8 Novels That Celebrate Unlikable Women
Being nice is overrated—these books center women who are mean, mad, and miserable
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One of the most important things I knew about the main character of my novel, The Unsuitable, was that she was not going to be likable. She wasn’t going to be pretty or smart. She wasn’t going to make good choices; she wasn’t going to generate instant empathy.
When I first moved to New York, I worked as a nanny for a couple who owned a bookstore, and one day the mother insisted I take home Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (full disclosure: I never brought it back), which is about a young Brazilian woman overlooked by the world for her dim wits and unremarkable looks. Since then, this idea of books driven by characters you might think have nothing to offer the world or the reader has obsessed me. How do you take a person that most would deem uninteresting, perhaps objectionable—possibly even repugnant— and make the reader care about them?
The Unsuitable is the story of Iseult Wince, unloved, unremarkable, possibly insane and possibly possessed by her dead mother. She has trouble forming connections with others, and she turns her misery in upon herself. She self-harms to maintain her precarious equilibrium, but rather than use this as a tool to merely shock the reader, I wanted to express the inner turmoil that would lead her to such desperate ends. I was curious to see if readers could stay invested in the story of a woman that many would find off-putting, given that as a reader, I consistently find myself drawn to female characters I don’t necessarily like.
These eight books, written by women, champion the unlikable woman, the hard-to-understand woman, and the madwoman.
Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker
Let’s start with a sort of…lighthearted take on mental illness? The titular Cassandra is reminiscent of some sort of Zelda Fitzgerald: her madness, obnoxiousness, and connivance are only just outweighed by how charming and brilliant and beautiful she is. It’s a beautiful, rapturous book, but you can’t help but fear for Cassandra’s future.
Harriet Said, Beryl Bainbridge
Based on the Parker-Hulme murders (recognizable to modern audiences from the film Heavenly Creatures), Bainbridge’s first novel is about a curious thirteen-year-old with a decidedly nasty side, who ropes her more naive friend into a devious plan to humiliate a middle-aged man. A critic wrote: What repulsive little creatures you have made the two central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief!
Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh
Eileen is dull, she’s unhappy, she’s perverse, and she has a range of distasteful personal habits ranging from poor hygiene to a laxative obsession. She gets away with a wild crime because she is not a person people notice or take care of; if a person has been neglected and turns out reprehensible, do they still merit our empathy? Eileen is not a woman you’d want to be friends with, but she’s undeniably fascinating.
The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek
Jelinek is a master of the grotesqueries of the human condition, and this novel of self-destruction and degradation is no exception. Erika’s quiet life as an accomplished piano teacher living with her mother belies her sadomasochistic obsession with a student, and her practices of self-harm. This novel is so shocking that drew the notoriously disturbing German director Michael Haneke, who adapted it into a movie.
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector
Oh my heart. Macabéa is ugly, pathetic, stupid, unloved by anyone, not even the repugnant man you can’t quite call her boyfriend. This brilliant novella takes an unfortunate waif that most writers wouldn’t even consider main character material, and makes the reader’s heart bleed for her, asking, “Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?” We are all monsters in one way or another, but no one story is more or less deserving of being told.
The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark
This tiny novel packs a helluva punch. You are aware from the get-go that spinster Lise is not quite right, with her outbursts, hysterics, and bold-faced lies. You are aware from chapter 3 that she is going to be murdered, and all you can do is sit back and watch her hurtling towards her doom.
The End of Alice, A.M. Homes
You certainly don’t want to identify with the protagonist of this novel, a 19-year-old girl who has set out to seduce a 12-year-old neighbor boy, and exchanges letters with an imprisoned child killer. It’s a twist on Lolita in a way, presenting us with a horror of a human being, asking if anything human remains therein.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang
The women of Kang’s three-part novel are, in a word, extreme. On one level they are calm and collected to the point of blasé, but underneath they are savage, self-punishing, almost feral. They offer no explanations for their motivations, and the line between madness and sanity becomes ever more elusive, but even as it does, their reactions to their surroundings and families are so unique and unexpected that you can’t put the book down.