Tuesday, October 2, 2012

10 Books Every Woman Should Read in Her Twenties

If you've been on Pinterest and browsed through popular pins regarding literature, you've probably come across a pin to the article "10 Books Every Girl Should Read in Her Twenties." I did not too long ago, and I must say, I was incredibly disappointed. The first book is Confessions of a Shopaholic. The rest are mainly "chick-lit" or self-help type books promoting being satisfied without a "BFF," a boyfriend, or a career. While self-actualization and satisfaction are worthy and good things, this pointed list tears at the image of an independent woman. The article's blurb about The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank says the book,  " . . . follow[s] heroine Jane Rosenal's search for what every girl wants in her twenties--a steady boyfriend, a fulfilling career, and self-identity." Does every woman really want that in her twenties? I know some who would disagree. Again and again, this article makes the assumption that women can only have one sexual orientation--heterosexual, and that this inherent need means they are incomplete without a man in their life. In fact, they're so incomplete, they need multiple guides just to get them through the short intervals between romantic trysts and significant others.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying every book on this list is "bad." In fact, there are some great books there. I just don't think they're necessarily appropriate for every woman, let alone every woman while she is in her twenties. Pride and Prejudice made the list. While it is a classic, and one of my personal favorites, this isn't a book I would push on a woman in her twenties. The social and class commentary is excellent, and the characters are certainly compelling; however, I would recommend this as a first read to a woman at a younger age--perhaps 16 or 17. The Joy Luck Club also made the list. It's a wonderful depiction of different dynamics in female-female relationships, mainly those of mother-daughter. I have no problem with this book being on the list. Amy Tan's writing is beautiful, and the personalities of the various protagonists within the book are very different, serving as an example of many things a woman could want rather than stuffing her into one tiny, conventional box.

Rather than continuing on about this list's girlish shortcomings, I was inspired by a couple friends to make my own. So, here is a list of books every woman should read in her twenties.

1. The Awakening - Kate Chopin
The Awakening is a novel set in southern Louisiana at the end of the 19th century. It follows protagonist Edna Pontellier as she struggles against society due to her changing views of motherhood and femininity in the South. The rich psychological nature of this novel alongside Chopin's dazzling imagery and her laudable presentation of women's issues marks this book as a true classic.

2. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
Set in rural George in the 1930s, this epistolary novel follows narrator Celie from age fourteen, as she pushes out against her position in society. She wonders about her sister Nettie, her first two children, whom she presumes her father either killed or took away, about her own nature, about society, and about her place in the world. She meets an incredible set of characters who serve as guardian angels, guideposts, and warnings.  This novel's exacting focus on black female life in the southern U.S. in the 30s along with its depiction of violence have made it the target of censors again and again. Its themes and characters have also won it praise over the years. It has been adapted into both an award-winning film and musical.

3. Sula - Toni Morrisson
This novel follows Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as girls in Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion to each other is uncanny, but its strength is weathered by the burden of a dreadful secret and Sula's growing status in society as a pariah. This novel presents prejudice, questions of sexuality and friendship, and the themes of friendship, love and death woven throughout a beautiful and tragic narrative, which few other books can touch.

4. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid's Tale is considered a work of dystopian fiction, focusing on a near future in which a totalitarian theocracy has overthrown the United States government. Its narrator, known only as Offred, a patronymic meaning "Of Fred," referring to the man she serves, tells her harrowing story of subjugation and the choices she makes in both obedience and defiance to regain some personal power. Offred is a handmaid, a kind of chaste concubine kept in wealthy households for the sole purpose of reproduction in an era of declining births. She has already failed twice, and if she fails a third time, she will be deemed "unwoman" and sent away to a colony to either clean up radioactive waste or perform other hard labor. The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue which renders the entire work complete.

5. Love Medicine - Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich is a celebrated Native American author, and in this work set on and around a North Dakotan reservation, she tells the tale of intertwined families--the Lamartines and the Kashpaws. This novel centers around a group of women who are united by their strength in the face of tumult and also the diversity of their love. It continually juxtaposes individual desire with the pull of blood ties as well as affection for old ways and the enchantment of the new. This novel is a sequence of braided narratives which teem with culture and life.

6. Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver
This novel is set over the course of one humid summer amid the mountains and farms of southern Appalachia. It follows the story of three protagonists, Deanna, Lusa, and Garrett, alongside an overarching theme of connections, both to one another and also to the flora and fauna with which they share a life. Amazon describes it as "a hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature, and of nature itself."

7. The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende
The story of this novel details the life of three generations of the Trueba family in Chile, revealing both its jubilation and its sorrows. Allende weaves magical realism throughout the novel, creating touches of ethereality in the narrative. Its story is told mainly through two protagonists, Esteban and Alba. Esteban is the patriarch of the Trueba family. His bravado and political enthusiasm are checked only by the love for his wife Clara, who has been touched by powers such as clairvoyance. Their daughter Blanca's forbidden love infuriates Esteban, but it results in his granddaughter Alba, his greatest joy. Alba's ambition leads the Trueba family into a radical future.

8. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith
This book is an American classic, a coming of age story which reveals the young, sensitive Francie Nolan in her formative years in the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It is split into five "books," which cover a different period in in the characters' lives. It opens in 1912 when Francie is just eleven years old. Its story is filled with bittersweetness. It is heartbreaking, uplifting, filled with compassion and cruelty, and raw with honesty. Its themes are universal, although its narrative absolutely captures a unique time and place.

9. Rich in Love - Josephine Humphreys
From Amazon, "At the age of seventeen, Lucille Odom finds herself in the middle of an unexpected domestic crisis. As she helps guide her family through its discontent, Lucille discovers in herself a woman rich in wisdom, rich in humor, and rich in love."

10. The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This may seem an odd choice for this list, but I believe it is one of the most important pieces. The Little Prince may ostensibly be viewed as a children's book, however, it makes many poignant observations about life and human nature. I believe everyone should read this book at least twice in their lives, once as a child, and once as an adult. Its themes are universal, and the startling profundity of its declarations serves as a much needed grounding for so many adults who forget how to truly appreciate things. The story is that of the narrator whose plane has crashed in the desert. He meets the little prince, who is traveling from planet to planet, finding out more and more about life. The narrator is dying of thirst, but finds a well with the prince's help. The prince warns the narrator not to watch him leave, when he wishes to return to his own planet, as it will make the narrator sad. The prince's exit is a staggering scene full of both conflict and hope.

You may have noticed that a couple of these summaries I completed with a bit of outside help. It's true, I haven't read all of these books yet. I am twenty-two, and I'm still wading through vast pools of literature. I look forward to reading Prodigal Summer, Rich in Love and many more wonderful books in my twenties. I've read books from both authors before, so I'm excited to read more of their work. For those of you who want more from Kingsolver and Erdrich, I'd recommend The Poisonwood Bible and Tracks, respectively.

I feel I should also note that while this list is mainly intended for women, I believe these books would be absolutely appropriate for anyone who wants to read them. Just because a book focuses on women's issues doesn't mean it automatically is irrelevant for men, and vice versa. As to why I selected all novels as opposed to interspersing them with non-fiction, I'll leave you with a quote from William Faulkner. "The best fiction is far more true than any journalism."