This list was inspired by a good friend of mine who complained that every list she saw of “novels every young woman should read” was full of children’s books and trash. Then she asked what would be on my top ten list, which of course opened the floodgates, and I sat at work randomly scribbling down titles when one popped into my head. I’ve been delaying the list for too long, so I’ve decided to make it a “Top Five” for now and post a follow up at a later point.
Since what are loosely referred to as “classics” are my area of interest I decided that my own list would be made up of “classics.” This list is biased, which I have no issue with, because it’s my top five and I have no designs on universality. The criteria for this list is that 1) I had read the novel so I could recommend it with authority; 2) that I could still remember the plot, proving that it made an impact; and 3) that it dealt with women’s lives in a central way. Additionally, these are all English-language books because that is the only language I speak/read, and they are arranged alphabetically by title.
Finally, I am not endorsing a binary standard of gender by making a list for “young women,” but rather acknowledging that we live in a society where you are forcefully assigned one of two genders at birth. Keeping that in mind, no matter how you self-identify, I believe that if your socially-assigned label is “woman” as you come of age, this list would apply to you because the novels deal with how society treats people with that label. The “young” part is not intentionally ageist, it was the original list idea, and also I selected novels that had the greatest potential for impact when read early in life. Because of this, I have also included novels that change as you enter adulthood and can be re-read impactfully.
Well, I’ve used the word “impactfully;” I think that means I need to stop coughing up ten dollar words and get to the actual list.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)
This novella is a captivating story of an iconoclastic young woman (Holiday “Holly” Golightly) during the time that the narrator knew her in New York. Holly rejects societal values and replaces them with her own, but she is essentially unable to fit in, and she responds by perpetually “traveling.” Holly is always searching for a “home,” but she is unwilling to change who she is to find one. Home, Holly feels, will eventually find her.
Why: Anyone who knows me knew that this would be on the list since it’s my favorite novella and probably my all-time favorite work of fiction. Also, the novella is nothing like the movie of the same name (see also my list of reasons why the novella is better). A century previous the only place for the artist/eccentric/writer in society was death (see also Melville), but with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote turns this convention of its head by writing a character who is seeking not to fit into society, but instead seeking a society that will fit in with her. Importantly, the novel has no romantic ending, but deals extensively with many different kinds of love. The narrator and Holly have a type of hetero-non-sexual relationship, the bartender Joe Bell loves Holly romantically-non-sexually from afar, and there are a slew of minor characters that fall all along the spectrum for gender and sexuality. Capote writes of all of these types of love as valid and, rather than having the characters change to fit in, shows how they each has strengths that they must embrace to be happy. If there were only one book on this list it would be Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
A novel of Louisiana creole society is an incredibly vivid account of a woman who, by every measure, should be happy, but simply is not. Despite having a good husband, children whom she loves, and wonderful friends, Edna Pontellier cannot place where this feeling of discontent comes from. Then she meets a young man named Robert and suddenly realizes what love is supposed to feel like, but when she plans on leaving her husband, Robert leaves her via note. Edna, realizing that she is trapped in her life, walks into the ocean, and drowns. The Awakening was so controversial when it was published that it was censored and heavily condemned in the press. At the turn of the century is was considered wildly inappropriate to even suggest that a woman could be so unhappy in the life that she was absolutely trapped in (and Edna is absolutely trapped, she has no money of her own, and no friends who would be willing to scandalize themselves by assisting her) that she would commit suicide. People were enraged with Chopin and Edna, calling Edna the 1899 version of “easy” (her and Robert never sleep together), and suggesting that Chopin kill herself.
Why: This book is on the list because it’s beautifully written and historically significant. When I was younger I gave this book to some older women that I worked with to read, and when they gave it back each one told me something like, “Read it again when you’re older, after you have kids.” They would not elaborate. While we’ve come far enough that women are able to leave their husbands, the idea that a woman with children would rather kill herself than raise them still meets with condemnation. The Awakening illustrates how much progress has been made and how much is left, it shows young women that just because society says you should want something doesn’t mean that you might actually want it once you have it.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
This is the story of Esther Greenwood, young, talented, in college, and on the brink of wild success. Instead of succeeding, however, Esther crashes and burns, violently. Unable to transition from small town to city life, she returns home and attempts suicide, ending up in a mental hospital. The story ends with her starting to heal.
Why: In a way The Bell Jar is like a 1960s version of The Awakening. Esther realizes she doesn’t particularly like her proto-fiancee and has no idea how to deal with it, so she tries to escape. This novel also deals with something that few of the other novels do, which is the exceptional child. Esther is exceptional and everyone expects her to go away and become a great writer, instead she freezes up, and doesn’t know why. Then she doesn’t have the tools to deal with this setback because she’s been exceptional her entire life. This means that she was never prepared for even minor failure, which leads to her spiraling out of control. Watching Esther lose control helps the exceptional child brace for the future, which will include the realization that they aren’t the smartest person in the room anymore. It should also show that they should handle minor failures by reaching out instead of turning inward. I think it’s important too that Esther is fine at the end of the novel, not great, but fine. That she survives shows that recalibrating your expectations is not the end of the world and that setbacks are setbacks only.
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900)
Sister Carrie tells the story of a young woman who moves from the farm to the big city of Chicago trying to find work. Almost eaten up by the factory system, Carrie is tricked into a precarious situation by an older businessman who wants her for his mistress, but through innocence, unwavering character, hard work, and pluck Carrie becomes a star of the stage.
Why: Sister Carrie is a minutely detailed historical text that shows the rise of youth and the decline of age, the fragility of those who surround Carrie, and the dread of the future. Carrie is not explicitly materialistic, but her drive to acquire is shown to be potentially her downfall later in life. It’s a beautifully written novel where you get to see Carrie get precisely what she wants through hard work – a seemingly great message – while the entire narrative calls into question if what she values can ever lead to happiness. The novel simultaneously tells you that hard work will get you far, but to be careful what you are trying to get out of life.
Sula by Toni Morrison (1973)
Sula is the story of two friends growing up in a small town, the horrifying event that tears them apart, and what happens when one comes back. Sula is an almost magical character, but something sinister seems to follow her. Nel, on the other hand, has stayed at home and conformed to society’s expectations of her, becoming a wife and mother before Sula comes back. Sula’s return both creates new wounds and opens old ones. Sula and Nel are forced to confront their past and each other, all while the town is gripped by strange, unexplainable events.
Why: There are a lot of flashbacks to Nel and Sula’s childhood that explain why these two seemingly opposite women are friends. The magical elements of the story are hypnotic and symbolically illustrate how exceptional people are forced to conform or leave. The town’s return and the strange harmony that Sula’s presence allows also shows the way in which those exceptional people are necessary for a rich life. With the betrayal between the two girls running deep, the cycle is constantly reenacted throughout the narrative; this the novel depicts the incredible harm that women can do to one another, while still showing that female friendship is far more important than finding a man.
So there you have it, the first five of what I hope will be a Top Ten. I hope you enjoyed it.