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Books By Or About Unconventional Women

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The unconventional woman has, since the beginnings of the novel, been a favorite object of study. Take an intelligent woman with a mind critical enough to consider that the restrictions imposed upon the female sex are ridiculous and unfair, and tighten the noose around her neck with an economic downfall or a father's choice of a repulsive suitor and voilà! -- you have the stuff of tragedy -- or comedy, depending on the author's bent. The unconventional responses to a woman's lot have included taking a lover, walking away from your children, and breaking a variety of other taboos. The following list includes mostly novels that inspired me while I wrote my novel, The Geometry of Love [She Writes Press, $16.95], as well as a volume of poetry and a couple of works of non-fiction.

La Princess de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette Some consider this text the first modern psychological novel. I agree. The story describes one woman's emotional life in unprecedented detail as it explores the inner world of a young girl who, married off to a prince she cannot love, inevitably feels drawn to someone else. Misunderstandings, jealousy, and a high sense of duty combine into a riveting story. Be forewarned that the novel begins with an extended genealogy of the court of Henry II, which is guaranteed to put the most determined reader to sleep. My advice is to skip it and leap ahead into a masterpiece characterized by both emotional intensity and moral discrimination.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert Throughout history, the fastest, cheapest, and most self-destructive way for a woman to be unconventional⎯especially if she's a fictional character⎯has been for her to have an affair. This is the story of a married woman so bored in the provinces that she "wanted to die and live in Paris at the same time." Instead she commits adultery. The scene in which Emma first has sex with her lover in a carriage drawn by horses wildly galloping around the city of Rouen is one of the greatest in literature. Flaubert's particular brand of irony still feels raw, delicious, and contemporary.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James A young woman of intelligence and spirit goes to Europe in the hopes of doing exactly as she pleases, even if it means defying conventional wisdom. Isabel Archer speaks and acts⎯and marries⎯as she wishes, only to find herself falling into a trap set for her by her husband and his ex-lover. It's a cautionary tale not only about differences between Old and New World ways of thinking and operating, but also about the heady arrogance of youth that thinks it knows what's going on. The beauty of the story is that, in the end, Isabel willingly accepts responsibility for her errors, and the pride that gets her into a mess ultimately enables her to live with the consequences of her unusual choices.
The Old Maid by Edith Wharton One might say that being an unconventional woman means doing what you want and never saying you're sorry. In this novella, published in 1924 but set in the 1850s, a woman brought up in the prudish, upper class world of late-nineteenth-century New York chooses to have an affair before marriage and never regrets it or its consequences. Years after writing about this work in graduate school, I had the treat of listening to an audiobook version of it on a transatlantic flight, and I found it as touching as I had on first reading. The way in which two female cousins form an alternative family for an adopted girl has a surprisingly modern appeal.
The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, to be read after watching "Reaching for the Moon" At work in Bishop's poetry is an acutely visual sensibility that sensuously traces the shapes, colors and textures of the experienced world. I recently returned to her poems about Brazil after watching the lush and lyrical film about her life, Reaching for the Moon, starring Miranda Otto. This biopic traces the chapter in Bishop's life when she went deeper into her poetic self-confidence in part thanks to a love relationship with another woman she met in Brazil, which became a removed and safe haven for her to explore her sexuality and develop her poetic voice.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong It's not so much what Isadora Wing does in this novel, as what she says and thinks that was so delightfully shocking when the book came out in 1973⎯and still is. Married and restless, Isadora wants to step out and do the zipless thing with a dashing Englishman named Adrian, and she wants to do it badly. The book takes aim at the idea that monogamy can be completely satisfying and keeps up the friendly fire. Much of the action takes place at a psychoanalysis convention, which provides a means for satirizing every received idea about women and sexuality.
Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler This novel begins with a newspaper headline: "BALTIMORE WOMAN DISAPPEARS DURING FAMILY VACATION." Cordelia Grinstead, 40 years old, a doctor's wife and mother of three, is on vacation with her family at a beach in Delaware when she sets off for a walk. She walks away in nothing but her bathing suit⎯and stays away for a long time. What mother, in some moment of overwhelm or exhaustion, hasn't fantasized about doing just that? Cordelia takes an extended vacation from her life, reinventing her relationship to men, community, and herself. Not much really happens in this novel⎯except an intimate, fairy tale-like journey from marriage to solitude and back again.
26 Writers Misbehave, edited by Ellen Sussman This volume of essays is a wild romp in what it means to be bad, both as a woman and a woman writer. And there's so much variety when it comes to being bad! Elizabeth Rosner describes the first time she defied her Orthodox Jewish heritage by eating pork in "Everything I Know about Being Bad I Learned in Hebrew School." Then there's Joyce Maynard, who riled the literary world by writing about her relationship with a Great (Male) Writer. And you're guaranteed to laugh reading Daphne Merkin's outrageous "Penises I Have Known," with its hilarious stream of unspeakable thoughts and musings. The collection suggests that the only thing more fun than being bad is writing about being bad.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman While the title of this book, clearly devised for commercial effect, suggests a narrative about sexual adventure, what you'll find here is something far more interesting: the account of a young woman, straight out of college, who embarks on a trip with a girlfriend to China, which in the mid 1980s had just opened to tourists. The result is a perfect storm, in which two naïve souls have a rude encounter with a frightening militaristic regime that threatens their very sanity. Gilman's talents as a journalist transport us physically and emotionally into an Orwellian world of alienation, monitoring, and suspicion.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant Born into Renaissance Florence, Alessandra Cecchi has artistic talent but, because she is a woman, must keep her artwork a secret. She is married off to someone she doesn't love but finds her muse in a male painter who teaches her how to paint. Inspiring and sensual, the novel mesmerizes with its descriptions of daily life, the painter's trade, and the sweep of history at a moment when rising religious fanaticism was threatening the open-mindedness that fostered some of the Renaissance's greatest works. Alessandra's story illustrates just how much bravery is required when a woman, born ahead of her times, is determined to realize herself whatever the consequences.