The best novels whose women characters don’t or won’t conform

Who am I?

Books provided me with many role models, from writer Jo of Little Women to the swashbuckling Angelique of bodice-ripping yarns… No wonder Elizabeth I (the supreme non-conformist) remains my favourite royal, and Jane Austen (mistress of the sharp aside) a return-to read. Women going against what's expected of them informed my early awakenings as a feminist as the women of my favourite books - in differing domestic settings and social mores – strove to be their authentic selves. I’ve lived a good portion of my life vicariously through novels – reading voraciously from a very young age – my mother, also a reader and non-conformist in her own way, informed the person and writer I've become.

I wrote...

Only Hummingbirds Fly Backwards

By Rosemary Dun,

Book cover of Only Hummingbirds Fly Backwards

What is my book about?

Only Hummingbirds Fly Backwards is about a woman whose twin brother has a motorcycle accident, leaving her cast adrift emotionally and personally. Through flashbacks we see how much her brother has meant to her, and how their special relationship would inform her life choices. Now she has a child but is unsure whether to stay married to the father, and when she has a holiday fling – was she forced or did she make a bad choice? She tries to find a way to carry on without her twin, and to make better choices. 

When going through my favourite books featuring strong and non-conformist women – in the library of my mind – I came across so many… but one has to start somewhere with a list, so here goes.

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The books I picked & why

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson,

Book cover of Life After Life

Why did I love this book?

Kate Atkinson must be my favourite author (up there with Jane Austen).

I highly recommend all and any of her novels as her characters are all at odds with the world. She writes strong women well, (even in her tales of P.I. Jackson Brody).

Her stunning novel Life After Life is not only structured around the different parallel lives of her main character Ursula growing up before and then during WWII, but also because it tackles that age-old question i.e. ‘If you could go back in time would you kill Hitler?’

Ursula Todd is a wonderful main character and the love for her brother, like a heartbeat, resonates with me particularly as my own novel features sister and brotherly love.

By Kate Atkinson,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Life After Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.

Does Ursula's apparently infinite number…

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

By Thomas Hardy, Simon Gatrell (editor), Juliet Grindle (editor)

Book cover of Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Why did I love this book?

Tess of the Durbervilles is a novel which has stayed with me.

I recommend it because it’s written by a male author who writes women well: he’s clearly appalled at the plight of pretty and feisty Tess.

When in my teens (or early twenties) and had just broken up with a boyfriend or other, I’d read this novel (sobbing) over and over at how Tess tried to make the best of fate’s bad hand – and what a prize idiot Angel Clare turned out to be! 

By Thomas Hardy, Simon Gatrell (editor), Juliet Grindle (editor)

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Tess of the D'Urbervilles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'She looked absolutely pure. Nature, in her fantastic trickery, had set such a seal of maidenhood upon Tess's countenance that he gazed at her with a stupefied air: "Tess- say it is not true! No, it is not true!"'

Young Tess Durbeyfield attempts to restore her family's fortunes by claiming their connection with the aristocratic d'Urbervilles. But Alec d'Urberville is a rich wastrel who seduces her and makes her life miserable. When Tess meets Angel Clare, she is offered true love and happiness, but her past catches up with her and she faces an agonizing moral choice.

Hardy's indictment of…

Me Before You

By Jojo Moyes,

Book cover of Me Before You

Why did I love this book?

In JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You, Lou is hired by the mother of a severely disabled man Will, whose wish is to end his life via Dignitas, in Switzerland.

Whilst trying to change his mind and save his life, she comes into her own strength, finishes with her boyfriend (with whom she was destined to have a conformist marriage), learns to let Will go, and appreciate the gift he leaves her - her independence.

JoJo Moyes tackles the issue of severe disability and dares to go places which are surprising in what deceptively appears to be a romcom. Showing that no topic is off limits to this genre.

By Jojo Moyes,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Me Before You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Will needed Lou as much as she needed him, but will her love be enough to save his life?

Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun teashop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.

What Lou doesn't know is she's about to lose her job or that knowing what's coming is what keeps…

Dirty Weekend

By Helen Zahavi,

Book cover of Dirty Weekend

Why did I love this book?

This novel was once lauded as an “ultimate feminist fantasy” and is about Bella, a woman who’s eventually had enough of being a victim and sets about murdering sleazy men.

I remember how this novel and author lost some respect when the book was picked up by film director Michael Winner (of Death Wish movies fame).

Winner went on to play fast and loose, adapting it into serial killer schlock. But. Don’t let that put you off as this novel is far better, more witty, and funny than any Winner movie.

It fulfils the fantasy of what (every now and then) a woman might love to do to any man who “done her wrong”. Surely a blueprint for serial killer and assassin Villanelle?

By Helen Zahavi,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dirty Weekend as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bella lives alone in a basement flat. A man threatens rape and mutilation. Trapped and afraid, she finds a way out by adopting a hard and ancient logic. Once embarked on a murderous path of vengeance, there is no stopping her. This is a first novel.


By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Beloved

Why did I love this book?

Set at a time of slavery in the U.S., Sethe, a former slave, makes a terrible – and to her the only - choice to save her girl child from the horrors faced by women in slavery.

Beloved is the daughter who haunts her, and their tale has haunted me ever since.

By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Toni Morrison was a giant of her times and ours... Beloved is a heart-breaking testimony to the ongoing ravages of slavery, and should be read by all' Margaret Atwood, New York Times

Discover this beautiful gift edition of Toni Morrison's prize-winning contemporary classic Beloved

It is the mid-1800s and as slavery looks to be coming to an end, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her…

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