50 of Our Favorite Books by Women
Choosing just 50 of our favorite books by women authors—from Anne Patchett to Zadie Smith—was no easy task, but there are worse problems than weeding through an endless sea of incredible works. Below are stories (both fiction and non-fiction) that cover everything from friendship to vampires and everything in between. You can thank us later for creating your reading list for the next five years.
Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!
1. A WRINKLE IN TIME BY MADELEINE L'ENGLE
If you didn't read L'Engle's classic 1962 work as a young adult, pick it up now before it becomes the movie everyone is talking about. (An adaptation directed by Ava DuVernary is slated for a 2018 release.) The book follows 13-year-old Meg Murry, whose scientist father has disappeared, and whose life is about to take a series of strange, unexpected turns. Along with her younger brother Charles Wallace and a neighbor named Calvin, and with the help of three mysterious women, Meg embarks on a harrowing journey, where she learns incredible things about her family, the world, and herself.
2. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING BY JOAN DIDION
When her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died in 2003, Didion's daughter Quinta Roo was lying unconscious in a New York hospital—in septic shock following a case of pneumonia. The following year Quinta collapsed due to bleeding in her brain and died at the tragically young age of 39. Didion's reflection on the incredible grief of those losses, and the sort of irrational, hopeful ("magical") thinking they inspired, is a meditation that—much like grief itself—is at once deeply personal and all too universal. It's a rare look at the interior life of one of America's best authors, and thus, absolutely essential reading.
3. THIS ONE SUMMER BY MARIKO AND JILLIAN TAMAKI
In this coming-of-age graphic novel, cousins Mariko (writer) and Jillian (illustrator) Tamaki tell the story of Rose—a young girl who spends her summers at a lake house in Ontario with her parents. Against the backdrop of a single season, we see Rose and her friend Windy navigate the complicated world of post-childhood and pre-adulthood, where problems range from fighting parents to the boys at the local convenience store. It's funny, sad, beautiful and heart-wrenching; a lot like adolescence itself.
4. INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE BY ANNE RICE
You may remember this book for the movie it inspired, but beyond the ruffly shirts and a tiny, wise-beyond-her-years Kirsten Dunst, Interview with the Vampire is a heartbreakingly existential tale that shows how life can lose meaning when it never ends. One brave interviewer learns about vampires Louis, Malloy, and Claudia as they attempt to find purpose in their existence while toeing the line between enlightened scholars and bloodthirsty monsters.
5. HEFT BY LIZ MOORE
High schooler Kel Keller is just a poor kid in Yonkers, New York trying to find a future in baseball. Former teacher Arthur Opp is a shut-in who hasn't left his Brooklyn home (or even explored the top floor of his house) in years. The unlikely pair is suddenly linked together when Charlene—Kel's mother and Arthur's former student—calls her teacher begging for help. This story follows the two heroes as they realize that family and friendship can come from unexpected places.
6. WHITE TEETH BY ZADIE SMITH
Zadie Smith's breakout novel takes place in London and follows the families of two war veterans who have become unlikely friends. On a larger scale, it is a story about multiculturalism in Britain and how younger generations balance the cultures of their families with the new cultures of their surroundings. White Teeth fills its pages with eccentric characters as they navigate modern life, and only narrowly avoid complete chaos.
7. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE BY JANE AUSTEN
Jane Austen’s most famous novel put an iconic twist on the boy-meets-girl trope. In this case, it’s more like wealthy-aristocrat-meets-independent-minded-woman-and-the-two-take-an-instant-disliking-toward-one-another. But over the course of the novel, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet realize that despite the pride (his) and prejudice (hers) that have kept them at odds, they’re a perfect romantic fit. Cue the wedding bells. The idea of a free-spirited woman making her own decisions was pretty revolutionary in 1813, when the novel was first published, and has made Elizabeth Bennet one of literature’s great heroines to this very day.
8. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD BY HARPER LEE
Despite having published only two novels in her lifetime, Harper Lee—who passed away on February 19, 2016—is one of America’s most celebrated novelists. She owes that reputation to her debut novel, 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a coming-of-age tale in which a young girl named Scout is forced to confront the realities of racism in the American south as she watches her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, fight for justice in the courtroom. In 1961, the book earned Lee a Pulitzer Prize—and a permanent place near the top of the list of great American novels. (Lee’s second novel, 2015’s Go Set a Watchman, was initially touted as a sequel, but was later revealed to be a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.)
9. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE BY EDITH WHARTON
In 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Age of Innocence. Set during New York City’s Gilded Age, the novel details a love triangle in the upper echelons of society as Newland Archer, heir of one of the city’s most prominent families, finds himself torn between the commitment he has made to his fiancée, May Welland, the passionate love he feels for May’s cousin, the scandalous Countess Ellen Olenska, and the duty he has to his family to uphold the conventions of polite society.
10. A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD BY JENNIFER EGAN
Jennifer Egan’s avant-garde fiction was once described by The New York Times as “[feeling] as freely flung as a bag of trash down a country gully.” Which is to say: Goon Squad’s narrative structure does not lend itself particularly well to summary. Nevertheless, its many interlocking stories—all of which connect in some shape or form to the aging music exec Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha—arrive at profound conclusions about the digital age.
11. OLIVE KITTERIDGE BY ELIZABETH STROUT
The greatest mystery of Olive Kitteridge is how this collection of short stories manages to pack a punch with such spare and even austere sentences. Elizabeth Strout’s examination of a small town in Maine and the ways in which depression and mental illness have manifested in the lives of the townspeople—notably, in that of its tough-loving protagonist, Olive—is one that sticks with you forever. As does its HBO mini-series adaptation, helmed by the always pitch-perfect Frances McDormand.
12. DEPT. OF SPECULATION BY JENNY OFFILL
Dept. of Speculation
lays out a brutal, hilarious, and, ultimately, rewarding puzzle of insights into motherhood, marriage, and creative writing. Don’t be fooled by its slim appearance; Offill’s sharp wit cuts deep into the human condition and leaves you with more than enough to chew on.
13. WILD BY CHERYL STRAYED
Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild is part edge-of-your-seat adventure story, part commentary on grief and inner strength (and, to be fair, outer strength, too). At the age of 26, four years after her mother’s death, Strayed set off on a 1100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. In her chronicle of the trip, Strayed makes her physical and emotional journey come alive with her edgy sense of humor and unfiltered, insightful observations on the human condition. After reading Wild (and watching the Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed), check out online archives of "Dear Sugar," the advice column Strayed wrote anonymously for years.
14. LIFE AFTER LIFE BY KATE ATKINSON
The conceit of British author Kate Atkinson’s ninth novel could be kitschy: Ursula Todd is born in 1910; when she dies, she is born again—and again and again. But thanks to Atkinson’s boundless imagination and empathy for her characters, the result is a sensitive and thought-provoking commentary on how the decisions we make shape our lives—and the course of history.
15. MY BRILLIANT FRIEND BY ELENA FERRANTE
Italian writer Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym) captures the complexity of female friendship (the tangle of love, jealousy, competition, and admiration) in her stunning quartet of Neapolitan Novels. In the first, My Brilliant Friend, we are introduced to best friends Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, who struggle to succeed in their poor neighborhood outside of Naples.
16. THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS BY CLAIRE MESSUD
Claire Massud’s 2013 novel follows Nora, a third-grade teacher who, in her late 30s, is simmering with quiet, fiery discontent, and lamenting the artistic dreams she put off in favor of being a dutiful daughter and employee. When a charismatic couple comes into Nora’s life, she finally finds a way to explore the passions she has spent years repressing. She becomes immersed in their lives, but even she recognizes it’s not an entirely two-sided relationship. The Woman Upstairs is a compelling exploration of art and a haunting look into the (sometimes furious) minds of the type of meek, unobtrusive older women who rarely get a voice in popular entertainment.
17. TRUTH AND BEAUTY BY ANN PATCHETT
In Truth and Beauty, author Ann Patchett tells the story of her deep friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, tracing their intense bond from their first meeting at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to Grealy’s death. It’s a complex portrait of the kind of passionate relationship that we normally only talk about in terms of lovers and marriages, not friendships—plumbing the highs and lows of their journey through the literary world, and their attempts to grapple with professional success and personal tragedy.
18. THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS BY CRISTINA HENRÍQUEZ
The Book of Unknown Americans
is a love story told through many eyes. Taking place inside a single Delaware apartment building filled with immigrant families from Latin America, it follows two families: the Riveras, who come to the U.S. from Mexico seeking help for their teenage daughter’s brain injury, and the Toros, their Panamanian neighbors. The chorus of neighborly voices that weave the tale together presents a panoply of immigrant experiences that are united by the desire to forge a better life far from home, despite the difficulties—and often, the indignities—of doing so.
