It seems these days that all anyone is reading is shades of Fifty Shades. Which is okay by
me; I’m not a book snob, I believe the market has spoken, and a good story is a good story,
no matter how sloppily told. Although I am still stumped by the popularity of Twilight, I have
to admit. However, after reading Gabriel’s Inferno (being in the biz, I like to stay on top of the
market; plus, I was promised great things— those are my excuses and I’m sticking to them) and being furiously disappointed, I thought it was time to remind ourselves that there actually are well-written books out there, books to turn to when you’ve had it up to here with the
“Holy shit!” and the overly sensitive deflowering. (Here’s me reading Gabriel’s Inferno:
Read ridiculous sentence, something like “You make me want to be gentle and kind.
And when we make love, that’s how I will be with you,” and tear hair out. Throw book
across room. Pick it up; open it briefly, only to see that he offers her cranberry juice after
they do it, for fuck’s sake; yell, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me”; and throw book
across room again.)
Here are my picks for when you want to read something between your kids’ bedtime and your collapse into a coma. It’s a small window, so you need to choose wisely. These books feature believable relationships, delightful mind games, a little dirty sex, and undoubtedly good writing, and they’re all written by women.
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
This may be obvious, but it invented the chick lit genre, and it’s one I go back to time and again to remind myself that writing for young women can be good and fun at the same time. Unlike the movie version of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. That thing should be thrown into a bottomless pit along with the director and the screenwriter.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Some books linger in your mind for days; this one has stayed with me for years. Not for women specifically — most characters are male — but a sinister story about desperately wanting to belong (something everyone can relate to, for sure).
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I mentioned to a colleague that this was my favourite book of the moment, and she sneered and said, “Mass market. Bah!” Whatever. I’m tired of book snobs. Sometimes books are bestsellers because they’re genuinely good. A rarity, like a mom who has enough time to read more than a page at once, but it happens. This book messes with your mind and your relationships and will haunt you for weeks.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Although it was published in 2010, this book only recently hit the big-time because Lena
Dunham of Girls cited it as one of her influences. And the connection is pretty obvious when
you read it. The Los Angeles Review of Books recently tore it apart, but I think that once again it really doesn’t matter what the critics think. The fact that everyone is talking about it two years after it was published is remarkable enough. I also think a lot of women can find a little of themselves in it, or the selves they’ve been too smart to be, or something like that. This book is more of a beginning of something: a lot of it bugged me, but it’s a whole world away from Fifty Shades of Grey, so that was refreshing, and yet it really isn’t so different in many ways. I think the answer to what women want to read lies somewhere in between. Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead is another recent book featuring explicit sex that takes us far enough out of our comfort zone that I think it will pave the way for that “somewhere in between” in women’s fiction. (If you read Gabriel’s Inferno and puked at how romantically she lost her virginity, you’ll love the flute scene in Maidenhead.) You may be disgusted or bored or unmoved by these books, but if you’re open-minded, you’ll probably like them a lot. And they are worth reading if only because they are ground-breaking, just as Bridget Jones’s Diary was in its day.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The great-great grandmother of Harlequins, Pride and Prejudice is still the gold standard. It has wit and intelligence and romance and crazy-making family dynamics and even smouldering sexual tension. If you haven’t read it, you are seriously missing out. Get over yourself and read it, already.
P.S. At a recent Secret Mother gathering, we observed that an elderly male neighbour spent
most of the day reading Fifty Shades Darker. Which reminds me that you don’t have to be
female to enjoy the charms of any of these books.
-East End Mama