I’ve been reading a lot, lately. Our son is now two and I have a bit more time to get back into books, which is incredible. I saw a quote this week that said ‘reading is something you to to take you somewhere else when you have to stay still’, and I think it’s perfect.
Oddly, a lot of the books I have read have been driven along in their stories by female characters that aren’t altogether likeable. I think I have a tendency to be harder on leading women of literature anyway, and let their flaws annoy me more.
I thought, if anybody is looking to challenge their perceptions of femininity, strong women, maternal instinct, or female role models, you might like some inspiration.
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
The first of the Neapolitan novels, a study of two women who meet in childhood in poverty ingrained Naples, this book didn’t grip me from the start, at all. I only began to appreciate it’s masterful storytelling as I finished it and began the second. At it’s heart is the very complex relationship between two girls and their desperation to love and support each other, whilst trying not to hate each other too.
To describe them as frenemies would be doing the narrative a real disservice. They are so bonded, mentally and intellectually, that sometimes they can’t bear the behaviour of the other, because they know what’s causing it, despite the fact they are fascinated by each other’s development and the differences in their choices. I, on beginning the second book, still find both of them dislikable, and frustrating, and petulant. This is testament to the storytelling around their age – they are barely out of their teens, and I feel like I am right back there with them, trying to navigate those feelings towards other women again. That strength of friendship that almost makes sexual relationships pale into insignificance. The laughter. The jealousy.
Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
Set in a close, Tim Burton-esque model town in America, this is the story of how a distinctly non-conformist family unit destroys the emotional security of a more typical one. There are complex maternal relationships ingrained in this novel, and the decisions of every parent in this book will have you checking what your own moral code would allow you to do in the same situation.
The narrative focuses on asking the reader what lengths they would go to to be a mother to a child, intertwined with the tunnel-vision and frenzied rationalisation that comes with decisions made without thought for the children themselves. It forces you to see every side of a story that has you feeling both joy, pride, pity and revulsion for almost every woman in the book.
Unlike My Brilliant Friend, the plot trick here is that the children see things most clearly, and feel things most deeply. Again, it might take you back to your younger years. Adults aren’t always right. Women aren’t always good mothers. Your mum doesn’t always make things better.
Deep Water – Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith wrote The Talented Mr Ripley, and this book is set in similar times, although it’s rather timeless. The protagonist is a man, and it’s written in his perspective. His wife repeatedly cheats on him, in full view of him and the close community they live in, and their young daughter. She acts in a pretty repellent, ugly fashion. His actions are shocking, but are they understandable? Why am I sympathetic?
The storytelling around the tension and awkwardness her blatant sexuality causes the other characters is fascinating, and, socially, you wonder what you would do if you were there. You’ll also find yourself so invested in the stoic love the man has for his daughter, and, curiously, his wife, and how irrational both become. This book is a true classic, Gatsby-esqe in its core, without the showmanship and the riches.
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
As the title suggests, the book is centred around a Russian aristocrat at the time of the Russian revolution and the following 50 years. It’s a wonderful story, so cinematic, funny, shrewd and interesting. I found myself really imagining every part of this book into real life, even down to the smells and the tastes.
Woven into it is the story of several very characterful women, all with one deep flaw each, whether it be as a mother, as a lover, or for vanity, their snobbery, or deceit. What I love is the sense that although the protagonist, the Count, sees himself as deeply able to enchant women and enjoys their company, he is actually in thrall to all of those he encounters, or in debt to them, and they lift him up and carry him through the story. I loved this story, its fantastic.