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Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

Ever-mindful of the gender imbalance on my reading list, I decided it was high time for a feminist writer to teach me some shit. My next selection was Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The first edition of Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 by Hogarth Press… which was founded, owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and her husband. That’s one way to get published, I suppose!

Woolf was reportedly inspired by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, though she wasn’t a fan of his notoriously unreadable tome. Writing Mrs Dalloway was really Woolf’s way of saying “Look, mate, here’s how you do it right!”. She mirrors the format of Ulysses, with both books taking place over the course of a single day, but in this case it’s a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an aging Pommy socialite.

Having read the two introductions to Mrs Dalloway (two! plus a foreword!), going in I knew I could safely assume that (1) Virginia Woolf was brilliant, (2) Virginia Woolf was bonkers, and (3) this was going to be a really heavy read.

And holy smokes – “heavy” might not be the right word, but it sure was something. I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing around the inside of Woolf’s skull. It’s a “stream of consciousness” suitable for white water rafting. Woolf has us saying hello to a childhood frien-NOPE, we’re admiring a tree-NO WAIT, we’re reminiscing about a past lov-HANG ON, we’re buying flowers… on and on it goes.

I had no idea what the fuck was happening, not for a single moment. I re-read every sentence three times, and still couldn’t follow it at all. What I did manage to absorb I can summarise here in the form of a few Mrs Dalloway Fast Facts:

  • Mrs D is throwing a party
  • She feels old
  • She likes reading memoirs
  • She’s maybe a little bit queer…

That’s it.

There’s some peripheral guy she walks by in the park, Septimus. He’s shell shocked out the wazoo and it’s making his foreign wife miserable. He decides he loves life but hates doctors, so he throws himself out the window. Not a great end, all told. Septimus and Mrs D are the two primary characters, but they never actually meet – his suicide just features in the party gossip she hears later.

Yeah, it’s that kind of book – the kind that makes me feel extremely stupid. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was Missing The Point the whole time I was reading it. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like watching an episode of Seinfeld, but harder: you keep waiting for there to be a point or a plot, but none materialises. There’s no literal interpretation, it’s just layer upon layer of metaphor until you’re buried so deep you can’t breathe.

And the best part is: according to the critiques I read online afterwards, Mrs Dalloway is a “much more accessible” version of Ulysses. So that’s the story of how Ulysses got demoted to the very bottom of my to-be-read list 😉

If I had to say what I got out Mrs Dalloway, it would probably boil down to the following: everyone is bonkers. You shouldn’t get married out of obligation. London is pretty. Women are brave to write letters without the help of a man. Teenaged daughters are annoying. Young women who wear party dresses that stop above the ankle will get called slutty behind their backs. Hosting a party is hard, especially when your girl crush shows up unexpectedly and the talk of the night is the shell-shocked veteran who topped himself. So, I guess, do with all of that what you will…

I would recommend Mrs Dalloway, wholeheartedly, to anyone who is far, far smarter than me.

You can read my review of Michael Cunningham’s 1991 adaptation of Mrs Dalloway, called The Hours, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Mrs Dalloway:

  • “This book was drier than a popcorn fart. What happened in it? It’s hard to say. A veteran killed himself and a bunch of stuffy old English people had a party. That’s the whole story in a nutshell…” – Harmony
  • “Self loathing non sense.” – Richard Gianelli
  • “Catcher In The Rye… as told by middle-aged English farts. The party! The party! Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere. That’s pretty much this book in a nutshell. Very boring. Mrs Dalloway whines about not marrying Peter Clark, but Pete’s been in India for five years. I’m sure she would have been unhappy either way, marrying him or not, him leaving or not; all she does is party, chill with friends, and rinse & repeat. Ughhh.” – Allen

The Hours – Michael Cunningham

Did you know that Virginia Woolf’s working title for Mrs Dalloway was originally The Hours? And that’s where Michael Cunningham got the name for his 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which “recasts the classic story of Mrs Dalloway in a startling new light”.

