With Wonder Woman crushing it at the box office and critic’s table, we’re all pumped for more stories about women who kick ass and take names. The real and fictional women in these three new books may not officially be gods, but they sure know how to fight for justice. Read on in this week’s book club for stories of some officially wondrous women.
1. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Peterson ($25): It’s a sad fact that sticking out from the crowd can be dangerous. Sure, being noticed can bring you glory, but it can also heap scorn and abuse on your head (sometimes for the very same reasons). Peterson, a PhD in Media Studies and culture writer at Buzzfeed, takes us through the stories of famously “unruly” (dare we even say nasty?) women, many of whom are worshipped and torn down in equal measure. “Unruly women surround us in our everyday lives, yet such figures become most powerful in celebrity form, where they become even more layered and fraught with contradiction,” writes Peterson, who in 10 chapters tells the stories of 10 celebrities who embody these contradictions, and the particular flavor of their unruliness (how is she “too much”?) that bothers us. Serena Williams? Too strong. Melissa McCarthy? Too fat. Madonna? Too old.
The book, seemingly inspired both by Peterson’s own experiences and the stunning amount of misogyny that arose during the 2016 election, covers not just stories about celebrities, but implies how those lessons apply to every woman’s life. She explores the link between being good and being afraid, as well as why we need unruly women: “Trump’s America feels unsafe for so many; the future of the nation seems uncertain. But unruliness — in its many manifestations, small and large, in action, in representation, in language — feels more important, more necessary, than ever.”
Though Peterson has gathered a slate of strong and controversial ladies, she points out that there are women who are even more unruly than those profiled; to achieve their level of stardom and platform, each of the 10 celebrities, Peterson says, “have made concessions” to some sort of conformity. The truly outrageous may speak louder, but fewer people hear them. The book is not offering solutions, per se, but inviting a conversation. After all, to be an unruly woman, you’ve got to speak up — which can be terrifying, liberating, and even wonderful.
2. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss ($25): “I have paused to show you Mary staring into the mirror because this is a story about monsters. All stories about monsters contain a scene in which the monster sees himself in the mirror.” Maybe you like your wondrous women a little more legendary or literary. Goss, a World Fantasy Award-winning author, has taken and twisted the tales of your favorite 19th-century mad scientists to produce a compelling mystery that’s also about a group of unsung young women coming into their own.
Mary Jekyll needs cash, fast. Her parents are dead, she’s destitute, and her father’s murderous “associate” Edward Hyde may still be at large. It just so happens that there’s a tidy sum being offered up for his capture. With an assist from Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, she’s on the case, but she discovers more than just clues. Jekyll meets a bevy of mad scientists’ daughters, who come together to tell the stories of their abusive upbringings and solve the case of several horrific murders that may or may not have something to do with their fathers’ sins. Created through various unsettling experimentation, the women include Diana Hyde, Catherin Moreau (The Island of Doctor Moreau), Justine Frankenstein, and Beatrice Rappacini (of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Rappacini’s Daughter”). The women, scarred but talented, support each other as they discover and expose a secret society of male scientists that spells disaster.
Slightly anarchic itself, the book is full of interjections and meta-commentary about the stories, writing, and social justice. It’s rife with the idea that history is drastically altered by the voices of people in power, and that the women’s present isn’t very fair either. As Mary responds: “I’m not a monster, and that book is a pack of lies. If Mrs. Shelley were here, I would slap her for all of the trouble she caused.” United, the women must rise above their unfair circumstances and give their fathers a taste of their own (poisonous) medicine. Sounds positively Amazonian.
3. The End of Men by Karen Rinaldi ($16): Sometimes, things can get so frustrating that you’re tempted to give up on an entire gender altogether. Maybe. Rinaldi’s novel, an earlier version of which was turned into the Julianne Moore and Greta Gerwig movie Maggie’s Plan, commits itself fully to the female gaze. Four women, Isabel, Maggie, Anna, and Beth, are trying to find some sort of balance in their lives in the midst of the usual societally imposed restrictions.
Anna and Beth run a maternity lingerie company that’s both hugely successful and increasingly threatened, and they both have their own issues at home; while Anna struggles to spend equal time at work and with her family, Beth’s ex-husband and child’s father is dying of AIDS. Isabel, in the early stages of pregnancy, has a boss who thinks they should only hire women “too old or too ugly to get knocked up” and an old friend who won’t get out of her head. Maggie, who was the “other woman” in an affair, now wishes she could give her boyfriend back to his ex-wife. At least they have each other.
“Wasn’t she, now that she was pregnant, supposed to need her man more than ever? When did the oxytocin kick in? The fact of the matter was she felt less needy and more self-contained than ever before. Isabel wondered if her shift inward was an instinctive protectiveness over her baby, or if it was in response to the belief that after the baby was born, her life would be in service to another.” Full of musings about transition, happiness, and the elusive state of “having it all,” Rinaldi’s debut is packed with women who are in charge of telling their own stories, women who change; women who wonder.
What books leave you wonderstruck? Tag us in your next super-powered read @BritandCo.
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