The best books about rebellious women

The Books I Picked & Why

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

By Andrew Wilson

Book cover of Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

Why this book?

This book about the ultimate rebel woman Patricia Highsmith explores in depth the many ways Highsmith rejected social expectations of her time in terms of her gender, sexuality, and writing material. The biography does not shy away from presenting Highsmith in all her glorious complexity – equal parts humorous, wry, loathsome, disturbing. This was one of the first biographies that I read where I realized the power of archives, what they can reveal, and how enlightening they can be when used so brilliantly, as Andrew Wilson does here. 

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ott

Book cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Why this book?

Merricat Blackwood strikes me as the classic rebel. Still a child, but with the wonderfully gothic quirks of a Shirley Jackson character. Without giving away any spoilers – you would not want to mess with Merricat. But this is also a study about cruelty and what happens to women when they rebel against social norms and expectations. It is unsettling, disturbing, but with a central character that you end up utterly rooting for. After reading this book I definitely thought, if I were Merricat, I would do what she did! 

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The Summer Without Men

By Siri Hustvedt

Book cover of The Summer Without Men

Why this book?

The protagonist of this novel, Mia Fredricksen, experiences love, loss, and emotional breakdown. But what I love about this book is when Mia starts to rebuild herself and her sense of identity (her doctor tells her “tolerating cracks is part of being alive”) we move into a joyful narrative of female strength, power, and the solidarity of female friendship. And, as the title suggests, a summer without men. What I love about this novel is the message that even if you are badly betrayed, healing is possible. 

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By Leila Slimani

Book cover of Adèle

Why this book?

In this novel, Slimani explores the downfall of a woman who seemingly has it all – the perfect apartment in Paris, a loving husband and son, and a respected job as a journalist. But what society tells Adèle is enough, is not enough for Adèle who feels isolated, bored, and lonely by this conventionality. In her search for illicit sex and excitement, Adèle breaks all the rules in her quest for some sort of emotional independence. As a writer, I marvel at Slimani’s ability to draw depth from what could be seen as chilly topics. As a reader, I love how you fall into the narrative, almost gasping at Adèle’s daring and recklessness.

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The Bell Jar

By Sylvia Plath

Book cover of The Bell Jar

Why this book?

Esther Greenwood is the ultimate rebel. Sassy, uncompromising, razor-sharp, questioning, and unwilling to make do. By the brutal exposure of how ridiculous gendered expectations are for women and highlighting the double standards of sexuality, ambitions, and futures between men and women, Plath wrote a novel that blew apart societal norms simultaneously revealing how they cause harm, and the energy that it takes to resist them. When I read this aged 15, I knew that things could be different, and it was my introduction and subsequent commitment to a life lived by feminist politics.

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