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The Hours revolves around three generations of women living in different time periods and circumstances, each of whom has some kind of connection with Mrs Dalloway. There’s Virginia Woolf herself, in 1920s England. There’s also Laura, a Los Angeles housewife in the 1940s, who yearns to escape her life and wonders if she has the brilliance of the mind that produced Mrs Dalloway. And there’s Clarissa, in 1990s New York, whose brilliant best friend is dying of AIDS-related illness.

“Mrs Woolf”, “Mrs Brown”, and “Mrs Dalloway” (Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa, respectively) are all equally interesting, well-drawn, and complex. That’s unusual for a story with multiple protagonists, in my experience – usually, I find I’m more drawn to one over the others.

The story is told over the course of a single day, in the tradition of Mrs Dalloway – and, in that spirit, I read The Hours in a single sitting. It’s short enough to make that not-too-onerous an undertaking, and I reckon it’s the best way to do it, if you have the time and capacity.

The Hours parallels Mrs Dalloway in several other ways, too. There’s the stream-of-consciousness style, where the protagonists’ thoughts bounce around all willy-nilly, a very tricky literary technique that mirrors free association. There’s also the LGBTIQ+ themes, where each of the protagonists is some variety of queer. Cunningham quite neatly shows, across the successive generations, how queerness and queer relationships become less shameful and more open: from Virginia’s internal torment, to Laura’s clandestine kiss, to Clarissa’s long-term “out” partnership.

One other thing that’s important to note, if you’re considering picking up The Hours, is that Cunningham also explores mental illness, as a form of expression and a legitimate perspective on the world. That means some trigger warnings are necessary: The Hours opens with a scene of Woolf’s suicide in the prologue, and there are other instances of suicide, suicidal ideation, and depression throughout.

So, it’s kind of a bummer, but The Hours is still a good read – I enjoyed it more than the O.G. Mrs Dalloway (and, for sure, I understood a lot more of it!). It also made for a really good movie, starring Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep. I wondered whether Streep was specifically cast for the project, or whether she sought it out specially, because she’s evoked as a character in The Hours with a minor off-page role in the early chapters. She said, on the DVD commentary (remember DVD commentary? how quaint!), that a friend’s daughter sent her a copy of the book, thinking she’d get a kick out of it. It would seem that she did, and I did too.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hours here:

  • “I cannot believe that this book won a Pulitzer Prize! It was so incredibly tedious and an orgiastic dive into depression. Main lining on melodrama! Tennessee Williams on steroids!” – Don McPheeters
  • “I’m not going to comment on it winning the Pulitzer. I don’t like a lot of the winners. Mostly because this is a puffed up university award given to literary favorites who stick around long enough.” – Los Angeles Swinger
  • “If you can get past the idea that life is futile, and if you like homosexuality, you’d probably like this book.” – Dale Lund
  • “Just cause you won a Pulitzer Prize don’t mean you can lay down heavy pipe in your old lady’s aqueduct for hours and hours without missing a beat. Respect yourself.” – Patrick Resing

My Ultimate Lock-Down Author Share-House

One of the things that’s been bringing me joy during, y’know, all of this is The To-Read List podcast. Today, I’m drawing inspiration from one of their episodes (which, in turn, was inspired by a Tweet from LitHub). The idea is to come up with a list of authors you’d want to be in lock-down with, or in quarantine with. You might love Virginia Woolf’s writing, but could you really stand living with her 24 hours-a-day for weeks on end? Ernest Hemingway might be brilliant, but what would it be like to share a bathroom with him? I put my thinking cap on and came up with my very own list (technically two, one for living authors a la The To Read List and one for dead authors a la LitHub): my ultimate lock-down author share-house.

Ultimate Lock-Down Author Share-House - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Important note: this isn’t about the authors whose work I love the most. I had to scratch a whole bunch of brilliant writers for various reasons: I’d be too nervous to talk in front of Helen Garner, I’d be too intimidated by Sally Rooney (and only a little bit sour that we’re the same age), I figured I’d be cheating if I chose Elena Ferrante so that I could be one of the select few who know her secret identity, and I’d be scared of distracting Carmen Maria Machado or Roxane Gay from writing their next book. This is about the authors I reckon I could live with for an extended period under share-house circumstances.

