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The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair is Jasper Fforde’s first novel, and he had a long row to hoe to get it out into the world. He persisted through no fewer than 76 rejections before finally pulling together this manuscript that was accepted by a publisher.

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The novel’s central character, Thursday Next, is a detective in an alternative world (circa 1985). England has been at war with Imperial Russia in the Crimea region for over a century, the occasional time travel wormhole opens up in the countryside, and there’s a whole branch of the police force dedicated to solving literary crimes. That’s where Thursday works, and how she ends up pursuing a super-villain through the pages of Jane Eyre.

This isn’t the kind of sexy morally grey villain you’ll find in your cartoon cover romantasies, though. Acheron Hades is impervious to bullets, can walk through walls, manipulates people into killing themselves, and worse. His schtick in The Eyre Affair is stealing the original manuscripts of classic works (Martin Chuzzlewit and the aforementioned Jane Eyre), and using the technology he stole from Thursday’s uncle to pull key characters out of the story. He holds them to ransom, as readers around the world bemoan the loss of their favourites from the pages.

While all that’s going on, Thursday’s father occasionally stops time in order to visit her and ask about pivotal moments in history – he’s on the run from the Chronoguard, the cops that oversee time travel, and his wife worries that he’s having an affair with a woman a hundred years ago. There’s also an ongoing society-wide debate as to the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, with door-knockers stopping by to evangelise for their leading theory periodically.

So, yes, The Eyre Affair is a bit kooky – big Terry Pratchett vibes, all throughout. It’s a bit hard to follow, especially at first, though I suspect that’s more my fault than Fforde’s. Seasoned fantasy readers would surely understand the world and follow the plot no problem, but having little experience in the genre myself, I found it all a bit overwhelming.

It’s not just fantasy, though. The Eyre Affair works in elements of science-fiction, mystery, thriller, satire – even romance. It’s like Fforde took an element from each of his 76 rejected manuscripts and cooked it into one. That didn’t really help with the “hard to follow” thing. You don’t realise how much you rely on the tropes of a given genre to understand what’s going on until you read a book that throws the rules out the window.

Unsurprisingly, then, The Eyre Affair was a mixed bag for me. I liked the small details Fforde worked in, like the dodos revived from extinction to be kept as house pets and the character named ‘Jack Schitt’. I didn’t like the gratuitous gun violence and the casual fat phobia and ableism (which probably would’ve flown unchecked twenty years ago when The Eyre Affair was first published, but not so much today). I’d recommend this one to fans of Pratchett (and Douglas Adams, come to that), but tell the average non-fantasy reader that they can probably skip it if they’re short on reading time.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Eyre Affair:

  • “It’s funny, I was just reading an article about how indie authors are ruining the book industry. How about mainstream books that charge too much and they suck?” – MEA
  • “The characters have silly names, the plot is unbelievable and it’s just tedious over all. I will never believe the reviews again.” – pdh
  • “Contrary to other reviewers, this book is NOT Douglas Adams, NOT Jonathan Lethem, NOT Monty Python, NOT Stephen Hawking, NOT gripping, NOT witty, and certainly NOT Bronte. AVOID.” – Mark Malamud
  • “Look, alternate time lines and such don’t faze me; I’m a Trekkie and a Whovian, so you want to stir things up, I say, have at it. This however is just plain silly and pretentious. You still want to read it ’cause you figure you are no doubt smarter than I am? It’s entirely possible, but do your bank account a favor and check it out of the library.” – Peach Blossom Lane

15 Classic Books With Female Protagonists

Want to read more classic books, but sick of reading about white men saving the day? Never fear! I’ve got you covered with this list of classic books with female protagonists.

15 Classic Books With Female Protagonists - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte Brontë has been called “the first historian of private consciousness” for the way she wrote the narrator in her novel Jane Eyre. It’s a moving and elegant depiction of a woman’s inner world in a time period not that far removed from our own, all things considered. A young woman endures loss and loneliness to forge her own path of independence, working as a governess. A man – the enigmatic Mr Rochester – thinks he’ll save the day by marrying her, only to have his own nefarious schemes unveiled and ruin it all. In the end, it’s Jane who saves the day, her lover’s and her own. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Jane Austen wrote a stack of classic books with female protagonists – in fact, it’s all she really wrote over the course of her short life. The most prominent in her oeuvre remains Pride And Prejudice, the story of a woman who has to overcome her first impressions and preconceived notions for a shot at happiness. There’s a lot of critical analysis of P&P, and debate as to whether it could be construed as a feminist text still rages, but for me it comes down to this: Elizabeth Bennet tells a man she wants nothing to do with him unless he pulls his socks up, and he does. That feels like a win for women. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

