Tired of reading novels where guys have all the fun? Where women are always the love interest, dropping the hero at the airport so he can fly off and save the world or solve the crime? Fret no more. This year has seen a bumper crop of novels with tough, savvy female characters who don’t just pad the story, they are the story. Here are 4 of our favorites:
I Love You More, by Jennifer Murphy
Narrated from several points of view, this mystery twists and turns, with its author carefully pacing the surprises. After Oliver Lane is murdered in his summerhouse, police discover he was a bigamist. Naturally, they suspect his killer was one of his wives—or in this case, perhaps all three. Did they plan the crime together, in some sort of radical act of sisterhood? Twelve-year-old Picasso, the victim’s daughter, narrates large portions of the story, and her voice is riveting. Smart enough to understand most of what she sees, she’s also clever enough not to reveal it. As the police detective investigating her father’s murder begins to fall in love with her mother, and the lies pile up, Picasso tells her own version of what happened. Possibly no one, including Picasso, is telling us the truth…
The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai
This book also has a surplus of wild women, but for my money the real maverick is Zee. Born to privilege, Zee rejected her family’s wealth and made her own way in life, teaching literature at a small Midwestern college. When her slacker husband, Doug, fails to get a job, they have no choice but to move back into her (haunted) childhood home. Zee will do anything, and I mean anything, to get out of that house again. The Hundred-Year House is hard to classify, combining elements of ghost story, mystery, and academic satire. A funky combination, sure, but it works. Watching Doug secretly write YA books for quick cash—while alpha-wife Zee tries to lie, cheat, and burgle him into a tenure-track job at the college—is the most fun I’ve had in ages. The story darts back in time to show us the origin of the house’s ghosts, and everything comes together with a satisfying click.
The Red Road, by Denise Mina
Detective Alex Morrow is back, this time investigating a case rooted in the past. Rose was only 14 years old when she killed two men on the same night, one of them her pimp. As always, author Mina cares most about the underdog, in this case Glasgow’s poor and desperate, and she makes us care as well. When Rose’s lawyer, Julius McMillan, recognizes her essential innocence and games the system to help her, I cheered. Flash forward almost 20 years, and Detective Morrow has a body in an abandoned building to deal with, the victim a community activist and all-around nice guy no one should have wanted to kill. What is the connection between his murder and the long-ago night Rose knifed two men to death? As always with a Mina novel, right and wrong aren’t so simple. To solve the case, our heroine is forced to walk a narrow line between duty and conscience.
The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist
Another great book that’s hard to categorize. I found my copy in the fiction section, but it could just as easily have been shelved with sci-fi. In the not-too-distant future, society is humming along nicely. Every citizen contributes, and there’s very little hunger or suffering. The catch? “Dispensables,” that is, people who haven’t produced children, don’t die peacefully in bed. They report to Units where they give up their bodies piece by piece for laboratory testing and organ donation. But—and here’s the kicker—no one is forced to go. They go willingly, for the sake of society.
On her fiftieth birthday Dorrit Weger checks into the Unit because she’s expected to, because it’s what good people do. Life inside is luxurious, with better food, clothing, and care than she was ever able to afford on her own. If other women at the swimming pool look like Holocaust survivors because they’ve been sprayed with chemicals for random scientific tests, Dorrit just thanks God it isn’t her. Not until she falls in love with a man in the Unit does she begin to question, and to fight. The choices she makes will haunt you long after you turn the last page.
Who’s your favorite wild fictional woman?