When I was a child I spent a lot of time alone. My parents were farmers and their days were spent either tending to the land or at their farm market 12 hours a day. Then, later, once my father became very ill I didn’t see them very often at all. I was either by myself on the farm or sitting in waiting rooms. Some days it seemed that’s all I was ever doing – waiting. So I turned to books as an escape from the desolate landscapes I so regularly found myself in.
I found power within pages of female voices that spoke to me, that made the world seem a little bit more human, that enabled me to recognize the voice within myself that was often diluted in a world of adults that were far too busy to notice a young girl growing up. While some of these books didn’t reach me until later when I was older I imagine many of these female writers would have impacted the girl I once was. The narratives of these women’s lives are beautiful, dark, and courageous. I hope this list finds other young, sad, literary girls wherever they are and enables them to find their own voice amidst the pages.
1. Chronology of Water – Lidia Yuknavitch
“You see it is important to understand how damaged people don’t always know how to say yes, or to choose the big thing, even when it is right in front of them. It’s a shame we carry. The shame of wanting something good. The shame of feeling something good. The shame of not believing we deserve to stand in the same room in the same way as all those we admire. Big red As on our chests.”
Chuck Palahniuk describes Lidia’s writing style as “straight no chaser” and there’s no better example than in her heartbreaking, uncomfortably raw memoir told in a series of vignettes. Her story touches on subjects of abuse, alcoholism, drug use, and all the dark corners of our lives we so often try to hide from. The prose is in your face, unflinching, and lingers in your head long after you’ve finished the book.
2. White Oleander – Janet Fitch
“ Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”
Dark, depressing, and hauntingly beautiful White Oleander tells the story of Astrid’s mother, a gorgeous poet who murders her lover, leaving her teenage daughter behind to pick up the pieces. While her mother is imprisoned Astrid finds herself shoved into the Los Angeles foster care system trying to make sense of her new reality and the life she left behind.
3. Green Girl: A Novel – Kate Zambreno
“She is such a trainwreck. But that’s why we like to watch. The spectacle of the unstable girl-woman. Look at her losing it in public.”
Green Girl is the devastating portrait of Ruth, a 20-something American girl who moves to London after a break up. She has a job she loathes and through her search for identity she takes her readers on an adventure, although you never know exactly where you’re going. The story is a prose poem told in snippets of various feelings and thoughts and each chapter begins with quotes from novels, movies, and pop songs. It’s a quick read but worth it for the narrative voice alone.
4. Girl, Interrupted – Susanna Kaysen
“Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me amplified. If you ever told a lie and enjoyed it. If you ever wished you could be a child forever.”
In 1967, 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to a psychiatric hospital where she would spend the next 2 years in the ward for teenage girls. Kaysen’s memoir gives a look at the patients she encountered as well as honestly exploring the details of mental illness, specifically borderline personality disorder.
5. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
“I was supposed to be having the time of my life.”
This is always at the top of nearly every woman’s reading list and for good reason – it’s one of the few great coming-of-age stories we have as women. The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical and tells the story of Esther, a young girl in New York serving as guest editor at a fashion magazine for the summer. She feels complete alienation and as her time in the city goes on she slides into a devastating depression that only continues to get deeper. It’s when she attempts suicide that she is taken in for recovery, and ultimately able to listen to the old brag of her heart, “I am, I am, I am.”
6. Cherry – Mary Karr
“No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars – bills you’ve saved and scrounged for, worked the all-night switchboard for, missed the Rolling Stones for, sold fragrant pot with smashed flowers going brown inside twist-tie plastic baggies for. In fact, to disembark from your origins, you’ve done everything you can think to scrounge money save selling your spanking young pussy.”
Mary Karr made readers swoon with her loud, distinctive Southern voice in her first memoir The Liar’s Club, an equally touching and disturbing story about her rough childhood in a working class Texas town. Cherry follows her through her adolescence, albeit this time it’s a much more brutal and darker experience.
Karr once said in an interview while writing this book she would write for an hour and a half, then just collapse onto the floor and fall asleep from exhaustion. After reading this book you’ll be able to see why.
7. Edie: American Girl – Jean Stein
“On the way back something very strange happened. I didn’t realize I was going to say it, but I said out loud, “I wish I was dead”… the love and the beauty and the ecstasy of the whole experience I’d just gone through were really so alien. I didn’t even know the man… it had been a one-night jag… he was married and had children… and I just felt lost. It hardly seemed worth living any more because once again I was alone.”
This biography takes you into the Warhol scene and presents you the tragic life of Edie Sedgewick. Organized as a collection of interviews, reading this book can be an experience in itself – very slow and dreamlike at times, other times it’s completely relentless in action. It’s one of those addicting stories you start reading and hours later wonder where the afternoon went.
8. Prozac Nation – Elizabeth Wurtzel
“Some friends don’t understand this. They don’t understand how desperate I am to have someone say, I love you and I support you just the way you are because you’re wonderful just the way you are. They don’t understand that I can’t remember anyone ever saying that to me. I am so demanding and difficult for my friends because I want to crumble and fall apart before them so that they will love me even though I am no fun, lying in bed, crying all the time, not moving. Depression is all about If you loved me you would.”
This is one of the most well written portrayals of what it’s like going through a lifetime of depression. This book is honest, courageous, and inspiring. Wurtzel is absolutely phenomenal at depicting what the mindset is like of a truly depressed person.
9. An Education – Lynn Barber
“I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of ‘living a lie’. I came to believe that other people – even when you think you know them well – are ultimately unknowable.”
An Education is an English memoir that poignantly portrays the various stages in the writer’s literary life following her from her early adolescence to her wild days at Oxford; a stint as a journalist at Penthouse and all the way through her marriage. While the movie was decent it only covered roughly 30 pages or so of the actual book. It’s a quick, entertaining read.
10. Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion
“There was silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.”
This book remains one of Joan Didion’s best pieces of writing to date. This rich and textured novel is both heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. It tells the story of a 30-year-old mother, Maria, living in America during the 60s as a struggling actress. She lives an empty life and turns to all of her favorite vices – casual sex, drinking, and drugs – to comfort her but even in the end, after becoming pregnant and having a child, she still can’t seem to shake that numbing emptiness inside of her.
The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides
How To Get Into The Twin Palms – Karolina Waclawiak
Hotel Iris – Yoko Ogawa
Dora: A Headcase – Lidia Yuknavitch
Baby Driver – Jan Kerouac
A Real Emotional Girl – Tanya Chernov
Anthropology of an American Girl – Hilary Thayer Hamann