19. THE HANDMAID'S TALE BY MARGARET ATWOOD
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about a totalitarian theocracy as seen through the eyes of Offred, a woman in the new Handmaid class whose sole purpose is to produce children for the ruling class, has seen a resurgence of late. A new Hulu series based on the book premieres next month, and Atwood recently revisited her most famous story in an essay for The New York Times. The Canadian author describes writing longhand while living in West Berlin, years before the fall of the Berlin Wall: "I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing." Born during World War II, Atwood writes that she's seen how "established orders could vanish overnight," a point that is made clear numerous times throughout The Handmaid’s Tale.
20. BELOVED BY TONI MORRISON
Toni Morrison won a Pulitzer for her allegorical portrayal of the novel’s namesake, who encompasses the collective horrors, trauma, and grief of slavery. Inspired by the true story of an escaped slave who killed her toddler daughter rather than see her returned to captivity, Morrison’s story about a now-free mother being haunted by both her repressed memories and the physical manifestation of her daughter serves as a powerful indictment of forced enslavement and a humanization of the lives that were lost or irrevocably altered because of it.
21. THE COUSINS WAR SERIES BY PHILIPPA GREGORY
She’s probably best known for her 2001 novel The Other Boleyn Girl (about Anne Boleyn and her sister, Mary), but Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series (including The White Queen, The Red Queen, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, and three others), which follows key Yorkist and Lancastrian women on both sides of the medieval War of the Roses, illuminates a long, dark period of English history. Written as historical fiction, Gregory pulls from countless historical sources, making her timelines and characters’ traits, relationships, and motives as accurate as possible. But she’s also adept at weaving in the romances, unspoken courtly dealings, and rumors of mystical powers that followed certain women into the stories—all of which makes their scheming and bids for power fascinating and relatable, and makes you wonder why history was ever so focused on the men in the first place.
22. WISE BLOOD BY FLANNERY O'CONNOR
In Flannery O'Connor's debut novel, Wise Blood, a returning World War II veteran named Hazel Motes finds himself desperate to rid his life of religion by founding The Church of God Without Christ and preaching throughout small towns in Tennessee. This peculiar Southern gothic odyssey touches on subjects as fundamental as life, death, and faith, but it does so with a streak of dark humor that makes it hauntingly memorable.
23. NO LOGO BY NAOMI KLEIN
Naomi Klein's No Logo is a non-fiction tear-down of our commercialized world and the brands that have infiltrated nearly every inch of our lives, including our communities, our schools, and even our news. The invisible influence of corporate branding and consumerism is exposed through Klein's investigative journalism, and her writing dares readers to take a deeper look into the companies we support on a daily basis.
24. HOUSTON, HOUSTON, DO YOU READ? BY JAMES TIPTREE JR. (ALICE SHELDON)
Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
is a sci-fi novella by Alice Sheldon, who spent her career using the pen name James Tiptree, Jr. The story involves a space shuttle with a three-man crew coming into contact with a mysterious craft staffed solely by women following a run-in with a solar flare. Throughout the story, Sheldon calls the very idea of a patriarchal society into question as the male crew unravels the mystery of this rival ship.
25. AMERICANAH BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
What does it mean to be an African-American or an American-African in this country? Nigeria-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie masterfully takes on the complicated question in her third title, Americanah. Equal parts love story and satire, the 588-pager follows Nigerians Ifemelu and Obinze as they navigate taking their grade school romance into adulthood while struggling with the loneliness of the immigrant experience.
26. A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN BY VIRGINIA WOOLF
The argument that women need (literal and figurative) spaces of their own in order to unleash their creativity—spaces away from the demands of domestic life and societal pressure to defer to others—feels as relevant today as it did in 1929.
27. THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P. BY ADELLE WALDMAN
Dating has probably always been awful, but you will never be able to convince me that it’s always been as awful as it is here and now, in the 21st century. Waldman skewers a specific kind of man you’ll meet if you’re a straight woman attempting to date in New York City, or L.A., or San Francisco—pseudo intellectual, attempting to make it as a “writer,” shallow as hell (despite his protests to the contrary). Read it and weep, ladies. And then immediately delete Tinder from your phone.
