphing over totalitarianism or feminism overcoming patriarchy. Instead, it is a story that demonstrates how people become complacent under an oppressive regime and questions whether resistance would be at all successful. Danger and uncertainty are constants, especially for Handmaids like Offred, making her reluctant to join the small group of risk-takers who hope to take Gilead down.

The sharp social critique and beautifully haunting prose of The Handmaid’s Tale make it a modern classic and one of the most important novels of our time. Its harsh message and unhappy tone make it difficult to stomach sometimes, but I consider it essential reading for young women like myself—and maybe even for everyone else. It is a novel of a world we do not want but could possibly see, and a reminder that we must embrace our freedoms and fight back when anyone tries to take them away.