15 Great Contemporary Novellas by Women

by Rebecca Kelley

So many books we think of as classics are tiny little things. The Metamorphosis clocks in at less than 100 pages. Bartleby the Scrivener is 48! In today’s publishing industry, novellas are a tough sell, existing in a kind of no man’s land between short stories and novels. But they are out there, and they are definitely worth the hour (or five) it takes to read them.

You’ve read the classic novellas written by women. Here’s what’s been happening on the novella scene in the last thirty years. Some of these were marketed as short novels, and a handful of them are collections, so this list of nine titles contains fifteen different short works. Now that’s a bargain.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984)

The coming-of-age story of Esperanza Cordero, told in vignettes. Cisneros has a deceptively simple and affecting writing style that gets to the heart of Esperanza’s experience. The House on Mango Street has sold over 2,000,000 copies and is required reading in many high schools and colleges around the world.

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A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988)

Muriel Spark has the rare distinction of appearing on both of my must-read novella lists. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie stars as one of 9 Classic Novellas by Women You Can Read in a Day. More than 25 years (and several books) later, Spark came out with A Far Cry, the story of Nancy Hawkins, a woman looking back at her years as a war widow in South Kensington. When one of the women in her rooming house begins receiving threatening letters, Nancy rushes in to offer advice. Unfortunately, she is not quite as helpful as she likes to think.

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The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (1988)

Before We Need to Talk About Kevin, there was The Fifth Child, the horrifying tale of Ben, who starts out difficult in utero and only wreaks more and more havoc after birth. If you’re looking for a way to slow down that biological clock, this little book might do the trick.

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Ordinary Love & Good Will by Jane Smiley (1989)

The first novella in this collection, Ordinary Love, is pretty good. The second, Good Will, is — wait for it — the best novella ever! It doesn’t hurt that the story is made with all my personal favorite ingredients: a nice moody landscape, some survival plot elements, a snowbound-in-a-cabin scene, and a healthy dash of a “bad seed.” (See also The Fifth Child.)

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Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt (1994)

Combine a dead-on imitation to Victorian prose and poetry with the following subject matter: insects, taboo sexual practices, séances, and ghostly visitations. The result is this pair of novellas by A.S. Byatt. Morpho Eugenia, the more intricate and disturbing of the two novellas, was made into a film (Angels and Insects, 1995).

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Guided Tours of Hell by Francine Prose (1997)

Francine Prose is a writer who deserves more attention. What better way to get to know her than through this pair of novellas? In the titular novella, tourists make fools of themselves on a visit to a former concentration camp outside of Prague. In Three Pigs in Five Days, Nina sits in a Paris hotel room working on a travel article and reflecting on her messed-up relationship.

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The Hunters by Claire Messud (2002)

Claire Messud, author of The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs , published this pair of novellas in 2002. A Simple Tale is a sweeping saga of a woman’s life, starting during World War II in the Ukraine. The titular novella is an unsettling tale of an unnamed (and un-gendered) narrator with a very peculiar neighbor.

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The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa (2008)

The dread in Yoko Ogawa’s three novellas builds like raindrops tapping the windowpane: soft at first, and then more insistent. Finally they get so loud they become impossible to ignore. The Pregnancy Diary is especially peculiar and creepy... in the best possible way.

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Home by Toni Morrison (2012)

In Home, the most recent work by Toni Morrison, Korean war veteran Frank Money journeys back to the racist South to rescue his sister, Cee, whose safety appears to be endangered. He vows to find her and bring her home, with the hope that somehow, they can both be saved.

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