Tess Of The d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

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If you’ve got the stomach for classic books about women being treated badly, you can give Tess Of The d’Urbervilles a go. Tess Durbeyfield is raised in poverty, and claims kinship with the wealthy d’Urberville family in order to secure part of their fortune. Her new cousin, Alec, is a real piece of work, and he ‘ruins’ her (in the Victorian sense of the word). She moves on as best she can, but she soon finds that she can’t escape her past as easily as she hoped. It’s widely regarded as the most moving and poetic of Hardy’s novels, but it’s also one of the most disheartening and depressing.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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If you needed proof that classic books with female protagonists can still be deeply problematic, you’ll find it in Gone With The Wind. This classic of American literature (and film, of course) depicts a laughably romanticised view of a woman’s journey to self-actualisation against the backdrop of the Civil War in the South. Never mind the slavery, look at the outfits! This can be a tough one to read for a contemporary reader, but if you can quiet your qualms, you’ll find that Scarlett O’Hara is a fascinating character. She’s selfish and vain, she makes terrible choices, and she manipulates the men in her life to get what she wants – and yet, she’s undoubtedly the heroine of this story.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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The titular protagonist of Leo Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina is the mother of all self-destructive girls with main character syndrome. Her story entails an extramarital affair with cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky. They make a half-hearted attempt to keep it a secret, but Anna impulsively confesses to her husband and they go public, in a move that scandalises their friends and family. Anna and Vronsky move to Italy, hoping to escape the fall-out, but they’re eventually pulled back to Russia and their lives totally unravel. It’s the ultimate fuck-around-and-find-out story, with Anna bearing the brunt of her bad decisions in the end. Read my full review of Anna Karenina here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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I have a rule for recommending Little Women to first-time readers: you can only pick up this book if you have a good understanding of the context in which Louisa May Alcott wrote it, and the subtlety of her subversion of societal norms. Without that background knowledge, it’s all too easy to write off the story of the March sisters as sentimental stuff “for girls” (which is, indeed, what Alcott’s publishers asked her to write). When you read between the lines, however, you’ll find one of the fiercest classic books with female protagonists in the American canon, with Jo March representing all women who choose a career for themselves in spite of society pushing them towards more ‘womanly’ pursuits. Read my full review of Little Women here.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Hester Prynne has got to be one of the most hard-done-by female protagonists in classic literature. In The Scarlet Letter, she makes the terminal mistake of having an affair with a priest in Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. She can’t even deny her indiscretion after giving birth to a child (the most annoying child I’ve ever encountered in fiction, just by-the-by), but she keeps the name of her suitor under wraps. She’s punished, and cruelly, by her community, forced to wear a large red A on her clothes to identify her to all and sundry as an adulteress. The priest gets away with it all scot-free… or does he? Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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Madame Bovary is one of my favourite classic books with a female protagonist, if for no other reason than Emma is relatable as all heck. When she gets married, as women of her station are expected required to do, she quickly finds that it’s not the fairytale she was sold all her life. Rather than meekly accepting her fate, she goes off the deep end and she does it in style. She drinks heavily, she overspends on luxury clothes, she has disappointing affairs with even more disappointing men. Perhaps some might read it as a cautionary tale, but I love to see a woman set her shitty life on fire in fiction. Good for her!

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

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If you’re looking for classic books with female protagonists that are also quick and easy reads, Agnes Grey will sort you out. Most editions of this novella run only 100 pages or so, and the story isn’t exactly tough to follow. A young woman chooses to contribute to her family’s finances, against their strenuous objection, by becoming a governess. She thinks it’ll be all finger-painting and nap time, but instead she discovers that children are awful and working for rich people is the worst. Still, she persists, and eventually forges for herself a situation where she relies on no one else to put food on her plate, which is as good as a happily-ever-after for any woman in Victorian times. Read my full review of Agnes Grey here.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

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The two female protagonists of Vanity Fair represent the duality that we see throughout a lot of classic literature. It’s the Madonna/whore complex, the meek and mild lady versus the outspoken and brash harlot. Naturally, your own personal inclinations will lead you to side with one or the other, but it’s a fascinating read whichever way you turn. Sweet Amelia Sedley is on the up-and-up, and yet she doesn’t get half as far in life as the scheming Becky Sharp. Their relationship waxes and wanes across the course of the epic, as they each choose to deal with the restrictions placed on their gender in Regency England in their own way. Read my full review of Vanity Fair here.

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

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Lovely young ladies in white linen dresses setting out for a picnic on St Valentine’s Day in the year of Australia’s federation. It hardly sounds like the stuff of classic horror novels, but for anyone who’s read Picnic At Hanging Rock, that one-sentence summary will send shivers up the spine. Three girls, under the blaze of an afternoon sun, decide to climb into the shadows of the volcanic outcropping – only to disappear, never to be seen again. This mysterious (and, it must be said, strangely slightly horny) novel ends on a massive cliffhanger, and proves that schoolgirls aren’t always squealing over nothing.

