As an avid reader and lifetime lover of books, I can tell you that there is only one pleasure greater than discovering a great story — sharing it with someone else. When a friend likes a book you suggest, it’s a joy. Recommending a book that moves them, that changes their perspective, that supports them through a troubling period, that is a treasure.
I don’t like it when I read lists that tell me what I should or should not do. Instead, I refer to this list as “Books I Recommend to Women.” (Men absolutely are also to benefit from these books, especially if they care to gain a strong, unique female perspective!)
These books written by fearless women (and one fearless man). Authors who dare to honestly describe the female condition and insist on sharing their vision despite controversy or expectations. Authors who inspire bravery. These books have changed my life, and I hope they change yours.
1. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
This feminist classic captured my attention from its first page. From the first-person perspective of the unhappily married Isadora Zelda White, you are hearing an informal voice, like a friend declaring her inner thoughts without shame. Anyone in an unhappy relationship (or marriage) relates to Isadora’s need to be sexually free, to cope with conflicting emotions and to reconcile the need to be alone with the longing of companionship.
Fear of Flying is famous for coining the term “zipless fuck,” defined as a sexual encounter without emotions, just for the sake of the act itself.
“The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn.” – Fear of Flying, 1973
This is a tremendous book about liberation, encouraging women to put happiness and self-discovery above the societal conventions of womanhood.
2. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
This is one of the most arresting short story collections I’ve ever read. Bad Behavior is best known for the story “Secretary,” famously adapted into S&M-themed film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Diving into the underbelly of sexual encounters, Gaitskill makes you think hard about what we search for in others and the vulnerabilities women expose in their search for fulfillment through sex and longing.
These stories are harrowing and heartbreaking. Each tale is a painful reminder of the ugliness and fragility of humanity through a woman’s perspective. Bad Behavior is harsh, somehow repelling and engrossing all at once.
3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
In a recent reading in Philadelphia promoting her latest novel The Goldfinch, Tartt told the audience that as she searched for someone to publish The Secret History, multiple agents suggested that she write from a female perspective. Some argued that no one could find a male voice written by a woman believable. Fortunately, Tartt maintained her vision (and integrity) by keeping the story through the eyes of inclusion-seeking Richard Papen.
The story begins with a murder in Papen’s group of Greek and classics scholars at an elite college in New England. Immediately you are sucked into Papen’s world, a privileged world he’s only entered through lies and deceit, slowly evolving into the selfish but brilliant group whose obsessions with Greek culture lead to their demise.
“Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful? It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely?” – The Secret History, 1992
4. Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Most people think of the film adaptation by Sophia Coppola when they think of Virgin Suicides. But the dreamy brainchild of the director manages to miss some details from the original creator. From the beginning, the reader knows the five Lisbon sisters are doomed, but just like the multiple narrators (the neighborhood boys), you can’t help but be obsessed by their story. Jeffrey Eugenides’ beautiful prose begs you to understand this dysfunctional family, searching for the cracks that broke their home.
You find yourself relating to the girls’ moody, dreamy ways of obsessing, their adolescent yearning for more. It’s creepy and humbling, yet the sad ending is sometimes overshadowed by the longing of the Lisbon girls, the lives left unlived and the summertime desperation of hope.
“We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” – The Virgin Suicides, 1993
5. Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
Written in the second person, Self-Help forces you to place yourself in the protagonist’s story. Moore teaches you how to be the other woman, understand (or relive) the awkwardness of college and imagine your final exit from life. She captures absurdity with loveliness, making you appreciate a sentence enough to read it over and over, desire to grasp it and feel it. She poetically articulates the most banal and difficult experiences, driving you to see life through a window of eloquent beauty, even if just for a few pages. Funny, beautiful and clever, you will wish Moore was narrating your life, and sometimes you’ll feel as if she already has.
“Decide that you like college life. In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.” – Self-Help, 1985