11 Books About Women on the Brink
M. S. Coe, author of "The Formation of Calcium," recommends stories about women who blow up their lives to get what they want
Have you ever harbored a desire so fierce that you were consumed by it? Maybe to fall in love, or shut down a toxic mine, or reconnect with a lost family member, or move to another country? And during the day you plot out how to achieve this goal, and during the night you dream about how you will be fulfilled? Of course, life rarely works out as scheduled. In fiction, the best-laid plans more often end in messy escapades and misadventures. Desires are quicksand: the more someone pines for something, the more they’re likely to get stuck deeper in a scandalous tarpit of their own devising. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, the young doctor achieves the objective of bringing his creation to life, but at a great and unforeseen cost.
Women especially, who have been for so long boxed into domestic roles and blocked out from more ambitious goals, might risk the roof over their heads to shatter the glass ceiling. Such fearless women are willing to blow up their lives for the idea of a better future. Strong women make history, sure; but strong women also catch fire.
Then again, maybe there is a part of us that wants to create a monster. After all, aren’t we predisposed to making something in our own image?
In my second novel The Formation of Calcium, Mary Ellen Washie finds herself on the precipice: her old life has been swept into the dustbin, and she can either make a clean break, or take herself out with the trash. But “survival was the most important thing, escape, no matter how painful it might be.” She abandons her family, quits her menial part-time jobs, and hightails it to Florida, where she risks everything to become a new woman, no matter if achieving her goals will require all the fight and cunning she’s got.
In the following reading list, you will find women who struggle just as hard to give themselves what they really want—and are damned to the consequences.
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
In this dark novel, our narrator Janina is suddenly alone after her “Little Girls,” a loyal pair of mutts, disappear. She is trapped by the stark winter, the isolated location of her home, and old age, but that does not stop her from plotting to create a better world, one where animals have a voice, and their rights are more important than the law. She is driven by a “state of clarity, divine Wrath, terrible and unstoppable,” and she channels this anger into action. Janina is an engrossing narrator whose obsessions with astrology, poetry, and the mounting murder count in her small hamlet make this novel a worthwhile read.
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Sometimes what a woman wants is not accepted by society, and sometimes what she wants is plain illegal—as is the case for junior high school teacher Celeste Price, who takes the job so that, while chaperoning a school dance, she can waltz with a boy or two, her “pelvic bone ironing across the erect heat inside their rented tuxedo pants.” Celeste knows that what she craves could land her in jail, but her desire is greater than any consequence she could imagine. And, using her good looks, her husband’s money, and her influence as a teacher, she goes to incredible lengths to fulfill her fantasies.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
Yeong-hye is a completely ordinary woman—that is, until she decides to become a vegetarian in a culture where every meal is meat. This decision is influenced by her violent dreams, where the “roof of [her] mouth, slick with crimson blood,” saturates her with a “vivid, strange, horribly uncanny feeling.” Soon the world inside her head becomes all-consuming, so much so that she feels she does not need to eat anything at all: perhaps she can turn into a plant and teach herself to photosynthesize. As Yeong-hye’s family tries to exert control over her body, she burrows deeper into her mind, where a startling transformation has taken root.
Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet
Deb, our astute and sarcastic narrator, is honeymooning with Chip when a fellow vacationer who happens to be a biologist informs them that she spotted mermaids near their Caribbean resort. Deb feels certain that the biologist is insane, or perhaps on LSD, until she sees the mermaids herself while diving. Chaos ensues: the resort’s “parent company” swoops in to figure out the logistics of commercializing mermaid tours, and Deb finds herself wrapped up in a fracas to save the enthralling creatures from “a mermaid zoo.” She is ready to risk anything, and she has one excellent reason not to hold back.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Connie is able to communicate with the year 2137, and so her present declares her crazy. This feminist classic explores a utopian future in which individualism is prized: people cannot be committed to an institution against their will, labor is equally proportioned, no one is homeless or marginalized or discriminated against—all the issues that plague Connie’s 1970s New York life have vanished. Through time travel, Connie experiences the sort of future she wants to be a part of, but she soon learns that she is an integral step in creating that future—and she decides to rebel against her present situation, to battle against her repressors, because she realizes that she is at war, and that the fate of the human race depends on her winning.
