I know I’m not the only person who sometimes (a lot of the time) feels like women only have two options for how to be in the world: we’re “nasty women” or we’re “nice girls” — aka: we follow the social code of conduct designed to make us “likable” or we don’t, but either way our options for identity and character development are limited and one dimensional. The problem of likability is nowhere more apparent than in fiction, where the tradition of evaluating female protagonists on their likability, (“Sure, Antoinette Cosway is an interesting character, but I’d never want to be her friend…) is long and tiresome, while other characters (men, dogs, ghosts, spiders, pigs) are hardly ever discussed in such black-or-white tones.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with being likable — I like plenty of people, and I imagine I’d be fairly lonely if I didn’t — too often likability simply refers to a woman’s (or a protagonist’s) ability to get out of the way: don’t cause a scene, don’t complicate things, stand still and be a mirror for someone else’s journey, if you must have a flaw make sure it’s a demure and endearing one with lots of redeeming elements. This is not reality, and our fictional heroines deserve to evaluated with the same depth, breadth, and complexity as their male (or animal, or supernatural) counterparts — just as real-life women deserve to dance up and down the many-shaded spectrum between "nasty woman" and "nice girl."
The books on this list are filled with messy, beautiful, complicated, powerful, nasty nice gals, who are as real as anyone I’ve met in real life. Check out these 15 novels that rebel against the nice girl stereotype.
1‘Problems’ by Jade Sharma
Jade Sharma’s debut novel Problems dives headfirst into the life of a decidedly not “nice girl” — offering readers an unromanticized and totally relatable journey into the more-than-recreational heroin habit of snarky, no-bullshit New York City bookstore employee Maya. Underwhelmed and burnt out by her life in equal turns, Maya is a young woman whose life is lived on her own terms, and who will change that life, all on her own, when she damn well pleases.
2‘Inside Madeleine’ by Paula Bomer
Navigating the darkly complicated relationships women have with their bodies — from childhood obesity to toxic sex lives — Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine is a short story collection filled with feminine rage, alienation, and violent lust. Unflinching, and a little filthy, the stories in this collection will take you from prep schools to halfway houses, demonstrating that no matter where you come from, everyone struggles with the same messy stuff.
3‘Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang’ by Joyce Carol Oates
If you love Joyce Carol Oates (doesn’t everybody?) but you haven’t read Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, you must add it to your TBR pile immediately, because it is, IMO, her very best book. Foxfire takes readers into the lives of five rural, upstate New York high school girls who form a gang of five, banding together against the forces of misogyny that threaten to overtake their young lives — until they grow up and exact their revenge on predatory men. It’s feminist vigilantism at its finest.
4‘Glory Goes and Gets Some’ by Emily Carter
This novel is so in-your-face edgy it’s hard to believe its Emily Carter’s debut novel. In Glory Goes and Gets Some, Glory is a mid-thirties, HIV-positive, fresh out of rehab gal ready to take life by the horns — except her 12-step program doesn’t always fit seamlessly into the upper-middle-class urban America where she lives. Taking a no-nonsense approach to her own addiction and recovery, and exhibiting unflinchingly hilarious judgement against those who glamorize “the process” Glory is as wisely, relatably cynical as characters come.
5‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline
Emma Cline’s Manson Family-inspired debut novel, The Girls, introduces readers to Evie Boyd, a 14-years-old girl who finds herself drawn into a cult led by the disturbing and charismatic Manson-esque man named Russell. The novel moves back and forth between then-teenage Evie and the person she became later in life — a grown woman who has always lived beneath the shadow of danger, drama, and free love the cult portrayed, and haunted by the fact that she was one snap judgement away from becoming someone entirely different.
6‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh
Taking readers back to 1960s Boston, Eileen introduces readers to the eponymously-named young woman, Eileen, who works as a secretary in a juvenile detention facility for boys. But that may be the most unremarkable thing about her: this woman who keeps a dead mouse in her glove compartment, fantasizes about dismemberment, gives her housebound father alcohol until he is too drunk to know he’s not being cared for, shoplifts, and whose own misunderstanding of her body leads to a complicated and dangerous relationship with sex. Then, not-improbably, Eileen’s desire to escape it all leads her to become complicit in a crime.
7‘How to Build a Girl’ by Caitlin Moran
In Caitlin Moran’s totally relatable coming-of-age story, How to Build a Girl, Johanna Morrigan is not exactly the kind of girl you’ll discover in mainstream YA romances. She longs to be seen and to be celebrated, she’s eager to be someone other than the person she is, and she dives headfirst into an edgy and unfamiliar world in order to reinvent herself — the party-heavy world of record reviewing. There, Johanna evolves into the hard-drinking, sexually-inventive Dolly Wilde, and starts to learn what it really takes to build a girl in a culture with only one (insufficient) instruction manual.
