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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.