On the eve of her wedding, a young woman wonders if she's ready to commit to her picture-perfect fiancé.
A lonely, overweight 20-something is working a dead-end job as an advice columnist when someone unexpected enters her life and shakes things up.
These may sound like stories you've read before. But this summer, two fearless debut novelists are pushing the boundaries, releasing female-centered stories that blend dark twists and searing social commentary.
Lily Wilder, the narrator of Eliza Kennedy's I Take You (Crown, May), is doubting her decision to marry—but not for the reasons you'd expect. Lily, a successful lawyer, isn't afraid that the ceremony won't be perfect, that she's not good enough for Will or that he'll run out on her: She's worried that marriage will cramp her not-exactly-monogamous lifestyle.
And Plum Kettle, the overweight protagonist of Sarai Walker's Dietland (HMH, June)? The person she meets who changes her life isn't a man, but a mysterious young woman who initiates the virtually housebound Plum (who is planning on having bariatric surgery) into a secret society of guerrilla fighters who are committing terrorist acts against the patriarchy. (No surprise, The Sun's page 3 is among the targets.)
Both Lily and Plum are heroines who lie outside the social norms. Lily loves her fiancé, Will, but she also loves sex—lots of it. She isn't sure if she can change that about herself, or if she even wants to, even though by accepting his proposal she's signed on to try.
Likewise, Plum is not conventionally beautiful–and maybe not even unconventionally beautiful, although it's hard to tell since Plum is only ever described through her own very critical eyes. All her life, Plum has defined herself by her weight, spending years on thankless diets waiting for her skinny self—whom she calls Alicia—to emerge so she can finally start living.
Still, it's not entirely unusual for stories to start out with women who don't conform to the norms. After all, that's why their lives aren't perfect, right? As the pages turn, you're waiting for the moment when Lily and Plum transform, become what society expects—which makes you realize just how well-trodden the tropes of women's fiction can be. But as Dietland and I Take You approach their very different but equally satisfying conclusions, it becomes clear that this isn't the point. Plum and Lily aren't the ones who need to change—the world is.
These two daring debuts introduce authors who have something to say.
Author Jennifer Chiaverini is no stranger to research—she's included historical elements in many of her 23 novels. In her latest, Mrs. Grant and Madam Jule, she goes back to the 19th century to explore the life of First Lady Julia Grant and her slave, Jule. In a guest blog post, Chiaverini shares five of the most memorable tidbits from her extensive research.
guest post by Jennifer Chiaverini
In March 1865, only a few weeks before the end of the Civil War, the tempestuous Mary Lincoln accompanied her husband on a visit to General Ulysses S. Grant’s military headquarters at City Point, Virginia, where she had a very public meltdown. In the thankless role of Mrs. Lincoln’s hostess, Julia Grant tried to calm her, only to bring Mrs. Lincoln’s wrath down upon herself. Mrs. Lincoln angrily accused the general’s wife of coveting her place in the White House, a charge Mrs. Grant calmly denied—little suspecting that four years later, her husband would be sworn in as the 18th president of the United States and she would become First Lady.
This astonishing altercation between Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant has gone down in history thanks to the many eyewitness accounts recorded in letters and memoirs, but most people today don’t know these five other surprising things about the famously friendly and admired First Lady Julia Grant:
1. Julia Grant was afflicted with strabismus, more colloquially known as crossed eyes.
Her vision was so impaired that she could read, write or sew only briefly before the strain exhausted her, so Ulysses often read aloud or wrote letters for her. She was self-conscious of her appearance, and whenever she was photographed, she almost always sat in profile in an attempt to disguise her condition. As Ulysses’ fame grew and Julia became more of a public figure, she inquired about corrective surgery so that she “might not be so very, very plain.” She was disappointed to learn that nothing could be done, for the operation could have succeeded only if it had been performed in childhood.
2. Julia claimed to experience prophetic visions and dreams
She was correct so often that her family learned to trust her intuition. In her memoirs, published 73 years after her death, she describes several unsettling premonitions that she later learned coincided with moments her husband had been in grave danger on the battlefield. In Washington a few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender, she was seized by such intense, overwhelming dread that she begged Ulysses to depart for their home in New Jersey immediately. A few hours after their train left the capital, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.
