20 of the Best Books Written by Female Authors
When it comes to female-authored novels that inspire, encourage, and entertain, consider this collection the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
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Warning: You won’t be able to put down these books
In a fair world, the very best writers would attract the largest readership. But for a long time, the most promoted—and thus, most popular—stories were written by men. There are countless wonderful books written by women, so we’ve done the hard work for you: We’ve narrowed down the myriad choices to these 20 can’t-miss female-authored reads that will capture your imagination—and that you won’t be able to put down. While you’re at it, check out these 14 inspiring films that celebrate brave and independent women.
An American Marriage
What would you do if the man you loved was accused of the unthinkable? Would you leave? Would you trust his denial? And how long is too long to wait for the truth? Celeste, the main character in Tayari Jones’ novel An American Marriage, must answer these questions at breathtaking speed. It’s a tightly wound tale of how a relationship bends and shifts under external pressures—and, in the end, how a marriage can dissolve slowly, quietly, and from a distance. The novel received widespread praise and was one of Oprah’s 2018 book club picks. For a lighter take on relationships, try these utterly romantic books you’ll want to read with your significant other.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
The accolades for Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing seem to stretch as far as the road trip in the plot. For this novel, Ward won the National Book Award for Fiction. The book was also named a Time magazine Best Novel of the Year and landed on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2017. The story centers around a less-than-classic American road trip: A drug-addicted mother hauls her two children, 13-year-old Jojo and his little sister, on a long journey to pick their father up from prison. Though the book is anchored by the family’s personal struggles, it clearly reflects on the wider social and racial tensions still present in the American South. If you’re looking for non-fiction, try these 15 essential books for understanding race relations in America.
The Hour of the Star
Published in 1977, the same year as its author’s death, The Hour of the Star has been a sleeper hit for generations. Jewish Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector spins an imaginative tale about a poor, plain typist named Macabéa, who mesmerizes the story’s narrator, Rodrigo. This is the sort of book that will remind readers how talented writers, both vintage and modern, can switch prose quickly from wickedly funny to wise. Here are more of the best books to give the person who has read everything.
This novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie draws readers into a tangle of love and regret through the story of a Nigerian woman named Ifemelu. After immigrating to the United States—and being forced to leave her beloved Obinze behind—Ifemelu must learn what it’s like to be Black in her new country. Though some readers note that the 477-page tome takes time and energy to finish, fans gush that Americanah brilliantly showcases the African diaspora in both the U.S. and the U.K. It won the 2013 U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, landing it among literary classics such as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. For bite-sized bits of brilliance, check out these 30 amazing book quotes from our favorite authors.
Girls Burn Brighter
Shobha Rao’s debut novel whisks readers from the rural hills of India to the dark, chaotic underbelly of a human trafficking ring in Seattle. The story is, at turns, heartbreaking and hopeful, but it is always timely. Dealing with issues from misogyny and sexual assault to immigration and class disparities, Rao’s brave writing leaves no stone unturned. The story follows two Indian girls as they leave their homes to find work. The friends become separated quickly, but the novel follows both until the moment they find out whether it’s possible to unite again. Do you agree with these choices for the strongest female literary characters of all time?
All You Can Ever Know
Author Nicole Chung was born in Korea and raised by White parents in Oregon. The older she got, the more feverishly curious she became about the mystery of her birth family. This memoir is Chung’s story of searching for her roots, of familial redemption, and of building a new family through, as she writes, “sheer force of will.” As mothers and daughters already know, love and belonging are complex. The book tackles these topics with unflinching candor. Chung deftly weaves universal truths into her very private story in All You Can Ever Know. Don’t miss these 24 books every mother and daughter should read together.
We would be remiss to leave out Michelle Obama’s powerhouse memoir. The sweeping story covers her roots, her time in the White House, her experiences with motherhood, and her quest to find her own voice in all the noise. Published in 2018, Becoming has been landing on best-seller lists and book-club schedules ever since. Regardless of political affiliations, many women can appreciate Michelle’s commitment to peeling back the layers of her public persona to relate to others on a more personal level. It is a peek into the life of one of the most prominent female figures of our time. Learn 44 fascinating facts you never knew about America’s First Ladies.
Future Home of the Living God
Louise Erdich’s dystopian story of evolution in reverse will chill you to your bones. Listed as a “Notable Book” by the New York Times, Future Home of the Living God pushes hot-button topics such as women’s rights to their bodies and the clash between science and politics. The bizarre, twisty story of a young woman fighting for the survival of her unborn child might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying Erdich’s powerful writing and gut-wrenching plotline. Science fiction fans will find it particularly compelling. In case you were wondering, these are the 13 best-selling science fiction books of all time.
