13 Stories About Women Finding Themselves — Not "The One"

by Sadie Trombetta
Fox Searchlight Pictures

If you were judging by popular movies, TV shows, and books, you wouldn't be wrong in assuming that women's narratives are restricted to one area and one area only: romance. Despite what pop culture would have readers believe, it is possible to find wonderful stories about women finding themselves instead of searching for "the one" — that is, if you know where to look. Luckily for you, this list is a great place to start.

In literature and in real life, women are often told their value is defined by their romantic relationships. The stories we tell young girls, teenagers, and even grown adult women typically revolve around dating, sex, marriage, and the seemingly endless search for a partner, but the truth is, there is a lot more to women than who they choose — or don't choose — to spend their time with. Women are, after all, people, and their lives are just as complex as the men whose experiences are explored in a large variety of narratives about identity, power, morality, family, and so much more.

If you want to read about a woman who takes the time to find herself instead of just focusing on "the one," then check out these 13 books starring female protagonists who learn to love themselves.

'Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail' by Cheryl Strayed

Four years after the death of her mother, author Cheryl Strayed found herself on the brink of destruction brought on by drug addiction, infidelity, and loss. That is when she made the radical decision to hike over a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, alone and untrained. On her journey, Strayed meets an incredible cast of inspiring characters, but the most important person the author connects with is herself. Funny, poignant, and utterly empowering, Wild is a beautiful story about one woman learning to love herself again.

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'The Time Is Noon' by Pearl S. Buck

In this revealing, heartfelt novel, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck weaves a deeply personal story about the difficult journey to adulthood and self-fulfillment. Inspired by the author's own life, The Time Is Noon tells the story of Joan Richards, a woman who has always struggled to find her true self, first in her small hometown, and later in an unsatisfying marriage. After leaving her husband, Joan looks back on her old life and begins, for the first time, to build something entirely new.

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'How Should a Person Be?' by Sheila Heti

A wholly original coming-of-age story, How Should a Person Be? explores self-discovery through the female lens. Labeled "part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part vivid exploration of the artistic and sexual impulse" by its publisher, this powerful book isn't about a young woman's first love or her struggle to find a partner. Rather, its about her experience existing, and attempting to find her place, in the world.

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'Still Me' by Jojo Moyes

While the series may have started off as a romance, Jojo Moyes has turned Louisa Clark's story into one about learning to be, and to love, yourself. In the latest installment, the quirky Louisa Clark has come to New York to work as an assistant to an uber wealthy couple. As she struggles to fit into this brand new world, Lou finds comfort in her friendship with a high society man, Joshua Ryan, who helps her figure out what she wants, and who she really wants to be.

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'Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine' by Gail Honeyman

It may include romance, but Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is, at its core, a book about a young woman learning to be, and to love, herself. A socially awkward young woman, Eleanor has always managed to successfully avoid unnecessary interactions with others. That is, until the day she and her coworker, Raymond, rescue and old man together, and the three of them begin a friendship unlike anything Eleanor has ever known. Equal parts charming and hilarious, this Reese Witherspoon-approved book is a must read for anyone struggling with their own self-discovery.

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'Akata Witch' by Nnedi Okorafor

In this remarkable YA novel from World Fantasy Award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor, readers will find adventure, magic, mystery, and love, but not necessarily the romantic kind. Akata Witch is an inspiring coming-of-age novel about a young albino African girl who feels she doesn't fit in anywhere. That is, until she discovers she has incredible magical abilities and others like her, and suddenly, Sunny begins to understand, and maybe even love, who she truly is.

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'Fear of Flying' Erica Jong

Sure, Erica Jong's iconic novel is loaded with sex, but that doesn't mean Fear of Flying is a romantic book about searching for "the one." Rather, the fiercely feminist story is one of self-discovery, self-exploration, and self-love. Consider it essential reading.

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'Daughter of Fortune' by Isabel Allende

In Daughters of Fortune, a young Eliza Sommers leaves Chile in favor of California, where the man she loves has gone to cash in on the Gold rush of 1849. There, she finds herself immersed in a brand new world that forces her embrace the strength and independence she has always had inside of her. What starts out as a story of a young girl dropping everything to follow her lover quickly becomes an empowering coming-of-age tale about one woman finding out who she is, what she wants, and where she belongs.

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'Three Strong Women' by Marie NDiaye

Don't let the name deter you: the women in Marie NDiaye are so much more than "strong female protagonists." They are incredibly rich and complex characters whose lives take them in directions they never expected, and often, never wanted. In the face of each conflict, whether it be a troubled marriages or family loss, the protagonists in Strong Women find that they are so much more capable, more resilient, and more powerful than they ever imagined.

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'The Hazel Wood' by Melissa Albert

It is rare to find a young adult novel that doesn't have a main romantic plotline, but Melissa Albert's thrilling debut is much more learning to love and accept yourself, and less about finding a boyfriend in high school. In The Hazel Wood, 17-year-old Alice is desperate to find her mother, who was kidnapped by fairy tale creatures from another world. While she searches for her mom, Alice unexpectedly uncovers answers about her past and her true identity she never even knew to look for.

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'For Today I Am a Boy' by Kim Fu

When he was born, Peter's Chinese parents named him Juan Chuan, or "Powerful King," but he knows there is another identity that suits him better: a girl. For Today I Am a Boy is a beautiful and heartbreaking coming-of-age story wherein one young person goes to hell and back in order to finally become her true, female self.

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'All Grown Up' by Jami Attenberg

Hilarious and oh-so-relatable, All Grown Up is a witty and heartfelt story of personal fulfillment and self-satisfaction every single person should read. Andrea Bern is a single, childfree, and mostly carefree 39-year-old — that is, until her niece is born with an incurable illness, and Andrea must reexamine who she is, what her responsibilities are, and what really matters in her life. Smart and brutally honest, this brilliant novel is about not only being your true self, but learning how to love your true self, whoever that may be.

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'Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties' by Camille Pagán (Feb. 27)

When her husband unexpectedly leaves her, Maggie Harries's entire world is turned upside down. A 53-year-old mother and wife, Maggie realizes that, for decades, she has done everything for other people, and nothing for herself. So she packs her bags and heads to Rome, where she searches for a new career, a new romance, and a brand new life. When crisis threatens everything she's built, Maggie must decide: give up the woman she's become, or finally let go of the one she's always been.

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