Living Author Lock-Down Share-House

First thing’s first: I’m going to want someone around who can make me laugh. Someone who can find the funny in the mundane, someone who can make fun without being cruel, someone who will regale me with entertaining anecdotes when the days get too long. I can’t think of anyone who fits the bill better than David Sedaris. Read my full review of his essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Next up: I’m going to need somebody who won’t judge me if cocktail hour comes early. No one likes to drink alone, and I’m no exception! I reckon Susan Orlean and I would make for brilliant drinking buddies (if her Twitter feed is anything to go by). Plus, we could discuss niche true crime to our heart’s content, even if the others got sick of us. Read my full review of her investigation into the Los Angeles Central Library fire, The Library Book.

I’d also want someone around who can teach me some stuff, and I reckon Colson Whitehead fits the bill. The guy didn’t get the MacArthur Genius Grant for nothing! He’s written about everything from history to Harlem to politics to poker. If we were in lock-down together, I’d struggle not to constantly pepper him with questions… Read my full review of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Obama-recommended book The Underground Railroad here.

It can’t all be work and no play, though. We’d need someone with some aesthetic sensibilities to brighten up the place – and maybe draw us, just for lols. That’s why I’d call Mira Jacob up to the plate. I never thought of myself as a graphic novel reader until I read Good Talk. I’d happily take all of her dish-washing and laundry duties if she captured our lock-down conversations in return. Read my full review of Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, Good Talk, here.

Dead Author Lock-Down Share-House

Whenever something crappy happens in my life (and I reckon getting locked down in a share-house during a global pandemic would count), I hear Nora Ephron‘s voice in my head, saying: “Everything’s copy”. I reckon she’d be the queen of making the best of a bad situation, and she’d get us all working on collaborative creative projects to release once regular business resumed. Read my full review of Heartburn here.

And, it’s a combo deal: I’d love to have Anita Loos (sans her shit-head husband) in my author lock-down share-house, because I’m sure she and Nora would get along. Sure, I’d probably end up the odd-one-out, watching them write brilliant screenplays while I sipped my wine in the corner, but it’d be worth it to get them in the same room and watch the magic happen. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Speaking of entertainment: I reckon Anaïs Nin would be captivating. She was adventurous, generous, and by all accounts, fun! I mean, anyone willing to write gloriously literary smut on commission has got to be worth talking to. And, if we didn’t get along, I’d feel less guilty about sneaking into her room and reading her diary… (I mean, I’d never do that. Ahem. Probably.) Read my full review of Delta Of Venus here.

And, finally, I’d want George Eliot in the share-house, and I’d want to ask all manner of questions, about writing and politics and life… but the one that’s front-and-center in my mind at the moment is: have we been mis-gendering George all this time? This has come up as a result of the “Reclaim Her Name” project, for which Baileys (the major sponsors of the Women’s Prize) is re-publishing a collection of works they’ve determined were written by women under masculine pseudonyms, including Middlemarch. In the (inevitable) backlash that ensued, I came across a couple of accounts that suggest George might have adopted the name that more accurately reflected their identity, rather than purely bowing to the patriarchal constraints of the time for publishing writers. Essentially, I’d want George to have the opportunity to decide for themselves, with today’s sensibilities and understanding, how they wish to identify. And then I’d start digging for dirt, like the gossip-hound I am deep down, on all their high-falootin’ Victorian friends… Read my full review of Middlemarch here.

Who would you want in your lock-down author share-house? Living or dead, dream big! Let me know in the comments below.

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

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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

The Lost Apothecary - Sarah Penner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Silent Patient - Alex Michaelides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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
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My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Girl Interrupted - Susanna Kaysen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

No One Is Talking About This - Patricia Lockwood - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Lying Life Of Adults - Elena Ferrante - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

My Dark Vanessa - Kate Elizabeth Russell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Milkman - Anna Burns - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“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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