While looking at my Goodreads “most read authors” list, I was surprised to see that most of my most-read authors are women. Much to my chagrin, Stephen King has the top spot (thanks, fiery and quickly-extinguished high school obsession!). I haven’t read everything these women have written, but I have read a handful of each, so I have a general idea of what to recommend when someone says, “I’ve heard of her! Which one should I read first?” When asked this question, my inclination is to shove the entire oeuvre in their hands and overwhelm them, but in the interest of keeping friends, I’ve chosen The One to recommend from each of my five ladies.
Let’s start with Dame Daphne, Daphne du Maurier, my north star, my totem, my patronus. The obvious answer, the one everyone has read, is Rebecca. But no! As enchanting as Rebecca is, go deep and start with My Cousin Rachel. It’s more subtle, it has the most unreliable narrator, and it’s delicious. And after you read My Cousin Rachel, you still have Rebecca to look forward to.
Mi amore, Sarah Waters, is quite possibly my favorite living writer (sorry, David Mitchell, there’s only room for one). I posted on Litsy recently that I just want to grab her face in my hands and gush, “Thank you for writing books!” Sarah Waters has such talent for detail, such exquisite writing. She makes you live her characters. You adore their loves, you anguish over their indiscretions, you obsess over their failings. I inhaled her latest, The Paying Guests, but if you’re a Waters newbie, I’d recommend Fingersmith. Summary: deception, betrayal, twists. And that’s all you should know about the book before you open it. It’s best to go in blind. One reviewer called it “lesbian Dickens,” but I’d just call it amazing.
Margaret Atwood. Her actual name should be The Margaret Atwood, as she is grand enough to deserve the article. Or maybe, like Beyonce and Madonna, just Margaret. She’s famous for The Handmaid’s Tale, which is that one high school required book that kids have actually enjoyed. If you’ve never delved, I would recommend starting with Alias, Grace. It’s historical fiction, which is a bit of a branching out for Atwood, but it includes the nuances, mystery, and psychological twists that are in all her works. It’s the 19th century, and Grace is accused of murdering her employer and his mistress / housekeeper. But did she? Is she a victim or a fiend? She tells her story to a psychologist and he’s never quite sure if he can trust her narrative. Atwood’s writing is juicy; the small details add up to an enthralling story. I can’t recommend her highly enough. I want to stand on street corners and pass out her novels like religious tracts.
And next up, Elizabeth Strout. Going to have to recommend the gold standard, Olive Kitteridge. It reads as several interconnected stories revolving around one crotchety retired schoolteacher. Strout touches on the minor incidences of daily life that reflect the grander issues of aging, marital discord, and disappointments. It’s bleak, but not without hope. The miniseries starring Frances McDormand is excellent as well. (But read the book first.)
Finally, for my non-fiction-reading friends, there’s the inimitable Mary Roach. She’s ridden the Vomit Comet, she’s attended a school for mediums, she’s undergone electrode-tracking sexual stimulation on camera, all for the sake of her art. And in every photo I’ve seen of her she looks like she’s having a blast. She is the Jack Bauer of scientific journalism. Informative, entertaining, and definitely hilarious, Roach’s books are always a pleasure. I’d start with Stiff: the Curious Life of Human Cadavers for your first Roach romp.
There are also other female authors who have captured my heart (and I want to devour everything they’ve put on paper): Kate Morton, Emma Donoghue, Jeanette Winterson, Joanne Harris, and Vendela Vida.
I’ve given you a jumping off point. Go discover!