N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Ann Sherif
North Point is the title of a sad, old song, and Kazami finds herself caught up in its mood, despite the fact that the summer days are clear and blue. She lost her voice during an illness, and without that communicative instrument, she experiences synesthesia; she begins to view language “as a tool that encompasses both a single moment and eternity.” But when her boyfriend commits suicide after attempting to translate the final short story of a famous Japanese writer who composed it just before his own death, she leaves her comfort zone to figure out what went wrong. As the end of summer looms and she surrounds herself with people obsessed by suicide, she realizes that she needs to fight for happiness, for love, and for her life.
I Am Not Ashamed by Barbara Payton
In this jaw-dropping memoir, former Hollywood starlet Barbara Payton spills her guts, lets all the cats out of the bag, and cackles while the felines snack on the entrails. At the time of the telling, Payton is 35, fuels herself with cheap wine, and pays for her vermin-infested apartment via “favors” to men; but her focus is on the past, when she was a coveted movie star “sitting on top of the world and going higher.” Her calculated manipulation of those around her result in the highest highs and the lowest lows of a life lived to the extreme. Barbara sets lofty goals for herself—“I filed for divorce and decided to become a movie star. Just like that”—and she achieves them.
Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker
This experimental work—part novel, play, poetry, drawings, and dream maps—is a trippy dive into Janey’s quest for power and sex. Janey lives with her father/boyfriend in Mexico until he decides to leave her for a woman named Sally, which plunges Janey into a surreal journey to realize her self-worth. She meets Jean Genet and President Carter, as well as figures such as Death and Mr. Blowjob. Janey is the sort of wild child who does whatever, whenever; she follows her whims and interests, and her rich inner life, displayed in exquisite detail on the page, makes this an engrossing piece full of abrupt turns.
Cenote City by Monique Quintana
Lune works in Storylandia, “a place where mothers and fathers bring their children to learn about fantastical things right before they tell them to stop believing in fantastical things.” Her mother Marcrina, once a midwife, now cries enormous tears that fill a deep, mysterious cenote. When The Generales, who control Cenote City, decide to make Marcrina and her cenote a tourist attraction, Lune knows that she will need to risk everything in order to steal her mother away. But as the worlds of the living and los muertos become more and more intertwined, Lune realizes that her mother might not need to be saved after all.
Oreo by Fran Ross
Christine “Oreo” Clark is completely her own person, and though she is just a kid, “because of her constant bullshit, she was often disguised as an adult.” Her family knows that she will go far after young Oreo strangles a lion coat with her jump rope—she thought the coat was alive and wasn’t afraid one bit. Oreo is strong and witty and blessed as any Greek hero, and when she leaves home at sixteen after her Black mother provides her with the clues to search for her Jewish father, the adventures she encounters are legendary. This book goes to extremes of humor, language, and culture, and in the end, nothing is black or white.
The Whore by Márcia Barbieri, translated by Adrian Minckley
Anúncia, the town whore, recounts her life of conquests and defiance in this monologue that follows lines of thought as whimsically as an Exquisite Corpse is drawn—and there are plenty of body parts, living and dead and in-between, that make their appearance throughout this orgiastic tale. In the post-apocalyptic setting, “the population dropped almost to zero,” but Anúncia survives, and though the earth has become infertile, she seeks out abortion after abortion as she believes “a child is a loogie you forgot you swallowed that ends up sliding out your pussy hole.” But when she becomes impregnated with a fetus that won’t come out and consequently falls in love with Flamenca, her abortionist, her life takes an unexpected path.