Guest blog by Ann Garvin, author of The Dog Year
Asking me what my top 5 women’s fiction novels of all time is like asking my mother (who has dementia and is pleasantly confused) what her favorite food is. She loves food, likes all kinds of food, but can’t reproduce her favorite food in thought or in the kitchen because once she eats it, she forgets it.
I’m a little like that with books, even books I dearly loved. There have been so many wonderful books in my life. Women’s fiction books that have changed the way I think, helped me decide during a difficult time, and probably defined me in ways I don’t even realize.
I have some that have stuck with me more than others and I’m not sure why. It’s possible that they just hit me at the exact right moment and now they are with me forever. Here are a few I came up with as I wrote this but ask me again in a month and I might have a whole new list.
- “Mother’s Day” by Barbara Holland (Doubleday, 1980) and then re-released as “In Private Life” in 1997 (Akadine Press). Barbara Holland wrote like Erma Bombeck would have written if she were a few snorts into a bottle of scotch and possibly depressed. She writes about motherhood and each sentence holds a hard truth. She writes in that mix of funny and sad that I aspire to and only achieve every so often. Holland did it in every paragraph and even before I was a parent or a writer, I admired her ability to get life right.
- “The Pull of the Moon” by Elizabeth Berg (Ballantine, 1996). I was 34 and newly married when I read this book, the story of a 50-year-old woman who impulsively leaves home after experiencing a slow loss of self over many years of marriage. It was the first of Berg’s books I read, and I found myself hand-copying some of her phrases onto slips of paper later to read the passages over the phone to friends. This is an unusual choice for a young woman in her first blush of coupledom, but Berg has the ability to bridge age and experience with emotion. I went on to read almost all of Berg’s other books, becoming a longtime fan of her way of getting the complexity of people right, almost every single time.
- “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Stocket as far as I’m concerned is the perfect bridge between short story and novel. I know many people didn’t like this book because the protagonist, Olive is such a difficult character. I love difficult characters. Once, an agent who I was speaking to about representation said to me, “You’re such a nice person why do you write such difficult characters?” I thought to myself, it’s because I’m secretly difficult and I don’t have the courage to be outwardly so. I like a person who embraces their sadness and needs or disappointments and doesn’t cater to societies desire for nice girls or constant happiness. I’m not saying I want people to be ugly and angry for the sake of it, but I do like the honesty of admitting to feeling less than wonderful –actually acting like it rather than suppressing. I think that Elizabeth Stockett showed the humanity of the people in her book brilliantly and isn’t that what writing is about?
- “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert. Say what you want about Eat, Pray, Love –that it was the selfish ramblings of a self-centered woman, that it was a classist view of the world, whatever, but that’s not how I saw it. I saw it as one woman’s story of getting unstuck in a life that she felt entirely stuck in. It didn’t matter to me that what she was “stuck” in other people might actually aspire to, nor did it bother me that she had the means to do this journey where others don’t. The book wasn’t a how-to, or a you-should it was like a letter from a girlfriend. It was a modern day quest, it took courage, and it was written in the voice of an engaging, funny, reflective person who disliked in herself everything readers disliked in her. I know the question is about novels but Eat, Pray, Love read like a novel so I included it here.
- “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden. I’m breaking the rules I think suggesting a novel written by a man is women’s fiction. But this book is such a wonderful exploration of women, exploitation, relationships, and longing that I had to include it. It’s one of those novels that I believe are truly timeless and can and will be read for generations. You love the characters but you also wonder how you might fare if placed in that culture under the reign of men. It’s a wonderful read and nothing about it should be limited to men and or women only.
Dr. Lucy Peterman was not built for a messy life. A well-respected surgeon whose patients rely on her warmth, compassion, and fierce support, Lucy has always worked hard and trusted in the system. She’s not the sort of person who ends up in a twelve-step program after being caught stealing supplies from her hospital.
But that was Lucy before the accident—before her husband and unborn baby were ripped away from her in an instant, before her future felt like a broken promise. Caught red-handed in a senseless act that kept her demons at bay, she’s faced with a choice: get some help or lose her medical license.
Now she’s reluctantly sharing her deepest fears with a bunch of strangers, avoiding her loneliness by befriending a troubled girl, pinning her hopes on her husband’s last gift, and getting involved with a rugged cop from her past. It’s only when she is adopted by a stray mutt and moves her group to the dog park that she begins to truly bond with the ragtag dog-loving addicts—and discovers that a chaotic, unplanned life might be the sweetest of all . . .
Author Bio: Ann Garvin worked as a registered nurse while finishing her doctorate in exercise psychology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is a professor of health and nutrition at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. Additionally, she teaches creative writing in the Masters of Fine Arts program at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, New Hampshire. She is the author of one previous novel, On Maggie’s Watch. She lives in Wisconsin.