By Koa Beck
Not all women are white, straight, married, or pining. But books with multifaceted, well-developed female characters can be harder to find than companies with women at the top — even including some of our most celebrated novels.
When it comes to addressing the complexity of womanhood and gender, everyone knows the literary heavyweights: The Bell Jar, The Awakening, The Handmaid’s Tale, Beloved, and Diary of a Mad Housewife. Building off those dynamic characters, here are 26 other novels featuring women who don’t just bend the rules — they snap them.
- Housekeeping , by Marilynne Robinson: After two sisters tragically lose their mother, their batty aunt arrives to take care of them.
- Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: A unnamed female narrator in Brooklyn discovers her husband has been having an affair. Cut to shitshow.
- Summer Crossing , by Truman Capote: In the summer of 1954, a privileged teenager is left to her own devices in New York City after her parents go to Europe. Shenanigans (in dresses) ensue.
- Adam , by Ariel Schrag: In 2006, a teenage boy lives with his lesbian sister for a summer in New York City and learns a lot about queer identity, transgender identity, and lady politics.
- The Days of Abandonment , by Elena Ferrante: After 15 years of marriage and two kids, Olga’s husband tells her he’s leaving. And that’s just the beginning.
- The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud: Entitled rich kids have trouble getting out from behind their parents’ shadows — even in their 30s.
- The Violet Hour, by Katherine Hill: A husband and wife have a really intense fight on a boat and nothing is ever the same again.
- The Wife , by Meg Wolitzer: A devoted wife of a renowned novelist decides that she is leaving his ass.
- The Silent Wife , by A. S. A. Harrison: Gone Girl, but better. You heard it here first.
- Valley of the Dolls , by Jacqueline Susann: Three friends claw their way to the top of the entertainment industry circa 1945 through the 1960s. Pure lady ambition.
- Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore: An ephemeral 1960s teenage girl friendship, punctuated by abortion.
- On Beauty , by Zadie Smith: An interracial family of super intellectual academics has to deal with infidelity — and a lot more.
- Fear of Flying , by Erica Jong: Judaism. A dysfunctional marriage. Sex. Infidelity. Go.
- Chocolates for Breakfast , by Pamela Moore: A 15-year-old girl gets a crush on her female tutor, dates an older bisexual man, and drinks cocktails with her mom.
- The Patron Saint of Liars , by Ann Patchett: A married and pregnant mother decides to take off and live in a home for unwed mothers.
- Faces in the Crowd , by Valeria Luiselli: A mother in Mexico City starts writing a novel, and then the novel sort of becomes her life. (Pair with strong coffee.)
- Caucasia , by Danzy Senna: A white mother starts a new life after the end of her marriage and asks her biracial daughter to pass for white.
- On Chesil Beach , by Ian McEwan" In the 1960s, a young, newly married couple spend their honeymoon on a beach — and they’re both virgins.
- Stone Butch Blues , by Leslie Feinberg: Jess Goldberg, a butch lesbian in the 1950s, decides to pass as a man for safety and then learns that he’s transgender.
- Passing , by Nella Larsen: During the Harlem Renaissance, two childhood friends bump into one another. But one of them is now passing as white. Awkward.
- Bastard Out of Carolina , by Dorothy Allison: A little girl named Bone struggles against her “white trash” label and abusive stepfather.
- Music for Torching , by A.M. Homes: A picture-perfect suburban couple decides to burn down their house.
- The Fifth Child , by Doris Lessing: In 1960s England, a happy couple with four kids has a fifth child, who promptly ruins their entire lives.
- We Need to Talk About Kevin , by Lionel Shriver: After their son murders seven high-school classmates, his mother writes letters to her estranged husband. The ultimate contemplation of nature vs. nurture.
- The Price of Salt , by Patricia Highsmith: A young woman who works in a department store falls for an older, nearly divorced woman and the two of them take a road trip. Best part? It was published in 1952.