New novels feature strong women who span 20th and 21st centuries
Unforgettable stories make for the most compelling books. Here are five new novels with strong female characters and stories to match.
The Last Romantics, Tara Conklin, HarperCollins
The woman who relates her family’s history is Fiona Skinner. It is 2079 and she is 102, standing before an audience discussing her masterwork, , which she wrote 80 years before. She begins in 1981 with the death of her father, after which her mother retired to her bedroom for several years, a period the four Skinner children – Renee, 11, Caroline, 8, Joe, 7, and Fiona, 4 — henceforth refer to as the Pause. It is during this period that they learn to fend for themselves and one another. Each goes on to lives of significance and moment. An unforgettable novel, highly recommended.
Adèle, Leila Slimani, trans. Sam Taylor, Penguin
is Leila Slimani’s first novel, released in France in 2014 and now published in English following the massive success last year of her second novel, . is a character study of a Paris journalist with a seemingly enviable life – surgeon husband, young son, elegant Paris apartment. And yet Adèle, bored by her bourgeois existence, endangers everything because of her attraction to sex with strangers and acquaintances. The opposite of an erotic novel, the writing is cool and uninflected.
The Age of Light, Whitney Scharer, Little Brown
This historical novel is based on the life of Lee Miller, the model who famously said, “I’d rather take a photograph than be one,” whereupon she became the protégé and lover of the Surrealist photographer Man Ray. Whitney Scharer’s first novel has a dual timeline. The first documents Miller’s relationship with Man Ray in the early ’30s, beginning with their surreal meeting in 1929 in a Paris opium den, concluding in 1932 when she chose her art over her heart. This interlude is punctuated by the arc of her life, as model, as photographer, as war correspondent, as cooking columnist, all for .
The Red Address Book, Sofia Lundberg, trans. Alice Menzies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Doris is 96, living alone in Stockholm. She spends her days gathering memories from her old address book of those who have passed through her eventful life — as a rural Swedish girl, as a “living mannequin” in Paris, as a young woman pursuing the love of her life to a long-ago Manhattan. Thanks to a caregiver, Doris has technology (“It makes waiting for death a little more bearable,” the old woman observes), which allows her to make a permanent record of those long-ago events, a gift to her beloved American grandniece, Jenny, and the readers of this charming novel.
The Island of Sea Women, Lisa See, Scribner
The setting of Lisa See’s eleventh novel is Jeju, a Korean island with a distinct language and traditions, the most unusual of which is a gender reversal wherein the women divers — the — work the seas for abalone, shellfish and other treasures while the men assume the domestic duties and child rearing. At the centre of this multi-generational tale are two , Young-sook, born to the sea, and Mi-ja, the child of a man who collaborated with the hated Japanese. The story spans 70 years, beginning in 1938, the day that Young-sook and Mi-ja start their careers as divers. This is a story of friendship and heartache and, finally, a belated reconciliation. Delicious prose and a story about a real society that at times reads like a masterwork of speculative fiction.
Sarah Murdoch is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Reach her via email: