I had a friend — we’ll call her Kinsley — who was as close as a sister to me for almost 20 years. As we got older, our values started to differ, but we both agreed that no difference was deep enough to shatter our friendship. Kinsley married a man she met on a religious website, texting me after a month of long-distance dating that read, ‘That’s Christian [not his real name]! We have decided to love each other and to get married! The following year, she began to express her frustration at their inability to conceive naturally; she was ethically opposed to IVF. I was casually dating in New York and considering freezing my eggs.
Then, after 17 years of friendship, Kinsley suddenly ghosted me. The experience left me thinking about the relationships that break under the pressure of femininity in all its conflicting forms. I have no doubt that for Kinsley and I, the looming pressures surrounding fertility (and our differing perspectives on motherhood, sex, and reproduction) accelerated our estrangement. In his eyes, I was lost (his word) – a black sheep among women. The last time I felt close to Kinsley was about seven years ago at a music festival. There was a torrential downpour and we huddled under a tarp, sharing poutine and drinking beer. When we were in line for the second round of poutine, we had a playful debate about the morality of birth control (as far as that conversation can be playful). Even then, the chasm was widening.
For Maeve, the protagonist of my first horror novel, Just like mom, there is no adjustment. As a young girl raised in a matriarchal cult that reduces men to chattel for reproduction, her misplaced affection for a male relative results in tragedy. As an adult, she cobbles together a fragile existence that seems normal on the outside but hides her deep loneliness and inability to connect. When her long-lost cousin – the one person who truly understood her as a child – reappears in her life, Maeve is thrilled to let her back, stubbornly ignoring every red flag in favor of the emotional intimacy she craves. Andrea gives Maeve everything she lacks: acceptance, stability and belonging. But Andrea’s love comes with its own set of conditions; and when Maeve fails to meet family expectations for the second time, she faces brutal consequences.
What follows is a list of books about characters like Maeve, who are unable to be the type of women their communities expect of them.
Adele by Leila Slimani
The perfect nanny put Leila Slimani on my radar, but Adele cemented my dedication to his work. The titular character has, by all accounts, an enviable existence: an existence she’s proud of and, in theory, committed to. She has a successful career and a loving family. Some might even consider her life as the feminine ideal. But Adèle finds herself in the grip of overwhelming dissatisfaction; and because of this, she is emotionally isolated. Her efforts to correct her deep loneliness through illicit sex only allow the downward spiral. Through his disturbing descriptions of Adèle’s life feats, Slimani clarifies that Adele is a woman who desperately wants the life she has, but can’t get it.
Worry by Julia Leigh
Olivia reunites with her brother Marcus and his wife Sophie after leaving their violent marriage and bringing her two children to the family castle. But all is not well with Marcus and Sophie, who cannot bear to part with the corpse of their little girl. This short story Gothic kept me spellbound with its nuanced portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics and motherhood. Anyone who has ever gone home for the holidays and experienced the dark push-pull of what remains unsaid will recognize their own in this unsettling story. Julia Leigh is good at the emotional tightrope, sustaining a nerve-wracking atmospheric tension until the very end.
Woman convenience store by Sayaka Murata
Keiko, a woman working at a convenience store in Tokyo, understands how to function “normally” best through her job at Smile Mart, where social interactions can be learned by studying a manual. Keiko thrives at the store and achieves a level of satisfaction she hasn’t experienced elsewhere; but as she nears middle age, her lack of ambition and marital status (single, uncoupled) become an increasing affront to her family and interfering colleagues. Keiko contorts herself into a desperate emotional pretzel in an attempt to appease her loved ones. The resulting decision is comically aligned with her personality – an unusual arrangement that makes her even more aberrant, at least by the standards of people who care about such things.
The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda
Hisako, the daughter of a local doctor, is the only survivor of a birthday party that went wrong when more than a dozen people died from cyanide poisoning. Hisako is blind and unable to provide much detail to the police about the horrific event. When the prime suspect commits suicide, the town is left with questions; and a decade later, all roads seem to lead to Hisako. The story unfolds through the testimonies of different characters. Although the ending is somewhat inconclusive and the motives seem a little thin, it is nonetheless an engrossing mystery and a fascinating character study. (And the cover is gorgeous.)
The door by Magda Szabo
This novel made a deep impression on me when I first read it five or six years ago. Magda, an educated and privileged writer, develops a complicated and potentially co-dependent friendship with Emerence, her illiterate and grumpy governess. Emerence charmed me with her hard-earned love, and the emotional restraint of this novel makes the eventual reveal all the more devastating.
Emerence’s house is closed to strangers. Only she is allowed to enter. What’s hiding behind his door? It’s hard to discuss this character-driven plot without spoiling it; but it’s a novel you’ll want to read twice, and Emerence is one of the most complex and interesting characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Yeong-hye leads a quiet, structured life with her husband until she refuses to eat meat as a result of her violent nightmares. This decision is an unacceptable act of rebellion, according to her husband and in-laws. The result is a domestic horror: a perverse struggle for control that grows increasingly extreme as Yeong-hye stubbornly asserts himself. To be honest, I read this one a while ago and remember the details like a fever dream, but I loved this uniquely grotesque take on female power and the violence that happens when a woman fails to line up.
Chemistry by Weike Wang
In Chemistry, we meet another woman with a life that is rewarding in every way, but fails to bring happiness. The novel’s narrator is working on her doctorate in chemistry – a goal imposed on her by her parents – and her adorable boyfriend has offered it. But she is mired in the ambivalence of her career and relationship and struggles to disentangle her own desires from the desires forced upon her. As the story develops, the narrator reveals aspects of her childhood that led to her current state of indecisiveness. It’s a moving, character-driven illustration of what happens when the presence of others is so important that there’s no room left to develop your own identity.