I’m calling this Five Novels by Female Authors because they are all, indeed, written by women. But this is merely co-incidence and they are in fact just five of my favourite books and you should read them if you haven’t.
Heartburn – Nora Ephron It took me a while to realise what an utter legend Nora Ephron was. Even though When Harry Met Sally is one of my all time favourite films, she wasn’t really on my radar. I think she’s the kind of woman and writer who you realise the true genius and joy of the older you get. Heartburn was published in 1983 and is the story of the breakdown of a marriage after the husband has an affair whilst the main character is heavily pregnant. It’s autobiographical, based on her own marriage and subsequent divorce from Carl Bernstein. I inhaled this book. It’s so easy to read, because of the quality of Ephron’s writing, it’s genuinely like she is sitting down beside you telling her tale. She was a funny, fiercely intelligent woman; there is rhythm to her writing, you can’t help but read it quickly, as she would have spoken it. There are scenes of farce and hilarity, yet amongst the humour there are searing insights into life and love and just how complex and heartbreaking the whole thing is;
“And then the dream breaks into a million tiny pieces.The dream dies. Which leaves youwith a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.”
It’s funny, and clever and real and you should read it at once.
The Paris Wife – Paula McLain This is the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson. Hemingway was married four times and it was Hadley to whom he was married in the Paris years, where they socialised with F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce (to drop a few names). They were young, penniless and in love, with a small child. The book charters their relationship, his increasing fame and tells the story of how their marriage ended due to Hemingway’s affair with a close friend of theirs. (this is not a spoiler, Hadley was the first of four wives so…) It’s impossible not to love Hadley, and be compelled by Hemingway, but you will want to shake her into stopping what is going on under her nose. It’s about creativity , passion and how complicated relationships are. Especially if one of you is Ernest Hemingway.
Paula McLain reportedly wrote it after having read Hemingway’s own account of that period A Movable Feast. I loved The Paris Wife so much, I also went on to read A Movable Feast, as well as some of his other works, which shamefully I had not read before. This is a quote from that book by the man himself, which is of course beautifully written, and devastating in its honesty. I just love this line describing the affair and its impact, ‘the bulldozing of three people’s hearts to destroy one happiness and build another’
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
This book. Man, I loved this book. It consumed me. I thought about it for days, weeks, months after I finished it. I can’t really talk about it in an objective way, because for me it was a pure, emotional experience. It follows the lives of four male friends, from the post college years through to middle age, in New York. The post-collegiate New York friends saga is one of my absolute favourite genres, so I was on board from the beginning. The main character, Jude St Francis, has experienced terrible suffering the extent of which we learn slowly as the book unfolds. We learn about the depravity of his childhood and the impact it has on him forming relationships in adulthood, both romantic and platonic. It has been criticised for being too long, too graphic and too needlessly macabre. It is grim in places, there is no doubt, but amongst the darkness there is hope and friendship, which is what I ultimately, as I lay weeping on the floor, took from this book.
“If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realise that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”
It’s a book that is hard to recommend, I can see how many would not like it. It is epic and it is harrowing, and I sobbed like I haven’t sobbed for a long time. As it happens I went to a reading by the author, and in what turned out to be one of my greatest regrets (Dramatic, no?) I didn’t get a signed copy of the book. I did get this amazing tote bag, though, with the names of main characters emblazoned on it. I carry it with pride, in the hope that other people who have sobbed their way through this book will cross the street and give me a comforting hug. ‘It’s OK, man, it’s all gonna be OK.’ Read it and weep.
The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer
Speaking of friends in post-collegiate New York, in testament to how much I love this genre it gets two spots in my top 5. ( Incidentally, I didn’t know post-collegiate New York novels were a thing until I heard Hanya Yanagihara do a talk and she referenced it, citing both her own work and The Interestings. I would also give another favourite of mine, The GoldFinch by Donna Tartt an honorary mention in this category) The Interestings are 6 friends who meet as teenagers in a summer camp, believing themselves to be bright and talented and special. Don’t we all? As is the way in life, being bright and talented and special is not always enough, or even true, and this proves to be the case as we watch these friendships through to middle age. Some of the friends succeed, some don’t; the novel explores how this impacts on their relationships. Like Heartburn, it blends humour and heartbreak perfectly.
“And specialness – everyone wants it. But Jesus, is it the most essential thing there is? Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do – kill themselves?”
Meg Wolitzer has written several other excellent books (including The Wife and The Ten Year Nap), but this ,for me, was outstanding. I was drawn into their world and I didn’t want to leave. They’re making a TV show of it. They had better get it right.
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is the story of the Biafran war (a state of Nigeria which struggled for independence in the late 1960’s), the marriage of Odenigbo and the beautiful Olanna, and the love story of shambolic Englishman Richard, and Olanna’s sister Kainene. It’s another epic, and it’s not a book I would have been attracted to usually, but Adichie’s writing is just so evocative, you cannot help but fall in love with the characters, but most of all with Africa.
“Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the North, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future.”
She succeeds in explaining so well in fiction, a period in history that many people know nothing about. She makes a political statement, whilst also telling stories of love and friendship. As is to be expected from the author of We Should All Be Feminists, the women in this book are strong and independent.
” You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man, you hear me,..Your life belongs to you and you alone.”
This is also an excellent excuse to quote Adichie herself, awesome woman that she is.
“Of course I am not worried about intimidating men. The type of man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the type of man I have no interest in.”
She has written many other excellent works (Purple Hibiscus, Americanah) but this is the one that wedged its way in to my affections, for it is truly a book of the heart.
Go and read them, read them all. If you don’t like them, I’m afraid we can never be friends.