Before I went on my great Alaska adventure, I had dinner with Brian and my parents (since my dad would be going on a great cross-country adventure to California himself, and it would be some time until we’d all be together again). I mentioned that I had been thinking about writing this particular blogpost: a suggested “starter pack” of 20th century women’s literature.
I mentioned to the table that was afraid that my picks might seem too obvious. But now, thinking about the obscurity of the books I bought in Alaska (Sigrid Undset, Leonora Dalrymple, Mildred Walker, and Janette Turner Hospital), going back to the basics seems like a good idea!
So here’s my suggested starter pack, if you haven’t read much in the way of women’s fiction and are thinking of starting. All are books I’ve owned for most of my adulthood, and only a couple of books I’ve read “recently” (in the last 10 years):
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather: now, I was quite prepared to recommend My Antonia to you all. But that pre-Alaska dinner conversation with my dad convinced me to switch my recommendation. While Cather is best known for her Great Plains literature, dad is right – Death Comes for the Archbishop, one of her New Mexico books, is her magnum opus. Spoiler: the title contains a spoiler.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: I don’t want to wreck the beauty of this book by talking about it, so I won’t divulge much except to say that Hurston is a master and this book is the master at the height of her powers. This is in my top 10 books of any century in any genre.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: you may think this book is on here because it’s “great literature.” Because we “really ought to read it.” The way we ought to read Henry James (oh, how my grandmother HATED Henry James!) or, say, Thomas Hardy. But trust me – this is a wonderful book that is wonderful to read. I didn’t read it for school, and I seemed to be under the impression I wouldn’t like it, so I avoided it until sometime in the mid-aughts. As it turns out, it’s a dream to read, and I wish I’d read it much earlier. There’s a reason Scorsese was excited to direct it, and Ebert was excited to talk to Scorsese about directing it. It’s that kind of book.
Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro: another book where I don’t really know why it took me so long to read. I consider this a novel, but you could also consider it a short story cycle, all centered around the same characters. One of those books where the characters live in a town completely different from mine and have experiences seemingly completely different from mine, and yet the underlying experience of girlhood is so recognizable I kept wanting to shout YES! as I was reading it.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin: the mother of 20th century women’s fiction. This is where modern women’s fiction begins, at least for me: with Edna Pontellier on the beach. Everyone should read it.
Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen: I’ve already waxed poetic on my love for Tillie Olsen, but Tell Me a Riddle, her short story collection, is better than Yonnondio, and everyone should read it. It’s a faster read than The Awakening, also, if that means anything to you, but it’s also probably harder to locate in libraries and stores. You can borrow my copy!
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: not my sunniest selection, but essential. I remember being struck, when I read it as a teenager, by how straightforward the writing is. I am struck by it still, and by how clearly she describes the insipid, unbearably silly world Esther Greenwood was expected to occupy. Plath’s only novel.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: If The Awakening begins the century, then you can think of The God of Small Things as rounding it out at the other end. Roy only published her second novel in 2017 and I am almost superstitiously afraid to read it after the power of her first novel. I read it in 2002 and still remember each scene, and lines of dialogue together, with perfect clarity.
Sula by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s inclusion needs no explanation, but maybe my selection does. Beloved is her masterpiece, but…it’s heavy, and it’s hard to recommend to just any reader. My dear friend Sarah threw is across the room after the first page, and she had every right to. Depending on your personal experiences, that book’s intensity and violence can ask too much of its reader. But Sula is still 100% fire from Morrison without extracting as much of the toll that Beloved demands.
And last, but certainly not the least…
The Color Purple by Alice Walker: When my sister and I discovered in adulthood that our mother had never read The Color Purple, we both gasped audibly. (In her defense, it was published at a time when she was pretty busy, you know, keeping our fingers out of electrical sockets and stuff). “MOM,” we cried (almost at the same time), “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.” So she did. And for the next couple of days, I got emails from my mother that were just quick, revelatory quotes from Celie to let me know how mom was progressing through the book. That is the kind of book it is – one that moves you and shocks you and inspires you, whether you’re 15 or 50 when you read it, so that you have to share what you’re reading with someone who understands!