In honor of Women's History Month I asked a handful of my favorite book bloggers to contribute a title that 1) has a female protagonist and 2) is set in another era. (For those who are curious, I defined "another era" as any year before the advent of the VCR.)
The 8 books below are the result and as an added bonus, it so happens that all 8 were written by a woman as well. I hope some of these titles are new to you and generate lively discussion for your book club.
by Nancy Horan
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan is about a woman who made some unpopular choices that were outrageous in her day. Mamah Borthwick Cheney was a married woman who had an affair with the very famous and very married Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1907, both Frank and Mamah publicly and scandalously left their spouses and children (8 children between them) to go overseas for two years to carry on their affair, and continued to be together after returning home to this country. Frank built Mamah a home in Wisconsin called Taliesin, where they lived together out of wedlock until Mamah’s untimely death in 1914. The issues Loving Frank brought up are still relevant today. My book club talked about feminism, a woman's place (then and now), maternal love vs. romantic love, duty, obligation, motherhood, careers and more. We talked about public people who've left their spouses for others (Brad Pitt, for instance) and how they are treated in the media. We discussed how women are treated differently from men in that regard (Britney Spears and how she's been skewered for being a poor mother). Loving Frank is a good book — and a really good book for a book club. Ms. Horan did extensive research and then convincingly fleshed out her characters through fictional dialogue and situations that seemed very true and believable. It's historical fiction at its best. If you want to spark a great discussion with your book group, I would highly recommend it.
by Lisa See
This novel is an unflinching, sometimes brutal portrayal of life for women in 19th century China. It's also the story of a friendship between women that must have been very rare in such a time. The novel depicts the mysterious ritual of foot-binding and the little-known tradition of women's "secret writing," called nu shu, and so opens the hidden world of these women. Yet despite all the restrictions on their lives — and despite their human flaws — these women survived and created intimate lifelong relationships with one another. Clearly, there's more than enough fodder for any book club to discuss and debate.
by Donna Woolfolk Cross
This is one of my all-time favorite books because it really got me thinking, and made me want to go look things up to see if it was true/could be true/may have been true... in other words, perfect to get a discussion going for a book club. Pope Joan is the story of Joan, living in the 800s, who broke the rules to make her life what she wanted it to be. Her journey is fascinating, her destination is incredible, and her story makes excellent fodder for book clubs.
by Cathy Marie Buchanan
In the Author Notes of The Day the Falls Stood Still, Buchanan states that she "set out to write a novel capturing the wonder I feel while standing at the brink of the falls." The result is an engrossing history of Niagara Falls in the early 1900s, a beautiful love story, a treatise on the pull of industry and our need to save our natural resources, and a testament to love, grief and faith. And, beyond all of those substantial subjects, a moving and profound hero(ine)'s journey! The heroine is born to a life of privilege, but circumstances both global and personal require her to create a new vision of success and happiness. In the meantime, she finds enduring love in a mysterious man who knows the river and Niagara Falls like no one else. The responsibilities of family compel him to take a job with the very power company that is siphoning his beloved river. Buchanan does an excellent job portraying the struggle Tom must resolve within himself as well as Bess's struggle to support her husband — as well as her family. I think readers who enjoyed Laura Ingalls or My Antonia — stories about strong, plucky women who are determined to survive and endure — even during times of sadness, times of deprivation, times of war — will especially enjoy this debut novel.
by Jennifer Donnelly
This is a beautifully written book with well-developed, complicated characters who make difficult choices. It makes a great book to discuss in a book club — especially a mother-daughter book club — because it provides an entrée to discuss 1) the limitations put on women by society in the early 1900s and 2) how girls’ choices in life are so different now from when the characters were living... or even from when the moms were growing up. Set in upstate New York, A Northern Light weaves the real-life story of Grace Brown, a young girl who drowned at an Adirondack summer camp, into the fictional story of Mattie Gokey. Mattie's mother has died, and while she feels pressured to stay home and take care of her father and sisters, she dreams of college and a life far away. Donnelly flawlessly weaves in vivid details of life in the Adirondacks — lumbering camps, isolated farms, summer camps for wealthy tourists, supply boats, and one-room schoolhouses—that transports the reader back to that time in history.
by Valerie Martin
Property is the story of Manon, a white woman in the 1820s living on a plantation in Louisiana. She's married to a plantation owner whom she despises, in part because of his relationship with her slave, Sarah. The author is a spare, clean writer, capable of delivering devastating lines of dialogue or description with barely a flourish. She doesn't shy away from disturbing plot developments — instead, she seems to relish them. Yet nothing in her books is extraneous or overdone. The title of the book — Property — is a versatile one. It ultimately refers to the various ways in which people can become property to others, through slavery, through marriage, through legal arrangement, through birth. It makes a good book club book because it's a story about deeply flawed and ultimately unhappy people told against the backdrop of an institution that seems almost unthinkable today — one that really makes the reader think about the complexities of a different era as well as the interior mind of a somewhat unlikeable but also sympathetic woman.
by Rona Jaffe
Peter from Flashlight Worthy says:
Think of this book as TV's Mad Men... but with five young, 20-something female protagonists (Don Draper would have loved to meet these girls)... at a publishing firm, not an ad agency... set in the 1950s instead of the 1960s. Is it great literature? Not at all. But it's a frank and engrossing page-turner that accurately portrays the opportunities and challenges that surrounded smart young women in the 1950s. It's been a few years since I've read it so some of the details are hazy but I'm confident that there's enough material here to generate two meetings worth of book club discussion.
by Barbara Pym
Melanie Rehak says:
This comic masterpiece, set in a "shabby part of London, so very much the wrong side of Victoria Station" according to its narrator, the inquisitive 30-ish Mildred Lathbury, who spends her days doing good deeds and charitable works for the church and observing the social machinations of her friends and neighbors, is like pithier, updated Austen. Though Mildred has resigned herself to a life of being one of the excellent women of the title, always on hand to help with a cup of tea, an hour of her time, or a kind word, by novel's end her natural wit and independence leave her on the top of the heap, romantically and otherwise, as relationships all around her crumble. Up for club discussion are everything from what it meant (or possibly still means) to be a spinster at thirty, to the ways in which chance encounters lead to social entanglements, pleasant and otherwise, to why it's so satisfying to see the intelligent underdog triumph.
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