3. Although Julia and Ulysses enjoyed a long and happy marriage, when they first fell in love, their families did not want them to wed.
Although Julia’s mother thought highly of Ulysses and supported the match, her father argued that Julia’s constitution made her poorly suited for the arduous, roving life of a military wife and suggested Ulysses marry her younger sister instead. When Ulysses rejected this proposal, Julia’s father insisted on a long engagement while the enamored lieutenant was off serving in the Mexican War. For their part, Ulysses’ staunchly abolitionist parents were appalled that their son intended to marry the daughter of Missouri slaveowners, and they refused to attend the wedding.
4. Throughout the Civil War, rather than remain safe at home, Julia often lived with her husband at military headquarters.
Ulysses hated to be away from his family, and as the army moved, he would summon Julia to join him as soon as he established a secure location. According to historian Candice Shy Hooper, during the four years of the Civil War Julia traveled more than 10,000 miles to be with her husband, sometimes through enemy territory. In an era when long-distance travel was difficult and exhausting even when the trains ran on time, the weather was fair, and the roads weren’t thick rivers of mud, Julia—and her four young children, who often accompanied her—risked disease, death and capture whenever they journeyed between home and headquarters.
5. Although Julia was married to the commander in chief of the Union armies in the war that would end slavery in the United States forever, she herself kept slaves.
Her favorite maid—a woman also named Julia but usually called Black Julia or Jule—often accompanied her mistress when she joined Ulysses at military headquarters. Both women risked certain danger as they journeyed to and from the field of war, but for Jule, the hazards of travel also brought knowledge and opportunity, and she eventually made a daring bid for freedom. Though historians debate whether Julia or her father was actually Jule’s legal owner, there is no doubt that the future First Lady benefited from the enslavement and exploitation of other human beings for almost 40 years.
author photo by Steven Garfinkel
It's still early in 2015, but at least one unknown female author has already rocketed to the top of bestseller lists (we're looking at you, Paula Hawkins!). Which other women will join her this year? Here's our list of the top 10 candidates.
THE FAIR FIGHT
Riverhead • April 14
Fans of authors like Sarah Waters and Michel Faber will thrill to Anna Freeman's debut, The Fair Fight, an exciting historical novel set in the little-known world of women's bare-knuckle boxing. Yes, in 1800s England, women—at least, some women—were allowed to escape the confines of the home to fight for prizes that were twice the annual salary of a housemaid (one of the few occupations for women at the time). But Freeman, who is a poet and lectures in English at Bath Spa University, goes beyond the blood splatters and missing teeth to take a broader look at the limitations of class and gender, encouraging readers to ponder who (if any) among her characters is given a fair fight.
Thomas Dunne • April 21
An artful mix of suspense, fantasy and social critique, Emily Schultz's The Blondes puts a feminist twist on the dystopian stories that have been crowding fiction shelves for the last several years. It's the near future in New York City, and grad student Hazel is pregnant after an affair with a married man. She's also confined to the house thanks to a mysterious virus that is turning blonde women into cold-blooded killers (luckily, Hazel is a natural redhead). Now blondes are no longer the butt of jokes but the world's worst nightmare. Schultz's work has been praised by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Stephen King (who gave an unwitting bump to her first novel, Joyland, when he published a book by the same name)—look for The Blondes to be embraced by an equally diverse group of readers.
Pamela Dorman • May 5
Retellings of Jane Eyre are not exactly thin on the ground (see 1 2 3 4), but Queens-born writer Patricia Park takes a fresh tack in her debut, Re Jane. She casts the quiet but strong-willed heroine as a mixed-race Korean orphan living with relatives in 2001 Flushing—and that's just the first twist Park puts on her decidedly 21st-century, girl-power take on the beloved classic, which sends its heroine from Brooklyn to Gangam and back again. Park, a Korean-American who spent time in Seoul on a Fulbright scholarship and has studied under the novelist Ha Jin, expertly details the cultural divides facing her heroine, adding another dimension to a tale that might otherwise seem too familiar.
