The world of publishing has been notoriously overcrowded with white men since its inception. Female authors generally have to fight for recognition and respect, and if they happen to be writing about women, that fight is even harder. Publishers slap a pastel cover with a stylish drawing of shoes and that just-so cursive font and call it “chick lit”—regardless of what the story may contain. Not that all “chick-lit” is unworthy, it’s just a specific genre of book marketed to a specific audience. And too often, female writers are pushed into this narrow category and never given a chance to break out. It’s a frustrating problem, but one that I hope we are moving away from! The last 5 years have seen some fantastic, glowingly reviewed literature by women. In trying to compose this list of female writers, I had a really hard time narrowing it down to five. A wealth of options to choose from is a good sign, friends. I have chosen five books by five of my favorite female authors, all published within the last ten years.
All of these books have been reviewed well, but you are unlikely to see them in your local Target book section. Allow me to introduce you!
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
This entirely original and unexpected story follows a graduate student of archeology named Willie Upton who returns to her hometown of Templeton, NY. Her home life seems to be unraveling as she moves back in with her mother for the summer and learns that her previously absent and presumed dead father is actually alive and well and living in town. Willie’s mother leaves it up to her to uncover his identity. Willie spends her summer digging around in archives, piecing together her family story. While all of this happening, there may or may not be a mysterious Loch Ness –type monster living in the town lake and Willie may or may not be in the early stages of pregnancy following an ill-advised affair with her professor.
Groff’s masterful prose is the perfect concoction of funny and sad, dark and delicious. She hints at the supernatural but stays mostly focused on real life people and their various peccadillos. Her characters are lovable and complicated and so compelling. My personal literary goal is to write a book just like this. She is, by far, my favorite writing hero. By the way, Templeton, NY is actually a thinly disguised Cooperstown, NY, a detail that only enhances the experience of reading this book.
Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
Commencement follows the interweaving stories of four friends who first meet when they are assigned to the same dorm at Smith College. Smith, that famously feminist, liberal school in beautiful western Massachusetts, sets the scene for these four very different women whose lives twist and turn in ways they never expect. Sullivan examines the shaky feeling of embarking on “adulthood” after college and coming face to face with stark reality. Jobs, changing relationships between friends and family members, boyfriends and girlfriends: none of us are completely prepared for what the future brings. Sullivan takes us through this familiar landscape with four wonderfully drawn and fully realized women, whose life stories she narrates with admirable candor and intimacy. You will feel like you’re out to lunch with your best friend while reading this book. It’s a great vacation read and a great gift for any recent or soon to be graduates you might know.
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
Visitation Street takes you to the neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, NY during a hot summer. Weaving in the narratives of several very different, compelling characters, Visitation Street tells the story of two teenage girls who, bored, decide to take a raft out into the bay to see what adventures they can have. Only one of them returns, waking up confused on a scummy beach, and without a clear recollection of what happened. The aftermath of this event echoes through the close knit neighborhood of Red Hook as various characters grapple with their part in the tragedy.
Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda’s debut novel, is a quiet wonder, brimming with possibility and menace, and yet a distant ray of hope lights the background of her characters’ bleak lives. This story will appeal to mystery fans, particularly anyone who enjoys Denis Lehane’s gritty urban novels. Lehane hand picked this novel for his new publishing company.
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
Set mostly in New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s, Ten Thousand Saints follows Jude, a teen sent to live with his pot-dealing father after his best friend Teddy dies of an overdose. Raised by adoptive, hippie parents in Vermont, Jude is immediately taken in by the various extreme scenes taking shape in New York City around this time. First falling in with a group of straight edge Hare Krishnas, Jude eventually submerges himself in straight edge, hard core culture, allowing his devotion to abstinence of every kind to become an addiction itself.
Eleanor Henderson’s novel is so tender hearted and sympathetic toward the deeply troubled lost souls at its center, that you will be a better, more empathetic person having read it. I’ve always thought that the great good of books and reading comes from the empathy we learn as a result of walking in someone else’s shoes. This book, more than any other I can think of, does just that. You will love the characters in this book so much; their sorrow and their joy will be yours as well. If this isn’t the mark of a great writer, I don’t know what is! Ann Patchett remarked that this book was the “best thing I’ve read in a long time.” Also, they’re making a movie! Here’s hoping they do it justice.
Swamplandia by Karen Russell
Ava Bigtree lives with her family at a gator wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. Daily shows find Ava’s mother performing death defying stunts with alligators in front of a crowd. After Ava’s mother gets sick, the family begins to unravel. Ava’s father withdraws completely, leaving Ava and her siblings on their own. Her brother leaves to work at a rival theme park called “The World of Darkness” based on the Bible, while her spacey older sister falls under the spell of a mysterious character who may or may not be a ghost. When her sister disappears, 13-year old Ava sets out to find her on a journey through the mystical, gorgeous and terrifying swamp.
Ahh, Swamlpandia. Where to begin? Karen Russell and Lauren Groff are, in many ways, soul mates. Both women sway back and forth between the sometimes absurd, modern world we know and the hazy supernatural places we don’t know. Russell, however, is definitely darker. Swamplandia is such an incredibly inventive and disturbing experience. At the same time, however, and this is what I love about her (and Groff), the characters at the center of the novel will grab you by the heart and make you care about what happens to them—no matter how outlandish their adventures might be.