It has been a fucking great year for books about women. Not just books written by women, or books with strong female characters, but books that are truly about women — books that treat womanhood as a topic as worthy of literary exploration as manhood or war or true love or any other aspect of the human condition. In so many wonderful books I read this year, women are the subject, both in the sense of topic and in the grammatical sense — the one doing the things, rather than the object being acted upon. We’ve been talking a lot about unlikable characters and “relatability,” but perhaps all these unlikeable, unrelatable women are a logical extension of a set of works where they are not relegated to sidekicks, set pieces, or romantic interests. How could they possibly only make good decisions for 400 pages?
As I wrote about Emily Gould’s Friendship in July: “This book is entirely about the inner lives and creative ambitions and life decisions of women. The men are there but they are so peripheral in the face of friendship and identity and figuring out your own choices as to turn invisible by the end of the story.”
My favorite novels this year genuinely made me think in ways I never had before about my very femaleness, which I promise you, I already think about an awful lot.
The Girls From Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe might be the most under-appreciated book of the year, but I’m doing my part to never shut up about it. It’s a debut novel about a lifelong friendship that asks the most brutal questions about family, disability, abortion, responsibility, and what, if anything, we are owed or deserve. It asks us to inhabit the lived experience of people we are tempted to judge from afar, and it is somehow both deeply unsettling and a nonstop joy to read.
Another masterpiece of judgement is the forthcoming After Birth by Elisa Albert, which completely upended my understanding of natural birth advocates, the breastfeeding mafia, and the medical establishment. This work of fiction made feel wide open to the real-life possibility that everything I think I know about my body and my health is internalized patriarchal oppression. And yet? Another totally delightful reading experience.
So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman is a few years old, and I came to it through the brilliant Katie Coyle’s review, which I reread at least monthly. Again it recast how I thought about my body, this time as a vessel for abuse, as an atom of the contiguous renewable resource that is American women, considered by so many men to be as much their birthright as the land, the water, the air, the livestock. Hoffman weaves threads of environmentalism, economic change, and social conservatism into a thriller where the unthinkable is inevitable, and the most extreme retribution makes an eerie perfect sense.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is a story about marriage, fidelity, parenthood, accomplishment, and art, as told through scientists and philosophers, failed space travel, and poetry. It is an expansive work about life as we know it reduced so flawlessly to a sparse 177 pages that it’s hard to believe it didn’t take home every major literary prize there is. It might truly be perfect. Read it out loud to someone you love.
There are so many more I wish I could recommend here. I loved mysteries like The Secret Place and Everything I Never Told You, and even the middle grade poetry memoir Brown Girl Dreaming through this same lens. Everywhere I turned, there were female geniuses writing stories that helped me think in new ways about being a woman in the world. And I’m grateful.
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