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

Who am I?

Change is essential for growth. My degree is in economics and I started out in the corporate world until I had my second child, after which I became a painter and, eventually, a sign language interpreter. My mother was an inspiration to me, believing that learning and adapting are essential to knowing oneself. She was true to her values, proud and independent, rarely caring if others felt differently. At the age of 45, she earned her Bachelor’s degree and began a 30-year career in social work. Because of her influence on me, I tend to gravitate toward protagonists who are headstrong and evolve into self-sufficient, fulfilled individuals.

I wrote...

A Letter in the Wall

By Eileen Brill,

Book cover of A Letter in the Wall

What is my book about?

It’s 1971, and Joan Dumann fears her former business partner wants her dead, but her anxiety is less about dying than it is about feeling disrespected and invalidated. As she constructs a letter about her predicament, she revisits her past.

Born into a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family in 1915 and raised with privilege, Joan wrestles with her turbulent thoughts and unfulfilled desires, an internal battle that often results in self-destructive tendencies. When she attempts to push against the norms for women of her time in order to forge her own identity, she is met with resistance. Based on a true story, this psychological drama is also a historical study, spanning several decades, of an emotionally complex woman, replete with unfulfilled desires, female empowerment, and redemption.

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The books I picked & why

So Big

By Edna Ferber,

Book cover of So Big

Why did I love 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.

By Edna Ferber,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked So Big as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Inspired by the life events of Antje Paarlberg, So Big is an award-winning drama that depicts the life of Selina Peake de Jong. Raised in a strict farming community, Selina decides to be a schoolteacher. Good-hearted and kind, she attempts to inspire her students to work for their dreams, no matter how nontraditional they seem. By encouraging artistic expression, Selina changes the lives of her students. When she marries a farmer named Pervus, the two welcome a baby boy into their family, naming their child Dirk. However, after the family suffers a tragic loss, Selina is forced to quit her…

City of Girls

By Elizabeth Gilbert,

Book cover of City of Girls

Why did I love 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? 

By Elizabeth Gilbert,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked City of Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


From the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat Pray Love and The Signature of All Things, a delicious novel of glamour, sex, and adventure, about a young woman discovering that you don't have to be a good girl to be a good person.

"A spellbinding novel about love, freedom, and finding your own happiness." - PopSugar

"Intimate and richly sensual, razzle-dazzle with a hint of danger." -USA Today

"Pairs well with a cocktail...or two." -TheSkimm

"Life is both fleeting and dangerous, and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or…


By Maggie O'Farrell,

Book cover of Hamnet

Why did I love 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.  

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Why should I read it?

20 authors picked Hamnet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Richly sensuous... something special' The Sunday Times
'A thing of shimmering wonder' David Mitchell


On a summer's day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a sudden fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.


Book cover of Song of the Cuckoo Bird: A Novel

Why did I love 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!

By Amulya Malladi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Song of the Cuckoo Bird as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A sweeping epic set in southern India, where a group of outcasts create a family while holding tight to their dreams from the bestselling author of A House for Happy Mothers.

Barely a month after she is promised in marriage, eleven-year-old orphan Kokila comes to Tella Meda, an ashram by the Bay of Bengal. Once there, she makes a courageous yet foolish choice that alters the fabric of her life: Instead of becoming a wife and mother, youthful passion drives Kokila to remain at the ashram.

Through the years, Kokila makes a home in Tella Meda alongside other strong yet…

Guesthouse for Ganesha

By Judith Teitelman,

Book cover of Guesthouse for Ganesha

Why did I love 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.

By Judith Teitelman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Guesthouse for Ganesha as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gold Award in the Regional Fiction (Europe) category of the 2020 IPPY Awards
Gold Medal in the Fiction-Literary category of the 2020 Readers' Favorite Book Awards
Silver Award in the Audiobook: Fiction category of the 2020 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards

"Teitelman paints an intensely beautiful world in which different cultures merge in surprising ways. . . . A rich and moving story about an unlikely pair." -Kirkus Reviews

In 1923, seventeen-year-old Esther Grunspan arrives in Koeln "with a hardened heart as her sole luggage." Thus begins a twenty-two-year journey, woven against the backdrops of the European Holocaust and the Hindu…

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