Books about strong, intelligent, interesting 20-something women?
March 10, 2009 12:03 PM   Subscribe

I read a lot of young adult lit with great female characters. But I'm not a teenager anymore and would like to find something analogous for 20-something women. So, where are the books about young, intelligent, humorous and/or interesting women? Novels, short stories, memoirs and essays welcome. More information about what I've already read inside.

I've read all of Curtis Sittenfeld's books and LOVED them. Ditto with Melissa Bank and Megan McCafferty. Jennifer Weiner also writes women well, but they skew a bit older. I also loved Shopgirl by Steve Martin. The Secret History by Donna Tartt would fit the bill if it focused on Camilla instead of Richard.

While I enjoyed the Shopaholic series and Sophie Kinsella's other books, I'd prefer to stay away from this side of chick lit. Or anything involving babies.

YA authors I enjoy: Sarah Dessen, E. Lockhart, Cecil Castellucci, Sara Zarr, Maureen Johnson

I also like Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nick Hornby, but they mostly write about guys.
posted by wsquared to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about Jane Austen?

"Lives of Girls and Women" by Alice Munro is also a good intro to Munro's fiction.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:06 PM on March 10, 2009

Most Tom Robbins' books feature women that would fit into that mold.
posted by travis08 at 12:09 PM on March 10, 2009

How about a graphic novel about a strong intelligent fifth-grade girl punching WAY above her weight (Or not. She DOES have a mystical hammer, after all.)? You might like I Kill Giants.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:10 PM on March 10, 2009

I thought of Jane Austen, too, and Charlotte Bronte. Wish I could recommend something more current. i like the annual series "Best American..." (American Short Stories, Travel Writing, etc) series. They're not all female characters, obviously, they're very varied but there are some gems in there.
posted by Penelope at 12:11 PM on March 10, 2009

Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, I enjoyed it although it gets mixed reviews.

Idiot Girls Action-Adventure Club and other memoirs by Laurie Notaro. Not what I'd call "deep," but definitely hilarious.
posted by sararah at 12:15 PM on March 10, 2009

Oh maybe Christopher Lamb - he's pretty funny, check out his website. I liked the one about the island.
posted by Penelope at 12:17 PM on March 10, 2009

Oops Christopher MOORE - he wrote Lamb, about Jesus
posted by Penelope at 12:19 PM on March 10, 2009

Emergence by David R. Palmer.

And the sequel was recently serialized in Analog magazine.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 12:21 PM on March 10, 2009

Alan Warner's Morvern Callar is a nice, quick read. Not to be cliche or anything, but it really spoke to me, the 20-something female burnout. Very working class, lots of beautiful imagery, and I think Warner does a pretty good job of writing a female character's voice. Morvern isn't a heroine or anything, but I could relate to her.
posted by giraffe at 12:21 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I haven't read many on your list, so I don't know if this fits, but I just read I Capture the Castle and looooved it. It wasn't my usual genre but it really hit me. The narrator is a 17-year old girl, with one of the most authentic and genuine (and genuinely funny) narrative voices I've read in awhile. I'm in my late 20s and it didn't seem too young or juvenile for me.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 12:30 PM on March 10, 2009 [7 favorites]

If you liked Curtis Sittenfeld's last book (which I did, too), I bet you'll like Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife.

Marisha Pessl is kind of Eggers/Chabon-y.

You might like Sarah Waters (although her books tend to be historical fiction).

I also really like the characters in Kate Atkinson's books, especially Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Definitely consider Julia Glass, Meg Wolitzer (especially The Ten-Year Nap), Jennifer Haigh, Min Jin Lee, Claire Messud, Margaret Atwood, Z. Z. Packer, Zadie Smith (especially On Beauty).

And there's graphic novels, too: Persepolis, Phoebe Gloeckner, Lynda Barry.

That's kind of a random assortment, but maybe you'll find something you like.
posted by miriam at 12:33 PM on March 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

One of the first books to come to mind is The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly.
posted by alynnk at 12:46 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I suggest Eudora Welty and Willa Cather.
posted by Palmerpoodles at 12:50 PM on March 10, 2009

"... And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer

Fabulous. Best ever. Looooonnnnngggg.

