We’ve all been assigned the “Coming of Age” novels while in school, featuring – from Huck to Holden – the precocious and precarious voices of young male protagonists. There are the heroines of the young adult series like the plucky entrepreneurs in The Babysitters Club and the equally plucky Ramona and Beezus Quimby, along with the inventor of little girl literary-pluckiness, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch.
But after we actually come “Of Age,” where do we find our literary heroines? Like their cinema counterparts, male protagonists are commonly given leeway to make mistakes and have compelling adventures in the pursuit of their own identity. Female protagonists are usually just looking for a husband.
So while we all love Bridget Jones, mostly as a comical foil to what our lives are actually like, here are books featuring the lives of young women and all their compelling messiness, beauty and grace, by some amazing writers, who just so happen to be women.
Smith was twenty-five when her debut novel, White Teeth, was published to rave reviews and for good reason. It’s a thick, carnival ride of a novel where the North London neighborhood that serves as the setting is compelling as the fantastic plot and numerous characters. It’s a totally fun book.
Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
Yes, I agree with you completely that Birds of America by Moore is on of the best short story collections written by an American writer, but I urge you to pick up Self-Help as well. Self-Help is Moore’s first collection and constitutes part of her Master’s thesis. (She received an MFA from Cornell.) It features young women making mistakes, falling and failing gracefully. It’s full of Moore’s signature wit, and the first display of what would become her trademark: smiling, cheerful sarcasm.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
If you were ever a depressive female teenager, there’s a good chance that an older, seemingly depressive friend or relative put a copy of The Bell Jar in your hands. (If you weren’t, congrats.) English Majors everywhere study the haunting beauty of Plath’s poetry but many young women look to the story of Esther Greenwood, whom at the cusp of greatness, buckles and breaks down. It’s a beautifully written sad story.
In 1944, Dorothy Parker, herself selected and arranged her poems, reviews, stories and plays for the first edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker. It’s been updated since and the inclusion of biographical information only enhances and highlights what an amazing life, not to mention body of work, Parker achieved. The queen of biting, cosmopolitan wit, Parker has managed to do something few can accomplish: write witty reviews and compelling criticism that holds up, over six decades later.
A Slipping Down Life by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler is one of the most prolific and cherished modern American writers. She imbues her novels with a sense of warmth that is rarely found in contemporary fiction. And her novels are plot-heavy, which may explain her popularity. A Slipping Down Life is one of her earliest novels and it tells the story of a small-town teenager who feels invisible until she meets a local rock musician. To get his attention she carves his name into her forehead. Backwards. Needless to say, he notices.
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy
Mary McCarthy was a sophisticated novelist and critic, so it should come to no surprise that the true story of her tumultuous early life is dealt with the same sense of integrity. Fifty years before the memoir became the go-to genre for tales of drugs and debauchery, McCarthy chronicles her life as an orphan being bounced around to the homes of relatives who, despite what they believe, are actually total jerks.