Literature for the Ladies

I am, to put it mildly, an avid reader. You’re not likely to find me without a book in my bag.

{via the amazing Kraus Schönberg Architects as featured in Architonic}

While I read a good number of serious and scholarly works, I’m hardly working my way through a list of Man Booker Prize winners. Generally, I intersperse my more noble selections with what I lovingly call “brain candy” – you know, the light and fluffy stuff that keeps you entertained without really taxing your cognitive abilities. Literary down-time.

My last two candy-novels were straight-up chick lit. While in both cases the protagonist lived in London and thus there was perhaps a small amount of cultural exchange to be gleaned, that was the only redeeming quality.  I finished the second novel out of sheer force of will. Along the way, I have come to some conclusions:

  1. Bitches be neurotic. If levels of neuroses displayed in chick lit were in any way reflected in real life, Darwin would have done us in generations ago. Are female protagonists neurotic to make them relatable? Is the idea that we all have a host of issues and are never satisfied (with our lives, with our partners, with our weight)? Worse, is being self-critical the modern-day equivalent of being a damsel in distress? Often in these storylines, mental clarity arrives along with the knight-in-shining-armor. Without dragging out my feminist soapbox, why do we want ourselves portrayed this way?
  2. Be nice to the mousy girl. She’s the hero. You aren’t. Unless you are the mousy girl, in which case…
  3. JUST TELL HIM HOW YOU FEEL. Holy smokes. He probably feels the same. If not, at least you’ll know and can SHUT UP and save me 200 pages of dithering.

It’s not that the subject (girl + boy = love) itself is trite – we could spend the rest of our lives dissecting the many facets of human relationships. The storylines, however, are painfully formulaic. All seem to involve the following:

  • 1 awkward, neurotic protagonist unaware of her own beauty
  • 1 man-she-hates-at-first-and-then-loves (may substitute one male-friend-who-was-always-just-a-friend-but-then-fireworks!)
  • At least 2 female friends to provide comic relief, insight, and/or side-storylines
  • (optional) 1 caricature of a shrewish female boss to add work-related stress or provide the protagonist with reinforcement for her bleak self-assessment

While too many books by and about females gets tossed into the “chick-lit” bin, all such novels are not created equal. Setting aside those perceived by greater society as “not just for ladyfolk” (Jane Austen, Maya Angelou, Harper Lee), there are many current lady-authors who cover – in part – lady-protagonists (and their complicated lady-feelings) without venturing into the saccharine or cliché. An incomplete list:

  • Kate Atkinson – Case Histories (a personal favorite) is a story told from many viewpoints, each providing its own rich layer. I quickly acquired everything she ever wrote.
  • Barbara Kingsolver – I’ll admit that I purchased The Poisonwood Bible at Boston’s Logan airport solely because it was fat and (comparatively) cheap – thus offering a tempting page-to-dollar ratio. After I’d finished it, I flipped to the front to start again – this time to focus on the words; some passages were too beautiful, too delicious, to be left on the page unsaid.
  • Emily Giffin – Take Something Borrowed (it’s OK if you only saw the movie). You root for the girl who steals her best friend’s fiance. The protagonist – like a real person – is a complex mixture of good and bad.

The list, of course, goes on: Audrey Niffenegger, Anita Shreve.

Additions? recommendations? Do share.


About Helena

Helena lives in Chicago with her boyfriend and two cats. Her boyfriend thinks she's awesome. Her cats agree.

Posted on May 18, 2011, in Miscellany and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Audrey Niffenegger I adore. Although Her Fearful Symmetry was a bit macabre.

    I am finishing up a book that I *thought* was going to be about time travel but is really just a woman examining her life from childhood and how her mother controlled her, she had bad taste in men, blah blah blah…

    I devour books by the library bag full, but unfortunately nothing’s coming to mind at the moment so I may have to get back to you 🙂

    (OH, but in the strong female protagonist mode — the Bones books by Kathy Reichs. If you can stomach the murder mystery part. While I enjoy the show, the book character is a lot different.)

    • I know what you mean about reading a lot and then being stumped to suggest things. As I was writing this post I was thinking, “come on, Helena, you have more authors than this!”

      Anyway – LOVE Kathy Reichs. She is fun brain candy for sure.

      • I used to be so much better about writing down what I read and having things to recommend. Now it mostly seems to be nonfiction that sticks with me, weirdly.

        @Debbie, I’ve never read a single Jane Austen novel, can you believe it?

  2. I often find myself in the same literary quest for well-written provocative chick lit & brain candy. I so love Jane Austen that I ration her books out over my life (I haven’t read them all but reread the ones I’ve already read) for fear that I will run out of stimulating chick lit. Thanks for the recommendations! I’m adding them all to my reading list. Sadly, I can’t think of anything to add but I’ll let you know when I do. I’ve talked to many other women who have the same literary issues. Why is it so hard to find interesting books by and about women that aren’t condescending or trite?

    • Beyond Poisonwood Bible, I’d recommend just about anything by Kingsolver. I love hearing that you “ration” good books – I have to do that, too!

  3. Renita – have you heard of GoodReads? It’s a website where you track the books you’ve read. I thought it was silly at first, but now I like being able to look back on what I’ve read.

    • I have heard of it.

      The thing is, I have a livejournal that I used to track everything I read on — the problem isn’t really having a place to do it, it’s being too lazy to take the freaking library receipts out of my bag and input them 🙂

  4. I stopped reading chick lit because it got too frustrating, and the characters all seemed somewhat psychotic. I know there are some exceptions, but there are so many chick lit books that are just bad. It gets to the point that it’s less frustrating and more relaxing to read something heavier.

    • Ha – it is often better to read something “deeper”. Much of my brain candy is historical fiction/mysteries (Ken Follett is a favorite).

  5. How about Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout or Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows? Both really good reads. I enjoyed both of them.

  6. I love Barbara Kingsolver. I generally like anything by Anne Tyler or Alice Hoffman.

  7. Even though I suppose it’s technically chick lit (that’s what the pink cover tells me, anyway) I really enjoyed English as a Second Language by Megan Crane. And I’d have thought it was just me, except I loaned it to a grad school friend and never got it back. Bought a new copy, loaned it to another grad school friend, never got it back. I finally learned my lesson and stopped lending it.
    It’s about a woman from the US who, tired of her life here, moves to England to get a graduate degree in Literature. It’s not a cheesy chick lit book at all. It’s actually the best depiction I’ve ever read about what it’s really like to be a liberal arts grad student: the stressful department politics, stupid entanglements with unsuitable boys, awesome work studying what you really love, and the close friendships that develop.

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