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

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Henry James, by his own admission, was bored with the ghost stories of his day. That’s why he wrote The Turn Of The Screw, where the scares come from the ambiguity of the events that unfold. Was his governess protagonist really seeing ghosts, or was she quietly insane? The choice of a woman as protagonist is telling, as the long history of women not being believed or written off as “hysterical” is what really sells it. If you’re going to read any of James’s work, it should be this classic book with a female protagonist (because it’s one of the shortest, and he could get real wordy). Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw here.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

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The protagonist of My Brilliant Career is a 16-year-old girl, mostly because Miles Franklin herself was a 16-year-old girl when she wrote it. That’s not all Franklin and her character Sybylla had in common, either. Both were headstrong, energetic, and frustrated with the boredom of living in a small outback town. Franklin wrote the story mostly as a way to entertain her friends; she sent it to acclaimed poet Henry Lawson without even a hope that he might enjoy it and pass it on to a publisher. In the end, she had to revoke the rights to publication until after her death, because too many of her loved ones and community members recognised themselves in the pages (and didn’t much like what they saw). Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.

North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell

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In North And South, Elizabeth Gaskell uses the life story of a young woman from Southern England to critique the ravages of the Industrial Revolution on society. Margaret Hale is, for lack of a better term, a country bumpkin, forced by economic hardship to move to the turbulent North. She witnesses the origins of the fight for workers’ rights, with the first occupational strikes and the rise of the nouveau riche. She has a soft spot for John Thornton, a cotton mill owner who sees nothing wrong with exploiting his workers, and so her principles must do battle with her heart. It’s a lofty novel disguised as a love story, as many of the best classic books with female protagonists are.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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I’ve saved Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for last, because in my mind, it’s the best example of classic books with female protagonists being overlooked and disregarded because they have female protagonists. This story is styled as the diary of socialite Lorelai Lee as she drinks champagne and seeks a husband in Jazz Age America. It’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s hilarious – and it’s a blazing social satire of the gender roles of the time. But being about a woman, and written by a woman, it’s relegated to the dusty bottom shelf while stinkers like The Great Gatsby are lauded and forced upon unwitting high-schoolers. So, fight the patriarchy, and read Anita Loos. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

11 Books About Messed Up Families

Around this time of year, families get together – to celebrate holidays, to catch up, to throw fuel on the fire of their dysfunction. If you’re dreading the upcoming reunion or already in the thick of it, you need to read these eleven books about messed up families. If nothing else, they’ll make you feel better about your own!

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Flowers In The Attic by V.C. Andrews

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The Dollangangers look to be the very opposite of a messed up family… at first. Two adoring parents, four blonde smiley children, lots of laughter and love. But things turn quickly for them in Flowers In The Attic – the patriarch is killed, the wolf is at the door, and the mother has no choice but to throw herself at the mercy of her estranged father. To smooth things over with the old man, she has to hide her kids in the attic, because (get your bucket) it turns out they’re actually the product of incest. And history seems doomed to repeat itself. Yikes! Read my full review of Flowers In The Attic here.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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Korede is the person Ayoola would call to help her hide a body. (Come on, we’ve all got one!) The thing is, she’s actually made that call – more than once. In My Sister, The Serial Killer, Ayoola has the unfortunate habit of dispatching her boyfriends, and Korede always has to clean up the mess. That’s not so bad – what’s a murderous secret between sisters? – until Ayoola sets her sights on Korede’s workplace crush. That puts her between the rock and the proverbial hard place: does she stand by her sister and keep her secrets, or does she warn the gorgeous man she loves? Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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If you like your books about messed up families in graphic novel format, you can’t go past Fun Home. This “tragicomic graphic memoir” charts Alison Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her own father. Bechdel came out as a lesbian in college – fairly standard so far – but shortly thereafter she discovered her father, funeral director Bruce Bechdel, was also gay. Then, just a few weeks later, he suddenly passed away, leaving a messy tangle of questions for Bechdel to unravel on her own. It’s a dark story, but it’s also funny, and a poignant reminder that all families are messed up in one way or another.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

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The title of The Virgin Suicides is enough to give the impression that it’s a messed up book – but you’ve got to read the blurb or flip through the first through pages to realise it’s a book about a messed up family, specifically. The boys in a quiet suburb of Detroit are obsessed with the Libson sisters. They’re beautiful, enigmatic, and withholding – a potent combination. Over the course of a year, one by one, they die by suicide. What fatal melancholy has infected this family? And why is it up to a gang of adolescent boys to figure it out?

Educated by Tara Westover

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Tara Westover grew up in an unusual family situation, but it took her a while to appreciate how truly messed up it was. She’s incredibly generous in sharing her story with us in Educated, a memoir about her upbringing and how she re-learned how to navigate the world. Growing up under the thumb of a paranoid survivalist father, with no access to schooling or medical care, Westover learned to read by flipping through the family Bible and treated injuries incurred in the junkyard with essential oils and prayer. Her salvation came in the form of education, teaching herself enough to get accepted into university. Outside of her family home, she learned – among other things – that not all families were like hers. Read my full review of Educated here.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

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Gillian Flynn writes books about messed up marriages, books about messed up true crime fan clubs, and (of course) books about messed up families. Sharp Objects is the latter. Journalist Camille Preaker never intended to return to her hometown, but the murder of a young girl and abduction of another lures her back on assignment for her employer. Back in her childhood bedroom, she starts piecing together the clues as to the young girls’ fates… and realises it might have more to do with her own messed up family than she could have guessed. There’s a killer twist in the final pages of this one you don’t want to miss! Read my full review of Sharp Objects here.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

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If you’re looking for classic gothic books about messed up families, look no further! Shirley Jackson is the queen of quiet, creeping horror, and We Have Always Lived In The Castle places her unsettling hair-raising style in a family home… of sorts. The story is narrated by a peculiar young women who goes by Merricat; she doesn’t like washing herself, dogs, or noise, but she does like her sister Constance, Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Creeped out, yet? What about when she tells you the rest of her family is dead? This one is a classic for a reason!

