I was wandering through a bookstore very frustrated one day. I entered with the goal of finding my next good story. Something that inspired me, motivated me, and spoke to me as a globally conscious, empire-building woman. I found myself surrounded by stories of women looking for love, sad over lost love, or struggling with love.
Love of a man more often than not.
I didn't want romance. I wasn't in the mood for romance. It wasn't a part of my life then, and I didn't want it in my literary world either. But I couldn't find the story I was looking for anywhere, and I walked away discouraged.
So I reached out to my friends at Indigo for help, and was relieved to experience these three books with strong female characters, and have nothing (really) to do with romance.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
All Grown Up is a novel about female adulthood. It chronicles the experiences, thoughts and life lessons of Andrea Bern through vignettes of stories from ages 13 through her mid-40's. A New Yorker who quit art school, works a job she hates, and sleeps around, Andrea never really deals with her mental health or faces her life head-on.
Andrea has a complex relationship with her family, which is strained further when her niece is born with a terminal illness. She will likely die before she reaches age five. How Andrea chooses to respond as a sister and a daughter is a powerful and driving arch throughout the novel.
The stories of Andrea's life are woven in a beautiful pattern, not told in chronological order but rather focusing on showing readers moments of Andrea's life that inform her personality. Yet very rarely do we get a deep dive into the things Andrea isn't facing. In fact, we discover them through the layering of stories, hinted to them in subtle moments and peripheral thoughts.
The book takes brief looks at Andrea's relationships with men, primarily in the way she uses them for casual sex and false intimacy. Andrea's relationship with herself is far too broken to allow her to have a healthy romantic relationship. The book is more about Andrea's relationship with her family, as well as her relationship with herself.
I related to Andrea in both terrifying and inspiring ways. The woman is a bit of a mental mess. She reminds me of the darker moments I had with my mental health (the terrifying part), and showed me the life I could have had if I didn't accept and learn to manage my mental illness (the inspiring part). I both love and dislike Andrea throughout the novel, but at all times sympathize for her because I could have been her. And I still see parts of me in her.
All Grown Up is a truly beautiful read. One I likely won't forget for the rest of my life.
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
One of the heaviest books I've ever read in terms of subject matter, When She Woke will cause you to question your moral and ethical beliefs no matter what side of politics you fall on. It shares the story of 26 year old Hannah Payne, a woman whose skin has been genetically altered, turned bright red as punishment for the crime of having an abortion.
It takes place in a very close, dystopian future, which is part of the appeal of the book and the reason I was so frightened while reading it. The majority of women in the world have become sterile, leading to widespread panic, the rise of devout, almost extremist Christianity, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Rather than being imprisoned and rehabilitated, criminals are punished by being "chromed" – having their skin colour genetically altered to fit their crime – and released into the general population to survive as best they can.
Yet at the same time, Hannah lives just outside of Dallas, Texas, talks about the Dallas Cowboys games, and abortion is still legal in Canada. This sense of familiarity in the story is terrifying.
The characters are very real and complex. Hannah struggles through her new life as a chrome are relatable though unfamiliar. You follow through her process of accepting the decision she made (to have an abortion) and allow it to co-exist with her religious upbringing. Readers
Being a story centered around the decision to have an abortion, there is a man in Hannah's life and a love story that surrounds it. But the book is about the life-and-death decisions Hannah must face, the journey of self-discovery she takes, and the strength Hannah finds in herself, on her own.
When She Woke is a haunting, shocking read that will take you to unexpected places.
Because We Are Bad by Lily Bailey
Originally, I wanted to save this book for a post on books that accurately depict mental illness. But it was so powerful, and so well written, I couldn't wait to share it.
Because We Are Bad narrates the life of Lily Bailey and shares the experience of a childhood consumed by obsessive compulsive disorder. This was also a difficult read, but not in the same ways as When She Woke. Bailey does such a beautiful job of depicting her OCD, I was constantly experiencing anxiety and exhaustion reading her story. I often had to stop for a moment to breathe and decompress before returning to the book.
In the novel, Lily is convinced from a young age that she is 'bad', and that she must perform very specific, very detailed rituals to attempt to make-up for this 'badness'. We are taken through these rituals, in detail, which provides the reader a raw look into how one lives - or doesn't - with OCD. We experience puberty with OCD, confused love with OCD, and high school with OCD.
At a point, Lily believes she may be in love with someone, but the love is complicated, confusing and concerning. Without spoiling it, the love is just another layer to Lily's mental illness rather that a story of romance that motivates her in any way.
This book will exhaust you. It will give you a headache. But it will also take you on a captivating journey you couldn't possibly relate to unless you live with OCD. You won't understand the reasoning behind Lily's thoughts or actions, and you aren't meant to. But you will find her inspiring, brave and charming.
Because We Are Bad will give you the most intimate look into an illness in a way you couldn't have imagined possible.