The best novels with female protagonists who challenge norms and don’t care if others judge them

The Books I Picked & Why

So Big

By Edna Ferber

Book cover of So Big

Why this book?

Novels really are timeless and this one, written almost 100 years ago, gives a portrait of feminism before it was a term. The protagonist Selena has a strong work ethic and doesn’t fear the implications of being a widowed mother of a young son and needing to run a small farm on her own. I loved that she relishes the challenge of her responsibility and thinks outside the box to find a niche market, becoming successful by not succumbing to the expectations of others. She doesn’t feel tamped down by her farming community’s judgments of what she can and cannot accomplish. Reading, and enjoying, a novel published in 1924 reminded me that oldies are quite often the besties.

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City of Girls

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Book cover of City of Girls

Why this book?

There’s sex, flamboyance, partying, nightlife, unconventional characters, and a gritty urban backdrop – exactly what the protagonist Vivian needs in order to find her true self after disappointing her parents and not meeting their expectations. I love stories where the reader gets to experience the protagonist’s journey and evolution, and in this one, I could feel Vivian’s world expand with each chapter. Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves? To get outside of our bubbles and the judgments of others and find love, fulfillment, and an accepting community? 

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By Maggie O'Farrell

Book cover of Hamnet

Why this book?

I loved Agnes, and her character was all the more fascinating as I kept reminding myself she was a fictionalized version of Shakespeare’s wife. She has this mysterious, other-worldliness to her that I just adored. Her survival skills are what protect and guide her in life, far more than the protection of marriage or societal guidelines. She knows herself and cares not one iota if people say she’s too wild or too old or too odd. And, anyway, none of this matters when it comes to her parenting because she’s a strong and devoted mother to her children.  

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Song of the Cuckoo Bird: A Novel

By Amulya Malladi

Book cover of Song of the Cuckoo Bird: A Novel

Why this book?

In addition to the fact that this story is set in another country and culture, I love that we meet the protagonist as a young, orphaned child, and a strong-willed one at that. She defies norms that would have her married at the age of eleven and remains in an ashram, where she builds a life her own way. I read this book over ten years ago and, though I cannot remember all the details, the story stayed with me for the descriptions of the characters and settings. I have always been drawn to Indian authors and stories about strong Indian women who often endure inequality and even abuse yet find their place and community. Just writing this recommendation makes me want to read it all over again!

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Guesthouse for Ganesha

By Judith Teitelman

Book cover of Guesthouse for Ganesha

Why this book?

It’s important to be open-minded as you’re reading this book and understand that it is reality blended with mysticism and spirituality, which means you will need to suspend disbelief. Throughout the novel I enjoyed the interweaving of Ganesha’s commentary with the main narrative, as it kept me wondering how and when he might show himself to Esther and what role he fills in the story. It lent some mystery and edginess to the plotline. Esther is unconventional, especially when it comes to her mothering, and some readers might be put off by this, but her survival instinct is admirable, in my opinion. Teitelman does a fantastic job setting up Esther’s fastidious dedication to quality and perfection, which plays into that survival instinct.

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