Books that can drive you nuts if you’re female

An increasing number of novels are putting women’s anger front and center. Here are some of our favorites.

Francesca Donner

By Francesca Donner

  • Jan. 10, 2020Updated 6:47 p.m. ET

— Parul Sehgal, book critic, The New York Times

At In Her Words, we love a good list.

Ever since our colleague Parul Sehgal wrote about women writers giving voice to women’s rage, we’ve wondered: If we were to make a list of the most refreshingly, honestly angry novels by and about women, which books would make the cut?

For centuries, women’s rage has been dismissed and disavowed and trivialized. Angry women were hidden from view: Lock her up and throw away the key, nobody wants to see that sort of thing. (Oh, hello, Mrs. Rochester!)

It’s about time all that pent-up anger exploded into seething, heaving novels.

Behold, the furied heroines, those lightning rods of anger: the vengeful, the disgruntled, the violent, the irritable, the ungodly, the unloved, the intemperate, the temperamental and the unliked. They are mothers and daughters, sisters and stepmothers, best friends and worst enemies. These are the women who flout convention, who shrug off the norms, the eccentrics who do things their own way. They are absolutely unacceptable and absolutely necessary.

We invited our colleagues at the Book Review to sort through the ire-filled shelves and pick out a few favorites. These novels are packed with the pleasure of vindication as they map out life’s wrongs. (And, goodness knows, there are so many wrongs.) We have included an excerpt from each book’s published review so you can see what it’s all about.

So, happy reading … or shall we say, happy empowered reading.

Leni Zumas’s new novel, “Red Clocks,” imagines a near future in which this country’s laws have changed — by federal decree, abortion is illegal in all 50 states. Unwilling to risk alienating a major trading partner, Canada has agreed to shore up “the Pink Wall” of its southern border, and arrest and extradite women trying to enter the country to have an abortion. In vitro fertilization has also been outlawed, and soon to take effect is new legislation, entitled “Every Child Needs Two,” that will prevent single women from adopting children. Zumas has a perfectly tuned ear for the way measures to restrict women’s lives and enforce social conformity are couched in the moralizing sentimentalism of children’s imagined needs. The new laws’ twin purposes — to force women to have babies they don’t want, and then to stigmatize and undermine the resulting single mothers — are such a clear and well-constructed extrapolation of the current debate that I doubt any reader will need to suspend disbelief for even a moment. — Naomi Alderman

“Gone Girl” is this author’s third novel, after “Sharp Objects” and “Dark Places.” “Dark Places,” in particular, drew attention from mystery aficionados, but “Gone Girl” is Ms. Flynn’s dazzling breakthrough. It is wily, mercurial, subtly layered and populated by characters so well imagined that they’re hard to part with. … And if you have any doubts about whether Ms. Flynn measures up to Patricia Highsmith’s level of discreet malice, go back and look at the small details. Whatever you raced past on a first reading will look completely different the second time around. — Janet Maslin

Young girls wake up one morning with the ability to generate powerful electric shocks from their bodies, having developed specialized muscles — called “skeins” — at their collarbones, which they can flex to deliver anything from mild stings to lethal jolts of electricity. The power varies in its intensity but is almost uniform in its distribution to anyone with two X chromosomes, and women vary in their capacity to control and direct it, but the result is still a vast, systemic upheaval of gender dynamics across the globe. — Amal El-Mohtar

“My Sister, the Serial Killer” is a bombshell of a book — sharp, explosive, hilarious. With a deadly aim, Braithwaite lobs jokes, japes and screwball comedy at the reader. Only after you turn the last page do you realize that, as with many brilliant comic writers before her, laughter for Braithwaite is as good for covering up pain as bleach is for masking the smell of blood. — Fiammetta Rocco

Reading the title of Claire Messud’s latest novel, anyone of a literary turn of mind will immediately think of the madwoman in the attic, the 19th century’s best-known “woman upstairs.” In “Jane Eyre,” Bertha Mason was the first wife of the master of Thornfield Hall, who shut her away and, in so doing, opened the door to more than a hundred years of impassioned feminist criticism. This connection is entirely intentional, as Messud quickly makes plain. “We’re not the madwomen in the attic,” argues her “reliable,” “organized” protagonist, a teacher named Nora Eldridge, referring to unmarried women like herself, “numerous” in their 20s and 30s, “positively legion” in their 40s and 50s. “We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell.” Outwardly they may seem “benignant” (to use a Brontëan word), but inwardly, Nora declares, they seethe. “People don’t want to worry about the Woman Upstairs,” she reflects. “Not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.” In time, she will resolve to “use that invisibility, to make it burn.” — Liesl Schillinger

Ms. Hawkins’s story has three women to narrate it. But Rachel, the main one, hits a new high in unreliability. For one thing, she’s drunk throughout most of the story, so her memories are not to be trusted. Not even she is sure if what she remembers really happened. For another, her whole life has become a lie. Her boozy behavior has gotten her fired in London, but she still sticks to her old, rigid commuting schedule because she has nothing else to do. She is able to belt down multiple canned gin and tonics on each train ride. And she is obsessed with Tom, the ex-husband who left her for a pliant blonde named Anna. Anna made a foxy mistress, but she’s become much more stern as Tom’s wife and the mother of their young daughter. She doesn’t like to look out the window and see Rachel lurking. But Rachel lurks, phones, pesters and then the next day remembers none of what she did. — Janet Maslin