GIRL AT WAR
Random House • May 12
It's impossible for those who have not experienced civil war to truly know what it's like—and that's one of the themes of 28-year-old Sara Nović's sensitive debut novel, Girl at War. Moving back and forth between 1991 Croatia and 2001 New York City, the story follows main character Ana as she survives a dangerous childhood and attempts to transition to a new family and culture in the United States. Nović's descriptions of Ana's wartime childhood convey how war can be both shocking and mundane as violence becomes part of everyday life. Girl at War was acquired and edited by Random House's David Ebershoff, who knows his talent: He was the editor of not one but two of the 2013 Pulitzer winners (The Orphan Master's Son and Embers of War).
Amistad • May 26
Novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez's 2010 debut, Wench, was a word-of-mouth hit with readers and explored a lesser-known corner of American history: the resorts where plantation owners would vacation with their enslaved mistresses. Her long-awaited second novel, Balm, takes an equally unflinching look at America's past and should bring this talented writer to an even bigger audience. Set in post-Civil War Chicago, it follows three strangers—a widowed white woman, a freeborn black woman from Tennessee and a former slave whose wife was sold away from him before the war—who move to the city for a chance to start over but are unable to completely shed their pasts.
THE BOOK OF SPECULATION
St. Martin's • June 23
Erika Swyler's debut, The Book of Speculation, is a bookish mystery with a supernatural twist. In a dilapidated house on Long Island Sound, librarian Simon Watson presides over a crumbling family legacy—until the day an old book arrives on his doorstep. It's the journal of a carnival owner, and it's connected to the drowning death of Simon's mother. Can he solve the mystery before his sister meets the same fate? Swyler, who has written short fiction and worked as a playwright, probes the bonds of sibling love and loyalty with the same authenticity she brings to the book's more magical elements, giving the novel surprising depth. Fans of family sagas with a touch of the fantastic should flock to it.
Harper • July 28
TV producer and author Lissa Evans is well known in her native England (fellow Brit Paula Hawkins is a fan), but this summer she's being published for the first time in the U.S. Crooked Heart is her fourth novel, and her second for an adult audience. Set during World War II, it follows a 10-year-old orphan who's a crime novel aficionado. He's evacuated during the Blitz and rehomed with Vera Sedge, a down-on-her-luck single mother with a penchant for money-making schemes, and the two form an unlikely bond. Their odd-couple friendship will appeal to readers of books like Lost & Found, and Evans' authentic period tone evokes the subtle charm of midcentury classics like I Capture the Castle.
Touchstone • August 18
Susan Barker made the 2008 longlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize with her second novel, The Orientalist and the Ghost, but she's hovered just below most readers' radars. That just might change with the release of The Incarnations, a suspenseful tour through Chinese history and folklore that was described as "China's Midnight's Children" when it was published in the U.K. last year. In modern-day Beijing, Wang, a taxi driver, is being stalked by someone who claims to be his soul mate. As letters appear in his taxi telling the stories of their past lives over the last 1,000 years—all of which end in tragedy or betrayal—Wang's paranoia about his watcher's identity increases, and he begins to wonder if history will repeat itself.
St. Martin's • August 18
Celebrity authors may strike seven-figure deals without breaking a sweat, but for unknown writers, having a book snapped up at a price like that is a little less common. That is just one of the things that makes New York Times reporter Stephanie Clifford's first novel, Everybody Rise, a standout. Set in 2006 New York City, the book plumbs the unfailingly popular literary trope of the young and privileged in Manhattan, as seen through the eyes of an imposter in their ranks. The film rights have been secured by Fox 2000.
FSG • October 6
OK, so maybe it's a little sneaky to put an author who's already a bestseller on a list like this. But Sloane Crosley (I Was Told There'd Be Cake) is making a transition from humorous essays to fiction—and I for one am intrigued about how she'll do it. The Clasp is described as "a comedy of manners," which is a novelistic genre that's a perfect match for Crosley's talents. Other intriguing elements include the exploration of how college friendships start to change in your late 20s, a madcap search for a missing family heirloom and a nod to Guy de Maupassant.
Check out our track record by viewing past women to watch lists here.
It's Oscar Season, and if you have Hollywood on the brain, it's the perfect time to dive into Kate Alcott's new novel. In A Touch of Stardust, the author of The Dressmaker turns back the clock to the 1930s and puts readers on the tension-filled set of Gone With the Wind.
We see through the eyes of Julie Crawford, a would-be screenwriter who's still somewhat starstruck by the personalities she encouters during her work at the studio's publicity offices. But when Carole Lombard—who is currently involved with Clark Gable—hires Julie as her PA, the Midwestern girl starts seeing celebrities in a whole new light. But the magic of the movies persists.