I am dying to discuss it!
posted by jgirl at 12:54 PM on March 10, 2009

Myla Goldberg's Wickett's Remedy

Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale
(The above two have a historical fiction component to them.)

Kate Christensen's The Great Man
(This one has a cast of about five women at all ages through their lives. Don't let the title fool you.)
posted by gladly at 1:00 PM on March 10, 2009

while I don't have any authors or titles to necessarily recommend here, I would point you to your local public library -- reference staff are trained to do what's called "reader's advisory" where they help people find similar titles/authors/genres to what they're interested in.
Other than that, I hear Jennifer Cruise is good?
posted by tamarack at 1:03 PM on March 10, 2009

Pamela Ribon, who's hilarious and well-known for her blog and for her writing over at Television Without Pity.
posted by pised at 1:16 PM on March 10, 2009

For something a little more historical, maybe try The Beekeeper's Apprentice and sequels - the main character starts off younger than your range, but the course of the books covers well into her twenties. Sherlock Holmes features, but the books are definitely about her, not him.
posted by marginaliana at 1:34 PM on March 10, 2009

seconding both marisha pessl and kate atkinson (her earlier works tho, not the recent mysteries she's been writing)—both have a wonderful way with words of which i am quite jealous.

if you like melissa bank, i'll bet that you will also enjoy jami attenberg and nell freudenberger's lucky girls.
posted by violetk at 1:38 PM on March 10, 2009

Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee is a smart, funny, page-turner.
posted by collectallfour at 1:44 PM on March 10, 2009

I think you might like Animal Dreams and Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.

I'd also recommend The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich, but it is historical fiction and I'm not sure if that rules it out for you.
posted by peep at 1:47 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

My absolute favorite book is written from the perspective of a young woman, but is actually written by a man. But it's incredibly well done. "She's Come Undone" by Wally Lamb.
posted by dithmer at 2:25 PM on March 10, 2009

I think my tastes run a lot fluffier than yours, because I don't have massive love (mostly boredom) for almost all of the authors you loved. But I'll give it a go.

I'd recommend anything by Lani Diane Rich, Eileen Rendahl, and Alesia Holliday.

As for individual books, I liked The Blonde Theory by Kristin Hamel, The Girls by Lori Lansens, Cheating At Solitaire by Ally Carter, The Year Of Living Famously by Laura Caldwell, A Version Of The Truth by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack, and Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:50 PM on March 10, 2009

I mostly favour science fiction, and I get the sense that you do not :) But still, I recommend trying In the Garden of Iden, which is less science-fiction than the cover would have you believe, and more historical fiction/love story with a science fiction premise. Its also the first in a series, and I find the over-arching plotline and premise fascinating. Love this book.
posted by Joh at 3:30 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't recommend the Shakespeare series by Charlaine Harris highly enough. The main character, Lilly Bard, is a recovering rape victim who is putting her life back together while solving local crimes. The way she is written is amazing and very different from any other fictonal rape victim I have ever read. It turns out the author based Lilly's emotions and way of dealing with the rape on her own experiences.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 4:09 PM on March 10, 2009

I get slated on Metafilter when I receommend this series, mainly because after book 6 it starts getting into very sexual and alternative relationships and also because the subject matter is vampires, zombies etc.,

But I have rarely come across a female voice to equal Anita Blake in the Laurell K Hamilton series. Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter. Simply because she's not a girly girl, she inhabits an man's world and has such a lack of insight into her own motivations as a woman in her early 20's it's hilarious.

Also, the female voice in the Swedish author Steig Larsson's Millenuim Trilogy. Girl with the Dragon Tatoo is #1, #2 is called The Girl Who Played With Fire. # 3 will be published postumously later this year and I can't wait. I should say the Girl in question is clearly a brillant young woman with Asperger's.
posted by Wilder at 4:09 PM on March 10, 2009