Emma Cline’s first novel, “The Girls,” is a seductive and arresting coming-of-age story hinged on Charles Manson, told in sen­tences at times so finely wrought they could almost be worn as jewelry. It reimagines the summer leading up to the notorious Tate-LaBianca murders in Los Angeles in August 1969, and it dissects an obsession — but not the one you’d expect. — Dylan Landis

“I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus,” begins “Eileen,” Ottessa Moshfegh’s seductive novel, “reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” This is the eponymous Eileen, and we quickly learn that any assumptions we might make about her from her appearance would be dead wrong. “I didn’t really read books about flowers or home economics,” she tells us a few pages later. “I liked books about awful things — murder, illness, death.” — Lily King

The women slugging it out at the male-dominated corporate headquarters of Truviv, an athletic apparel brand in Dallas, have two things in common: They’re all mothers and they all move in the dark shadow of their abusive colleague Ames Garrett, who’s about to glide into the suddenly vacated C.E.O. position. Fed up with Ames’s evil ways, the lawyer Sloane Glover adds his name to a “BAD Men” list, then she and her co-workers Ardie Valdez and Grace Stanton file a sexual harassment lawsuit against Ames and Truviv. When a body lands on the sidewalk, all the ingredients for a delicious and timely thriller are on the table. — Caroline Kepnes

Credit…Eleanor Taylor

The unhealed ruptures of slavery, persistent as memory and rubbed raw in such an instant, course through “Homegoing,” the hypnotic debut novel by Yaa Gyasi, a stirringly gifted young writer, that contemplates the consequences of human trafficking on both sides of the Atlantic. The book tells the story of two half sisters unknown to each other and of the six generations that follow, their lineages broken by enslavement and cursed by premonitions that condemned those who were captured, those who were spared and those who sold hostages to the Europeans. — Isabel Wilkerson

Five pages into reading “The Assistants,” you know Perri has a hit on her hands. Tina Fontana is a 30-year-old assistant to a media mogul. She doesn’t dream of moving up the corporate ladder or breaking into show business. She’s proud of her job. And she should be; she’s good at it. But her salary stinks. In her dank ground-floor apartment, she drinks out of jam jars and sleeps under a leaky ceiling. So when the opportunity to embezzle from her boss’s company and pay off her college loans presents itself, she goes for it. But she gets caught by another assistant, who makes her commit the same crime to pay off her loan. And then things get dicier, and they have to do some creative thinking to avoid prison. — Helen Ellis

Elizabeth Strout’s … “novel in stories” brings to life a hardscrabble community on the coast of Maine, a quintessentially New England town where people serve baked beans and ketchup when company comes and speak in familiar Down East accents (“ay-yuh”). But “Olive Kitteridge” is provincial only in a literal sense. … She isn’t a nice person. As one of the town’s older women notes, “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Olive’s son puts it more bluntly. “You can make people feel terrible,” he tells her. She dismisses others with words like “hellion” and “moron” and “flub-dub.” After swapping discontents, she says to a friend, “Always nice to hear other people’s problems.” — Louisa Thomas

Think of it this way: Marilyn French has written a collective biography of a large group of American citizens. Expectant in the 40’s, submissive in the 50’s, enraged in the 60’s, they have arrived in the 70’s independent but somehow unstrung, not yet fully composed after all they’ve been through. Like those exhausting Russian novels in which quarrelsome and demanding families quarreled with us, made demands upon us, “The Women’s Room” strains our patience, argues, wears us down. But it’s proof of Marilyn French’s abilities that we can finish this book feeling genuinely hopeful for some kind of happy ending, someday, for Mira. — Anne Tyler

Astrid Magnussen wanders the world with her mother, Ingrid, a poet who teaches her daughter that they are proud Vikings — until Ingrid murders a faithless lover and is imprisoned. At 12, Astrid falls from a graceful, art-filled world and into the California foster care system. Until she is 18, Astrid lives with an often disastrous series of surrogate mothers — a born-again recovering alcoholic, a bigoted housewife whose next-door neighbor is a call girl, a tough woman from Russia — each time rising from the ashes of disaster wounded and transformed. Astrid tries on various ways of being a woman by scrutinizing the deadly sins women commit in their relationships with men, and her growth as a painter and sculptor parallels her growth as a vulnerable yet self-aware young woman. Fitch handles this progress deftly, pulling “White Oleander” back from the brink of predictability; her startlingly apt language relates a story that is both intelligent and gripping. — Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

The conversation I’d been hearing around the book before I even received my galley was about its resonance within our current political climate, one that is so focused on issues of women’s consent, control and intersectionality. It’s all there to parse, and parsed it will be. But when all is said and done, Wolitzer is an infinitely capable creator of human identities that are as real as the type on this page, and her love of her characters shines more brightly than any agenda. People — loving them, knowing them, letting them shatter and rebuild us again — are Wolitzer’s politics, and that’s something to vote for. — Lena Dunham

The template for the hot-blooded Italian best seller “The Days of Abandonment” is familiar, in fiction and in life. But the raging, torrential voice of the author is something rare. Using the secret of her identity to elevate this book’s already high drama, the author (Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) describes the violent rupture of a marriage with all the inner tranquillity that you might associate with Medea. When her book’s heroine has the temerity to invoke Anna Karenina approaching the railroad tracks, the analogy is actually well earned. — Janet Maslin

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