Each morning, she pulled herself from bed and joined the cleaning ladies and the plumbers and other sleepy travelers on the 5:00 a.m. bus to get to the studio early. That way, she could step onto the back lot alone and be in the old South and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. In front of Tara, the trees that had been fashioned over telephone poles looked real, and if she hadn't known the dogwood blossoms were made of white paper, the illusion would have been complete. It just took believing. She loved watching it grow—over fifty building façades now, and two miles of streets. It didn't matter that she walked in a landscape of glued plasterboard, a place of fake structures held together by little more than Selznick's frenzied dreams. It was vividly real.
What are you reading this week?
Actor, writer and onetime Oscar host James Franco has been tapped to star in TV streaming service Hulu's adaptation of 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Franco will play Jake Epping, an unassuming high school teacher who travels back in time to kill Lee Harvey Oswald.
King has an executive producer credit for the adaptation, which was optioned by J.J. Abrams' production company and will air as a nine-part "limited series." This is the highest profile original program to date for Hulu, which has yet to have a breakout hit like Netflix's "House of Cards" or "Orange Is the New Black." Though previous adaptations of King's work are definitely hit or miss, they're always high profile, and the hook of 11/22/63 is an attention-grabber. Will you watch it?
Lovers of British literature have a lot to look forward to in 2015, as three beloved bestsellers make their way to the small screen as miniseries adaptations.
First up is J.K. Rowling's first post-Potter work, A Casual Vacancy, which BBC One will air in the U.K. later this month (
no U.S. date has been set yet) and HBO will air in the U.S. on April 29 and 30. The cast of mostly lesser-known British actors does include Michael Gambon, who starred as Albus Dumbledore in the later Harry Potter films. When it was released in 2012, A Casual Vacancy surprised Rowling's millions of fans with its dark, realist take on life in small-town Britain, and the adaptation looks appropriately gritty. (read our review)
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is next up, making its royal bow to U.S. audiences on April 5 as part of PBS' "Masterpiece Classic" series. Starring "Homeland" star Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and lauded British actor Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell, this meticulously staged (well, almost) six-part drama is sure to be a spring highlight. (read our review)
And finally, a miniseries we've been looking forward to since it was announced in 2013: The BBC America adaptation of Susanna Clarke's Hugo Award-winning novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (read our review). This tale of rival magicians in an alternate Regency England could be difficult to translate to film, but early indications point to the producers getting it exactly right, as shown in this teaser clip.
Which of these do you think is the best bet to join North & South (Richard Armitage version, natch) and Andrew Davies' Pride and Prejudice and in the literary adaptation hall of fame?
In her latest novel, Girl Before a Mirror, Liza Palmer puts a recently divorced ad exec in charge of a competition involving seven sexy male cover models. But it's a British financial consultant who really challenges Anna's self-imposed dating sabbatical. Palmer, who earned two Emmy nominations for her work on VH1's "Pop-Up Video," is known for writing thought-provoking love stories that take unpredictable turns. In this guest post, she talks about how she learned to own up to loving what she loves—no matter what "they" think.
By Liza Palmer
Growing up, I’d been pop culturally feral. No television until my 20s, no money in the oft-empty coffers to see movies, the only music we had was the 101 Dalmatians book on record and the Annie soundtrack. And while my mom had her fancy college books, I wasn’t truly swept away by a book until I read The Color Purple in high school.
Combine this with a circle of friends that were about as with it as I was and you’ve got a childhood far removed from the fandoms and peer pressure that usually mold us whether we like it or not. So, when I liked a thing, I just got to like it. And when I loved a thing, I got to love with it my everything. The Twilight Bark can still bring me to tears, and don’t even get me started on making something shine like the top of the Chrysler building.
And then it happens. Maybe you announce—HYPOTHETICALLY, OF COURSE—that your favorite song is “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang and it’s met with snickering and some side eye. Maybe you proudly tell your friends that you bought that new Oakridge Boys tune and . . . maybe you hum a few bars of “Elvira” and learn that not everyone is as big a fan of multi-harmony genius as you are. And because being different in junior high was second only to death, I adapted. But, what started as me adapting came very close to ending with me disappearing.
