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.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Monday, Jul 30 2012 

 

In what may seem like an odd paradox to some, I am not a particularly big fan of Jane Austen but consider Pride and Prejudice one of my favorite books. While it has one or two of the same flaws I’ve found in the other two Austen novels I’ve read (Emma and Sense and Sensibility being the books, and an overly quick ending after a rather slow-paced story being the big flaw), I think Pride and Prejudice is where Austen’s strengths are best displayed, making it her most intelligent and entertaining work.

Even in the novels I didn’t enjoy as much, I have always been impressed with Jane Austen’s characters, and the leads in Pride and Prejudice are probably her best. Elizabeth Bennet is my favorite literary character and easily one of the most important women in fiction. Though not exactly radical or rebellious by today’s standards, Elizabeth refuses to conform to all the expectations of a young woman in the Regency period. She is determined to marry for love (a relatively rare and new concept at that time) rather than settle for a marriage of financial convenience, and she is unafraid to show her intelligence and independent way of thinking, even in front of those who disapprove.  Charming and witty, she stands out among all the other women around her, including much wealthier ones. Unlike many of the other characters in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is willing to acknowledge her own flaws—namely, judging people too quickly and too harshly—and makes an effort to overcome them.

Then, of course, there is the handsome and wealthy Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has become one of literature’s most beloved romantic heroes. That status is hard to understand when the reader first encounters Mr. Darcy; he appears aloof, judgmental, and snobbish. Even when he first falls in love with and proposes to Elizabeth, he obsesses over the difference in social status between them, which only worsens the tension between them. However, like Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy is willing to admit that he is wrong and let his pride get in the way of better judgment, and he makes amends. Eventually, Elizabeth visits Pemberley, Darcy’s beautiful country estate, and gets to see who Mr. Darcy really is: an honest, generous man who cares deeply for his family and friends. As if that were not enough, he also defies his wealthy aunt in continuing to pursue Elizabeth, demonstrating that he no longer considers class difference such a barrier to true love. By the end of the novel, it is clear why Mr. Darcy has become a sex symbol for bookworms like myself (though Colin Firth’s iconic portrayal of Darcy in the 1995 BBC miniseries probably also has something to do with that).

Like her popular heroine, Jane Austen wasn’t especially radical or rebellious—by 21st century standards anyway—in writing Pride and Prejudice. However, through her distinctive characters and endlessly clever dialogue, she gently criticized the conventions of her day regarding wealth, class, love, and marriage. Even if Pride and Prejudice did not shatter the ideas of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when it was first published, it does reflect the changes in practice and attitude beginning around that time. Jane Austen must have been supportive of such changes; the novel clearly suggests that difference in social status should not be a barrier to love, and that marriage should be more about love than convenience or money. Although humorous in its own way, Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying her daughters off to wealthier men highlights the unfairness of the era’s inheritance laws and the precarious financial position of women. Less funny, of course, is the marriage of Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte to the Bennets’ irritating cousin Mr. Collins. Charlotte does not appear particularly enamored with her new husband, but has little other choice if she is to have a secure future.

The presentation of such ideas in Pride and Prejudice suggests a very early form of feminism on Jane Austen’s part. While she still presents marriage as an ideal to which women should aspire, her most famous novel expresses a belief that a woman should marry a man she loves, not a man her family or society demands that she marry. While Mr. Darcy is certainly a wealthy man who will provide Elizabeth with security and a wonderful lifestyle, Elizabeth marries him for love. She follows her heart, and in the process she too defies Darcy’s pretentious aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and frees herself from the annoying, ill-fated machinations of her mother.

Although Pride and Prejudice has something of a fairy tale ending, with the marriages of Darcy and Elizabeth and Jane and Mr. Bingley, the journey to that happy conclusion has more depth than the average fairy tale. Darcy and Elizabeth each make mistakes and are very harsh toward one another earlier in the novel, and it takes a great deal of learning about themselves and each other to improve their relationship, and to finally come around to forgiveness, friendship, and love. Jane and Bingley’s story doesn’t have the same level of depth or coverage in the novel, but the two still deal with separation, disappointment, and misunderstanding. They manage to move beyond all that to realize they still love each other and want to marry. Couples who must overcome obstacles in order to find lasting love and happiness have become commonplace—even cliché—in the romance genre, including in romantic comedies, but I cannot think of any other book or movie that has ever done such a story so well.

There is much more that could be discussed about how love, class, family, and environment in Pride and Prejudice and the impact they all have on the characters’ lives. While I do love the novel for its sharp look at the conventions of its time and the literary discussions and questions it inspires, what makes it one of my favorite books is the wonderfully written love story between two wonderfully written characters. That love story is exactly what has given the book such wide and lasting popularity (it was first published almost two hundred years ago!) and has made its numerous film adaptations so successful. Elizabeth Bennet is still one of the greatest heroines of all time; her wit, intelligence, and insight set her apart from many other fictional women, even contemporary ones.  There is something refreshing, even now, about such a smart woman getting a happy ending and a central role in a romance, rather than just being the clever but secondary character in such a story. And while Edward Cullen and Christian Grey may be getting more attention among readers right now, it is doubtful that either will have the lasting power of Mr. Darcy, who impresses readers not just with good looks, but with a willingness to change and an unshakable love for his family, his friends, and the woman he wants to marry. What could be more romantic than two such great people living happily ever after?