H Is for Hawk
Every once in a while, a book comes along that smashes two incongruent subjects together and turns the combination into something more beautiful, more true, and more life-giving than the two could be on their own. Such is the case with British author Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. In this memoir, the author grapples with training a ferocious bird of prey while navigating the wild chaos of grief after her father’s death. Angry, intimate, and beautiful, this is a story that will resonate with anyone who has faced unimaginable loss. Here are more novels that will tug on your heartstrings long after you finish them.
The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy’s contemporary classic was first published in 1997, and it made Roy a household name. USA Today called it “haunting” and full of “mystery, magic, and sadness.” The story follows young twins Estha and Rahel as they are devastated by a series of events that dictates who they are allowed to love. Between forbidden love and political clashes, readers will find themselves questioning their preconceptions and ideals. It is the sort of story that will stick with you, whether the main characters’ plights resonated with you or not. Find out the 16 books you need to read to call yourself a book lover.
To the Lighthouse
This 1927 novel by Virginia Woolf tells the story of the Ramsay family and their vacation to the Isle of Skye to escape the turmoil of living in London. While the plot appears seemingly simplistic from the outset, the novel is widely considered to be some of Woolf’s best writing, as it effectively captures the power and poignancy of life’s “little moments” and how they come together to help shape a person’s purpose. If you’ve read all the best sellers, these small-press gems should be next on your reading list.
Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison won both the National Book Award and the 1977 Nobel Prize in literature for this masterpiece, which explores the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead, as well as his coming of age as a Black man in Michigan during the mid–20th century. This novel provides an insightful look at a person’s striving for identity, acceptance, and, most of all, love. What book defined your generation? This was the most popular book the year you were born.
The Joy Luck Club
This 1989 debut novel by Amy Tan tells the story of four immigrant Chinese women and the delicate relationships they foster with their American-born daughters. In the novel, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, Tan addresses universal themes of family, love, femininity, and forgiveness, while never losing sight of the fundamental struggles that mothers and daughters encounter. Check out the 18 classic books you can read in one day.
The Color Purple
This epic 1982 novel by Alice Walker won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and spawned a 1985 Oscar-nominated movie of the same name. This intense novel, which ranks as one of the most frequently banned books in America because of its violence and language, focuses on the life of a group of African American women living in the rural south in the 1930s. As such, it addresses weighty themes such as racism, religion, love, marriage, and sexual identity.
This 2000 award-winning debut novel by British author Zadie Smith tells the story of two friends whose lives are forever intertwined—for better and for worse—after their shared experiences in World War II. Its fast-moving plot touches on everything from race, ethnicity, and religion to society, class struggles, and identity. The novel’s complex analysis of these heavy themes is even more remarkable if you consider the fact that Smith was only 24 when she wrote it. Don’t miss more fast-paced reading by the most binge-worthy authors of all time.
The Liars’ Club
In her 1995 memoir, Mary Karr tells the story of her childhood, growing up in the 1960s in an East Texas oil town. In the book, she shares intimate details about her alcoholic but hardworking father, her secretive and put-upon mother, and her complicated relationship with her older sister. It’s a haunting but humorous reminder that when it comes to family, there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy. If you’re looking for a good laugh, check out the best 100 funny movies of all time.
The Handmaid’s Tale
A mix of science fiction and “speculative” fiction, this award-winning dystopian 1985 novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood shares the point of view of a nameless narrator who is subjugated to as a “handmaid” to a male “commander” for the sole purpose of conceiving a child. In this critically acclaimed novel (that’s now also a critically acclaimed TV series), women in this futuristic society are stripped of their identity and trapped in servitude to their male owners—and can experience love only through the power of their own memories. When you’re done with this modern classic, read these books that went on to become hit movies.
In 1816, 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was hanging around with her future husband, Percy Shelley, as well as a few other male literary types, including the poet Lord Byron. Bored, Shelley challenged the group to come up with the scariest ghost stories they could muster. It was then that the future Mary Shelley crafted one of the most legendary and enduring tales in all of English literature: Frankenstein, a tale of the horrors that can result from testing the limits of consciousness and scientific inquiry. Don’t miss these other scariest books of all time.
If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?
Long before comedic moms like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jenny Lawson were making us laugh, there was Erma Bombeck, a humor columnist who found literary success in the 1970s and ’80s sharing the everyday trials and tribulations of being a housewife and mother. Over the course of her career, Bombeck published more than 4,000 newspaper columns and 15 books, including this laugh-out-loud one from 1978, in which Bombeck pokes fun at everything from marriage to family vacations to the national anthem. Have you actually read these books that everyone lies about reading?
A Wrinkle in Time
Published in 1962, this young adult novel by American writer Madeleine L’Engle was considered groundbreaking because it featured a young female as the protagonist of a science fiction novel, which was practically unheard of at the time. The book, which won the 1963 Newbery Medal and has never gone out of print, is a supernatural tale of 13-year-old Meg Murry’s adventures with time travel, but it also touches on adolescent motifs related to fate versus free will and good versus evil. Next, find out the most iconic book set in each state.