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Eleanor Oliphant’s family might be small, but it is messed up in spades! It takes a while for the full picture to unfold in Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. At first, it seems like Eleanor is just a bit of an odd duck, with a lonely life and a burgeoning drinking problem. She talks to Mummy every Wednesday night, and their conversations are full of self-esteem pitfalls and unusually cruel gaslighting. You’ll be wondering before long why Eleanor hasn’t simply cut her mother off for good, and it’ll take a while for the reason why to become clear. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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You know, aside from all the period-typical morbidity and mortality, the Brontë family wasn’t that messed up. Sure, Branwell was a handful, and the girls had plenty of sisterly squabbles, but there was nothing truly awful going on. So, where on earth did Emily draw inspiration for Wuthering Heights, the ultimate messed up family novel? Bad boy Heathcliff is in love with his adopted sister Cathy, who marries the boy next door but regrets it, then comes to haunt Heathcliff after his death, which drives him to madness and he abducts her daughter and… just, trust me, it is messed up. You’ll finish it with a lot of unanswered questions about Emily’s twisted imagination. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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I really backed myself into a corner including We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in this list of books about messed up families. See, Rosemary’s family is definitely messed up… but I can’t tell you how or why without completely spoiling one of the greatest twists in contemporary literature for you! So, you’ll just have to trust me on this one. I think all I can get away with saying is that both of Rosemary’s older siblings are conspicuously absent when the story begins, and she has a rotten relationship with her parents. She thinks she can make a clean break from all of them, but she’s dead wrong. Some family stuff just sticks with you, no matter what you do to shake it off. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

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Have you ever sat around at a family reunion and realised: “everyone here is a murderer”? “Someone here killed someone today and it could’ve been any of them”? Probably not, I’d wager. But even if you can’t relate exactly, you’ll surely enjoy Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone. Everyone in Ernie’s family, as the title suggests, has killed someone. He just wishes he’d killed whomever decided to host their family reunion at a ski resort. It’s “Knives Out meets Clue meets Agatha Christie meets The Thursday Murder Club“, and it’s good – albeit ridiculous – fun.

20 Books About Angry Women

I don’t think it’ll come as any surprise that I love reading about women’s anger. Women who are raging, women who are pissed off, women who are fully unhinged – I love them, one and all! There’s something very cathartic about reading stories with angry women in them, seeing characters express that fury that quietly burns in so many of us. Here are twenty of my favourite books about angry women.

20 Books About Angry Women - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Carrie by Stephen King

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Is it sacrilegious to suggest some of the best books about angry women were written by men? Whatever the case, Carrie might not be perfect, but it sure is iconic. Stephen King’s debut novel follows the unpopular teenage daughter of a religious fanatic. The titular character is tormented and teased by her classmates, but unbeknownst to them, she is growing more and more powerful. She has the power to move things with her mind, and when a small kindness turns out to be a cruel joke, she uses that power to exact grotesque and horrifying revenge.

Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff

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Fates And Furies is one of the more literary books about angry women – and the angriest woman doesn’t even get her say until the second half of the novel. It’s a portrait of a marriage infinitely more complex and enraging than it first appears. Mathilde has been hiding many secrets from her husband Lotto, violent secrets and dark histories that cast everything we know about them and their marriage in a new light. This New York Times bestseller is intense and propulsive, confusing at times but always intriguing.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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There have been books about angry women for hundreds of years, but Gone Girl is the one that got the most cut-through in recent memory. Gillian Flynn got unreliable and unhinged girlies trending! Her anti-heroine, Amazing Amy, seems like your standard beautiful blonde girl gone missing at first glance – but as the pages turn, and you get to hear from the woman herself, you realise that the darkest and most malevolent kind of anger burns within her. Hot enough to have her destroy her own life, just to take her husband down with her. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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No one writes books about angry women like Ottessa Moshfegh. If there was a poster child, she’d be it. Eileen was her break-out novel, the one that thrust her angry women protagonists into the best-seller lists – whether we like them or not. The titular character is consumed by loathing and resentment for the men she’s forced to “care for”: her alcoholic father, the boys in the prison where she works, the guard she stalks. She indulges in fantasies of escape. The arrival of a new counselor at her workplace promises a change… I don’t think it constitutes a “spoiler” to tell you it hardly ends with a happily-ever-after.

