7 Novels About Women Who Reject Expectations
Laurie Elizabeth Flynn on what happens when women try to cast off the burden of societal norms
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There’s a sentence in my novel The Girls Are All So Nice Here that has remained largely unchanged from first draft to final copy: “It would be years before I realized that girls weren’t supposed to own their ambition, just lease it from time to time when it didn’t offend anyone else.”
When I wrote this line, I knew I had unearthed a major source of my main character Ambrosia’s anger: not toward anyone in particular but toward a society that asks her to have a certain attitude about her goals and achievements. She feels the need to act modest, humble, and surprised when successes happen to her, even when this is much too passive: she has worked hard to make things happen. Amb has been raised, like many of us, with the old adage: good things happen to good people. But while this sentiment is well-meaning, it fails to encompass the unspoken double standard, which is that women are expected to be good at the expense of their own desires.
The events that unfold in The Girls Are All So Nice Here are rooted in Amb wanting more than what she perceives that the world is willing to give her. When her desires mutate past the cookie-cutter shape of societal expectation, her envy takes a deadly life of its own. This book, unsurprisingly given its title, is laser-focused on girls and the labels we inherit, the assumption that we will be palatable and grateful and above all, nice. Amb comes to resent nice so much that she goes in the altogether opposite direction, to horrific consequences.
I have long been fascinated by the burden of expectations placed on women—particularly, how those constraints can be responsible for what happens when we attempt to cast them off— and I tend to gravitate toward stories that put this dynamic at the forefront. These books are ones wherein the woman at the helm wants something very different than what everyone else expects from her, and in that dichotomy, the dark underbelly of expectation is revealed.
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
Ani FaNelli lives a perfect life on the surface—a glamorous job, handsome fiancé, and lavish wedding to plan. But she has built this life on top of a very dark past. As much as she has reinvented herself, cleaving her way to her dream life with ambition and willpower, the teenage girl she used to be still lurks under the glossy facade. She feels like she should be grateful for what she has, but the pull to her past is about to resurface. As the title implies, Ani is expected to feel lucky, but the truth is so much more complicated.
Necessary People by Anna Pitoniak
Violet has long existed in the shadow of her charismatic best friend Stella, and she’s expected to feel grateful for Stella’s attention and content to fulfill her role as the hardworking, steadfast friend to Stella’s endless drama and intrigue. But when the career Violet worked hard for is threatened—by Stella herself— she discovers that she’s capable of darker deeds than she ever expected.
Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton
Louise is as plain as Lavinia is dynamic—or so we think. As their friendship plays out, Louise is the less glamorous, less interesting one, a role she plays eagerly at first as the price to pay for entering Lavinia’s orbit, until she gets a taste of what Lavinia’s life is really like—and wants more for herself. A glittering, searingly written exploration of the expectations within a friendship.
Precious You by Helen Monks Takhar
This piercingly sharp story focuses on women at two different stages of life: Katherine, in her early 40s, is a magazine editor, and Lily, in her early 20s, is an intern. Katherine is drawn to Lily at the same time as she calls her a “snowflake,” an entitled millennial. The twisted events that ensue speak not only to competition between coworkers, but how women are saddled with generational expectations and stereotypes depending on our ages.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
The titular protagonist, Queenie Jenkins, is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London and working at a newspaper. After a breakup with her white boyfriend, Queenie is sent into a tailspin of bad decisions and questions her place in the world. She faces pressure to compare herself to her white peers and finds temporary solace in men who aren’t right for her, leaving her sense of self-worth even more precarious. Her attempts to figure out exactly who she is on her own terms are raw and authentic to read.
Whisper Network by Chandler Baker
What I was immediately drawn to in Baker’s stunning debut is the use of a Greek chorus of women addressing the reader as “we,” a voice that made me feel seen and heard as a woman by airing the grievances many of us have felt at times in our lives. This story centers on the mysterious death of a male CEO and the four women who may or may not have been involved, and dives deep into toxic workplace culture and the many injustices women are expected to put up with to be part of workplace culture. The women in Whisper Network are expected to smile, put up with harassment, and never let emotions get in the way of their jobs—and at what cost?
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
In Reid’s astute, incisive debut, Emira is a Black babysitter to a wealthy white family. While watching the family’s young daughter at a local market, a racially charged incident occurs, which is captured on camera. Emira wants to move on with her life, but her employer, Alix, fixates on the event and attempts to ingratiate herself deeper and deeper into Emira’s life. Emira faces expectations from not only Alix but also Kelley, the boy she’s dating (who happens to be the one who took the video), her friends, and her employers. The intersection of other people’s demands and Emira’s own wants comes to a head in such a satisfying way.
We Can Only Save Ourselves by Alison Wisdom
Alice Lange is the popular golden girl who every parent loves, so when she goes missing, her idyllic neighborhood is left fractured. Everyone fixates on what happened to Alice—where she went, and how the signs that she was receding into a darker world might have been there for much longer than anyone suspected. This haunting story investigates the cult of suburbia, and how this can provide an expectation in and of itself: that a girl from a good family in a good neighborhood should turn out a certain way, and what happens when she wants something other than what everyone else wants for her.
The Hunting Wives by May Cobb
This bold, unapologetic novel, releasing in May, has already garnered big buzz, for good reason. Sophie has recently abandoned her Chicago career for a slower-paced lifestyle in small-town Texas with her husband and son, a lifestyle within which she’s expected to be satisfied and fulfilled. But Sophie finds herself bored quickly, and her fixation with a beautiful, charismatic socialite fills the void. She joins up with the Hunting Wives, but this is no clique of suburban moms: these women play games, some with devastating consequences. What I loved was the upending of the “old boys’ club” stereotype. These women have big sexual appetites and aren’t constrained within any sort of framework.