The Doctor’s Wife by M. E. Braddon. Just as last year was my Year of Elizabeth Gaskell, 2015 was my year of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Like George Eliot, Braddon had the audacity to live with a man who was not her husband in the 19th century; unlike Eliot, Braddon wrote sensation novels about crime and adultery and mistaken identities, which were wildly popular in her day and somewhat forgotten in ours. Like P. D. James in our era, Braddon was a very smart and self-aware writer of genre. In fact, The Doctor’s Wife was so fun for me to read because it pushes back against some of the genre expectations. The doctor’s wife is not particularly clever but is an ardent reader of sensation novels, so you assume she’s going to end up like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. But she refuses, and meanwhile there’s a lot of great commentary on the genre as well as on popular art and poetry of the period.
The Doctor’s Wife is also long and rambling, so it might not be everyone’s jam. If not, try Lady Audley’s Secret, which is a fairly tight thriller and also includes some sick burns against Pre-Raphaelite painting. I also read Braddon’s Henry Dunbar, The Golden Calf, and The Phantom Fortune, which are a bit shorter and all very absorbing.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. My love for this quiet and meditative post-apocalyptic novel is well-documented.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. In summary, this book is like a checklist of details I would normally find boring or played out: small town in the 1970s, dead teenage girl, family drama, etc. etc. Yet this is one of the most elegantly written and finely imagined novels I’ve read all year. As the teen girl’s family staggers and breaks down in the wake of her death, the narrative wheels back and forth in time to reveal a thousand decisions and circumstances–racial microaggressions, gendered expectations, the burden of familial love and the loneliness of social isolation–that brought them all to this juncture…. suggesting that no one, but really everyone, is responsible for the tragedy. I drank the book up in two days and cried a lot as it was ending.
If you’ve read it and loved it too, check out this lovely and thoughtful interview with the author courtesy of Nicole S Chung on The Toast.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. King Lear set on a family-run farm in mid-century Midwest, told from the perspective of the eldest daughter Ginny. The Lear adaptation is no mere gimmick: although there are recognizable allusions to the play, this is Ginny’s story and the major and minor dramas of her life are modern and finely detailed. It’s a great food studies book: lots of domestic and agriculture asides–I was wound up for days after finishing this book, thinking that I ought to be mending or putting up pickles or cooking breakfast for somebody–and the characters’ struggle with organic and traditional farming technique is still very relevant. The book is also horrifying and tragic, but beautifully told.
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. Most of the time when I am praising books, I say “I couldn’t put it down!” But I did put this book down, often, and I read it very slowly, especially at the beginning: it is so dense with sensory detail and cultural hints about its fantasy realms that it’s like every scene unfolds in slow motion. But this makes sense for the narrator, who travels the island pepper farm of his childhood to a decadent empire across the sea, and immerses himself completely in the experiences of being in the big city. I took little sips of this book for the first quarter of it, and then suddenly things picked up and hurtled toward a rather unexpected convergence of ghost story, adventure story, and love story. This is a book to buy in print, not on Kindle as I did; it’s a book that revels in books, the highs and lows of giving oneself over to storytelling, and it would be a pleasure to read it in a more tactile form.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I picked up this book at the recommendation of Michelle Vider and it did not disappoint. Do not judge it by the free sample, if you go that route, because the story begins very comfortable and familiar with an ordinary girl who turns out to be secretly extraordinary. But then there’s a battle a mere quarter of the way through, and then another, and then another, and the author does not pull punches on these scenes, which are rendered in cinematic detail and are all the scarier and higher stakes in contrast with scenes of beauty and wonder and the raw vulnerability of the heroine. I did not mean to read this book in three days but I couldn’t do otherwise.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I actually started this book several years ago, but set it aside for some reason. I remember liking it well enough to read some passages out loud to my partner of that time, but I wasn’t expecting the level of self-referential snark and breaking the fourth wall, and probably moved on to a novel of more traditional manners. But I returned to it this year expressly for those qualities, and it is a delight, even though I was deeply horrified by Catherine’s terrible friends. Also: “That is a compliment which gives me no pleasure” is the perfect hollaback, and while I don’t think Catherine is capable of delivering it with the icy contempt it deserves, I am sure that I can.
Honorable mentions: I did read Ancillary Justice, and while I found the writing a little unsatisfying–it’s hard to keep up with that ambitious worldbuilding, maybe–I did find its galaxy and its story very interesting and would be happy to talk about it with you! (In fact I have a half-written post in the draft box that uses the ship’s plural perspectives to draw out some of my weird feelings about working in retail, so we’ll get to it.) And I read Lolly Willowes, a short and pleasant novel about a 19th century woman who gives the finger to the marriage plot and becomes a witch. A post I wrote about that book for my food blog got Freshly Pressed and now I have something like three thousand “followers,” some percentage of which may be real humans.
Last year, when I tallied up my favorite books written by female authors, I resolved to find and read more books by queer and nonwhite authors in 2015. I did not fully see this resolution through, in a large part due to the unusual circumstances of my year: I quit my full-time job to work toward completing my dissertation, leaving less money and less mental energy for leisure reading. When I did read for fun, I chose cheap or free books within my comfort zones: popular novels by 19th century women, fantasy fiction, etc. I also re-read a lot of books this year: some for my dissertation, others for comfort.
For the next year, I look forward to doing a little more research and expanding my literary horizons: Ancillary Justice gave me a taste for science fiction, a genre I haven’t spent much time with since I was a teen, and I know there are a number of women out there doing amazing work in the genre. If you’d like to follow along, I keep my shelf up to date on Booklikes.