The best books in protest of women’s “likability”

Who am I?

“I didn’t like the characters.” “I couldn’t relate.” Whenever I hear someone bring up the matter of “likability” a single thought roars through my head: How ‘likable’ do you really think you are? A main purpose of fiction is to illuminate those nasty thoughts we all have but are rarely willing to admit. A book should be intimate, uncomfortably so, just as to actually occupy another person’s mind and body would be. It also seems to me “the characters” referenced by these kinds of critiques are always women. We expect fictional men to shock us and to struggle with their own desires; why should we expect women to only charm?


I wrote...

Devotion

By Madeline Stevens,

Book cover of Devotion

What is my book about?

Ella is flat broke: wasting away on bodega coffee, barely making rent, seducing the occasional strange man who might buy her dinner. Unexpectedly, an Upper East Side couple named Lonnie and James rescue her from her empty bank account, offering her a job as a nanny and ushering her into their moneyed world. Both women are just 26—but unlike Ella, Lonnie has a doting husband and son, unmistakable artistic talent, and old family money.

Convinced there must be a secret behind Lonnie’s seemingly effortless life, Ella begins sifting through her belongings. All the while, Ella’s resentment grows, but so does an inexplicable and dizzying attraction. Riveting, propulsive, and startling, Devotion is a masterful debut novel where mismatched power collides with blinding desire, incinerating our perceptions of femininity, lust, and privilege.

The books I picked & why

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Eileen

By Ottessa Moshfegh,

Book cover of Eileen

Why this book?

Moshfegh’s first novel opens with the narrator “very unhappy and angry all the time.” She is the sinister version of SNL’s Mary Catherine Gallagher, unflinchingly honest, acerbically observant, self-absorbed, and in love with her own nastiness. “Didn’t she know I was a monster, a creep, a crone? How dare she mock me with courtesy when I deserved to be greeted with disgust and dismay?” Though she becomes obsessed with beautiful Rebecca, it’s the caustic Eileen we can’t look away from, no matter how much we might want to.


My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite,

Book cover of My Sister, the Serial Killer

Why this book?

I read Nigerian writer Braithwaite’s slim, fast-paced debut in a single day. This is the story of two women, here, sisters. One beautiful, charming, sensual, self-absorbed, and sociopathic—the one actually doing the stabbing—and the other, mousey, responsible, loyal to a fault—the one cleaning everything up. As moral grounds become murkier we are left to wonder, which is worse? 


Adèle

By Leila Slimani,

Book cover of Adèle

Why this book?

Our protagonist, Adèle, is a sex addict in a sexless marriage, longing to escape the quotidian boredom of motherhood. Her desires are clear. “She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole.” She also wants to not want this. The interesting question the novel poses indirectly: What do we want of this character? Slimani (of The Perfect Nanny fame) writes so deliciously about Adèle’s desires the answer is clear—we long to watch Adèle falter, we want to hear every terrible thought in her head.


Bad Marie

By Marcy Dermansky,

Book cover of Bad Marie

Why this book?

I was working as a nanny in New York City when I discovered this wild novel, and I consumed it in short order. Marie, fresh from prison, is hired out of pity to watch a high school friend’s daughter. “The situation would’ve been humiliating had Marie any ambition in life. Fortunately, Marie was not in any way ambitious.” Marie is instead selfish, culpable, hungry, and smitten—first with her friend’s life, then her friend’s husband, and most dangerously, her friend’s daughter. Dermansky’s novel could easily slip into thriller territory, and while it is as fast-paced and compulsively readable, instead we discover unpredictably that Bad Marie is really a love story.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ott (illustrator),

Book cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Why this book?

“I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.” Mary Katherine Blackwood is one of my favorite narrators in literature. Her intimate sinister frankness is rivaled only by Shirley Jackson’s unbeatable ability to write dialogue that sends shivers up your spine. The Blackwoods—or what’s left of them—exist with a need to constantly relive the horror of their past and a simultaneous inability to confront it. We feel little sympathy for Mary, but we do feel an unrivaled fascination.


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