Bunny by Mona Awad

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What happens when a dark, introspective outsider gets invited into the inner sanctum of the beautiful and bright-eyed? You’ll find out in Bunny, a dark academia novel that will take you all the way down the rabbit hole. Samantha has been granted entry into a highly coveted MFA program at a New England university. At first, she resents the clique of Bunnies, the twee girls with saccharine smiles. But when she’s invited to one of their salons, she finds herself drawn into their world, one that is surely more sinister than it appears. It turns out the sweetest smiles can hide the darkest fantasies and blackest rage.

Animal by Lisa Taddeo

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How long can a woman endure the cruelties of men before she gets angry? Not that long, it turns out. Animal is “a depiction of female rage at its rawest, and a visceral exploration of the fallout from a male-dominated society”. This explosive and confronting book follows a woman, Joan, pushed to the brink by violence and abuse. She goes in search of answers about what’s happened to her and why, looking for the strength to finally fight back. Olivia Wilde called it “so insanely good and true and twisted it’ll make your teeth sweat”.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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Some of the most powerful (geddit?) books about angry women are the ones where that rage manifests physically. Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a feminist dystopia – or utopia, depending on how you look at it. Teenage girls suddenly develop the power to deliver electric shocks through their skin. The boys and men who have overpowered them all their lives are suddenly at their mercy, and the shift has ramifications around the world. As older women develop the power too, some of them use it to exact revenge, some of them turn to religion, and still more try to hide and remain loyal to the status quo. All of them are angry, though, and that’s the best part. Read my full review of The Power here.

Sadie by Courtney Summers

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When a woman is angry enough, she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands. That’s what happens in Sadie, where a young woman seeks vengeance on the man who killed her sister. She’s pursued all the while by an intrepid podcaster, who thinks he’s going to crack the case of the missing and dead girls from a trailer park in the middle of nowhere. She outsmarts him, though – she outsmarts everyone who might stand in her way. That’s the kind of power that being angry can give a woman who’s been wronged. Read my full review of Sadie here.

How To Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

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A funny book about murder? Yes, please! How To Kill Your Family is one of the most delightful (and therefore most emotionally confusing) books about angry women you’ll ever read. The hot pink cover belies the anti-heroine’s murderous intentions. Grace has lost everything, but she has a plan to get it all back. First, she’s going to kill her family. Then, she’s going to claim their fortune. And, once she’s gotten away with it all, she’s going to adopt a dog (what a relatable queen!). You can’t choose your family, but that doesn’t mean you have to live with them.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

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One of the original angry women in fiction – Bertha Mason, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre – had to wait over a century to be paid her due and have her story told in her own terms. Wide Sargasso Sea reclaims and reimagines the life of the “mad woman in the attic”, Mr Rochester’s first wife before he met and manipulated the young and beguiling Jane. Who among us can say that, having been ripped from our homeland and horribly mistreated, we might not ourselves turn to arson and take back our freedom by force?

Whisper Network by Chandler Baker

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One of the many dark truths brought to life by the #MeToo movement was the existence of whisper networks: chains of women in workplaces, passing information to each other about men who might be unsafe, knowing they couldn’t speak any louder without retribution. It makes sense that this reality filtered through to fiction books about angry women, as we see in Whisper Network. The women who work for Ames at Truviv, Inc. have been protecting each other from him for years. Now that the world is finally waking up to the abuses of men in power, they have the strength to fight back – but it will come at a price.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The next generation of books about angry women is being written by kids who grew up reading The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen would’ve been happy to have never been angry; she just wanted enough food to feed her family, and a safe roof over all their heads (and maybe some sexy smooches with her hunting buddy Gale). Unfortunately, it’s not to be. She volunteers to take her sister’s place in a sadistic reality show run by her country’s elite, and stumbles into a war of the haves versus the have-nots. Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing - Eimear McBride - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Full to the brim with “scathing, furious, unforgettable prose”, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is a scary-good debut novel about a young woman who is, rightfully, very, very angry. The protagonist has grown up with the terror of her brother’s brain tumour, compounded in a house of denial and silence around trauma and abuse. The stream-of-consciousness style echoes feminist icons like Virginia Woolf, continuing their tradition of expressing rage on the page that cannot be contained. This examination of the angry woman’s psyche will live in your head rent-free after you’ve read it.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Sister The Serial Killer gives you exactly what it says on the tin: the story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola, who has the unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends. Korede is literally the person Ayoola calls to help her hide a body (c’mon, every angry woman has one). The plot boils over when a love triangle forms: Ayoola sets her sights on the handsome and charismatic doctor that Korede has loved from afar for months. Sibling loyalty can only go so far, after all. This forces Korede into the small gap between the proverbial rock and hard place: should she keep her angry sister’s secrets, or divulge them to the man she loves (possibly saving his life)? Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels are some of the most beautiful and complex books about angry women you’ll ever read – and it all begins with the first book in the quartet, My Brilliant Friend. It tells Elena and Lila’s stories from the very beginning, as children growing up in a violent and turbulent neighbourhood of mid-20th century Naples. It’s enough to make any young woman angry, but Elena and Lila experience and express their rage in very different ways. Ferrante’s gorgeous Italian writing is translated into English by the inimitable Ann Goldstein. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group - Grady Hendrix - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Think back to every horror movie you’ve ever watched. After all the screaming and wailing and bloodshed and jump-scares, there’s usually one woman left standing, one who – through luck or skill – survived the horrors. That’s the final girl, and in The Final Girl Support Group, these survivors gather to share their experiences and help each other rebuild their lives. What these women have survived is enough to make anyone angry, but when someone starts targeting their group, their survival instinct is put into overdrive. No matter how bad the odds, how dark the night, how sharp the knife, they will never, ever give up.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

