Ruby (Oprah's Book Club 2.0)
Young Ruby was “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at.” She survives devastating violence as a child and soon flees the small town of Liberty, Texas to explore 1950s New York—always keeping an eye out for the red hair and green eyes of her mother. Eventually, she must return home and face the truth of her girlhood, one memory at a time. Ruby is resilient, passionate, and courageous. Her story reminds us of the promise of the redemptive power of love.
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart!” Need we say more?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
We love the fact that Lisbeth is the whip-smart hero of this series, with hunky guys who always need her help. She’s tortured, for sure, but she’s thrilling to spend time with—almost makes us want to chop our hair and get a motorcycle.
Vanessa Michael Munroe
Munroe’s often compared to Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She has that same gutsiness, that lone wolf quality, and that depth of character that comes from being damaged. But her androgynous quality and her strangely complicated childhood in lawless Africa make her wholly original. At the center of Stevens’ three novels, Munroe deals in information—governments pay her, criminals fear her, and no one sees her coming.
Medea and Other Plays
Okay, this one might be a controversial choice (given that Medea kills her own children in vengeance against the betrayal of her husband), but we can’t forget her fierceness. “We bid the highest price in dowries
just to buy some man to be dictator of our bodies … How that compounds the wrong!”
Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages 6 to 14, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. Wise, funny, and heartbreaking.
Back in 1925 when Virginia Woolf published Mrs. Dalloway, it was a revolutionary glimpse into consciousness. The story of one seemingly ordinary day in the life of one seemingly ordinary woman becomes luminous. Mrs. Dalloway putters around preparing for a dinner party, while in the background, war simmers—in the end, the death of a young man she doesn’t know forces us to consider the elemental conflict between life and death.
The Diary of a Young Girl
What can we say about Anne Frank? Like any teenager, she veered between the carefree nature of a child and the full-fledged sorrow of an adult. But given her circumstances, her vulnerability and vitality astonishes.
When we meet Anais Hendricks, she’s 15 and in the back of a police car. She’s a sharp-tongued orphan, a counterculture criminal, and one of the most heartbreakingly intelligent and sensitive narrators you’ll ever meet. Fagan’s brilliant debut is at once a scathing portrait of the British foster care system and a shockingly different coming-of-age novel. She’s been compared to Jonathan Safron Foer, Margaret Atwood, and Stieg Larsson.
“Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable.” Yes, Matilda.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver's Seat, The Only Problem
Miss Jean Brodie
“These years are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognize the years of one’s prime, always remember that.” We love Miss Brodie’s idealism, her romanticism, and the way she inspires her students with complete unselfconsciousness.
“Before she married, she thought she was in love; but the happiness that should have resulted from that love, somehow had not come. It seemed to her that she must have made a mistake, have misunderstood in some way or another. And Emma tried hard to discover what, precisely, it was in life that was denoted by the words ‘joy, passion, intoxication,’ which had always looked so fine to her in books.”
In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. A dazzling memoir from a razor-sharp point of view, it’s become a cult classic for very good reason.
Top Secret Twenty-One
Stephanie Plum is the heroine of Janet Evanovich’s “numbered” suspense series. Imagine if Nancy Drew and Dirty Harry had a baby. That’d be Stephanie. When we meet her, she’s living alone with her hamster Rex. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say Stephanie is an autobiographical character, but I will admit to knowing where she lives,” says Evanovich.
P is for Peril
Kinsey Millhone is the heroine of Sue Grafton’s “alphabet” crime series. She’s an unconventional woman: an orphan, in many ways a loner, she solves crimes in 1980s Santa Teresa, a fictionalized town based on Santa Barbara, California. And how can you not adore a woman who cuts her own hair and loves peanut butter and pickle sandwiches?
The Joy Luck Club
Lindo Jong, Ying-Ying St. Clair, An-Mei Hsu, Suyuan Woo
Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared, unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits (and money).
We love characters who surprise and inspire us, so we’ve collected some of our favorite literary heroines. These are strong, smart, courageous women. They’re not without their flaws—that’s what makes them so compelling. Complicated and fully realized, these fictional women change throughout the story and sometimes challenge our expectations. They’re the kind of characters we find ourselves thinking about long after we’ve finished the last page.
Featured image: kdmcnaught15/Twenty20