28. MEN WE REAPED BY JESMYN WARD
Ward reflects on the deaths of five young Black men she grew up with, all of whom died in the same five-year period. This moving (and gorgeous) memoir serves as both a celebration of their lives, and an attempt to make sense of the uniquely dangerous condition that is being Black and poor in America.
29. INTERPRETER OF MALADIES BY JHUMPA LAHIRI
Most of these short stories feature characters who don’t quite feel at home. Some are immigrants; some are trying to mend broken marriages; all of them will break your heart. The tales in this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection explore what it means to try to know another person, and the feelings of estrangement that so often result.
30. BLUETS BY MAGGIE NELSON
"Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color." Thus opens Maggie Nelson's heart-swelling poem-essay-dispatch from the frontlines of obsession. Raw, sprawling, yet simultaneously sharp as a needle, Bluets might just be the greatest breakup book of all time.
31. WHITE IS FOR WITCHING BY HELEN OYEYEMI
A 2009 finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, which recognizes "outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic," White Is for Witching is master novelist Helen Oyeyemi's most gripping work yet. The Gothic tale seamlessly intertwines deep-seated cultural fears about race, sexuality, immigration, and isolation, weaving a fabric that is as moving as it is unsettling.
32. COME AS YOU ARE BY EMILY NAGOSKI
There's a good chance this book will make you angry, as page after page reveals information about the human body that we all should have been taught in middle school. "Why didn't they tell us any of this?!!??" you might yell, waving a fist at the sky. Then you'll pick the book up again and continue reading—because it's just that fascinating.
33. THE OUTSIDERS BY S.E. HINTON
Just 16 when she wrote it, Hinton chose to use her initials so book critics wouldn't discriminate against a woman writing about male class warfare in 1950s Oklahoma. A favorite of grade school libraries for decades, it remains a poignant, powerful story regardless of the reader's age.
34. THE BELL JAR BY SYLVIA PLATH
A classic mediation on depression, Plath's only novel is for anyone who's felt the weight of the world on their shoulders. Her semi-autobiographical lead, Esther, attempts to navigate an inhospitable Manhattan while struggling with her curious lack of interest in success.
35. SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE BY MARY ROACH
Science writer-slash-humorist Roach travels the globe in search of tangible evidence of life after death, profiling people both peculiar and credible. She may not convince you one way or another, but Spook is likely to have you thinking about your ectoplasmic epilogue.
36. THE GOLDFINCH BY DONNA TARTT
A novel that bounces between the inner life of a melancholic boy who's lost his mother and a thriller premise involving a missing painting, The Goldfinch is that rare literary novel: a Pulitzer Prize winner than can keep you turning the pages long into the night.
37. THE EMPATHY EXAMS BY LESLIE JAMISON
In the opening essay of The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison recounts her experience as a “medical actor,” playing at being a patient to teach medical students how to find the true cause of people’s ailments. The young doctors are supposed to dig past rote answers and misleading information to find that in fact, the young woman experiencing seizures is grieving the death of her brother, or that the bruised victim of a minor car crash has a major drinking problem. The med students are supposed to use their powers of empathy to suss out truths that the patients either don’t know themselves or are hesitant to reveal. In the subsequent essays, Jameson performs this same procedure on the world at large, putting herself into others’ shoes to examine what happens when we try to feel another person’s pain.
38. ZAMI: A NEW SPELLING OF MY NAME BY AUDRE LORDE
The poet Audre Lorde called her 1982 book not a memoir but a “biomythography”—a mixture of history, biography, and myth. In it, she chronicles her journey from a legally blind, bookish child growing up in the Great Depression to a gay activist and “warrior poet” of Greenwich Village. Recounting tales from her childhood in Harlem and her awakening to racism, sexism, and homophobia in the world, Zami is a rich history lesson on the life experiences that formed the backbone of Lorde’s most famous writings.
39. CITY OF LIGHT, CITY OF POISON BY HOLLY TUCKER
“The City of Light” wasn’t always so. Back in the mid-1600s, it was a cesspool of muck, crime, and black magic. Tucker tells us how Nicolas de la Reynie, first police chief of Paris, enlightened the city both literally (he installed the first street lamps, earning the city its famous nickname) and figuratively: by untangling a foul network of real-life witches, poisoners, and back-stabbing nobility hell-bent on social climbing at any cost.