Seconding the 8 books in the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King. Extremely bright orphaned girl runs into semi-retired Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs and becomes his apprentice, initially. Beautiful writing, believable dialogue, a multitude of historical backdrops. I discovered the series as a teen ~10 years ago, approached it warily since I was a huge fan of the Canon (excepting Holmes's misogynistic tendencies), and was delighted to find that King preserves - and even improves upon, dare I say - Holmes's original image. Of course, the character of Russell is the true genius of the series, which remains to this day my favorite books to read for comfort, fun and inspiration. If you do decide to check these books out, read them in chronological order for maximum enjoyment, starting with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.
posted by nemutdero at 5:20 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to try some sci-fi and fantasy, anything by Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents), Ursula LeGuin (Though many feature sympathetic male protagonists, The Telling, The Tombs of Atuan, and Tehanu are defined by their female protaginists. Many of her short stories also qualify; check out the collections Birthday of the World, Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, etc.), or Connie Willis (Doomsday Book, Passage). Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen is worth looking at. C.H. Cherryh's Cyteen might also be worth a try, though it's more along the lines of hard sci fi, which you may not dig. Robin McKinley's books The Blue Sword and The Hero's Crown probably count as young adult, but you should read them anyway.
posted by ubersturm at 5:43 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Year of Wonders-Geraldine Brooks. About a young woman in a plague-infected village that decides to cut itself off to prevent the plague from spreading.

Hy Brasil - Margaret Elphinstone. Fun adventure story about this travel writer who goes to this little island nation in the Atlantic. Involves pirates and volcanoes.

Book of Negoes - Lawrence Hill. Follows the life of a girl brought as a slave from Africa to the States, to Canada, and on. She's not 20-something the whole time, but she is a good female character.
posted by carolr at 6:30 PM on March 10, 2009

There doesn't seem to be much in the way of twentysomething memior, but Alice Sebold, best known novels like The Lovely Bones, wrote a non-fiction book about being raped when she was a college student. Lucky focuses less on the rape itself (though it is there, and very hard to read) than on the reactions afterwards -- her own, her friends', her family's, and, eventually, the US justice system. Sebold doesn't sugar-coat anybody's behaviour, including her own.

I kind of think every young woman should read Lucky. It stays with you long after you've closed the cover.
posted by Georgina at 7:29 PM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name by (Dave Eggers' wife) Vendela Vida.

The Quality of Life Report by Meghan Daum.
posted by mykescipark at 9:05 PM on March 10, 2009

I was surprised to like the Nora Roberts Lifetime movies last year. The female characters are young and intelligent in interesting settings. There are four new movies this year. All based on her novels.
posted by cda at 5:16 AM on March 11, 2009

Also from Kate Christensen: In the Drink, about a young woman in NYC. And, because I'm a fan, I've got to mention Lorrie Moore's short stories. ("You're Ugly, Too" is anthologized all over the place.)
posted by booth at 8:36 AM on March 11, 2009

Try Arnold Bennett's novels (many in Google books).
posted by RichardS at 10:35 AM on March 11, 2009

Try Cold Comfort Farm. It's a classic for a reason.
posted by Iridic at 1:34 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

If there's a YA expiry date, I haven't found it yet. Laura Whitcomb's A Certain Slant of Light is haunting, and I enjoyed Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Philip Reeve tells Here Lies Arthur from a female perspective. A strong heroine is the focus of Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Have you read the Pellinor quartet by Alison Croggan? If you're looking for classics, read Beloved by Toni Morrison if you haven't already, and A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.
posted by woodway at 5:22 PM on March 11, 2009

I second Wilder's suggestion of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, though the male characters can be a little unpleasant. (There's a reason the first book's original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women.) I also suggest, on the memoir end of things, Lindsay Moran's Blowing My Cover, which is a memoir of a 20-something (early 30-something?) woman who, not knowing what else to do, applied to the CIA and became a spy. Lots of fun.
posted by raf at 8:35 AM on March 12, 2009

I have similar interests to yours, and two of my favorite authors are: A.S. Byatt (particularly Possession and many or her short stories) and Gail Godwin (The Good Husband) , who both write strong, inspiring women. Also seconding Zadie Smith!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 5:59 PM on March 12, 2009

Check out The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk and books by Margie Piercy (esp. Woman on the Edge of Time, also He, She, & It). Both are basically near-future fantasy/sci-fi, but the emphasis is not on the sci-fi elements. In these worlds, the women are generally strong and have equal status, which not only provides role models but attunes you to times when that's not true in real life.
posted by salvia at 12:44 PM on March 13, 2009

Whoops, misspelling. Marge (no 'i') Piercy.
posted by salvia at 12:48 PM on March 14, 2009

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