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The angry woman at the heart of The Lost Apothecary has a very special set of skills, skills she has acquired over a very long career, skills that make her a nightmare for the abusive and violent men of 18th century London. Women come to her for help, and she sends them on their way with a well-disguised poison and a promise that it will solve all their problems. It all goes to hell, of course, when a young girl visits the apothecary and makes a mistake with fatal consequences. In present-day London, a woman is about to uncover the secret of the underground apothecary vigilante.

The Recovery Of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

The Recovery Of Rose Gold - Stephanie Wrobel - Keeping Up With The Penguins

These books about angry women might be fictional, but The Recovery Of Rose Gold hits very close to home. Stephanie Wrobel was undoubtedly inspired by the real-life story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard: a young woman disabled by her mother’s Munchausen by proxy, who takes matters into her own hands. Of course, in the fictional version, the story takes some different turns and we’re granted a lot more access to the source and nature of the anti-heroine’s anger. But at its bones, it remains the same – a young woman turning the tables on her abuser. Read my full review of The Recovery Of Rose Gold here.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian - Han Kang - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not all books about angry women have the loud kind of rage. There’s very little screaming or breaking of things in The Vegetarian, but the protagonist is undoubtedly consumed by her own quiet fury. Yeong-hye is an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband, who up-ends her life and the lives of those around her by deciding to commit to vegetarianism. It’s a compelling read, but also (at times) a horrifying one – but, ironically, it says very little about the philosophy or ethics of vegetarianism. Yeong-hye’s dietary habits are not the point, even if they are the motif on which this story hangs. Read my full review of The Vegetarian here.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

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Perhaps the scariest kind of rage is the kind that simmers quietly – silently, even. The Silent Patient is a mystery-thriller about the kind of anger that has no answers and no voice. Alicia’s life looked perfect from the outside: nice house, creative career, attentive husband… until, one day, she shot him in the head. Afterwards, she didn’t say a single word, in her own defense or otherwise. Theo is a forensic psychotherapist, and he’s convinced he’s the only person who can reach Alicia through the fog of her furious silence. Is it just a professional curiosity, or is there something more sinister that connects them? Read my full review of The Silent Patient here.

20+ Sad Girl Books

Sad Girl books are kind of the Taylor Swift of book categories. There’s a solid rabid fan base, a swathe of detractors, and now and then one of the hits achieves mainstream cut-through. Sad Girl books are the kind that should come with a Lana Del Rey soundtrack, usually with a white woman protagonist in her 20s or 30s. She’s struggling with something – grief, trauma, mental illness – and she usually makes some kind of determined change in her life, which falls to shit. If you’re new to Sad Girl books, this is the list you need, a comprehensive reading guide to get you started.