40. THE HARRY POTTER SERIES BY J.K. ROWLING
Joanne Rowling was a single mother surviving with the help of government assistance when she wrote the novel that would change her life—and the lives of millions around the world. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997 under the byline J.K. Rowling because the author’s publishers thought that young boys would be less likely to buy books by a female author. They shouldn’t have worried: All told, Rowling’s seven-book series about The Boy Who Lived has sold 450 million copies and been translated into a whopping 78 languages. Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States) is certainly meant for younger readers, but Rowling’s books got more mature as Harry grew, and her writing about life, death, love, and sacrifice is some of the most beautiful—and moving—you’ll ever read.
41. FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER BY E.L. KONIGSBURG
A piece of popcorn on a roped-off chair at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art started it all for E.L. Konigsburg. “For a long time after leaving the museum that day,” she wrote later, “I thought about that piece of popcorn on the blue silk chair and how it got there.” The New York City-based writer turned that kernel of inspiration into From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which follows siblings Claudia and Jamie Kincaid as they run away, take up residence in the Met, and attempt to crack the case of a mysterious statue that may or may not have been sculpted by Michelangelo. The book, which won a Newbery Award, became the subject of many questions to Met employees and a staple on elementary school reading lists. If you were one of those students, consider making time to rediscover Mixed-up Files—either by yourself or with your kids.
42. H IS FOR HAWK BY HELEN MACDONALD
While grieving the death of her father, Helen Macdonald sought solace in nature. Namely, she bought a hawk. For a story about falconry, this 2014 memoir—which earned Macdonald the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year award—is strikingly human.
43. BLOOD, BONES & BUTTER BY GABRIELLE HAMILTON
After finding success as a chef in New York City, Gabrielle Hamilton didn’t let her creative writing MFA go to waste. She wrote Blood, Bones & Butter, a memoir tracing her life from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania to her success as chef and owner of the restaurant Prune. The brutally honest account provides the perfect antidote to today’s glitzy celebrity chef culture.
44. FRANKENSTEIN BY MARY SHELLEY
A teenage Mary Shelley was prompted to write Frankenstein after a vision of a scientist kneeling beside his monstrous creation came to her in the night. Two hundred years later, the gothic tale of man attempting to defy nature still reigns supreme over the horror genre.
45. A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING BY RUTH OZEKI
A frustrated writer finds the diary of a bullied Japanese girl washed up on the shore of British Columbia, and it galvanizes her curiosity, research skills, and creative vision. Their parallel stories and family histories—as well as meditations on time itself—drive this multilayered story.
46. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU BY CELESTE NG
This intimate story of a biracial family in America begins with the death of teenage Lydia and spirals out in time and place, exploring both racial and family dynamics in the Midwest of the 1970s. Ng’s first novel, it will perfectly break your heart.
47. CLAIRE OF THE SEA LIGHT BY EDWIDGE DANTICAT
Seven-year-old Claire goes missing the day before her father plans to let a local shopkeeper adopt her as a way to give Claire a better life. The novel delves into the story of her family—and of Haiti—in gorgeous, succinct prose.
48. UNBROKEN BY LAURA HILLENBRAND
A biography that seems like it should belong on fiction shelves: Hillenbrand paints a vivid portrait of Olympic athlete and World War II soldier Louis Zamperini, who was shot down and spent years as a prisoner of war. Zamperini's life is one in a billion, and Hillenbrand captures every astounding moment with insight.
49. ON BOXING BY JOYCE CAROL OATES
In a classic series of essays, novelist Oates explores the world of prizefighting as few journalists ever have, offering some remarkable thoughts about the men who risk their lives for sport and profit and the audiences that subsidize them.
50. A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST BY REBECCA SOLNIT
We live in a culture obsessed with goal-setting, forward movement, and “finding oneself.” But what about the pleasures of getting lost? Solnit, in her lucid, lyrical style, weaves together memoir, philosophy, and cultural history to deliver a moving tribute to the necessity—the reality—of not always knowing where you’re going. Her writing just might change your life.
By Erika Berlin, April Daley, Michele Debczak, Kirstin Fawcett, Shaunacy Ferro, Colin Gorenstein, Kate Horowitz, Bess Lovejoy, Beth Anne Macaluso, Erin McCarthy, Rebecca O'Connell, Jen Pinkowski, Jake Rossen, Caitlin Schneider, Jay Serafino, Abbey Stone, and Jenn Wood.