If there’s one trend I can already see in my reading this year, it’s that I am most interested in reading books by and about awesome women. In fact, my fiction reading has been almost entirely female-dominated, which isn’t all that bad of a place to be. Here are four books in the last couple of months in that general area that I enjoyed quite a bit.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker – a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction – into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist – but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.
The Signature of All Things is one of those epic, full life stories that start with a birth, go back in time for some context, then follow a character forward into old age. In this case, the main character is Alma Whittaker, an awkward botanist more at home learning about the plants on her parent’s property than making a place for herself in society. The story beautifully explores questions of family, identity and purpose with a wonderfully full world of friends and relatives that Alma also slowly begins to understand. The book was maybe 100 pages too long, but GIlbert’s prose is so lovely I hardly minded.
These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
England, 1882. Evelyn is bored with society and its expectations. So when her beloved sister, Rose, mysteriously vanishes, she ignores her parents and travels to London to find her, accompanied by the dashing Mr. Kent. But they’re not the only ones looking for Rose. The reclusive young gentleman Sebastian Braddock is also searching for her, claiming that both sisters have special healing powers. Evelyn is convinced that Sebastian must be mad, until she discovers that his strange tales of extraordinary people are true – and that her sister is in graver danger than she feared.
My sister and I got excited about this book when we saw it described as Jane Austen meets X-Men – two things we both love (although any book that has a comparison to X-Men is probably something I’m going to pick up). After the boyfriend’s dad passed away in February, my sister sent me a copy of the book with a note that it would make nice escapist reading during a difficult time. And it definitely did. Evelyn is feisty and funny, the men in her life are slightly swoon-worthy, and the world set up in the book is one I’ll gladly return to when I need something light and fun.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
Disappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star and Eva the sidekick, journey through 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris’s ambitions take the pair across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, and to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island. With their friends in high and low places, Iris and Eva stumble and shine though a landscape of big dreams, scandals, betrayals, and war. From Brooklyn’s beauty parlors to London’s West End, a group of unforgettable people love, lie, cheat and survive in this story of our fragile, absurd, heroic species.
One of our girls weekend traditions (if you can call a thing you’ve done twice a tradition) is to read a book together for discussion. This year I pitched Lucky Us because I thought the story sounded like it would prompt some good discussions. Happily, it did! We talked a lot about ideas of family, how we responded to decisions by each of the characters, and what other books and pop culture this story brought to mind – I’d just seen the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! which has some interesting parallels. We agreed that there were some plot points that pushed believability, but overall enjoyed reading and talking about the book.
Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart
Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding fifteen years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family – and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared.
I’ve read a few mixed reviews of this book, but this isn’t going to be one of them. I thought Girl Waits With Gun was a total delight – made even more interesting (for me) knowing that Constance Kopp was a real person. I loved the way Amy Stewart integrated historical documents and accounts of this period into the book while still adding enough fictional details to make the story her own (there’s a subplot about a young factory girl that fits the narrative perfectly, but is entirely made up). Constance’s sisters, Norma and Fleurette, were equally as well-drawn. It was just a really fun, sit down on a Saturday and dive in, sort of read.