20 Sad Girl Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
This girl won’t be sad at all if you make a purchase through an affiliate link – you’ll be supporting this site with a small commission.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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My Year Of Rest And Relaxation is the queen bee of sad girl books. The unnamed narrator is the pinnacle of sad girl fitness. She’s beautiful, she’s hateful, she’s narcissistic, she’s grieving, she’s rich, and she’s come up with the most ridiculous solution to her problems in the history of the world. She decides to sleep for an entire year, a clinophile dream fuelled by the disgraceful prescribing practices of the eccentric Dr Tuttle. You won’t be able to look away as she sleeps her way through most of 2001 in her Manhattan apartment, knowing exactly what awaits her when she “wakes up” in September.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Bell Jar is the O.G. sad girl book. Sylvia Plath was bumming everyone out and making depressed girls feel Seen(TM) long before it was cool. The story is loosely autobiographical (except that Plath’s real life had a far more tragic end). The main character, Esther, has recently finished a summer internship in New York City, and she comes out of it more lost and perplexed than ever. As the “bell jar” of depression descends over her life, she beats against the cage she feels her gender has built for her. If any book deserves a trigger warning for depression and suicidality, it’s surely this one. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Millennial wunderkind Sally Rooney is (at least mostly) responsible for the burgeoning trend towards sad girl books. Normal People is her magnum opus, a character-driven novel depicting the hopelessly destructive relationship between two small-town Irish teenagers. Their romance-cum-friendship-cum-rivalry ebbs and flows across the course of their lives, and your allegiances to each of them will shift accordingly. Neither Marianne nor Connor are particularly likeable, and neither of them come out of this book with their hands clean. This is the sad girl book for anyone who’s in a situationship that has passed its use-by date. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Bonus recommendation: Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, is actually the superior book (in my opinion). In it, a sad girl finds herself in a love quadrangle with her ex-girlfriend and a married couple, and (once again) all of them suck. Read my full review of Conversations With Friends here.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Luster - Raven Leilani - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Raven Leilani’s protagonist, Edie, might not be white – but she’s definitely a sad girl. She’s barely holding it together at her job due to her growing obsession with the married middle-aged white man, Eric. When she is inevitably fired, a series of convenient coincidences sees her moving in with Eric’s wife Rebecca and their adopted (Black) daughter. This is an explicit, wry novel full of self-destructive sex and violence, a testament to the power of millennial ennui in the big cities. Luster was big-time book club fodder when it came out in 2020, one of the few sad girl books to cut through to the mainstream. Read my full review of Luster here.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sad girl books can be fun, too! My Sister, The Serial Killer is case in point. The conceit is laid out in the title. Korede is the person that her sister, Ayoola, calls to help hide a body – literally. See, Ayoola has the unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends when she’s done with them, and Korede feels like she has no choice but to put her medical expertise to use, helping her keep getting away with it. That all changes, though, when Ayoola sets her sights on the hunky doctor at Korede’s hospital, the one that Korede has had her eye on for months. Who will she choose: her murderous sister, or her long-time crush? Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

Breasts And Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Breasts And Eggs - Mieko Kawakami - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s not every day you come across a sad girl book recommended by Haruki Murakami – in fact, I think this might be the only one you ever find. He called it “breathtaking”, and has described Mieko Kawakami as his “favourite novelist”. That’s some high praise, right there! Breasts And Eggs is the first of her novels to be translated from the original Japanese into English (by David Boyd), and the sad girlies fell head-over-heels in love with it upon release. The story is told in two parts, each of which could stand alone but are brought together by their narrator (Natsuko, a writer living in Tokyo) and themes (womanhood, motherhood, and self-discovery). Read my full review of Breasts And Eggs here.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not many sad girl books are written by men (as you can see from this list), but The Virgin Suicides broke the mold. It was the sad girl book of the ’90s, its popularity skyrocketing after the film adaptation directed by Sofia Coppola. The alluring contradiction is represented in the title: the “pure” Lisbon sisters, affected by the “dark” scourge of mental illness and suicidality. Another unusual twist can be seen in the narration; the primary perspective is that of the boys of the suburban neighbourhood where the Lisbon sisters live, as they watch their “perfect” lives unravel from afar.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

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Girl, Interrupted is better known as one of the ultimate sad girl movies (a blonde Angelina Jolie leading a young Winona Ryder astray after they bond in a mental institution? yes, please!). But the cult classic film was actually based on a memoir, one of the rare non-fiction sad girl books. (Why are so few sad girl books true stories? I don’t know, exactly. I guess they’re just too sad.) Kaysen depicts a kaleidoscopic world inside the McLean psychiatric hospital of the 1960s, forcing us to interrogate how much we really understand about mental illness and its treatment.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian - Han Kang - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Isn’t that just… chef’s kiss? It’s the opening line of The Vegetarian, and it promises a wonderful sad girl novel to come. It’s a story about Yeong-hye, an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband, who up-ends her life and the lives of those around her by deciding to commit to vegetarianism. This is a sad girl book for the vegan girlies, and the ones who have any kind of food intolerance or aversion. And, by the by, it was “elegantly translated into bone-spare English” by Deborah Smith. Read my full review of The Vegetarian here.

New Animal by Ella Baxter

New Animal - Ella Baxter - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Raw” is an over-used word for honest and forthright stories about sex and death, but that’s exactly what New Animal is: it’s the steak tartare of literature. Perhaps that means it’s not for everyone, but the sad book girlies went absolutely nuts for it. Amelia is the cosmetician in her modern family’s funeral parlour, “well known in this town full of retirees and clumsy tradespeople” (ha!). She also likes to de-stress from her days of dressing corpses with the company of young men (ahem). She’s an expert compartmentaliser, but even she struggles to keep her emotions in order when the grim reaper comes too close to home. Read my full review of New Animal here.

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead - Emily Austin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not all Sad Girl books are hopelessly morose trauma-dumps. Some of them are delightfully wry and self-aware, like Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead. Gilda can’t stop thinking about death (given the state of the world, it’s hard to blame her). In desperation, she responds to a flyer for free therapy from her local church – but instead of healed, she finds herself installed as their new receptionist. For a queer atheist with intense anxiety, this presents many problems. Her anxious apathy and her unsentimental delivery make an otherwise-dark story a hilarious and relatable read. Read my full review of Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead here.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

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No One Is Talking About This is a lot of things: weird, for starters, written in a strangely poetic and fragmented style, but also doubly sad for a Sad Girl book. Patricia Lockwood drew heavily on her own life experiences, and knowing that makes the grief and trauma of this story a lot more palpable. An unnamed narrator, who shot to international fame when one of her only-barely-considered social media posts – “can a dog be twins?” – went viral, travels the world talking about “the portal”, the infinite scroll, the digital zeitgeist. She’s forced to confront the fragility of her virtual life when a tragedy in her “real” life threatens its margins (big-time trigger warning for pregnancy and infant loss). Read my full review of No One Is Talking About This here.