If I liked a thing, I learned whether it was something I could like out loud or in secret. These were the books I could proudly display, and these were the ones I read when no one was around. These were the songs I put on mixes and these were the songs I told people I listened to “at the gym.” These were the movies I tweeted about and these were the movies I told people I liked “ironically.”
The me that loved things with all my heart got eroded away until I didn’t even remember what loving things purely felt like anymore. And although it feels slightly melodramatic, once I’d been corrupted it was much easier to then join the ranks of those who made fun of people who had the audacity to love the things that made them happy out loud, no matter the protest.
We are told that these *points to a very high shelf full of fancy things* are IMPORTANT. And if we don’t like these fancy things then we ourselves are not important. If we say we didn’t like it, we are told we didn’t “get it.” If we enjoy something They feel is pedestrian, then we become the reason our civilization is crumbling.
But then, the voice of reason came crackling through the darkness. And, as is usually the way in my life, the voice of reason was Joshua from WarGames.
“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”
The only winning move is not to play—whether we’re talking about Global Thermonuclear war or being true to oneself. I am valuable not because of the things I like, but because of the person I am. I am more than an algorithm. We deserve more than a brooding barista who only likes us because he thinks we like jazz. It’s time to recapture that same little kid sprawled out on our bedroom floors surrounded by an explosion of the things that made us happy.
We get to say what is important. And if something makes you happy, then it’s important. And guys. The Oakridge Boys are a really good band.
A novel about female wrestlers in the 1950s? Sign this jaded fiction editor up—that's not a summary I read every day. In Angelina Mirabella's winning (ha) debut novel, 17-year-old Leonie is stuck in Philly, waiting tables and caring for her aging father. But then a wrestling promoter walks into her diner and her life is changed forever—she's off to Florida to train at Joe Pospisil's School for Lady Grappling.
Mirabella tells her story in the second person, allowing the reader to fully step into Leonie's shoes, like a choose-your-own-adventure. Here's Leonie in the ring for the first time, with a fellow trainee and friend, Peggy.
"I'm sorry. What do you want us to do?" [Peggy] ventures.
"What do you mean, what do I want you to do?" Joe asks, his hands extended in front of him. "This is a match. You are opponents. So wrestle, damn it."
"Oh," you say, blinking back at Peggy. The two of you stare at each other for a while, each waiting for the other to begin, to offer up some clue as to how this might go. Thankfully, Peggy steps forward and takes you by the soulders, granting you permission to do the same. It is a strange sensation, to be locked in ref's position with her—not just another woman, but a buddy. It is a decidedly tentative press, and it makes you tentative, too. How real should this be? What are the boundaries? And what is she to you, exactly? Is she your colleague, or your rival?
"Well, this is boring," says Joe. "Would either of you care to do anything that might keep a paying customer from walking out?"
"Like this?" says Peggy, and she drops down and grabs your legs out from under you.
What are you reading this week?
The National Book Critics Circle has chosen the finalists for their annual awards, which will be announced on March 12 in New York City (if you're local, you can watch for yourself—the ceremony is open to the public). Check out the fiction and nonfiction finalists below, and visit their site for the full list.
Paula Hawkins has something to smile about. Her novel, The Girl on the Train, will top this week's New York Times bestseller list. That's quite a feat for any author, let alone an unknown: This is the first time that a debut novel* has made the #1 spot in its first week on sale since Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian was published in 2005. According to the publishers, Riverhead, more than 300,000 copies are in print, and the book is being sold at unconventional retail outlets, including Urban Outfitters.
We weren't surprised to hear that the unexpected twists and turns of The Girl on the Train got readers buzzing—they definitely had our editors intrigued. In her BookPage interview, Hawkins talked about the difficulty of surprising readers with twists that still manage to function as an "ah-ha" moment.
“It’s all about feeding tiny pieces of information, but hopefully keeping them slightly ambivalent. You have to have different people see different things in different ways, and hold back particular pieces of information,” she explains.
Hawkins is hard at work on another book, although it is quite likely that touring for The Girl on the Train will be keeping her busy for the next several weeks—she'll be appearing at Nashville's own Parnassus Books on February 8.
Have you picked up The Girl on the Train yet?
*Hawkins has published other novels under a pseudonym—we're betting they are on the way to the printers as we speak.