07/15/2014 09:05 am ET | Updated Sep 14, 2014

Books By Or About Unconventional Women

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.