The Lying Life Of Adults by Elena Ferrante

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Sad Girl books can be literary, too! The elusive, reclusive queen of contemporary literature in translation, Elena Ferrante, proves it in The Lying Life Of Adults. It was published in the original Italian (La vita bugiarda degli adulti) in 2019, and the English translation (by the imitable Ann Goldstein) came out the following year. The story follows a tween girl in the early ’90s, who overhears her father disparaging her appearance, likening her looks to those of his estranged sister. That sends her off on a hunt for her long-lost aunt, trying to figure out what’s so bad about looking like Vittoria anyway.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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It’s hardly surprising that the ascendancy of Sad Girl books came alongside the #MeToo movement, as so many of them focus on uncovering the abuses perpetrated against girls and women that have traditionally been kept from view. My Dark Vanessa was controversial upon its release in 2021, and people are still talking about it now. A young woman is forced to reconsider her teenage relationship with her older teacher, in light of new allegations that have arisen about his behaviour towards other students. Was it really the romantic formative relationship she believed, or was she groomed and manipulated?

Idol, Burning by Rin Usami

Idol Burning - Rin Usami - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Teenager Akari is obsessed with pop-star Masaki Ueno, one-fifth of the Japanese boy band Maza Maza. He is her idol, her hero, and her totem. In Idol, Burning, her world falls apart when Masaki is publicly accused of assaulting a fan. Her blog is flooded with comments, social media lights up with conspiracy theories, and Akari is forced to reckon with reconciling her “real” life with the man on the screen who feels more real to her. This is a Sad Girl novella that you can knock out in an afternoon, but the intensity of the psychological denouement will stay with you for a while. It was translated into English by Asa Yoneda, and beautifully illustrated by Leslie Hung. Read my full review of Idol, Burning here.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

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Sayaka Murata is a literary superstar in Japan, but she didn’t make a splash in the Anglophone world until Convenience Store Woman was translated into English (by Ginny Tapley Takemori) in 2018. The compelling and delightfully weird combination of “strange” protagonist Keiko and the highly conservative and conformist Japanese culture in which she lives makes for a fascinating read. This is one of the Sad Girl books beloved by readers who feel like they don’t belong, who have had to contort themselves into something different to feel accepted. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

Bonus recommendations: After the success of Convenience Store Woman, more of Sayaka Murata’s work made its way into English bookstores (thanks in part to the fantastic translations by Ginny Tapley Takemori). She always levels-up the weird, and the sad, so they’re a great place to start your Sad Girl books collection. Check out my full review of Earthlings here, and my full review of Life Ceremony here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Little Life has the distinction of being the most popular of a very rare sub-type of Sad Girl books: those with male protagonists. Even though the story follows four men through some of the most horrific life experiences you’ll ever see depicted on the page, the girlies went for it in droves. Some of them even found it “too sad”, which is no mean feat. The unrelenting trauma, the cruel vicissitudes of fate, and the distinctly unhappy ending all make for a major bummer of a read – all the more so for its heft, at 800+ pages. Make sure you gird your loins before giving this one a go. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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Kate Bush saw the Sad Girl potential in the Brontë classic Wuthering Heights long before any of the rest of us. She was way ahead of the curve! This tragic love story between Cathy and Heathcliffe – two of the worst people you’ll meet in literature – transcends generations, continents, and reading tastes. It’s set on the gloomy West Yorkshire moors, constantly lashed by miserable weather and the perfect spot to do a little mansion haunting if you want to taunt your lover after your death. It’s probably not one for beginners, but any Sad Girl book aficionado has a copy of this one in their tote bag. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

Milkman by Anna Burns

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“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” So begins Milkman, one of the best (and most acclaimed!) Sad Girl books to come out of Northern Ireland. It’s loosely based on Anna Burns’ own experiences growing up in Belfast during the Troubles. Everything is heightened, everything is politicised, and everything is prone to being extrapolated upon by the community. If William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf had a love child who grew up in 1970s Belfast, they would write this book. Read my full review of Milkman here.

The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo - Taylor Jenkins Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There aren’t many cross-overs between Sad Girl books and the the libraries of BookTok girlies. Sad girl books are, well, sad, while BookTok best-sellers tend to have cartoon covers and enemies-to-lovers romances. But there’s one book on which both segments of readership totally agree: The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo. It’s got the romance and the glamour that BookTok girlies crave, with the disappointment and heartache that Sad Book girlies need. Taylor Jenkins Reid brings together old world Hollywood with contemporary realities in this highly readable tale.

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