8‘As I Descended’ by Robin Talley
An all-female retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth? Yes, please. Robin Talley’s As I Descended takes readers into an exclusive prep school where everything is a competition and the students will stop at nothing to end up on top. Spooky and filled with diverse and intelligent “bad girls” this novel features all kinds of Shakespearean murder and madness.
9‘Marlena’ by Julie Buntin
Urgent and haunting, Julie Buntin’s debut novel, Marlena, begins with 30-year-old Cat, a functioning alcoholic whose life trajectory was altered forever the summer she turned 15. Having just moved to a town in rural Michigan, and desperate for friendship, Cat turns to Marlena — a girl who drinks booze, pops pills, and offers Cat the camaraderie she seeks. But that winter, Marlena is discovered dead in the woods, and Cat’s life will be forever informed by this disturbing, tragic loss — one she’ll have to find a way to forgive herself for.
10‘The Bed Moved: Stories’ by Rebecca Schiff
A collection of stories that is as clever as it is hilarious, The Bed Moved: Stories by Rebecca Schiff is filled with coming-of-age tales of sex, love, adolescence, death, being Jewish, and surviving a world that wasn’t necessarily designed for (or by) women. From nudist resorts to teen Geology Camp, the stories in this collection are laugh-out-loud, cringe-worthy tales of growing up and screwing up, over and over again.
11‘Bad Behavior’ by Mary Gaitskill
Almost every single Goodreads review of this book (or, at least, the top ten) include sexual innuendos and puns — some better played than others — so that alone should tell you something about Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill. Another short story collection that takes on the dynamic, complex, lusty, often rage-filled sex lives of girls and women, Bad Behavior is filled with a sense of being out of place and outside time, of longing for somewhere to fit in, while insisting on rebellion.
12‘The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls’ by Anton DiSclafani
The girls of Yonahlossee are far enough removed from the real world — high in the Blue Ridge Mountains — that the troubles that plague their families back home often take a backseat to their personal longings: boys, sex, popularity, gossip, and horses. What no one is immune to is the fact that every decision they make, at home or away, has the capacity to alter their already-tenuous young lives forever. Fifteen-year-old Thea Atwell is one such girl, sent away from home after her roll in a mysterious accident that resulted in the brain damage of her teenage cousin. And here’s what I find so appealing about Thea: she does not learn her lesson. At all. The girl got screwed by the world, so she’s going to screw it right back. And she does.
13‘The Leavers’ by Lisa Ko
One of the most recent titles in the trend of books about mothers behaving badly (and we love them) Lisa Ko’s debut novel, The Leavers, takes readers from New York to China, telling the story of a Chinese family of two — mother, Polly, and son, Deming Guo, whose lives suddenly take off in completely opposite paths. After Polly, an undocumented immigrant, disappears without a trace one afternoon, 11-year-old Deming Guo is placed up for adoption. Renamed Daniel Wilkinson and pressured to transform into the “all-American” son his adoptive parents want, Deming/Daniel learns to navigate cultural boarders and boundaries, as he discovers who he truly wants to be; while his mother, Polly, must learn to make peace with her mistakes.
14‘Into the Water’ by Paula Hawkins
In this small, storied New England town, women who cause trouble go into the water — it’s happened plenty of times before, from witch drownings to murders to suicides. And in Paula Hawkins’s most recent novel, Into The Water, it’s happened again. A teenage girl and a single mother are found drowned in the nearby river — a river connected to a “drowning pool” that has welcomed a disturbing number women into its depths before. Suddenly, long-buried local mysteries rise to the surface: rape and bullying, forbidden sex and murder; and those who dig too deep into the truth of the drowning pool might find themselves there as well. Into the Water is all about how society deals with women who break molds and rules.
15‘American Girls' by Alison Umminger
As a woman who herself once ran away to Los Angeles as a girl (sans my mother’s credit cards, mind you) and was utterly heartbroken by the un-kept promises of the city, Alison Umminger’s novel, American Girls, speaks directly to me — and anyone else who has ever fled their lives only to discover lost girls are lost girls, no matter where they are. When 15-year-old Anna escapes to L.A. in search of a different life, she finds herself growing obsessed with the girls of the Manson Family cult and the murders they committed — finding strange but not wholly-unexpected parallels between her sense of isolation and violence, and theirs.