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. Building off those dynamic characters, here are 25 other novels featuring women who don’t just bend the rules — they snap them.
Table of Contents
- Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson
- Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
- Summer Crossing, by Truman Capote
- Adam, by Ariel Schrag
- The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante
- The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud
- The Violet Hour, by Katherine Hill
- The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer
- The Silent Wife, by A. S. A. Harrison
- Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann
- Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
- On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
- Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong
- Chocolates for Breakfast, by Pamela Moore
- The Patron Saint of Liars, by Ann Patchett
- Faces in the Crowd, by Valeria Luiselli
- Caucasia, by Danzy Senna
- On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
- Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg
- Passing, by Nella Larsen
- Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison
- Music for Torching, by A.M. Homes
- The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing
- We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
- The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith
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.
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.
This post was originally published on December 9, 2014.
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 thirties.
The Violet Hour, by Katherine Hill
A husband and wife have an 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 him.
The Silent Wife, by A. S. A. Harrison
Gone Girl, but better.
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.
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 decide 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.