7 Novels About All-Women Households and Communities
Imogen Crimp, author of "A Very Nice Girl," recommends books that explore women living alone without men
Depictions of women living without men can be found in literature since the advent of the novel. From Sense and Sensibility to The Golden Notebook to Bridget Jones’ Diary, such women are often unconventional, either unwilling or unable to fit the mould prescribed to them by society. They’re threats, failures, outcasts, but they can also be trailblazers—women who want to determine their own paths.
In my novel, A Very Nice Girl, 24-year-old Anna is training to be a singer in London. At first, she lodges in an eccentric couple’s house with Laurie, a woman who she meets through the flat share, and who becomes her best friend. Later, they move to an “experiment in feminist communal living,” run by Mil, who believes that women can only fulfill their potential, can only know what they might be, without men.
The following books are all about women who are, in different ways, living without men—either out of choice, or because they’ve been compelled to, or simply because, unintentionally, that’s how their lives have turned out. Their situations are used contrastingly by each writer to explore women’s position in the world, their relationship to men and to society.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
In Sophie Mackintosh’s fairy-tale-like dystopia, three girls—Grace, Lia and Sky—live alone on an island with their parents, Mother and King. The girls were too young when they moved to now remember the outside world, but they know that it’s filled with toxins, and that the main source of these toxins are men. The girls have always relied on King for survival, but one day he leaves to get supplies and doesn’t come back, and the women are left alone. An exploration of toxic masculinity and patriarchy, Mackintosh creates a closed world which is meant to prioritize the safety of women, but where a sadistic man—King —remains entirely in charge. Only when he disappears, and three young men unexpectedly arrive on the island, do the girls start acting with autonomy and questioning what they’ve been told.
To the North by Elizabeth Bowen
To the North, Bowen’s 1932 novel, tells the story of two young women who live together—Cecilia, recently widowed after less than a year of marriage, and Emmeline, the sister of Cecilia’s late husband. The novel follows Cecilia’s reluctant move towards a second marriage, and Emmeline’s destructive love affair with the selfish and predatory Markie. Set during the interwar period, a time of much debate about the position of the single or “surplus” woman after the deaths of so many men in World War I, Bowen’s novel explores the predicament of unconventional women pursuing independent lives. The cohabitation of Emmeline and Cecilia is treated with great suspicion by the other characters in the novel, a sign of the women’s dislocation from society, in a world where “home” for a woman means the home you find with your husband. As Emmeline reflects, when she discovers that Cecilia will remarry, “houses shared with women are built on sand.”
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
Breasts and Eggs is about Natsuku, a woman in her 30s who is living alone in Tokyo while trying to be a writer. In the first part of the novel, she’s visited by her sister Makiko, an aging hostess who wants to get breast implants, and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko, who has recently hit puberty and stopped speaking. The second half of the book takes place eight years later. Natsuko, who is asexual, single and still living alone, thinks about having a baby and starts to look for sperm donors. Although punctuated by some wonderful and surprising surreal scenes, the tone of the novel is largely reflective—a ruthlessly honest exploration of the rights and wrongs of motherhood, of the different ways that women can live without men, and of whether, as a woman, you are inevitably defined and limited by having a female body.
The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift, translated by Jamie Bulloch
One of the madder all-women households in literature, The Empress and the Cake is a psychological thriller by Austrian writer Linda Stift. It begins with an elderly lady, Frau Hohenembs, offering a slice of cake to the young narrator, which triggers a relapse of the narrator’s bulimia. This is the start of an increasingly disturbing relationship with Frau Hohenembs, who believes herself to be (or perhaps really is?) the 19th-century Austrian Empress Elizabeth, known as Sissi.
Before long, the narrator has moved in with Frau Hohenembs and her housekeeper, Ida, and is sucked into performing a series of increasingly bizarre tasks for them, including stealing the Empress Sissi’s cocaine syringe from a museum, and taking part in an Empress Sissi lookalike competition. Concurrently, the narrator falls deeper into an eating disorder which dominates and limits her life. The arbitrary and increasingly restrictive rules that Frau Hohenembs exert over the narrator mirror the arbitrary restrictions of her eating disorder, with Frau Hohenembs herself also obsessed with controlling food-intake—both her own and other people’s—insisting on daily weigh-ins and food diaries for both the narrator and Ida. Haunting and surreal, The Empress and the Cake explores delusion, obsession and control, subtly demonstrating how easy it is to fall under someone—or something—else’s power.
Animal by Lisa Taddeo
Joan, 36 and single, has spent most of her life having cold and transactional relationships with men. After witnessing her former lover shoot himself in front of her at the restaurant where she’s having dinner with a new lover, she drives to Los Angeles to rent a house. She’s on a mission to meet and befriend Alice, a woman with an as yet unspecified connection to Joan’s past, and at the same time, she’s being pursued by the daughter of the deceased lover, who blames her for his death. The present day is set alongside flashbacks of Joan’s past, which gradually expose the traumas she’s experienced at the hands of men—traumas that have made her, as she terms it, “depraved.” Animal is a novel about female desire, consent and the extent to which we are defined and shaped by our pasts. In this dark and compulsive depiction of female rage, Taddeo explores the cost of surviving as a woman in a man’s world.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
A novel which focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter, Burnt Sugar explores the extent to which you can escape the legacy left by neglectful parenting. In 1980s Pune in West India, Tara is determined to pursue her own desires, regardless of their impact on her daughter Antara. Tara leaves her husband and takes Antara to live in an ashram, largely abandoning her daughter to be looked after by another woman. Three decades later, Tara has dementia, and Antara allows her to move into her house so she can look after her. The novel alternates between the past—where Antara and Tara live in instability and poverty while Tara seeks personal freedom—and the present—where a now comfortably middle-class Antara must come to terms with caring for a woman who didn’t care for her. A fiercely intelligent and nuanced novel about the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship, and the moral ambiguities inherent in seeking freedom.
Matrix by Lauren Groff
Set in a 12th-century English convent, Matrix is a reimagining of the life of Marie de France, a visionary poet about whom not much is known. Groff has creatively filled in the gaps, opening the novel with the 17-year-old Marie arriving at an English nunnery. She’s been thrown out of her beloved Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court because she’s too unattractive to be married, and has been sent to an impoverished royal abbey to become prioress. Initially, Marie is lonely and depressed, but then she decides to take charge of the nunnery, becoming prioress and then abbess. In the creation of an all-women utopia, men are expelled from the lands surrounding the convent, and a labyrinth is constructed to protect the nuns from attack. Matrix is a beautiful and profound novel about visionary leadership and the addictive nature of power.